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-spewing "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 incognito, 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 killed 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.


  1. Abraxas (alternately Abraxus or Abraxis) is the name of a demon or minor deity, and thus a favourite for fantasy authors looking to crib a pretentious NPC name.

    My recollection is that this "five million key words to check" dialogue system enjoyed a fair bit of popularity in the adjacent adventure-game genre, with the contemporary Tex Murphy games being a strong example of its use.

    You'd obviously be aware of the Elder Scrolls being probably the most prominent post-Ultima use of it in CRPGs.

    1. Morrowind was the best use of it. I admit to not getting very far in Daggerfall or Arena, but the most use I found for NPCs in those games is bugging them until they marked my map for me.

    2. It's also the name of a multi-platinum Santana album.

    3. I missed the third paragraph here and thought that you were saying that Abraxas was best used in Morrowind, and spent way too long checking UESP and other wikis to figure out which character or location that referred to.

    4. This is one area in which Morrowind does not excel. Nothing is more frustrating that encountering an NPC in some odd place (e.g., the middle of a Daedric ruin) and then just getting the stock selection of keywords.

    5. Isn't 'Abraxo Cleaner' a fallout 3/4 item?

    6. THAT'S where I was getting the idea. Thanks.

    7. To clarify, I didn't mean "Best overall," I meant "Best in Elder Scrolls' attempts at it." I dont think there's an NPC in all of Daggerfall and Arena that actually uses the keyword system to deliver unique dialogue; quests and such are reserved for separate popups.

  2. When I played the game, I relied heavily on Incendiere because of how easily the enemies in the game handed my ass to me in melee combat, no matter how much agility or health I had. My basic strategy was to cast two Incedieres when the enemy is approaching, one in front of him, and finish off with melee when needed (rarely). The upside is that one can cast Incendieres much faster than swing a weapon, and the magic menu pauses the game, so enemies can be eliminated almost instantly as long as one has enough magic or health. This is helpful when an enemy has already closed the distance.

    This strategy also meant resting after near every combat, but his was rarely a problem. I never figured out when exactly the game lets the player rest. It seems that if one takes enough damage after the last rest, another is allowed almost immediately, but sometimes you have to wait a while. Anyway, this method got me through most of the game, though it fails at the very end.

  3. Bruce Barleycorn looks more like he wants to sell me a pizza than tell my fortune.

    1. He does look a lot like an actor that would appear in a commercial for frozen pizza.

    2. As a running joke, every bartender is "Bruce" something - played by my good friend Bruce, of course.

  4. I ended up looking at that image with the former mayor of Silverdale out of the corner of my eye, and managed to misinterpret it as a shirtless person with extremely long hair looking at you over their shoulder. The joys of flesh colored shirts.

  5. It seems very odd to supply a missile weapon (the Greatbow) for which ammunition is so limited and apparently non-retrievable. I forget, but is there an inexhaustible source of arrows you can buy for it in either Granite or Jade?

    1. The arms and armor shop on the left side of Granite sells arrows for 10 silver apiece.

  6. I'm sorry, but I think I found a PC game with RPG elements and it is not on your list.

    Feel free to reject it, though. I don't know if this game has any stat progression in it. If not, it is more of an action-adventure game, more similar to System Shock 1.

    1. "RPG elements" isn't enough. It has to satisfy each of my three RPG criteria, and I remember it failed on something.

    2. As far as I can tell from videos, it's just a first person shooter with placebo stats and possibly placebo equipment, something like Xenomorph.

  7. I see what you mean about the title. My own brain-wracking was also unsatisfying. The best I could come up with was "light atmosphere," and while the general flavor might be ok, it's really only intelligible as a strict opposition to "dark land."

  8. "Still, I'd rather the author had pared down the selection of keywords and responses..."

    One nice feature: During the course of a dialog, conversational gambits changed color once they had been exhausted.

    If only this color coding had been persistent, new dialog options would have been more obvious when you re-engaged a character.

    It detracts a little from the atmosphere of the game when your automatic response on re-engaging a character is to rapidly choose each dialog with very little attention.

    Did you find yourself doing the two-finger dance? One finger on down arrow, the other on enter: (down)(enter)(down)(enter)(down)(enter)etc.?

