Saturday, July 20, 2019

Prophecy of the Shadow: Won! (with Summary and Rating)



           
Prophecy of the Shadow
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 24 June 2019
Date Ended: 10 July 2019
Total Hours: 19
Difficulty: Easy-Medium (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Summary:
Prophecy of the Shadow is a "lite" RPG that takes inspiration from Faery Tale Adventure and recent Origin Systems games. A sole character, presented throughout the game from an axonometric view, is thrust into the world when his mentor is assassinated as part of a political purge of mages. As he grows in power and skill, he learns of a prophecy that foretells the return of an ancient enemy named Abraxus. In his quest to counter the prophecy, he kills an evil regent and restores a princess to her rightful throne. The world is small and easy to explore. RPG elements--including combat, inventory, and character development--are simplistic but effective for the scope of the game. Graphics are mediocre in quality but are thoughtfully drawn to create interesting scenes and scenarios.
             
 ****
         
Prophecy managed to pack a lot of stuff into its small continent, but the full game took less than 20 hours regardless. I had the most fun exploring the game's 10 indoor areas, all of which managed to accomplish some fun things graphically. It's still relatively rare to find a game in which the environment is hand-designed instead of rendered as "textures." Aside from notable pioneers in this area, like the Ultima series (and particularly Ultima Underworld), we typically see it in adventure-RPG hybrids like the Quest for Glory series.

It's taken me a lot of games and time to understand how I feel about graphics. I'm not impressed by them just because they're good. Textures, no matter how advanced, can only take me so far. Even well-designed monster graphics, like the ones in Crusaders of the Dark Savant, fail to impress me if their appearance and animations are all abstract--that is, when they jump and dance around the screen, they're just following an animation pattern and not specifically responding to my characters in the moment.
         
I consider these good graphics--not because of the raw quality, but because of what they clearly depict. Such "scenes" are uncommon in RPGs even in the early 1990s.
          
I want my graphics to be functional in some way. I want the monster animations to tell me something about their reactions to my attacks. Most important, I want environmental graphics to set a mood, to tell a story, to offer a certain ambiance. If they do that, my bar for what constitutes "good" graphics is very low. Most people probably wouldn't think that Prophecy's graphics are anything special, but they establish their environments better than any game I can imagine recently. As I walk through a castle, I can clearly pick out the kitchens, and the guard barracks, and the torture chamber without any titles specifically announcing those places.
            
Assaulting my way into Granite Keep.
         
In the first two sections, my orphaned character found the titular prophecy and brought it to the Guild of Mages, which was soon slaughtered by the forces of regent Cam Tethe, ruler of the land in absence of the missing princess. As I loaded, there were five major places I hadn't visited:
           
  • The city of Jade
  • The Fell Swamp
  • Granite Keep
  • The abandoned Silver Mine
  • The city of Malice and its temple
  • Abraxus's Castle (I didn't even know about this one until I teleported there for the endgame)
              
I visited them in roughly this order, albeit with a bit of backtracking. The City of Jade was mysteriously purposeless--just another city with a few services at the southeastern tip of the continent. I don't think a single NPC had anything new to say.

North of that was the Fell Swamp. I probably forgot to mention in previous entries that if you walk into a swamp in this game, you don't get very far before an animation shows you drowning.
        
Entering the Fell Swamp at my own risk.
         
For that reason, I had been circumventing the Fell Swamp, but I decided it must be there for some reason, so I took the time to experiment and soon realized that you could walk through the swamp on squares that depicted foliage. Following paths of these squares, I reached a hut at the center of the area. It was occupied by a powerful witch named Esme who said that she'd killed Tethe's mage hunters.

As by now I was wont to do, I tried giving her my various objects. She had an immediate reaction to Larf's head, saying that if she could assemble the ingredients for a potion of "Necrotelecomicon," she could learn from him the secret of the resurrection spell. Fortunately, I had already picked up all the ingredients on her list: the fruit of the Desert Pango, the tongue of a Torlok chieftain, some spider venom, and a vial of acid, which apparently every "black potion" is.
            
I give the ingredients to Esme, who looks like a young Anne Ramsey.
         
With these ingredients, she soon learned the "Respirare" spell and then immediately attacked me. I killed her in a few blows. I spent much of the rest of the game wondering what I would do with a resurrection spell since the game is single-player. I went back and tried to cast it on Larkin's grave, but I got a message stating that I didn't have a powerful enough catalyst.

I next headed for Granite Keep because I didn't want to deal with the eye tyrants up near Malice. The keep's front door had blocked me in the past, but some NPC had hinted at a side door, and sure enough, I soon discovered one. Using my Death Warrant got me inside, and I had to kill two guards right next to the entrance, a fight that occasioned about five reloads. The entire castle was very hard, with enemies whacking away 25 hit points per blow, and I began to wonder if there wasn't some armor I might have missed. I had to rest frequently and gulp as often as possible from my "Everfull Flask," a healing potion that regenerates every five minutes or so.
          
