Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Game 310: Le Maître Absolu (1989)

        
Le Maître Absolu
"The Absolute Master"
France
Ubisoft (developer and publisher)
Released 1989 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 9 December 2018
Date Ended: 9 December 2018
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

I don't often like to repeat myself, but I can't imagine improving on the way that I started my review of Le Maître des Âmes a year ago:
        
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?!"
            
Such is true even when a game uses the same engine as its predecessor. Le Maître Absolu is a more colorful sci-fi follow-up to Le Maître des Âmes, and if anything it manages to out-outré the first game. Unfortunately, it maintains many of the same flaws, including a combat system that depends entirely on luck, all-but-invisible character development, and commands that don't seem to do anything.

The box actually subtitles the game Le Maître des Âmes II, but there's no thematic connection between the titles. The near-incomprehensible backstory sets the game in 2523, when a "Terran Alliance" ship discovers the Octopus III, a research vessel that had gone missing 57 years earlier while charting extraterrestrial activity. A squad from the Galactic Intervention Group (GIG) boards the station to investigate.
         
Part of the in-game backstory.
        
The player creates a party of four from six class types: captain, terminal (robot), genetic, special agent, android, and "cybern." The default team is android, terminal, cybern, and special agent, but I went with captain, terminal, genetic, and special agent for my first party. Each is created after rolling scores in vitality, strength, intelligence, wisdom, agility, and charisma on scales of 1 to 100. You get no chance to re-roll or even discard the character during character creation, so you're pretty much stuck with what you get unless you want to reboot the computer. Attributes increase (erratically) with experience, but I'm not sure they play much of a role in the first place.
        
Selecting the class after the attribute roll.
         
You then spend a randomly-rolled number of credits on weapons and armor, including both melee weapons and futuristic ranged weapons. As in the previous game, you can have only two items "active" at a single time, so there's no point in getting more than one weapon and one piece of armor. You want to save some money because many of the NPCs demand credits for advice.
          
Selecting equipment. I'm not sure what the bracelets do.
        
The game begins after you step through the airlock and onto the Octopus III. The characters are shown on the left side of the screen, and an immediate goal is to get weapons and armor equipped. There's a fifth slot for an NPC. The row of icons in the middle is the same as Le Maître des Âmes, just updated to be techy. The actions, from top to bottom, are party arrangement, look, listen (this one never seems to do anything), eat, sleep, use, open door, dialogue, attack, and disk options. The top of the screen shows a compass, an "up in the air" inventory slot, and a face that occasionally has reactions but I otherwise have no idea what it's about.
           
The game begins!
             
The controls, alas, are annoying. As you begin the game, it asks you whether you want keyboard or joystick control, but so-called "keyboard" control mostly consists of moving the cursor with the arrow keys and then hitting SPACE to activate it. There are no easy keys corresponding with the row of icons, for instance, which is mostly unforgivable. You do at least move with the keyboard--specifically the XCV cluster.

As in the first game, the party can be split, but there are no puzzles that require it. Its primary use is to keep the weaker characters (specifically, the terminal) out of combat.

The game consists of 13 small sections connected by elevators. Among the sections, you find enemies, NPCs, food, weapons and armor (though rarely anything much better than your starting equipment), and most importantly, security passes. You find about 8 passes throughout the game, and they're necessary for opening key areas.
            
The different sections of the game.
           
Enemies are unnamed. They're mostly bestial, with the suggestion that the research station was doing experiments on aliens and they escaped. There are giant toads, insect creatures, monstrous plants (looking like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors), lizardmen, and aliens that look a lot like orcs repurposed from Le Maître des Âmes II. When you enter combat, you just keep hitting "attack enemy" until someone dies. Enemies never drop anything; the primary reason to fight them is that they're standing in your way. Sometimes you can blow past them if you're fast, but rarely can you say, enter a room with an enemy, pick up the valuable item in the room, and get out.
            
"I'm just a mean green mother from outer space, and I'm bad."
          
There are 11 NPCs in the game, four of whom will join the party. You have to be careful because you need some of the NPCs (or their items) in particular places, but once they're replaced by other NPCs, they never appear again. The NPCs include:
           
  • Three "dialogue robots" who tell you things about the station.
            
The first hint that the "big bad" is a black stone.
         
  • A giant insect named Crapounick of the Pabo species. He was a prisoner on the station who fled in the confusion.
  • An unnamed researcher who just woke up from hibernation and doesn't know what's going on. He will join the party.
  • Leonihr, ambassador from the Titus Nebula, who took refuge on this ship when her shuttle crashed.
  • Tel, a telepathic blob from Gloubi.
           
Here he is, looking like a Spemin.
          
  • Imos, son of Xeron from System Ega. His system was absorbed by a black hole, and he has come seeking revenge. He will join the party, and he has a security pass necessary for the final door.
  • Hathy-Hen, a G.I.G. agent hiding from pirates. He has a shield that provides protection against the titular Absolute Master and he will join the party.
  • A maintenance robot who helps to repair the central computer.
          
Dialogue with each of the NPCs is through a series of questions: "Identify yourself"; "Who sent you?"; "What are you doing?"; "What do you know?"; and "Give some advice." Some NPCs demand credits for the advice.

