Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Legend of Blacksilver: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

         
The Legend of Blacksilver
United States
Quest Software (developer); Epyx (publisher)
Released in 1988 for Commodore 64 and Apple II
Date Started: 7 February 2018
Date Ended: 16 February 2018
Total hours: 22
Difficulty: 2.5/5 (easy-moderate)
Final Rating: 36
Ranking at Time of Posting: 210/282 (74%)

When I said at the end of the last entry that I thought I was half done, I was forgetting that there was an entire second continent. Nonetheless, I pushed forward and finished it anyway. I enjoyed the second half much less than the first, and the developer's attempts (I'm guessing) to address some criticisms of his previous titles resulted in some very weird choices towards the end.

As I wrapped up last time, I was contemplating taking a boat to the second continent, but it turned out it was too early for that. Instead, I had to take a portal to the dungeon of Marthbane from the Archives in the Hawk Temple. The Hawk Temple had its own set of Archives, just like the Owl Temple.
         
        
The exhibit told me that when Maelbane sank into the depths ages ago, "one mountain was tall enough to become an island atoll," and that Marthbane Tunnels were accessible from this island. Sure enough, when I got there, "Maelbane" was just a small island with a single dungeon.
        
All that remains of the "evil continent."
      
Ultimately, there were five dungeons in the game, each of between 6 and 12 levels, each level exactly 15 x 15. I resisted mapping them even though I know I missed a lot of gold and special treasures like silver coins. My basic strategy was to follow the right wall and to always take any new hole, up or down, that I encountered. Since all dungeons (except the last) require you to climb back up after finding the treasures in the depths, I assumed this would ensure that I hit almost everything, with the exception of islands in the middle of the levels, but these are relatively rare and I wasn't exactly pathological about always following the right wall. I'd look down each corridor, and if I saw treasure, I'd dart down and take it.

I soon learned to avoid little white boxes. I don't know, some of them may have had attribute increases or other special rewards, but most of them reduced attributes, or made me fall asleep and lose 2000 gold, or poison me and make me waste several elixirs. Regular treasure chests were always safe, and all the quest items were in those.
            
You only fall for this once.
          
Although I kept stocked on "Fireball" and "Lightning Bolt" spells, I didn't think they did a lot better than physical attacks, so I mostly relied on those. However, a small subset of monsters was capable of doing special and annoying damage. Toad colonies destroyed my food, for instance. Eaton eyes could blind me for a few rounds. Snap jaws paralyzed. Mind trills drained intelligence, and "spikes" destroyed armor. When I saw any of these, I would cast "Annihilate," which destroyed them and all the other monsters in the area. It was expensive to replace, but that wasn't a problem.
          
This guy destroys armor. No way am I letting him near me.
        
Success in the dungeons, as in the castles, basically boils down to how many elixirs you bring with you. You can carry a maximum of 30, and there's really no excuse not to top off before every new expedition. In only a couple locations was I in danger of running out.

I found a few new gems in Marthbane. On the bottom level, I discovered King Durek in a little 2 x 1 chamber with no exit. He told me that he could escape with his signet ring, which fortunately I had. He opened a hole in the ceiling and disappeared. On a reload, I confirmed that you can kill Durek, but that just dooms you to a long and lonely death in a small chamber. 
      
Yeah, but I have to test something first . . .
       
After freeing Durek, I climbed back to the top, returned to the Hawk Temple, returned to the castle, and was promoted to "squire," with a +5 increase in intelligence. With every promotion, Seravol gave me "laggard vapors," which (according to a prisoner's hint) are supposed to slow down guards. But they never worked for me in any castle where the guards were hostile. I guess maybe they work in towns, but there's no good reason to turn town guards hostile.
         
Somehow "squire" seems worse than "warrior."
      
In the throne room, the King Durek had replaced the prince on the throne. He told me that since rescuing him, Taragas had begun the process of raising Maelbane from the depths. The resulting disturbances caused a tsunami to destroy Beaverton, one of the towns on Thalen. Durek told me to buy a boat and scout the new continent.
         
A lot has happened in the 10 minutes since we got back.
        
