Thursday, February 20, 2020

Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny: Summary and Rating

        
Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny
Germany
Released in Germany as Das Schwarze Auge: Die Schicksalsklinge
attic Entertainment Software (developer); Fantasy Productions (German publisher); Sir-Tech (U.S. Publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS, 1993 for Amiga
Date Started: 13 November 2019
Date Ended: 7 February 2020
Total Hours: 38
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 44
Ranking at Time of Posting: 313/360 (87%)

Summary:

First in a lineage based on the German tabletop RPG Das Schwarze Auge, Blade of Destiny is a gem waiting to be cut and polished. A party of six, comprising familiar races but original classes, stops a horde of orcs from razing the city of Thorwal by finding a legendary sword that defeated the orcs in the past. In an effort to offer a computer game that adhered closely to tabletop rules and gaming style, Blade perhaps errs too much towards obtuse statistics, lengthy character creation and leveling, myriad spells, and exhausting tactical combat. Yet the developers managed to create a large, open game world and populate it with interesting encounters of a variety of length and difficulty, thus feeling a lot like a series of tabletop modules. Nothing in the game--first-person exploration (in Bard's Tale style, but with an interface drawn from Might and Magic III), paper-doll inventories (looking a lot like Eye of the Beholder), axonometric combat (clearly inspired by SSI), dozens of skills and spell skills--works badly, but almost every part of the game needed a little tweaking, editing, or tightening. I enjoyed it more as I became more familiar with its conventions, and it left me looking forward to its next installment.

****
      
I grew to enjoy Blade of Destiny more as the hour grew later (the opposite of what usually happens), although the game never really did manage to solve some of its early weaknesses. In the end, I'm struck at how much it reminds me of Pool of Radiance, the first attempt at a serious adaptation of another tabletop system. Both feature the standard party of six. In neither game do the party members have a direct, personal connection to the main quest. In both, the main quest is somewhat low-key--the fate of a city versus the fate of the world. Both keep character leveling in the single digits, and both err towards keeping faith with their tabletop roots, even when it might have been best for the computer game to improvise a bit.

I don't know whether to blame Das Schwarze Auge or the computer game for my chief complaints, most of which can be rolled up into three words: combat is exhausting. Combat is a major part of any RPG, so you don't want your players doing things like reloading to avoid it, which I did a lot. I abandoned entire dungeons because I was sick of all the fighting, so it's a good thing I didn't need an extra character level to win. The primary issues are:
           
  • The axonometric perspective doesn't work well for combat. It's hard to separate the characters and enemies from each other and particularly hard to move to a specific tile.
  • Everyone misses too often.
  • Attacks don't cause enough damage.
  • Spells, which would make the whole thing go faster, eat up so many magic points that you can rarely cast more than three or four before needing multiple nights' rest to recharge.
         
In light of these things, the "quick combat" system was a good idea. Unfortunately, combat is hard enough (at least until the end) that you can't really use it until there are only a couple enemies left. Even then, quick combat isn't really "quick." (To be fair, I guess they don't call it that; it's something like "Computer Fight.") You still have to watch the computer take all the actions and monitor your characters' status. It just means you can watch a television show at the same time.
           
If you can make out individual characters in those blobs, your eyesight is better than mine.
         
The spell issue had more consequences than just a difficult combat experience. The developers took the time to put several dozen spells into the game, and I never used more than about 5 of them. I kept meaning to find a good place to save near a known combat and then just keep reloading and experimenting, but I never identified an ideal position for this. Most of them would have failed anyway because the nature of the spell skill system means that you can't possibly specialize in more than half a dozen. When I play the sequel, it will absolutely be my priority to more fully investigate the spell catalog.

I had a few lingering questions after the last entry, such as what happens if you try to kill the orc champion with a weapon other than Grimring, and what happens if you don't honor the rule that only your champion fights. Unfortunately, the final save prompted me to overwrite the save game I'd taken just before the battle. My next-most recent save was from before exploring the orc caves and getting the message that led to the endgame. I'm not willing to do all of that again, so we'll have to leave it a mystery unless someone has some experience with it. But I was able to check out the alternate "bad" ending, which I would have experienced had I lingered for an extra year in the quest. As I typed the rest of this entry, I had my party sleep at the inn for batches of 99 days until the game woke me up with the fateful message:
             
So the orcs are the "Vikings" of this setting.
            
Overall, I felt that the time constraint was generous enough that it wouldn't have impacted my approach even if I'd been more eager to explore every trail and sea lane. This is a good thing because there was quite a bit more to find. I took a look at a cluebook for the game, and among entire dungeons that I overlooked were a "wolf's lair" between Ottarje and Orvil, a six-level "ship of the dead" that I would have found if I'd taken more boat trips, and a three-level "dragon's hoard" on Runin Island. This latter location sounds like it would have been especially lucrative, with an option to do a side quest for the dragon and receive four magic items as a reward.

But I've always been fine with missing content. It's practically necessary in modern games, lest you exhaust yourself before the end. It also enhances a game's replayability. It's nice to see the number of titles with such optional content growing.

