Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Dark Sun: Shattered Lands: Summary and Rating

 
The box showcases a mul gladiator, a race and class unique to the setting.
       
Dark Sun: Shattered Lands
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released1993 for DOS
Date Started: 2 October 2021
Date Ended: 2 January 2022
Total Hours: 37
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 64
Ranking at Time of Posting: 441/444 (99%)
    
Summary:
    
Dark Sun is an axonometric, continuous-movement, multi-character RPG with turn-based combat. It is set in the Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting of the same name, with rules drawn from AD&D's second edition. A party of four characters must escape life as gladiators and survive on a post-apocalyptic desert planet ruled by insane sorcerer-kings. The main quest involves uniting three villages of escaped slaves to defy the city-state of Draj, but there are a couple dozen side quests, both long and short, offering some of the most complex NPCs, dialogue options, and roleplaying choices of the era. Poor sales and corporate politics prevented this game from enjoying its rightful legacy, which draws from SSI's previous Gold Box games and anticipates the Infinity Engine titles of the end of the decade.
 
***
 
Perhaps the most notable thing about Dark Sun is the degree to which I would like to replay it. Among the previous 433 games, I've encountered some that I've identified as "replayable" and a few that I've actually replayed, but the former cases were mostly theoretical and the latter ones were so short that the replays didn't significantly delay my progress (e.g., Quest for Glory). Dark Sun is different. The game is enjoyable and varied enough that I don't really want to leave it, yet long enough that I must.
      
There are three things that make me want to stay with the game for another round. The first is to experience it again with different classes. Some commenters have criticized my party composition. Some of these criticisms have been worded a little obnoxiously, but the point is fair. The setting offers an entirely new race (thri-kreen) and an entirely new magic class (psionicists), but I decided to go with a more traditional party composition that would have been at home in the Forgotten Realms. Normally, I wouldn't do that. I'm not sure why I was so conservative this time.
    
The second reason is the enormous number of spells that I never cast. The developers did an admirable job programming dozens--perhaps hundreds--of spell animations and effects, and I must have only used about nine of them. I don't feel that I've achieved anywhere near the expertise with the magic system the way I felt after a couple of Gold Box games. The game itself discouraged a lot of spell use by making melee classes so powerful, so in a replay I suspect I'd try an all-spellcasting party.
   
Third, and perhaps most important, Dark Sun offers probably more role-playing choices than any other game to date. There is a nice mix of them, too. Some are about good and evil, but others are about combat versus noncombat solutions to problems, or aggression versus guile. Even the large-scale choice about the direction you choose to explore the game world makes a big difference in how you experience the game. Alas, I have to substitute your experiences for my own in these areas. 
         
Role-playing dialogue options (rather than simple information-gathering ones) are not a wholly new concept, but I think Dark Sun is the first RPG to fully realize them.
      
There are three major areas in which this otherwise-excellent game left me unsatisfied. The first is with, of course, the level caps. Two of my characters had no room to develop for half the game. I frankly prefer it when games have no level caps at all, but I recognize that's hard to do with a ruleset like Dungeons & Dragons. If there are level caps, then, I want them to be unachievable for all but the grindiest of players. If even that isn't possible, then the level caps should not be hit until near the end of the game. Multi-classing should confer an honest penalty rather than serving as a strategy to ensure the character will always have room to grow.
   
The second negative area is the economy. One commenter opined that I might have thought it more useful with a psionicst, as you can apparently purchase psionic rings to enhance your powers. I'm not sure I agree that would have made a huge difference, as you also find plenty of such rings. What frustrates me the most about the economy is that there were at least a couple obvious solutions: first, have your man on the plateau sell spell scrolls. I've never played a D&D game so stingy with its mage spells. In both the Gold Box and Infinity Engine games, you can always count on plenty of scrolls to teach you the spells that you don't select while leveling up. Here, there are only about six of them. 
      
Another possibility would have been to tie the economy to a survival element. If you're going to introduce a world in which "water is more valuable than gold," then prove it by making us pay through the nose for a drink. I've mentioned the lack of survival elements several times. It's not that I particularly want to have to worry about food, water, and shelter when I play a game. In fact, when these elements are done poorly, they can really ruin a game. In this case, though, the very setting almost demands it.
        
"Shattered" or not, I can spend as long as I want wandering these lands with no fear of hunger, thirst, or exposure.
    
I had mixed feelings about the game's graphics. There's no question that, overall, they were good--a huge step forward from the empty areas and repetitive textures of the Gold Box. No previous top-down game except perhaps Ultima VII has featured this level of hand-crafted detail. Most maps offered at least one set piece worth stopping gameplay just to look at, which is perhaps the very definition of "good graphics." Some of the area- or event-transition screens are particularly well done. And yet there was an extent to which they just didn't work for me. Part of the problem is the perspective, which is neither top down nor entirely angled. The game wants to have it both ways, using inconsistent perspective angles, sometimes on the same scene. Most of the time, we view the action on a single north/south axis of rotation; I think axonometric perspectives are almost always better when rotated on two axes, so you're facing the world from either the southwest or southeast.
   
The bigger issue for me had to do with the age-old issue of trying to accomplish too much with too few pixels. My colorblindness always plays a role in such assessments, so your mileage may vary. To me, this is the sort of game where I'm always talking to bushes because I mistake them for people, trying to pick up piles of straw because I mistake them for gold. I admire that the game reaches for a next level when it comes to graphical detail, but I don't think it could achieve what it wanted to achieve without SVGA resolutions. I don't want to make too much of this, though, because I agree it's close.
 
This is a really cool statue. Now is that bulge on the ground beneath it something I can pick up or just decoration? Are those people or cactuses in the lower-left?
       
Anyone upset with my using an exploit to win the final battle will be happy to know that I did win it legitimately, although I couldn't do it without losing my preserver/druid one time and my ranger/thief another. I discovered three things in my continuing investigations:
   
  • If you don't use the genie just before the final battle, the first wave of enemies is a bunch of daggorans, earth elementals, and scorpions. After you defeat them, you get what I described as the "first wave" last time.
  • The game does use dexterity in its calculation of initiative. When I hex-edited my characters to 25 dexterity, they all went first in the final combat. Prior to hex-editing, the maximum dexterity I had was 20, and everyone went last, so the sweet spot is somewhere in between.
  • Area-effect spells do remain on the screen in between combats.
    
The "first battle" that using the genie manages to avoid.
     
That last point is what allowed me to win. After the relatively easy initial battle, while one enemy was still alive, I filled the field with every negative area-effect spell I could think of: "Grease," "Wall of Fog," "Web," "Entangle," and a summoned fire elemental. "Entangle," as Wonko offered, turned out to be the most useful of the lot, keeping the elite guards out of melee range. My summoned enemies rarely lasted more than a round, but I kept summoning new ones, occupying the attention of the archers and spellcasters while I slowly picked off the enemies with arrows, spells, and usable items. My ranger/thief had a necklace that cast "Disintegrate," which I under-prized in my last attempt. I managed to nail the army commander with that on the first round. The only real problem was that spell effects on the field prevent you from casting other area-effect spells in the same place, so I could only "Fireball" and "Ice Storm" the fringes of the battlefield.
     
Enemies in the final battle advance over a field of whatever I could throw at them.
      
I expect the game to rival the best Gold Box games in the GIMLET. Let's see.
   