I bought a boat, but I sailed it to Beaverton first. Sure enough, the peninsula on which it sat was now flooded with water. This is another Dougherty standard. In all three previous games, plot developments have led to the destruction of cities, enhancing the sense of urgency. In Blacksilver, it occurred in multiple stages. I experienced frequent earthquakes as I walked around the land, and eventually a northern peninsula containing the Eagle Temple also sank beneath the waves. A shore town called Glen Lak turned into a pile of rubble.
            
I guess you can't raise an entire continent without some environmental consequences.
         
When I arrived at Maelbane, now a much larger continent, I was surprised to find towns there. And they had fully-functioning shops and casinos. How did that happen?! The inhabitants acted just like those on Thalen; they weren't overtly "evil."

I found two more dungeons but both required some item to enter. The only place I found where I could be productive was a two-level castle ruled by Taragas, fully staffed with guards. When did he build this? Where did the guards come from? The game leaves such questions to the philosophers.

Both levels of the castle consisted of small rooms connected by teleporters. The guards attacked if I opened a chest or progressed too far in the castle. They were easily the deadliest enemies in the game, particularly the ones on the second floor, doing 50-70 points of damage per blow. There were times that I could hit them at range with "Flame Tongue" or "Lightning Bolt," but usually I had to defeat them in melee and then chug an elixir afterwards. ("Annihilate" does not work in castles.) But you want to accomplish as much as you can in one visit because the guards simply respawn when you leave the castle and return.
          
Dougherty's insistence on including the mass slaughter of castle guards in every game borders on the ridiculous.
       
For the next five or six hours, I bounced between Taragas's castle, a dungeon called the Blackmire Pits, and the Hawk Temple Archives. Each visit got me an item that would allow me to penetrate further into one of the other areas, but I had to return to all three locations at least three times each, waving a new key or gem or something. The most mysterious was the bottom levels of the Blackmire Pits. When I explored them the first time, there was a magical darkness on Level 7 that I couldn't penetrate, and I just automatically died when I tried to descend to Level 8. I was never clear exactly what object or condition reversed this problem and let me explore to the end.

The Archives had a couple of exhibits that told me about "sunken" cities on Maelbane; these were ultimately raised. An exhibit called "Morningstar" gave me that weapon. Another titled "Blacksmith" told me of a legendary blacksmith named Dalvid who worked in a town called Lost Crag and supplied me with his hammer. The final exhibit, "Crystal Tears," gave me two crystals called "Dragon Tears" that got me into the final dungeon.
         
Ah, the rare "spit-breathing" dragon.
       
The castle had a few encounters with NPCs who raised my statistics when I gave them gold or potions. It culminated in a weird encounter with Taragas who said he needed the "blood of a good knight gone bad" and asked for a drop of mine, promising that I could "rule beside him." I took a save state and said "yes" just to see what would happen. He took my blood, let me live, but reneged on his promise to let me rule beside him. I was expelled from the castle. I could keep playing, but the entire continent of Thalen was gone. Saying "no" just caused Taragas to flee, promising a later encounter. 
        
The "bad" ending. This is where Thalen once stood.
         
The Blackmire Pits ended with a discovery of a haul of Blacksilver. Seravol--who promoted me to "knight" at some point, then "baron"--told me to take it to the blacksmith in Lost Crag. So not only were the risen cities newly populated, they were populated with the original inhabitants. Did they just magically freeze when the land sank? Or did they rush home when they heard that their former homes had returned from the depths? Whatever the case, the blacksmith took my Blacksilver and his hammer and made me a "Sword of Hope," which simply showed up in my inventory as a "superb black blade."
 
And why are the residents of the "evil" land happily working for me?
         
I should mention that between trips to the dungeons, castle, and so forth, I would habitually restock by buying the maximum number of spells (50 for some, 20 for others) and healing elixirs (30), which collectively might cost 20,000 gold pieces. The dungeons and castles produced a lot of this gold, but I typically made the rest with blackjack. In my first entry on Blacksilver, Commentman noted that the first hand or two of "Heigh-Loagh" is scripted, drawn from just small set of possibilities. The same is true of blackjack. The first two hands are drawn from about five possibilities. Even if you're trying not to cheat, you can't help but learn the patterns. Soon, I realized that if I got dealt AA in the first hand, the next card would be a 10 (not really helping), but if I stayed with that, the dealer would bust. The next hand would give me 21. Similar patterns reliably allowed me to win every time and ensure I always had enough money.

