Gateway to the Savage Frontier
Beyond Software (developer); SSI (publisher)
Released 1991 for Amiga, Commodore 64, and DOS
Date Started: 18 March 2016
Date Ended: 4 April 2016
Date Ended: 4 April 2016
Total Hours: 22
Reload Count: 15
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 49
Ranking at Time of Posting: 192/214 (90%)
When the first of the Star Wars prequels came out in 1999, millions of fans joined me in staring at the closing credits with bafflement. "$115 million," we simultaneously thought, "and this was the best you could do?" The special effects were fine, sure, but not the story--and the story ought to be the easiest part to get right.
Right or wrong, I've had this thought a thousand times over the years in various situations. Compared to the part that I have no idea how to do, the part that I could do seems so ridiculously easy that I don't understand how the creators managed to screw it up so bad. I don't have the slightest inkling when it comes to cinematography, sound, film editing, or set design, but could I write better dialogue than Attack of the Clones? Of course I could. So could you. I could never make a living as a composer--I know nothing about the technique--but I'll bet I could take a pretty good turn at being a lyricist. It's hard for me to believe that the job of "lyricist" even exists. Once you've done the hard work of writing the composition, how frigging hard is it to come up with a couple dozen lines that rhyme?
|Cleverbot writes more interesting dialog than George Lucas.|
And so it goes with games. Why-oh-why, I think, given how much work the developers clearly put into the game engine, the interface, the graphics--all the stuff that I have no idea how to do--why couldn't they get the easy part right? Compared to the coding, the story is a cinch. Not having to write a single line of Basic Pasquale Visual Assembly Code++ or whatever, but getting paid to write the on-screen text and journal entries, is my definition of the easiest job in the world. Seriously, someone pay me to do it.
I know that I'm probably wrong and it's harder than it looks, but damn, you have to agree that until about a year and a half ago, CRPG developers just did not know how to tell a story. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, games almost always rely on framing stories rather than integrated stories, and too many of them feature the same old tropes. A distressing number don't bother to tell any story at all. Among the games I've played so far, you could count on your fingers all the games that even try--Ultima IV-VI, both Starflights, Quest for Glory, the Gold Box series--and some of them aren't exactly at the pinnacle of plot development. And don't tell me about JRPGs, supposedly famed for their plots. I don't know when they finally got it together, but it was definitely after Xanadu. The earliest game I can think of that tells a better story than I could devise on my own is probably Baldur's Gate, and after that the Bioware/Black Isle lines do a solid job. I'm in awe at the depth of the Elder Scrolls universe. The rest of you--I won't charge nearly as much as R.A. Salvatore. Call me.
The Gold Box series does best when it embraces minimalism and draws on classic themes. Pool of Radiance gets lost when it tries to talk about the Pool of Radiance, but it has a solid beginning with a group of adventurers here to clean up this town. Secret of the Silver Blades evokes The Seven Samurai until it gets to the goofy Well of Knowledge. The Krynn games do a decent job tying into the novels--which exist in a more graspable game world than the Forgotten Realms--though you sometimes feel a bit lost if you haven't read them.
So once again I am in a position of needing to commend Gateway to the Savage Frontier for telling any story at all while simultaneously noting that, three weeks from now, I'll have to read all my own entries if I want to remember what the game was actually about. Even writing the entries, a couple days after I played, I had to consult my own screenshots and re-read the journal entries. The Zhentarim were going to invade so I had to find a bunch of statues and bring them to a magic place where they did this Fifth Element thing and killed everyone. Some idiot wizard kept telling me where to go. There were some shambling mounds. Ceptienne who?
Part of the difficulty is with the Forgotten Realms in general. We've talked about it before. It has too much stuff: too many gods, too many monsters, too much ancient history. It is the walking antithesis to Brandon Sanderson's Laws of Magic. You basically have to accept anything as plausible. A bunch of statues caused a pyramid to emit rays of light that instantly summoned enough creatures to destroy hordes of orcs, trolls, and mercenaries? Sure, whatever. That must be a Level 10 spell; I don't have those yet. Then again, Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights managed to tell decent stories set in the Realms by remaining internally-consistent, making the characters feel like the true centerpiece of the stories, and offering a number of interesting plot twists, none of which seem to have occurred to the Gold Box developers.
