Sunday, November 12, 2017

Revisiting: Le Maître des Âmes (1987)

      
Le Maître des Âmes
France
Ubisoft (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for DOS and Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 24 December 2010
Date Ended: 12 November 2017
Total Hours: 17
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
               
Like most French games of the era, including Ubisoft's prior two titles (Fer & Flamme et L'Anneau de Zengara), Le Maître des Âmes ("The Master of Souls") offers a sense of the bizarre that goes beyond the simple fact that it's in a foreign language. French RPGs of the 1980s feature weird combinations of plot elements from mythology, fantasy, and sci-fi, NPC dialogue that makes little sense even in its original language, vague quests, and odd in-game asides. It's as if their developers felt that RPGs were the next frontier for the Surrealist movement. Like the British ZX Spectrum games from the same era, they stand out for their originality in game elements and interfaces. In contrast to Germany, where RPG development was immediately influenced by The Bard's Tale and a few other U.S. titles, France built everything from scratch. More often than not, I hasten to add, the results were weird and unsatisfying rather than praiseworthy, but at least I never look at a French RPG and say "this again?!"

When I first encountered Maître back in 2010, I lacked the overall historical perspective that I have now. I liked the game but didn't understand the full scope of the originality that it offers. Take its approach to its dungeon structure. Among its American peers, featureless corridors with minimal interactability will be the norm into the mid-1990s. Maître, on the other hand, offers hand-crafted rooms for its tiles. Not only do these rooms show details sensible for their types--bunk beds in the barracks, tables with food and discarded bottles in the dining hall--but each tile offers different views from each of the four facing directions. Even more important, many of the objects seen on these screens are interactable, including objects you can pick up, switches you can pull, food you can eat, and signs you can read.
    
Maitre offers a strong sense of mise en scène.
     
Its approach to NPCs also predates most U.S. titles by nearly a decade, offering a variety of questions and answers for each character you encounter, including some clear role-playing options. And just about any intelligent creature doubles as an NPC. Orcs can be engaged in dialogue before they attack you. A sample:
      
Q. Who are you?
A. I am an orc guard of the castle.
Q. What are you doing here?
A. I stop strangers from getting in.
Q. Give us a hint.
A. Tremble, for the demonic lord is coming to Earth.
Q. Come with us.
A. Over my dead body. Sons of dogs.
Q. Goodbye, and good luck.
A. I curse you for eternity.
          
Conversing with an orc.
    
Unfortunately, it's not all positives. The control system is cumbersome, the CGA colors awful, the magic and combat system stunted and unsatisfying. Navigation is difficult, though by design. These negatives allowed it to slide off my radar after I first engaged it, never intending 7 years to pass before I returned. I have to make sure the same doesn't happen to Deathlord.
    
Part of the in-game backtory.
    
Maître begins as a party of four adventurers enters a keep to find out what happened to its wizard, Kharam Akkad (sometimes spelled "Kharram"), who disappeared during a violent storm that still ravages the land. The characters are drawn from six classes--warrior, magician, cleric, thief, dwarf, and elf--and assigned random scores between 1 and 99 in life, strength, intelligence wisdom, dexterity, and charisma. You only get one shot at the random rolls per character; if you don't like the statistics, you have to start completely over. The game also changes the originally-rolled numbers behind the scenes. Some of the changes make sense; for instance, warriors always get a 30-point increase to strength and thieves always get a 30 point increase to dexterity. Other changes make less sense, such as the elf losing intelligence (though not a consistent amount). Charisma is either bugged or the developers didn't want anyone having a high score; anyone who rolls more than a 30 is sent down into the single digits.
     
The game describes a thief like he's MacGyver.
     
You don't get to name your characters. After creation, you can spend a randomly-generated amount of gold on weapons, armor, shields, and lanterns. One oddity of the game is that you can only have two items equipped at once. One will assuredly be your weapon, and except when solving puzzles, the other is likely to be your suit of armor. Thus, shields are somewhat useless.
   
Choosing from a selection of equipment items.
   
I went with a dwarf, thief, magician, cleric party. They begin in a nondescript hallway with a small sign on the wall that warns that the château will be defended under "pain of prosecution." A locked door to the west would seem to serve as the entrance, but later the party finds a key to this door, and it leads further into the castle, so it's not really clear how the party arrived at the starting square.
      
Starting out. We'd better get those weapons equipped.
     
