Thursday, October 4, 2018

Game 305: Shadowlands (1992)

United Kingdom
Teque London (developer); Domark Software (publisher)
Released in 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS
Date Started: 2 October 2018

Some of the games we've seen on my blog are timeless. They may have been developed 30 years ago or more, but they still appear on lists of games you have to play before you die. They're still enormously fun today, and not just in a retro way. I live for those games, and particular for finding ones that you didn't know about. That's only happened a few times.

Then there are the opposites: games that simply were never destined to age well. Those that should have been forgotten a few years after their release, only this is the Internet Age, when nothing is ever forgotten. Almost invariably, such titles depend largely on technological ideas that seemed brilliant and innovative at the time, but that are hopelessly old-fashioned by now. Shadowlands is the perfect example of this latter type of game. It has a few elements that were at least unusual, if not unique, for its day, and those are certainly worth a mention. But it's not 1992 anymore, and if your entire raison d'etre was dynamic lighting, you simply didn't have a long shelf life.

Shadowlands' very title is a nod to its primary innovation. The torches the characters carry cast pools of light in a radius around them. The pool stops at obstacles. The lighter is brighter nearer the character and dimmer farther away. The pool travels with the character and thus changes the effective color of the ground and wall tiles as the party moves. As the torch burns, the glow dims and eventually fades away entirely, leaving the characters in the dark if they don't constantly replenish their light sources by grabbing torches from sconces on the wall.
Dynamic lighting is the game's primary innovation.
These effects are so expected today that I had to read from other pages that Shadowlands did anything innovative in this regard. I mean, I guess I've never seen lighting effects exactly like this before, but certainly we've had some precursors. Way back in 1982, Dungeons of Daggorath simulated dwindling torches by having the very surroundings fade from view--and that was with wireframes. Ultima V and VI had the visible screen shrink at night and realistic line-of-sight. I can think of a number of games with torches or fireplaces that flicker and glow during cut scenes. This entire topic would make for an interesting special post some day, but honestly I'd have to go back and review games to research it, because until they get really good in the 2000s, marginal increases in lighting effects simply aren't something that you're likely to notice today. I'm compelled to note that Shadowlands' effects, however innovative, are still limited to illuminating a "radius" of square tiles rather than individual pixels. I don't say this to detract from the programming effort that went into it, but simply to suggest that you shouldn't try to build an entire game around a bit of technology that, while innovative, is also destined to be temporary. After the initial "huh" reaction, if you notice it at all, you're left with an annoying game that makes you micro-manage torches.

Shadowlands' second innovation is, alas, less obviously brilliant and basically sinks my enjoyment of the game. The idea must have seemed so brilliant when it came to whatever developer insisted on it. "Game interfaces are so complicated," he must have said. "There's too much stuff to memorize. Why not make it easier? You want the character to walk? Click on his legs! You want him to pick up stuff? Click on his hand! What could be more obvious?" And hence we have this game's interface, where each character is controlled by clicking on body parts and then the appropriate part of the map. To pick up a weapon on the ground, you click on the character's right hand and then the weapon. To read something, you click on his head and then the thing you want to read.
To open this door, I put the key in my hand, activate my hand, and click on the keyhole.
While I grant that I've never quite seen this approach before, a few things ought to have occurred to the developers. First, as obvious as it is to click a head to read and a hand to pick up, since you can't read weapons and you can't pick up signs, they could have saved a lot of trouble by just having you click on the object directly and had the game perform basically the only action you can perform with that object. There's nothing to do with a skeleton except to attack him. Why do I have to click on my left hand first?

Second, there's a difference between "easy to master" and "easy to play." This is a lesson that every developer who insisted on a mouse-only interface needed to learn. Yes, I picked up the interface in seconds. That still doesn't make it any less annoying than to have to click on a leg to walk, then walk to the torch, then click on the hand, then click on the torch. It would have been better to give me keyboard shortcuts for the type of action and leave the mouse for the location of the action. 

