Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Game 225: Swords & Sorcery (1985)

Swords & Sorcery
United Kingdom
Personal Software Services (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for ZX Spectrum, 1986 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 31 May 2016
Occasionally, I'm forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that between a Japanese teenager and a Brazilian tribesman who's never seen a computer before, I'm closer on the continuum to the tribesman. This usually happens when I play some modern game like Dark Souls. I might enjoy myself overall, but there are about 50,000 things I don't understand about the game mechanics, and apparently I shout a particular phrase so often that Irene insists she's going to have it inscribed on my real tombstone: "Wha...WHY DID I JUST DIE?!"

It's rare to have this experience with a 1985 game, but here I am with Swords & Sorcery. I can't make any sense out of what happens when I'm playing it. The messages that come and go on the screen seem to be random; the dialogue with NPCs seems to have been written by an insane person; items disappear from my inventory with no warning; spells fail to cast; commands don't do what they're supposed to do; and at least once every 5 minutes, I find myself yelling, "Wha....WHY DID I JUST DIE?!"
It was going to be a while without a screenshot, so here's an image of an altar or table that I don't know what to do with. Note the menu selections at the bottom.
What I do understand, I mostly hate. Take the controls. The idiotic interface has you keep three fingers of your left hand on the 1, 2, and 3 keys. 1 turns the character to the left, 3 turns him to the right, and 2 moves straight ahead. Meanwhile, three fingers of your right hand remain poised on 8, 9, and 0. 8 and 0 cycle through menus and sub-menus on the bottom of the screen and 9 selects which command or object you want. No other key on the keyboard is used except when you're naming your character.

I have this fantasy that if I yell loud enough my voice can transcend time and space. The employees of Personal Software Services will be able to confirm this if, one day in about 1984, while they were deep in development on Swords & Sorcery, the sound of an enraged male came booming into their offices. It would have said, "HEY, JACKASSES! IF YOU'RE DEVELOPING A GAME FOR A PERSONAL COMPUTER, AND YOU HAVE LESS THAN 26 COMMANDS, YOU DON'T NEED A COMPLICATED MENU SYSTEM!! JUST MAP EACH COMMAND TO A SENSIBLE KEY!!"

Why did so many developers act as if the computer was capable of no more than a joystick? Why was Richard Garriott--inventor of (A)ttack, (B)oard, (C)ast, (D)rop, and of course (Z)stats--one of the only ones to make use of the full, intuitive powers of the keyboard? 

The controls would be bad enough even if everything happened smoothly. But it doesn't. As other things happening on the screen take up the game's attention, it fails to register a lot of your inputs. You end up selecting the wrong command, or accidentally double-pressing the "9" because it didn't seem like it "took" the first time. There's no excuse for it. It might literally be the worst interface of all time. Together, the interface and the overall weirdness ruined the game for me, although there are some interesting elements lurking beneath the surface.

I was expecting great things from Swords & Sorcery based on the reviews catalogued on its Wikipedia page. Superlatives like "the best Dungeons and Dragons version ever produced on the computer" and "Game of the Month" appear there. But we must remember that the game was published in the U.K., for the ZX Spectrum, a description that applies to maybe 6 games through 1985. The island and its favored platform were RPG-starved. Anything must have looked good.

Swords & Sorcery is similar to Alternate Reality in that the game is much more intent than achievement. It was supposed to be the first in a series called, for some reason, MIDAS. When the "game"--really just the first level--was published in 1986, the manual promised Level 2 and Levels 3 & 4 (two separate modules) available in December of that year, plus expansions called "The Village" and "The Arena" available in early 1986. These were never produced. Some later versions of the game came with a "mea culpa" letter from author Mike Simpson in which he apologized and said that "commercial necessity" had caused him to abandon the future modules. He did say that the Level 2 module had expanded in scope and would be published as a separate game--advertised by PSS as HeroQuest. It was also never released.