Let's give it the ol' GIMLET:

1. Game World. I didn't find the Nordic setting terribly original, but I enjoyed it just the same. The backstory is set up well, and as previously mentioned, I liked the low-key nature of the main plot. The main quest did a good job encouraging nonlinear exploration of the large world. The problem is that the game itself doesn't quite deliver on the backstory (or the tabletop setting in general). The various cities and towns are too interchangeable, the NPCs too bland. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. Well, I can't complain that it doesn't give you enough options. The leveling-up process in Blade of Destiny is probably the longest in any game to date. Not just longest, but most frustrating, with the caps on the number of times you can increase a particular skill per level (even if you neglected it in the early levels) and frequent failures as you try to increase. The caps in particular make it feel like the characters are never really getting stronger or better. (I think the final battle could be won by a Level 1 character.) Hit points and spell points, in particular, are almost imperceptibly slow to increase.
         
No, not now! I have an appointment in 90 minutes!
         
Still, I like the nature of character classes in the setting, including the use of "negative attributes" and the plethora of skills. I just wish I had a clearer sense of what skills, attributes, and negative attributes came into play in what circumstances, which bits of equipment compensated for them, and so on. The game text is obtuse enough that sometimes it's not even clear whether you succeeded or failed. When it is, it's almost always because you failed. Honestly, how high do I need to jack up my "Treat Wounds" skill before it has a greater than 50% chance of not making the character worse?

Back on the positive side, I think different party compositions would make a considerable difference in gameplay. I think you could have fun with some interesting combinations, like an all-dwarf party or an all-magician party. It's just too bad the different race/class templates didn't have more role-playing implications. Score: 5.

3. NPC Interaction. This was a really wasted area of the game. The developers give you the ability to talk to every bartender, innkeeper, smith, and cashier, but most of the dialogue is stupid when it isn't confusing. I'd blame the translation, but my German readers report that it was stupid and confusing even in German. The few dialogue options are either false options that lead to the same outcome or confusing ones with counter-intuitive results (e.g., asking to see the map makes the NPC give it to you; asking for the map makes him just show it to you). That said, you occasionally get an important hint from your various NPC interactions. I just wish it had been more consistent and that the developers had used the system to give more blood to the game world. Score: 4.
              
This conversation made no sense as a whole, and these individual responses made no sense in detail.
         
4. Encounters and Foes. The game shines, though sometimes with a marred finish, in this area. I really enjoyed the variety of encounters, some fixed, some random, that the party gets on the road and as it explores dungeons and towns. I like that some of them are a single screen, resolved instantly, and others lead you off on a multi-hour digression. In contrast to the dialogue, the text of these special encounters is usually evocative and interesting, and I can even forgive the occasional shaggy dog joke like the "wyvern" encounter. I just wish for a few more role-playing options in these encounters.
           
These diversions and side areas never stopped being fun.
           
Foes were mostly high-fantasy standards with similar strengths and weaknesses that we've seen in a thousand RPGs but at least they appeared in appropriate contexts. We've come a long way from the days when we were inexplicably attacked by parties of 6 orcs, 3 trolls, 2 magicians, and a griffon right in the middle of town. Score: 6.

5. Magic and Combat. Very mixed. I like the combat options, the variety of spells, and the turn-based mechanics. I just didn't like the execution, which was partly due to interface and partly due to the game rules. Either way, combat was generally a tedious, annoying process rather than the joyful one I typically find in, say, a Gold Box game. As for spells, the game really needs some in-game help to assist with them, perhaps annotating the spells in which each class is supposed to specialize. Every spellcasting session and every level-up was a long process of flipping through the manual. It's too bad because the spells are so varied and interesting on paper. Score: 4.
           
I only ever tried about 6 of these spells, which coincidentally is the number of spells I got above 0 in my ability to cast after 5 levels.
         
6. Equipment. Another disappointment. I like the approach to equipment, with a number of slots, but you get upgrades rarely and it's extremely hard to identify them when you do. This is something that perhaps no game has done very well up to this point. I don't mind if it's hard to identify a piece of equipment--if you need a special skill, or spell, or money, or whatever--but I mind if it's annoying. I mind if I have to swap the item around to multiple characters to try different things, especially when the interface makes swapping annoying and time-consuming. I mind when there's no symbol, color, or other mechanism to distinguish weapons and armor with different values. 

Blade offers perhaps the largest variety of "adventure" equipment that we've seen so far, which makes it all the more frustrating that either so much of it is useless, or the game doesn't bother to tell you when a piece of equipment has saved the day. Finally the encumbrance system is geared towards making most characters chronically over-encumbered. The ability to make potions is nice, but again the system is a little too complicated. Score: 4.

7. Economy. Blade almost perfectly emulates the Gold Box series here: money is plentiful from the first dungeon and you hardly have any reason to spend it. My party ended the game with well over 1,000 ducats. Even potions don't serve as a good "money sink" because they don't stack and you have the constant encumbrance issue. A rack of +1 weapons, the ability to pay to recharge spell points, or temple blessings that actually did something all would have been nice. Score: 3.
         
