Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Legends of the Lost Realm: Summary and Rating

         
Legends of the Lost Realm
United States
Avalon Hill (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for Macintosh
Date Started: 26 October 2018
Date Ended: 24 December 2018
Total Hours: 32
Difficulty: Hard (4/5) 
Final Rating: 27
Ranking at Time of Posting: 146/314 (46%)

Legends of the Lost Realm is a Macintosh-only game from 1989, based heavily on themes from Wizardry (1981), The Bard's Tale (1985), and perhaps Might and Magic (1987), with some survival elements inspired by the Alternate Reality series (1985-1987). Six characters, initially drawn from fighter, thief, shaman, and magician classes, explore the large castle of Tagor-Dal, with the ultimate goal of finding one of the Staves of Power, necessary to overcome the conquering nation of Malokor. A first-person exploration window (in which you cannot see enemy parties) is navigated with a mostly point-and-click interface. Combat is turned-based, with a complex magic and skill system that makes good use of the various character classes. Combat difficulty, experience point rewards, and the economy are all terribly imbalanced, making for an extremely difficult early game. Five sequels-cum-expansion packs were intended, but only one was ever produced.

***

When I wrapped up my last entry on Legends of the Lost Realm, I was actually quite motivated to keep going. I seemed to have gotten over a hump and I was looking forward to finding out how the puzzle map would be used in gameplay.
            
Entering The Catacombs. I didn't last long here.
        
A few things happened after that to sap my interest in continuing. First, the difficulty curve returned in a big way. Once I finished the four towers, the only two major places left to explore were the Catacombs, accessible from the magic shop, and the Great Tower at the center of the map. In both cases, enemy parties encountered on the first level so far outclassed my own party that I would have had to grind for hours to defeat them.

I started to grind anyway, but it was getting a lot longer. Some of the enemy parties in the Great Tower serve up significant experience rewards, but the combats are long. For instance, there's a fixed combat with 80 bats in one hallway, and it reliably delivers about 1,000 experience points. The bats hardly ever hit, so it's easy enough to restore what little damage they cause. But I can only reliably kill 2 or 3 per combat round, so it takes over 30 rounds--and almost as many minutes--to defeat this one party.
          
The beginning of a long, boring session.
       
The same is true of more deadly parties, like the dozens of fighters and archers that attacked in another hallway of the Great Tower. Even if I leveled up two or three times, I'd have no luck against this group. The only hope of defeating such large, powerful parties is to acquire mass-damage spells. Mages never get those until they change classes to wizards, and even then they don't get them until character Level 4. That's a lot of grinding.
           
One of the Great Tower groups I had no chance against.
         
But even then, I was prepared to give it a shot. Unfortunately, I ran into my third problem: the emulator keeps crashing. Sometimes it crashes while I'm just walking down the hallway, which is bad enough, but sometimes it crashes after I've saved and quit the game, after I've selected "Shut Down." That's worse. And in those cases, when I restart, even though I saved and quit the game, because the Mac didn't "shut down" properly, everything reverts to the way it was before the previous session. Is this really how a Mac worked? You'd save stuff but it wouldn't really save unless you held its precious little hand and read it a story when it was time to go to bed? What kind of sadistic machine was this?

I don't know whether to blame the emulator for in-game crashes or not. They usually happen right after I notice that the game's fixed encounters have stopped appearing, so that sounds more like a game problem. Either way, getting anywhere in this game is hard enough without having to flip a coin at the end of a multi-hour session and hope your progress is saved. The last crash came just after I'd done enough grinding to level up and change my thief to a ninja. Losing that progress deflated me enough that I decided to throw in the towel. I slept on it for a couple of days just to be sure.
           
Ninjas in the Great Tower often attack "from behind," screwing up the character order and imperiling spellcasters.
          
I couldn't find any walkthroughs for the game, but someone did take the time to make a wiki. It shows that the Catacombs would have been two levels, the first another maze of holes for which I would have needed to find a bunch more 50-foot rope. The Catacombs would have led to three other areas of one level each: the Goblin Galleries, the Troll Tunnels, and The Lair. Each would have delivered items or clues necessary for various Great Tower levels.

The Great Tower is 11 levels. The first level--the only one I explored--is broken into four sections, each accessible from a different entrance on the town level. Each "approach" requires the party to defeat a guardian (samurai, mountain giant, enchanter, and high wizard), and each requires a different object from the four corner towers to be in the party's possession.
         
Whoops. I never found the ring, so I need to enter a different way.
        
The other levels promise a maze of staircases, teleporters, and various navigation obstacles. The map puzzle would have come into play on Level 7, which is largely open and requires the party to walk a particular path. I had the pieces assembled slightly wrong, but I think that would have become clear when I actually got to the level, partly because I would have known the starting point, and partly because there is a small walled area that would have rendered some configurations impossible.

