Thursday, April 12, 2018

Game 288: Legend (1992)

United Kingdom
Mindscape (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS
Published in the United States as The Four Crystals of Trazere
Date Started: 7 April 2018
If there's one major thing that you can credit British RPGs of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it's their experimentation with different perspectives. While most U.S. games remained stubbornly divided between iconographic, top-down, and first-person perspectives, British games (at least, those not based on Dungeon Master)  played with side-view and what we might call "studio" perspectives: those where the screen seems to be framing a scene from a play (Moonstone, Galdregon's Domain, Heavy on the Magick). More important, the U.K. was ahead of the curve on axonometric perspectives, which would eventually comprise a solid chunk of all RPGs. In the U.S., only a small percentage of games so far have used this perspective, perhaps most famously in Faery Tale Adventure (1986) and Ultima VI (1990) and its two spin-offs, and in these cases the perspectives are barely offset from top-down. Axonometric examples from the U.K. include Lords of Chaos (1990), Heimdall (1991), and HeroQuest (1991).
A group of four characters explores a dungeon from an axonometric angle.
(What I'm calling "axonometric" is usually given as "isometric," but every time I use it we have to have a long discussion about whether it's technically isometric, which means the X, Y, and Z axes have been equally shortened to achieve a 3-D effect, or just axonometric, which can involve any number of perspective angles. In the case of Legend, if it's not actually isometric, it's damned close.)

HeroQuest and Legend both seem ultimately inspired by the action-adventure Cadaver (1990), which featured the same perspective, the same-shaped game area, the same sorts of controls and indicators in the periphery. When I reviewed HeroQuest, I remember remarking that the graphics were quite good, but the limited gameplay didn't give you anything to do with the interesting items you see, and the combat was just laughable. In Legend, both elements are improved, though they still have a long way to go. 
Cadaver (1990) seems to be the source of the interface for both HeroQuest (1991) and Legend.
Legend was written by Anthony Taglione and is set in the same universe as Taglione's previous Bloodwych (1989). It was marketed in the U.S. as The Four Crystals of Trazere, which is how my list had it until I started playing and found more available copies and documentation under its original name. Graphics are by Peter Owen-James, who also did Bloodwych and Anthony Crowther's Captive (1990). He seems to specialize in gaunt, hollow-cheeked protagonists who look more desperate than heroic.

The brief setup is that some ancient evil is reaching into the world of Trazere and turning its residents into vicious monsters. Four characters--a berserker, a runemaster, a troubadour, and an assassin--assemble to investigate and put a stop to it.
The brief backstory is covered in about half a dozen screens.
In character creation, you have to go with these four classes. You can choose a name and sex and broadly adjust ability scores by assigning various elemental icons to the character. For instance, "Earth" boosts strength, constitution, and armor class and reduces intelligence, speed, and dexterity while "Air" does the opposite. I went with an all-female party. Each character comes with a starting selection of weapons and armor and a little gold.
Creating a new berserker.
Gameplay begins on an overland map from which you can direct the party to various towns and castles and such. Other parties and armies roam the map at the same time, their sigils indicating their power levels, and the manual suggests you can fight them in something called "banner encounters," but I didn't try that in the first session. The manual hinted that the dungeon of Treihadwyl (similar to the "Treidwyl" of Bloodwych) was intended as a starting dungeon, and that was the closest city, so I went there.
This reminds me of the overland maps in Moonstone (1991) or Dragon Lord (1990).
The city has a "menu town" on top of the dungeon, with options to visit the blacksmith, tavern, artificer, and adventurer's guild. There's not much to do at these locations when you first begin, so I immediately headed for the dungeon.
Not much to do here until I earn more money.
I am mortified at how long it took me to get out of the first room. To start, I had trouble interpreting the elements in the periphery of the actual gameplay area, in the center of the screen. The central area, surrounded by a black void, is the area where the gameplay actually takes place. The items in the corners are controls and indicators. In the northwest, we have buttons that bring up the automap (the dragon) and character inventory. In the northeast are the directional indicator and a chicken that unkindly flaps its wings when the party is fleeing. The southeast shows available actions (based on equipped items) for the active character.
The characters arrive in the first room.
Finally, the southwest is where you can select your active character from among the four. The stacks of skulls next to them depict their health levels.

