Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Game 445: Phalsberg (1986)

 
I am told that this town's namesake in France is "home to the annual Erckmann-Chatrian summer festival." So there's that.
      
Phalsberg
France
ERE Informatique (developer and publisher)
Released 1986 for Commodore 64 and DOS
Date Started: 29 January 2022
     
I've often joked that French RPGs of the 1980s feel like they were designed by aliens who tried to replicate American RPGs from pictures they saw through telescopes. I've meant it when I've said it, while playing Le Maître des Âmes or Mandragore or the games of Herve Lange, but now I see I should have saved the comparison for a game that really deserved it. Phalsberg, as the kids say today, has entered the chat.
      
As often happens with French games, the lineage of Phalsberg is nigh-inscrutable. You might be fooled by the top-down, iconographic interface to think of Ultima, but so little actually happens on this screen that you feel more like you're seeing an automap than a game world. Most of the action occurs in the message window at the bottom, including combat, dialogue, and enemy and NPC comings and goings, and here the game plays a lot more like a text adventure--albeit one that, for some mysteriously infuriating reason, the developers decided should be playable with a joystick. You thus spent most of the game using the stick directions and fire button to navigate an utterly baffling list of commands, only a few of which are on the main screen. Now add completely nonsensical responses--or, worse, no responses--to most of your commands, and you know a little of what it's like to play.
     
The game begins northwest of the title town.
                
The game is ERE Informatique's only attempt at an RPG, designed by a Michel Valentin (now MIA), and translated by the developer for release in the United Kingdom. I believe the original (official) English translation is lost, and what I'm playing is a modern translation, as some of the translation issues reported contemporaneously by Zzap!64 are not here and others are. Also, the pre-title "warez" screens take credit for translation. I've yet to find a manual, but some text screens relate that it takes place in the world of Kalvor, where good King Philoxal has been deposed by Blackstar, commander of the Pretorien Guards. Blackstar has hidden Philoxal and scattered his kingly artifacts--crown, scarab, and scepter--to the four corners of the world. The player must find them and reunite them with the exiled Philoxal. Phalsberg is a town near the beginning. I can't say for sure that it's the source of the game name, but "Phalsbourg" is a town in northeastern France.
     
"Philoxal" sounds like a drug designed to keep you awake during ethics classes.
    
Character creation prepares the player for the rest of the game in its needless complexity. It took me about six tries before I fully understood what was happening (with help from Abacos's StrategyWiki article). During the process, you roll values for constitution, life points, defense, reflexes, intelligence, beauty, money, and experience points. "Energy points" are a product of constitution and life points, and "charisma" is a sum of intelligence and beauty. Each attribute has a different maximum for the dice, from 5 (beauty) to 15 (constitution and life points); the maximum for money is 1,000. But each attribute also gets a bonus or penalty from 5 to -2 depending on the order that you roll. Whatever attribute you roll first gets a bonus of 5, the next a bonus of 4, the net a bonus of 3, and so forth. The sixth attribute gets no bonus, and the last two get penalties of -1 and -2. As if that isn't complicated enough, you then immediately can spend whatever you rolled for experience on additional points. 
        
I got lucky with some of these rolls, but I'm not sure I care for the character portrait.
     
After giving yourself a name (you cannot capitalize your first letter), you choose from human, dwarf, and elf races. Humans can then choose from warrior, thief, cleric, and magician classes, but elves and dwarves have no such choices. The idea that "elf" and "dwarf" are both races and classes goes, I think, back to the original edition of D&D and is often found in mid-1980s French RPGs like Fer & FlammeLe Maître des Âmes (1987) and L'Anneau de Zingara (1987). I'm not sure when French players would have received a translation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the more complex race/class rules.
   
Gameplay starts on a tiled overworld near Phalsberg. Other than landscape features, the world is dotted with visitable locations like towns, temples, and cemeteries. These locations don't allow you to enter and explore, but each has a unique graphic, accessed by the "View" command on the main screen, some of which offer some runic writing that may be intended as clues. Some commands only work in particular locations, and the player is more likely to encounter NPCs in towns and enemies in other locations.
     
The view of a cemetery.
      
