|My version of the game has no title screen, so I'm using the box art.|
I have this idea that some day, perhaps around 1996, we'll reach a point at which every commercially-released game will have at least something going for it. A lot of them will still be sub-standard, sure, but they at least won't be painful from the outset, right? I remember not liking Might & Magic IX or Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor, but I don't remember not liking them immediately. In this era, in contrast, there are a lot of games that make me sigh from the moment I start them. This has regrettably become my default reaction to French RPGs, which without exception (so far) have all felt as if they were designed by aliens who, peering through a telescope, could only make out the broadest outlines of popular titles like Wizardry and Ultima and thus managed to copy some of the screens but hardly any of the underlying gameplay.
Segue to Mandragore, yet another title that looks kind of familiar at first--there's a clear Ultima III influence--but almost immediately becomes weird and unsatisfying. You play four characters on an ambiguous mission to solve the secret of the Ten Castles of Mandragore and free the land from the clutches of an evil wizard named Yarad-Nor. The land of Mandragore--French for "mandrake"--used to be ruled by a good king named Jorian, but he was killed by a meteor, and Yarad-Nor "appeared from nowhere" and "imposed a reign of evil tyranny upon this peaceful country."
The back story occupies 20 pages of manual text, which is a bit too long, especially given that it sets up the game to follow so poorly. It covers how the four members of the default party came together. Briefly, a human paladin named Syrella is hanging out in an inn when she's challenged by some local guards looking for a fight. With the help of a half-orc ranger named Torlinn, she intimidates them away. Syrella and Torlinn leave the inn and wander into a shop, where they find a human mage named Gelth and his servant, a dwarf thief named Podus, arguing with a shopkeeper. (Podus is repeatedly described by other NPCs, in an un-PC fashion, as a "midget.") Finally losing his patience over the shopkeeper's price-gouging, Gelth turns him and his assistants into pigs. The foursome then gleefully ransacks the shop.
As they do so, they discuss their respective quests. Gelth is looking for information on the Land of Kings, where he hopes to confront "he-of-the-not-to-be-mentioned-name," probably Yarad-Nor, but I suppose possibly Voldemort. Syrella is seeking her father, who has become a priest and retired to a temple on some kind of volcano. Syrella argues for uniting their quests, saying that her father can probably help with information. Somewhere in there is a mention that to solve his own quest, Gelth will have to "discover the secrets of the Ten Castles of Mandragore."
|The Land of Mandragore, from the game manual.|
The rest of the story, using poor English and even worse plotting, outlines the troubled outset of their quest. They steal horses to get out of town, are attacked by the guards from the inn, and kill them. Later, in a forest, Gerth is poisoned by giant vampire bats. The party carries him to the sea, where some plants exist that will heal him, but Torlinn and Podus are lured ino the sea by sirens. A giant octopus attacks the sirens, causing them to flee; Torlinn and Podus defeat the octopus and return. The reunion is short-lived. At a nearby manor, the party is attacked by undead and Torlinn and Podus flee in terrior. Gelth is possessed by Yarad-Nor and Syrella is forced to kill him. The backstory ends with Syrella determining to finish her quest by herself--which makes it all the more confusing that the default party has Syrella, Gelth, Torlinn, and Podus together and healthy.
Character creation has you assign 80 points among six attributes--constitution, strength, knowledge, wisdom, dexterity, appearance--choose from dwarf, elf, half-orc, hobbit (or, as the manual has it, "obbit") races, and warrior, ranger, wizard, cleric, thief, and minstrel classes. For the first time ever in an RPG, I decided to go with the default party.
The game begins in a landscape not unlike the first few Ultimas but with uglier tiles. The party is positioned above a mountain range with a château to the northeast and what's supposed to pass for a town to the southwest. Movement is with the NESW keys. This "map view" is the only place with a top-down interface; indoor areas and combat use a side view with laughably bad graphics.
|The starting map.|
Commands more complex than movement are carried out with a list of 29 verbs and have to be assigned to a single character and, usually, a designated object. For instance, SYRELLA ATTACKS GOBLIN, TORLINN SHOOTS TROLL, PODUS READS SIGN. For some commands, the object is another character; for some, it's a monster; and for some, it's an NPC or object in the environment. Except for characters, the game keeps a list of available NPCs and objects on the right-hand side of the screen. Thus, in a weapons shop, you might see SALESMAN, SWORD, and BOW. ASK SALESMAN gives you the prices for the two items, which you can then BUY.