If the penalty for everything is death, then you leave me with no incentive not to kill you.
        
There were multiple levels to the castle, including a dungeon with a large locked door as well as two locked doors on the second level. Eventually, I found a servant sympathetic to the Resistance who gave me a key to Cam Tethe's chambers, one of the doors on the second level. He attacked as soon as I entered, and he killed me with his "ebon ax" in about three hits.
         
Killing Cam Tethe on my fourth trip.
    
To defeat him, I had to "door scum": enter, attack him a few times, leave to rest and heal, save, and enter again. It's worth mentioning that I had a "Time Stop" scroll that you're almost certainly supposed to use in this fight, but I had forgotten about it. When Tethe died, he dropped a copper key and his ebon ax--a magic axe that returns when thrown.

The copper key opened the door in the dungeon, which released Princess Elspeth. I thought this would be the end of the game, but I realized I'd forgotten about the city of Malice. Elspeth gave me a key (that she'd palmed) to Tethe's torture chamber, then fled to reclaim her throne. It's worth pointing out at this time that the game world is not dynamic, and after Elspeth left, she was nowhere to be found. All NPCs reacted to her name as if she was still missing and as if Tethe was still alive.
           
The young princess, looking a little worse for the wear. She is played by an actress enigmatically named only "Kelly."
          
The torture chamber held a set of "evil accoutrements," which turned out to grant me access to the temple of Abraxus in the city of Malice. Tethe himself wasn't the shadow of the prophecy but merely the high priest of Abraxus's cult.

After I left the Granite Keep and sold my excess equipment, I finally had enough money to purchase "acrobatics" training from Chester the Great and increase my agility. I also bought a potion that permanently increased my strength. Between these upgrades and the ebon ax, no combat in the game was really much trouble after this. Maybe some players manage to save enough money to get the agility increase earlier.
            
I admit, this guy looks like a "Chester." Sometimes, I wish I'd picked a better pseudonym.
        
On the way to Malice, I remembered the silver mines. I had a much easier time this time, and after some combats with gnomes, I found the Shadow Sword. The weapon negates magic when in your inventory and wipes your spell points if you wield it, so from the moment you find it, you have to go through an annoying process of dropping it and picking it up again every time you want to cast a spell.
           
Finding the Shadow Sword on the gnome king. This is not a weapon that you want any earlier than necessary.
         
Malice had a handful of NPCs who praised Lord Abraxus and whatnot. The focus of the city was a large temple, where I killed a number of evil priests and walked out with a mysterious "Fan of Shadows" and a gold catalyst. I should mention at this point that from the various dungeons, I'd assembled several other spells, including "Cremare Magnus" (volcanic eruption), "Lamia" (steal life force), and "Umbra" (invisibility), none of which I ever found a reason to cast. I almost always needed to save my spell points for "Curare" (healing). I also never got much use out of the "Oculorum" spell or the redundant crystal ball, which shows your position in the context of a larger area. The larger area wasn't really large enough to be useful.

The final area was reached via a teleporter north of the temple in Malice. I'd learned to watch for those pairs of rocks. They're scattered all over the main island, but most of them just warp you a short distance from the origin. This final pair sent me to an island somewhere. A new monster called a "morgoth" attacked a few times, but it wasn't very hard.
             
This is one mean-ass morgoth.
           
The island housed a large keep with four corner rooms and a pedestal in each room. Each pedestal had a riddle that discussed a certain element and prompted me for a particular object. I hadn't realized I was saving the objects for this purpose, but it wasn't hard to figure out where they went. The "Fan of Shadows" went on the air pedestal, the "Everfull Flask" on the water pedestal, the "Eternal Lamp" on the fire pedestal, and the "Wand of Earth" on the earth pedestal. When all four were placed, a door opened in a northern wall, taking me to the catacombs.
            
Interpreting one of the pedestals.
         
The catacombs had a brief battle with spectral priests before leading me to a bier on which the body of Abraxus lay in state. Even though it seemed like an absurd thing to do, since I couldn't do anything but cast the "Respirare" spell on him, that's what I did. The ancient sorcerer awoke, laughed at me, and attacked me.
        
I love how the hero's one dialogue option for the insane resurrected sorcerer is "hello."
       
My hit points had been reduced by the ritual to 30, and as I fumbled about with my ebon ax, Abraxus swiftly killed me and, I supposed, took over the world. On reloads, I both discovered that only the Shadow Sword could damage him and remembered that I had two "Time Stop" scrolls. Through trial and error, I settled into a pattern of action: drop the Shadow Sword, resurrect Abraxus, use a "Time Stop" scroll, gulp all my healing potions, use another "Time Stop" scroll, pick up the Shadow Sword, and start hacking away. This sequence ultimately brought me victory over the sorcerer.
         