Movement is with the number pad. A row of buttons activates the game's various actions: look, listen, eat, sleep, take, open a door, talk, attack, and disk operations. Most of the buttons have dual purposes depending on whether you apply them to the environment or to the party. The eye icon reads signs in the environment, for instance, but checks statistics and health when applied to the characters. The hand picks up items in the environment but goes to the character's inventory when used on the left side of the screen. The manual says that these various actions have keyboard backups, but I wasn't able to get any of them to work.

The opening area seems small. A few squares of corridor offer doors leading into an armory, some barracks, a kitchen, a dining room, and a passageway with a couple of bedrooms. A chef in the kitchen says that he's making lunch. If you pay him for a tip, he warns you to "beware of howling mushrooms," a reference to creatures in a nearby hallway. The dining room has a bag of gold on a shelf and a note on the wall advertises a "catch the axe" contest next Saturday. Both rooms have a couple items of food.
     
A rat sensibly appears in a pantry.
    
Orcs guard the barracks and the bedroom foyer. The armory and one of the bedrooms serves up combats with rats. Keys found in the various rooms open doors to other parts of the castle, but to really progress, you have to find secret doors. Some of these are activated with chains or switches; other times, you just click on the wall that you think might have one (meaning you have to click on every wall). Soon you discover that the small opening area branches out into a multi-leveled castle of hundreds of rooms.

There is no strategy to combat. You simply select the combat option and repeatedly hit the SPACE bar. You and the enemy exchange blows which are registered with the word "Paf!" Enemies have a way of respawning if you linger around the room. None of them are named, but by visualization, you fight orcs, werewolves, goblins, giant spiders, bats, rats, and various demonesque creatures.
     
Paffing down the hit points of something like a minotaur.
     
As you kill enemies, you gain experience, which causes your attributes to increase. Well before the end of the game, my characters hit the max of 255 in their primary statistics.
       
Some of my attribute values towards the end of the game.
      
I have no idea about spells. The spellcasting classes start with a few: "Language," "Protection," and "Vision" for the mage and "Healing" for the priest. But once cast, they don't seem to replenish. There seem to be no offensive spells.
     
Once I cast them once, just to try them out, they never came back.
     
The castle ultimately has somewhere between 150 and 200 rooms; a detailed map is vital. Many rooms have locked doors, and during your adventure you collect an astounding number of keys, none of which can be safely dropped. Other times, you have to hunt for a switch to a secret door, and still others, you click on a blank wall with a key to open a secret door. Even more insidious are the common navigation puzzles and traps, including one-way secret doors. Several times in the game, I found myself trapped in a room I simply couldn't get out of.
     
Opening a door with a key.
And activating a secret door by pulling a wall switch.
     
Worst of all are the pit traps. About half a dozen rooms have floors that spontaneously collapse, dumping a random selection of party members to a lower level. They never dump all the party members, and usually you can't simply walk around until the remaining members fall into the pit, too. Instead, you have to navigate separately until you can find a place to reunite.
      
The entire party besides the NPC falls through a pit trap in a kitchen. You switch between parties with the top icon.
     
For the most part, you don't get any weapon or armor upgrades. Almost everything you find is identical to what you purchased in the beginning. Other than keys, you're mostly looking for potions and food. (Light sources are also important, but you only need one per party and they never run out.) Each character has an individual nutrition statistic. When you eat, it goes up, then slowly counts down to 0. There's enough food in the game that it's not hard to keep from starving. Potions are more of a crapshoot. Some will poison you or outright kill you, but you have to experiment anyway because it's the only way to restore hit points. Sleeping, as far as I can tell, doesn't seem to do anything.

Inventory management is frustrating as hell. Each character only has four slots, and it takes an annoyingly long time for a little animation to complete that makes the slots appear. None of the inventory items are labeled. Well until the end of the game, I had things in my inventory that I had no idea what they were, including a couple of things that looked like bottles and one thing that looked like a book. I found no productive way to fiddle with them. Dropping items is also much more difficult than it should be, as you can only drop an item where the game screen has a designated space for one--usually because an item is already there. You don't so much drop things as exchange them.

Moving to one of the game's positives, there are several NPCs who will join your party, including:

  • Maltorn, a knight from a village up the river from the castle who also seeks to end its curse.
  • Baldigorn (but "you can call me Baldi"), an orc searching for Kharam, who he calls his "benefactor." You have to make sure to take him, as he has a key vital to the final area.
  • Shazall, a mage and an old friend of Kharam. He carries a runic dagger that's necessary to defeat the guardian of a magic sword.
          
