Monday, August 10, 2020

Amberstar: Summary and Rating


A well-designed cover that actually makes sense in context (a varied party, a giant eagle, the Amberstar itself) decorates a game with the same type of attention to detail.
      
Amberstar
Germany
Thalion Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS
Date Started: 20 June 2020
Date Ended: 29 July 2020
Total Hours: 50
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: 50
Ranking at Time of Posting: 348/379 (92%)
   
Summary:
Amberstar is an engaging German game with roots in Ultima and other U.S. titles. The plot, about an evil demon-wizard threatening to return to the world of Lyramion, is less interesting than the individual quests necessary to reassemble the ancient artifact (the titular Amberstar) that will stop him. The game features interesting towns, dungeons, and other areas with a variety of lengths and difficulties. The player starts with a player-created character and from there slowly assembles a party of six from about ten potential companions. First-person and top-down sections alternate effectively, and the game has relatively strong (if not superlative) mechanics for inventory, commerce, NPC dialogue, and combat. A lack of sound, a sometimes-difficult interface, and an excess of long combats at times threatens the player's experience, but ultimately a strong base and an attention to small details and innovations makes this one a winner.

*****
      
Amberstar is a better game than the summary above suggests (minus the final line) because of small things. It doesn't announce itself as an evolutionary step forward with SVGA graphics, masterful use of sound, or innovations in combat AI. It is not "next generation" anything. If you only read the manual or watched a few minutes of video, you would see little to distinguish it from other, largely-derivative European titles of the period--or indeed from its own antecedents.
          
This is just a random shot of the party flying over various landscape features on an eagle.
         
Instead, it improves upon its predecessors with slight tweaks and adjustments, ultimately making for a more interesting, more satisfying game. Its innovations are less fully-formed than nudges towards what CRPGs would ultimately become, while still largely using the mechanics of what went before. Some examples of what I mean:
   
  • It improves NPC interactivity and the depth of lore conveyed by NPCs. Mechanically, it has barely improved upon the keyword system used by Ultimas IV-VI, but it gives its NPCs more text and more character than the usual RPG, and it keeps things interesting by giving the player some keywords but forcing the player to seek out (and figure out) others.
  • It's a rare game to offer a truly open world. And just like good modern games with open worlds, it lets the player figure things out for himself. If a dungeon is too hard, he can turn around and try again, or keep throwing himself against it until he overcomes it through sheer force of will. There are gates to some areas, of course, but they feel natural rather than artificial. 
  • It has a lot of lore, but it doesn't require that the player find and absorb all of it to succeed in the game. It is possible to figure out most of the puzzles without the associated hints from NPCs, and the player can literally stumble upon some of the Amberstar pieces. I never found anyone on the surface world who had anything to say about the Realm of Manyeye, for instance; I just found it by seeing what happened when I sailed into a whirlpool.
  • It anticipates later games in which the player creates one character (with a backstory and personal connection to the quest) and then recruits his party from a variety of NPCs. Those NPCs have no dialogue once they join the party, and a couple are unforgivably hard to find, but it's still an interesting divergence from the player creating his entire party.
  • To make up for limited graphics, the game does a particularly good job with textual descriptions as you wander the dungeons.
          
This not only adds some flavor to what would otherwise be a pile of bones, it makes sense in context of the dungeon.
           
  • I loved the mix between hand-crafted top-down areas and first-person textured areas. It was a good way to vary the nature of exploration, encounters, and puzzles, using the relative strengths of the two interfaces.
  • This is far from the first game to offer an automap, but it is one of the few games up to its time to offer a truly useful automap, including annotating doors, chests, teleporters, and other navigational elements. 
  • The translators did a good job. There are some weird spellings, but overall I see less of the awkwardness of phrasing that I see in many translated games.

        
What I admire most, however, is the wonderful sense of variety that goes into finding the Amberstar pieces. I know I've said this before, but when the game started, I was absolutely sure that finding each piece would involve 13 quests of similar length and difficulty, making the game extraordinarily monotonous. Instead, a few of the pieces are obtained with just a few minutes of questing, a few are at the ends of long and difficult dungeons, and a few are in between. And the dungeons themselves all have their own themes and character; they're not just featureless corridors.
 
Few of these features are wholly original to Amberstar, but it's still rare to find so many positive elements assembled in a single game. The result is a title that doesn't look much like Ultima VI, or Wizardry, or Pool of Radiance, but which nonetheless managed to bring together the things that worked best in those previous titles, as if it had cloned their souls rather than just their faces.
          
The developers perhaps could have spent some time varying the graphics for statues.
       