I realized from the manual that you select the characters in the southwest, but I didn't realize they were the same characters milling about the center of the screen. I thought they were starting outside the room and would have to open the first door to enter it. In other words, I didn't realize they were controls instead of the actual people. I spent a good 10 minutes trying to figure out how to open that door before I realized that by selecting them, I was simply choosing which figure in the center of the screen was active.

The core of gameplay in Legend is exploring these dungeon rooms and finding the keys, or solving the puzzles, necessary to open doors and access further rooms. The placement of keys imposes a certain linearity on room exploration, but the two dungeon levels in Treihadwyl weren't all that big anyway. The game tells you explicitly what type of key is needed to unlock each door, and you simply have to search items until you find them. Just about any piece of furniture--chests, clocks, desks, tables, weapon racks--can hold treasures, including items. There's no difficulty in opening and looting them--no hidden items, no locks, no traps.
My assassin finds a key in a clock.
The harder part is the occasional puzzles. They have something of a Dungeon Master quality, with which of course Taglione was intimately familiar. Most of the usable objects are levers or buttons, but they often have non-obvious effects, sometimes in other rooms. Some examples below.
This was a tough one. The lever in the middle changed what the lever on the left did--either cause the pillar in the northwest to rotate or belch fire. I had to hit both of the runes with fire to lower the spikes in the northeast, which allowed me to push buttons on those pillars, which did something in a different room, I think.

I had to find a key to open this door to pull the lever behind it to do something in another room that would then allow me to enter this room from the west side.

The troubadour prepares to push a lever that will teleport the runemaster to the inaccessible western area. There, she'll be able to loot the large chest, then pull the lever to return. The plaque in front of the assassin said "send a friend" as a hint.
Aside from my confusion on the interface, one of the reasons that I couldn't get out of the first room was that it took me a while to understand the puzzle. Each of the two northern corners had a rune, and I finally had to break down and read the manual thoroughly to realize that the runes correspond to the game's magic system. (Between the puzzles and use of runes, there is some similarity here to 1990's DarkSpyre.) The sigel rune (looks like an "s") is associated with damage and the nȳd rune (looks like an "x") is associated with healing. The game wanted me to cast the appropriate spells on these rune tiles to open the east and west doors.

Thus, I had to explore the spell system right away. It's interesting. You create spells as pairs of runes, the first specifying the "direction" and the second specifying the "effect." Directions include forward (the tile in front of the character), surround (the 8 tiles surrounding the character), missile (wherever the caster aims), and "continuous" which applies to a subset of spells. Effects are damage, healing, paralysis, antimagic, dispelling, charming, speed, teleport, regeneration, resurrection, death, and "make weapon," the last a kind of odd-one out.
Mixing spells in the spell interface. This reminds me a bit of Dragon Lord (1990).
Both directions and effects require reagents, of which the runemaster begins with a large stock. The game is explicit about what reagents are required for what spells. You select the direction and appropriate reagent, then the path and the appropriate reagent, then mix them together. Once you've done this once, the spell appears on a recipe list and you can mix new ones with just the click of a button.
Now that I've mixed a couple of spells, I can just go to this screen to mix them again.
My understanding is that it's possible to mix extremely complex spells by combining multiple effect runes--for instance, a targeted spell that dispels the enemy's magic protection and then paralyzes him. But the runemaster only starts with the runes necessary for healing and damage, so that will have to wait until later.

Once I figured out how to mix targeted spells for healing and damage, I was able to cast them at the runes in the corners and open the doors.
The door opens after I blast the rune with a healing spell.
The next major issue is combat, of course. Any room you enter for the first time might contain a swarm of foes, but they can also respawn randomly in rooms you've already visited. I have no idea what the enemies are; the game identifies them nowhere in the interface. By appearance so far, they've included things like goblins, kobolds, orcs, wizards, and beholders. But there's no way to get their names or a sense of how powerful they are.