A knight and the party discover that we're on the same quest.
     
NPCs sometimes have key quest items, so you want to take them all at least briefly. They have a way of randomly disappearing when you enter another NPC's section of the castle.

There are also a few NPCs who won't join the party but offer hints in dialogue. A woman introduces herself as Aniella the Valkyrie, for instance, and claims she died in the castle but Kharam Akkad wouldn't let her go to the land of the dead. She warns you about the necessity of having a dagger to defeat a specific guardian. Elsewhere, a thief named Licors, looting the castle "for nice things for my home," confirms this intelligence.
     
"I am from the realm of the dead, where I would like to rest in peace."
    
Before I describe the endgame, there's one last aspect worthy of commentary: the signs. More than half of the rooms have some kind of sign, placard, or inscription, some almost hidden in regular patterns on the wall. Some are clues, some are warnings, some are jokes, some are just there for atmosphere. It certainly made my progress slow to have to stop and translate so much. They're alternately written in orcish, kobold, or magic runes, and you have to have the character with the proper language skill active to read them (just as you do in NPC dialogue). A number of examples:
    
  • "You who enter here, know that you will never go out again"
  • "There's no point in dying"
  • "To open your mind, break your head."
  • "The location of the final combat will be scattered with stars." 
  • "You had so much trouble coming here, you deserve to stay forever."
  • "Take advantage of the weak point of the demon to slay him." 
  • "Save me from the abyss of time. - Kharam Akkad."

The characters translate yet another insulting sign.
     
To win, you have to find your way to a chamber in which the demon Gol Golgoth resides. Although his chamber has doors, I was never able to find a key for them. The only way I was able to enter was to drop through a trap door in the level above. The right character has to do this, as Gol Golgoth is only defeatable with a magic sword that you find in an armory in a different section of the castle, and only thieves and warriors can wield swords. The armory, meanwhile, is guarded by a creature who's only vulnerable to daggers. 
     
Two party members disappear down the hole.
    
It's even more complicated than that. I wasn't able to find a way back from the armory area except through yet another trap door. Again, since all your characters won't fall down trap doors, the only way I was able to win the game was to lose most of my party along the way. First, my warrior, thief, and cleric fell down the door returning from the armory, leaving the mage behind. Then, I had to reload a few times until it was my thief who fell down the trap door leading to Gol Golgoth's chambers. He took on Gol Golgoth alone, but he was able to kill him with the magic sword and end the game.
     
The thief takes on the mighty demon lord by himself.
     
The epilogue shows a cool graphic . . .
       
I'll bet that within 12 hours, we'll know where this was copied from.
      
. . . and then proceeds with some text:
     
Moons and moons have passed since this glorious adventure. The sky gradually cleared up and let through rays of sunshine on a fertile land.

Vanir, freed from its fears, became the city of the Blue Star, a sacred place, an eternal symbol of peace and justice.

Of our heroes, no one knows where they went. But their story will be told for centuries to come.
     
The story ultimately ended up being somewhat nonsensical, more allusion than tale. It's unclear why Gol Golgoth is called "the master of souls" or what exactly happened to Kharam Akkad, particularly since the latter doesn't return in the endgame. Like Ubisoft's previous efforts, much is cribbed here from the legends of Conan, including the proper names Vanir, Kharam Akkad, and Gol Goroth.
    
Some kind of giant insect pledges loyalty to Fafnir, King of Vanir, another character from the Conan mythos.
     
In the end, I found Le Maître des Âmes rather charming. Its mechanics are poor, but the NPC interaction was top notch, and I liked the sense that I was exploring a real place. In a GIMLET, it earns:

  • 4 points for the game world. The textual parts are a bit unsatisfying, but the castle has a strong sense of thematic and physical integrity.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. There aren't enough options during creation, but development is relatively steady, and you do feel the characters becoming more effective in combat.
  • 6 points for NPC interaction. With a number of questions and attitudes, plus the ability to enlist NPCs into the party, few games of the era are doing it better.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are boring and unnamed and lack anything that really differentiates them. There are no non-combat encounters.
  • 1 point for magic and combat. The magic system is nearly non-existent and there are no combat options.
     
A giant spider blocks a hallway.
        