I don't know why developers of this era hated the keyboard so much. They must have seen it as an artifact of the 1980s. Maybe some of them got irked at having to play the Ultima games with a reference card next to them. What they forgot is that once you had played for about an hour, you'd memorized the commands on that reference card, and then you never had to think about the interface again. You played a game with the same facility that I just typed this sentence. That's a measure of a good interface. I know--and thank the gods this is true--that by the late 1990s, developers smartened up and stated pairing the mouse and keyboard as equal partners. Until then, a lot of these games are going to be tough to get through.

Beyond the mouse-only problem, the game's interface fails in a lot of other areas. You can't just click to walk across a room; the game won't let you click too far away from the character, and thus you have to mince across the landscape. You're limited to movement horizontally or diagonally by tiles, as if there's an invisible chessboard underneath the terrain, so the characters never take direct paths, nor can they walk through places that look like they have obvious gaps. And when the four characters move together, they get hung up on everything. You're constantly having to send the lead character back to pick up stragglers and to micro-manage their steps through doorways and around corners. To say that pathfinding is poor is to erroneously suggest that it has any at all.
One character got left in the dark on the edge of a narrow doorway.
When you get past these issues, you're left with a typical British isometric puzzle-oriented game, the kind that premiered (apparently) in Knight Lore (1984), was made famous by Cadaver (1990), and acquired RPG status in Legend (1992) and now Shadowlands. The RPG elements are quite light. Characters have attributes and combat and magic levels that apparently increase through successful combat. Combat offers no real tactics.

Shadowlands' well-written backstory tells of the conquering of the peaceful nation of Koranos by the hordes of Cthul Tol Anuin, the undead Overlord from the Shadowlands. Koranos's Prince Vashnar was killed by the Overlord personally, but only after a disturbing episode in which his wife Tianna was raped by a fire demon and eventually succumbed to her consequent injuries. In his dying hour, Vashnar swore to take vengeance on the Overlord.

Now in the nearby Harbour Lands, adventurers of all kinds have been experiencing dreams of the fall of Koranos from various perspectives, including Vashnar's. These dreams are a call to action. Eventually, four of them accept the quest to venture to the Shadowlands, retrieve Vashnar's bones, and resurrect him on an altar in the Overlord's temple so he can fulfill his vow.

Every party consists of four characters--a warrior, a magician, a priest, and an orc. Each has preset values in combat ability, magic ability, strength, and health. You can "reroll" these, but there's a maximum value for the total ability score, so if you reroll better strength, you'll lose it in less health (or something else). You get to customize facial features for each character, with separate options for hair, eyes, nose mouth, and chin. While this is perhaps a "first," the only time the character portraits appear in the game is if the characters separate from each other.
The limited party-creation screen.
As you can see, the artwork is Japanese-inspired, credited to graphic designer Mark Anthony, "a fan of all things Japanese." The title screen is accompanied by an appropriate pentatonic composition. These themes don't really extend beyond the title screen and character portraits, however.

Gameplay begins in a small outdoor area. You can move characters independently or as a party, split parties, and ultimately get your characters quite far afield from each other. I'm sure that various puzzles will eventually require it.

Characters start with no inventory, but there are apples lying around the wilderness, plus a couple of sticks and one bow you can use as starting weapons. It's particularly important to pick up any food you see because you fight a constant battle with food and water meters. There are non-hostile crows flitting about. You can kill them, but I don't know if it helps your statistics. The leveling system is rather opaque, consisting only of a magic and combat level that occasionally increases behind the scenes.

A sign confirms that we're in "The Shadowlands"--I guess that's its official name, and not just some kind of nickname bestowed by its enemies. A nearby graveyard is marked with a sign calling it the "Field of the Fallen Heroes." Just north of that is a stairway down into a dungeon, where I'm guessing the rest of the game will be spent.
Nice to know I'm in the right place.
The first level of the dungeon had all the hallmarks of an introductory level, with lots of items to find and mostly-easy puzzles and enemies. It took me about an hour to get through the first time, learning the game's conventions, and about 40 minutes the second time. I chose to restart because the first time, I didn't realize that unless you purposefully extinguish them, torches continue to burn in your backpack, and thus no matter how many you pick up, you might reach the end of the level with no light.