Through these dialogues, it becomes clear that the Absolute Master is some kind of black crystal named Tinaus. Tinaus is somehow capable of generating black holes and thus swallowing worlds. It wanders through space until it finds a system to victimize. It has lately attached itself to the Octopus III and is slowly destroying it. This is represented by some fun graphics that show cracks and holes in the bulkheads of some sections, as well as a number of doors that simply open to space and kill the party instantly. You want to save a lot.
            
The master computer warns me that Tinaus is destroying the Octopus III.
The party accidentally spaces themselves by opening a door.
                  
Incidentally, full party death is accompanied by a neat visual:
          
I guess that's a black hole sucking up the Earth's crust. So maybe not so "neat."
           
And some dire text:
         
The last sightings were terrifying. Octopus seemed to draw around it a fog of whirling matter. Suddenly, in an infernal ballet, the Earth left its orbit to go towards this whirpool that had become the ship. It took no more than an hour for the globe to be digested, and less than a week for the solar system to disappear forever.
            
To win the game, you have to first assemble all the security passes to get to the various parts of the ship. One of the passes is held by a giant insect with a single eye that can't be defeated in regular combat; you have to find some poison (or defoliant) spray on the same level.

You have to get the maintenance robot to join the party and then access the central computer, which provides instructions on reaching Tinaus and tells the party to find an item called an Energy Absorber first. This item is in an armory on Level 2, protected by a giant insect who is one of the game's toughest foes.

You have to free Imos from the prison level to get his security pass, and get Hathy-Hen's shield. Once you've assembled the items, you find the right airlock on Level 3 and head out to face the dark crystal. As long as you have the Energy Absorber equipped, he dies quickly. If you don't have it, he doesn't take any damage at all.
             
Very few games bring you face-to-face with a giant space crystal.
          
The endgame screenshot shows the Octopus III returning to Earth:
           
       
You get this final text:
          
This black crystal was indeed the most strange and hostile spacial phenomenon that humanity had the chance to encounter. Traveling for millennia in the form of a common pebble, this titanic life suddenly awoke with a hunger colossal when it created around it a tornado of matter, aspiring galaxies, before returning to its dreams macabre.
            
A winning game takes less than an hour once you know what you're doing. After my first party was depleted exploring the base, I rolled a second party of tougher characters (I didn't need any robot to talk to other robots since I already knew the dialogue) and won it with them.

Miscellaneous notes:
          
  • There is no sound in the game.
  • It's tough to tell which items are interactable and which aren't. Every room has panels, telephones, sinks, and other decorations that look like you should be able to do something with them, but you can't.
       
None of this is interactable.

         
  • A lot of the rooms are dark and require a character with a flashlight to navigate.
  • Some of the characters come with special abilities, but I didn't really find any use for them.
           
The game doesn't GIMLET well. Character creation is very limited, and there's hardly any development. Combat involves mashing a button and hoping for the best. There are few equipment rewards after character creation, and the only "economy" is bribing people with your leftovers. It does best in the overall story and NPCs (3s), but even they're not very good. The final score comes to 19, quite a bit lower than the 30 I gave to Le Maître des Âmes, which was longer and more satisfying although still possessed of many of the same issues.
               
           
Le Maître Absolu has a couple of features that I've come to associate with French games, and Ubisoft's early titles specifically. First, it features a party that degrades throughout the adventure. Most RPG parties start weak and get stronger through character development, their hit points replenishing through healing potions and spells. With this game, and a few others like it, the characters are strongest at the beginning. Their pool of hit points is expected to to last the entire adventure and never really gets replenished. Food and sleep staunch the bleeding but don't really restore much.

Second, the plot seems cobbled together from various fictional sources. I don't know what they are and don't know for sure that this is the case, but it feels like a mélange of characters and themes rather than something created specifically for this game, much in the way that Ubisoft's L'Anneau de Zengara was based on a variety of Conan stories and the themes of Tera: La Cité des Crânes came from the novels of Michael Moorcock and other British sci-fi authors. Perhaps my readers will find something familiar in the plot and proper names described above. It certainly doesn't make much sense that a crystal capable of creating black holes is called "the absolute master."

This was the last (known) game from the minds of Eric Doireau and Christophe Le Scoarnec. (Other than the two Maitres, they worked on a 1988 erotic game called Teenage Queen.) Doireau may have become a sculptor; at least, there is a relatively well-known sculptor of that name and approximately the right age.

1989 was really the last year of the âge d'or of uniquely French RPGs, which started in 1985 with Mandragore and continued with titles like Fer & Flamme (1986), Les Templiers d'Orven (1986), Tera (1986), Inquisitor: Shade of Swords (1987), and the two Maitres. (I still have to check out 1986's Omega: Planete Invisible and Sapiens.) French developers made RPGs after this, of course, but they lose a lot of their outré characteristics in favor of a more conventional western RPG experience. Those will rate higher, but they'll never be quite as interesting as the batch we saw in the late 1980s.


Monday, December 10, 2018

Legends of the Lost Realm: Bit by Bit

It's tough to advance in Legends of the Lost Realm.
       
Legends of the Lost Realm is one of those games that it's hard to believe anyone has ever won. It's taken me 13 hours, several false starts, a couple of dozen character deaths, and at least three complete re-installations just to map most of the starting level and to get my party to Level 2. And that's with cheating.