Swords & Sorcery is also one of the first games to come with an associated merchandising campaign, including t-shirts, posters, and "badges."
You might have thought about focusing more on the game first.
When you strip all that away, you have a one-level dungeon crawler that takes you through about 80 rooms on a quest to find four pieces of armor. Not even good pieces of armor: two sabatons (which cover the feet) and two greaves (which cover the legs). Talk about an uninspired main quest. There isn't even any real backstory. Oh, there's some doggerel about a dark wizard named Caballus and the legendary Armour of Zob, but clearly the writers were planning to flesh out the game world in later installments.

Character creation begins with a name, after which the character has to spend 14 days training with 12 teachers, each session taking one day. Each trainer teaches you a different thing, and you don't know what that is (the manual doesn't tell you) until after you've trained. Thus, you basically have to waste a character just figuring out the different training options. Four different trainers focus on swords, spears, staves, and unarmed combat respectively. One gives you extra strength for carrying things, another improves your skills as a thief, and another improves your skills as a mage. A guy named "Hubris" improves the chances that you'll detect things like traps; "Grieves" improves each NPC's starting disposition towards you, and "Jack" helps you jump better.

Finally, YAMA gives you the ability to resurrect if you die. You only have to take his training once, and that one training gives you 99 "lives." You'll need them.

I don't mind the character creation that much, aside from the lack of good documentation. It's one of the few early games in which the concept of "class" is more an assemblage of skills than a nominal category. You can spend 10 days training in "sword" and start out as an awesome fighter, do the same for magic, or try to achieve more of a balance of skills. The problem is I was never able to come up with an optimal combination. Combats are so deadly that you need raw weapon and spell power, but you need thieving skills to disarm traps and jumping skills to get over pits and "instinct" development to avoid traps in the first place. The only obvious thing is to not specialize in more than one weapon type.
Creating a character by choosing training options.
After finishing your training, the game offers you the ability to spend a limited pool of starting money on items: a sword, a spear, a staff, a shield, a helmet, armor, gold (for bribing NPCs), bottles of wine, and pies. I learned the hard way that you basically want to spend all your money on pies. You can find starting equipment in the dungeon rooms--especially if you start with a lot of spell skill--but starvation is a constant danger in Swords & Sorcery. There's precious little food to be found in the dungeon, and if you don't eat every 15 minutes or so, you lose hit points until you die--at which point you'll be resurrected but still starving, thus doomed to a vicious circle until all 99 lives are gone.
Note that I don't need food, but rather "pie" specifically.
You start in "Quadrant 1" of a four-quadrant dungeon level, each quadrant consisting of about 20 rooms and hallways in between. You navigate with a top-down map on the right and a scrolling 3-D view on the left--a reasonably original navigation system at the time. Each room has a combination of monsters, traps, and treasure. Specific rooms in each quadrant warp you to the next one.

Combat with the monsters is pretty basic, even though it takes a while to figure out what the computer is doing. Essentially, you and the monsters trade blows based on whatever attack and defense options you've pre-selected. The options available have to do with the weapon you've equipped and your skill level; for instance, a novice with a sword might just have an option to "HACK" while a more experienced fighter has a second option to "LUNGE." Your defensive settings work the same way. Initial characters can either just "STAND" and try to absorb the damage or "ATTACK," which basically means "counterattack" and return part of the damage done to the attacker. Once you get a shield, you have the option to use that for your defensive round.