Conserving those "Time Stop" scrolls was key to defeating Abraxus.
       
The endgame was slightly reminiscent of Questron as the game showed my character marching through the halls of Granite Keep, NPCs arrayed around me, before I finally came to Princess Elspeth. She named me her Champion, Hero of the Land, Savior of the People, and announced a seven-day celebration. The ending text, cribbing from Casablanca, suggested even more rewards to come for our hero.
         
Lord British never offered to marry me. Just sayin'.
           
All in all, a satisfying ending that leaves me feeling positive about the game. Prophecy won't rate nearly as high as an Ultima, but in adopting Ultima as its model, the game provides a perfect example of the adage that if you aim for the moon, you'll at least get over the fence.

In a GIMLET, Prophecy of the Shadows earns:
             
  • 5 points for the game world. It tells a story commensurate with its scope, has a few moments of originally, and does a good job drawing you into the world graphically and textually.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. Definitely not a strong category for the game. With only three attributes, each serving multiple purposes, there wasn't much to develop, and there was virtually no creation process at all.
  • 4 points for NPC interaction. While you do learn a lot about the land and its lore from NPCs, the system was very mechanical and featured no one with memorable personalities.
               
Um . . . where did that last line come from?
          
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. Enemies are mostly unmemorable, excepting perhaps the fireball-spewing gazers. But the puzzles were pretty solid, and I liked the large variety of what I call "contextual encounters"--when you're given a clear reason for the combat to follow, even if you don't get many role-playing choices in those encounters. I wish some of the lesser creatures had respawned because the economy is otherwise very tight.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. I'm being generous here because I feel I should have probably experimented more with the spells. I did particularly appreciate the "Mark/Recall" pair. Aside from spells, the combat targeting system works fine but doesn't give you very many tactics. Enemies rush into range so quickly that missile weapons are particularly useless.
            
Fighting a row of guards in Granite Keep.
            
  • 2 points for equipment. It's hard to countenance at title that gives you nothing to wear or equip except a weapon. But there are a few additional potions and scrolls, and lots of items useful for exploration and quests.
  • 4 points for the economy. Between regular equipment, food, potions, and agility training, you have plenty to save up for, and finding silver never becomes useless. You have to make some tough choices for most of the game.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options, alternatives, or side quests.
                
The victorious champion walks past rows of NPCs on his way to his knighting.
              
        
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The sound is nothing special--a few scattered effects--but as I've indicated, I like the graphics and the interface is top-notch, with redundant mouse and keyboard commands for everything. My only quibble is how using any other object un-equips your weapon.
  • 5 points for gameplay. It gets half credit for nonlinearity. The game is mostly linear but not completely. I don't see it as replayable, but the level of difficulty was pitched about right. Some individual combats seemed awfully hard, but in the context of a short game they weren't too bad.
             
That gives us a final score of 35, right on the "recommended" threshold--a good score for a modest game of modest ambition.
          
Given what actually transpires in the game, the box seems to be depicting me waking up Abraxus.
         
Almost every contemporary review of Prophecy seems to be patting it on the head, marking it as an interesting direction for SSI--the first single-character title from the publisher, a game clearly for new players, and so forth. Jeff James's review in the January 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World praises it repeatedly for its simplicity: "no equipment to buy, no spells to memorize, and only one character to keep track of . . . no need to fumble with bizarre ingredients . . . byzantine game mechanics take a back seat to ease-of-use and an engaging storyline." Similarly, from the Malaysian newspaper (who knew that they were reviewing RPGs?) that I quoted in a previous review: "[A]ctions are simple to execute . . . Gameplay could not be better. It's just a question of taking things and bringing them somewhere." The review concludes, however, "Just don't give us any more recycled trash like Dark Queen of Krynn," which shows that this source can be excluded from future consideration.

Almost everyone praised the full motion video, but I'll let that go--it was a delusion that affected nearly everyone in the 1990s.

More recently, my colleague Saintus (who hasn't commented in 3 years--hope he's okay) completed the game in January 2012 on his "CRPG Revisiting Old Classics" blog. His review aligns with mine nearly perfectly. He liked the game world, the balanced economy, the short completion time, and the generally casual nature of gameplay. He didn't find any more combat tactics than I did, nor any use for the crystal orb, nor much use for a lot of the spells. He defeated Cam Tethe the same way I did. The game kept his interest to the end despite simple mechanics.