Not everything worked. I struggled with the interface all the way to the game's final hours. Too many of the skills were never called into play. You have to carefully step over a few walking dead scenarios, and only having one save slot doesn't help with that. The inability to speed up the combat animations was a near-fatal flaw, and overall the game lasted just a smidge too long; I don't care how interesting and varied the quests are, 13 pieces is just too many.
 
If my GIMLET does things right, it should put Amberstar right around 50--higher than other German contenders, not quite as high as the most innovative games from North America. Tweaks and nudges get you into the top fifth, sure, but not the top. Let's see.
  
1. Game World. The backstory is a relatively banal account of an evil wizard trying to return from exile and take over the world. (Just once, I want to read a story in which the evil wizard or demon, having been freed from a thousand years in prison, has no interest in re-embarking on the same path that got him imprisoned in the first place, and now wants nothing more than a good meal and a stiff drink.) I groaned at the "Disassembulet of Yendor" main quest. But the game world is otherwise well-realized, with different geographic areas under the control of different factions, and an interesting pantheon of gods. The game also enjoys an Ultima-like relationship between the game and the game manual, avoiding the problem inherent in so many other titles in which the manual just tells a framing story and seems to have been written by a different person. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. The big problem here is that the player doesn't have immediate or even early access to many of the game's guilds. I got lucky in finding the paladine guild early, but otherwise a first-time player is forced to choose between becoming a thief or a warrior. Those aren't bad choices, I suppose, but it still bothers me that I didn't find some guilds until the last quarter of the game. You do have to give quite a bit of thought to party composition, which I liked. You make a real sacrifice in front-line power with any pure wizard class. Trying to mitigate this with the hybrid classes creates its own problems, and in some ways I like that paladines, rangers, and monks are balanced between warriors and spellcasters instead of having the full power of both.

Leveling was satisfying and rewarding, if a bit annoying to have to visit so many guilds. But the skills were a bit problematic. About half of them (Listen, Find Traps, Disarm Traps, Swimming) are called into play so rarely, and with so little consequence if you don't have the skill, that it doesn't make sense to invest points in them. I'm not even sure that "Search" really did much, although I suppose you wouldn't know if you didn't find things that would have otherwise been found with the skill. Different races, and their associated languages, were a minor part of gameplay that could have been better-developed. Score: 5.

3. NPC Interaction. I'm still waiting for the first game that offers true "dialogue options," but Amberstar otherwise takes keyword-based dialogue about as far as it can go. You have to pay attention to NPCs and seek keywords based on their statements, or type in your own. There are different types of NPCs found in both interfaces, and obviously a fair number of them can join the party. Score: 5.
           
NPCs may not be as memorable as in, say, Ultima VII, but they're close.
         
4. Encounters and Foes. The game's bestiary uses similar creatures as other fantasy RPGs, but they're not entirely the same. One thing I liked (although I can see how other players might dislike this) is that different areas heavily feature just one or two types of creature, usually starting with small numbers and slowly building as you explore. This gives you time to become an expert on the enemy's strengths, weaknesses, and special attacks. Blunt force rarely saves you even if it serves you at the beginning of an area.

Most of the encounters in the game are fixed; finding random encounters and thus grinding is possible but not easy. I thought this was fine. It keeps the system from being completely closed, but it also means you can generally walk between two cities without having to fight six combats. I also liked the variety of special encounters with boss-level enemies in many of the dungeons.
 
Aside from the magic mouths--most notably in the Tower of Riddles--there weren't a lot of non-combat encounters, though, nor any strong opportunities for role-playing. Score: 5. (By now, you're suspecting I'm engineering all the scores to be 5s. I promise I'm not.)
           
Even the finding of treasure is often presented as a contextual encounter, with a little narrative to accompany the loot.
         
5. Magic and Combat. The game does a decent job adapting the tactical combat process of games like Wizardry, where you assign individual actions for each character and then watch them execute all at once, threaded with NPC actions. There are associated considerations of character formation, whether to concentrate or spread out attacks, and of course when to use spells. It isn't as tactical as the Gold Box series, but it is more so than the Ultima and Interplay titles with which the developers must have been familiar.
      
I thought the magic system worked well, too. Even late in the game, you don't have so much spellpower that you can just cast your most devastating spells on every enemy party. Like most good RPGs, you have to balance success in a single combat with success over an accumulation of combats. There was also a manageable number of spells, and some nice variety among the classes. Not having a competent white wizard meant that I had to miss out on a large variety of enemy-effect spells, for instance.

But the number and length of combats is a problem that goes beyond the couple of points in the "gameplay" category where I would normally rate it. The game really needed a "quick combat" option or at least some option to auto-assign every character's attack to the closest enemy. And it needed to get rid of enemy combat animations, which kept the built-in "fast forward" button from doing what it was meant to do. Score: 5.
          