Combat is a chaotic free-for-all that does a decent job anticipating the Infinity Engine. You have to click on each character and activate their weapons to prompt them to engage the enemies. Enemies puff away as they die, but a lot of them seem to have some kind of teleport ability which looks the same. You can't select a specific enemy or otherwise do much to guide the character in combat. Sometimes they seem to go for the closest enemy; other times, they take the most roundabout route to the farthest enemy and insist on attacking from his least-accessible side. Of course, they get hung up on obstacles easily, and certain rooms are designed to make it almost impossible for more than one character to engage the enemy at a time.
A few seconds of combat. This is only a little faster than in the actual game.
A good solution in the latter case is to flee to a previous room where there's more space to spread out--enemies always follow--but you run a couple of risks. Characters are supposed to stop fleeing when you hit the "rally" button (or ENTER) but sometimes they don't, and you may end up in a worse room than where you started. Moreover, every time you transition screens, there's a chance that enemies will respawn, which means you might find yourself fighting both the original foes plus respawning ones from one or two rooms.

Often, enemies fixate on the first character they see, and if it happens to be one of the weaker ones (i.e., the runemaster or assassin), they can pound away his hit points mercilessly in a few seconds. But it's extremely hard--impossible, really--to coerce your characters into any kind of formation. Success at combat boils down to luck and, unfortunately, a lot of reloads.
The party battles some beholders and other monsters in a fairly limited-movement area.
You have just a few tactics. Each character has a special ability. The berserker can go into "berserker rage" and do some extra damage. The assassin can "hide in shadows" and theoretically backstab enemies, but good luck actually navigating him around in the chaos of combat. The troubadour can play a song. He only starts with "March of the Bold Ones," a weak regeneration spell that doesn't help much in combat but ensures that you can fully heal after combat before moving on.

Chief among the tactics, theoretically, is the runemaster's ability to cast spells. In the chaos of combat, with everyone moving every which way in real-time, it's almost impossible to successfully target either a healing or damage spell, but you can pause combat at any time and take your time studying the landscape. Without the pause option, I would have given up the game in its early hours, because it takes me at least a few seconds to identify who my party members are. If they're differentiated by color, I can't tell it except for the assassin. I have to study the figures carefully to look at their clothes or weapons, which is hard when they're in the middle of combat and running around the map.
This happened too often.
You can't activate new actions, switch characters, or do anything else while paused, but you can click on the screen to target a previously-initiated action. Again, it feels a lot like an early version of Infinity Engine combat, except that the Infinity Engine has more tactics and allows you to do a lot more while paused. Those extra options make quite a bit of difference. On the other hand, I'm new to this game, and it's possible that combats will feel more tactical as I acquire more items and powers. I've found area-effect items and scrolls, but I don't see how you keep your own party out of the area of effect. The game would be so much easier if you could just direct one character from room to room, but everyone has to go at once.

There's a huge imbalance in combat power, and thus earned experience. The berserker is killing machine who is rarely in danger of death, does about 10 times the damage of the weaker characters, and earns more experience than the rest of the party combined. This, of course, may change as I get more proficient with spells. I could also deliberately keep her out of combat by not clicking on his weapon, but for the first dungeon, at least, I really need her.

Thus, I blundered and reloaded through the two dungeon levels beneath the city. There were fairly regular equipment upgrades in the chests; this post is getting long so I'll talk more about equipment next time. I returned to the city once to see if I could level up, but only the berserker could.
Intelligence doesn't really do much for the berserker.
The first level had 15 rooms, and I've found 13 so far on Level 2. But there are corridor screens in between "rooms," and while not as complex, they often have their own items and combats. The total number of screens per level is around 30-35.
An automap helps.
Unfortunately, I'm stuck on Level 2. There's a room where I have to shut off a series of obstacles along a narrow path. Another room has a series of buttons behind locked doors, and I need four ornate keys to open the doors and push the buttons. I've found two. The fourth is, I'm sure, is beyond the door in the screenshot below.
The characters wait for inspiration to strike.
The floor runes are clearly the key to this puzzle. But you can't cast spells across the void, so I can't hit the five on the detached platform. I can only hit the one in the far southwest corner, but all that does is to cause a fireball to come belching out of one of the northern pillars. Nothing in the other rooms seems to affect anything here. I am thus stuck and will try to find a hint online if no one has any for me here.

The game certainly isn't the same old thing. I'll give it that. And I kind of look forward to seeing what happens outside with the "banner encounters." But I don't know if I'll be able to come to an accord with this combat system, and I thus hope there aren't too many of these dungeons to explore.