Obstacles consisted of a few keyed doors, one door that required weighing down a pressure plate with an object, a door that opened with a hidden switch, one door that required each character to stand on a different plate, and one door that opened when a torch was dropped in front of some kind of statue.
Each character had to stand on a different plate to open this door.
The game quickly introduced a convention by which puzzles are preceded with coin slots in the wall. You can drop a variety of coins (found in the dungeon) into these slots to get signs with hints to pop up on nearby walls. The plaque next to the puzzle that required a torch in front of the statue, for instance, read "alight here to reach your next stop." The clue to hold down a pressure plate was "weight and see."
A hint alerts me to a hidden button nearby.
The level had a handful of patrolling skeletons. Most of them left me alone until I got very close. Fighting in Shadowlands requires you to click on a character's left hand--ideally holding a weapon--and then click on the enemy. The problem is if the enemy is in motion, it can be tough to get your click in the right spot. And if you want all characters to attack you have to repeat this for each character. (There's a pause function, but you can't issue orders during it.) Enemies and characters pound away at each other until dead. Health regenerates reasonably fast after combat, so it's individual battles you have to worry about, not the accumulation of them.
Preparing to attack a skeleton.
The first few skeletons were quite easy, but I encountered some towards the end of the level that I couldn't defeat without dying. I can technically walk past them, but skeletons often drop useful or even necessary stuff (like keys), and I'm worried I might miss something essential by leaving them alive.
The full-party death screen.
I accumulated a lot of torches and apples on the first level, plus three flasks that I filled with water at the many fountains (you can also drink directly from fountains). I suspect food, water, and light will be scarce on lower levels. I don't just suspect it, actually--the game documentation warns you of it. Theoretically, you could get through a level in the dark, I think, but you wouldn't be able to read anything and it would be hard to see items on the floor. It already is, even with light.

The game's magic system involves collecting and casting spells from scrolls. Scrolls can be assembled into magic books. Each scroll or book has a fixed amount of magic force, which is depleted when you cast a spell. In an interesting innovation, you regain magic force by draining it from everyday objects like sticks and food (which makes the object less effective) and then channeling it into the book or scroll. It thus makes sense to thoroughly drain objects before discarding them. I've only found one scroll so far, so I haven't really had a chance to explore the system.
This stick has 26 "force points" that I can transfer to my "Energy" bar.
All told, Shadowlands is a game with some interesting ideas, but the nature of the interface and the blunted combat system are going to make a long game tough to tolerate. I'll give it at least a few more dungeon levels, partly because I want to see how the puzzles grow in difficulty. Up next, it's long past time to check in with Crusaders of the Dark Savant.

Time so far: 3 hours


  1. Two notes:

    1) Isometric was made famous by Jon Ritman's Head over Heels, often considered the greatest 8 bit game ever made. Here's a nice article about it by the Digital Antiquarian:

    2) Shadowlands innovation doesn't stem only from the light squares/distance, but also from the light-based puzzles. I still agree it didn't age well ... :)

    1. Pedro, Knight Lore was the first. It is absolutely true that Jon Ritman mastered the game design of isometric games, but Knight Lore was a HUGE hit.

    2. Your two statements aren't incompatible. Knight Lore did it first, Head over Heels made it something of a standard. At least, that's how I read it after reviewing the DA article.

    3. Indeed, that was my point :) Chet is right that Knight Lore did it first and attracted game designers to that style. Head over Heels made the style famous because it's a masterpiece.