Combat is never bad, exactly--just a little too slow sometimes.
        
6. Equipment. The six characters have slots for weapons, armor, shields, necklaces, helms, rings, and boots, and there is a nice variety of items to buy and find, many restricted to particular classes, races, or genders. I also liked the large variety of usable items--wands, potions, herbs, scrolls, and weapons with special attacks, all of which could provide an edge in combat. I liked that most statistics for the items are clear by looking at them, and that the "Identification" spell (or sage) reveals the rest. I particularly liked the selection of items that slowly improve the interface (e.g., watch, compass, location finder, etc.) Score: 6.
          
Statistics show me exactly what the amulet does, and who can wear it.
         
7. Economy. The economy is relevant throughout the game, but you have an overabundance of wealth in the latter half, and the associated effects on encumbrance means that you end up dropping most of it. I ended the game with thousands of gold pieces and dozens of uncashed gems. If the guilds had replenished their stocks of scrolls, that would have provided a good "money sink" for the game's final hours. But the game deserves some credit for its first half, when money is scarce and the party has to make some tough decisions. Score: 5.

8. Quests. The main quest is fine, and as I've said, I like the variety in its stages and the way that the player can assemble the 13 Amberstar pieces in almost any order. Unfortunately, there are no choices or alternate routes in the main quest. As for side quests, there are fewer than it first appears. Most of them end up being steps towards one of the Amberstar pieces. But there are some, and their presence enhances the game even if they don't allow a lot of role-playing options. Score: 4.
            
One of the game's few side-quests.
        
9. Graphics, Sound, and Input. Alas, a less rosy category. The graphics aren't bad, but to me they were generally too small. (My colorblindness is often an issue with small graphics, which may have made them look worse to me.) The developers put a lot of detail in the top-down areas, which was often then ruined by the inability to tell one object from another. I often couldn't even distinguish humanoids from animals. The textures in the first-person interface were fine, and there were some decent cut-scene graphics.

As for sound, there isn't any except for the music, which I consider a crazy oversight. I know a lot of people like game music, but to focus on it exclusively and offer no sound effects is not a choice most developers would make. Music fans will bump up this category a couple of points for the sheer variety of quality compositions (although a fair number appear to have been at least partly plagiarized) that play in different situations.

Finally, while the use of screen real estate was fine, the controls never worked well for me. It remained awkward throughout the game to explore the iconographic areas, and I was always trying to move when the control panel was locked on the "action" side. Beyond that, I liked that you had to earn some elements of the interface, and as I said earlier, the automap works very well. Score: 3. 
    
10. Gameplay. We end on a high note. Amberstar is impressively non-linear and modestly replayable when you consider different party compositions, a different class for the main character, and a different order to the quests. I found its difficulty just right, and while I thought it lasted a little too long, it was just a little. Score: 7.

All the 5s make this one easy to sum up, and the final score is exactly 50. I promise I didn't engineer that outcome, but I agree with the result. It gets it just into the top 10% of titles I've played, and it beats the next-highest German offerings, Spirit of Adventure and Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny by 6 points. (I would stress, though, that Arkania had some individual categories that out-performed Amberstar.) Perhaps more notably, it beat Thalion's previous Dragonflight by a full 16 points. Although some influence of Dragonflight can be seen in Amberstar, clearly some of the new additions to the team (including designer Karsten Köper and programmer Jurie Horneman) made a crucial difference.

I was hoping that designer Karsten Köper would appear during this series of entries. He showed up briefly to comment on his one known previous game, Mythos, but only to address the Axis/eagle thing. This is what I always fear: that a developer will visit and get turned away by one of the more stupid or offensive parts of our discussion (and I freely admit I started that one by making fun of the publisher's name). Anyway, he's given most of the credit for the Amber series, having apparently brought a strong experience with both computer and tabletop RPGs to Thalion. But he disappears almost as fast as he arrives, with design credits on Amberstar and Ambermoon and quality assurance on Trex Warrior: 22nd Century Gladiator (1991). Much later, he has testing credits on two other German games: Stephen King's F13: Ctrl, Alt, . . . Shiver (1999), which has to be the most awkward game title of all time, and K. Hawk: Survival Instinct (2002).       
Despite the game's North American release, most American computer magazines seem to have missed it, including Computer Gaming World. Thus, most reviews are found in German and British magazines, where the result was extremely varied. The best score (92/100) comes from the British ST Action in March 1993, but the magazine just offers a quick blurb: "Tasty German RPG with a huge play area, several varying quests and exceedingly smooth scrolling. An immediate purchase!" The worst was from the German PC Player in January 1993, which found it "a rather frustrating program only for freaks who [like to] struggle with every [role-playing game] regardless of controls, graphics, and sound." To be fair, "controls, graphics, and sound" are exactly where this game falls apart, and thus you're likely to rate it low if that's your primary orientation. This explains a large number of ratings in the 60s and 70s, particularly from Amiga magazines, although a few saw through these flaws. The October 1992 Amiga Action faulted those features but otherwise recommended that you dump your girlfriend so you'll have more time to finish it; they gave a 91/100. The German Power Play wasn't far behind, with ratings of 85 for the Amiga and Atari ST versions and 83 for DOS.
   
