Saturday, January 4, 2020

Challenge of the Five Realms: Summary and Rating

Notice how the box has little scenes from each of the five realms.
            
Challenge of the Five Realms: Spellbound in the World of Nhagardia
United States
MicroProse (developer and publisher, under its Microplay label)
Released 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 2 November 2019
Date Ended: 31 December 2019
Total Hours: 35
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Summary:

Challenge of the Five Realms is a plot-heavy axonometric title set on the flat world of Nhagardia. A prince must race against a creeping darkness to retrieve the five crowns of Nhagardia's five kingdoms (human, gnome, elf, fish-man, and effete flying man), whose leaders have been killed by the mysterious, demonic Grimnoth. The game is as full-featured as anything in 1992, with animated cut scenes and voiced digital dialogue at the beginning and end. There are hundreds of NPCs, dozens of side quests, and a book's worth of dialogue. Many of the NPCs may join the party, which maxes at 10. The tactical combat system works relatively well. But the game lacks in other key role-playing areas, particularly character development.

*****

Challenge of the Five Realms is easily the best game from the team that previously created the Paragon Software adaptations of Games Designers' Workshop (GDW) titles, including the two MegaTraveller games, Space 1889, and Twilight: 2000. This suggests that either the GDW games were fertile practice ground or the development team did better without GDW fetters, or perhaps both.

However, Challenge is far from a perfect title, and at least one of its weaknesses was seen likewise in the GDW adaptations: almost no character development. Characters enter the party as full adults with long careers behind them. You may choose, keep, or reject them because of their attributes and skills, but you don't expect those attributes and skills to get better during the game--at least not in any consistent, understandable way. Some skills increase not at all, a few increase by 3 or 4 points, and a couple increase by 50 points. That's a Paragon game if I ever heard one.

It's too bad because the game is quite strong on other RPG mechanics, including combat and side quests, but Challenge really drives home how an RPG player like me only cares about those things in the context of character development. Take away the reward, and I don't really care if the old woman gets her wedding ring back or not. The economy and inventory systems are likewise a bit of a mess, meaning that not even they compensate for a lack of intrinsic character development.

There are a few other flaws that don't entirely cripple the game but come close. The time limit is employed badly. The limit itself is fairly generous, and it's hard to imagine a moderately conscientious player running afoul of it. The problem is that the "creeping darkness" slowly eats the map from the bottom up, so that your time constraints are a lot more urgent for the locations in the south. The various towns and castles in Nhagardia are all interesting in appearance and character, and it's a shame to have to rush through them. It's equally a shame to reduce replayability by forcing the player to prioritize the southern locations; without the "creeping darkness," the game would be satisfyingly non-linear.
           
What happens if you miss the time limit.
           
I have a feeling that this is going to GIMLET in the extremes, with several high scores and several low scores.

1. Game World. The setting, backstory, and plot are all strong. I like the way that each kingdom has its own character, and the people have their own values. In the human kingdom, each town and castle has its own story to impart. I love the slow reveal of the depth of Clesodor's evil. The twists at the end didn't do as much for me, but at least they brought the whole thing to a proper conclusion. Someone really wrote this one. Score: 7.
                
Grimnoth lays out the charges against my father. All of this was unknown at the beginning of the game.
            
2. Character Creation and Development. If the old Paragon developers should have kept anything from their GDW experience, it was the Traveller-style character creation process that puts the character through a wringer of training and experience before shoving him out the door and into your party. Instead, the authors opted for an Ultima IV-style process of answering role-playing questions to determine the main character's starting skills and attributes. Other characters come as they are.

Unfortunately, where the creators' GDW experience comes through the most is in the lack of character development. No explanation is given for why some skills ("Learn Spells," "Bargaining") increase steadily with use while others (including all the combat skills) don't increase at all. It is a depressing oversight that nearly strips the game of its RPG credentials entirely. Score: 2.
            
Chesotor ended the game hardly better than where he started.
         
3. NPCs. Challenge undoubtedly offers more NPC speech than any previous game. It isn't quite "dialogue," though. Except for a small number of yes/no responses, the game speaks for the characters, and thus the NPCs' speeches are more like information dumps than anything approaching "role-playing." Beyond that, the attention to NPC characterization is excellent, as is the general quality of the text.

Even more fun is the sheer number of NPCs who will join your quest. You have a generous party size (10) and at least three times that number of potential members, including the novel idea of "grouped" party members. For the first time that I remember in RPG history, your NPC companions have bits of banter as you enter areas, talk to other NPCs, and solve quests. My only complaint is that dismissed companions utterly disappear from the game instead of going back to where you acquired them (or to a central location). Score: 6.
         