  2. I completed the Amiga version a few years ago, and I'm still persuaded that the RPG aspects may not be based on race/class at all. No special skills ever popped up, anyone can cast a spell or handle a weapon, and ability rolls during character creation could return pretty much any values for any character. I was convinced that Warrior, Magician, Priest and Orc were just default names for the characters, only giving a false impression of class-based gameplay - not that I necessarily consider the lack thereof to be a bad thing.

    Having said that, I seem to remember gaining experience (i.e. quicker stats progression) by killing those birds on the first level - the Amiga version at least did play a jingle on every improvement.

    1. I agree. They really aren't classes in any meaningful sense, and I guess what I took for classes were in fact just the default names.

  3. You continue to absolutely crush it in those character names!

    1. When I saw the game coming up on the list, I harbored a faint hope that it would have something to do with the C.S. Lewis biography and film, which came out around the same time. Alas.

  4. From various observations I've made, I'm guessing the "mouse control vs keyboard control" thing is another case of Europe and the US doing things differently. Some speculation as to why that may be the case is that I think that in Europe, you'd usually have played a game with a joystick, and the idea that "keyboard is not for gaming, an external device is" would have continued for a while after. I'd guess that was put to an end less from them just realizing there's a perfectly good keyboard, but from American games getting easier to aquire, and developers starting to use more ideas from those. Now, I wasn't exactly around at the time, so I may be completely wrong, but that's the general impression I've gotten.

    1. I suspect that it really is as simple as "The Mouse is The Future!". We see this with graphics (starting in the 1990s when graphics became advanced enough to do it, text was largely replaced by graphics in interfaces, even where this made things less clear), and we see it years latter with the Wii's motion controls and the DS touch screen - both of which were initially used to replace button controls that were not only perfectly good, but objectively superior.

    2. Some speculation as to why that may be the case is that I think that in Europe, you'd usually have played a game with a joystick, and the idea that "keyboard is not for gaming, an external device is" would have continued for a while after.

      How much discrepancy was there between different European countries' keyboard layouts? That's one possible issue that comes to mind.

      Another is the effort involved in remapping keyboard shortcuts for different languages, which (like most things) is probably less trivial than it might appear: a native English speaker knows (X) is an acceptable shortcut for EXIT, or that QUAFF is a reasonable alternative when (D) isn't available for DRINK.

      To ward off potential snarky responses, these aren't excuses -- I'm just trying to think through what may have led designers to make the choices they did.

    3. As a guy who grew up with DOS PC games in the early 90s in Germany, I played many games with the keyboard. But then, it probably depends on the genre, the platform, and where the game was developed. The genres I played the most were jump & run platformers, which were obviously controlled by keyboard, and point & click adventures which were obviously played with the mouse.

      I didn't notice any significant differences between interfaces of games made in Germany versus games made in America. Mostly, the German games I played had interfaces inspired by the American ones (and we've seen a couple of German RPGs on this blog which mainly cloned Ultima - of those I remember Nippon having had an exceptionally weird and cumbersome joystick only interface).

      One thing that's definitely noticeable is that British games tend to be puzzle-heavy and experimental in strange ways, and trying out new things without really knowing what to go for (this game has a pause function but you can't give commands during the pause, same with Legend). German games tended to be more conservative, more classic RPGs that followed the example of American ones.

      In general, I'd say British games are a different beast from continental European games overall. The British games tend to have a certain character that identifies them as being from Britain, rather than from France or Germany.

    4. I was around at the time. I remember I read about this game (never played it though). The main attraction about this game was the lighting system. Domark's games tended to be puzzle/action oriented, rather than D&D-style RPG's.

      About the mouse control. IIRC mouse control wasn't that new anymore at the time. It came with the first DOS PC's and also the Amiga had a mouse. American games were quite available (in the Netherlands, where I live). I think there are several factors going on: implementing mouse and keyboard controls is more effort than doing just one of the two. Earlier games were just keyboard, now the pendulum swung the other way and it became just mouse. Mouse control was considered more intuitive at the time, memorising keys just was not the thing. Fully graphical interfaces were probably still new enough so that a lot of experimentation was going on to find something that really works.