1. Game World. While the Dark Sun setting is not anywhere near as popular as the Forgotten Realms, I found it paradoxically more accessible for that reason. There is an extent to which games set in the Realms expect you to have some existing knowledge of the world, whereas I felt the manual for Dark Sun told me everything I needed from the start. Compare the first paragraph of the manuals for Pool of Radiance and Dark Sun:
   
[Pool of Radiance]: To most inhabitants of the lands of the Inner Sea, the Moonsea and its cities represent the border between civilization and barbarism. The Moonsea sits like a great plug straddling the territory between the Mountains of Vaasa and the Nomad Steppes, protecting the southern territories from the incursions of savage Northerners. To the south of the Moonsea lie the civilized lands of Cormyr and Sembia. To the north lay hundreds of square miles of cold and unforgiving wastes. Even when the southern kingdoms are themselves besieged by orcish hordes, dragons, and fell monsters, they take comfort in the fact that, "It's worse around the Moonsea."

[Dark Sun]: Athas, the world of Dark Sun, was once as pleasant as any other. But, after many thousands of years, powerful mages found ways to gain power through draining the planet's vitality. At their zenith, these wizards caused the sun to transform from a pleasant yellow glow to a ranging crimson fireball on the horizon. The seas evaporated and were replaced by huge basins of silt.
   
The Dark Sun manual starts you at 30,000 feet and zooms in on the city of Draj, whereas the Pool of Radiance manual starts you at street level. There are literary virtues in the latter approach, but it's not very helpful for someone who doesn't know that the Moonsea is on the continent of Faerûn, which is geographically and ethnically varied. Subsequent paragraphs don't help. By the end of the Pool introduction, the first-time visitor to Faerûn is lost, whereas by the end of the Dark Sun opening, the player understands the basic cultural, religious, and political situations on Athas.
   
Of the two, Dark Sun also shows the most originality. I know it's not wholly original, of course; the basic concept goes back to Vance's Dying Earth novels, and many of the place names and tropes are drawn from Mesoamerican mythology and culture. Regardless, we haven't played many CRPGs in such places.
   
There are ways in which Dark Sun doesn't make the most of its setting. The presence of the "sorcerer-king" is never really felt in the game (in fact, he's mysteriously absent); the world never felt like a sun-scorched hellscape in which we struggled to survive; and it did seem a little unrealistic that a couple of slave towns could defy the armies of an entire civilization. However, I did enjoy the largely-new selection of monsters, the limited exposure I had with psionics, and typing names like "Teaquetzl." I also appreciated how the game reacted to my party's accomplishment, changing dialogues and encounters appropriately. A strong category. Score: 8.
       
My final "world map." It seems bigger when you're playing.
            
2. Character Creation and Development. It is certainly one of the better Dungeons & Dragons titles when it comes to party creation. Different party compositions face very different games, both mechanically and thematically. I appreciated options like thri-kreen and psionicists even if I didn't pick them. As usually happens during the first nine D&D levels, you do get notably hardier and deadlier as you level up. However, the level caps really hurt my enjoyment of this category, and I'm getting sick of magic-users having the only choices during leveling. Score: 6.
      
My party leader earned 647,744 experience. She hit her last level at 300,000. And you can't multi-class gladiators, so that was never an option.
    
3. NPC Interaction. A great leap forward in this category, one of few non-Ultima games of the era with actual dialogue options and character personalities. This may in fact be the first game with full-sentence dialogue options that are truly options (in the sense that you can't choose all of them), with associated role-playing connotations. There's still work to be done in all of these elements, but Dark Sun was an important stop along the way. Score: 7.
   
4. Encounters and Foes. Dark Sun is great with serendipitous encounters, many of them unnecessary to the main plot, and as I discussed above, most of them have at least a couple of approaches and options. As for the foes, I'm almost never disappointed by the bestiary of a Dungeons & Dragons game, particularly when it comes with a Monster Manual-style description of each new enemy. The variety of special attacks, defenses, and other characteristics always makes for interesting combat situations. Another great category. Score: 8.
       
The manual's detailed description of a "daggoran."
     
5. Combat and Magic. The turn-based system is an excellent showcase for D&D rules and spells, and if nothing else, I appreciate the sheer number of spell effects and animations programmed into this game. The inclusion of the psionicist class means there's about 33% more than a comparable Gold Box offering. I did find the combat a little too easy (until the end), and there is an extent to which I still prefer the Gold Box, where the grid made it easier to identify obstacles, movement paths, and spell effect areas. Score: 7.
   
6. Equipment. It's okay. About as good as a standard D&D game. Upgrades were regular enough. I appreciated extra slots for arm, leg, and waist items, but the game didn't really use them very often. I was never sure whether I was seeing the negative effects of some items (e.g., some characters are supposed to have penalties with metals). Going in and out of inventory was a bit of a pain, but that's more of an interface issue. Score: 6.
       
My ranger/thief's final backpack. I appreciate the clear statistics.
     
7. Economy. Alas, the game follows the SSI tradition by failing miserably in this category. Throughout the game, you essentially keep acquiring wealth without ever having anything interesting to spend it on. As I pointed out, a selection of spell scrolls in some magic shop would have completely turned this category around while simultaneously adding to the character development and combat options. Any number of other options could have worked, too, such as tying the economy to the survival mechanic or allowing me to pay off the sorcerer-king's guards. Score: 2.
  
8. Quests. Dark Sun is not only one of the few games of the era to recognize the concept of side-quests, it gives you role-playing choices within those side quests. The main quest has only one outcome, alas. Score: 7.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I had small issues with both graphics and interface. I talked about graphics above. As for the interface, it mostly works. It uses the mouse and keyboard redundantly, and I appreciated the map plus little touches like the weapon statistics and the full descriptions of each spell under the right-mouse button. I still think there should have been an alternative to using the right mouse button to change what the mouse does. It so interrupts the flow of exploration to have to use the mouse to switch between searching, using, and talking, particularly since the action pauses as you do so. (This is something that's hard to articulate; you just have to experience it.) As for sound, the game has some nice effects but doesn't otherwise break any new ground here. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. Good stuff here: The game is nonlinear within a somewhat small map. It is highly replayable for both different character options and for different encounter choices, and it is well-paced. (I've yet to codify this rule, but I think that a game should last no longer than 2/3 its GIMLET total in hours. Dark Sun hits it precisely.) It is perhaps a little too easy, again except for the first and final battles. A fast travel option was completely unnecessary, and I think maybe the party should only have been able to save at campfires. Score: 7.
   
That gives us a final score of 64. That puts it fourth on my overall list, just a smidge behind Pool of Radiance (65) and, surprisingly, one point ahead of Ultima Underworld (62). I don't think I have any quarrel with that. Dark Sun is an excellent debut, offering as much for its interface style as Underworld did for first-person exploration.
        
I had been looking for the moment when "engine" became a commonly-used term among non-developers. It must have been before this.
     
Some previous comment had given me the idea that despite its qualities, the game didn't review well in its own time, so I was pleased to find that the opposite was true. Curiously, perhaps the worst rating (3/5 stars) comes from the May 1994 issue of Dragon, but this was after the magazine had transitioned the column from the always-sunny Hartley and Patricia Lesser to Sandy Petersen, who seems to have disliked turn-based combat. "You must walk each of your characters around the screen each turn, select the opponents they bash on, fire their missiles, cast their spells, etc. Then, you wait for the opponents to do the same right back to you." To me, that's just a simple description of how turn-based combat works, but Petersen means it pejoratively, calling it "lengthy" and "tedious." He has a good point I didn't make, but agree with, about the difficulty of finding spells by symbols alone. Otherwise, he had praise for the encounter system.
  