The NPCs in this game were interesting, but man did they have a lot to say.
        
4. Encounters and Foes. Weak again. Almost all of the combat foes are people, with very little to distinguish them or to change player tactics. There are no puzzles beyond simple inventory puzzles. However, the game does excel in what I call "contextual encounters." Nhagardia is not a land swarming with monsters that you must mindlessly kill; every combat is set in a context, usually with some preceding dialogue, so you always know who you're fighting and why. Score: 3.

5. Magic and Combat. Ironically, the old Paragon team finally fielded a decent combat system in a game that only has about a dozen battles. It's hard to characterize the exact nature of the system. It looks somewhat like "real-time with pause" except that it only appears "real-time" and there are actually turns at fixed intervals behind the scenes. Either way, whether the player micromanages the combat by issuing new orders every round or just relies on "quick combat," the mechanics and tactics are generally satisfying.

Spells are another matter. The spell system is primarily used for puzzle-solving (woe is the character who lacks "Truth," in particular) and travel. Combat spells are a bit under-developed. There are no area-effect spells and only a couple of buffing spells. Magic depletes so quickly that you can only cast a few spells in any given combat anyway, which makes it jarring to have so many endgame enemies that don't respond to physical weapons. Again, the developers' lack of experience (none of the GDW properties were fantasy RPGs) shows here. Score: 4.
           
Fighting some peregrines.
        
6. Equipment. Another weak area. The game has slots for a lot of different equipment types, but I only ever found a few rings, one item of headwear, and a couple of pairs of boots. There are maybe three magic items to find during your adventures, but beyond that the roster of weapons and armor is no different than the starting store in a typical D&D-derived game. Score: 2.

7. Economy. The economy is so favorable to the player that I think it might be bugged. From the moment the game began, I spent blithely whenever anyone asked for money, and I never seemed to lack any. Of course, there isn't a lot to spend money on. All shops of the same type sell the same things, and you can get most of your equipment in the starting castle. Score: 2.

8. Quests. If you can say one thing for the Paragon team, they're one of the only groups of developers in this period that truly understands "side quests." Every map area has a bunch of Joe Commoners with their own problems that they're hoping that the characters will solve. These side quests are rewarded with gold, spell reagents, equipment, and the availability of new NPCs. Some of the quests even have multiple options for ending them, usually favoring one town faction over another.

Meanwhile, the main quest and its various stages are equally compelling. An open question is whether it would be possible to complete the game by murdering each king for his crown. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The graphics are very good for the era, and I particularly like the title cards that precede each map. Sound effects, on the other hand, are a bit too sparse. There are no background sounds, and only the occasional effect during combat.

The interface is horrid. Keyboard backups for the most common commands don't help much when you have to move exclusively with the mouse. The process of hailing and talking to NPCs is needlessly complex and inconsistent. After 35 hours, I still can't give a good account of it. Sometimes, you have to both "Hail" and "Speak" and other times you just seem to have to walk near an NPC to get him to start talking. Sometimes, the speech cursor remains active and you can keep clicking on other NPCs, and sometimes you have to start over. Sometimes dialogue exits on its own and sometimes there seems to be no way to exit. Once or twice, I literally had to reload the game.
          
The multiple inventory screens added needless complexity to what should have been a simple process.
         
The inventory interface is also needlessly cumbersome. The idea of a single chest shared by all characters is great. Beyond that, each character simply needed an individual "wearable" inventory. Instead, each character has his own pouch, backpack, and non-specific "inventory" space in addition to the wearable inventory and collective chest. Also, the process of removing and replacing things in the chest could have been quicker. The interface issues were so consistently annoying that they weaken the entire category score despite the good graphics. Score: 2.

10. Gameplay. As previously discussed, the game would be wonderfully non-linear if the team hadn't forced the player to prioritize the southern locations. Even with that weakness, there's still a lot of non-linearity to the game, which enhances its replayability. The length and challenge are about right. We thus finish on a strong category with only minor complaints. Score: 7.

The final score thus adds up to 41, well above the "recommended" threshold. I thought it would out-perform all of the Paragon games, but it turns out I gave the same score to MegaTraveller 2, which had many of the same strengths and weaknesses.