As for the commands, there are a baffling number, made all the more difficult by the fact that the game only lists the first four letters. ATTA is not "Attack," like you might expect, but "Attach." Most of the others are decipherable, but until I find the right circumstance in which I might want to BEWI or THRE someone, I won't know for sure. DIP is a bit of a mystery, as is MATE (the game just tells me I'm not a high enough level). There are 46 commands in all. But it gets worse. If you choose a lot of them, like ENTE(r), BUY, HUNT, TAKE, SELL, SEAR(ch), and EAT, the game brings up a sub-menu in which you have to specify FOOD, DECO(ration?), PLAC(e), OBJE(ct), or CHAR(acter), and then a sub-sub menu of the game's different choices, including 37 different objects and 38 different characters. Thus, when you're finished with combat and want to loot the enemy, you can't just execute a generic SEARCH, or TAKE from a selection of objects actually present. You have to remember exactly what the enemy was carrying and specify that you want to take that particular thing. Is there any situation in which I'm going to be able to BUY a vampire, HUNT a door, or TAKE a tavern? And why isn't KILL--the only combat command--not on the main screen given how often you use it? Even better, why aren't all these commands mapped to keys instead of requiring me to move around with the goddamned joystick? 
      
The many objects that I can TAKE, BUY, SELL, or, apparently, EAT.
     
As you move around, the game periodically stops you for an encounter. Like moving the joystick around, it takes a maddeningly long time. There's a pause as you realize you can no longer move and the game is accessing the disk. Then it loads the encounter line by line with a lot of disk access between lines. I have it at 200%, which is about as high as I can go before it starts over-reading my inputs, and it's still too slow.
    
Enemies always "rise up" in front of you. The game gives you their energy points and objects carried. Sometimes, they attack right away. If you want to fight them, you choose ORDE(r) and then KILL, though if you switch to VIEW in combat, you'll get a cheesy graphic of the enemy. Most combats, at least in the early game, are over in a single round. I have not yet figured out how to loot dead enemies; TAKE and GOLD doesn't seem to work despite most of them having "purses." You get experience from encounters--and also, oddly, from successfully sleeping. I think there's supposed to be a way to convert that experience to attributes, but I can't find the right command.
        
"It's a SHOULDER BAG," the goblin protests.
       
Locations also have other things, such as objects and occasionally NPCs. With NPCs, the most important thing you can do is QUES(tion), which brings up a list of 25 potential questions, most dealing with things and people that the early-game character hasn't learned about yet, such as WHERE IS AMYRTHE?, WHO HAS THE KEY?, WHERE IS THE WHITE DRAGON?, and TO WHO SHOULD I GIVE THE RING? NPCs answer or don't answer based, I guess, on your charisma. I have a few hints like:
     
  • Go to the Sanctuary of Tallin with your cross.
  • To find the crown, you have to find the Sword of Airain.
  • With the map, you will go in search of the Lens of the Astrolabe.
  • The Amazons hold the Key of the Tomb.
           
I'll do you one better: WHY is Amyrthe?
               
So I gather that the key to this game is visiting all the locations and finding various objects in the right sequence and maybe solving some light puzzles that will require commands like DIG, CLIM(b), STEA(l) (or "Stealth"?), PICK, SWIM, and whatever REPL is ("Replace"? "Replicate"?). You know, I really do enjoy being the first person to explore some of these games in detail, but this latest set of games is starting to wear down that resolve. Wasn't Danse Macabre, Towers, and WarWizard enough?
   
A few other notes:
   
  • There's a clock on the main screen that inexplicably tracks time in real time, even while moving, although it automatically advances a few hours when sleeping.
  • "Energy" serves as both a health and stamina reservoir. It decreases as you move--based partly on encumbrance, I think. A little tone plays with each move, and the tone gets lower as your energy decreases.
  • Although ostensibly set in a medieval world, there are some modern or even sci-fi elements. One of the commands is PHOT(ograph), for instance, and one of the questions is WHAT SHOULD I PHOTOGRAPH? One of the objects is LASE(r).
  • If you step into water, you automatically die.
  • The one thing I can praise the game for is offering a coordinate system. You start the game at 0,0, northwest of Phalsberg, and increment by 1 for every move east or south. I can get to 25, 14 without needing a boat, but it's clear that to fully explore the world, I'm going to need to move between islands.
  • I haven't yet figured out what the AUTO command does except automatically show you the current VIEW every time you stop moving or come to a special location.
       