    1. I did! And then get angry at myself when doing it with the innkeeper, because halfway down the list was "Lodging," and I'd end up spending the night, and all the keyword colors would reset.

  9. Subtitlewise, maybe something with "Shades"? "Shades of Darkness," "Contrasting Shades," "Diff'rent Shades for Diff'rent Games" etc.

    1. Penumbra? Chiarascuro? Just trying to apply my artistic lexicon to the problem....

    2. "Different As Night and Dark"?

    3. A lighter mood.
      No more dark and heavy.
      Out of the dark, into the light.

    4. Out of the dark, into the shadow.

    5. "A tenebrious connection?"

  10. "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."

    There is a popular RPG (Arcanum) with the exact opposite problem, where the AI controlled party members helpfully pick up items from the ground, and equip weapons if the character is unarmed.

    Two of the better party members are ogres, who are particularly effective with their fists. They are _constantly_ equipping random iron spikes and other detritus they walk over, without any sort of notification, which means you basically have to unequip them every single combat, and sometimes during combat.

    1. Was Arcanum popular? I got it when it came out, but it was too impenetrable for then me. I'm looking forward to seeing Chet cover it eventually.

    2. It was well known enough, coming as it was from Fallout designers, but I don't know about commercial success. A well written and open ended RPG with a relatively original setting, but with terribly unbalanced combat.

    3. Yeah, decent sales (which would have had a long tail end) plus cult following, not a smash hit, none of Troika's three games were, but they all have a fanbase.

      The feel was really nice, steampunk/low fantasy, solid writing, interesting world, but mechanically the game was garbage. Neither the real time nor turn-based combat was satisfying (an issue shared with Fallout: Tactics from the same year), and there were a lot of UI niggles - being unable to move the view window far from the main character was especially frustrating.

    4. All the games I can think of from that time that tried to chase both styles ended up with turn-based combat worse than good turn-based games and real-time combat worse than good real-time games. Cyberstorm 2 and X-COM: Apocalypse are some more examples.

    5. Arcanum is the best RPG ever made in my opinion. Though it is heavily flawed and I recognize these flaws much more today than I did when I played the game as a teen. It still manages to do so much right, and there hasn't been an RPG yet that surpasses Arcanum at its greatest heights.


  11. "Although Bardach is supposed to be the "last gazer," clearly he isn't because there were hostile gazers wandering around the grotto."

    The prophecy says "the last one of the High gazers". The ones in the grotto are probably a bunch of squares... (sorry).

  12. Even though it was a huge improvement over Fairy Tale Adventure, I still wished I could speed up overland travel.

    After completing the game, I accidentally discovered that there are a number of undocumented controls. CTRL-B allows adjusting game speed and sound.

    Summarizing the controls I discovered (documented and undocumented):

    1,2,3,4,6,7,8,9 Move in same direction as numpad keys.
    A Activates the "Attack" action button.
    ARROW KEYS Allows a cursor to be moved in the direction of the arrow.
    CTRL B Choose Slow speed, Normal speed, Fast speed, or Toggle Sound.
    CTRL I Toggle to/from icons.
    D Activates the "Drop Item" action button.
    E Activates the "Enter" action button.
    ESC Lets you escape out of a window.
    G Allows you to give an item to the person you are talking to.
    L Activates the "Look" action button.
    M Activates the "Magic" action button.
    NUMPAD KEYS Move in cardinal directions.
    R Activates the "Rest" action button.
    S Activates the "Search" action button.
    SHIFT G Activates the "Game Options" action button.
    SHIFT Q Quit.
    SHIFT R Restore a saved game.
    SHIFT S Activates the "Save" option.
    T Activates the "Talk" action button.
    TAB This places a cursor around an action button. The cursor may be moved to different action buttons. Press return when the desired action button is highlighted to activate it.
    U Activates the "Use Item" action button.

    1. I think if you look at Page 9 of the rulebook, you'll find that most of these are documented. I used the keyboard extensively.

    2. Oh, my apologies. You said "documented and undocumented" before the list.

    3. I will always love your correctness and your politness, one of the best reasons to not only follow your blog as it is as good followong the comments. the tone here is uncommon on internetforums love the blog, love the comunity

  13. "...contrast to Darklands."

    The contrast is perfectly exemplified by Prophecy's princess.

    She is just as I would have imagined a princess -- when I was in kindergarten! LOL


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