I don't know what was happening at Computer Gaming World in the fall of 1993, but the lukewarm review (by Gordon Goble, who I've never seen before) is the worst one that I've seen in the magazine since its first few issues. It's like it didn't even pass the eyes of an editor. (Among other things, Goble makes reference to "Darth Vadar.") It's full of pretentiousness, non-sequiturs, dumb jokes, senseless allusions, and tired cliches. He spends several paragraphs complaining that he attacked some random NPC, and that NPC turned out to be harder to defeat than would make sense. His concluding paragraph references "inadequate beta testing" and "a certain awkwardness to gameplay" that aren't justified by any of his previous text. Gods know what editor was asleep at the wheel for this one, but I certainly hope this is the last we'll see of this writer.

There must have been something in the water that month, because Dragon magazine's three-star pan is equally baffling in different ways. The author's enjoyment is far too influenced by what he or she sees as plot holes ("Why the evil fellow simply can't take the crown after he kills the king makes no sense"), as if any fantasy RPG of the period holds up to the most cursory plot scrutiny.

As we previously covered, Challenge was the first RPG from the old Paragon Software team after the company was acquired by MicroProse. The team included Marc Miller, F. J. Lennon, Paul M. Conklin, and Quinno Martin. For some members, this was their last RPG. Others contributed to MicroProse's BloodNet (1993) before leaving MicroProse for Take-Two Interactive. BloodNet will be our last MicroProse title and the last of the Paragon legacy. Hopefully, by then I'll have been able to get in touch with one of the team's principal developers and get some insight as to why this series, though innovative, always slightly missed the mark.


25 comments:

  1. Congratulations on the win! A fair GIMLET, teasing a what-if scenario where Paragon folks understood what makes CRPGs tick. As with all MicroProse RPG titles: fascinating almost-wrecks.

    I am also looking forward to Legacy: Realm of Terror, although I do fear the experience might not be painless. As I recall, it is a difficult in a not fun way game that mixes adventure game mechanics with Dungeon Masterish gameplay.

    I wonder if there is a comprehensive history of MicroProse somewhere. The whole expansion of early 90ies, the merger with Spectrum Holobyte and the mess that is the late 90ies must make for an interesting story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Legacy: Realm of Terror can be compared with the Elvira games or Waxworks: more of an adventure game with RPG elements. It has slightly more meaningful RPG system, marred by the fact what the resources, including spellcasting points, are strictly limited. Also, it plays the horror genre straight, borrowing much from Lovecraft, instead of being an homage to the horror B-movies. Which is, arguably, a strong point, compared to the HorrorSoft games.

      Delete
    2. Legacy(RoT) is highly recommended for how unique it is both in theme and style. Having beaten it, I can vouch that it's a game that pretends to be harder than it actually is. The most difficult part is the very beginning, where you're thrown straight into the deep end without a clue what you're expected to do about any of the dozen problems it throws in your lap. After getting your bearings and surviving the first hour, it's surprisingly smooth sailing.

      Delete
  2. I guess despite the improvements story-wise they were still weighed down by poor choices they made in previous games. That's one point against engine reuse, sometimes there are big problems that can't be fixed.

    Uh, Bloodnet doesn't have a similar interface in any regard. Granted, its been a while since I played it, but they're very different in almost all respects. Except character development.

    Legacy is pretty sweet except for the difficulty. Feels like an early survival horror attempt. With all that implication entails.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's weird. Normally, I'd check out screenshots from myself, but I read on three different web sites, including the generally reliable RPS . . .

      https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2015/06/03/bloodnet-review-retro/

      . . . that bloodnet "uses the same engine" as Cot5R. But you're right--it looks 100% different.

      Delete
    2. That's not a bad review, even if it is obvious that he never finished the game. Maybe he meant to say Return of the Phantom. That isn't right either. Although either way, the code in that game must have been a Frankenstein nightmare.

      Delete
  3. Your comment that the game barely counts as an RPG considering most of your skills never rise up made me think.

    It is, by all means, an RPG: you get to choose your character's starting skill values, and they influence what he's good or bad at. Is leveling up really necessary for it to be a proper RPG? Shouldn't character creation be enough?

    Let's try a little thought experiment. What if Fallout 1 - by some people considered to be the best RPG ever - gave you a couple more points at char gen and then that's the char you play from start to finish?

    Or what about a D&D module intended for characters of a certain level, with not enough XP to give you any levelups? Let's say it's a dungeon crawl that lasts you 5 hours and is filled with challeging encounters and nets you a couple of magic items, but you start it at level 9 and there's not enough XP in the module to propel you to level 10. You are completely free in choosing your character's class, feats, spells etc though.