Time so far: 4 hours


  1. Regarding isometric games, there were lots of British games of that sort for the old ZX Spectrum. The oldest is probably Ant Attack from 1983. Then Ultimate Play the Game popularized it further with games like Knight Lore and Alien. My own favourite was Fairlight from 1985. That one was probably the most graphically impressive Speccy game I saw, with it's crisp graphics, and very smooth animations and advanced physics engine.

    As for Legends I skipped it on my own play list. While the puzzle elements look good, the real time clusterfornicate combat looked like a real turn off.

    1. Absolutely, the UK had a lot of isometric games, particularly on the Spectrum (since it's hardware worked well for this type of game). Beyond Ultimate's (later known as Rare) games, there was also Jon Ritman who made an isometric Batman game, and the more well known Head Over Heels.

      Legend could be inspired by any of these rather than Cadaver. The big thing is that they are much more puzzle explore games than RPGs -- I'll be interested to see exactly where Legend lies.

    2. I took a look at some of those other games, and I agree that it's possible. What's odd is not just the isometric perspective but the game area consisting of a rotated square surrounded by a void, with controls and indicators in the corners. Everyone seems to be copying this exact style. I wonder what the ur example was.

    3. Not an RPG, but this entire interface looks a lot like Populous at first glance.

    4. Here's a nice short summary of this rather specific family of games:

      It's not including Ant Attack, maybe because, although isometric, it's still lacking some of the specifics of those games (UI/world viewport, scale, interactivity,...)

      And yes, I don't think Populous coming from the UK is a coincidence.

    5. It definitely started with Knight Lore, the whole screen-by-screen, isometric, floating in space action-adventure thing. It was a whole wide and quite highly thought-of genre in the mid-eighties. More top examples include Jon Ritman's Batman and Head over Heels games, Movie and The Great Escape, which was like the eighties WW2 version of The Escapists.

    6. Yes, Populous (1989) is almost certainly the most famous example of this interface, if not the first. It was a huge success and it would have been hard for a commercial developer to not be familiar with the screen layout.

    7. If you are using approximately equal-axis isometric and you want a reasonably square or rectangular playing area in game coordinates - such as a room - you're going to have space left over at the corners.

      Modern hi-res hi-colour machines can use an overlay on the main playing area for controls and information. But the computers of that era would have struggled to do that credibly. And with their low resolution, they needed to use screen real-estate efficiently.

      Keeping those things in mind, putting controls and info in the corners is a pretty good option.

  2. For that room you are stuck on you just need to hit upon the right combination of hitting that rune with spells and flipping the lever, fairly sure you don't need to leave the room. You might have to double up some spell effects too.

    1. Indeed, you should be able to hit the farther tiles with a missile+damage+missile+damage (or missile+damage+damage, I cannot quite remember).

    2. I think missile+forward+damage. It's an amazing magic system

    3. He doesn't have forward yet though.

  3. "My understanding is that it's possible to mix extremely complex spells by combining multiple effect runes--for instance, a targeted spell that dispels the enemy's magic protection and then paralyzes him."
    It's much more complex than that. The rune system is essentially a simple scripting language. So any combination of runes that makes sense within its grammar will work. You can do something like missile+heal+speed+surround+missile+damage to heal and speed up a character then have fireballs shoot in all directions from him (I'm not sure, but I think you could also precede "surround" with "continuous" to have some real fireworks). There are some limitations on how many runes total and how many direction runes you can use within a spell, but other than that it's completely free-form.
    Btw, you can cast spells through walls ("void" areas), you just don't have the rune for it yet. Btw2, runes aren't found in the dungeons, but bought from one specific place - see the manual section on locations. They're quire costly though.

    1. Btw3, doubling some effect runes increases the effect. E.g. casting missile+heal+heal would be more powerful, than just missle+heal. Doesn't work for the durational effects (e.g. paralysis) though.

    2. I figure it's a proto-Morrowind magic system.

    3. Personally, I like Legend's system better than TES spellmaking - it allows for more complex behaviors, plus mixing runes and reagents is infinitely more exciting than just setting up numbers. Where TES wins is in the sheer number of effects, of course.

  4. Hello,
    I am looking for a game which similar graphics and publishing year that you control a wizard in a tower/labyrinth.
    Anyone remember its name?