The sequel, Ambermoon (1993) looks to have addressed many of these concerns. The third-person sections are zoomed in more, to better distinguish features and creatures, and also angled to be more axonometric. The first-person sections show even more color and detail, as do the NPC and monster graphics. More important, the first person sections seem to offer continuously-scrolling movement, along the lines of Ultima Underworld, which was a major change to have implemented in only a year. Unfortunately, the videos I watched suggest that the game still didn't offer any sound effects, and the toggled control pad is still there.
          
 A shot from Ambermoon, courtesy of MobyGames.
         
The series was reportedly intended as a trilogy, but poor sales forced Thalion to close in 1994 before the third game was produced. I can't speak about Ambermoon, but I can say that Amberstar doesn't really require a sequel, so unless Ambermoon ends on a cliffhanger, a couplet rather than a trilogy will probably be just fine. Many former Thalion personnel ended up at Blue Byte Software, and I've heard that Blue Byte's Albion (1995) is seen by some as a "spiritual sequel" to Amberstar.

It won't be long before we check out Ambermoon, but for now it's time to roll the dice on a new title, for the first time in a long time. The result is Quest for Kings (1990). I tried to play it over a year ago, got stuck with some error messages, and put it back into the rotation for later. In the meantime, I got some assistance from the author, Howard Feldman, who also happens to be the owner of the Museum of Computer Adventure Gaming History. It's long past time I gave it another try. In the short-term, however, we're going to look at an obscure Atari 800 title called Abraxas Adventure #1: Assault on the Astral Rift (1984).

69 comments:

  1. The third part was rumoured to be named Ambersun. I'm sure it would have been magnificent.

    (Actually, it would have been called Amber Worlds according to Karsten Köper)

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  2. Albion will immediately feel familiar after Amberstar. I'm very much looking forward to that one.

    Also, a score of 50 feels just right for this game, great review as always!

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    1. I was just going to comment at how similar Amberstar looked to Albion. I never played any of the "Amber" games, but I did get probably halfway through Albion and enjoyed it.

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  3. I feel like it says something that what should be a completely average game in nearly every way is instead a really good game in the top 10%

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    1. I agree. Most games that we think of as memorable have a few memorable elements but fall apart in other areas. Amberstar sneaks its way into the top not by doing anything great but by not doing anything poorly.

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    2. We are still in 1992 and shortly before CRPGs were on innovation hiatus until Baldur's Gate. Wasn't much better before.

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    3. Innovation hiatus before Baldur's Gate, huh? 1993 is going to disagree with you by bringing us Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, which almost feels like a better Baldur's Gate to me! ;)

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    4. Dark Sun was a fine game for the end of the Gold Box series, but it's not really comparable to Baldur's Gate. It's apples and oranges, and while Dark Sun was a good game, it doesn't compare to Baldur's Gate.

      Your opinion may vary, of course.

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    5. Yeah, I just replayed the two Dark Sun games a bit ago, and while they’re quite fun, even apart from the bugginess they’re not a patch on BG in my opinion at least. Totally agree with your broader point, though - I definitely remember the mid-90s as a dry patch for RPGs, but the stretch between 92 and 98 sees Betrayal at Krondor, Arena and Daggerfall, Diablo, lots of roguelike development, Fallout, and less-innovative but still solid stuff like Might and Magic V, the Dreamforge D&D games (the two Ravenlofts and Menzoberranzen) plus a lot of genre hybrids. There’s a long way to go to get to Baldur’s Gate!

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    6. Agreed, Dark Sun > Baldur's Gate.

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    7. I didn't say there weren't any good games in that time frame, especially Diablo easily bridged the gap until BG. But it was a dry time altogether and invited to replay Amberstar (didn't hurt it was released on a game mag later).

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    8. I recently played Dark Sun and it was an enjoyable experience (although pretty buggy), until I reached the game-breaking bug near the end. That's not fun, not at all. Not at all.