I just donated 999 crowns!
         
8. Quests. Generally positive. Blade is one of the few games of the era to understand side quests, and they sit alongside an interesting-enough main quest with multiple stages. It just needed a few more choices and alternate endings. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I know that some readers will defend the game here, but I found all three to be somewhat horrid. Graphics are perhaps the least so. Some of the cut scenes are nice. Regular exploration graphics aren't bad, but the inability to distinguish stores from regular houses is almost unforgivable. Combat graphics are a confusing mess from the axonometric perspective. Any virtues the sound effects may otherwise have are obscured by the jarring three-note cacophony that accompanies opening any menu. And there's no excuse for the interface, which occasionally gives some nods to the keyboard but really wants you to use the mouse throughout.

Aside from my usual complaints about mouse-driven interfaces, the game is full of all kinds of little annoyances. When you find or purchase a piece of equipment, it always goes to the first character. You've got to then go in and redistribute it. It's annoying to transfer equipment between characters, especially if one is over-encumbered. Messages often time out before you're done reading them, or pop up so quickly that you don't have time to read them before you accidentally hit the next movement key, making them disappear. There's a lot of inconsistency, particularly in dungeons, about when you need a contextual menu and when you need to use the buttons on the main interface. There are dozens of other things like this. The developers took the appearance of the Might and Magic III interface but none of its underlying grace.

The auto-map didn't suck. I'll give it that. Score: 2.

10. Gameplay. We can end on a positive note. This is one of the few open-world games of the era, and in between the opening screen and closing combat, it's almost entirely non-linear. The many things that a first-time player doesn't find makes it inherently replayable. And the length and difficulty are just about perfect for the era. I particularly love that you have to lose experience points to save (except at temples), which discourages save-scumming. Score: 8.
               
This NPC seems to think he's living hundreds of years in the past.
         
That gives us a subtotal final score of 46, a respectable total that would put it in the top 15% of games so far. But I'm going to administratively remove 2 more points for an issue that really isn't covered by my GIMLET: a lack of editing that created unnecessary confusion at numerous points in the game. There are numerous places that go unused, such as the tower and "Ottaskins" in Thorwal. NPCs frequently tell you things in dialogue that aren't true. There are numerous false leads on the map quest, and I don't think they're there to challenge you--I think the developers changed things and didn't update the dialogue. All of the NPCs in Phexcaer were clearly written for an earlier game in which the nature of the backstory and quest were quite different. It's common now, but relatively uncommon back then, to find a game released in what was clearly its "beta" stage.

So that gives us a final score of 44, which still puts the game in the top 15%. It had a lot of promise, and I'm sorry that the developers didn't find more time to tweak and tighten it.
            
This is not the sort of game for which you really want to emphasize "conversation."
         
Blade of Destiny wasn't released in the United States until 1993, so Scorpia didn't take it on until the October 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World. It's one of her more ornery reviews. After saying that the English translation of Das Schwarze Auge, "The Black Eye," "might be appropriate," she goes on to spoil the entire plot in the next paragraph, including the one-on-one combat at the end. She found the plot unoriginal and wasted three days trying to figure out how to find the orc cave, noting that there are no clues to be found anywhere. (Remember: I had to use a walkthrough for this.) She hated the failures when trying to level up, complaining that one of her fighters "made no advance in swords on two successive level gains." She noted a lot of discrepancies between the manual and actual gameplay, particularly in the area of spells, and she agrees with me that combat is a "tedious, frustrating, boring, long-drawn-out affair."

She liked the automap, the ability to reload in the middle of combat, and the extra experience you get the first time you face a particular monster. That was about it. I was surprised to see how much she hated the experience cost for saving. She says she wouldn't have minded if the creators had awarded a bonus for not saving, apparently seeing a difference there that I don't. 

But her worst vitriol was for a bug that I didn't experience: apparently, if you quit in the middle of the final battle, you get the victory screen anyway. "This is not just a scam; it is the Grand Canyon of scams," she sputters. "How did the 20+ playtesters manage to miss this one? If they didn't miss it, why wasn't it fixed?" In summary:
            
Those who worship at the mythical altar of Realism often end up sacrificing fun and playability on it. That is what happened with Blade of Destiny. In their attempt to make the game "like real life" (something few players want in the first place) the designers went overboard in the wrong direction more than once. I would not recommend Arkania to any game player, but I do recommend it to game designers as an example of what to avoid in their own products. Let us all hope we don't see another one like this any time soon.
             
Ouch. I don't disagree with the elements she didn't like, but I found more that I did like.

On the continent, the game had polarized reviews. Some thought that the designers went overboard in the right direction, or perhaps didn't go overboard, or perhaps only did it once. Whatever the case, the ASM reviewer (92/100) said that he'd "rarely seen a perfect implementation of an RPG that also remains really playable on the computer." PC Joker (90/100) said that it is "only surpassed by Ultima, leaving the rest of the genre competition far behind in terms of freedom of action and complexity." But not all German reviews were positive. PC Player (48/100) recommended that players "close your eyes, put the lid on, and wait for Star Trail."