Scorpia had a mostly-positive review in the December 1993 Computer Gaming World, but I was a little irked by it anyway. (This is painful, for as much as I fight with Scorpia, I generally go into one of her reviews hoping that she agrees with me.) First is the title: "Good-bye, Gold Box!" This sentiment continues with the second paragraph: "Players familiar with the [Gold Box] games may approach Dark Sun with deep suspicion, thinking it 'more of the same.' Happily, this is not the case." Whoa, whoa there. Look, I'll be the first to agree that the Gold Box engine had some faults and probably needed to be scrapped by 1993, but that doesn't mean we should be talking about it so disrespectfully. "Deep suspicion?!" The Gold Box resulted in a dozen high-quality games over five years, the closest representations of tabletop roleplaying as we had to date. If SSI had released a Gold Box game in 1993 instead of Dark Sun, it would have been a damned good game. Players should be on their knees thanking Ao for the engine, not dancing on its grave.
   
Anyway, her review opens with a series of complaints about the changes to the system rules, such as the assignment of clerics to elemental spheres, the use of different materials for armor, and the lack of armor for druids and thri-kreen. I don't think she understands which of these changes are AD&D second edition rules and which are campaign setting rules, but either way, I think she needed to give them more of a chance. Many first-edition rules seem silly, too. Just because cleric magic worked one way in one setting doesn't make it worse if it works a different way in a different setting. Anyway, she had praise for other changes including gender equality in attributes (no more comparably weaker female fighters) and not having to memorize spells. She has the same complaint I did about lack of spell scrolls to assuage the difficult choices the preserver has to make when leveling up, and she had the same trouble I did with the final battle (plus an additional technical issue I didn't experience). Her summary:
   
[M]y impression of Dark Sun is favorable. SSI is moving to a more mature form of CRPG. The completely new engine, world, rules, and graphics, along with a new emphasis on story, does a lot to distance them from the Gold Box image. As with all new things, the first steps are apt to be shaky. Still, Dark Sun (with a little overhaul) shows much promise for the future, and promises a good game to play right now.
   
Again, I'm not sure why we have to trash the Gold Box while praising the new approach, but otherwise I agree with the sentiments she expresses. In June 1994, the game was nominated for the magazine's "RPG of the Year," but the prize went to Betrayal at Krondor. I haven't played that yet, so I can't tell you whether I agree.
   
Scorpia wasn't entirely wrong about the "promise for the future," but neither was she entirely right. The Dark Sun engine wasn't a one-hit wonder. It spawned a sequel, Wake of the Ravager, in 1994, plus an adaption to another rare D&D campaign setting in 1994's Al-Qadim: The Genie's Curse. There was even a 1996 MMORPG called Crimson Sands. But the sales of these late-SSI D&D titles (and several others) were mediocre, insufficient to repair SSI's increasingly-rocky relationship with TSR. (As for that relationship, I'm not even going to try to compete with Jimmy Maher's excellent coverage from September 2019.) The two partners announced a parting of ways in early 1994, although SSI continued publishing under the license until mid-1995.
    
I have some open questions about the games that influenced Dark Sun and the games that it influenced. In its basic interface--an axonometric perspective with continuous (non-tiled) movement and turn-based combat that takes place on the same game map as navigation--it was preceded by Ultima VI and Interplay's two Lord of the Rings titles. If you're willing to remove one of those elements, you have Ultima VII, Challenge of the Five Realms, and Darklands. Any or all of these games could have influenced the Dark Sun engine, but I've not been able to find specific confirmation that any of them did. Likewise, I haven't found any confirmation that the Infinity Engine developers were influenced by Dark Sun, but it wouldn't surprise me. Most of the elements are there, including interesting NPCs and full-sentence dialogue options. (I would love to experience a game with the interface of the Infinity Engine but the turn-based combat system of Dark Sun.) I'll try to reach the right people in time for my coverage of the sequel.


108 comments:

  1. Congrats on winning fairly this time! Interesting after the speculation in comments last time that it turns out that Dex is still used for initiative after all.

    While the graphics make it look similar, the Al Qadim game is actually more of a Zelda-alike; there might be some adaptation of the DS engine somewhere behind the scenes, but they play very differently (it is pretty much though!)

    The implementation of the Preserver class in DS is pretty interesting, because by taking out the requirement to memorize spells in advance, but also severely restricting the ability to learn new spells outside of level-ups, they basically pre-invented the DnD 3rd Edition Sorcerer class, which can be effective but takes a slightly different mindset from a traditional DnD wizard/mage.

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    1. Al Qadim is one of my favourite games but I hardly would recommend it: it is a PC translation of a Legend Of Zelda kind of gameplay and the combat is a bit awkward. The music is awesome, the setting is wonderful and I really like the quest, but it is very rough and rough arcade-ish games age at double the speed. Also the RPG elements are quite minimal. It's mostly an arcade game with some puzzles consisting on finding secret walls, pushing things around, navigating mazes and some fed exing.

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    2. Its follow up "Entomorph" though (almost same game, wildly different setting and story) remains way way cooler.

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    3. Entomorph has some choice&consequences though right? I vaguely remember something about a potion at a certain point in the game, where you have to decide if you take it, if you let a female (hive queen?) character take it, or if you let a stranger hooded figure take it.

      Been a few years, don't fully remember the details. The soundtrack is the best I ever heard tho

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  2. It's a serious deviation from D&D rules that you can't cast Fireball over a Grease or Entangle; not to mention tactically awkward.

    And I'm reasonably sure Al-Qadim uses a completely different engine. It has the same perspective, but art style and gameplay are clearly not the same.

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    1. I suppose. I watched some video, and while the people had larger icons than DS, the perspective, dialogue interface, and many of the graphics look identical to me. The perspective even uses the same single-axis rotation

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    2. The gameplay is quite different -- it's a real-time action-adventure -- and Al-Qadim was made by an outside developer, which in SSI's case usually meant a different engine than the one's they used in-house (except for I think the two Stormfront Gold Box games? But EOB I and II and Spelljammer all were different engines, with SSI's internally-developed EOB III built from scratch after Westwood moved on). At the same time, it's true that the visuals and interface are very similar, plus Wikipedia links to an article saying that Crimson Sands wound up re-using some sprites from Al-Qadim, which also suggests some engine-level similarities. It'd be interesting to know more about the development of Al-Qadim to resolve the question, but there doesn't seem to be much easily-accessible info on that.

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    3. You don't need to have the same engine in order to share art assets.

      E.g. the game Dude Where's My Avatar re-uses art from (among others) Ultima 5 and 6; wanna bet that's not the same engine either?

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  3. Those progressively tougher arena battles at the start might be a good way to test new party dynamics without playing through the whole game again. Might be tough without better equipment or spells though (not that you get many spells during the game either, apparently).

    Glad you liked this one and I'm curious to see how it fares against Betrayal at Krondor when you get to it, as it's a very different experience. Feels like it'll be a competitive year in general.