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    9. Dark Sun is very much a precursor to the "Renaissance" RPGs (BG, Fallout etc.) - it's an isometric (sort of) party-based RPG that emphasizes player choice and alternative solutions. Personally, I enjoyed it a lot more because of turn-based combat and a much more original setting
      But the bigger point is that BG didn't invent anything that the 1992-1993 games didn't do already. In addition to isometric party-based games, we already had real time with pause RPGs (Darklands), dialog trees (Ultima Underworld), companion interactions (Ultima 7) or "evil" playthroughs (Dragon Wars).

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    10. Often the ‘revolution’ is simply a matter of polish. BG is the first modern party-based RPG. Not because any particular element was especially innovative, but because the team that designed it had the time and human resources it required to make a game of that size, with that attention to detail and that level of quality assurance.

      Origin’s UVII showed us what modern games would look like in a lot of ways, and it was Black Isle who delivered the first example.

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    11. I also don't consider BG the second coming of Jesus. It is one of the first games I remember being hyped about, discussing about it on the early Internet forums, and preordering it to be able to play it the day of release.

      While I did enjoy it, especially the combat system, I found the world bland and uninteresting, and the plot derivative.

      I found NPCs, exploration and quests less engaging than in U7 or Fallout.

      To be fair, they fixed almost all my complaints with BG2, which I consider far superior.

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    12. Yeah I'm also one of those people who vastly prefer BG2. I didn't play the original BG when it came out, I actually played BG2 first and liked it a lot. Then I played BG1 years later and expected it to be just as good based on everyone's hype about it and was massively disappointed.

      The setting feels bland and generic, especially compared to the more exotic BG2. The much-praised freeform exploration consists mostly of uncovering the fog of war on oversized wilderness maps consisting of 80% empty space, and most of the encounters you find are pretty meh. There are a lot of them, sure, but apart from some highlights they're not very interesting. And the few non-mainquest dungeons are narrow labyrinths that are a pain for the pathfinding. Most of the original BG didn't feel very engaging to me. When I played Dark Sun a few years ago, it felt to me like it had the best features of BG while leaving out all the bad, and having a much more interesting setting to boot.

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    13. @Tristan, let's not confuse revolution with mainstream success. The game that did revolutionize late 90s RPGs, for better or worse, was Diablo - it popularized isometric view and action-RPG formula. Every two out of three games in late 90s and even early 2000s were Diablo clones. BG was certainly and understandably a hit, as it combined real-time isometric RPG with a party and a very thorough implementation of ADnD (the first one in many years too). However, it wasn't terribly influential in and of itself - all the original BG-likes were developed by Bioware and Black Isle only. The "Bioware RPG" only became the mainstream standard around the time Mass Effect came out.

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    14. In hindsight, I prefer BG2, but back then, BG was like water in the desert for me. I played a lot of Diablo, but to be honest, I never even read the story before like the 5th completion. The other aspects of the game simply overshadowed the story. BG had a better mix and all parts worked fine.

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    15. “Plot derivative.” I know I have a lot of 1992-1997 games left to play, but are there an awful lot in which you’re the son of an evil god investigating a mercantile plot to monopolize iron production?

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    16. Tristan:

      "Origin’s UVII showed us what modern games would look like in a lot of ways, and it was Black Isle who delivered the first example."

      I don't necessarily disagree, but I remember BG being marketed explicitly as a return to golden age CRPGs like Pool of Radiance.

      I knew I was old when I saw Pillars of Eternity marketed as a return to golden age CRPGs like BG.

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    17. I felt the same way...

      A lot of the blandness of BG is really due to restrictions placed on Interplay by WotC/TSR. They simply did not trust them with anything large scale. They might have even dictated the location, but I'm probably misremembering a preview I read over 20 years ago.

      In the long term, there is a certain charm to the small scale. I still remember how great it was to get a magic weapon and not have to deal with breakage any more. It really captured the feeling of being a fledgling adventurer even if that wasn't always the most exciting time. I've always regretted not importing my character into BGII when it came out, but I really wanted to make a half-orc barbarian for some reason.

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    18. @VK

      I said 'BG is the first modern party-based RPG' (and I should have said CRPG). Diablo is on a different tree. Obviously it is also hugely significant to the RPG genre.

      @All

      I'm not saying that BG is the best game of all time or anything. I think I enjoyed the Fallouts more, and I think BG2 and PS:T are better games. But BG set a new benchmark for overall quality in such a way that I believe heralded a new era.

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    19. "you’re the son of an evil god investigating a mercantile plot to monopolize iron production".

      Son of an evil god aside, you make it sound as exciting as the plot of The Phantom Menace :)

      Jokes aside, my main issue are the tons of tropes the plot throws at you (I have played BG to completion once on release, and a few years ago up to 3/4 of the way or so; if my recollections are wrong, I apologize).