Anyway, the rounds flash by slowly, with you and the enemy trading attacks--which can miss, deliver a "glancing" (non-wounding blow), wound, or kill instantly--until one of you is dead or flees. There really isn't any input from the player during this process unless you want to change your attack and defense stances or cast spells.
Our initial attempts at greeting having failed, we are now engaged in combat.
Magic works in a similar way. Every character gets "Firebolt" at the beginning. As your magic power grows, "Heal" comes next, then "Fear," and 13 more that I never saw. Each casting depletes spell points, but points recharge as you move around (unlike hit points--see below), so I'm convinced that focusing on magic is the key to winning the game. But just like everything else in Swords & Sorcery, things happen with spells that seem to make no sense. For instance, during combat, the game lets you cast a spell at any point, and as many times as you want in a row. There have been times that I've opened a door, let loose a "Firebolt," and killed an enemy before he can respond. But there have been an equal number of times that I've cast 6 "Firebolts" in a row in the middle of combat, had the game tell me that they all achieved "full effect," and yet seen no drop in the enemy's hit points.

Amidst all my complaints, I should recognize that the skill/spell system is, for all its faults, fairly original. Combat, magic, and thieving skills increase as you use them, offering more options to the player as the game goes along. In this, Swords & Sorcery anticipates Dungeon Master by a couple of years. I can't otherwise think of an earlier game that has quite this combination of elements. I just wish they had been implemented as part of a better package.

That statement also goes for the NPC dialogue system, which is highly original and coincidentally mirrors Fate: Gates of Dawn, the game I happen to be playing at the same time, even though I don't think the two titles have anything to do with each other. Both games feature encounters that could be combats or could be NPC dialogues, largely depending on your own attributes and the NPC's disposition. In the case of Swords & Sorcery, a number of the "monsters" wandering the dungeon--mages, warriors, catmen, and so on--will happily converse with you instead depending at least in part on a hidden "villainy" score that largely depends on whether your character is in the habit of sucker-punching anything that moves or whether you wait and see what he does first. Hostility begets hostility.
I was just remarking that Fate is the first game I can remember that lets you mug an NPC. Well, here's an earlier one.
As in Fate, your goal with dialogue in S&S is to either charm or abuse the other NPC into capitulation, at which point you get him to do things you want him to do. On the carrot side of the options are friendly greetings and bribes; you can give NPCs any of the valuables you pick up in the game--gold, crowns, cups, even food. As far as I can tell, it's the only thing that you can do with gold, which makes bribery in this game a more viable option than in others. On the stick side, we have unfriendly greetings, insults, bragging, warcries, and threats.

Either way, the idea is that you keep using options on one side or the other until it's clear that the NPC has submitted. Most dialogue options seem to draw from a random bank of nouns and adjectives, creating a bizarre conversation as you and the NPC go back and forth:

Two characters exchange pleasantries.
If the NPC likes you and you use the friendly options, you can apparently figure out your relative combat and magic skills based on what the NPC calls you. For instance, if you barely know what you're doing in combat, the NPC will refer to you as an "adventurer" whereas a combat master will get "lord."

If you finally get an NPC to submit, you can ask for information about the dungeon, ask him to evaluate a specific item, or ask him to go away. "Evaluating" an item just returns his assessment of its value--it doesn't tell you what the item does, which is what you really need. "Information" returns one of a long and bizarre pool of hints. Some of them are obvious--"Beware Centerpoint" is a warning about the pits in the middle of Quadrant 1--but others won't become clear until I find an associated puzzle--"Music is the answer";"Jump from table to table"--and there's this whole string of them associated with a "password" that seems to make little sense:


I don't know if these all refer to the same password. If so, EMBER or COAL or something similar might fit most of the definitions.
This doesn't really help me.
What you really need the NPC to do, most of the time, is "go away." You can't walk over or past NPCs, so even if they're friendly, your primary goal is to clear them out of the room so you can search it for treasure. But "go away" hardly ever works--in fact, I'm hardly ever able to subdue the monster so that any command works--leading you to eventually give up and assault your partner in conversation (making the next monster more likely to be hostile) just so you can search the room and make sure it doesn't have one of the quest items.