Normally, I try to avoid circumventing the game's intended difficulty, but I'm sick of losing so many Level 1 characters. Plus, cheating is so much work that it barely improves upon playing it straight. The game writes character deaths to the save file almost immediately, so you can't "quit without saving" when you die. With a DOS game, you might be able to kill the emulator as soon as things go poorly, but this is a bad idea with Mac emulators because of the whole "shut down" thing. Hex editing is a solution to a different problem, and I don't have any idea how to use Mac hex editors anyway. Basilisk doesn't support save states (neither, I think, does Mini vMac), so that's out. You can back up the game's save files, but you have to do it somewhere the game won't accidentally find them (when I tried it, the game loaded the backups at one point rather than the primaries), and there are several to backup, in different directories. I don't know how to write a script to speed up the process, so I found it easier just to copy the entire Mac hard drive image in Windows and restore it as needed. Imagine telling a 1992 player that one day, your solution to cheating an RPG will be to re-image the entire hard drive every time you die.

Basically, every time something good happens, I have to save the game in-game, quit the game, shut down the Mac inside the emulator, back up the hard drive image, re-open the emulator, re-open the game, go through the copy protection exercise, and finally load the party. When something bad happens, I have to shut down the emulator, restore the hard drive image, re-open the emulator, re-open the game, go through the copy protection exercise, and load the party. I've won entire RPGs in less time.
           
You have to deal with this every time you start the game.

My colorblindness makes it really hard to read those codes.
             
The copy protection process is particularly annoying, although I realize it's obnoxious to complain about it since I am functionally pirating the game. When you fire up the game, it asks you to enter a spell code from the game documentation, referenced by spell number and "card number." I've found the appropriate documentation, but it was created (sensibly) by taking apart the original paper document and scanning each folded folio. None of the pages ("cards") have numbers, and there's no easy way to tell in what order they would have appeared when folded. I've had to guess and then annotate the PDF when I get it right. Meanwhile, the codes themselves are very hard to read--they're written in a light color against a shaded background to foil photocopying.

When I first started playing, I was resolved not to use "Pete," the Level 4 fighter-mage who comes with the game, equipped with a "mithryll sword." (I love how every RPG developer has to come up with his own spelling of mithril, as if that makes it less derivative.) That resolve lasted no more than a couple of hours. He's the only character that can even hit some of the enemies you find on the level.
            
A lot of plazas have guardians at the entrances.
      
After fielding a few dozen characters, paying for their burials when they died, and finally re-installing the entire game when I ran out of money, I settled on a party of Pete, two other fighters, a thief, a shaman, and a mage. In the first entry, I noted that the game's six attributes--strength, dexterity, intelligence, constitution, wisdom, and luck--are rolled on a scale of 3 to 18. That turns out to not quite be true. They exist on that scale, but the actual minimum and maximum rolls depend on the character class and sex. The male fighter, for instance, only ever rolls 16-18 for strength, 12-16 for dexterity, 10-14 for intelligence, 14-18 for constitution, 10-14 for wisdom, and 11-15 for luck. Every character class has a very good chance of 18s for his or her prime requisites, and only the mage ever rolls in the single digits (for strength and constitution). See, this the level of detail you don't get when I can blast through three dungeon levels per entry. Anyway, figuring that I needed all the help I could get, I calculated the odds of an 18-16-18-15 string for the fighter in strength, dexterity, constitution, and luck at 1 in 375 and rolled until I got it. I did the same with the other characters and decided this would be the final party, come hell or high water.
              
This fighter's stats in strength, dexterity, constitution, and luck are as high as they come for fighters.
          
The 20 x 20 "town" level has several temples, an armory, a bank, a magic shop, a supply shop, the adventurers' barracks, and the "review board" where you level up. The corners and center of the map all have towers that lead to their own mini-dungeons, and the plazas in front of those towers are guarded by high-level foes, such as wizards, shamans, mountain giants, samurais, and master thieves. Getting strong enough to kill those guardians is a key early goal. 
           
The "town level."
          
A lot of the other squares--particularly any single-square room behind a door--have fixed encounters that repopulate every time you reload. There's a large section of such rooms in the northwest, in a configuration that suggests a kind of jail, perhaps inspired by a similar place in Might and Magic. Monsters in these locations include rats, bats, spiders, bullies, pirates, burglars, thieves and master thieves, ninjas, barbarians, hags, magicians, and dwarves. In addition to fixed enemies, there are wandering parties of fighters, thieves, archers, mages, and wild dogs.
             
I get this message entering the "jail" area.
          
If the game makes one thing easy, it's usually possible to run away when you first encounter an enemy party. But that doesn't make the party disappear, and it's easy to get caught in a corridor between two wandering enemy parties, one of which you have to defeat to progress.

Combat in Legends of the Lost Realm follows a Wizardry pattern but with a different kind of interface. Characters have options to attack, hide, cast a spell (which includes using a special ability), use an item, or switch order. Only the first three characters can strike in melee range. You set an option for each character and then hit "Attack." Unlike Wizardry, you don't have to specify a target for your action until it actually executes in the round, and you can click a button to have the game auto-select the target for you.
          
One of the more difficult groups for a Level 1 party.
         
I've found that surviving early combats means casting the shaman's "Cure Light Wounds" just about every round and trying to keep up with hit point loss among the lead three characters. Mage spells are pretty useless at the first level, but some of them, like "Pain," "Slow," and "Weaken," can take the edge off large parties. Any enemies capable of attacking at range--including archers and  spellcasters--are a priority because the rear characters have lower armor classes and hit point totals.

