Friday, November 17, 2017

Game 269: Ancients 1: Death Watch (1991)

Ancients 1: Death Watch
Farr-Ware (developer); distributed as shareware
Released in 1991 for DOS
Date Started: 14 November 2017
Date Ended: 17 November 2017
Total Hours: 17
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 30
Ranking at Time of Posting: 151/271 (56%)
Ancients--which seems to be the word-of-the-year for 1991--is a prosaic but playable little Wizardry clone. It doesn't offer anything we haven't seen a hundred times, but it surpasses the quality of the other shovelware with which it was distributed. The graphics are cute.

The by-the-numbers nature of the game puts me in the mood to simply structure this entry like a record in a database.

Backstory: Unnecessarily vague. The central character (the game is not clear which of the four characters this represents) is exploring the hills one day near his home city of Locklaven. He comes upon a beautiful fairy playing an instrument and falls asleep, awakening later in his own bed. The experience inspires him to be an adventurer, and he sets out. Years later, he returns to Locklaven and finds it transformed. The population is fearful and mistrustful, and some kind of evil seems to have gripped the city. The "main character" thinks it has something to do with the fairy being captured.
Part of the unhelpful backstory.
Party members: 4. Only two can fight in melee range; the other two can cast or use missile weapons from the back. 

Races: Human, dwarf, elf.

Classes: Warrior, rogue, priest, mage.
Choosing the class during character creation.
Attributes: Strength, intelligence, constitution, dexterity. Life points and  money ("dracos") are also rolled randomly during character creation. Attributes are theoretically between 3 and 18, but the rolls are generous and it wasn't hard to get characters with 15 and above in everything.
During character creation, you choose from a variety of portraits for the characters. There is only one female portrait. Sex is otherwise not explicitly given.

Game world: Town level and seven underground dungeon levels, generally 18 x 18. Town level has an armory, inn, temple, training hall, and casino with miserable odds.
Arriving in the game from the main screen.
Encounters: Both fixed and random, including some in the town level. Monsters are typical Dungeons and Dragons fare. Some have mass-damage attacks, but none have special attacks like poison, paralysis, curse, sleep, or level drain.

Combat: Standard Wizardry style, with options to attack, defend, cast spells, use items, and flee.
Mid-combat with a troll and a mis-named "black elf."
Magic: Both priests and mages have 24 spells, arranged in 6 levels of 4 each. They gain new spells every other character level. They're relatively standard for CRPGs, some single-enemy offensive, some multi-enemy offensive, some protection, some healing. Only one, "Enchanted Flame," is necessary for exploration. Unfortunately, there are no "buffing" spells; all protection spells are cast in combat.
A protection spell helps in an early-game combat.
The game is slow-going to start. The random combats on the first dungeon level are of extremely variable difficulty, just like in Wizardry. You might face 2 goblins in one fight and then 3 orcs, 4 giant rats, and 4 goblins in the next. The winnable battles deliver an average of 15 experience points, and it takes 500 experience points just to reach Level 2. I had explored and mapped the level (except for its final encounter) long before I was ready to level up. Combat is somewhat annoying throughout the game because the characters' accuracy, even with high dexterity, is abysmal. Even towards the end, your attacks connect maybe one-third of the time.

One thing I rather like is the tight economy.  A wildly successful combat might net 12 gold pieces. You're deep into the game before everyone has their best "regular" weapons and armor. Eventually, gold is only useful for healing (the shop doesn't sell any advanced gear), but it takes a long time to get there.
Late-game equipment for my warrior. I never did find anything for the belt slot.
Ancients does reasonably well with its equipment, too. You have a paper doll image with slots for left and right hands, helms, armor, gauntlets, boots, and belts, plus 12 backpack slots. There are the usual class-based restrictions on what you can wield, but there don't seem to be any armor restrictions. Since only two characters (the two "middle" characters in the party order, oddly) can engage in melee combat, the other two end up being missile characters and spell casters.
Purchasing equipment in the town's shop.
Only warriors can use bows, but I can't imagine wasting a warrior in a backup slot unless you were trying to do something unusual, like field an all-warrior party. In my party, the priest and mage both used slings. You have to buy sling bullets to go with the slings, but one bullet apparently lasts a lifetime. There's also a weird bug by which slings occasionally do ridiculous damage.
Maggar somehow ended up with the Sling of David.
That bug is representative of an unpolished feeling to the game in general. Spelling errors abound; for instance, the equipment shop has an option to "sell and item" and a main menu option advertises the game's "sequal." The interface works poorly. There are theoretically redundant mouse and keyboard commands, but in practice you have to use the mouse for almost everything. There are times the game outright lies: when casting spells, for instance, it offers function keys for each selection, but the function keys don't do anything. Often, it's unclear how to back out or exit a menu option.
Despite the labels to the left, the function keys do not in fact serve as shortcuts. I have to click with the mouse if I want to cure "serius" wounds or "casue" wounds to the enemy.
Anyway, as you penetrate the dungeon, you find the occasional magic equipment upgrade, like elven boots and dwarven helms. Platemail is also only available from looted enemies, not the shop.