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    1. There's also a start-up code to give characters all the spells/psionics. That's probably a good way to explore the spell system without having to level up a hundred different spellcasters/psionicists.

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  4. Now I'm curious to see if this is going to be your GOTY for 93.

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    1. It would be right now, but there's still a lot left to play.

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    2. Especially 'Lands of Lore - Throne of Chaos', wink, wink.

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    3. I love "Lands of Lore - Throne of Chaos", but I think that it's streamlined approach to RPG mechanics will severely impair it in some GIMLET entries like "Character Development", "NPC Interaction", "Combat and Magic" and "Economy", although I expect a superb rating in "Graphics, Sound and Interface".

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    4. Westwood certainly made some of the most beautiful games of the era. I don't expect it to make much difference to the overall score, though, given how little that matters to the GIMLET.

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    5. Agreed, lumping graphics, sound and interface into the same category was a cardinal sin in the first place.

      I'm not advocating for GOTY though, I'm still expecting Chet to give 'Lands of Lore' priority as we agreed to.

      Hmm...

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  5. The one game that's most clearly inspired by Dark Sun is 2009's Knights of the Chalice. It has a slightly similar interface, uses the same campfire mechanic for resting, and uses very similar spell symbols. Pierre Begue, its designer, openly admits Dark Sun's major influence and is a big fan of the game.

    I'm not sure if any other CRPGs ever copied Dark Sun's resting mechanic. Dark Souls does something similar but I don't know if its developers were familiar with Dark Sun. From Software's first couple of games were Ultima Underworld inspired (the King's Field series) so they do take some inspiration from western titles.

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    1. I am still waiting on the Knights of the Chalice sequel, damn it!

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    2. It's been out to Kickstarter backers for over a year, and I confess I thought that meant it was out, but I guess not? I was a backer but found the initial release really unbalanced and buggy and put it aside; it's had a lot of updates since then so hopefully it's getting close to its real release.

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    3. KotC 2 is now actually fully out, fwiw

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  6. I wonder if your issues with the graphics are related to the way you play it. IIRC, you play windowed for the sake of your notes, and these games were intended to be played full-screen.

    Even when I can tweak scalers or resolution to get the size the same, I usually have a very different viewing experience on the full-screen CRT than I do in a window.

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    1. Perhaps. I do scale DosBox to 3X, usually, which takes up most of one of my monitors.

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  7. I think you are too generous with your rating of 7 for Combat and Magic. Too me the game really suffered from the very uneven difficulty. If the game had a more even, and higher difficulty, I would have enjoyed it more, since it would have forced me use more advanced tactics than my Gladiator smacking enemies on the head.

    The lack of fog-of-war also reduced the joy of exploration significantly. And as you noted, more could been done with setting.

    So in the end the only aspect of the game I think was truly great was the NPC interaction/quest stuff.

    Incidentally the RPG Codex recently had a poll for the best DOS era CRPG, and Dark Sun is among the top three, I think (final results are not in) along with Ultima Underworld, after Betrayal of Krondor.

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    1. Yeah, I agree - the game implements a strong combat system, with lots of interesting PC abilities and a diversity of monsters and enemies, but the game balance and especially the encounter design mean most of that work feels wasted - none of the fights in DS feel tactically interesting in the way the best Gold Box ones do. The last fight is a possible exception I suppose, though pre-casting a bunch of crowd control spells also doesn’t seem super satisfying - pretty much all high-level 1e/2e games suffer from the mage-quickdraw problem, though.

      Wake of the Ravager, though a weaker game overall, I thought actually had more varied encounter design that required a slightly broader range of tactics.

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    2. Probably many are going to disagree, but I never figured out the Betrayal at Krondor love. To me, played around the original launch of the game, Krondor's map design and gameplay seemed almost atrophied compared to the Ultima and Gold Box experiences.

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    3. ududy, perhaps you missed the fact that you can visit any part of the world at any time. Example, chapter 1, you're supposed to just follow the road to Krondor. Would you rather explore the forest instead and go the 10x longer road? You can do that. And each chapter, what you find in the maps is different.

      It's a massive game.

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    4. I felt the same way about Betrayal at Krondor, ududy. I thought the world felt empty and the gameplay was tedious. With no experience with the books and no knowledge of the characters, I also thought the story had high barriers to entry that I couldn't really get past. The whole thing felt like work, not a game.

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    5. I loved BaK, and I enjoyed it more than I did Dark Sun. Good exploration, writing, puzzles, and decent combat. Reading the books beforehand I found them too juvenile to my taste, and actually preferred the writing in the game.

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    6. @Pedro Q. I certainly missed that fact. But I don't see how that would have improved my experience of the game when most of what there is to do in the world is fight and the combat is so tedious at the start. IIRC, you start with one character who can cast spells, but he can cast only one or two and they both fail more often than they succeed. The other characters have the option of slashing or stabbing, but the difference is pretty minimal. The equipment degredation system also punishes you for fighting at all.

      To be fair, I haven't played the game in 20 years and the game's flaws might be exaggerated in my remembering, but it's not my cup of tea.

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    7. I've only read the novel for Betrayal at Krondor, never played the game, and the plot felt like a videogame plot in a bad way. Overall was not well written imo. I expect the game should be better given the love it continues to have around these parts

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    8. Well, Feist is not a great writer to begin with (enjoyable, sure; great, nope), so a video game writer trying to imitate him... yeah, I can imagine that leading to poor writing.

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    9. Yeah the plot's a videogame plot. But the descriptive writing (which is quite present in all parts of the game) is much stronger than just about any other game at the time and lends the game a very unique feel.

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    10. Yeah, the strength of the writing in BaK is less that it makes the plot a marvel of literary construction -- it's not -- and more that it's *everywhere*. There's a fairly simulationist approach to the world, where you spend lots of time repairing your armor after battle, checking your rations to make sure none are spoiled or poisoned, and practicing your lute-playing to make money in inns, and there's incidental writing for all this stuff, which really makes it feel like you're experiencing a fantasy novel. It also serves to create a strong sense of narrative around a quite open-ended world with lots of freedom of movement.

      The other thing that's good about it is the combat -- it's tuned rather hard, especially at the start, but the system creates lots of tactically interesting situations, with very few speed-bump fights and a need to think carefully about spell and item use.

      For its time, of course, the first-person, free-scrolling outside world was a major selling point, and pretty unique as far as I recall. It looks kinda ugly now though!

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    11. While you can visit most of Midkemia in chapter 1, there is really no need to: there are almost no quests outside the main route and BaK is rather an easy game so you don't have to grind in anticipation of later chapters.

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    12. I agree with Petrus. The Game alternates between being too easy and too hard too many times. There is no gradual step up in challenge. The Jinn plot at the end seems tacked on and the final fight is a curbstomp more than a challenge.

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  8. Woo, shout out!

    Thri-kreen factoid: Originally invented by Paul Reiche III for original D&D's monster cards, we've seen him here before as co-designer of Star Control II

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  9. "I would love to experience a game with the interface of the Infinity Engine but the turn-based combat system of Dark Sun."

    Pathfinder: Kingmaker is basically an Infinity Engine game with a turn-based combat mode.

    (Also, Betrayal at Krondor really is that good.)

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    1. Pillars of Eternity II is in the same category (infinity engine like + optional (and highly detailed) turn based combat), and designed by some of the talent behind infinity engine classics, to boot.