The game apparently culminates with a fight against a dragon on Level 11, after which the party finds the Staff of Life. The endgame screen--and boy, would this have been disappointing--suggests sequel material that never arrived.
           
The entire game is basically just a test to prove your worthiness.
         
Altogether, I imagine it would have taken me another 40-50 hours to finish the game, and I would have still been blogging about it in February. That just wasn't in the cards this holiday season.

If there's one thing I'm disappointed not to have experienced, it's the specialty classes. Only towards the end of my last session did I finally start getting upgrade options; specifically, my shaman could change to a healer and my thief could change to a monk or ninja. My fighters would have received the options to change to barbarian, blademaster, or samurai at Level 9, and my magician could have become a witch, wizard, or enchanter (and possibly a sorcerer; this class is mentioned on the spell cards but not in the manual or on the "change class" screen).

Around this time, I would have started to regret keeping "Pete," who at some point I rechristened "Gideon." The game allows you to dual-class or move to a specialty class but not both. As a fighter/mage, Pete would have started to lose some of his utility, and I'd definitely be wishing for a new pure spellcaster. I probably would have changed my thief to a monk or ninja, moved him to the front rank, dumped Pete, and created a new magician, hoping to grind him quickly to higher levels.
          
My thief can switch to a more useful class.
         
The specialty classes are done better here than in most games that offer them. First, the characters retain the skills of their previous classes when they switch, so you don't necessarily want to jump to a specialty class right away. Perhaps you want to ensure that the shaman gets the full suite of shaman spells before he becomes a healer. Second, the specialists really specialize. The healer is good only at healing, for instance. Every single spell on his list either heals or cures a condition. The blademaster is all about the blade: he can reforge it, identify it, even sharpen other party members' blades, but don't put anything else in his hand.

Choosing among the mage specialists would have tied me in knots, which is why I would have wanted a second one. The raw magician is mostly about exploration-based magic. His compass, light, detection, and auto map spells get more powerful but that's about it. He has mass-effect spells that are supposed to weaken enemy parties (e.g., "Impede," "Sap Strength," "Slow"), but I never really saw much effect from them. For any mass-damage spells, you need a witch or wizard. The wizard particularly specializes in elemental magic ("Fire Protection," "Storm Winds," "Summon a Fire Elemental"), but the witch is what you want against undead. The enchanter specializes in summoning as well as spells that enchant items. The sorcerer (if it exists) doesn't come with any spells: he writes his own, based on the effects, strengths, and targets of the other classes' spells. But you can't turn him into an omnipotent juggernaut because each spell he creates subtracts from his maximum spell points. That's clever.

I suspect that in the end, I would have concluded that all of this specialization is mostly wasted in a game where the enemies aren't very memorable and the combat system isn't very good. I also suspect that the system was scaled for the many planned expansions (see below), and that in a normal first-game campaign, characters would have a tough time hitting the cap of even a single class. Still, Legends deserves high marks in the "character creation and development" category.

While we're talking about marks, here's my best-guess GIMLET:

  • 2 points for the game world. The boilerplate evil-wizard framing story hardly gets referenced in-game. You don't even get to defeat the evil wizard; you just get one step closer.
             
Alas, you only get to get 1/7 of the way to assembling the equipment you need to "cleanse the land of the evil of Malokor." Not quite as epic.
          
  • 5 points for character creation and development. There isn't much to the creation process, and as we've seen, rewards are uneven. But the dual- and specialty class systems coupled with with class skills offer a rare level of customization and class-specific role-playing.
  • 0 points for no NPC interactions. Anything that technically might count as an "NPC" is really more of an "encounter," and even if I were to give 1 point for these quasi-NPCs, I would immediately subtract it for the tax man.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are nothing special, but they do have the standard set of special actions and defenses. Other "encounters" are mostly puzzles, and mostly of the navigation sort, which are my least favorite. People who like those puzzles and use terms like "level design" will perhaps add a couple of points here.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. The Wizardry base basically works, but the game is a bit too stingy with its spells to offer the tactical depth of Wizardry
          
I still never figured out what this was about.
         