      I remember that at this period, there were still quite some Amigas and ST's around. European developers targeting DOS still had to compete with those platforms and these platforms were mouse-based. DOS was the winning side, but the match was still not fully over.

    5. While differing keyboards and languages would be a minor influence, I'm certain the "mouse is the future" is the answer. And it *was* the future, it just took us a little trying to get here.

      Games have it extra hard, unfortunately, since they have to balance between being straightforward and still maintaining the puzzle element. For instance, a context sensitive click is the best usability experience (especially if there is only one possible action you can do with the object), but it may not be the best *user* experience, because it may "solve the puzzle" for the user.

      It is hard to balance both goals right.

      But definitely, if the action is "obivous" enough, default to it on the click. A door is "open", a plaque is "read", a button is "press", monster is "attack". And if you're not within action distance, the action to all of these is "walk there".

    6. Pure mouse *wasn't* the future. I can't think of any modern games outside of point-and-click adventures that don't have extensive keyboard controls. Not, perhaps, to the point where they can be played without the mouse at all, but to the point where a huge percentage of commands can be entered with either device.

    7. Growing up we had a lot of point and click adventures, which functioned pretty well with just the mouse. As I got older and wanted to explore games more, I was put off by adventure games with text parsers at first. I suspect part of the mouse only choice was meant to appeal to my younger demographic at the time. If I had seen pictures of this in a magazine it definitely would have sparked my imagination, and I doubt I would have cared if it was playable.

    8. I think there was something of a 'mouse-culture' with the Amiga, in that it was more of a default than on many computers. Just looking back, keyboard control seems to have been relatively rare.

      Of course the mouse is dying now to the touch-screen, to some extent. Obviously you can emulate a touch screen with the mouse, but a touch screen doesn't have mouse-over or a right mouse button, so these options (which are usually used for informational purposes) are starting to get left out.

    9. I remember when I was in Germany in 1985 and a lot of the English magazines talked about how the British gaming market was so different because: they looked at figuring OUT the game as PART of the game. If you couldn't figure it out without the manual, or it was weird, or the game did bizarre stuff... that was just "part of the game". It's NOT the way we do things these days, but back in the 80's, EVERYTHING was an adventure.

    10. When I bought EotB as an 8 year old, the guy at the game store said: "You can use the keyboard, or the mouse, but definitely use the mouse". At the time I thought his suggestion was needless, of course I'd use the mouse! So that's how I played, frantically trying to click the move arrows.

      But DM-family games are more like the antecedants of the modern shooter - mouse with the right, keyboard with the left.

  5. I was just thinking "I wish I saw crpgaddict playing Shadowlands" because the game is quirky enough to appear in this blog, and ta-daa.

    The interface: it is something common across so many games of the era, and I think it is because they did not want to be standard, but unique. They wanted to experiment with controls and imitate the icon interfaces that were so cool, and sometimes they failed as this game showed. Well, there was that Barbarian game as well. Or adventures like Curse of Enchantia.

    I didn't get far in this game. It's very puzzle based, and what happens with these kind of games is that the puzzles are ok if there is not much backtrack and combinations. Meaning, if a door should be open by leaving the first sensor dark, the second lit and you stepping on the third one, and the clues aren't there... the game becomes a bit boring.

    Cool graphics though.

  6. YAY! Been waiting for this one for a while now. I was super excited when I got it for my Atari ST, Although I never got too far into it.
    Regarding the controls I remember feeling that keyboard controls were archaic and weird at the time, I used to laugh at my DOS friends for their keyboard based games. Mouse control was the future and keyboards were for accountants!

    Loved the graphics and atmosphere but it still felt like an unintuitive Dungeon Master, so I think I pretty swiftly went back to (re)playing DM.

    Hope you stick with it though, would love to see how it ends...

    1. God, I was hoping no one would say that. I just spent a few hours with it last night and I don't know if I can physically force myself to continue.