(At least there were some positives in the reviews for the original game. A 2013 remake by German-based Crafty Studios came out to almost universally negative reviews despite improved graphics, voiced dialogue, and other trappings of the modern era. It was apparently quite unforgivably bugged. Crafty went on to remake Star Trail in 2017.)
             
Combat in the remake. At least you can identify the squares a bit easier.
         
The original game sold well despite a few bad reviews and certainly justified the two sequels, Realms of Arkania: Star Trail (1994) and Realms of Arkania: Shadows over Riva (1996). Together, the trilogy established the viability of Das Schwarze Auge setting, which continues to produce RPGs into the modern era, including The Dark Eye: Drakensang (2008), Deminicon (2013), and Blackguards (2014). Lead developer Guido Henkel would eventually tire of the setting, quit attic, move to the United States, join Black Isle studios, and produce Planescape: Torment.

I haven't attempted to reach out to Henkel, as his work on the Arkania series has been well-documented elsewhere. In his 2012 RPG Codex interview, he explains that the publisher of attic's Spirit of Adventure, StarByte, originally approached the company about creating a series based on Das Schwarze Auge, claiming they already had the rights. The attic personnel were reluctant to work with StarByte after a dreadful Spirit experience ("a horribly crooked company that cheated us and all of its other developers"), so they were delighted to find that the company had been lying about the license. attic managed to get it for themselves, although at such an expense that the three Arkania games barely made a profit despite selling well.

From a 1992 perspective, I would call Blade of Destiny "a good start." I look forward to seeing how things change in the sequels.

*****

B.A.T. II will be coming up next. For the next title on the "upcoming" list, we reach back to 1981 for Quest for Power, later renamed King Arthur's Heir. Come to think of it, the Crystalware titles are so similar and quick that I might try to cover Quest for Power and Sands of Mars in a single session so I can be done with 1981 entirely. Again.

84 comments:

  1. Sands of Mars is quite a bit different than the other Crystalware games. I also think I should have not used the RPG tag for it. It is an interesting game, though.

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  2. The dwarf in that second picture seems to be a little distracted from the rest of the battle doing something else... it would seem that harpies have anatomy pleasing to dwarfy "tastes", as it were.

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  3. I'm not sure I'd call the remake's hodgepodge of cheap store-bought 3D assets an improvement over the original's pixel art.

    Looking forward to your Star Trail review. It improves on almost every aspect of the game, except making it a bit more linear. Plus it pulls one of the egregious pranks in RPG history.

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    1. Well, they look nicer in static screenshots. I can't attest to gameplay.

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    2. I'm not a fan of the combat screen in the remake, neither regarding graphics nor controls. But as for the town and dungeon environments, I find the remake's visuals a big upgrade over the original where everything is is limited to a square grid and a handful of textures.

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    3. Yeah, I don't know. The original's had more style to them, in my opinion. But the real sin of the remake are NPC models, they're just ugly as, well, sin.

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    4. The remakes are way more playable and user-friendly, with tooltips, and a smoother chargen process. and cities where things look like what they are. The problem is that they run very badly and look like cheap unity asset shop tech demos, which is rather hard to forgive. You literally see t-posing creatures throughout the games--even sometimes during pre-rendered things where they have zero excuse for that.

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    5. Hi ! I've invested over 100 hours in a full play through of the remake (incl. DLCs and fan content) - so I am a bit biased of course.
      I'd still say it is (with the latest patch applied and some of the fan add-ons installed) a satisfying cRPG experience.
      First things first: the models in the combat screen range from "acceptable if you don't zoom to close" to "fugly".
      The 3D environment in the cities is ok - sometimes even "nice for a 90ies game" (even though beeing released in 2016)
      BUT nearly all the complaints mentioned by Chet about the gameplay have been addressed.
      The game explains a lot more - the tooltips show what a bedroll is doing and why it makes sense to wear a coat in winter. The hit chances and spell effects are explained. There is also much more explained in game - the Ottaskin have dialogue options. In general there is much more text that helps and makes sense. Still there is a lot that doesn't though.
      Combat stays repetitive and sometimes boring, but the auto-combat works much better and has options to disable magic usage to conserve spell points.
      The combat areas can be circled - so selecting something is easier.
      The game reduces the amount of spells and talents to the ones it actually uses.
      It has a console option with which you can see who rolled what kind of check with which result ...
      And there is a lot more improvements gameplay wise, like options to disable the more crippling diseases and more events that give you real role-playing choices on how to approach a certain situation.
      So in general I'd say the remake is a much more enjoyable experience, the combats stay tedious, but the auto-combat works better.
      Anyone able to overlook the graphics should think about trying it out.

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  4. Just wondering where the 'Realms of Arkania' super-title comes from when the setting and original title is clearly 'The Black Eye'. I don't think that was explained in your playthrough.