A lot of contemporary reviews suggested that Prophecy was a new direction for SSI, that we'd be seeing a lot more single-character role-playing adventures from the publisher in the coming years. Scanning ahead, I can't quite tell if this forecast comes true. SSI certainly offered a diverse variety of RPGs in its prolific 1992-1996 period, including the last of the Gold Box titles, the third Eye of the Beholder, new Dungeons and Dragon series based on the Spelljammer, Ravenloft, and Dark Sun settings, and a handful of one-off titles generally developed by other companies. But judging from screenshots and summaries, it's hard to find any that feature quite the same simplicity as Prophecy or that even make use of a similar engine.
            
Whatever else Dave Sayers went on to accomplish in life, he played "Lord Bitchin'" in a 1992 RPG. How do you follow that?
              
Although I suggested in my opening entry that Prophecy was part of a deliberate SSI plan to dominate all corners of the RPG field, it turns out that the game's development was less master-planned than that. It began as a project by independent developer Jaimi R. R. McEntire called Merchant's Quest, in which the character would be a merchant in a traditional RPG setting. EA rejected it but SSI agreed to publish it. Ultimately, McEntire, working with an SSI team, significantly changed the original conception. Friends and a local theater group served as models for the FMV characters.

An Amiga version of Prophecy was planned and made it all the way to the alpha stage, but the team had problems working out several bugs, and just about then, the Amiga market began to collapse. Rather than finish the port, they turned their attention to the sequel--which would have brought the son of the original protagonist to a larger continent--but unfortunately never finished that, either. McEntire turned his attention to developing a raycasting engine called 4DX, used in a MMO called Underlight (1998) and several other titles. A new engine called 6DX was used to develop a title that would have been based on L. E. Modessit's Recluce series, but it was never finished. Game development seems to have always been a sideline for McEntire: his c.v. shows primary employment in corporate software development, including banking software. Nonetheless, he told me in an e-mail exchange that he is working on a new RPG now, and making good progress. I trust he'll visit to let us know when it's ready.

It's time now to wrap up Darklands and then head into the predictable comfort of a Gold Box game. But first--a surprise!


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Darklands: Apocalypse Averted!

Any god that teleports me directly from a winning combat to the nearest pub is a god I'm happy to worship.
             
After defeating the Templar's fortress, there was only one major quest left in the game: assaulting the temple of Baphomet and foiling his plans for the apocalypse. This was not as hard as I expected. I found the Templar fortress considerably more difficult.

I had found Baphomet's fortress ages ago while exploring south of Salzburg, so it was no extra effort to travel there again, dealing with the usual encounters along the way. When I got to Salzburg, I sold the rest of my looted equipment and stocked up on additional potions even though I still had plenty left from the Templar expedition. I also restocked my ammunition. I kept the first three characters armed with handguns, but I gave the artifact Hubert's Bow to Bianca along with a bunch of arrows. I kept everyone in plate armor, overloaded though they were, based on the reasoning from my last entry.
         
Arriving in the castle entailed combat against some large lumbering beasts.
       
We were attacked by some demons upon entry--I failed to get their names--but they didn't last long. The fortress consisted of a very large room which spawned seven hallways on its north end. Each led to a door. The ones on the right refused to open at first, so I tackled them from left to right. Each offered a different challenge aspected to one of the seven plagues, and in each I had to recover a "key."

Door #1 led to a cavern of fire and brimstone. We prayed to a saint and he protected us, mostly, from the heat. Once we made it through the chamber, we recovered a seed.
          
 I don't know how much damage we would have taken without knowledge of this saint.
         
Door #2 offered a lake of fire that we had to wade or swim across. Again, a saint protected us from most damage. On the other side, in the wreckage of a boat, we found a chained woman. She related that we were in the Last Castle of the Apocalypse, founded by Templars a century earlier after they were expelled from France. They brought the "embryo" of the demon Baphomet with them and allied with the witch cult to fuel the demon with power. She gave us a globe full of water with a trout, which she said was one of the keys, and then produced a book containing the rest of the seals, which she soon destroyed.
               
An unnamed maiden gives us the scoop.
              
Door #3 led to a large room in which we were pelted by potions from alchemists. We killed them with missile weapons and then slowly threaded our way through a maze full of traps. At the end, we found a chunk of wormwood in which a vial of honey had been embedded.
          
Avoiding traps on the way to this area's key.
         
Door #4 started us in an area of darkness. It brightened as we entered, and we found ourselves in a maze of corridors in which groups of undead attacked us in melee combat. They weren't very hard. In the center of the maze, we found a glowing lantern.

Door #5 led us to an area that was like Door #4 but with buzzing swarms of insects rather than undead. We ultimately found a room in which a skeletal horseman sat astride a withered steed. He asked what we would give him to avert a famine. There was an option to pray to a saint, which I took, and the saint said to consider that "not everyone dies from a famine equally--who is the least subject to it?" I then had options to sacrifice our souls, our lives, or our wealth to the horseman. Based on the saint's clue, I chose wealth, using the logic that wealthy people don't die from famine as surely as poor people. The horseman gave me a balance and disappeared.
             