      Delete
    2. One of the slight sadnesses I have in life is that I, and most probably Chet, are old enough that I'll never read a review of Kingmaker, Pillars of Eternity, or Wasteland 2. I'll console myself with the hope that one day before I die he'll hit Baldurs Gate II.

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    3. Kingmaker is amazing, probably my favorite RPG of this century! Still gaining courage to start Wrath of the Righteous...

      And Betrayal at Krondor is also amazing, probably my favorite 1st person RPG ever.

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    4. Chet might reach Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor instead. That game also has turn-based combat with an engine similiar to the inifnity engine.

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    5. Kingmaker and PoE 2 are both good examples, but long before those games is Troika's The Temple of Elemental Evil. Perhaps a but light on dialog choices, but otherwise a great game (when patched).

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    6. Pedro, I honestly think Wrath is the best CRPG ever made

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    7. As for turn based CRPGs - I'll add Divinity: Original Sin (I and II) to the list. They don't play by D&D rules, but still do well with evoking the feel of the late 90s, early 2000s era CRPGs.

      Although I agree with the recommendations on Owlcat's Pathfinder series. They are creating adaptations of already written storylines through Paizo's Adventure Paths (both the incredibly popular Kingmaker, and more recently Wrath of the Righteous). By adapting existing APs, the devs can focus on the things they do best, and both games are a lot of fun.

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    8. Yeah, the Original Sin games are more in the Ultima mode, but there's definitely some BG influence too as well as some near-roguelike touches in how different items and abilities can interact with the environment and each other. I haven't tried the developer's BG3 yet, but I'm curious to see how they shift their approach.

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    9. Troika's Arcanum is an absolutely wonderful wRPG with an engine similar to the Infinity Engine; it supports both real-time and turn-based combat modes. (I always opt for turn-based, naturally.) I'm also excited for Chet to reach Fallout and Fallout 2, from around the same era! That's a ways away yet, though.

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    10. I'll agree on Kingmaker and Wrath, both great modern turn based games but so kuch like infinity engine games. My favorite games actually.

      Delete
    11. Daniel: I loved ToEE, but the level cap somewhat ruined it for me more than any other CRPG. I wanted to explore D&D3.0 and it felt short at just 10 levels

      Chris: Looking forward to it now :) I don't think anything can surpass Ultima 6 for me, but if it's better than PFK I'm happy!

      Werner: I'm one of those few people that loved DOS1 and got bored to death with DOS2. DOS1 capitalized on what it's strong (tactical battles), DOS2 on what it's not (story). That's why I avoided BG3 altogether

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    12. Pathfinder: Kingmaker is exactly the sort of game that would justify being blogged out of chronological order if Chet ever decides to make good on that threat, IMHO.

      The influence of the Infinity Engine on the game is palpable and it lets you play in either Infinity Engine style realtime with pause combat or turn-based, whichever you prefer, and you can switch between the two seamlessly at any time.

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    13. Pathfinder Kingmaker is an uneasy amalgam of Strategy Game, RPG, and City Building. I have played it, but these elements do not work well together. Being a baron and having to stop a Troll invasion with just six people seems ridiculous.

      Delete
    14. Why would it be ridiculous? In the first thirty-odd YEARS of the game, tabletop Dungeons & Dragons had various character classes gain castles, troops and followers - because makes a lot of sense that powerful adventurers gain influence and start ruling their country.

      And I would love to see the Addict play it to see what he makes of this amalgam. It's certainly uncommon to have that in a game.

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    15. Right, what's ridiculous isn't that a powerful adventurer would have resources like land and followers -- what's ridiculous is that none of those resources have any impact on the actual adventuring, which goes right back into six-randos-wandering-around-doing-quests mode when you should be able to order up dozens of troops and have your alchemists whip up firepots to support the fighting.

      (I get that there are significant design limitations that make this hard -- plus genre expectations -- so this particular point a major ding against Kingmaker in my mind. But it is ridiculous, and it is a significant flaw in Kingmaker that the various layers are so divorced from each other, with the only real interconnections generally being negative ones, e.g. the way the strategy segments deal with time leading to the game's pacing being fun-killingly horrendous).

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    16. Pathfinder kingmaker is a beautiful game and the class system is probably the best I have seen, with the number of levels available to back it up. I think you can get up to 20th level. It also make the most of alignment that I have seen. I just find that the three elements do not work well, which probably why I like the first chapter.

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  10. "If SSI had released a Gold Box game in 1993 instead of Dark Sun, it would have been a damned good game."

    From the perspective of a 1993 consumer, if you've been loyally buying SSI D&D games, you've been paying full price for each of a dozen progressively crappier versions of a 5 year old game, in an era where gaming technology was rapidly improving. Dark Queen of Krynn was a boring slog and there was no reason to believe that any further games based on that engine would be any better.

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    1. I thought Dark Queen of Krynn was a lot of fun. I don't think I'd feel differently if I'd bought it.

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    2. I didn't buy it at release, but within a few years thereof, and I played through it at least 3-5 times before I graduated high school and left for college in 2000. I loved Dark Queen.

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    3. Same here. I liked the even, high difficulty of the game. Definitely one of my favourite Gold Box games.

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    4. DQoK clearly has its fans; but note that Pool of Radiance sold more than six times as many units (source: Jimmy Maher, linked above). From a company perspective, that sounds like a reason to try for a new engine.

      Turns out that didn't work, and DS:SL sold about as much as DQoK did. While there's no reason to suspect a gold box version of DS:SL would have sold better, it would at least have been much cheaper to produce.

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    5. I guess I agree. The average reviews for the later gold box games were really ...average. If you lived through these years 1987-1992, with far less distraction available than today, and you saw the developments in all areas and genres, but still had to return to the gold box again and again, you might have felt strangely frustrated. (Now, nobody forced you to play these games - unless you were a professional critic.)

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    6. Considering the advances in graphics and especially interfaces, the Gold Box games did feel dated by 1993. I know you are completely fine with keyboard only controls, Chet, but for me the introduction of mouse-driven interfaces like in Dark Sun was an absolute blessing. It's so much more comfortable to play than having to remember several keyboard commands and then hope I don't hit the wrong key while I'm playing in a dark room.

      Gaming, even within niches like CRPGs, used to be a lot more graphics focused than it is now.

      Today, indies use 90s style pixel art or early 00s 3D graphics on purpose, as an artistic decision. But if you wanted to sell enough copies in the 90s and 00s, your game had to look like it was developed in current year, and not 5 years ago.

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    7. Sorry, I was speaking more to Scorpia's opinion of Dark Queen -- she called it the worst game in the series, because it's almost all combat without much in terms of roleplaying or even exploration.

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  11. I think that's an excellent metric for determining if a CRPG is top tier: if it makes you want to play it again, despite it taking umpteen hours.

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  12. Betrayal at Krondor is a very good game, but I doubt that you'll like it more than Dark Sun. It has certain issues you might not like. The open world is excellent, but on the other hand, there are no role-playing choices. The plot and character interactions are set in stone. It's like reading a book, but having to explore the world and fight enemies to find the next page. But then again, it is a very good book and exploring the world is a lot of fun.

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    1. That's an excellent description of what 'Betrayal at Krondor' does, Vlad - I'm replaying it for the third time right now, and I'm still amazed by all the different stuff I didn't discover before.

