Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Game 221: Mandragore (1985)

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.
  
Character creation.
   
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.

49 comments:

  1. Your description of French RPGs mirrors my own experience with them, but I am looking forward to the day you start hitting Eastern European RPGs. They're a depressing, grimdark experience all their own, but you won't be hitting any of those for quite some time.

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    1. You intrigue me, but you're right: I won't hit the first of them until Hungary's Newcomer (1994).

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    2. I hadn't been exposed to "grimdark" as the description of that mood/tone before. That's so perfect! Wikipedia documents that it's been in use for a while, and we certainly are seeing more games in that sub-genre recently. My first exposure to it in tabletop was the Dark Sun setting for AD&D. There was a Cthulhu mythos game around back then also, but it never really got traction.

      In CRPGs, Planescape Torment (1999) is the first American mainstream one I can remember that felt grimdark, but I bet there were others before. It will interesting to see where that shows up.

      Has there been one that fits that grimdark tone on Chet's blog yet? I can't think of one.

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    3. Abandoned Places (1992) was also Hungarian (the designer/programmer at least).

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    4. I think that Perihelion:The Prophecy (1993) was also developed in Hungary.

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    5. Yes, both of them were.

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    6. I'm not sure Torment is grimdark, I think the word requires a sense of hopelessness - eg WH40k is basically pre-ragnarok where the bad guys win, you can't trust your brother. and there's constant warfare. It's basically just a super-violent branch of Gothic horror.

      In D&D settings, Toril's underdark is probably closest to 'grimdark' (although it lacks the decay aspect), Ravenloft perhaps as well but possibly not violent enough.

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    7. There is also Dark Sun games. They are not dark, in a literal sense, but are quite grim. Especially if you know whole background of the world of Athas. I.e. environmental-destroing genocidal war what turned the world in desert full of monsters, where moderately powerfull adventure party from another D&D setting will die in a about a day or sooner.

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    8. Would Ravenloft qualify as Grimdark or is it just Gothic Horror?

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    9. Gothic Horror I think? It doesn't seem to be relentless enough to be Grimdark, but I could be wrong.

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  2. In one of the screenshots you were simply told the key is "too expensive". Are you ever provided the price, or is this another puzzle? What a strange "puzzle."

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  3. It looks vaguely like Drakkhen during the "action" areas, and appears to be just as disorienting and as fond of murdering your party for basically no reason. Do you think Infogrames was inspired by this game?

    Also, I wonder if that backstory didn't also describe a possible future for the characters. Either that or the writer got a little carried away with twenty pages of text and a dramatic character death when all they were supposed to do is make up a reason why the player is forced to use this party in particular.

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    1. That's very possible. Were not both of them developed by Infogrames or its subsidiaries?

      http://www.mobygames.com/game/drakkhen
      http://www.mobygames.com/game/mandragore

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    2. Right, I definitely phrased that weird. "Inspired to make another like it" might've made more sense. They were a small enough company back then that I'm sure there's a lot of shared staff.

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    3. Looks like what they were trying to achieve is a mix of Ultima nd early Sierra adventures (which would explain not only the side view, but also the games' fondness of random deaths).

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  4. You are almost describing a mild, CRPG version of Paris Syndrome.

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  5. I'm somehow reminded of Jasper's speech from The Simpsons:

    "Talking out of turn? That's a life point. Lookin' out the window? That's a life point. Staring at my sandals? That's a life point. Gesturing towards a box of LIFE cereal? Oh, you better believe that's a life point."

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    1. That speech was made over 2 decades ago. Man, you're old! Hahahaha... haha... ha... Wait, how would I know that? Shit, I'm old too!

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  6. What's going on with that box art? Is he standing on top a chocolate brownie fighting wisps with a dagger and a torch?

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  7. I wonder what sort of paladin "gleefully ransacks" after an overzealous mage turns a storekeep into a pig. (I also wonder why your mage doesn't have 'PIG' as a verb, particularly given your only cleric spell is 'CURR' - perhaps there's a bit more depth with a more in depth magic system to come!

    Or, y'know. Not. That's an option, too.

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    1. Maybe they're not going for the modern, super-shiny goody two-shoes paladin, but rather a historical crusader or something? Lots of gleeful ransacking there.

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    2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paladin

      The Latin palatinus referred to an official of the Roman Emperor connected to the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill. Over time this word came to refer to other high-level officials in the imperial, majestic and royal courts.[2] The word palatine, used in various European countries in the medieval and modern eras, has the same derivation.[2]

      By the 13th century words referring specifically to Charlemagne's peers began appearing in European languages; the earliest is the Italian paladino.[1] Modern French has paladin, Spanish has paladín or paladino (reflecting alternate derivations from the French and Italian), while German has Paladin.[1] By extension "paladin" has come to refer to any chivalrous hero such as King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table.[1]

      Paladin was also used to refer to the leaders of armies supporting the Protestant Frederick V in the Thirty Years War ending in 1648

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    3. 'Elf' could mean one of Santa's helpers, too? It just doesn't. We're always talking the D&D/Tolkien definitions unless something makes it very, very clear that it doesn't as it comes to fantasy RPGs. Paladins are dogooders, Rangers are hunting-based classes usually with a little magic and bowmanship. It's shorthand used by developers unless they're making it extremely clear they aren't.