  • 4 points for equipment. Speaking of stingy. On the positive side, the game offers a lot of equipment slots. On the negative, in 32 hours I basically finished with the equipment I bought in the first three hours. You find a baffling variety of items that seem to have no use, and the characters' backpacks are far too small. I'm giving it an extra point, though, because screenshots from the wiki suggest there was better stuff to come.
  • 3 points for the economy. The system is more complex at the beginning, when you're trying to outfit the party and pay for character deaths and retrievals. By the 20th hour, however, most of my money was getting stolen by thieves and otherwise simply going to resurrections and healing. It would have been nice if there had been some high-value items in the shops.
  • 2 points for a main quest but no side quests, alternate endings, or role-playing decisions.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The black and white textures are fine, but they're just textures. By 1989, I should be seeing useful things in the environment. There are a sparse and unremarkable number of sound effects. I never got used to the interface. Like most Mac games, it involved too much clicking. There are some keyboard backups, but they mostly involving having to hold down multiple keys, which reduces the convenience of the keyboard. There are far too many poorly-documented or undocumented commands.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It gets some credit for mild nonlinearity and replayability (with different classes), but overall it's too unbalanced, too difficult, and too long. The food, drink, and sleep system is particularly obnoxious.
          
That gives us a final score of 27. I note that the best elements are mechanical (except for the interface); the worst are thematic. The creators, who bragged in the manual that the game represents "the most complete and accurate fantasy role-playing game ever written," made a better engine than they did a game.

Dennis Owens reviewed Legends in the June 1990 Computer Gaming World. Like me, he criticized the sparse graphics, early-game difficulty, and some poorly-documented controls. Unlike me, he was in love with little touches like the ability to create arrows from sticks and feathers (you have to have a samurai to do this, and anyway it's really not that hard or expensive to just buy arrows). Given a lack of any information in the manual about the quest, the encounters, the puzzles, and so forth, I would suspect that Owens didn't get very far, though I thought it was CGW's policy to require reviewers to finish the game.

The CGW review is the only one I've been able to find so far, suggesting the game didn't make much of a splash. The "sequel" from the same year, subtitled The Wilderlands, is really just an expansion pack that lets the party exit the Catacombs into a wilderness area, where they can try to find a second piece of the staff. The manual suggests that future installments would have been called The Necropolis, The Ocean of Dreams, Malakor, and Black Sorcerers, and like The Wilderlands, they would have allowed adventuring directly from the castle hub. One wonders if the developers were inspired by Alternate Reality (given the dedication to food, fatigue, and environmental factors, probably). But not only did Avalon Hill drop the series after 1989, they never published another RPG again.
            
The "Wilderlands" used the same box and just added a sticker.
          
Lead design on Legends is credited to David Cooke and Charles Collins, neither of whom have any prior or subsequent video game credits that I can find. It's possible that they developed the game independently and then shopped it to Avalon Hill, as both the RPG-only and Mac-only genres are rare for the publisher and Cooke and Collins aren't credited on any other Avalon Hill games (some of the other staff are). Unless we hear from someone involved, we'll never know. The developers' names are both quite common, and I couldn't find any obvious candidates to contact.

Pulling away from Legends of the Lost Realm is a little disappointing, but probably necessary for sanity's sake. Unfortunately, this doesn't bring us much closer to the end of 1989 because it elevates to the list another long, difficult Mac game: Theldrow.

***

A year or two ago, when I started calling my final entries "Summary and Rating" instead of just "final rating," I did so because I intended to put a single-paragraph game summary after the header information. My idea was that people who didn't want to read an entire series of entries on a game could get a quick snapshot from the final entry. Unfortunately, I forgot about the "summary" part almost immediately, until now. You can see my first attempt in this entry, and eventually I'm going to try to go back and add summaries to other multi-post games. Single-entry games will remain as they are.

28 comments:

  1. A shame, but it didn't sound like you were getting much joy from this one, to put it mildly.

    What isn't a shame is the appearance of Star Control II on the upcoming list. It's one of my favorite computer games of all time, and I'm hoping the fact that isn't much of an RPG won't deter you from writing an entry on it.

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    1. Star Control II, a classic! I'm also really looking forward to Chet's take on it.

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    2. Whether or not it fares well on the GIMLET, it'll still be a thrill ride. Great game! RPG credentials? ... who cares!

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    3. Star Control II is Starflight after being stripped of every significant RPG element, and a better game for it.

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    4. Just in case someone is interested check the last "Digital Antiquarian", in https://www.filfre.net, for information concerning the history of the first Star Control games.

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    5. Really? Exploration of a universe, NPCs, encounters with foes, acquiring resources to improve power level, economy, quest...the only significant RPG element that seems to be missing from SC2 is character creation, and plenty of RPGs have a hardcoded character (Witcher, anyone)?

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  2. "Is this really how a Mac worked? You'd save stuff but it wouldn't really save unless you held its precious little hand and read it a story when it was time to go to bed? What kind of sadistic machine was this?"

    I have very clear memories of being read the riot act as a child after powering down the Macs of relatives and family friends without telling them to "Shut Down" first. I get the feeling that doing so might have raised the odds of corrupting / fragmenting the hard drive contents.