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    1. I don't know. Maybe it was Sir-Tech's idea? Das Schwarze Auge works well as a master title in German since the German readers would have been familiar with the tabletop RPG, but in English it sounds kind of silly. Hence, they must have cast about for different options.

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    2. I've been wondering if the title was designed to be similar to "Forgotten Realms" for marketing purposes, especially considering the trilogy feels a bit like it was supposed to be the German answer to the Gold Box series.

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    3. It doesn't have any connection to the setting or the P&P ruleset. The world of DSA is called Aventurien, so a more faithful name would have been Realms of Aventuria. But maybe Aventuria sounds kinda silly to an anglophone audience.

      Then again, I never looked at the English version of the DSA rules, so maybe the translators changed the name of the world.

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    4. I've always heard it translated as The Dark Eye which is somewhat less silly.

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    5. 'The Black Eye' for me conjures pictures of demon eyes from shows like 'Supernatural'. 'The Dark Eye' sounds more generic.

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    6. Das Schwarze Auge: Eine Nacht in der Kneipe

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    7. But a 'black eye' is also what you get when someone punches you in the face, so to the anglophone ear it doesn't really convey epic fantasy.

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    8. The english version of the TTRPG rules are called "the dark eye" nowadays. I think it was Sir-Techs idea to change the name to something they thought fits better to the market..

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    9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    10. @jarlfrank The world is called Aventuria in the English translation of the fifth edition of the tabletop rpg that was released in 2016 by Ulisses Spiele, under the title the Dark Eye. It's the first fully supported version of DSA in English. There was an attempt before but it fell through after like, three books were published. Apparently the name "Arkania" was owned by Sir-Tech anyway.

      That last comment was me, I forgot to use my username.

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  5. Nice to read that you could enjoy the game a bit more towards the end! If you really want to try out different things for the final battle I could offer a save game from Phexcaer right before heading out to the campground. But it is for the German version and I'm not sure how well that mixes; I could import it to an English Star trail but had funny effects with the exp on the character screens.
    By the way, the P&P is mostly to blame for the never-ending battles, but the game made it even a bit worse for melee combat

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    1. Why don't you just test it yourself? I'm interested in the answer, but I don't need to experience it.

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    2. You don't have to fight with Grimring, you only need to bring it with you. If another character joins the fight, you will have to fight all the other Orcs to win (not that hard with a good party). And any character who tries to use magic will die immediatelly.

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  6. Hi Chet!

    I'm feeling sad that you couldn't enjoy the game as much you have could.

    It's really one of those games which "require" reading the manual first. Also knowing some background of the ROA universe isn't bad, in order fully appreciate it.

    I was experienced with the table top edition and ventured some adventures before playing this computer game. It really makes a difference and I could enjoy it way more.

    Things I personally would have improved in the game:
    1) Add shortcut keys for menu options, i.e. pressing T for talk, A to attack, M to move, instead of navigation with cursor keys and pressing ENTER.

    2) An option to set speed of/turn off combat animations (they slow down combat as hell), so combat can get as smooth as the Gold Box engine.

    3) Implement diagonal movement and targeting, including a Next/Prev/Center target option like in the Gold Box games.

    4) Make combat action results more intuitive: Instead of using different non-intuitive colors for showing attack / parry results, add a text which exactly explains what happened, like done the Gold Box engine.

    5) In combat, map size with correct map topology should be equal to the Gold Box combat engine.

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    1. You never know how it's going to go. Sometimes having intimate familiarity with the source material ruins a game rather than enhancing it. I'm glad it went the other way in your case. I agree with you about the changes you would have implemented.

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    2. I really miss the Gold Box combat engine in modern games. Just blasting fast fights with HUGE amount of enemies in the shortest real-time possible!

      Really miss that!

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  7. To the person who posted a comment under the name "I Hate David Cage," I'm going to continue to delete comments from you, anyone I suspect is you, and anyone who even reminds me of you until you give me some justification why I should do otherwise. I've invited you several times to e-mail me so I can correspond with you directly, and I do so again here. You have some 'splainin to do before I let you comment again on my blog.

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    1. Now I'm curious about the nature of those comments. Don't tease us like that, Chet!

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  8. Since you say combat is an integral part of an RPG, I'm curious what you think of games where there is no combat but events are still driven by character statistics--The Sims is the only one I can think of right now, but there has to be others.

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    1. I frankly don't have enough experience with them to know. I like the non-combat elements of RPGs that draw on attributes, so I assume it's possible that I could like an entire game that had such challenges with no combat.

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    2. I've actually been wondering whether the "Create a Player" mode of modern-day sports games would qualify as an RPG under what Chester defines in his FAQ, if not "RPG-adjacent".

      There's no "combat" per se (well, unless you're playing NHL ;) ) but your performance in matches is derived from stats which go up over the season based on your actions throughout each match, and you get to make specific decisions about your character's role, equipment, and growth that affect those stats. Some of the more recent ones even include story modes and some level of role-playing decisions (do you trash your team after a bad loss to force a trade, or do you praise them to try to improve their performance in the next game?). Really, the inventory management bit is the only thing I can think of that's not as fleshed out.