If you can get a room to yourself, you might find chests, sacks, or just random items on the floor. I learned the hard way that these items might not be visible from adjacent squares, so you have to fully explore rooms and look in all directions. Chests might contain weapons, armor, gold, food, magic items, or even other chests to open. I've found a series of cups and crowns; I don't know if they have any purpose other than bribing NPCs. I've found several pendants and rings that give no clue as to their use, and at least one book that goes "bang" and kills me when I try to pick it up.
Finding several useful items in a chest.
All of the originality to be found with the skills system and the NPC interface shrinks in consideration of the game's many shortcomings, all of which conspired to drive me from the game prematurely even though, with only 4 quadrants to systematically explore, it's probably eminently winnable. In addition to the ones described above, we have:

  • A weirdly micromanaged process for getting things out of chests. When you first encounter a chest, you want to scroll to ACT and then DISARM to make sure it doesn't have a trap. Then, depending on your thief skill, you go to ACT again and either PICK LOCK and CHEST or SMASH and CHEST. If you picked it, you then have to ACT and OPEN to open it. To get the items out of the chest, you choose HANDLE then TAKE OUT then CHEST and then the item. That simply moves the item to the floor. Then you choose HANDLE and PICK UP to finally get the item in your inventory.
  • Inconsistent ways to work with inventory. To drop something, you go to HANDLE and then DROP and then pick the item. But to eat something or have an NPC evaluate something, you have to first go to HANDLE and then HOLD to equip the item and then ACT and EAT or TALK and COMMAND and EVALUATE THIS respectively. If you forget how it works, which is pretty easy, and accidentally go right to ACT | EAT expecting it then to give you a selection of items to eat, you instead end up eating your "held" item, which is usually your weapon. The game tells you that it's inedible, but that doesn't stop it from disappearing, forcing you to reload if you want to get it back.
  • Pits appear out of nowhere (you can sometimes sense them, but not always), sending you plummeting to your death since there's no Level 2. Sometimes, these pits are in the middle of a hallway or room. To deal with them--and to solve some puzzles involving tables--you're supposed to be able to ACT | JUMP. But as far as I can tell, JUMP does nothing at all. I stand in front of pits and activate it repeatedly without even any acknowledgement.
One more step and I die.
  • Combat difficulty is weirdly random. Depending on when I open the door, an enemy might be capable of swatting away all my hit points with a single blow or may die equally as quickly.
  • The 1 and 3 keys are supposed to turn you sideways, but sometimes--usually when you're facing an enemy that you want to flee rather than move closer to--they inexplicably move you forward instead.
  • I can't figure out the rules on hit point regeneration. In Quadrant 1, they seemed to regenerate on their own as I moved around; in Quadrant 2, this seemed to stop and I only get healed when I cast the "Heal" spell. The "status" screen is inconsistent in how it updates in real-time; sometimes, in combat, it shows me (and my foe) at full health even though I know wounding has taken place. A few times, my hit points have just inexplicably disappeared with no obvious cause (e.g., poison), causing me to die in the middle of a corridor with no enemy in sight.
Dying in combat against a skeleton. I don't think I really have 21 hit points here.
  • Instead of just being clear with you about your statistics, the game gives you a set of mysterious "magic numbers" on the status screen. By checking these figures after different combinations of training, I can figure out what they mean. The second number seems to be combat skill, for instance; the third is thief skill; and the fourth is maximum magic points. Still, why not just be explicit about this?
Checking my status. I wish I knew what the "46" meant. The others, I have mostly figured out.
Despite these issues, I gamely tried to play it for a while, exhaustively exploring Quadrant 1, annotating all my finds (treasure locations appear to be fixed), and finding one of the pieces of armor that I need to "win" the level, before taking the appropriate warp room to Quadrant 2. There, the rooms were a lot more linear than in Quadrant 1, and my frustration began to build exponentially. Certain rooms were simply impassable without defeating the monster inside, and he'd kill me in one blow, sending me back to Quadrant 1 for resurrection.
Finding one of the quest items.
Even so, I slowly pierced my way through the rooms until I encountered a room in the lower-right corner of the quadrant. Stepping into the room results in a message that says only "bang!" and half my hit points go away. This repeats until I die. There seems to be no way to avoid this happening, to avoid the room, or to prevent the damage. The manual offers no help.
I started to write this posting as a one-shot for the game. I was going to GIMLET it and move on. But I've been playing during a difficult and frustrating time (house-buying, moving, yet another new computer), so it's probable that I just lack patience all around. Swords & Sorcery has enough innovations that it's worth a full treatment if I can force myself to overlook its flaws. I'll leave it on the board and see what tips and explanations come along from veteran players and perhaps give it another shot after a couple of Fate sessions.