The party contends with Inflation, one of the four horsemen of the Secular Apocalypse.
           
Door #6 opened to a huge army of lancers mounted on "goblin-beasts." There was another saint option, but I didn't know any saints that would help. That left me with options only to challenge one of the lancers to single combat or to attack them all. I chose the single combat. The game didn't show the combat but just resolved it with a text screen, saying that Maximian defeated the demons' champion and won the Sword of War but was so wounded that his strength and endurance were halved--permanently. That's pretty brutal. I tried several reloads and that was actually the best outcome; if I fought all the demons, everyone suffered permanent damage to their statistics. Maybe knowing the right saint would have prevented it.
           
Maximian basically sacrifices himself for the quest.
          
Door #7 opened to a maze with walls of fire and traps all over the floor. I just had the party push through the traps and heal up at the end. I was impatient by this point, and a little annoyed about what the game did to Maximian.

When I opened the door on the other side of the chamber, I was confronted by a seven-headed, ten-horned dragon who offered me options to kneel or attack. Just for fun, because I had recently saved, I chose to kneel. The characters lost all their virtue and the dragon demanded Lambert, whom he tore to shreds before banishing the party from the castle.
            
Which head is speaking? Are they all speaking in unison?
           
On a reload, I did the right thing and attacked. The party had to approach the dragon across a platform with lava around the edges. The dragon shot fireballs at us, but the "Firewall" potion helped.
          
Walking through fireballs as we approach the dragon.
           
Eventually, we reached the dragon, or at least the area of the dragon. It was configured so that only one or two characters could fight in melee range, so I sent Maximian to chop at the beast with St. Olaf's axe while the rest of the party pelted it with missiles and potions. Naturally, I drank every buffing potion that would possibly help.

I accidentally took my eyes off Maximian's endurance for a few seconds, and when I looked back, he'd collapsed. I sent Lambert to finish the job, which took a few more minutes in which I had to keep the characters healed with potions.
             
Lambert stands on Maximian's inert form to pound away at the dragon.
           
Once the dragon died, we were transported outside, where we encountered the head of Baphomet. He announced that he was about to start the Apocalypse and scoffed at our promises to stop him. In a long series of subsequent text screens, Baphomet summoned six plagues, which we immediately defeated with the appropriate key. To wit:
             
  • Rain of ice and fire. Stopped by the seed which grew a tree that sucked up the rain.
  • Mountain of flame that will destroy all ships and fish. Defeated with the globe.
  • Comet called Wormwood, which plunges into a lake to make all water poisonous. Defeated with magic honey which counters the poison.
  • Darkness. Countered with the magic lantern.
           
The most sensible use of one of the "keys" in this sequence.
        
  • Plague of locusts. Somehow driven off by the balance.
  • Demon lancers. Vanished when we waved the Sword of War at them.
          
At this point, Baphomet asked if we had the key to ward off the seventh plague and we admitted we didn't. He said he'd be willing to delay releasing--and give us a boost in attributes besides--if we'd agree to go away and give him more time to perfect the Apocalypse. We said no, we'll deal with it now, and he screamed that "hope" was the final key and that says we clearly had it, he was "undone."
           
The old rascal tries to trick us.
        
A long, animated sequence followed in which the castle came crumbling down and the head of Baphomet was destroyed by lightning, after which beautiful rays of sunlight burst through the clouds.
              
Baphomet doesn't look much like a demon.
           
The party found itself at the gasthaus in Salzburg contemplating whether it was time to retire or whether we still had a few adventures in us. I was disappointed to find that there isn't really a way to "retire" the party in the game. You can retire individual members, but that's just a matter of party composition. Someone has to remain. I had hoped for a Pirates!-like summary of my accomplishments. Instead, the best I could think to do was sell my excess stuff to build my finances again, donate my relics to the local Dom . . .
            
Despite the prelate's promise, I got no fame for this.
         
. . .  and check my party status one final time:
                
"Legendary heroes" doesn't go far enough. After what we've been through, I'd think we'd be up for beatification.
          
As endings go, the defeat of Baphomet was pretty epic, drawing a lot of material from Revelations plus a sort-of slanderous mythology built up around the Knights Templar by their enemies.

I like the ability to keep playing after the main quest, though I didn't feel particularly compelled to. Nonetheless, as I was wrapping up this entry, I envisioned someone coming along and saying that I hadn't really "won" until I'd defeated a dragon, too. Thus, against their moans and protests, I roused my retired party from the inn in Salzburg and headed north, chasing rumors of a dragon in that direction.

It wasn't long before we came to the same message of a blasted landscape and a ruined village that I had included in a previous entry.
            
The party enters the Soviet Bloc.
 