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    1. No, no, that's not how a Mac worked. Yes, you told it to shut down, but what was saved was saved. There was no "postponing of save until they shut me down". I get shivers just thinking about a machine working that way...

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    2. Postponing saves is actually pretty common to boost performance. On Linux (ext4) your writes land in a write cache until a sync call is made by the software, or a commit interval is reached. That's usually after a few seconds, but can be increased almost indefinately.

      But yes, this is almost certainly an emulator issue.

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    3. A lot of emulators like to maintain their disk storage in memory as much as possible, and only write the disk image files to your actual hard drive when the emulator exits. I think it's because frequent writes to the hard drive can be bad for modern SSDs? Anyway, it means you have to exit the emulator completely before your disk image gets saved.

      A bit of a pain when I'm recording videos from Applewin; I'd love to make a backup copy of my data disk between recordings without having to exit the emulator, but it doesn't work that way.

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  3. I like the summary! I think it increases the utility of the blog as a semi-searchable archive.

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  4. I must say, I'm really intrigued by that quote from the manual. When the creators wrote about "the most complete and accurate fantasy role-playing game ever written"... what exactly did they have in mind, using the word "accurate"? Accurate to what, exactly?

    Meanwhile, I will confess, I have not been excited by most of the games on the list recently. For most of them, I only skimmed the entries and did not have anything to say in the comments. I am very excited now to see the new titles up on the horizon. I'd never played Black Crypt on the Amiga, but it's one I'm looking forward to reading about. Then, of course, there's Lord of the Rings II, which I did play and will be very interested to see what you make of it.

    And somewhere in the future - I think it's a 1992 title, isn't it? - will be Shadow Sorcerer, a flawed but also very interesting RPG. With that one, I just hope you'll manage to finish it, as I never did...

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    1. Yes, it's noteworthy to see an implementation of realtime-with-pause combat into D&D years before the Infinity Engine games.

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    2. >what exactly did they have in mind, using the word "accurate"? Accurate to what, exactly?

      Probably in terms of fidelity to pen-and-paper rules, to being just as involved and complex as sitting around a table playing AD&D. There was a real desire in the market to see D&D translated properly to the various computer systems of the day, but implementing that whole rule set was a Herculean task, one far past the ability of the 8-bits to handle. The Gold Box games kind of did it, but were definitely subsets of the real rules; they didn't have many spells, for instance.

      It wasn't really until Baldur's Gate 2 that they finally managed what I consider a 'full fidelity' reproduction of the paper rules, and even then it's missing stuff and eliding past other things. A small indie team, eleven years earlier, hadn't a prayer.

      Their marketing claims there are really saying "this game has lots of rules and systems, and they'll make decent sense if you like RPGs."

      (I've never played the game, btw.)

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    3. Unfortunately Shadow Sorcerer was already rejected on the basis that it had no character development or inventory.

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    4. Tristan, are you sure you're not confusing Shadow Sorcerer with another title? Granted, it doesn't have character development, but I'm sure it had inventory. But then again, I see now that this was a 1991 game, so I guess you must be right - had Chet wanted to play it, he would have done so already.

      It is a pity, as it is a unique title, and I personally find it hard to consider it anything other than an RPG, given how steeped it is in AD&D rules. But, well, it certainly was pared down in many ways, so I can see the argument.

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    5. Quotation from Wikipedia: "Shadow Sorcerer is a 1991 role-playing video game. The game was the sequel to Heroes of the Lance and Dragons of Flame. It is based on the third and fourth Dragonlance campaign modules, Dragons of Hope and Dragons of Desolation."
      It has an interesting mechanic including diplomacy. A group of four heroes has to lead a group of slave refugees into safety. Why shouldn't the addict give it a go? There's also gaining xp and character development mentioned ... but it is critisized for its clunky interface ...

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    6. As far as I remember, characters do not level up and there are very few meaningful equipment changes during the game (for each character you might find zero or one relevant items during the game).

      It certainly feels quite a lot like an RPG, but I think I'd call it a strategy game.

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    7. Cluebook for reference: https://www.mocagh.org/ssi/shadowsorc-cluebook.pdf

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    8. I might have been hasty on Shadow Sorcerer. Whether it technically meets my definitions, it's part of the SSI/D&D legacy.

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    9. I agree. It might be the first time we see real time D&D combat.

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    10. I hope you do cover Shadow Sorcerer! As a kid I was hopelessly devoted to Dragonlance but had no computer to play the games.

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    11. Accurate means they were trying for a simulation. Usually this just means adding complexity for no reason. I liked simulations of the era like M1 Tank Commander, but games like this leave me cold.

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    12. I'm very glad to hear Shadow Sorcerer might still have a chance, Addict!

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  5. Which emulator are you using? I just crashed Mini Vmac a few times on purpose, without any data loss issues.

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