I also learned early how to manage which enemy parties are in melee range. Only the "lowest" two groups on the combat diagram can attack in melee range, so if you face more than two groups, you want to get one of them down to 1 member and then leave him there, blocking one of the more numerous groups from coming forward. 
          
Keeping two smaller groups at the bottom prevents one of the larger groups from attacking in melee range.
        
Slowly, I began to amass a bit of gold. Things got easier after I was able to purchase plate armor, helms, and gloves for all three of my lead characters, lowering their armor classes and making it easier to keep up with hit point losses. I bought bows and arrows for the rear characters, which didn't help much because they hardly ever hit with them.

It took a long time to get to Level 2. Each character needed about 1,000 hit points, and each battle delivered an average of about 60 (for the entire party, not per character). It took almost 100 successful battles to level up, and of course that was interspersed with many fatal battles and reloads. And all Level 2 really seems to have brought are more hit points and spell points. I haven't noticed that the characters are significantly more effective in combat. I won't get new spells until Level 3.
           
Leveling up is a long way off.
          
Another annoyance in the game has to do with food, water, and fatigue. They all deplete rapidly, limiting the amount of time you can spend on an expedition. (This is especially true of you forget to activate the pause feature while you step away from the game.) You can buy food and water in the supply shop, but it's a chore going through each character and having him eat and drink, particularly because each "gulp" of water only restores 10%. Fortunately, returning to the barracks restores everyone to 100%, so it's not as much of an issue on the first level as it will be later in the dungeons.

Miscellaneous notes:
           
  • A "tax man" lurks around the barracks and skims from any character who has more than 100 gold pieces. This forces the party to visit the bank before returning to the barracks area.
  • There doesn't seem to be any way to sell excess equipment. You just have to drop it.
  • As I mentioned last time, if you can't afford items, you can buy them on credit. But you have to pay off your debts before you can level up, so it's best not to abuse this.
  • There was a fixed encounter with a "horrid beast" who was tough to kill. He left a can of beer. No idea what that's for.
  • Special skills are "cast" just like spells. For instance, the thief "casts" PICK to pick a lock. 
           
"Casting" my lockpicking ability.
        
  • There are some keyboard redundancies, but most of the game involves a lot of pointing and clicking. There are a lot of non-obvious commands that require you to read the manual. For instance, using item "0" in combat means that you attack with bare hands. "Casting" a dollar sign ($) attempts to bribe enemies. Adding a "D" to the end of a spell code causes a caster to delay until the end of the round.
  • For whatever reason, the "review board" un-equips all of your weapons and armor when you level up. Also for whatever reason, you can rename characters during the process of leveling up.
           
Actually, I guess I get the reason. A player might eventually come to say, "You know, 'Kerg' is a pretty stupid name."

         
  • The first level has both hidden doors (which your reveal by walking into the wall) and one-way doors.
  • The magic shop lets you pay 5 gold pieces to consult a book for hints. Examples: "The central tower is most difficult on the west side"; "Some puzzle pieces are not used"; "Stay in the t's in the teleport maze, and you will be OK." There's also a "monster lore" book that you can read for 1 gold piece. It offers hints like "the rat is vulnerable to archery" and "an enchanter may be slapped around" (a hint to attack unarmed, probably). That's an original feature.
           
Getting a hint in the magic shop. That doorway in the back is a dungeon you can enter.
           
  • The developers clearly played Wizardry (character creation, permadeath, prestige classes), The Bard's Tale (the review board, spell codes), and Might and Magic (map design and the nature of many of the encounters).
         
Entering one of the tower dungeons.
        
Several messages have given me the impression that the game's quest will involve finding 16 clues among the various sub-dungeons. So far, I've found seven entrances to those dungeons: the four towers in the corners, the one in the center, a grating behind a hidden door, and a door in the magic shop. (There might be more; there are some locked doors and enemies I haven't been able to pass.) I guess it's time to stock up on food, water, and torches and try one.

Time so far: 13 hours

*****

Regrettably, I've had to bail on Sandor. It's become clear that I have a freeware version of the game and there's no way to register it. I keep running afoul of demands for some code that I can't enter. Rather that write a new entry, I've updated the original entry with some more information and a best-guess GIMLET.

Looking ahead, I rejected some games from the bottom of the 1989 list:

  • Universe 3 isn't an RPG (only GameFAQs had it as such). It's a sequel to an adventure/simulation series and maintains that genre.
  • Two Vikings is an interesting C64 game from a diskmag--the German Magic Disk 64. It uses Ultima-esque tiles (some of the graphics seem to be copied directly), and it has hit points, but there's no character development, and combat is all action. It's a competitive game in which two players, using only joysticks for inputs, try to accomplish something as their hit points and food rapidly deplete.
            
One character explores a town while another fights Ultima II-looking monsters.
            
  • Tower of Light for the ZX Spectrum is an adventure game with a text interpreter in which the characters have hit points. Again, there's no character development, and combat success seems to be based solely on luck and the type of weapon equipped.

           
Those eliminations get us closer to the end of 1989 and a return to a single list.


Friday, December 7, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: Summary and Rating

Kind-of a weird image choice for the box. Is that supposed to be one of the "maps"?
         
Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant
(Generally known as Wizardry VII but never called that in the game or documentation)
United States
Sir-Tech Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1994 for FM Towns and PC-98, 1995 for Playstation, 1996 for SEGA Saturn; re-released in 1996 for Windows and Macintosh as Wizardry Gold
Date Started: 20 August 2018
Date Ended: 2 December 2018
Total Hours: 108
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

In my many entries on Crusaders of the Dark Savant, I've painted it as a game that tells a mediocre story, does so ineptly, and usually doesn't take its own story seriously--at least not until the end, when it becomes almost comically full of pathos. It also has a way of feeding the player over-wrought prose, often one line at a time, multiple times, with no way to escape. I hold to these criticisms as we enter this final summary, but as in the case of many other games we've seen on the blog--the Ultima series primary among them--my criticisms have to be understood in the context of the fact that few other games of the era offered enough of a story to make such criticisms possible. A game that offers no backstory offers nothing to make fun of. One that puts itself out there with a detailed backstory and complex plot offers dozens of things to react to.

I don't apologize for a blog whose purpose is to chronicle these reactions, from the perspective of a modern player, but I do apologize if I don't put sufficient context around my criticisms, or if I don't balance them by highlighting the positive content and mechanics of the game. Looking over my previous entries on Crusaders, I don't think I conveyed often enough that even though I had some issues with some of the storytelling and other content, those reactions were in the context of a title that kept me up all night playing. Even in the "game world and story" category, Crusaders is going to perform well.
           
One of the more broadly-drawn and poorly-explained factions in the game.
         
Part of my reaction to the plot is personal preference. I will always prefer the low-key, locally-relevant story to the world-threatening catastrophe. Give me the party trying to clear out the slums of New Phlan instead of the one trying to save the universe. You think that higher stakes might make a more epic game, but I find that the opposite is true--that there's more opportunity for deeper and more realistic characterizations of people and places when the scope of the game is smaller. The Fallout games all do a good job in this regard. None of them invite you to save the world from a nuclear war. You just get to make your little corner of the world a little better.

In this case, though, the nature of the threat isn't even really clear, partly because the characterizations of key NPCs are so thin. Who is the Dark Savant? Where does he come from? What are his motivations? Again, what the game gives us is, unquestionably, better than the standard "evil wizard" with no background who appears in 90% of the games before this one. But in some ways that just makes this experience all the more unsatisfying.
             
Is it a time for a new purpose, or a new perception of purpose?
          
Nothing in the game is more frustrating than the character of Vi Domina. She shows up in the backstory, scantily-clad, sporting a mechanical arm and visor, like someone's cyberpunk cosplay fantasy. When she finally appears late in the game, she's more of a naif than someone whose name all but demands that you add a "trix" to the end. You're told repeatedly that she's a "warrior," but she never seems to fight anything. For the final chapter, she's everywhere, and the game trips over itself telling how awesome she is and how much you love her. Literally some of the last lines tell how you "are pleased to be in the company of such a pleasant traveling companion and new partner." I don't like it when games tell me what my characters think, especially when they haven't earned that right by giving me any insight into the character's backstory or motivations.
             
This is laying it on a little thick.
            
The story is attributed to David Bradley, although I don't know how much of it is wholly his creation. It's no secret that I had a near-immediate negative reaction to Bradley when I first started playing Wizardry VI, what with the ridiculous photograph and cringe-worthy interview that appeared in the game's cluebook, plus his insistence on dropping his name on literally every page and calling the game a "fantasy role-playing simulation." Too much authorial presence breaks the fundamental illusion of a game, book, or even a blog. I've run afoul of this myself. Audiences want to be able to take what they read seriously, authoritatively, and they can't if they feel that someone ridiculous is feeding them the story. (I often wonder how many readers Terry Goodkind lost by putting this picture on his books.) I realized writing this that I have no idea what specific individuals to credit for most of my favorite RPGs, like Baldur's Gate and Morrowind, and perhaps that's a good thing.

But it's worth remembering that I had issues with Bradley even before I knew who he was, with the absurd NPCs in Wizardry V (e.g., the Duck of Sparks, Lord Hienmiety, the god La-La and his priest G'Bli Gedook). Bradley is fond of broad humor--the type that that favors ridiculous names with long o sounds ("Phoonzang," "Bambiphoots") or puns ("Ratsputin," "Blienmeis") that most of us grow out of by age 10. I'm sure he had a clear idea in his own mind about the Dark Savant and his Mary Sue Domina, but I don't think he conveyed their story competently.
            
And it begins.
         
Having said all of that, it's important to keep in mind that in my complaints, I'm evaluating Crusaders against a modern game, or an "ideal" game, rather than other 1992 games. Compared to its own contemporaries, there's no question that Crusaders deserves a high score in the "game world" category. More important, it deserves high scores in the equipment, combat, and character development categories. The mechanics of the game are excellent. The worst thing Bradley could have done when taking over the series was to jettison the approach to combat introduced in the first Wizardry, but he did a good job keeping its fundamental tactics alive. He, or someone, deserves credit for perfectly balancing the "rest" system. If it had restored everything, as it does in Might and Magic, the game would have been far too easy and all the challenge would have come down to individual battles. If they'd made you return to a central location to restore spells and health, as in the first five games, extended expeditions would have been a nightmare. As they programmed it, resting restores just enough hit points and spell points to keep you going, but it takes just long enough, and offers just enough chance for random encounters, that you're discouraged from abusing it.