      - Boy (Girl) that is part of a special lineage in that world's lore but that had it hidden from him "for his own good" and has led a sheltered/normal life until shit hits the fan.

      - The old mentor that sacrifices himself to allow the protagonist to escape.

      - The big baddie that after chasing personally the protagonist up to his home, suddenly loses interest in the chase, leaving the job to ineffectual assassins, allowing the protagonist to get stronger, while himself being MIA until the end.

      -"There can be only one".

      The "son of an evil god" is the most interesting part, but I don't remember BG1 developing this aspect in any interesting way, aside from getting the protagonist in the way of Sarevok.

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    20. BG1 was the game the GM wanted to play. BG2 was the game the players wanted to play. Read that one somewhere a long time ago.

      Both are good games, but BG2 definitely gives the player more frequent feedback and rewards than the first game.

      Personally I prefer the first Baldur's Gate and Pillars of Eternity scratches that same itch for me once I grasped how combat functioned.

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    21. To me BG2 is the one I could still play vanilla, while BG1 needs mods to rise above mediocrity.

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    22. Fallout and Baldur's Gate are the two games that prevented the crpgs to change much. After the 90s some genres almost disappeared (space combat games, scripted semi realistic flight sims, hex based strategic games, edutainment...) or had to wait for the indie game explosion to come back, but crpgs stayed comfortably the same with their dice rolling and stats thanks to these two. Before that the CD era almost killed them.

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    23. Not all those genres disappeared. Hex-based strategy games have been continuously produced since the first ones in the 70s - they're just such a niche product that they're sold only in specialized websites.

      I'm not sure what you mean by "scripted semi-realistic flight sim", but there's at least three or four series of aerial combat games that have been running on console for a long time. Edutainment stayed around, just moving to dedicated kiddy consoles like Leappad.

      The only one of those that really faded away was Space Combat, and that's mostly because Freespace 2 was so far above everything else that there was no competition, and yet it didn't make much money due to low marketing.

      CRPGs do go into a big slump in the mid-90s, because it took time for developers to really figure out how to exploit the newest hardware, particularly storage.

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    24. "but crpgs stayed comfortably the same with their dice rolling and stats thanks to these two"

      I mean... dice rolling and stats are kinda the core elements of an RPG. Even in action RPGs where there's barely any dice rolling, there are stats that define your character. Without stats, it's not an RPG.

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    25. Edutainment probably isn't a very profitable genre anymore, now that even very small children are as likely to have a smartphone is not. How are you gonna hold a ten-year-old's attention with math problems or historical facts when they have TikTok and Angry Birds in their pocket?

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    26. I feel like educational flash games were the real killer, considering that rather then spend the money on an educational game, you can just go and use a site that does the same thing and is free, which I'd imagine would be an especially big concern for the schools that were probably the main market for these things

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    27. Guys, as a comparison look how adventure games went (to the point that every time a Dev house becomes popular it starts doing puzzleless games) and Gnoman, try to understand my point: they did not disappear but you cannot say with a straight face that during the 00s space games were as rich as in the 90s or that there was any campaign based game after Freelancer that is relevant.

      I mean, people, I said it really clear. If it was not for BG and Fallout, rpgs would have turned into only niche Spiderweb stuff nda the rest action RPGs with barely any customisation. Just think of the times where Tie Fighter, Strike Commander, TFX, Fleet Defender, 1942, long etc existed and compare to the 00s where Sims became the hardcorest or the dumbest with only a few Novalogic sadly forgotten efforts in between

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    28. And you can say RPGs without stats and dice rolling are not RPGs but then I would say that you missed the many claims that adventure games should not have puzzles. Over and out.

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  4. I grabbed Albion off GoG a while back, pretty much sight unseen and not knowing its lineage. First impressions are pretty promising, but I've only played it a bit.

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  5. That is some awesome box art. I'd love to see a post about what you think is some of the best CRPG box art around.

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    1. Here's the original oil painting hanging at the home of Karsten Köper: http://thethalionsource.w4f.eu/Bilder/DR_Amberstar_Gemaelde.png

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    2. Speaking from experience as a professional illustrator, I have to agree. In fact, compared to the other cover art we've seen thus far on this blog, I'd have to say the cover art is easily also in the top 10% best so far, if not higher.

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    3. FWIW, I think the very best painted covers thus far, skillwise, are most likely the Keith Parkinson & Larry Elmore covers (mostly repurposed art from other D&D products) for various SSI titles. Arguably U7's ominous full black cover is the gutsiest cover design move in CCRPG history and unlikely ever to be topped in that regard.