    2. *makes a mental note to post something like that when it comes to Worlds of Legend*
      (it won't even be untrue)

    3. I'm really looking forward to Chet documenting every game on his list, even the ones that aren't RPGs...

      It does seem like quite a few people played yet didn't finish this one. Maybe there's a good reason for that though, and other games abandoned by youth.

    4. I'm all for moving on to the next title. Shadowlands is one of the games that were capable of capturing your imagination in concept and marketing but were such chores to play that I doubt many people persevered.

      There was a positive review in Pelit -magazine, by a reviewer who liked RPGs and loved Dungeon Master. I was really excited to play the game. I was not excited for long after actually playing the game.

      I managed to find an online copy of the review, and reading it some 25 years later is quite interesting. The review states it's an isometric Dungeon Master, lists a bunch of things which are annoying or problematic about the game and finishes with saying the positives outweigh the negativesand gives it a 90 out of 100. Oh, and the review states you can create dead man walking situations. I don't remember that, personally, but it would be totally in keeping with the spirit of these British puzzle games.

      The archived review in Finnish is here:

      Google translate produces something mostly understandable but bizzare.

      I never played the follow-up Shadowworlds, but I recall it being a scifi-reskin of the same game.

    5. Chet, I would advise not to give up on this game yet, for one reason if anything: Shadoworlds (I believe it is spelled this way, with the two "w"s elided).

      The sequel is largely more of the same, barring the new setting, with only a few tweaks (e.g. one nutrition factor to worry about instead of two) and many of its problems carried over: no pathfinding, short range for issuing commands... If these are reason enough to give up on Shadowlands, they might kill off the sequel before it has even appeared on these pages.

      I know that I might not be doing this blog a favour by pointing out issues of a game that hasn't been played yet, but on the other hand better safe than sorry. Perhaps it might work as a form of reverse psychology and actually become an encouragement.

      Chances are Worlds of Legend / Son of the Empire is about to suffer this fate for similar reasons, though I must say I liked it slightly better than Legend.

    6. That sounds like a reason TO give up on this game and save my energy for the second one.

      I'd challenge anyone who wants me to continue playing this game to spend just five minutes trying to get the four characters through a doorway and see how you feel after that.

    7. OH, and the rats, which I'll talk about next time, are just unforgivable.

    8. "An isometric Dungeon Master" gives it too much credit. DM had a meaningful combat and character development system alongside the puzzles. That's entirely lacking here. Anyway, since isometric puzzle games were coming out of the UK back to 1984, I'd question whether DM had really any influence on this one.

    9. > That sounds like a reason TO give up on this game and save my energy for the second one.

      Well, either that or the first one can become a training ground for assimilating (read tolerating) the interface better, in order to smoothen the experience with the inevitable sequel.

      At least that one doesn't have rats or equally annoying "leech" enemies, as far as I can remember.

  7. There is a guide in Amiga Power

    1. It hasn't quite been difficult enough to require help yet, but thanks.

    2. it was if you concidering leaving the game, you got an idea of how much you have left and you could make a decicion without to much spoilers

  8. In the last screenshot, what do the two checkered boards represent? I thought F1 through F5 might be formations, but then why are there two boards beneath it?

    1. That's the way the game represents splitting your party in two.

    2. I hadn't really experimented with it at the end of this first entry, so I didn't talk about it. But Carlos is right. If you want to make two parties, you move the appropriate characters over to the second checkerboard. Meanwhile, the positioning of the characters on each checkerboard set the default formation when the characters walk together.

  9. I barely remember this from a compilation CD back in the early 1990's. It was on the same disc as Bard's Tale 3 and The Summoning among other games, and must have been 94 or so since it was on my grandfather's 486, which was given away in 1995 when he downgraded to a Win95 machine.

    I had largely forgotten it, with just the memories of the light mechanics sticking in my head after all these years. I must not have liked it much, since I never tried to track it down.


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