The world is small, as it uses the "wormhole" convention by which corridors always have 10 feet of dead space around them. The town is particularly void of anything interesting except a few hints in the tavern. A large number of "private residences" plus the use of the term "review board" when you level up suggests a Bard's Tale influence, but you can't actually enter the residences and encounters on the town level are few and far between. It would have been better as a menu town.
Level 6 of the game.
Among the dungeon levels, there are fewer than 1,200 mappable squares, and among those squares fewer than 20 fixed encounters. Thus, you'd coast through the game pretty quickly except for the difficulty of the monsters. Because of that, about 16 of the 17 hours I spent playing the game, I spent grinding. I might not have done it, but the game came along right as Netflix released The Punisher, so it was easy enough to go through the motions of fighting combats while I binged the episodes. Plus, grinding in Ancients 1 is authentically rewarding. Attributes, spell points, magic points, accuracy bonuses, damage bonuses, and resistances all increase notably between levels. The spell rewards are particularly palpable, as characters go from single-enemy damage spells to single-group damage spells, to all-enemies damage spells.
A late-game character sheet.
The plot unfolds as you progress through the dungeon. As with Wizardry, there are a couple of special encounters on each level, and a number of wall messages. Level 1, the sewers beneath the town, has a light puzzle in which a well asks you to drop in "a ball of force that can crush bone," a fancy description for a mace.
The game's first puzzle.
Beyond the well is a fixed encounter with some priests and skeletons. Winning provides a key for a lower level. Miscellaneous encounters on the level include orcs, goblins, "kobalds," giant rats, and "riff-raff."
Messages--some helpful, some not--are scattered about the levels.
On Level 2, labeled as "access tunnels," you fight barbarians, black ogres, evil priests, skeletons, and giant snakes to the Tomb of Relnor, an ancient knight. Sleeping in the tomb rewards you with a vision and both the Sword and Mace of Relnor. These are powerful artifact weapons, but oddly they show up as random treasure in later combats.
Level 2 also has a key encounter with some yellow mold. Killing the mold allows you to take some of it back to the bartender in town for a key.
Level 3 brings an encounter with a "golum" holding a key in a chunk of ice. You have to cast "Enchanted Flame" to melt the ice, then kill the golem.
The three keys obtained so far open the way down to the next level. There's a bug in the game, though, by which other found equipment can accidentally replace one of the keys. I didn't find this out until I had lost the key and saved the game (there's only one save slot). I had to start over with a new party. I hex-edited them to where my old party was in terms of experience so I didn't have to do all the early-level grinding again. I also took the opportunity to replace my rogue, who has absolutely nothing roguelike to do in the game, with another warrior.

Level 4 is an odd one. It hardly uses any of its allocated space. It consists only of two long corridors, one through a secret door off the other. The secret door is cued with a message that it's windy (plus a message on the previous level about a hidden area), and as far as I can tell it's the only secret door in the game.

The corridors culminate in a battle with Kilrah, a red dragon. Killing her gets you a fireball wand which only has a few uses.

A lot more undead enemies--wraiths, ghouls, zombies, and such--start to appear on Level 5. There otherwise isn't much on this level, but I did most of my late-game grinding here.
Some vague warning accompanies my arrival on Level 6.
Level 6 brings gargoyles, dragons, vampires, and hell hounds. As you enter the level, there's a message suggesting that you've entered a keep on the outskirts of town; a tavern tale mentions the keep as being inaccessible from the outside. This doesn't quite fit with the geography of the dungeon in which all the staircases go down from level to level, but whatever.
The monsters become particularly difficult on this level because a lot of them have a way of shrugging off spells. I learned through experience that there's not much point in conserving magical energy, since you can rest anywhere, resting has only a small chance of interruption, and it only takes a few rest periods to restore all spell points. Thus, you might as well bring out the big guns every combat. This means mass damage spells called "Disfiguration," "Mar Enemies" and "Vision of Pain" for the priest, at Levels 4, 5, and 6 respectively. At the same levels, the mage gets "Lightning Storm," "Fire Burst," and "Disintegrate." At Level 6, both the mage and priest get a "Death" spell that kills a single enemy.
A typical late-game enemy party.
Warriors with their single attacks become somewhat useless towards the end of the game, particularly since their accuracy never really improves. If I had to play it again, I'd probably do two priests and two mages. For the most part, I let the warriors use the magic wands and scrolls that I found.