Rather than march around fruitlessly, we used the "Ambush" command to set up surveillance in the area. After a message about a plundered village, we came to a scene in which the dragon swooped down to pluck a knight off his horse. The knight referred to the dragon as "Baruch ophidious." We kept our ambush, and finally we were treated to a scene of the dragon coming out of a fissure in the ground.
       
This game has some of the best static artwork of any RPG thus far.
         
We had options to pray to a saint or attack the dragon, but these just led to him flying off forever. On a reload, we waited for him to return to his lair and then approached him in the lair, where he couldn't flee as easily. We had options to "reason" with him, fight, or flee.
     
"Listen, we know you're supposed to bring about the apocalypse, but perhaps we could convince you not to attack innocent villages?"
            
Reasoning just led to combat, so either way the party found itself in battle against a fire-breathing foe. A few gulps of "Firewall" potions did much to blunt his attacks. In the ensuing combat, Maximian went down (remember, he'd had his strength and endurance halved in the Baphomet encounter), but the other three carried the day with minimal need for healing.

Battling the dragon as he sends a fireball into our midst.
              
In victory, we looted some of his treasure, which admittedly put my party in a better retirement situation, as they had come out of the Baphomet temple famous but completely broke, thanks to Pestilence taking all the wealth they hadn't spent on potions.
     
Happy?
         
Now, I assume I can say that I've won the game. If anyone has any final requests or feels there's anything else I should investigate, feel free to speak up; otherwise, I'll post the GIMLET and final thoughts in a few days.

Final time: 65 hours


Monday, July 15, 2019

Prophecy of the Shadow: Light Contrast

An Ultima game would have inscriptions on all these headstones, likely in runic, likely rhyming.
           
Prophecy of the Shadow has helped remind me that games often have momentary value that exceeds their inherent value. I think such a statement even applies to entire genres of games. I value RPGs significantly more than, say, first-person shooters, but there are times that a first-person shooter is exactly what the doctor ordered. I value PC games more than console games--except on a winter's evening on the sofa with the fireplace going and a drink on the end table.

In the case of Prophecy, while it's a decent game on its own, it has much greater value as a contrast to Darklands than when considered in isolation. I don't often deliberately engineer my "upcoming" list to create contrasts in approaches, but it's nice when it happens. Darklands is a good game, but it's long, and any long game eventually becomes a bit tiresome. On those days that I take a break from it, the last thing I would want is to play a second game that's exactly like Darklands. Prophecy, fortunately, is the near opposite. This makes me feel better about the game in a way that exceeds what will ultimately be its GIMLET rating.
         
Where Darklands is epic, Prophecy takes a more intimate, personal approach.
          
The Wikipedia entry on the game quotes The New Straits Times as saying that Prophecy is "the game Richard Garriott would have produced were he an SSI employee." (I have to hand it to that Wikipedia author for not only digging up this Malaysian newspaper article but also leading with it.) I, too, have noted what I see as the similarities to Ultima VI, or at least Times of Lore, which used a precursor to the Ultima VI engine. But I exchanged e-mails with author Jaimi McEntire, who said he was more inspired by MicroIllusions' Faery Tale Adventure (1987). This makes sense. While the row of icons recalls the Origin games, the nature of the axonometric graphics and wilderness exploration are more reminiscent of Faery Tale, albeit with many more things to find in a much smaller space.

Another element that Prophecy shares with Faery Tale Adventure is what I would call a "deceptively open world." That is, you can technically go anywhere (at least, after you leave the starting island), but you're mostly wasting time if you don't hit the locations in a specific order. For instance, even if you can get past the fireball-speweing "gazers" in the northern part of the continent this early in the game, there's no point visiting the city of Malice until you have an object from Granite Keep that will allow you to enter the temple. Prophecy, at least, gives you more clues as to which areas it makes the most sense to visit next.
          
These guys give you no quarter.
    
Many elements of the game that seem to suffer in contrast to Ultima are clear improvements if we consider Faery Tale Adventure as the base. NPC dialogue is more meaningful, the combat more tactical. Even the equipment system, which features no armor or other wearable equipment, is more advanced.
       
At the end of the last session, I had been warped to the main continent from the starting island with instructions to take the prophecy to the Guild of Mages in Silverdale. My attempts to stray from this path having been thwarted, I first visited the nearby village of Glade. There, I found an NPC named Chester the Great (no relation) who teaches "acrobatics" for 500 silver pieces. Functionally, this improves your agility score. Health and magic improve from using them.
          
Best NPC name ever.
          
Another of Tethe's mage hunters was coming out of the defunct ferry building, and I was forced to kill him. On his body was a "suspect list" that included "Gerald of Glade" and "Goren of Silverdale."