Other notes:

  • I keep forgetting to mention the wonderful (L)eave command, which automatically takes you outside cities and castles, from wherever you are inside them, as long as the guards aren't hostile. It saves a lot of pointless walking.
  • Weapons progressed as follows: dagger, whip, staff, club, flail, broad axe, sword, leaded club, morningstar, halberd, broad sword, simple bow, crossbow. I got the crossbow too late to be useful. I wish I'd had it in the castles.
      
Some of the mid-game selections.
        
  • Armor progressed: leather, studded hide, chain mail, bar mail, plate mail. I thought "bar mail" was an invention of the author, perhaps a confused version of banded mail, but I guess it's a real type of armor used in ancient Persia and India.
  • One of my biggest complains about the previous games was how much time you had to waste fighting random creatures who delivered no experience and only paltry gold. In this game, Dougherty made it a non-issue by giving the player extremely favorable chances of escaping combat if he just keeps walking. You could easily make it through the entire game without killing a single outdoor creature.
       
No need to stop.
    
  • I forgot to mention it in previous entries, but if you die in Blacksilver, you get resurrected in a random location on Thalen with 200 gold, a random (but small) amount of food, but with double your maximum hit points and all of your equipment. You can avoid significant financial loss by keeping your money in a bank.
  • Throughout my experience, I've been mostly using save states rather than actual game saves, mostly because it's so much faster. But except to test a few things for the purpose of documenting them, I've adhered to the game rules, which allow saving anywhere outdoors or in dungeons but not in castles or towns.
  • The outdoor map wraps east and west but not north and south.
             
With my special sword in hand, I entered the final dungeon by inserting the Dragon's Tears into a dragon's face on the dungeon door. It was 12 levels but not notably hard. I used "Annihilate" liberally and got through with almost all my elixirs.

The three previous Dougherty games had led me to expect that the dungeon would spill into a deadly final area that would feature more guards and find ways to just destroy my hit points with every step. This expectation made the reality all the more bizarre.
       
It's amazing how few classic villain speeches feature the word "sparkles."
        
The final area consisted of about half a dozen large rooms connected by hallways. Each of the rooms had a bunch of glittering balls called "black sparkles" that made a beeline for my character the moment he entered the room. If they touched me, they were capable of sapping about 100 hit points per second, but they were relatively easy to outrun and dodge. This is fortunate because the interface disappeared in this final area, and all I could do was move, not fight, cast spells, or drink elixirs.
         
You can't tell from this shot, but one of the sparkles is touching me now. Three others are trying to reach me but trapped behind obstacles.
          
Taragas was located in the middle of one of these rooms behind a barrier. It took me a few minutes to find him, but it wasn't much of a challenge at all. Not only that, but when I ran up to him, he immediately capitulated. All told, it was the biggest letdown of a final area that I ever experienced. I made it to the end of the game with 28 elixirs and a full stock of spells.
        
        
The game somewhat made up for it with a typically elaborate Dougherty ending. First, I got the choice whether to kill Taragas or arrest him. It was an illusory choice because no matter which option I selected, Taragas and his castle simply disappeared and I was magically transported to King Durek's castle on Thalen.
      
Really? You're not going to fight at all?
       
A visit to Seravol got me +5 in all my attributes and a note that "Taragas is safely imprisoned, though he rants and raves in his cell." (You get this no matter what your choice above.) Returning to the throne room, I was greeted by the king, prince, and princess. Amidst multiple animated bows and cheery trumpets playing something in a major key, they delivered the final message:
             
Welcome, Baron Chester! Welcome, Hero of Legends!

Songs of your glorious victory will echo through all time!