      And with its blend of first person exploration, grid-based combat, menu towns, and (last but not least) digitized LARPing cutscenes, there's an undeniable charm to this game.

      I'm curious as well how Chet will review it.

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    2. BaK is a great game and the story is memorable, but the core gameplay loop is a bit tedious, i.e. searching a very badly aged 3D landscape looking for hard to spot chests and fighting repetitive combats. I can't see it outscoring Dark Sun. It does have a better economy though...

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    3. And a better storyline, and a better plot, and better characters, and better puzzles... ;)

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  13. Last summer I played Betrayal at Krondor again, and again I was unable to finish it, it keeps boring me. I'm waiting to see it here.
    After that I played DS, and enjoyed it a lot. I escaped the arena as soon as possible and enjoyed the leveling a bit longer than you. The last battle was hard until I buffed everyone with free action and casted 2 or 3 webs.
    So, I agree with the GIMLET.

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    Replies
    1. I haven't played Betrayal, but I did play its sequel Return to Krondor and found it disappointing. So I'm curious to read the Addict's take on it.

      I wonder if it's a genuinely good game, or just an average game piggybacking on the name of a famous fantasy author? In 1993 I didn't know who Feist was, and he didn't actually write the plot for the game; the authors reused his setting.

      I have since read most of Feist's books, and the novelization (that he did write) of the game is really not one of his better works.

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    2. Return to Krondor was simply average. Even the engine was poor. Betrayal in Antara seemed to use the Betrayal at Krondor engine but with a more simple (poorer) story, was slightly better than RtK, still miles behind BaK

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    3. Yeah, Return to Krondor is a much-later sequel that has basically nothing in common with Betrayal.

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    4. It's not just you: Betrayal at Krondor absolutely bored me to tears when I played it as a kid. I'm not sure why so many people love it--but then again, I gave up on it pretty quickly. Maybe I missed the good parts.

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  14. Jimmy Maher explains why this game is not generally considered one of the classsic: "it was deeply, thoroughly unfashionable in the context of 1993. At a time when the whole industry was moving toward multimedia “talkies,” its many conversations and descriptions were still implemented via screenful after screenful of boring old text. And in addition to the old-fashioned implementation, there also remained the fact that the Dungeons & Dragons name just wasn’t the force it once had been. "

    Accordingly, it sold about the same amount as the last Gold Box games (which themselves sold way worse than the first Gold Box games) and TSR was no longer interested in renewing their license with SSI.

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  15. We'll this was a great read. I've been looking forward to the Addict's coverage of this game for years. I couldn't get into this game when it came out (I think because I didn't like the Dark Sun campaign setting), but all my friends at the time really enjoyed it. I feel like I finally understand why!

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  16. "and, surprisingly, one point ahead of Ultima Underworld (62)"

    Make that two, Scotty!

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    1. Comparing the ratings for Ultima Underworld with those for Dark Sun, the one that confuses me is 'quests'. The descriptive text for this rating reads rather similar for both games, but DS gets 7 whereas UU gets 5.

      Other than that, DS wins encounters and combat, UU wins equipment, economy, and gameplay; which is clear because the games have a different focus. DS wins game world because UU clashes with the Ultima setting and is clearly shoehorned in. OTOH, UU got game of the year and DS probably won't.

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  17. I'm not very knowledgeable about this, so perhaps someone else can chime in to correct me if needed, but isn't calling something "axonometric" a bit vague? From what I gather, the most well-known perspective of many RPGs, isometric, is also an axonometric projection. Anything other, like how Wikipedia for gaming perspectives puts it, is just "top-down", which is also extremely non-specific, and also usually doesn't fit. Curious to what perspective this would be specifically categorized as.

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    1. In the strict sense isometric means when the X, Y & Z axis are at 120° from eachother, which this game is not

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    2. Different things seem to get muddled here.

      First: gesuyarou probably didn't mean that this game is isometric, he meant that "axonometric" is vague because this category contains several quite different perspectives.

      Second: Chet seems to use "axonometric" for games where everybody else calls the perspective "isometric", for example Diablo. I thought this was because Chet is a stickler for precision (which is appreciated) and didn't want to use "isometric" due to the reason Wonko gave, but actually he said here that it's because he didn't want to be bothered by commenters who gave that opinion:

      http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2015/06/eye-of-beholder-oh-great-drow.html?showComment=1475942406027#c7250921966564843304

      Third: I think that Dark Sun and some other games that Chet calls "axonometric" are neither axonometric nor isometric. For example, in the CRPGAddict's glossary entry for "isometric", that screenshot of Faery Tale Adventure is what I would consider "oblique", and neither isometric nor axonometric.

      I'm going by the explanation here:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axonometric_projection

      https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/93/Comparison_of_graphical_projections.svg

      https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/41/Graphical_projection_comparison.png

      The Wikipedia article mentions that the term "axonometric" is used with different meanings, but in English literature, it's supposed to be equivalent to the "auxiliary" perspectives that are shown in the first linked image.

      Interesting pedantry aside, I think the best terms for clear communication in the context of videogames are:

      "Isometric" for diamond-like perspectives such as those of Diablo and Ultima VIII.

      "Oblique" for perspectives such as those of Fairy Tale Adventure, Ultima VII and Ultima VI.

      "Iconographic" for Ultima V (going by Chet's glossary).

      "Top-Down" for perspectives such as those of Dark Sun and Amberstar. This is shown in the second linked Wikipedia image above, lower right corner. Generally, "top-down" is often used for games even when the perspective is not 90° straight down where you could only see people's head and shoulders.

      Additionally, Dark Sun's perspective is a bit weird as it shows both sides of walls, which either means that the perspective is impossible or that the walls are actually in the shape of truncated pyramids:

      https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/a/AVvXsEgUdIuw3_qH7vDmWxQRJJ0G4pysq7Zrbn6D-g2L1lvm1uKqKp2Sq2ZLr2T0KeF6XXrfE3Fw3pDC5Kf6n_2JVGom-1EtEX4bmxY11s-EdfOex0W--pICI8lUZeToOibE8wz838bpRj5H9d-otx-LQk8YVqNtsFiZ9wOfzxHig3fiI2N4N_lEXSt1VQcz=s320

      (But don't let this bother you, Chet. Continue to use "axonometric" if you want.)

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    3. For Dark Sun's perspective we could settle on 'wrong'; or 'eyesoring abomination', but that's probably me ...

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  18. Congratulations for another finished game, and such a good result at that. Yeah, it does point a few years into the future. It reminds me most of Planescape Torment - another marginal D&D setting, similarly monotonous colour palette, the plot that kind of progresses in acts; and the level cap in Dark Sun even mirrors the almost non-existent need to combat in the later game.

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  19. Speculating about the game's lack of success:

    - Many screenshots end up looking empty, plain and boring due to the design of the environment and due to the close camera. Often, there is not much more visible than the characters, walls, and the ground. See the first post, for example.

    http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2021/10/game-434-dark-sun-shattered-lands-1993.html

    - The graphics style is nothing spectacular in comparison to other top-down, oblique or isometric games such as Ultima VII and Ultima VIII, or first-person perspective games such as Ultima Underworld and Lands of Lore. The animation is rather poor, too.