    Those would fully qualify as RPGs, wouldn't they?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They would - arguably indeed, in my opinion, they would be *more* RPGs if characters were intrinsically somewhat invariable. But RPGs or not, they are certainly not the sort of RPGs that Chet likes, and their Gimlets accordingly will tend to be less than stellar!

      Delete
    2. JF: "Or what about a D&D module intended for characters of a certain level, with not enough XP to give you any levelups?"

      I would say that an individual module does not qualify as an "RPG" regardless of anything, since it lacks all the game systems. At best it's a part of an RPG. And if you took, let's say, the whole game of 5th edition D&D, and removed the ability to get stronger with no other changes - no, I would no longer count it as an RPG personally. It would be a verbal adventure game. The Numbers That Go Up are in my mind an intrinsic requirement for RPGs, and if I imagine the simplest possible thing that qualifies as an RPG, it has nothing in it except basic decision-making and Numbers That Go Up. Not even combat is necessary in my book, nor equipment nor economy, but the NTGU have to be there.

      There's admittedly a lot of blurred lines here because RPGs are perhaps the least precisely defined genre of all games short of "action-adventure", the catch-all genre.

      Delete
    3. This game gives the player a time limit of 100 days, right? How much personal improvement can a person do in just over 3 months? Especially if they'll spend a lot of that time just walking from one place to the next. Did the prince bring a library, a retinue of personal trainers, tutors and martial arts coaches with him?
      I've always been put off by the time scales of games. While I don't expect them to play out in real time I would expect a PC's personal development to track reasonably along the timeline of the game.
      I spent 3 months in basic training and I can't say I went from a civilian to a combat veteran in that time. I learned only the bare minimum to be a soldier. It was over the next decade that I really honed my skills as an infantryman, truck driver, fuel handler, and instructor.

      Delete
    4. I spent three months in basic training, too, and I think you're downplaying how much you picked up in that short period. No, you weren't any kind of combat veteran, but on a Scale of 0-10, you probably went from 0 to 3 or 4 on a lot of skills, not to mention general physical fitness. I went from never handling either to marksmanship badges in rifles and grenades and I went from the ability to do 20 pushups in 2 minutes to more than 80.

      But "realism" is a weird requirement for RPGs anyway. I'm with MOZA. Numbers That Go Up is as key a requirement for an RPG. I've rejected plenty of games that have fixed attributes but no character development. Cot5R squeaks by because SOME of its numbers go up, but in some ways the inconsistency is worse than if the character was just fixed.

      Delete
    5. So would you consider a simplistic Ultima 1 style game with only STR, INT and CON as its stats, but they increase with experience, as more of an RPG than a highly complex game with detailed character creation but the stats barely go up, if at all?

      The system would be classless and allow you any combination of skills. You can specialize or become a hybrid battemage etc. There are wildly different playstyles and the game's quests support different approaches based on your character: combat, magic, stealth, diplomacy, etc. But the stats and skills you pick at character creation stay the same throughout the game.

      Would it be less of an RPG than something with a much simpler system but increasing stats?

      I enjoy leveling up my characters too, but a game where you fully define your character at his or her creation and don't get to raise anything afterwards would still be a proper RPG provided that different characters actually play differently.

      Delete
    6. It would be a weird RPG. You'd probably trap me in a corner where I'd have to recognize it as such, but I wouldn't like it.

      Delete
    7. Isn't that basically Megatraveller 2? Sure, stat advancements are there in theory, but I don't remembering it happening even once during my playthrough.

      Delete
    8. A limit of 100 days is really not an argument; there are plenty of RPGs where the main character goes from level 1 to level 20 within just weeks of in-game time.

      Delete
    9. It's been ages since I played Baldur's Gate 2, but I seem to remember that your character's stats hardly increased during the game. Hit and magic points increased, and resistances, but strength and intelligence etc. we're more of less fixed. I don't doubt BG is an rpg, but the lack of state increases at level ups still feels as a weak point, so I agree fully with MOZA that the numbers should go up (a very rare weak point in the case of BG2, I should add - to me it's one of the best games ever).

      Delete
    10. Yeah, attributes don't change in a lot of games. It's the nature of the D&D system that attributes are mostly fixed. I'm not necessarily talking about those. I'm talking about general "leveling" with whatever rewards that brings: more max hit points, more spells, higher skills, better resistances, extra attacks.