  1. Replies
    1. A man cannot live on pie alone. "When you're holding the staff, eat it! You can thus keep the magic and lose the staff - using the staff costs a lot of magic."

      From the hints on http://www.the-tipshop.co.uk/cgi-bin/info.pl?wosid=0005101

      This game looks crazy.

    2. Huh. I thought I had exhaustively documented all of Quadrant 1, but I missed the staff in question. But I also killed whatever was in the Sabaton room without an explicitly magical weapon, so I don't know about those hints in general.

    3. A lot of these less known games seem to have innovation, but lack the proper editing to make them really commercial. Streamlining usually comes in the editing process. I have had the experience myself with my boardgames. My early ideas are fantastic, but not practical for the players, so reworking rules or rewriting is key. Many of these designs seem to lack the time necessary for the games to be developed better. I guess this is why players gravitate to well developed games like Ultima and Gold Box. Still these early games hold so many surprises that the more established titles lack. I guess it just depends on your preference. For me the redundant controls are a reason to play Gold Box. Having to use numeric keys to move would be a reason not to play this game. Still the graphics are nice and I like the attention to the NPCS. Thanks again for reviewing this old stuff. I wish I could create a degree in Video Game Archaeology.

    4. Eat the staff and get to use its powers? Are you playing as Kirby?

  2. "What? Why did I just die?" is the best gamer epitaph I have ever heard. I implore you to use that! I may use it myself, also!

    1. That made me laugh. The game's rhetoric made me laugh, too. I will have to fight hard not to use statements like "Felicitations, manky slow slime keeper" in conversation.

    2. The T-shirt possibilities are endless, aren't they? Or a good title for a gamer's biography.

      As much as I cringe at the overly silly and confusing terms spit out, I recognize name/phrase generators are hard. I've tried my hand at one, and even with what I'm sure are good rules, ones that validate fine against every actual name I can throw at it, I still get output that's mostly terrible, with the remaining few being both laughable and terrible.

    3. I've created (both web-based) a name generator and a poetry generator (both of them typically giving laughable results most of the time, but, once in a while, something comes up that sounds good / profound / poetic), but never an insult generator. I seem to remember one, text-based, for MS-DOS, back in the early 90s...

  3. Finally, a game with the courage to speak out against violet clupean dogs.

  4. The first sign you are addicted to Dark Souls is when you start comparing it to everything.

    Dark souls speaks to a certain type of masochism present in many old-school gamers, who learned the joy of finally surmounting that extremely challenging hurdle by having it viciously stomped into their skulls by early computer and console games.

    Welcome to Stockholm syndrome, boys and girls. ;)

    1. Nonsense. Dark Souls (with a few small exceptions) is extremely fair. There's not a single part of the game where you have to make a blind leap of faith, or you have no way of knowing a trap or enemy is there before it kills you, or any of the other cheap tricks the games of yesteryear tended to pull.

    2. I don't recall saying it was unfair, just that it was challenging, with the implication being that it's challenging to the point of masochism if you subject yourself to it too much.

      Personally I love it.

    3. Nor did I say it was unfair; just that I didn't understand what was happening a lot of time time.

      If God decided to smack me to the ground in punishment for the burglaries I committed when I was 17, it would be "fair," but I still wouldn't have any idea what was happening. That's what playing Dark Souls (and frankly a lot of other modern games) is like. My mind can't interpret all the things happening on the screen at once, particularly since so many of those things are color-coded. There's also the issue with dynamic perspective; if I'm not quick enough to turn around, I don't know exactly what lanced me in the back.