What's particularly disappointing about Gateway is that it wasn't developed by SSI. With much of their resources invested in the Dark Sun engine, they allowed Beyond (soon to become Stormfront Studios) to develop Gateway, Treasures of the Savage Empire, and Neverwinter Nights. (SSI continued to develop Pools of Darkness and Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed, however.) This was a chance for a new developer to take the Gold Box engine and put its own twist on it--particularly since Beyond's founder, Don Daglow, has credentials going all the way back to one of the earliest RPGs, Dungeon for the PDP-10 (1975). On the other hand, this was Beyond's first major title, and perhaps they decided to play it safe. I understand they kicked it up a notch for Treasures of the Savage Frontier.
Moving on to other news, did I ever win the final battle against Valgaamon and his forces? Hell, yeah, I did! But I didn't handle such a dirty job myself: I subcontracted it! To who? Why, to the party that defeated the Mulmaster Beholder Corps: my victorious characters from Curse of the Azure Bonds! Thanks to Null Null, I learned that you can import characters from Curse into Gateway. They arrive at around Level 10 (compared to a max of Level 6-7 in Gateway), with spells one level higher--and yet they somehow work. So do all the items of equipment you bring from Curse despite the fact that they don't exist in Gateway. I'm talking about Ioun Stones, Wands of Magic Missile, Long Swords +3 Frost Brand, Girdles of Giant Strength, Wands of Lightning, Wands of Fireball, and Darts of the Hornet's Nest.
|There was no reason not to spend a "Fireball" on the goblins.|
I brought over two magic users who together had 9 castings of "Fireball," 6 castings of "Ice Storm," 4 castings of "Haste," and a Wand of Defoliation each (praise be to Moander!). My clerics didn't just turn the undead in Ascore; they destroyed them. This has to be the most bizarre Easter Egg I've ever encountered in an RPG. Why did the developers allow this, and why did they program all these effects that you couldn't find in-game? Are they just inherent to the Gold Box engine?
|"Did I mention I killed Tyranthraxus twice?"|
A couple of interesting things happened on the way to the final battle. First, I noted that the encounters were much more difficult: where 6 skeletons had appeared in the previous game, 12 appeared now. They still weren't hard or anything, but the game must do some kind of level-scaling.
Second, I got an extra encounter. Behind a door I previously couldn't access because I didn't have the "Knock" spell, I found a crazy little wizard going on about deciphering the tapestry maps for Vaalgamon. It didn't add a lot to the story, but it was an additional clue to help with the final maze.
Anyway, I probably could have let the computer control the characters and won the battle, but I played it straight, buffing beforehand with "Haste," "Enlarge," "Bless," "Prayer," and even "Resist Fire" for good measure. I was right that shambling mounds are vulnerable to "Ice Storm," and I had a bunch of spells and a wand. Vaalgamon did his best to cast spells and regenerate, but with fighters capable of four attacks per round, he didn't much stand a chance. I literally hadn't lost a single hit point at the end of the battle.
|This was a pretty sweet experience reward.|
Vaalgamon turned out to have a shield +5 a long sword +5, a Ring of Protection +2, and Bracers AC2.
But killing him didn't change the endgame at all! I still got the text about him and his followers being pulled beneath the earth by undead. So that was pretty pathetic. In any event, I now have two potential parties to bring into Treasure of the Savage Frontier: one balanced for the game, and one ridiculously overpowered. It's going to be a tough choice.
Finally, let's have a look at the fake journal entries, which are always a post-game Gold Box highlight. They're pathetic! Accounting for ones that I didn't get but sound real (e.g., I should have gotten them if I hadn't done Everlund-Silverymoon out of order), there only seem to be three: a nonsense set of directions, a fake entry in the word puzzle for the Kraken Fortress, and one (the last in the journal) that suggests Ceptienne was an opponent of the Zhentarim and instead of going after her statue, the party should have gone somewhere in the High Forest. What a let-down.