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    4. Game covers in general are so bland nowadays. Main character front and center, usually on a blank field or sparse background. Compare the cover art for DOOM and DOOM 2016: the earlier game has a hand-painted action shot loaded with ancillary detail and bold color contrasts, particularly on the iconic blue-and-orange logo text. The new game's cover is monochrome, faceless protagonist on blank field, neutral pose. Yawn.

      The cover art for games of this era is almost always more interesting than that of newer games.

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    5. Hopefully we are entering a new era of interesting covers now that almost all sales are digital then the few covers produced are for collector's edition and the artistic freedom could get bigger when the cover no longer need to sell the games to a bigger audience

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    6. I hope that's not the case, mostly because the idea of a physical version specifically being a collector's edition is horrible to me. I tend to prefer physical, and I'd hate to have to pay more because of them being collector's things. As is, I feel like it'd be more likely for nothing to change

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    7. Even digital releases need banner images and shop icons.

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    8. That was my other thought, too

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    9. Interestingly, when I google Doom 2016, two covers come up. One which, as mentioned, is the boring but focused character shot that could represent any of about 20 video game franchises. The other which I would suspect you'd favor more--iconic red, action shot with lots of demons and a hellscape behind him. Not having played the game, is the latter not actually used as cover art for it? Just promo art? I think these days the more interesting art does tend to be promo art, rather than covers. In my experience the relatively less interesting and repetitive covers tend to be because of very risk averse stakeholders for these franchises. It's very hard to come up with a truly iconic illustration when you've got a committee of stakeholders with more money and power than aesthetic sense on your back.

      FWIW, I think I did okay with my cover for Slay the Spire, although I'd probably make some difference choices than I did in 2016. I will say that I did have a fair amount of artistic freedom, but that's indie games for you.

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    10. What % of games even have box art (or a box these days)? With so many released on digital platforms like Steam or GoG, is much still even produced?

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    11. Games still need art to represent them on a digital storefront, whether or not it's printed on a physical box. For games that also get physical releases, it's almost always the exact same image.

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    12. It's also mostly indie games that don't have physical releases, while games from more mainstream developers still have physical releases

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    13. Cover art has become more formulaic, but it's not a 2020 problem. We've had this for over a decade. The most common game box cover is "Face Dude", essentially the main character's (usually male, but there's also some "Face Girl" covers) face close-up with a dramatic expression and an undetailed background. If the cover isn't a Face Dude, it's usually just the logo and some kind of symbol associated with the game.

      Complex and interesting artworks are relegated to promo art. Cyberpunk 2077 is a great example. It had some amazingly creative promo art made for it, but the actual box cover is... yep, Face Dude. Why? Because that's what the market expects, apparently.

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    14. A bunch of games lately have been doing the interesting method of having a bland main cover (I assume for generic mass market appeal), but then having a much more interesting secondary cover on the inside that's reversible (I believe Doom 2016 is one of these). Kind of a nice bonus feature for those of us still buying physical copies.

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    15. In all fairness, take a look at the cover for Ultima VII.

      I've also noticed a similar shift in the covers of console games. I've got a bunch of NES and SNES boxes hanging on my wall. The NES ones (mostly late 80s or early 90s) tend to have one or more characters, plus one or more monsters, embedded in a landscape of some sort. The SNES ones have much more simplistic covers, usually featuring only a logo and maybe one character in silhouette. (Of course, this is probably somewhat biased by the fact that about half of my SNES covers are Final Fantasy titles, and that series was using simplistic covers for its US releases even on the NES.)

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    16. I feel like for console games, there might also be cultural differences in play. From what I've seen, Japanese and North American box arts tend to be decently different, with the North American ones typically being changed for the worse in my opinion

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    17. I have Slay the Spire in a box (Switch version), so I have Bruce Brenneise's art tucked away nicely on a shelf even though it's "indie".

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    18. The console FPS series Timesplitters was infamously canceled because the executives didn't like that the series didn't have one Main Character to put on the box.

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    19. Until the 90s, US box artists tried to mimic Western high fantasy art in an attempt to hide the games' Japanese roots, despite the fact that the in-game art didn't match the outside. Sega even hired Boris Vallejo to depict bishonen anime RPG heroes as hulking barbarian types with skin oiled like Mr. Olympia contestants, and we've seen the difference between Dragon Warrior and Dragon Quest box art. Even Mega Man was infamously subjected to being Westernized as an oddly proportioned Western-style guy in a Lazer Tag suit, which Capcom infamously lampooned in Street Fighter x Tekken. One notable exception was Working Designs, a California-based publisher of obscure Japanese RPGs, which did use anime on their covers (while peppering the localizations liberally with topical American humor like Clinton jokes and references to Wayne's World and the Tootsie Roll Owl.)