    - A lack of appreciation for its maybe most advanced feature, the roleplaying options with dialogue choices that lead to different quest outcomes. For example, in the review of German magazine PC Player, one reviewer criticizes that after angering an NPC and thereby eliminating one quest solution, he supposedly had to reload an earlier save.

    - There is no obvious stand-out feature and SSI didn't manage to communicate the game's strengths well. For example, while the ad shown in the post has well chosen screenshots, the text is a bit generic.

    - I think that players often (consciously or unconsciously) look at screenshots to determine if a game has the desired complexity. If they want a complex game, it's good if the game communicates this in the screenshots. To me, these screenshots do not communicate the game's depth because there is often hardly any UI visible. I would not have expected a deep AD&D-faithful turn-based combat system on first look. Even just showing a grid in a combat screenshot would have helped. The result might have been that CRPG players who like complex tactical combat didn't buy this game. Maybe SSI tried to make the game more palatable for less hardcore players in order to expand their audience. But then the game is not attractive enough and doesn't really provide casual fun (in contrast to e.g. Lands of Lore, a great game for CRPG beginners).

    - Also, some players would have liked a higher difficulty, which would have led to more tactically interesting combats. Though I don't understand why no one mentions that there is a difficulty setting in the game's preferences, where the difficulty can be set to Easy, Balanced (default), Hard, and Hideous. Did no one use this?

    - Impersonal story, no memorable characters, dry presentation. This and a couple other points are well articulated by Unicorn Lynx in his MobyGames review:

    https://www.mobygames.com/game/dos/dark-sun-shattered-lands/reviews/reviewerId,6226/

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    1. Good analysis.
      As for difficulty settings, I never touch them since I learnt decades ago that in CRPGs increasing difficulty just means HP bloat.

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    2. I completely missed, or soon forgot, about this game's difficulty setting. I have mixed feelings about difficulty settings, partly because of what Petrus says. It's well into the current era before difficulty settings really mean anything interesting, like improved AI. Most of them instead just increase one metric, which makes the game "harder" but not necessarily more interesting.

      Still, Bitmap is right that it's something that should be acknowledged if you're complaining about the game being too easy.

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    3. I don't like to change the difficulty because I assume that a game is tested and balanced for a single difficulty setting. It's unrealistic to expect that each difficulty level has received the same attention. So, whatever the normal default is what I want to play. And I'd rather that be a little too hard or easy than rolling the dice with any other setting.

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  20. For the record, yes, the color blindness really is making a huge difference here; at least if the screenshot you use for as an example is typical, they relied a lot on green, reddish-brown, and pink all looking quite thoroughly different to the player. No one to whom green looks different from red would think for a second that those cacti might be people, and unless there are, I don't know, brown loot bags which lie around on the sand sometimes, they wouldn't take longer than a second to go "nothing there but rocks" under the statue, either.

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  21. I found the game confusing and clumsy in my plays of it, so I wouldn´t rate it so kindly as you Chet, but well done on a good analysis and review anyway.

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  22. I've been thinking about the Economy section of the GIMLET... and without doing an analysis, my instinct is that quite a few games miss the mark here, in fact, most of them.

    (I will get back to Dark Sun!)

    Part of it is probably an automatic adherence to genre conventions. Like my observations about some of the other games previously, there is a lot of baked in assumptions that aren't even questioned at the design phase. For example, Xeen mixed the sophomoric humour that often ends up at the tabletop roleplaying experience at least in the period these games were made, and so there was probably an assumption that the players would be able to code-switch between jokes and plot the same way players can do so at the table. The same kinds of people playing the game are making them, if that makes sense.

    At this point, both D&D and the CRPGs that had come out had established assumptions of continuous growth of power and ability for the characters, including items and resources like money.

    It's also really important to note that the earliest editions of D&D gave you experience points for gold and treasure. This is a VERY baked in assumption considering how influential D&D is with the concepts of CRPGS. The big pile of money contributes to levelling up.

    It's easy enough to have new and tougher monsters and NPCs to challenge the character's power, but it's hard to do the same economically without blowing apart the fictional credibility of the world, as much as it can exist in fantasy or sci fi setting.

    (Final Fantasy is a good example of this, in that the stuff you buy or find much later in the game is SEVERAL ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE better than what you start the game with, and this can't make any internal sense; it's only that way because they want to keep equipping the party that is continuously increasing in power. With any kind of realism, the locations that sold better stuff would probably take over the economy of the world. It's much closer to Pure Game, with the story as an occasional complexifier. I am MASSIVELY under describing FF and JRPGs in general, just to talk about economy, so put a pin in any corrections on that point! I know there's a lot more going on in those games; I'm a fan.)

    So, because of these assumptions; you're going to find tougher monsters and more treasure, all of these games are saddled with a problem of what have the player do with this money.

    I wonder if an intention is just to let the players have oodles of cash. That in itself is part of the power fantasy; being rich. So getting to the point where money doesn't matter is perhaps a success metric for those designers.

    Getting back to Dark Sun, even using gold for experience wouldn't mean much because of the level cap! I agree that using the money to buy mercenaries or something to make the final fight easier, and maybe more games should think about this; how can the endgame soak up those riches?

    It feels to me like this is generally going to be a GIMLET that scores low, because Chester is applying judging it against it's internal logic; if there's money in the setting spending it should make sense. (Akin to the same approach that leads Chester to choices that aren't optimal but are consistent with the story.) But most games are bringing genre assumptions that will always strain that sense.

    I can't think of a CRPG I've played where I DIDN'T finish the game with too much money and too many items, and that's from the earliest games to now!

    I'm also not correcting the GIMLET; I think it's always an interesting metric when looking at each game!

    (Also, Chester, I appreciate your focus on a 'method acting' approach to both gameplay and evaluation. You have inspired me to do the same, and I'm enjoying my first playthough of Baldur's Gate with that in mind!)

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    1. Ok that's nice, but the fact that the Addict has a google sheet with all his scores makes actually DOING analysis really easy.

      The global average of every category is in the 2.6 - 3.0 range, except NPCs average at 2.1 and gameplay 3.5. So it doesn't appear that the "economy" category is problematic, or that most games score poorly in it.

      I'm afraid your instinct is way off.

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    2. I hadn't noted the Google Sheet with scores, just the master list! So thank you for pointing that out to me!

      When I did the averages and tried listing all of the categories in order of how they're scoring on the average, this is what I came to:

      Gameplay
      Encounters
      Graphics
      Game World
      Equipment
      Quest
      Magic/Combat
      Economy
      Characters
      NPCs

      Economy is pretty low on that list.

      Now, there are a LOT of things not captured in these averages, so I wouldn't call this exhaustive, but to me, this doesn't indicate that I'm way off... because it's averaging lower than most of the other items, even if it's only by fractions of points.

      What I found fascinating by doing this listing was how it pertains to that 'method acting' approach as it clashes against the game genre conventions I described above.

      To me, Economy, Characters, NPCs are those areas that most easily clash against the approach. Quest, arguably, as well, but it's sort of in the middle there.

      I'm going to speculate that as games have less memory and graphics limitations, they'll start to score better in some of these areas. Likewise, when the games start employing larger groups of people who can flesh out the details of design and implementation.

      What it also reminds me of is some recent experience trying to run a D&D team that was focused more on dungeon crawling and puzzle solving. It was a callback to the earlier editions where things were less narrative and more inherently 'gamey.' A lot of the players were 'getting in to character' and asking questions about the motivation for the quest, etc etc. I enjoy this style of play but it wasn't what that project was aiming at... but the inherent question and it's tension reminds me of this score dynamic as well.