Switching to VIEW with an enemy on the screen.
       
Getting back to the question of lineage, Phalsberg actually plays a lot like Tera: La Cité des Crânes from the same year (link to my coverage). The games look nothing alike, but they both have a fantasy/sci-fi blend; they both have a large number of adventure game-style commands (though in Tera's case, called sensibly from the keyboard); and they both depend heavily on special locations with evocative names. Phalsberg's "views" even remind me a bit of Tera's screens, and the hints you get from NPCs seem similar. I wonder whether this is all a coincidence, whether Michel Valentin was either "Ulysses" or "Lout" (the creators of Tera), or whether both games have a third common ancestor. 
   
I toyed with calling the game "unplayable without the manual" and making this a BRIEF, but I know from experience that it will only take a few minutes for a manual to show up if I do that. So I'll settle for just keeping this entry very short. I'll start visiting the locations and methodically trying the various commands and taking more detailed NPC notes. We'll see what develops.
   
Time so far: 2 hours
 
 

60 comments:

  1. If the game is that I/O heavy, you might want to experiment with speeding up the disk drive in your emulator. Different emulators use different techniques to do this, and they don't work with every game, especially not ones that are heavily protected, but you can often accelerate the absolutely *glacial* C64 drives to something more reasonable.

    You may already have done this, of course, or your emulator may already be set that way. But it's probably worth a quick check when it's that painful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a good idea. I hadn't fiddled with the drive speed independently, just the overall emulation speed. VICE doesn't give an explicit method for speeding up the disk drive, but I could try more advanced drives.

      Delete
    2. What I did when I was playing the C64 version of SSI's Wizard's Crown games (which certainly had uncomfortably long encounter loading times) in VICE was to toggle on "Warp mode" (run the emulation as fast as possible and sacrifice screen fidelity) while waiting for it to load.

      (I don't know whether this game had Ultima III's behaviour of auto-PASSing after a certain number of seconds...)

      The normal-speed experience would be very slightly less bad on real hardware because at least you'd hear the 1541 spin up. (Also, for games that weren't aggressively copy protected, Epyx's Fastload cartridge was a viable option for speeding up access to the 1541.)

      Delete
    3. Warp mode is probably the easiest solution. You can switch easily with Alt-W.

      A fast loader module might help or, if you don‘t want to fumble with cartridges, a fast loader program like Hypra Load. To keep things manageable and avoid playing disc jockey I would recommend to copy the fast loader program on your game disk (needs only a couple of blocks). On very rare occasions the program won‘t load if you have a fast loader in place (Murder on the Mississippi *cough*) but usually this is not an issue.

      And yes, the 1541 was famous in the sense that you could pull a pint and drink it without undue frenzy while the game was loading...

      Delete
    4. I don't know if you can increase the disk speed in VICE with just a setting, but what you can do is replace the Kernal and 1541 roms with JiffyDOS, which is highly compatible and will greatly speed up access.

      Delete
    5. I just did a quick check. Not in my opinion, at least not the way you can do it in WinUAE, say.

      Delete
    6. Warp mode is kind of annoying to toggle on and off every time the game goes to access the drive, but I suppose it's the best option. The trick is not to leave it on so long that you miss messages.

      Delete
    7. Maybe the C64 recreation of the original 64? It runs on a USB drive... I have recently received one, but haven't had time to really use it much.

      Delete
    8. The shareware program CCS64 has drive-speedup options, and it's very compatible. It's at ccs64.com. I don't think it ever requires payment, but the author asks for $30.

      The setting in question is, I believe, in Options/Additional/Maximum 1541 speed.

      Delete
    9. I have been using CCS64 for a long time in the past before WinVice became what it is today. It never asked me seriously to pay the 30 bucks, e.g. by blocking certain features.