    1. Sounds kind of like lords of chaos (though a couple years older) too

    2. It could be Solstice on the NES. That game was released in 1990 and uses a similar perspective, though it's a puzzle-platformer rather than an RPG.

    3. Thnks to all. It was Immortal.

    4. Immortal is so beautiful. Hard as nails, though, even with a walkthrough. Good luck.

    5. Solstice has some damn fine 8-bit music. IMO the best music on the NES.

  5. For some reason, reading this particular entry, I was struck by the ubiquity of *that* font. By ubiquity, I don't mean the extent to which they used the same font throughout this game, but the extent to which this font is used in other games throughout this period.

    I think it must be because of this blog. When you read about a dozen games in short succession, it's hard not to start noticing visual elements they share.

    Come to think of it, does that font have a name? Is it something that was/is commonly available?

    1. Yeah, I saw it and immediately thought: "Ah, the Westwood font"

    2. No expert, but I ran one of the screenshots through a font identifier and it came up with "Venice Classic". Seems about right.

  6. This is the best magic system ever in a RPG. Tyranny comes close, but still no cigar.

    As for the puzzles (the starting dungeon is a breeze compared to others) it's probably not very intuitive if you haven't carefully read the manual, but you can cast directional spells after a previous directional spell.

    For example:
    1)Forward Damage casts a damage spell in front of you
    2)Forward Forward Damage casts a damage spell 2 squares away
    3) Missile Forward Damage casts a damage spell 1 square ahead of the target square
    4) Surround Damage Missile Damage Surround Damage damages just about everything on screen! :D
    etc etc

    1. Two Worlds II had a system that allowed the player to create some very wild spells. Its mechanics were more obtuse however, and being a dumb action-RPG, there was very little use for this flexibility.

    2. Sure, you have to give it points for flexibility, I guess, but it seems to me that the simple ability to "target" ought to make tortured constructions like "forward forward damage" and "missile forward damage" obsolete.

    3. The forward rune is there to bypass friendly targets and obstacles. So even if there was an ability to choose targets directly, it'd still be useful for situation where you have no clear line of sight. It's actually pretty unique in that regard - what other game would allow you to target an enemy, who's hiding behind a pillar?

    4. I always found the forward rune was more useful for puzzles than actual combat

    5. Mysterious StrangerApril 13, 2018 at 8:50 AM

      The magic system is awesome. It would be fantastic if you had the time to consider its depth in a non-realtime environment to shoot around corners and such. It would be more tactical ... or rather fantactical ��

    6. There is a pause key, if only it allowed you to give orders when paused...

  7. If it helps: All lever/switch/spell puzzles in this game are single screen.

    1. True. In later levels sometimes you need to have a few enemies occupy specific tiles though, so I remember going around the puzzle room in circles until some wandering monsters appeared, and then luring them to the puzzle room where I would cast paralysis upon them.

  8. The berserker is an xp hog especially if you have his rage on all the time. The assassin normally has an easier time backstabbing when a monster is focused on hitting someone else. I've seen a playthrough where someone used their wizard a lot more than I did and he actually managed not to lag behind on xp. Aiming spells is pretty hard in the chaos, and making big spells often ends up with friendly fire (or indeed using a dragon ring or chaos helm type item). For real chaos missile disrupt surround disrupt missile disrupt :)
    Even the lowest red army banner would probably slaughter you currently (yellow ones are friendly patrols sallying from the towers).

  9. Kudos for picking an all-female party, but points deducted for then referring to your characters as him/his most of the time regardless. :-)

  10. I was thinking this game sounded interesting enough to try... until you described the combat system.

    1. It gets better when you're used to it and your characters become stronger.

    2. A lot of games of this early 90's era made combat real-time just because they could, without really stopping to think whether they should. It was treated as a technological milestone, kind of like "open world" is these days, and like "open world", it often ends up hurting the end product rather than helping it. Some games, like Shadow Sorcerer, it outright ruins: that game would be brilliant if the battles were turn-based, but instead they're uncontrollable cluster****s. Such a shame.

      Legend, by the way, is brilliant.