The evil Taragas had nearly destroyed beloved Thalen in his madness, but now the tremors have lessened, the wild birds sing, and a gentle rain cleanses the land. Maelbane is gone, sinking once again into the depths of the ocean, leaving only a small tip of rock jutting into the sunlight as a silent memorial. 

In this court, your deeds will be remembered with shouts of joy and merry songs. For we are the lucky ones to live in this age of valor! No one before has provided this court with such a service, so it is fitting you be rewarded with a title that reflects your special status. I, Durek, by all the power and magic of Thalen, dub thee:

COUNSELOR CHESTER!
            
That wasn't exactly what I was expecting from all that buildup, but okay. My level changed from "Baron" to "Advisor" behind the scenes. After some more words, the king indicated that the princess Aylea--whose pixelated profile suggests that she would make Sir Mix-a-Lot happy--wanted to speak.
         
No, let's just go right to the feasting.
                    
Brave soul, your face has haunted me since we met in that magic dream. I feared I sent you to your doom, for you were so young and untested. Yet here you stand, a proven warrior, a skilled magician, a wise counselor. These gifts you have given to all of Thalen in return for nothing but a single feather. My choice could not have been better!
             
And that was the end. The game lets you keep playing. The ruined cities are still ruined. I wanted to take a ship to see if I could find the "small tip of rock" where Maelbane had been, but I think all the places selling ships were destroyed.

Here's an interesting question: I think you could do things in an order that would get you the Crystal Tears and the Sword of Hope before you encounter Taragas in the castle, where he asks you to give him the drop of blood. Could you say yes to him there, witness Thalen destroyed, but then still defeat Taragas in the usual manner? If so, what happens next? I don't have a save game from early enough to check this out.

It's a long post already, but I don't want to spend another one on the GIMLET, so let's push on.

  • 5 points for the game world. Parts of the backstory were needlessly elaborate given the actual game content, but in general the lore is well-told, and it's fun to watch conditions change during gameplay and NPCs acknowledge your accomplishments so far. I like how the Archive exhibits offer additional narrative and context.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Creation is poor, with everyone starting exactly the same, and I don't like that the primary methods of advancement are plot-based. But Blacksilver gives you more opportunities than the previous three to add bonuses to your statistics with side-encounters and minigames. I didn't even find them all.
            
My final stats and items.
      
  • 3 points for NPCs. There are a number who help you throughout the game, including the prisoners who offer hints, the prince, the king, and Seravol. I wouldn't say that any of the have any real "personality."
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. Monsters are utterly unmemorable and only a few require any special tactics. Non-combat encounters are slightly more interesting here, with options for character development but not "role-playing."
       
Noooo! I'm mildly inconvenienced!
                  
  • 2 points for magic and combat. The additional combat options aren't worth much, and only a few of the spells are helpful. Success comes down to how many potions you have, not combat tactics.
  • 3 points for equipment. The game has a weird way of introducing upgrades, but at least you have a reason to keep checking back at the shops.
  • 5 points for the economy. There are lots of ways to make money and an equal number of ways to spend it. It only stops being useful at the very end of the game.
  • 4 points for the quest. There's a main quest, a couple of side quests involving the return of objects to temples, and even an alternate (bad) ending.
                 
The "alternate" ending.
         
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The iconographic graphics and sound effects are only okay. The control scheme is superb, offering a joystick for those who want it and an intuitive set of keyboard commands for those who don't.
  • 4 points for gameplay. I wouldn't call it "nonlinear," but it doesn't railroad you, either. Hints from Seravol always keep you on track. I don't think there's any replayability, and the difficulty errs on the easy side, but it wraps up fast enough.
       
That gives us a final score of 36, putting it higher than the two Questrons but one point lower than I gave Legacy of the Ancients. Looking over my GIMLET for that game, it appears I rated almost everything the same. Legacy had a lower "quests" score, but I was more enamored of the backstory, equipment, and economy. It's honestly been so long since I played that game that I can't remember any significant differences. My methods of rating might have slightly changed, or maybe those categories honestly were better. Either way, I think it's close enough that it's not worth worrying about.
              
I feel like we've seen the barbarian with the two-handed sword a few times before.
                