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    3. In the past couple of years there were at least 3 RPGs released with no combat in them - The Council, Titan Outpost, and Disco Elysium. Can't say anything about the last one, but the first two definitely qualify as RPGs as they all the other RPG conventions - there's character creation and development, equipment, exploration, different solutions to quests. It's just done without combat.

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    4. Football Manager is an RPG. And an exceptionally good one at that.

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    5. Long Live the Queen has statistical development of one's character without combat, with stats used for event checks.

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    6. King of Dragon Pass has AFAIK also non combat character grow.

      That's also a game looking forward what Chet thinks about it. It will not go well with the gimlet for sure

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    7. Football manager is indeed similar in a sense to a sandbox rpg, but without items or exploration I don't think it meets Chet's criteria. FM reminds me of paradox grand strategy titles more than RPGs tbh.

      Crusader Kings is RPG adjacent itself.

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    8. Long Live the Queen is a game like Princess Maker, which is a very interesting little genre. You essentially pick your character's daily schedule to raise stats through education, then you go through fixed events where your success depends on your stats. Like on day 200 there might be a foreign invasion and you get several choices with skillchecks on how to deal with it.

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    9. I debated mentioning LLTQ, since it has statistics, but no exploration or inventory besides unlockable outfits. I guess The Sims also has those same caveats, though.

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  9. Good to see you had some fun.

    Can't understand the Graphics note but different strokes for different folks.

    Npc got much improved in the second game, with keyword based conservation a bit like morrowind. You could copy the answers of the box with a button in your journal.

    Combat wise a minor change but huge improvement is that distance weapon now can shoot in any direction.

    Graphic was the least improved part though...

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    1. The exploration graphics improved quite a bit between Blade and Star Trail. There's more than one building type, for example, which makes exploring new locations infinitely easier. They're not that much nicer to look at, perhaps, but they are certainly more legible.

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    2. Yeah, the shops, the temples and the bars have then a dedicated textures, that's true.

      Also the MenĂ¼s and character sheets have a bit nicer look.

      The combat screen, which I personally like, doesn't improve much, especially the figures still look very samie, what Chet didn't like.

      Nonetheless I think when chez disliked the graphics as much that he gave only 2 points he will not like the graphics of the second part much more

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    3. You guys always do this. The category is “Graphics, Sound, and Interface.” Of that, the graphics get only 1-3 points, maybe 4 if they’re truly excellent. You’re acting like I gave the game 2/10 points for graphics when it was more like 1.5/3.

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  10. Your characters can get much stronger during the game, but it is difficult without detailed knowledge of the rules and knowledge where to find the good magic items. A great item is a belt which gives +5 strength - adding to damage and carrying capacity. My level 6 dwarf with a magic orc hook and this belt rarely missed and easily did 20+ of damage with each hit. There are also swords which give a to-hit bonus, and some unbreakable weapons.

    Still, combat is slow and tedious and certainly not what I enjoy most about this game. It's slow in the pen & paper version, too. But pen & paper, at least the way we played it, is much less about combat. Sessions without combat were common, sessions with more than one very rare.

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    1. I think the issue here is that the pen and paper ruleset was designed for fewer, more realistic and high stakes fights rather than D&D's mass combat dungeon crawl campaigns, but Blade of Destiny had the encounter frequency of a D&D game. It's not that the combat is bad or tedious by itself, it's more about the encounter design and frequency not harmonizing with the ruleset.

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    3. The Girdle of Might could be found in the dragon's hoard.

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    4. Theres several more of those in the successor game. I thought of them as mostly a quality-of-life upgrade, even though they also improve combat: the carrying capacity buff was extremely helpful. There's also a never-empty waterskin in Star Trail, another huge QoL thing (very hard to find and ger, though).

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    5. I think you missed a couple of the easy-to-miss magical items. The game wants you to cast "Odem Arcanum" every time you plunder a dungeon or other fixed encounter. To detect magical items.

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  11. A fair review, I can't disagree with any of it. I would rate the graphics a bit higher, and I'm also a big fan of the soundtrack, but of course your position on music is well established. And I do agree that some of the sound effects are really grating.

    It certainly seems to me that the game was originally targeted at players with pen&paper experience who would feel right at home both in the setting and with the system, and that it aimed at recreating that experience as best it could. Given how complex the system is, you'd think the developers would either streamline it (say, by trimming the talent and spell lists down to the really useful ones, and getting rid of that ridiculously fine-grained separation of weapon skills), or at the very least provide lots of information about everything to make it easier for new players to get into it. The fact that they did neither suggests that accommodating those players was not a priority.