I eventually found their houses, but while exploring I stumbled into the abandoned silver mines east of Glade. A note in a miner's journal indicated that the mine had been attacked and overwhelmed by gnomes. I didn't get far in the mines because I kept getting attacked by "creeping oozes," which do unbelievably devastating damage. I was also running a full inventory again, and didn't see anything particularly obvious to discard. As we'll see in the next entry, it's a blessing that I decided to retreat instead of finishing this dungeon this early.
          
These guys are nearly impossible.
           
Garen and Gerald both turned out to be mages-in-hiding who had huts in between Glade and Silverdale. They both reacted with horror to the vellum scroll containing the prophecy, and told me they would gather the Council of Mages again in Silverdale. The guild is closed until you find these two NPCs, apparently.

Garen and Gerald, who were of course trying to remain icognito, pretended to be big fans of Cam Tethe, but other NPCs didn't hesitate to criticize. A man named Arian claimed to be the former mayor of Silverdale before Tethe abolished civil government. A few others whispered about a Resistance.
             
Sorry; I'm with the Oppression.
          
At the guild, the mages complained that they only had part of the prophecy, so as the next step, they sent me to the Great Library to obtain the whole thing. None of them knew where the Library was, but they related that Larkin had recently visited with someone named Urik of Glade. URIK became a new keyword, and one NPC told me that last summer, Urik had left the area to seek out Maia, a forest witch, and then go hunt a legendary boar along the coast.
        
If you return to the Guild before finishing your quest, the mages are mean.
 
Let's pause to consider the nature of NPC dialogue. It's better than most games of this era--which have no dialogue at all--and of course Faery Tale, where each NPC only had a single thing to say. Still, I'd rather than the author had pared down the selection of keywords and responses rather than allow me to ask every NPC almost every keyword in the game. Most NPCs only have substantive responses to one or two words, and a good portion (including the entire city of Jade) have no substantive responses at all. The NPCs give stock responses to most of the keywords, even when those stock responses are completely out of character for the specific NPC. For instance, when I meet a peasant in a town, it makes sense for him to say, in response to TETHE (the regent): "He's our ruler. Nice guy, huh? His indentured servant work plan has gone over real well with us peasants." It makes less sense when the same line is delivered by a forest nymph. And why do I have the option to ask so many NPCs about FOOD and DRINK and LODGING when they just stare at me blankly or tell me to go to the inn?
           
Why even offer me the keyword?
         
I headed for the coast, battling a new enemy called "torloks" along the way. I soon found a grave marking for Urik along with a journal that placed the Great Library in the forest south of a hunter's lodge. Intel in Glade had suggested that the hunter's lodge would be just south of Glade, so that narrowed down the area. I later met Maia but she had nothing new to offer.

Around this time, I stumbled into the city of Granite, where the innkeeper, in response to the keyword RUMOR, told me of a man who "came in with a pack that was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside." Unfortunately, he "disappeared beneath the city."
          
From the moment I heard of its existence, the Pack of Holding was my most important priority.
         
This is a classic CRPG moment. Friends, family, prophecies, the fate of the world . . . they all go out the window the moment you hear a Bag of Holding is nearby. I was soon wading through the sewers beneath Granite in search of this treasure, which I finally found next to the corpse of its previous owner. Sure enough, activating it gives you enough slots to just about quadruple your inventory space. That was a palpable relief. It's amazing how much something like inventory mechanics can ruin your experience of a game. After I found the bag, my only complaint was how using any item causes you to un-equip your active weapon, which means you have to remember to re-equip it or you end up fighting with your fists.

With the encumbrance issue addressed, I started looking for passages in the lump of forest that I had to circle around to get to Granite in the first place. I finally found a route that led to the Great Library, but not before passing by a cave of torloks first. I explored it and kill about a dozen torloks and wolves, culminating in the torlok chieftain. After he was dead, the game invited me to take his tongue. I took it, of course, because another unwritten rule of RPGs is that if a weird or unusual item appears, it will almost certainly be needed in a quest later. That's why I have a rotting head in my sack along with the tongue.
          
Winding my way through the Great Forest.
       
Eventually, I reached the library. The game does books well, imbuing each with a decent amount of text and lore. The "Gazer/Common Dictionary" presents gazers as an ancient race destroyed by their own pursuit of magic. Another book discusses how apprentice mages were sent to the last gazer, Bardach, who lives in a grotto on a small island southwest of the mainland.
            
Some of the books are quite wordy. No complaints, though.
         
Fighting through feral rats and more torloks, I made it to the second floor of the library, where I found the prophecy on a pedestal. "Seek ye the last of the High Gazers," it said. I headed back to the Mages' Guild, but they wouldn't even let me in the door. A terse message simply said, "The council instructs you to do as the Prophecy said." Well.
             
Searching the Great Library as a torlok wanders along.
          