Things become a lot easier after a fixed encounter on Level 6 with a "Lord Vernon," apparently a lich, who attacks with a group of vampires.
"Vernon" might be the least-intimidating name in RPG history.
It's a tough combat, but it rewards you with a magic amulet that, when used in combat, negates enemies' magical protections. After that, the game becomes almost too easy. No single enemy resists the "Death" spells.
Of course, it took me a while to figure out what "negation" meant.
Level 7 pounds the party with dragons, death knights, more golems, and so forth. The goal is to make your way to a magic portal. It took me a while to figure out how the portal works. There are two levers on either side of it, and you have to click them to change where the portal goes. Nowhere else in the game do you interact with elements on the screen this way.

One lever takes you back to town. This is the only shortcut back to town in the game. Towards the end, I neglected to raise myself a couple of earned levels simply because I didn't want to trek up and down all the levels again. The second portal presumes to take you to the "sequal" of the game. Until I discovered the third option, I thought this was the end of the game. I was pretty angry.
Cue enraged entry.
Pulling both levers takes you to a throne room. After a battle against three red dragons, you face two demons named Binatuus and Arulus. As far as I can tell, they're named for the first time when you encounter them, and their story is never really explained. They attack without allies and thus die extraordinarily fast to a combination of the magic amulet and two "Death" spells.
The two final foes.
Upon their death, the game says that their "black, ghost like" forms "dissipate into the air, returning to the evil dimension from which they came." Pressing forward through a door, you encounter the beautiful harp-playing fairy that at least one of the characters remembers from his childhood.
Let's hope it's not the priest.
She smiles and whisks the party from the castle to the wilderness area where the character first encountered her. Game over.
One character is happy; the other three would rather be in a pub.
Aside from the rampant spelling errors, interface issues, occasional bugs, and a lack of any sound, Ancients 1 offers a reasonably solid, classic RPG experience--the kind of experience I describe as "fight orcs, level up, fight stronger orcs." It wouldn't compete with more polished classics for anyone's attention today, but if I was a poor teenager in 1991, I would have been happy enough to find this game on a shovelware disk.
It earns a 30 in the GIMLET, boosted by decent character development, combat (particularly magic), equipment, economy, and overall gameplay length and difficulty. It does worst in the area of NPCs (there are none) and the nonsensical story. I thought the graphics were fine, but the lack of sound and a good keyboard interface hurt the game in that category.
Even if it's unpolished, I always appreciate a game with rewarding character development.
Ancients 1 was apparently released as shareware in 1991, then picked up by Epic MegaGames for re-release in 1993, when a sequel had been prepared. I guess it's technically "freeware," not shareware, as the documentation makes it clear that the shareware fee is for the sequel and not the present game. After its 1993 release, the title found its way onto about half a dozen shovelware disks.

The sequel, Ancients II: Approaching Evil, is on my 1994 list. It seems to use the same interface, but with slightly more refined graphics, and it promises additional character options and a larger game world. It does not appear that the Ontario-based Farr-Ware is known for any other games. I've had trouble discovering if lead programmer Mark Lewis ever worked on other titles; his name is simply too common.

Frill-less though it was, Ancients 1 offered a better classic RPG experience than its concurrent title, Twilight: 2000. Some intelligence from commenters in my last entry gave me reason to hope that it will be over soon.


  1. I remember this game! I must've gotten it on a shareware disk around when our household got its first DOS PC. Shortly after that we got Wizardry 7, to which the likes of Ancients obviously didn't hold a candle, so I never finished it. I think I remember the knight's tomb but I don't remember the "golum" frozen in ice, so I guess level 2 is as far as I got.

    1. I had an almost identical experience, except that I probably downloaded the game from a dialup BBS.

  2. Everyone in this game looks like Mr. Potato Head.

  3. I feel like the following Onion article is necessary, again:

  4. Yeah, had this one on a shareware disk back around 1994. Never quite figured out what was going on since I was oblivious to the Wizardry-formula.
    Still good to see a familiar game over 20 after the fact!

  5. I had this game on a shovelware CD as well and played it a bit. Even though it did nothing terribly wrong, it was a bit bland and boring. There was a better game on the CD as well: Ancients: Deathwatch.