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    3. I think Jason's analysis is pretty accurate here. While the "characters" and "NPCs" categories are almost certainly going to increase significantly in the 1990s as developers realize they're an inseparable part of the RPG experience, there will be games well into the 2010s that earn low economy scores. I honestly can't think of a perfect-10 game here. Maybe I'll never fully get what I'm looking for in this category, but I feel like an economy is in some ways an aspect of survival. Survival games never let you accumulate so much food that you never have to worry about eating or so much rest that you never have to worry about fatigue. The economy should be the same way. In a perfect game, perhaps the character's expenses would grow in measure with his development; for instance, what if Skyrim required me to pay a constant upkeep for my jarls and houses or lose them? What if a game that allows you multiple characters makes you pay extra for each character slot, thus reflecting the real world expenses such a character would have?

      Or maybe my money DOES make me fabulously rich. That should translate to some extra power. Mercenaries, training, equipment, political leverage, sub-contracting quests you don't want to handle personally. Yes, I realize this would create balance issues, and the game would have to be well-designed from outset to consider such possibilities, but that's what I'm looking for for a perfect score.

      This is one area in which strategy games almost universally do better. Money is power in those games, and you rarely have too much or find yourself with nothing to spend it on.

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    4. I've mentioned this before, but it's something of an irony. Let me emphasize first that I am NOT encouraging you to play more JPRGs; I think you would continue to not enjoy them and your ranting about the art style would continue to thoroughly piss off anyone who would otherwise want to read about you playing them. And yet, the only games I've played that have really left me with the impression that the designers of the economy had the design goals you're looking for, are JPRGs.

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    5. Among proper CRPGs, roguelikes (and lites) are where you’ll find the 10s. You’d also find some 10s among MMOs and (the aforementioned) strategy RPGs. Basically any type of game for which the economy needs to function from start to finish.

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  23. It seems like the engine of this game was supposed to be the next generation of the Gold Box engine. So how do you think this compared to the Gold Box games, specifically Pool of Radiance which was the first and best one of them?

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    1. While I don't think Dark Sun was better than Pool of Radiance, I think it COULD have been. I think the engine is definitely better. It supports more interesting environments, encounters, dialogue, and inventory. I like the combat a little less, but not so much less that it makes a huge difference. I just think that the first game using this new engine was a bit more uneven than Pool was.

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    2. There are still very few games written by a professional writer, and Pool is one of them. It shows.

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  24. No big surprise that Sandy Petersen found the combat in Dark Sun slow and cumbersome - he worked as a level designer on Doom, released the same year.

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    1. Petersen marked a pretty steep decline for Dragon's reviews in general. He missed out on a good chunk of titles he should have been covering to instead play iD and Apogee titles. IIRC he reviewed Doom and gave it 5 stars. He was only on for about a year before leaving, then whenever they got his replacement they did an even worse job.

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    2. However he also was the co-creator of the Call of Cthulhu RPG. So he does know about RPGs and this probably factored into why he was hired. However it seems he’s very much a blowhard who really overvalues his contributions to things.

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  25. You know, call me crazy, I played this game with great anticipation at the time, because I was very ready to leave the Gold Box series behind. I was 100% with Scorpio, and I couldn't believe they had stretched that engine out to so many games.

    But, Dark Sun never hooked me. At the time, I probably didn't appreciate the potential of the engine. But, there's something about a desert that bores the hell out of me. I will admit to having a few aesthetic hang-ups: Cards of any kind, sports, modern military, and the desert. I had a similar problem with Quest for Glory 2.

    The problem with a desert is that it is definitionally barren, homogeneous, and otherwise uninteresting. One enjoyment of exploring maps is that they vary! Forests, mountains, ocean, etc...

    Also, I love a forest. It's creepy, you can get lost, lots of things hiding in there. Even if a game is all forest, I think that's better than all desert.

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  26. Hi Chet. Do you intend to review Doom before the end of 1993? Some have supposed that it had a large influence on the market of 1994 and 1995, including for RPGs, and may have contributed to the perceived paucity of worthwhile games released in that period. It may also be interesting given Sandy Petersen's comments about Dark Sun. :-)

    I understand that Doom was inspired by a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that the Id Software people played and, when I first played the game about ten years ago, I felt (or deluded myself into feeling) a likeness to explorative RPG-gameplay. I ponder whether it may receive middling-to-high scores in the less RPG-related GIMLET criteria, despite likely getting 0-2 in the fields of NPC Interaction (would you have liked to "talk to the monsters"?*); Economy (bullets =/= coins); and Character Creation and Development. Perhaps it would do better than some of the JRPGs, Adventure and Strategy games that you have sampled?

    It may also be the second game with the realistic option of running a source port rather than, or in addition to, the original release, after Star Control 2. Almost certainly it has the most choice so far, with Chocolate Doom for a near-"authentic" experience and GZDoom or Doomsday for higher resolutions, mouselook, jumping & other modernisms. ;-)

    Incidentally, I am a long time lurker. Thank you for the interesting content over the years!

    * https://web.archive.org/web/20120104155012/http:/www.next-gen.biz/reviews/doom-review

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    1. Doom is not on our esteemed host's Master Game List.

      There is a very good reason why it is not on our esteemed host's Master Game List.

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    2. Of course there is the DooM RPG, but as it dates to 2005, who knows if we will ever see it here.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doom_RPG

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    3. Doom RPG was phone-only, right? If it didn't get a PC release it typically wouldn't show up on Chet's list; I think DoomRL had its first release in 2002, and that feels like it should definitely get a look!

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  27. I often get nostalgic about this game and decided to play through it again.

    What you say is correct -- there is something about this game that makes one want to replay it. The game is more than the sum of its parts. The story is very good, the characters are very good. There are at least half a dozen viable ways to break out of the prison at the beginning, all of which are very different but very satisfying. The sewer levels are similar.

    The graphics are OK, the animations are terrible, but there is something infectious about this game for RPG fans.

    I disagree that the game is very easy. There are bosses from time to time who can one-hit your party to death, and there are no auto-saves to bail you out. If you are not saving often, you can find yourself losing a lot of game time.

    There are several monsters you will encounter that can only be hit by magic weapons or spells. This happens long before you will have magic weapons for all of your players.

    I put this game up there with Ultima 3-5 and EOB on the Amiga as one of the most rewarding RPGs of all time.

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  28. It's funny to me that the score is brought down by the economy rating.

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  29. I'm a little late to the party, but - I've been playing through the gold box games and enjoying your write ups, and after Dark Queen Dark Sun seemed like the next step. So I've almost caught up.
    For those without honour, there is annother way to win the final battle. As soon as the naration ends, sprint up into the ravine in the top right corner (maybe drop a dust cloud on your allies if you have a sense of shame). The elite guards will follow, ignoring your allies. The battle won't start until they catch up, which your can arrange at your convenience. You can tie them up one way or another (I suggest an elemental, which can only be hit by magic and the elite guards don't have any) and then either pick them off at your leisure before heading back left to deal with the rest of the enemies (pretty easy) or sprint back to try and save your allies who are busy being murdered (quite hard). But, you know, you can probably wish them back into existence after the battle, I'm sure they'll be very understanding.

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