I don't really feel like spending time on a full GIMLET where I've already done like seven of these for Gold Box games. Let's do the quick bulleted version:
- 5 points for the game world. Gateway doesn't make horrible use of the Forgotten Realms setting, and I suppose it tries to tell a decent story. It needed to do a better job on the individual maps to make the player feel he's actually accomplishing something as he clears out monsters and undead. I did like the extra textual and graphic touches given to each map to make it feel more like a real place.
- 5 points for character creation and development. It has the usual D&D advantages, and a few in-game acknowledgements of character race, sex, and class, but advancement is extremely uneven and some of the classes cap way too soon.
- 5 points for NPC interaction. There are are some memorable NPCs, some of whom can join the party, but the Gold Box series still isn't doing much in the way of dialogue options.
|This was the biggest plot twist in the game.|
- 5 points for encounters and foes. Again, the Gold Box series offers some of the best monster variety out there, with plenty of opportunities for grinding if necessary, but the game has virtually no non-combat encounters. None of the Gold Box games have come close to improving on Pool of Radiance in that area. This one did do a better job with pre-combat encounter text.
|The pre-encounter text was welcome; the lack of actual options was not.|
- 7 points for magic and combat. Still no complaints about the Gold Box engine here.
- 5 points for equipment. Reasonably good, but nothing new. The game is a little stingier than most until the end. Still no in-game item descriptions, and I've never liked the way that item distribution is fixed.
|Some of the stuff my imported characters brought in. I still can't believe it all worked.|
- 4 points for the economy. It starts better than most games in the lineage and offers a "money sink" in the way of magic arrows and potions, but it's still horribly unbalanced. The series will never get this right.
- 3 points for quests. I didn't find the main quest compelling, and I'm disappointed in the lack of side quests along the way. Every city had a "lord" NPC and should have had a couple of quests, too. I give an extra point for a couple of alternate (bad) endings.
- 6 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Despite a couple of interface flaws, the Gold Box remains unmatched in this area. Some graphics improvements (this is the first in the series to feature VGA graphics) were generally welcome even if I didn't like some of the styles.
|The game definitely has the most complex graphics of the series so far.|
- 4 points for gameplay. It has the illusion of being nonlinear but really isn't. It's also a little too easy, and in general it's not very replayable. But the pacing and length are okay.
That gives us a final score of 49, which I'm afraid is the lowest score I've given so far to a Gold Box title, but only by 1 (Secret of the Silver Blades got 50). Though low for the series, we have to note that it still puts Gateway in the 90th percentile of all the games on my list.
I can't find any evidence that Computer Gaming World reviewed this one aside from a one-paragrapher from Scorpia (as part of a macro-survey of 90 games) two years later. "A few nice touches have been added to the basic engine," she says, "but otherwise you've played this one many times before." In the same issue, she calls Treasures of the Savage Frontier "a yawner." MobyGames's round-up shows ratings between 45 (Amiga Format) and 73 (Power Play), with lots of comments like "staid" and "shopworn" and "derivative."
I want to make sure that my own criticisms are clear: I've never criticized a game for re-using the same game engine if the engine was good. I could have happily played Pool of Radiance derivatives for the rest of my life. My complaint has always been that SSI came out of the gate with a superb game in Pool of Radiance and then never improved upon it, save for graphics upgrades and a couple of interface improvements. In everything that really matters--story, NPCs, role-playing choices and dialog, quests, and combat, the series has at best stayed the same but for the most part gotten worse. Both SSI and its partners, like Beyond, repeatedly missed opportunities to use an excellent engine for even better stories, deeper role-playing choices, and more interesting quest options.
They still have Neverwinter Nights, Treasures of the Savage Frontier, Dark Queen of Krynn, and Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures to change my mind (and perhaps I should really be putting my hopes in fan-created games for the latter), and I'll hit them all in time. Right now, it's time to see if I can get a Mac emulator working for Shadow Keep.