      Delete
    11. From when I played this game many years ago I seem to recall the rule is if you successfully use a skill, there is a chance for it to improve. The chance is lower the higher the skill already is.

      That seemed to play out in my experience as my main character (a mage) with a weapon skill of 14 actually improved the one time he hit with his weapon. Of course, a weapon skill of 14 he couldn't hit the ground either the way that game implemented things.

      I wonder if there was a point where the game just had such a low chance of improvement that no one ever saw it? I know my mages never improved at all in spellcasting the entire game, but they were over 100 already in the stat.

      Delete
    12. Personally for me the core experience of CRPG is growth. It can be focused on equipment, rather than character, but unless the verbs of the game become more powerful or varied during the game it does not feel like a CRPG to me.

      Conversly, the most detailed simulation of a variety of different gameplay styles will still feel like an adventure game to me, if there is no growth. Even if you have extensive character creation and whatnot, in my mind it's still an adventure game without NTGU.

      Delete
    13. My D&D group and I spent a lot of time on a D&D 3.5 E6 campaign back in the day. The premise of the E6 variant is basically: play D&D 3.5 as normal. Once characters hit level 6, they don't level anymore. Everytime they accrue enough XP to go to level 7, they get an extra feat instead (basically a rather slight and very specialized power boost in one area).

      The group expectedly rose to level 6 more or less rapidly, they were there after half a year or so of regular sessions. We continued playing for a full year after that.

      Not an RPG anymore at that point?

      Delete
    14. Getting more feats is still a kind of advancement, though.

      Delete
    15. For me, an RPG is more about choices combined with narrative. It's less about stats and gear, more about feeling and story. I'll be the first to admit that Mass Effect is barely an RPG in terms of stats and levelling, but I love the dramatic moments where you must pick between mutually exclusive options, then see that choice ripple out and affect things in 2 and 3.

      Same thing with KOTOR II; the combat is janky broken garbage, but the parts I love are when you return to the Ebon Hawk and learn what different characters think about the story so far. The first major section of the game ends on a huge info dump rather than a boss battle, which took some huge cajones and was way more interesting than spamming Power Attack for 20 rounds.

      Same thing with Planescape: Torment--barely any meaningful character upgrades, just a huge fascinating world to explore with a lot of weird characters to learn about and strange adventures to be had.

      That's not to say that I dislike levelling and character building, but if you took that stuff out of an RPG you'd still have a good game in my opinion--not so if you took out the story and just left in all the numbers.

      Delete
    16. I like a good story and choices, but you have to recognize that if we make these the very definition of a "CRPG" than the first real CRPG didn't appear until about 1985, and between 1985 and 1995, there were only 8 of them, mostly Ultima titles.

      Paul, in your case, as Reiska said, your characters are developing in some way, so I'd call it an RPG. But keep in mind that my definitions are meant only to govern COMPUTER RPGs. I wouldn't necessarily extend them to tabletop RPGs. They're different animals.

      Delete
  4. I've enjoyed reading all your postings on this game, brought back a few nostalgic memories. I thought it might score a bit higher, but as you rightly point out that while the high points are quite high, the low points are very low to cancel that out, and I can't specifically complain about any of the scores you gave.

    ReplyDelete
  5. For some reason I find the name Chesotor hilarious. I kept getting a chuckle out of it all the way to the end.

    All hail Lord Chesotor!

    ReplyDelete

I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) This also includes user names that link to advertising.

2. Please avoid profanity and vulgar language. I don't want my blog flagged by too many filters.

3. Please don't comment anonymously. It makes it impossible to tell who's who in a thread. Choose the "Name/URL" option, pick a name for yourself, and just leave the URL blank.

4. I appreciate if you use ROT13 for explicit spoilers for the current game and upcoming games. Please at least mention "ROT13" in the comment so we don't get a lot of replies saying "what is that gibberish?"

Also, Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

I read all comments, no matter how old the entry. So do many of my subscribers. Reader comments on "old" games continue to supplement our understanding of them. As such, all comment threads on this blog are live and active unless I specifically turn them off. There is no such thing as "necro-posting" on this blog, and thus no need to use that term.

As of January 2019, I will be deleting any comments that simply point out typos. If you want to use the commenting system to alert me to them, great, I appreciate it, but there's no reason to leave such comments preserved for posterity.

I'm sorry for any difficulty commenting. I turn moderation on and off and "word verification" on and off frequently depending on the volume of spam I'm receiving. I only use either when spam gets out of control, so I appreciate your patience with both moderation tools.