    Some of the things you complained about would be hard to change without significantly departing from these P&P roots. The Dark Eye is designed to be far more down to earth than Dungeons & Dragons, with a power curve that is much less steep, less powerful spells and way fewer magical items. Even at character level 20 a warrior doesn't get more than one attack per turn, a magician doesn't get to resurrect the dead or annihilate entire groups of enemies in a single combat round, and the equivalent of a "long sword +1" is rare and highly precious. This system is made for the long game, players are expected to watch their characters grow very gradually over the course of not just one, but many adventures. It's no surprise that this feels less rewarding to a CRPG player who is used to the faster progression of the likes of DnD. (When I approached the end of Pool of Radiance, my party decked out in +4/+5 gear and routinely battling groups of fire giants, I remember thinking that if the series was going to keep giving me progression all the way until the finale, my characters would have to be demi-godlike at that point. In The Dark Eye you're definitely not supposed to get that kind of power.)

    On the other hand, the game could certainly have been made better through certain design decisions. Why they chose not to implement diagonal attacks still baffles me, and I'm with you wishing for distinct visuals for storefronts and (even more importantly) magic items. And the fact that there's absolutely no information to be had about the dozens of cryptically-named spells can only be explained by an expectation that the players would own the Dark Eye spellbook anyway.

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    1. There's only one thing I disagree with. I think a lot/all of the false information given in the game is intentional (I'm not 100% sure about Phexcaer, I never spent much time there. It's the city of thieves, you're just going to get robbed. The guy in the screenshot is probably a crook.). E.g. the red moon disk has been confirmed by Guido Henkel to be a red herring to confuse the players.

      I like that in principle. I like that you can't just write down hints, but have to find out who you can trust and how much. But this has to be done very well and I don't think that's the case in this game.

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  12. I'm curious, Chet: do you play with an actual mouse, or are you using a laptop trackpad?

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    1. An actual mouse. I can't stand the trackpad even for simple stuff like Word Documents. I always have a mouse, even when I travel.

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    2. Yeah, I'm the same.

      I was just curious as to how you'd cope with something like Wizardry 8 - a prime candidate for moving up the list - if you used a trackpad. You can do everything in the game with the keyboard, but it's clearly designed to be played with WASD and mouselook.

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    3. I used to feel the same, needing a mouse. Then I changed house, was hard up for cash and my mouse happened to break on the laptop. So in a situation of being forced to change, I did. Gradual pains ensued for months...But now I love the trackpad! I never in a million years thought I would go this way.

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    4. I just started using a mouse again (got a desktop computer) I'm so unused to it now that I bought a trackpad for it.
      Somehow a trackpad feels more exact to me.

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    5. Can be done, I love your blogspot name combined with the reply. Sounds very encouraging!

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    6. “He gazed down at the enormous square. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of control was hidden beneath the dark panel. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving pad! Two lime-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Li'l Trackpad.”

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  13. Well, in Star Trail the gem was certainly cut and polished. They even added an option for a faster combat animations, separately for manual and auto combat. Like I said before, an all-round improvement. But on other hand, the game had to compete with 1994 games.

    I'm also looking forward to how Ishar will compare to Blade of Destiny. As they are both the top titles from the respective continental developers.

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    1. I finished both Blade of Destiny and Ishar back in the 90ies and Ishar doesn't even come close.

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    2. @Jan
      I'm of the same opinion, actually, with Ishar having a pretty face, but not much behind it, as to say. But let's wait a bit for the Mr. Addict take on it.

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    3. It's funny, come to think of it, how both are also (the only?) games to demand payment for saving anywhere. Only in Ishar's case it's gold rather than XP.

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    4. On Ishar is only a problem at the start when you don't have that much gold. The real pain in the ass of Ishar is the food system combined with limited inventory slots

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  14. It´s not like I agree or disagree with some points given to the game in GIMLET (after all it´s Chet´s subjective rating), just I wanted to say it surprised me little to read that game shines in Encounters and Foes and after to see rating 6. In opposite way I was little surprised by 8 for Gameplay, which is just 2 steps from perfection. But when I saw that -2 administrative subtract, I somehow took it like it almost means Gameplay 6, which feels somehow closer to the tone of blog posts about this game.
    Of course also on my scale graphic and music is much more up than 2. This is quite harsh considering what games got 2 or 1 in past, but it´s probably mostly because of clumsy interface.

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    1. I felt the same way about these categories. From the earlier posts it felt more like Gameplay 6, GFX/Sound/Interface 4, something like that. Doesn't change the end result, though. To me it looked like Gameplay came out way too high if there's still supposed to be room up top for the likes of BG2 later on - or things like Ultima Underworld earlier. On the other hand, while I get that the interface was a bit of a pain occasionally, and I understand that purely mouse-driven interfaces are not the Addict's preference: Surely there's more to recommend this game in the presentation department than what would seem to be the very bare minimum for a game with any polish whatsoever.

      Although I must say, this category has seen some very low entries lately for games that look nice and approachable enough from screenshots. Challenge and Spellcraft got a 2 and a 3, respectively. Seems like the one thing that is actually rated here is "Keyboardiness of Interface"... ;-)

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    2. I think it's mostly the combat screen that nuked the graphics part of the score. The combat screen looks ok to me but I tested with a few color-blind filters and it became very murky. (I don't know what specific colors Chet has trouble with; if it's green, the screen looks *really* bad.)