  6. I vaguely remember this as a kid. I got as far as the yellow moss. I couldn't remember the name, and had been waiting for years for you to remind me what the game was. Thanks, I think.

  7. Re: Vernon. At one point in one of my games I coded up a randomized pool of baddies from the pit, hell, hades, gehenna, ... and Mount Vernon, Kentucky. I had college spring break plans die there in a terrible, messy, and unbelievably complicated way. Anything with "Vernon" in the name is grade-A evil in my book.

    The spelling in this game is really astounding. Nearly every screenshot is a delight. One that you didn't call out but I appreciated was the riff-raff is actually "Riffraft" with a T.

    1. It's almost like the current trend on social media, to hear an old saying, phrase or word incorrectly. Examples include:
      Hammy downs - hand-me-downs
      Next store - next door
      Kicked to the curve - Kicked to the curb
      They're wrong but they almost create a new idiom.

      A lot of his misspelling is cringeworthy and silly but some almost work, like riff-raft.

    2. These instances of unintentional wordplay are apparently called "eggcorns".

    3. That is a perfect name for them.

  8. I originally visited this blog because I'd hoped you'd covered this game already. I played the heck out of it as a kid. I'm glad you got to it.

  9. I played this for quite a bit back in 2010-11, as it was one of the games packaged with a DosBox distribution. I gathered a bit of data trying to analyze the statistical effect of the protection spells by repeatedly running into the yellow moss room with various combinations of protection spells in effect, and then letting the moss hit my party. Short version - I couldn't detect any effect on the damage taken; it looks like all the effect was on the chance to hit.

    An unprotected party had a 41.2-51.9% chance of getting hit (95% confidence interval), 1 Party Armor spell (3rd level MU spell) dropped that to 28.7-35.5%, 1 Safeguard Party (2nd level cleric spell) came in at 32.8-42.8%, and 1 Party Waver (6th level MU) dropped it all the way to 14.5-25.1%. The combination of PA+SP came in at 34.8-41.4%, so presumably the spells didn't stack. This was measuring a few hundred of each type of attack; getting the numbers more precise would have taken a bunch more data.

    1. I like hard data. This is just the sort of thing I would do if I didn't have a list of 1,000 games to play. For some reason, I still allow myself to get sucked into statistics whenever there's a gambling system in a game.

  10. Is it just me, or does the vampire image make anyone else think of early 3D rendering?

    1. Yeah! As a digital artist with tons of great tools to choose from (who didn't work "back then"), I wonder what method the artist used to make these assets? I just don't have any idea...

    2. Has kind of a DeluxePaint look to me. There weren't a lot of better DOS tools available.

    3. This is the sort of art that you end up with if you don't know how to draw, you don't use reference and you suddenly go from 8-bit computers with their hard-coded 8 and 16 color palettes to unlimited VGA with 256 colors on screen.

      Straight ramps, painfully primary. Make a palette first, go 'ok, for greens I'm going to have .... 16 greens, from almost pure blackish green to the most vibrant 0, 255, 0 green there is!'. All straight ramps, soft shading, use all the shades you got, because VGA is better than an Amiga, right?

    4. The graphics were nothing to sneeze at at the time. In terms of first-person RPGs, this originally came out between Wizardry 6 (EGA) and Wizardry 7 (VGA), and in terms of shareware this originally came out before Apogee's first VGA title, Wolfenstein 3D.

  11. Between Ancients and Twilight 2000 you have an example of a game that aims low and mostly hits it, and a game that aims high and falls short. It feels like this blog has covered more games in the latter category.

  12. Fascinating... or, err... not so much :). By which I mean, that upon reading this entry, the one thought going through my head was - wow, I didn't remember any of this except for the image of the cleavage-showing lady in the main menu (and even that, really, I only recall because a good friend I was playing the game with made some funny comment about it that I no longer recall). In this sense, it's really remarkable how utterly forgettable the game was. I know I finished it. But I remember nothing of it.