  • 3 points for equipment. The system is annoying to navigate and there aren't many items, but I like the way they're distributed in the environment.
  • 1 point for economy. There are a handful of treasure chests and bags of gold, but you only need them to bribe NPCs for hints, and there are only a few of those.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options or side quests.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. Graphics are well-detailed, even if the color is awful, but sound is minimal and the control system is frustrating.
       
The Amstrad CPC version is capable of multiple colors at once.
      
  • 5 points for gameplay. Somewhat non-linear, the right difficulty, and the right length.
               
That give us a final score of 30. That's about where it should fall. It doesn't have enough good RPG mechanics to truly recommend it, but there are some innovative things here. It's certainly much better than Ubisoft's previous offerings.
     
The manual's artwork is a bit different than the game's.
      
I haven't been able to find contemporary reviews or accounts of it, but I guess it was popular enough to justify a sequel, the even-more obscure Le Maître Absolu, in 1989. It promises a sci-fi setting, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the developers updated the engine. Both games are credited to Eric Doireau and C. Le Scoarnec, neither of whom have many credits beyond these titles.

It's nice to finally complete this game in my spreadsheet, leaving only my suspended attempts at Deathlord blank. I'll return to that one before the end of 1987 as well.


48 comments:

  1. I love reading about these obscure games. The Amstrad CPC version is far easier on the eyes, if I was given a choice between CGA and higher-resolution black-and-white I'd have gone with the latter. It looks like it would have helped the game's presentation a great deal.

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    Replies
    1. Being a CGA game there's always the possibility be that the game has composite support giving it nicer (artifact) colors.
      Maitre des Ames doesn't look like it, though (understandibly so, since it's a PAL-land game and CGA composite only works with NTSC...)

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    2. Dammit, no edit button? It's SECAM-land, of course. Désolé! :)

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    3. Eh, back then you had to use the "latest greatest" tech otherwise people wouldn't buy your game. Not in color? Ewww, not buying it.

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    4. Having played so many old DOS games in CGA... I think at this point I would claw my eyeballs out rather than play another. Particularly with them swapping between the two palettes!

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    5. That was me doing the swapping. I forgot to mention that. The game gives you the ability to cycle through primary and secondary colors with a couple of F keys. I never was able to find anything that looked "good," but in general I thought a bright primary with a dark secondary worked okay.

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    6. Could you turn the 'ink' color to black and keep the 'paper' color as a bright slot?

      Oh boy I might have to emulate this just to satiate my curiosity.

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  2. Chet, do you feel your French has improved much by playing all these French games lately?

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    1. Sure, I got some new vocabulary, but you'd be surprised how rarely "orque" and "epee en fer" come up in conversation.

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    2. The less joking answer is that I'm sure the games reinforced what I already knew. My problem with French is less my ability to read it than to speak and understand it, and in that sense the games didn't really help.

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    3. So, what you're saying is, you can play weird and obscure French titles, but you can't interview their creators to find out what the heck they were actually trying to do? :) Hey, that's already better than most other RPG fans :).

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    4. "Sure, I got some new vocabulary, but you'd be surprised how rarely "orque" and "epee en fer" come up in conversation."

      I assume everyone has seen Eddie Izzard's "Le singe est dans l'arbre" routine..?

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  3. Given he description of the wierdness in French RPGs, it's a shame you'll never see the Sega Master System's Phantasy Star. It too mixes fantasy, sci-fi and a little mythology.

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    Replies
    1. Phantasy Star is one of my favourite rpgs. From a modern perspective its limitations show, but my gosh it's impressive for its time.

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    2. A side by side comparison has Phantasy Star beat Dragon Warrior, hands down.

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  4. I would have sworn the kneeling barbarian from the endgame is a Boris Vallejo Conan illustration but quick image searches aren't returning it.

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    Replies
    1. Actually the giant moon is more Frazetta but that hasn't yielded a result either.

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    2. "Stupid ways to hold a sword" doesn't produce anything either. :)

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    3. I could swear that I saw that illustration in a Marvel Conan magazine as unused art but the closest I could find were Manowar cover art.

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  5. "a room I simply could get out of" - I think you're missing a NOT in that chunk of text.

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  6. Apparently, there is a remake with better graphics of the DOS version here: https://www.abandonware-france.org/ltf_abandon/ltf_jeu.php?id=609 (haven't tried it)

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    Replies
    1. Less a remake than a tweaking of the original code. I looked at it, but they "fixed" too much, essentially removing many of the rules that the developers intended. They also fixed a lot of my complains, though, such as the speed of the interface and the inability to tell what items are. I suppose I should have recommended that people play the remake if they're going to play it at all.