Character classes are well-differentiated, and the system of switching between them is well-balanced enough to offer rewards for switching but equal rewards for staying. (Perhaps putting a maximum on the number of times you can switch, or the lowest level at which you can switch, would have been a good idea.) Character development is constant and rewarding throughout the long game. The equipment system is equally solid.

I'm on the fence about certain aspects of the game world and quest. In general, I favor open game worlds with nonlinear narratives, and even games where the main quest itself is something of a mystery. Crusaders checks all those boxes. It also deserves credit for making its game world somewhat dynamic, with roaming NPCs who engage in (off-screen) conflicts with each other and sometimes (often, in my case) find key treasures before the party does.
           
The "Locate Person" spell helps keep tabs on constantly-shifting NPCs.
        
On the other hand, I wouldn't have minded if the game had offered a little more guidance on the main quest, particularly in respect to the 11 "maps" that become the focus of the exploration and quests. (I put that in quotes because they're not really maps at all, but texts.) I was deep into the game before it became clear that assembling the set of maps was the primary goal of exploration. Just a few lines in the manual or in-game backstory would have cleared up a lot of confusion.

Hardcore Gaming 101 has an excellent paragraph that describes some of the negative aspects of the open game world:
          
The game is entirely non-linear, and upon landing the player doesn’t even get a clue what to do first. Even though most areas are effectively locked off due to being inhabited by far too strong monsters, the game is always dominated by a crushing feeling of being lost. The world is full of items that absolutely have to be kept, remembered, and recognized for puzzles somewhere at the other end of the world, dozens of gameplay hours later. Many puzzles aren’t necessarily all that hard on their own, it’s just that the ingredients are spread out too far, and the hints are often obscure, if there are any hints at all.
           
But it's again important to remember that Crusaders was pioneering new territory here. Only a few games prior to it were as physically large, long, and complicated, and the developers didn't have a lot of good examples to draw upon for balancing such a large world and complex plot. In the end, I'm grateful that Crusaders advanced the importance of detailed stories, NPC interaction, side-quests, sub-quests, and player choices. As such, I would be surprised if the GIMLET didn't put the game in the top 5. Let's see:

1. Game world and story. Crusaders offers a detailed backstory that plays a significant role in the game itself. There are multiple factions with their own characteristics and motivations, history, and lore. The characters' actions visibly affect the world, and the game is one of a rare few in which some events happen dynamically, without the player's input. There are aspects of each of these elements to criticize, but I've mostly done that enough. Score: 7.

2. Character creation and development. Mechanically, the game's approach is about as good as any game on the market. It has a full set of race choices, class choices, attributes, and skills, several magic systems, and meaningful inventory restrictions by race and class. (I think some of the races are stupid, but that's a minor concern.) Different selections create different experiences for different players. The ability to switch classes, while perhaps unbalancing the game a bit, adds additional dimensions to character development. Development is regular and rewarding throughout the game.

On the negative side, the classes and races really don't play any meaningful role in the game, at least not in a way that was clear to me. Certain skills are useless or mostly useless, and I don't think the game gained anything by dividing skills into multiple categories. Score: 7.
           
Defeating the Dark Savant kicked everyone up a level.
          
3. NPC interaction. I actually think the series took a step backward here. In the system introduced in Wizardry V and included in VI, characters can have full-sentence dialogues with NPCs, but the previous games seemed to offer a more sophisticated interpreter in which full sentences were actually necessary. Phrasing things as statements or questions, even with the same keywords, might produce different results. Here, the game just seems to scan for keywords regardless of their positions in the sentence or the surrounding text, and I offered a few joking screenshots along those lines.

Having said that, I don't really mind this "dumbing down" of dialogue, since it was always frustrating to figure out exactly how to phrase a question to get an intended result. What I do mind is that the NPCs respond to a lot fewer keywords than their Cosmic Forge counterparts while simultaneously tripling their dialogue quantity. They are also a lot goofier and thus less realistic.

Back on the positive side, I like the way NPCs roam around and engage in conflict with each other, and I wish the game had done more with this, offering more reasons to seek out, track down, and ally with (or oppose) various NPCs. Instead, since encountering NPCs is non-optional and results in pages of unskippable and unvarying dialogue, the game effectively encourages the player to simply kill everyone.

The end result of the goofy names and characterizations and long-winded introductory dialogue, there wasn't a single NPC in the game that I actually liked. That's particularly too bad given that, mechanically, the game supports fairly deep interactions with its NPCs. Score: 6.
          
One of the game's goofy NPCs responds solely to the word "archives."
           
4. Encounters and foes. The foes are mostly originally-named, which in this case is a negative because most of the names are silly. I didn't like that so many enemies used the same graphics and were thus difficult to distinguish, even though their strengths and weaknesses might vary considerably. On the other hand, the bestiary is satisfyingly large, with enough strengths and weaknesses among them to create different tactical challenges.

Non-combat encounters were plentiful and engaging, and while they didn't offer a lot of opportunities for role-playing, many of them provided challenges of satisfying difficulty. Score: 6.

5. Magic and combat. The magic and combat system continue to be the primary strengths of the series, and as I said above, Bradley deserves a lot of credit for adapting rather than replacing the system introduced over a decade prior. The various spells and enemy characteristics come together to create a near-infinite number of tactical choices, but everything is exquisitely balanced.