  11. It -really- looks like dude on the title screen is smoking a bowl.

    1. I'm glad someone else pointed this out. The resemblance is uncanny.

    2. He's free-basing something

  12. The wizard becomes super-powerful eventually - if I recall correctly, you can make a spell using Disrupt (the most powerful damage effect) that shoots off in eight directions from the wizard, then when the bolts hit something they explode in eight directions from there.

    I loved this game. Once you got used to the combat it was not so hard. A continuous regeneration spell was also a help, I think.

  13. I wrote about this game on my blog (

    I really played a lot of this, and it's a very unique game indeed. Like you said, it feels like a successor to the isometric british classics, with its emphasis on puzzles, but on the other hand feels like a kind of design that really ended here (and also with it's sequel).

    Longer on the Runemaster will be your MVP, and you'll be able to defeat whole armies on the map with him. As for the puzzles, they can get quite tricky, and i do remember the middle pages of Amiga Power being filled with letters from readers being stuck and asking for help.

    There's a sequel for this that didn't add much besides having a far-east setting.

    1. I actually don't remember the sequel adding anything at all beyond a new tileset

  14. I've tried this game a few times but could never get into it. I don't think I ever figured out how to pause the combat, so I kept getting slaughtered.

  15. The UK computer scene fixation with isometric perspectives comes from the days of the ZX Spectrum and Ultimate Play the Game (later Rare). Games like Knightlore had a huge influence and shaped the imagination of that scene at that time. There were so many isometric games inspired by that engine on the european 8-bits after that time, Head Over Heels, Fairlight, etc. Cadaver is also inspired by these games, it just looked Bitmap-Brothers-delicious compared to what the ZX could do.

    I think the appeal is that this is '3d before 3d', it must have looked so sci-fi compared to icon-symbol based games like Ultima, a proper world with physical properties of height and weight, where you could stack things and use the environment in unseen before that point granular ways.

    Sierra also was mining the same effect with their AGI adventure games, which were also at the time marketed as 'true 3d games'. I can tell you from personal experience that the idea of walking behind a bush, around a rock, exploring areas of the screen that you can't really see is a very powerful unlocking mechanism for the imagination. Because what is unseen is still there, and deserves to be imagined.

    I can still take my mind to that childlike state where a sprite in Crystals of Trazere stands behind a prop and some of its body-pixels are obstructed by it is kind of mind-blowing. Then again, I am a pixel artist and I've kept that particular flame alive.

    I love Trazere for a few different reasons but it is a marginally more involved game than Hero Quest. I think its modular nature and campaign overworld are interesting and I like the magic system in theory, in practice I never got that far into it. At least it has proper puzzles! The real-time combat chaos didn't agree with my anxiety and I think that's why I stopped playing this one.

    I think the designer realized his combat was too static and chaotic (bad mix) and that's why he made enemies teleport and reengage, so you'd have to switch your tactics up and not just stand there until the fray is over. He added MORE chaos to an already chaotic system, I don't think it was the right idea. He should have just made this a turn-based tactics game when you meet enemies.

    All that said, I'm very happy to vicariously experience more of it through your writing, and perhaps it'll turn out to be a hidden gem once you really get used to how it controls.

    1. Agreed on the combat, it could have been better.

      Later on, the dungeon variety and even a plot twist make Legend even more of a great game.

  16. Chet, can I request that if you're going to put up meme-worthy game over messages like "Sadly, your attempts proved pitiful and you were slaughtered.", that you at least not have your cursor blocking the funny part?

  17. Legend has unique puzzles combined with genial casting system. Graphic is which I was dreaming about when i was thinking about cRPG games with isometric view. There are also some interesting strategic elements in world map. You must funding stronghold defence power against enemies. But....combat system kills the game. You should command one character in one time, but other are killing by enemies and You must heal them, so You have not enougt chance to command every character. Yes, they are fighting alone, but AI is stupid. Battles are also very quick, in most time i looked on enemies and after few second was after battle and i was very happy, when everyone survived. It is shame, that there aren´t turn based battles. With turn based battles it should be game from dreams.

    1. Turn based battles could give this an almost puzzle-like quality to combat.

  18. I'm so glad you're playing this game, I've been curious about it for a long time. I'll be studying your entries to decide if I want to actually play it or not.

    1. Me too. I always loved that Amiga graphical style and that it looked like Knight Lore but in RPG.


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