Even though you don't have to type all the words--you hit numbers for characters, a few letters of the verb, and then a letter representing the object form the menu on the right--I find the interface horribly cumbersome and unintuitive. I've yet to figure out some fairly basic stuff, like how to trade gold from one character to another. The HUNT command is supposed to work outdoors, but there never seems to be a valid object to apply it to.
It gets even worse. Some actions, for no reason whatsoever, cause your life points to mysteriously deplete. This most often happens when you type an incorrect or impossible action. For instance, I'm standing outside and I type SYRELLA GIVES before realizing she has no items. The game says "NOT POSSIBLE" and everyone's hit points go down by 3. But it's not just incorrect actions that do it. I enter a village and read a sign and everyone's hit points drop by 1. I enter a village and exit it again, and everyone's hit points drop by 1. These things happen inconsistently--different values, sometimes not at all--and it's hard to tell exactly what's happening.
|At one point, I entered a castle, left, and immediately died.|
Combat is no less baffling. When attacked, the various monsters appear on the screen and are listed in the menu to the right. For whatever reason, spaces not used by monsters are taken up by random environmental features like SUN, WOODS, and SKY. To attack the monsters, you have to assign various combinations of ATTACK, DISARM, SPELL, HYPNOTIZE, PETRIFY, PARALYZE, and SHOOT to the characters. When they execute, goofy animations show the characters (for instance) running up to the monsters and hitting them.
|I've already killed 2 of the 3 "rapacs" here. One of my characters is dead. I have no idea why the "FOREST" is a usable object.|
The characters don't attack in turn--you can just keep having a single character do all the actions in combat, but then he'll be the only one to get experience. Monsters, in the meantime, will attack in timed intervals if you do nothing for a few seconds; otherwise, they'll counter-attack the attacking character. Combat ends when you've dealt with all the lettered monsters, at which point you transition back to map view--which mysteriously causes everyone to lose a hit point. If you go back to map view before the monsters are slain--effectively escaping combat--everyone loses 10 hit points.
The only spells in the game are those called by specific verbs: SPELL, HYPNOTIZE, PETRIFY, PARALYZE, and TELEPORT for mages and CURE for clerics. I guess their success depends on the level of the caster. There are otherwise no "spell points," but hit points get depleted with spells like they do with other actions. The only way to restore hit points is to use the ABSORB command to trade an equivalent number of food units for hit points.
I've made basically no progress since the game started. Since my characters started with no equipment (there are only 4 slots per character), I entered a nearby village to look for a shop. There was one selling bows and swords, but none of my characters had enough for either. Figuring that I'd have to grind against monsters for a bit, I looked for easy random encounters--then noticed there was no way to search for money after combats. I'm not even sure combats deliver money.
The manual talks about selling items you find in castles for money, so I went into the nearby château to see what I could find (-1 hit point to enter). I had Torlinn BREAK the bars leading into the castle (-5 hit points but +15 experience).
Inside, I dispensed with a couple of monsters called "tickels" and used my thief to OPEN something called an "n-gate" which just looked to me like a door. He also lost 5 hit points and got 15 experience for it.
|The castle's second room.|
A room beyond held a "duonague" (no idea). It looked like a person, so I tried ASK, but just got a response of "nennee." It started attacking me, so I had Gelth PETRIFY it (-16 hit points!). Podus then picked up a casket, netting him 125 experience points. Torlin broke some more bars covering a western exit. Rather than continue on through the castle, however, I returned to the village and sold the casket for 100 "money units"--enough to buy the sword and give it to Syrella.
|Podus's character sheet after the big find.|
I guess the game's deal is clear at this point. "Life" simultaneously represents hit points, spell points, and something we might call "action points." Combat is going to be part of the game, but the bigger part is going to involve solving little object puzzles as I try to navigate the castles (basically figuring out what character and verb works best with what object). There's an ability to separate the group and move characters independently, which I assume is going to come into play in some of these puzzles.
Oh, I suppose it might turn out better than my initial reaction suggested. It certainly has nowhere to go but up. But I certainly look forward to the day when, "A new game! Let's see what it has to offer!" overtakes "Aw, Christ. What the hell is this?" as my reaction to a game's first screen.