I see that in my GIMLET for Bane of the Cosmic Forge, more than five years ago, while giving the combat system a high score, I said I was "past the whole 'line up your attacks and execute them all at once' system." I understand what I meant, favoring more tactical combat screens like those used in the Gold Box games, and anticipating more real-time (but no less tactical) combat as in Might and Magic III. Still, it was a short-sighted statement. Crusaders proves there was still life in the old system. Score: 7.
           
I'm not sure I used "parry" once in the entire game.
         
6. Equipment. My primary quibble here is that the game only gives you one "accessory" slot, and you find so many rings, necklaces, capes, belts, and similar items that it's constantly torturous to choose among them. I also continue to dislike the identification system of the series. I don't mind so much the process of casting "Identify" to view an items characteristics, but I rather wish that having done so, I could simply view the item in the future to remind myself of those characteristics, not have to cast the spell again. It makes evaluating multiple items a time-consuming, spell-point consuming chore.

But overall, the game does a good job here. There is a such a variety of weapons of different types and ranges, armor (helms, upper body, lower body, gloves, boots), and usable items that almost every treasure chest offers something useful. What I particularly like is that the selection of items in chests (and, to a lesser extent, on dead enemies) is mostly randomized. I hate when the same artifacts appear in the same locations for every player. Score: 6.

7. Economy. I didn't talk about it much during my entries, but it's not very good. The primary problem is that "stores" are mixed up with NPCs, and there simply aren't enough of them selling enough useful stuff. You mostly end up selling rather than buying, amassing a huge amount of gold before the end, and spending most of it on plot-specific purchases (like ascending in the Dane Tower or buying your way into the Umpani legions) rather than equipment. I would have appreciated more places to spend gold and a less-cumbersome purchasing system. Score: 3.
           
I ended the game with far too much money and not nearly enough things to spend it on.
           
8. Quests. With a main quest with not only multiple endings but multiple beginnings, faction options, and numerous side-quests and sub-quests (although it's not always clear which is which), it's hard to ask for more in this category except for better writing and greater complexity, both of which later games would offer thanks to titles like Crusaders setting the standard. Score: 8.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Perhaps the weakest category in my opinion. The graphics are certainly improved from previous titles in the series, but they're still just textures. While many of the monster animations are fine, I wasn't in love with anything else. Sound effects were at best adequate, at worst annoying (e.g., the continual background droning), and since they slowed down the game so much, I turned them off halfway through.

It's tough to write a good interface in a game of this complexity, and while I eventually got used to it, there were aspects that bothered me until the end, including poor use of the keyboard, inability to switch between characters while in sub-menus, limited scope of the automap, lack of any way to determine coordinates, inability to skip text you'd already seen a million times, and a lot of unintuitive commands. Score: 3.

10. Gameplay. We get to end the GIMLET on a positive. Crusaders is the first truly non-linear Wizardry, and it's about as nonlinear as you can get (even the starting and ending locations can vary) except that the so-called "outdoor" world is still pretty confining and there's a bit of frustration involved in simply getting from one place to another. The faction options, ending options, and different experiences afforded to different character classes make it highly replayable. Its difficulty is pitched perfectly, and even adjustable.

Although it avoided the worst flaws of long games, such as artificial level caps and a general feeling that characters stopped developing, 100+ hours is still far too long. I don't mind games with optional content that push past the 100-hour mark, but otherwise I feel that a game is becoming indecent if it exceeds a couple of work weeks. Score: 7.

That gives us a final score of 60, tying it for the sixth-highest rating on my blog so far, seven points higher than Wizardry VI. As much fun as I've made of David Bradley, the inescapable result of his involvement with the series is that it kept improving--in sharp contrast to a lot of series of the era that, while advancing in superficial elements like graphics and sound, struggled to out-perform their first installments in core RPG mechanics.
            
"True point & click mouse interface." Ugh. Eventually games will come full circle and say things like, "Makes effective use of the full keyboard."
              
Contemporary reviews were universally positive, although some reviewers complained about over-length, interface issues, and too much backtracking. In the February 1993 Computer Gaming World, Scorpia called it "the first Wizardry that has a real-world feel to it," praising its various factions and roaming NPCs, but sharply criticizing the backtracking that the game requires, including my complaints about having to leave the Isle of Crypts multiple times. The magazine was a bit more positive when it gave the game "RPG of the Year" (for 1993). It is of course extremely well-respected today, with numerous fan sites, analyses, and retrospectives.
              
"One day" being nine years from now.
            
Wizardry 8 didn't come out for nine years, and I can't possibly close this entry without talking a little bit about what happened in between. (Whatever I think of David W. Bradley as a storyteller, he comes across as the least reprehensible party in the mess that followed.) As with many things involving multiple perspectives, it's hard to glean the raw truth about some of the issues, but I've done my best to summarize as best I understand it. Primary sources include a 2014 Matt Barton interview with Robert Sirotek, a 1997 New York Supreme Court decision, and a 1998 Usenet thread now archived by Google Groups.

While Crusaders of the Dark Savant was still under development, Wizardry series co-creator Andrew Greenberg--who had become an intellectual property attorney in the meantime--sued Sir-Tech Software for breach of contract. His cause seems to me to be legitimate. In 1991, Sir-Tech closed its development shop in New York and transferred its assets to Sir-Tech Canada. Its position was apparently that because Sir-Tech Canada was a different company than the New York Sir-Tech, its contract with Greenberg was now void, and they stopped sending checks, despite the fact that they continued to market and sell Wizardry titles in the United States and the same principals owned both companies.