As I check out Computer Gaming World for post-game reviews these days, I often find myself hoping Scorpia reviewed some games but not others. This one, I wanted her to review. You need a history with Dougherty's previous titles to understand what's happening here, and someone who had played Questron and Legacy of the Ancients would be in a better position to analyze Blacksilver. Thus, I was wary to see the March 1989 review written by Douglas Seacat, who I don't think I've ever encountered before. Fortunately, he seems to have had enough experience with the previous titles to appreciate what did and didn't change. He calls the game "fine on a technical level" but complains about how little has changed in terms of content. "There are almost no actual innovations in the game. Everything from plot to graphics [has] been seen before in other products," making the game feel obsolete. He particularly notes that combat is rote and boring "with very little feeling of growth or development" and the quality of NPC interaction is poor.

It was a tough but fair review. As I wrote when I opened this one, from Ultima, Charles and John Dougherty seem to have learned one way of approaching an RPG--top-down outside and in towns, first-person in dungeons, no experience, a bunch of towns offering similar services, slaughter castle guards, get hints from prisoners, find keys to progress--and stubbornly stuck with it for four games. Sure, they added their own twists when they wrote Questron, among them the way that weapons and armor become available, the prominence of gambling and other minigames, and plot-based character growth. But even these flew in the face of RPG conventions of the time, and while they were tolerable and quirky for one game, to me they grew tiresome after four games.

This was their last title. They contracted with Epyx to publish the game, and Epyx declared bankruptcy within the year, leaving Charles and his brother John with nothing more than their advances. Soon they were working more lucrative jobs in other industries, and they never returned to game programming. (See my interview with Charles Dougherty for more.)

I think they got out at the right time artistically as well as economically; other games released the same year (Pool of Radiance, Might and Magic II, Ultima V, Wasteland) advanced CRPGs in such a way that games like Blacksilver would not have been able to compete. But the flawed quartet fits fairly well into the 1984-1988 period, in which multiple titles were trying to establish the conventions of the genre and the eccentricities of the Questron line might have felt original rather than unsatisfying. Certainly, they were good enough to addict one young player.

13 comments:

  1. Another one down, even if it was tiring I'm glad to see you finish the line that started your addiction. Keep up the good work.

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  2. My best idea for why Maelbane was fully inhabited despite being underwater was that it was protected by some sort of magic air bubble, like Hyrule in Wind Waker

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    1. I was thinking along the same lines, and that it would be a fun idea for a Final Fantasy type story where you start in the submerged city and you get to see the people adapting to the rest of the world they didn't know about when it's resurfaced as part of the plot. I guess I should not be surprised if it's already been done.

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    2. *Chet grabs rifle, stares out window at rabbits* "Not today" *Puts rifle back down*

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  3. It's time to move on.

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  4. It's hard to read "bar mail" and not think of Cliff Clavin.

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  5. The screenshot colors of this game look washed out. Guessing this was the default palette of the Vice emulator?

    FYI for anyone considering playing C64 games: the current emulators let you choose other versions of the palette that better match the real C64 NTSC output on a CRT. The colors should be a little bolder/brighter. In Vice 3.1, the "Commmunity Colors" looks closer to my memory of them.

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    Replies
    1. They look about right to me, but my c64 was hooked up to a PAL television.

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    2. The C64 just had dull colors compared to other PCs of the time, at least in my experience with NTSC monitors. But those community colors do look nice. I'm going to use those :)

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    3. I was an unfortunate user of a Junost television while owning a C64. For me, it is the glorious colours of 16 shades of gray.

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  6. Good move doubling up on the 1998 games, there's a lot of rejects and single post games in there. I recon you'll unify your list in 6 months.

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  7. Huh... a evil boss with sparkles and evil townsfolk forging a Sword of Hope...

    The good king should emit tendrils of light and the good townsfolk ought to forge a Sword of Doom.

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  8. Really appreciate this article, though I never played Blacksilver. I loved Questron, which in those days seemed like the quirky little brother of the magisterial Ultima III (though as you note its primary influence derives from Ultima I). Great job putting the Dougherty games into the context of 1980s CRPG evolution.

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