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    4. in the French original, she was a Fighter ( Guerrier ): default class when none of your stats are 15 or above iirc

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    5. If you can, do. If you can't, choose the fighter class.

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    6. That reminds me of a game of DSA (Black Eye), the german D&D... uhm... version. There weren't paladins in the game, so I rolled a fighter who wanted to be a paladin.

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    7. I'm pretty sure we call it Dark Eye now... seeing that the alternative is usually the by-product of a lost fight.

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  8. There was only one good thing about user interface in these games; they were wonderful for teaching basic english syntax to kids though I learned mine from Maniac Mansion, Zak Mckraken and to a lesser extent from a KQ's and PQ's and LS Larry of c.

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  9. We've had a lot of games from this era that have the barest of framing stories. This seems like the first one to have a frame made for an entirely different picture.

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  10. Given that food restores HP, the random loss of life points may represent hunger/fatigue rather than action points.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. Just a reminder that Might & Magic IX was notoriously, hopelessly, horrendously buggy when it was released, perhaps to the point of being a broken game or an "obvious beta."

    This may be why you remember not liking it.

    I think the fan community has some patches for it by now, which you may or may not have to use by the time you reach it.

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  12. I wonder if the forest is not actually a usable item in combat, but rather a quirk of the combat engine that anything rendered on screen needs to be listed in an item slot? This doesn't seem to be the case in the castle or shop scenes, so probably not, but it's just a thought.

    Infogrames hadn't been around for too long at this point in time, so it definitely seems like an ambitious project. At first glance it seems like they may not have been able to pull everything together in a cohesive way (fiction not matching game, poorly implemented ideas, etc.)

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  13. Personally, I disliked Might and Magic IX within about thirty seconds of firing it up.

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  14. As soon as I saw the armadillo in the Infogrames logo I instantly thought of Alone in the Dark
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSwYY2eoKhQ

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  15. Absolutely. I learned my first English with Mask of Sun and Dallas Quest. "Tickle Anaconda" for those geezers that remember it! "Read Epitaph" - of course as a non native speaker elementary schoolkid I would never have figured it out without a walkthrough in a gaming magazine. And then Bards Tale 1 came out for the C64 and I was losr to RPGs forever.

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    1. Hmm... that was supposed to be a reply to Petri above.

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  16. The French Wikipedia says this game was awarded the Grand Prix Arcade 1984 by the French Ministry of Culture, so you know this is going to be good :)

    It also mentions a tie-in novel by Charles Ballandras which continues the story in the manual.

    The first castle is supposed to be the "Castle of Ecology". Perhaps the trees are related to some puzzle?

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  17. which makes it all the more confusing that the default party has Syrella, Gelth, Torlinn, and Podus together and healthy.

    Great setup of the punchline! This totally made me laugh out loud.

    For the first time ever in an RPG, I decided to go with the default party.

    Impressive! Apathy sets in as early as the character creation screen. :D

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  18. "laughably bad graphics"

    I like the side-view graphics a lot!

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    1. Yeah, I don't get it, for a 1984/85 game they seem fine.

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    2. Maybe graphic is good looking in pictures; but not in motion when playing the game?

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    3. I only found a video from the ZX version, and I don't think there's a lot of motion to these screenshots at all.

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    4. The sprites are rather indistinct, and running them with some filters to simulate the effects of color-blindness (I have no idea how accurate these are) make them incredibly bad and fuzzy in a way that even the earliest Ultima doesn't replicate.

      That said, they're terrible even by 1984/1985 standards. For comparison, Duck Hunt was released in 84 and Super Mario Brothers was 85; not to mention Ultimas III and IV (same 84/85 split), Phantasie, The Bard's Tale, Black Onyx, and plenty of other titles from this blog.

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    5. I actually appreciate them exactly because they're uncluttered, with flat colourful surfaces without any outlines. Remind me of Sierra AGI sprites from the same era. If they fluidly animated like the AGI sprites would when they'd walk around and stuf that'd be really pleasing to look at, but at the end of the day this is originally a ZX spectrum rpg that is up-ported to the c64 and that's what we're looking at. There probably wasn't enough memory for any walk cycles for a full rpg on the ZX.

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    6. I simply think they look really bad. They're in the era between bare-bones graphics in games like Wizardry and authentically good graphics in games like Dungeon Master. I'm not saying they weren't okay for 1985, but anything that falls in that middle period looks horrible today. At least, to me.

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  19. Elf mullet + shorty shorts = Most rocking cover art evar.

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  20. What version are you playing? The cover is from the ZX Spectrum version, but these graphics are too colorful for a Spectrum... Commodore 64 or Amstrad CPC? My guess is C64. :)

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    1. Yes, it's the C64. I should have made that clear.

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