However, in filing suit, Greenberg for some reason named Bradley, who had no ownership stake in Sir-Tech, as one of the co-defendants. Both Bradley and Sir-Tech balked at the inclusion of Bradley, and Sir-Tech later argued, in a counter-suit, that Greenberg's suit had ruined Bradley's productivity and caused a one-year delay in Crusaders of the Dark Savant (it had original been planned for a holiday 1991 release). A 1997 New York court decision on the issue would later find that:
          
[C]ontemporaneous memoranda do not indicate that Bradley was ever unable to work and, in fact, make absolutely no reference to the Federal court action. In sharp contrast to the position taken in Sir-Tech's complaint, these writings provide persuasive evidence that the sheer magnitude of the Crusaders project, programming and operating system problems and, quite possibly, Sir-Tech's own impatience and interference, were the major causes for the delay, which extended for a full year beyond the September 1, 1991 deadline and, in fact, approximately six months beyond the dismissal of the Federal court action.
            
The documents I reviewed suggest that Sir-Tech did their best to keep Bradley out of the legal mess and to cover any of his legal expenses, but you can see how it would be hard to maintain good working relationships in such an environment, and after the publication of Crusaders, Bradley left the company in a "falling out" that I haven't seen otherwise specified.
       
The lawsuits, counter-suits, and appeals wouldn't be settled until 2005, two years after even Sir-Tech Canada closed its doors for good. But these legal straits may explain why Sir-Tech decided to keep further development of the Wizardry franchise as far away from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts as possible. They asked their Australian distributor, Directsoft, to put together a team. Directsoft responded by assembling a group so comically inept that it's almost as if they wanted the project to fail. The project head was a sound editor-cum-film director who had never (as far as I can tell) managed the development of a computer game before. No one on the initial staff knew much of anything about programming. After months of producing nothing but maps and lewd monster graphics, the team finally hired a couple of programmers. These included Cleveland Mark Blakemore, who by his own account tried his best to turn the documents into an actual program but ultimately got frustrated by the ineptitude of his colleagues and repeatedly tried to quit.
   
In 1994, sensing the project had become a money pit, Sir-Tech canceled further work on what would have been Wizardry: Stones of Arnhem. This might have been a wise move for thematic reasons, too: nothing about the game, as far as I can tell from the documentation, suggests it would have been a sequel to Crusaders. In the Barton interview, Sirotek even suggests it may not have gotten the Wizardry label.
              
A map from the development of Stones of Arnhem. Oddly, most of the major locations named on the map are real place names in Australia.
            
Blakemore is himself a controversial figure whose accounts of working on Stones of Arnhem were doubted for years until a stash of Sir-Tech documents emerged in an abandoned storage locker in the town where Sir-Tech had its headquarters, not only confirming his employment but also largely his account of why the project failed. (The documents went up for sale on eBay briefly, but Sirotek somehow got the auction shut down. Somehow the Museum of Computer Adventure Game History ended up with a bunch of scans, and you can find more on various online threads.) Unfortunately, Blakemore chose to pepper his accounts with homophobic and white supremacist rantings and self-aggrandizing nonsense. In 2017, after almost 20 years of development, Blakemore released Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar, characteristically calling it "the greatest roleplaying game of them all." It got mixed reviews.

The Wizardry series was adrift again. In 1996, Sir-Tech re-released Crusaders of the Dark Savant under the odd title Wizardry Gold, an update for Windows 95 and the Mac on CD-ROM. The game is an artifact of the mid-1990s obsession with CD-ROMs, animated graphics, and voiced dialogue before the technology was really there to make any of it good. The result is that the game feels more outdated today than the 1992 version. Here is a link to a video of the game. I would have tolerated that voiced narration for about 30 seconds.
   
In 1998, Sir-Tech repackaged the first seven games, plus Wizardry Gold, as The Ultimate Wizardry Archives. I bought the compilation nine years ago to play Wizardry II and have been dipping into it ever since. It's odd to finally retire the package.

Wizardry 8 would eventually be completed, by most accounts under the direction of long-time Sir-Tech employee Brenda Braithwaite (née Brenda Garno, now Brenda Romero), although in the Barton interview linked above Sirotek stresses that it was a collaborative and that Braithwaite doesn't deserve total credit. Whatever the case, it was released to excellent reviews--but that's a story for a (much) later entry. In between, we have Nemesis: The Wizardry Adventure (1996), an almost universally-panned single-character game with simplified RPG mechanics. 

We will also meet David Bradley again, as soon as 1995, with CyberMage: Darklight Awakening. After a brief stint with Origin (where he developed CyberMage), he founded his own company, Heuristic Park, which remains in business 23 years later. The company developed Wizards & Warriors (2000), Dungeon Lords (2005), and Dungeon Lords MMXII (2012). I'd say I'm looking forward to playing them, but of course it took me five years just to get from Wizardry VI to VII. I hear that Wizards & Warriors in particular shows a Wizardry influence.

Crusaders of the Dark Savant is the third-longest game on my blog, in raw hours. I've had it going on and off since August. In some ways, I'm sorry it's over because it means I have to focus on a series of RPGs that are a lot less approachable. Let's see if I can get anywhere with any of them.