      (I have to say, Skyrim is particularly good with this. I like the way the game shows your dead character flopping about for a few seconds after you die, so you have time to realize that there's an ice spike sticking out of your skull.)

      It's not just modern games, though. By the time you get to the end of Throne of Bhaal, for instance, enemies are so over-powered, with so many capabilities that don't exist for the PC, that what happens in the final battle seems completely arbitrary. Lots of flashing lights with confusing results. I might not have screamed "Why did I just die?!", but I'm sure I screamed "Why won't [prounoun] die?!" plenty of times.

    4. I mentioned the fairness because Kevan described it as appealing to "who learned the joy of finally surmounting that extremely challenging hurdle by having it viciously stomped into their skulls by early computer and console games". Most of the hardest older titles made very heavy use of fake difficulty in a way that Dark Souls does not.

      @Obdurate Hater
      The Dark Souls games have much more complex lore than it looks on the surface, and there's much more effort and creativity into the environment than most realize on first glance. It is just done in an incredibly subtle way.

  5. Wonderful how you still manage to find a fresh, new introduction to each old, less than perfect game. Top quality.
    The password, could it also be lava?

    1. Oh, that's not a bad one, though I don't understand why it would ever be in a sack.

    2. "Coal" jumped out at me as the solution.

    3. Yeah...it's just not exactly a stone, is it?

    4. Well, how do you define a stone? Geologically, coal is a sedimentary rock.

    5. Maybe Obsidian?

    6. TIL. All I knew was coal was carbon. I didn't know that it was considered a rock. You do hear about sacks or bags of coal. Not so much about obsidian, although I agree it fits some of the other phrases.

      I guess we'll know when I reach the area where a password is required.

  6. "you basically want to spend all your money on pies"
    No doubt that this is a British game!

  7. So...considering a translation for "Zob"...does the search for the "Armour of Zob" imply that the adventurer has a hot date that evening?

    Just wondering...

    (in ROT13 - N Serapu fynat ubzlalzbhf jvgu n sbhe yrggrerq znyr puvpxra)

    1. I had forgotten about that one. It's actually from Arabic, probably a form of ذنب, "tail."

  8. I'm changing the title on my business cards to "Dung Shifting Bang Wielding Human."

  9. This seems like one those games I would had played as a kid, not to win but just for a half an hour of goofing around aimlessly before dinner time and frankly many of the games made in the 80's felt like they were actually never even intended to be actually 'beaten'.

  10. I'm not sure what a "nostril sack" is, but it sounds quite unpleasant.

  11. "house-buying, moving, yet another new computer" What? Again? I have a feeling you do this every year.


    So, don't kill me, *or* I'll kill you?

    1. Seeing how random these insults are I suppose that "shed" in this sentence means "shack", not "to spill".

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. "Don't kill me oh pantry pie thrower" sounds almost shakespearean ... how many apes did it take to write Hamlet?

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Particularly good writing, Chet! I think I enjoyed reading about this game as much as you seem to dislke playing it.

  14. Is this the first instance of randomly generated insults in games? Bloodwych had them and Legends of Valour also does, but this game predates both.

    1. I honestly never thought of randomly-generated insults as a common-enough game element that it makes sense to watch out for a "first."

    2. It's admittedly not an RPG, but the arcade game Berzerk (1980) had random spoken insults.

    3. Yes it did. "Chicken, fight like a robot" was spoken if you left a room before clearing out all the robots. For me this was common due to my fear of Evil Otto.

  15. I have absolutely no insight to offer, except that I found this post extremely amusing. I laughed out loud (at work!) several times. Thanks

  16. If you want a good ZX Spectrum exclusive RPG Oracle's cave is good, its very simple though.


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