    Nonetheless, your assessment is absolutely correct: for what it was, it *was* satisfying. For me at the time... well, I was living in Papua New Guinea, a place where no software was sold at all, and there were about two shops selling computers in town. The bunch of us kids, living in the staff compound of PNG University of Technology, were in the somewhat peculiar situation of having excellent access to computers (our parents did work at the University of *Technology*, after all), but abysmal access to games and software. Because most of our parents were unwilling to spend money on expensive air travel without necessity, new games would arrive only under two types of circumstances - a new staff member arriving with children, or one of our families travelling overseas for the once-every-18-months holiday paid for by the university. There was always at least a couple of people who'd come back in February from the summer holiday with a couple of cool new games - but it really was a once-a-year thing. I suppose we were fortunate that given the difficulty of buying software, and the fact that PNG at the time *officially*, per government *policy* refused to enforce copyright law, nobody had any qualms about copying disks for their friends. Ironically, sometimes those acts of piracy would ultimately save the game for the original owner in a sense, because the tropical climate of the place meant that mold grew on everything, and most floppy disks died in the space of a year or two unless they were kept in an airconditioned room. So, it wasn't at all unusual to re-install a game after a few months, only to hear that very characteristic uhg-ungh-hrmm sound of a disk drive struggling to read data. Your heart would pause, as you waited to see if it succeeded or failed... :)

    Then, around 1995, I believe, one of the new arrivals brought along a few CDs filled with pirated games from the early 1990s. My head practically exploded when I suddenly gained access to something like a hundred new games all at once.

    1. This is an awesome comment. I know like 300% more about Papua New Guinea than I did 10 minutes ago.

    2. I used to work in a computer repair shop and the nightmare system was the ubiquitous all-plastic eMachines computer, with seven pounds of dust and four pounds of tar (from smoking) inside of it. The combination created a sticky orange gunk that smelled terrible and was very difficult to remove safely.

      However, the thought of opening a computer and finding it full of mold is far worse.

    3. I bought this old Toshiba laptop that had belonged to a tax accountant. It was so drenched in tar, I got a contact buzz just from typing

    4. "PNG at the time *officially*, per government *policy* refused to enforce copyright law"

      we need more Papua New Guineas :)

  13. Interesting. What I consider a solid, classic role-playing experience would rather be: "talk with inhabitants, learn where to go, get there, talk with more inhabitants" (or "iNhaPitanCs", i.e. NPC :) ). Anyone whose preference is similar to mine? After all, I discovered role-playing games because I was looking for more fantasy novels. Ah, well, we all like role-playing video games the same, regardless of which aspect we like most.

    1. I consider that part of a DESIRABLE role-playing experience, but if that was the definition I used, it would eliminate 95% of 1980 and early 1990s RPGs. Beyond the Ultima titles, there just isn't much out there with meaningful NPC interaction.

    2. Yeah, pre-Interplay, classic rpg experiences tended to be mechanically satisfying rather than immersive. Explore, fight, get loot, level up.

  14. Thanks for another great review! Again, your review inspired me to try one out that I hadn't seen before, and having just completed it, (of course :) your assessment was spot on.

    One of your comments that I totally missed, was the absolutely anticlimactic nature of the boss fight. You would think that an Ur-grue might have presented a maxed-out defensive screen or something...

    Otherwise, it was a fun if prosaic example of reliable and satisfying skills progression enabling entry into increasingly challenging areas.

    Thanks for putting in all this effort, and lending your great writing skills, to this effort! Obviously from all the comments, your site is a go-to for many of us which we look forward to every day. Keep up the great work!

    1. I appreciate your enthusiasm, Rangerous. I'm glad you found the game an adequate experience.

  15. I'm glad to see that you finally made it to this game and enjoyed it well enough. This was one of the games I checked to see if you'd covered when I found this blog years ago, oddly enough one of the few older RPGs I had played randomly because it was shareware. As basic and straightforward as it is, there is something comforting and fun about it.

  16. Canada would like to apologize for its first RPG being rather mediocre. ;)

    (And I'd like to apologize for not reading for ages again.)

    1. This isn't anywhere close to your first RPG. You had Alien Fires, Deathlord, Gates of Delirium, and two 1989 games I haven't played before this.

      Wait...why do I show The Magic Candle III as a Canadian game when the first two weren't?

    2. OH, well then I'd like to apologize for not reading your info boxes.

  17. Ancients II was, I think, the first RPG I ever played, bought on a cheap floppy disc from my local newsagent here in Yorkshire.

    I was too young to really understand how to play, and I had no knowledge of how RPGs really worked (the game taught me somewhat), but I remember just fighting for hours to see what would happen when I levelled. I never progressed far.

    So it holds a special place in my memory since it was the first Tolkien-like game I ever found.

    I leapt at the chance to play Legend of Grimrock because I still think the first-person view is more immediate and atmospheric. Now that I have discovered just how many there were - Eye of the Beholder, Ishar, Lands of Lore, Might and Magic, etc - I'm playing some on GoG and Bard's Tale looks the most similar.


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