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    2. You are right i have modified a lot of things and correct some bugs. The sequel "Le Maître absolu" use the same modified engine. If you want to play the original game you have to use the CPC version.

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  7. I was expecting another slog through another poor Dungeon Master clone, but this is pretty interesting. Making the game world feel like a real place rather than just an area specifically designed fo the player along with strong interactivity create a strong atmosphere. You don't see that too often, unfortunately.

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  8. Hey Chet, the year in the post title should be 1987 instead of 1991.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. This would be a pretty bad game for 1991.

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    2. No worries, I just noticed it says 1991 in the URL as well. I imagine there's no easy way to change that without making a repost and losing all the comments...

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  9. Just a quick comment that names like Vanir and Fafnir come originally from Norse mythology.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, but where so many other names and images are drawn from Conan, that was clearly the authors' primary source.

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  10. This somehow reminded me of an Amiga game The Final Battle (well, I know how - because the Dos port had a similar palette): http://www.mobygames.com/game/final-battle
    It may or may not be an RPG - there are definitely different characters with different stats and combat/magic, but no creation, and I don't remember whether there's character development or not.

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    Replies
    1. Any chance you still remember how to pick stuff up in the game? I can't figure it out.

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  11. Why do two of the screenshots have "Miami" at the top... or is it "Miam!"?

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    1. "Miam!" French for "yum!" The characters have just eaten something.

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    2. So mmmh..yum I agree French is weird.

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  12. Oh boy, Ancients I... let's see if it's as bad as I recall.

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    1. Ah, yes. I remember Ancients. I had just finished Eye of the Beholder II, and when someone came along with Ancients, I was quite excited to see that it was a similar kind of game. Boy, that seems so wrong looking back now, to even suggest Ancients is even remotely in the same league as Eye of the Beholder :).

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    2. It's more like Wizardry or Bard's Tale since combat is turn based. We often got shareware software to fill in between larger titles.

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    3. I think I spent money on Ancients II. Without looking at screenshots I vividly remember both games looking as if someone smeared Vasoline on my monitor. That and the hilariously bad character art.

      ...I don't remember the gameplay. Probably not a good sign.

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    4. Aw. I didn't think the graphics were bad at all.

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    5. I was given Ancients I at the same time my father brought home Eye of the Beholder II, similar to Jakub Majewski above.

      The comparison was not remotely fair, but since I wound up spending actual money on Ancients II, I guess Ancients made a favorable, though forgettable, impression on me at the time.

      Or maybe EotB2 just frustrated me too much. I was only eight years old!

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  13. The game was reviewed in the Tilt issue of January 1988 (page 116) :
    http://www.abandonware-magazines.org/affiche_mag.php?mag=28&num=16&album=oui

    About the "bizarreness" of French RPGs, it may be because the American 8-bit computers - on which the most famous RPGs were programmed - didn't do very well in France. They were too expensive or poorly distributed. The popular computers were the Oric, the Thomson MO5, and above all the Amstrad CPC. So the programmers might have got their inspiration from what they read about these foreign games or from alternate sources like "Fighting Fantasy" books.
    In comparison, the C64 was extremely popular in Germany, so the German could play the real thing and copy it immediately.

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  14. This seems like a cool game but good god the use of CGA on the room illustrations. Eye-tearing.

    And it's weird to me because the end graphic of the conan-esque figure is better balanced because of the use of black.


    When you work in CGA you're basically called to think of doing your artwork like a comic book artist: mostly black lines, negative space, a flat color choice from the CGA palette and perhaps a highlight if you have it.

    It's curious: they use black on the UI but not the room backgrounds. Was there a technical reason they did this?

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    Replies
    1. I hope someone with more graphics knowledge can come along and answer that, because I'm wondering the same thing. F1 chanes the primary color of the main graphics and F2 changes the primary color of the interface background. But none of the F1 options offer any kind of significant contrast between primary and secondary colors in the main graphics.

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    2. Thanks for the info. What a bizarre port.

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  15. After reading your blog posts on Might and Magic, Wizardry, and now this, well, I definitely found a new blog to follow.

    Really cool look on such games, quite enjoyable to read :) Especially when you got to detailing the trapdoor madness going on with that final boss!

    Ubisoft had such a weird start.

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