      In the mid 90s, Dragon Ball Z and Chrono Trigger (whose character art was done by Dragon Ball artist Akira Toriyama) became popular in the US, and Chrono Trigger featured Toriyama's art on the cover, with Crono ready to strike an enemy. After that, anime became more acceptable on box art, but there were still differences. Japanese box art depicted the characters smiling, but American covers usually depicted the same characters as angry and ready to strike. Kirby, a little pink cream puff, is really notable for being angry on American box art. European covers for a lot of games seemed to emphasize scenes of exploration.

      Interestingly, Final Fantasy on PS1 was the opposite of what you'd expect. The US versions depicted scenes and characters from the games on the covers. The Japanese covers were the game logo, the small PS logo, and Square's logo on plain white backgrounds. In Japan, the Final Fantasy name sold itself, in the US, they apparently felt they needed a little more description on the cover, especially with VII.

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    20. Doom on the Switch did have a cover painting that had the Doomguy facing hordes of demons in a vast hellscape, as a callback to the cover art for the original Doom.

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    21. Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic had a flip-open front. They used this to push the breasts of the female elf on the front "out" from the inside of the cardboard, making her breastplate, and only her breastplate, three-dimensional.

      How did that pass Marketing?

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    22. That passed Marketing very easily because it's an awesome idea that makes a lot of people from the male audience pick up the box :p

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  6. > I was hoping that designer Karsten Köper would appear during this series of entries. [..]

    If you like to contact him, his last known and published online email address is kkoeper@gmx.de.

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  7. You could shave off a couple of hours with a stronger party, but hard to guess on the first completion. I tried everything, my favourite was with 2 B-Mages. Having the guild password changes a lot as well.

    Next to potions, there is a most probably not inteded money sink with Atacar's chronical illness. You can trade as many herbs for experience as you can afford.

    The Rose of Sadness and the guard house (and avenging your parents on the way there) are the only optional parts of the game. Think that's enough, though. You can ignore the swamp station, too, but that doesn't really save time.

    I personally like it better than 50 points, but I can play around the weaknesses.

    Fun fact: my nickname means amber in latin, I translated it after being confused for a woman too often.

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    1. Personally, I'd rate the Quests category a lot higher because I value a non-linear main quest much more than side quests (it's a much rarer beast too). Same of NPC interactions - to hell with branching dialogs, give me a good keyword hunt. So it'd be something like a 54-56 for me. But then again, I wouldn't be using the same ranking system in the first place - Gimlet reflects Addict's tastes, not mine.

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  8. This was a great game to contrast with Ultima 7. Both are well-made open-world games, but they excel in very different ways.

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  9. Final Fantasy, Bard´s Tale and Eye of the Beholder are but three examples of games better than Amberstar. Yet you were tougher on their ratings. I believe you´ve commented before that you don´t like to compare one game with another in rating--but you often say "that seems to be about right" when you give a score--this implies you´re "feeling" the game against how your gimlet performs in other instances. Human fallibility is impossible to walk away from, Chet.

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    1. I hope it's obvious from the content of this comment that this is an impostor and not real me. I've never played Final Fantasy and I think I've voiced my distaste for both BT and EotB enough times already.

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    2. I already wondered since those claims are absurd.

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    3. Okay, Real VK, it's probably best to comment using a Google account since anyone can spoof anyone's name with the "Name/URL" option. Fake VK, you're not welcome on this blog anymore. Everyone else, one commenter impersonating another isn't anything we've had to deal with in 10 years, so let's not make it a thing, okay?

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    4. Ok, I'm gonna give this fancy new technology a try. Bizarre circumstances call for extreme measures, I guess.

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  10. (Just once, I want to read a story in which the evil wizard or demon, having been freed from a thousand years in prison, has no interest in re-embarking on the same path that got him imprisoned in the first place, and now wants nothing more than a good meal and a stiff drink.)

    Major spoilers so I'm going to ROT13 it, but Gur 2013 Vaqvr ECT Cncre Fbeprere qbrf guvf nf cneg bs vgf raqvat.

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    1. In pen-and-paper RPG module Return of the Runelords, the titular Runelords were evil and amoral sorcerous overlords who "sealed" themselves 5000 years ago and are now coming back. Gjb bs gurz ab ybatre unir n gnfgr sbe pcadhrfg naq pbasyvpg nal zber naq dhvrgyl jvguqenj, naq orpbzr vafgehzragny va qrsrngvat gur bguref.

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    2. Thanks for both sources. I think when I wrote that comment, I had Anton Chekhov's "The Bet" on my mind. It would be interesting to see that merged with the common fantasy trope of the imprisoned warlord whose time is coming.

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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.

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