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    3. "Gameplay" (which was always a bit misnamed) is the easiest category to get a high score in. A perfect 10 is a non-linear game with a solid challenge that doesn't drag on but gives you lots of excuses to replay. It's more scaled to the scope and intent of the game than the other categories.

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    4. I don't care about graphics for their own sake. I want them to be functional. If you can't even distinguish between stores and regular houses, I don't care how nice your "textures" are.

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    5. I'm pretty sure he mentioned being red/green colorblind when reviewing Hillsfar. So yeah.

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    6. Oh, that doesn't bode well for the sequels. While the exploration graphics have been greatly improved in each successive title, the combat sprites remain the same.

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    7. Graphics is mediocre at best and doesn't serve its purpose well.

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  15. Axonometric is awful to work with. The amiga version looks visually better. A german review gave this game less than 50% rating. I think your gimlet fails on this one. 44 is too good. This game should have scored more like 30 on multiple failings. It doesn´t deserve to be in the top 15%. Try harder, Chet.

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    1. "Try harder, Chet", really? For whose sake exactly? This isn't exactly a paid service, over which readers are free to piss all they want if they're unhappy with what their buck buys them. This is the Addict's free time project, in which we're fortunate enough to be allowed to participate to some degree through reading and commenting.

      Present an alternate rating with good reasoning behind it, and you might be of help. This way, you ain't. Try harder, Reven.

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  16. What kind of spoiler-free advice would you give to a new player based on your experience with the game ?

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  17. The player's decisions have a huge effect on encumbrance, hit chance and damage per hit, combat duration and character improvement.
    Maximize the attributes which influence the base attack/parry value at creation (takes only a few minutes of re-rolling), always raise weapon attack skills and never parry, and maximize strength for damage, which also takes care of the carrying capacity problem.

    A carelessly created level 1 dwarf with balanced attack/parry values, equipped with AC 8 and the starting mace has a 35 percent chance to hit and does 2-7 damage to an AC 3 enemy.
    Maxing the relevant attributes and attack instead of parry would increase the hit chance to 50 percent, reducing the combat time (and weapon break opportunities) by 30 percent.
    At level 5, if you increased only strength (will improve the base AT/PA to 9) and raised the attack value the hit chance will have improved to 75 percent and the damage per hit to 6-11, the level 5 character will do almost three times the damage per round he did at level 1 (and even more vs better armored enemies).
    The careless version which raises irrelevant attributes like dexterity instead of strength and puts half the skill gains into parry will only raise the hit chance to 45 percent, in the end you pay with carrying capacity problems and combat lasting three times as long for not planning your characters to handle the problems which become obvious almost right after the start.

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    1. I object to the term "carelessly" in your analysis, but I'm glad you're figuring things out in a way that makes sense for you.

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    2. If it's possible to make "careless" decisions about party composition that are immediately obviously wrong, what's the benefit of allowing players to make those decisions? Seems like poor game design if that's the case.

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    3. If I'm given a pile of useful sounding abilities to choose from, and it turns out that most of them aren't useful, that sounds like a poor creation system.

      This is a common case among RPGs that aimed too high, or tried to cleave closely to some sort of pen and paper source material.

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    4. Given that Arkania implements the complete DSA base rules including all spells and skills, I think the game does a good job of giving at least some use to most of the skills and spells. There are quite a few increase attempts available each level and you're forced to spread them around anyway, so its not that big a problem anyway. Worst case, you're adding a bit of fluff to the character.

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    5. I think we can all agree that minmaxing will be of help in most CRPGs with a combat engine. We know that it's not that great to create demihumans in many of the later goldbox games due to low level caps. We know that an all-mage party is the most powerful you can get in Dragon Age: Origins, while an all-two-hander-warrior party is rather hard to play effectively. We know that a crossbow-focused Geralt will have a harder time in Witcher 3 than an alchemy-focused one.

      So there are decisions inherently more powerful, resulting in breezier combat and less quality of life problems. That is quite the norm for CRPGs, isn't it? Yet who would in good conscience want to identify and keep only the "best" options, deleting all the other ones?

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    6. It's a matter of degrees right?

      In this case, it meant that combat for Chet took twice as long, which ended up being pretty interminable.

      I want character creation to be difficult enough that I'd do it better after a playthrough, but I want it to be transparent enough that if I set out to make a serviceable front line fighter, I can, with only the information presented in the manual.

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  18. Very good entry, ass ever. Personally, I really liked "Schicksalsklinge" when I played it in those golden times ... it was the first CRPG I actually finished. The atmosphere was enchanting, it really felt great to travel through Thorwal. This still is one of my strongest remebrances of this game: The travelling. Hunting, collecting plants, getting ill and then finding a doctor ... I do not know another game of this era with this strength.

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  19. Hey, CA and everyone, the DSA core rule book pdf and two "solo adventure" pdfs are now pay what you want:

    https://www.ulisses-us.com/stay-home-and-play-the-dark-eye/

    I'd love to start a game on Discord or something.

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