The map doesn't show an island off the southwest coast, but there's room for one, so I headed in that direction after a failed attempt to enter Granite Keep to confront Tethe. (I apparently need a key.) The journey took me into the "Withering Lands," where I had to slay a few desert bandits. I got distracted by a hole in a cemetery leading down to "burial crypts," where I found the "Terrae Motus" spell (tremors) as well an earthen wand. Surprisingly, there were no enemies in the burial crypt.
          
Like many places in the game, the burial crypts had some evocative graphics.
          
There was no way to walk to the island (you can't swim in this game), but in the southern tip of the Withering Lands, I found a pair of side-by-side conical rocks, which indicated a teleporter location. I tried Larf's Rod there, and it seemed to take me to the southwest island. South of where I arrived, I found another pair of rocks, and using the rod there took me to the Gazer's Grotto.
         
Pairs of stones like this denote teleporter locations.
        
Although Bardach is supposed to be the "last gazer," clearly he isn't because there were hostile gazers wandering around the grotto. I don't know how you're supposed to defeat them without copious reloads since they immediately blast you with fireballs that deplete dozens of hit points. I had some luck killing them with a great bow that I found near the grotto entrance, but you have a limited number of arrows and I ran out after two gazers. After that, whether I lived or died was down to luck.

The game has an odd relationship with hit points and hit point regeneration. As long as you have food, you get one hit point and one magic point restored for roughly every 30 seconds. If you have no food, you suffer no ill effects except that you get no regeneration, which makes sense, but if you're already at maximum health and magic, the game still consumes a unit of food every half-minute. This means that food (which maxes at 99) lasts no more than about 45 game minutes and is mostly wasted unless you get wounded. At first, I was angry at this paradox, but then I realized that the regeneration benefits from food are dwarfed by those from resting--which restores 5-10 hit points and magic points, and you can do every 3 minutes, anywhere in the game. In short, it makes little sense to waste money on food, and if you're willing to wait around a while between combats, you can get your health back up to maximum with a few rest breaks and the occasional casting of "Curare." Perhaps that's why the game introduces so many enemies that can swipe away your maximum hit points in three blows. I'd mind more if combat or reloading took longer, but they don't. Reloading five times to defeat one gazer is still a shorter process than regular combats in some games.

In one chamber, tablets related the history of the High Gazers, who learned to mistrust the instability of magic and turned their attention to natural laws instead. They created less intelligent servants to do the work while the High Gazers studied and researched, bur their working class eventually came under the control of a mage named Abraxus, who incited the lesser gazers to overthrow their masters. When I finally met Bardach, he said that to stop the end of the world, I would need to "restore the gold stolen by the sorcerer Abraxus" (I am compelled to note that this name sounds like a household cleaner) and he gave me directions to an ancient ruin called the Hall of Mages to do this.
           
Learning the history of the High Gazers.
        
The Hall of Mages was the site of the last battle with Abraxus. There, documents discussed a couple of measures used in times past to deal with Abraxus, including a weapon that negates magic and a spell to discover the true name of Death, and thus compel him to kill Abraxus. The weapon, called the Sword of Power, was apparently a failure. But when the mages called Death, he killed the entire council after destroying Abraxus, so that plan went a bit awry, too. Other notes mention that "all the gold in the world is gone" and that the weakest catalyst, lead, is now "the only source of magic."

I couldn't find a way out of the Hall of Mages without trekking all the way back through the grotto, so I used REPETERE to return to Bannerwick--the last place I cast it. From there, I made my way back to Silverdale and, predictably, found all the guild members slaughtered.
         
I love how a primitive medieval society still apparently has a C.S.I. unit.
     
The game stopped leading me by the hand at this point, but I could tell from the map that the only places I hadn't visited were the Fell Swamp, the city of Jade, the city of Malice, and Granite Keep. In the next session, I ultimately figured it out and won the game. I was figuring that Cam Tethe must be some modern incarnation of Abraxus, and that the endgame would take place in the Keep, but it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.
                  
My travels this session.
          
This deep into the game, its most disappointing aspect is the paucity of useful spells. For most of this session, the only spell I cast was "Curare," or the healing spell. The fireball spell, "Incindiere," really doesn't do enough damage relative to a melee weapon to justify it. Two others that I found--"Inlustrare" (light) and "Oculorum" (eagle eye)--both have replacements in inventory items, making it a waste of points to cast the spells.

More soon, but for now it's time to win Darklands!

Time so far: 12 hours

P.S. I'm not satisfied with the subtitle. I wanted something that would play on "Shadow" and perhaps the "Dark" of Darklands but still emphasize the contrast between the games (and the idea of contrast in general, since I was also contrasting it with Ultima and Faery Tale Adventure). I spend a lot of time on subtitles--more than really makes sense--and it irks me when I can't get one just right.