      Delete
  2. The peculiar four-letter abbreviations are pretty reminiscent of early console JRPGs, but, unlike Japanese games, there probably wasn't a nicely-fitting four-letter word for "attach" in the French text. I do wonder if the original French commands were at least better thought-out to avoid ambiguity, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The four-letter abbreviations predate JRPGs; they're a standard convention of many early text-parser adventures, the ones with primitive two-word parsers.

      That convention was obsolete in English PC games by the time Infocom and Sierra were dominant names in adventure gaming.

      You know you're playing a game like this when you type "inve" to look at what you hold; the longer "invent" or "inventory" is unnecessary, the single-letter abbreviation "i" had yet to be invented.

      Delete
    2. I don't mind the four-letter abbreviations, I hope everyone understands. I mind having to toggle through them with a joystick. Typing would be a huge improvement.

      Delete
    3. There are two different issues here. One is four-letter abbreviations (or three, or five). Most early adventure games do this to deal with memory constraints, e.g. Colossal Cave (1976) and Scott Adams's work (1978-84). Ultima 4/5/6 also do this, albeit for player convenience.

      Primitive two-word parsers is a different issue. Infocom used compound sentences and prepositions back in 1977 (Zork), but this is MUCH harder to code, so basically no other company did (except a 1982 game by Melbourne House; and Legend Entertainment inherits this system in 1990-93).

      Notably, the Sierra games (1984-88) use no abbreviations, but still have a primitive two-word parser. Later Sierra games (SCI0, 1988-90) technically support complex sentences, but don't actually use them in any part of gameplay.

      So that's why primitive two-word parsers remained common for much longer than four-letter abbreviations did.

      Delete
    4. As a footnote to the above, my understanding is Magnetic Scrolls (who put out games from the mid 80s through the close of the decade) also had a parser capable of understanding complex sentences, prepositions, etc. By all accounts it wasn't as flexible as Infocom's, and since they were a British company their games I don't think had as much reach on the other side of the Atlantic, but they were a pretty high-profile developer.

      It's hard to overstate how good the Infocom parser was -- modern IF languages have a bunch of added conveniences but still feel to me like only incremental improvements!

      Delete
    5. I think the French for attach and attack are attacher and attaquer, so you'd get the exact same issue!

      My guess is maybe THREaten and BEWItch, and a really wild guess is MATErialize? Guess we'll find out with the manual.

      Delete
    6. Primitive two-word parsers is a different issue. Infocom used compound sentences and prepositions back in 1977 (Zork), but this is MUCH harder to code, so basically no other company did (except a 1982 game by Melbourne House; and Legend Entertainment inherits this system in 1990-93).

      Synapse did it as well with Mindwheel, I believe?

      Delete
  3. At first glance I thought that portrait was a fox. First game with furry races?! But at second glance I realized it's just an awkwardly drawn white-bearded guy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That was exactly my reaction.

      Delete
    2. I thought it was a squirrel, but yeah, awkward.

      Delete
    3. Mine was actually a tiger! I think it's a dwarf meant to slightly resemble a Viking warrior.

      Delete
    4. Since the "horns" are skin coloured, I think it's a dwarf with very pointy ears.

      Delete
    5. Check out the remaining character portraits, then: https://cdn.wikimg.net/en/strategywiki/images/9/96/Phalsberg_RPGtriangle.png

      Delete
  4. Mixing fantasy with sci-fi elements (or vice versa) isn't uncommon in French media. I'm a fan of French sci-fi comics and they do that a lot. They're always visually strange and unique and like to combine different concepts and ideas in wild ways. It's a very raw sort of creativity that cares less about keeping its worldbuilding down to earth enough to make it easily believable, and more about dragging you into a world that feels like it was created during an LSD trip and works entirely on dream logic.

    French games generally seem to follow the same approach. Weird, experimental, difficult to approach. I tried some French adventure games from the 80s and early 90s, which are usually less mechanically complex than RPGs, but sadly the French experimentality applies to interfaces and control schemes too, no matter the genre.

    Few are the French games I encountered that were easy to control. Their worlds are always very enticing to me, but actually experiencing them is a pain.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know if you have ever played Necron Aptor Quest (Atari ST, maybe other platforms as well), but your description sums up that game perfectly well.

      As a kid, I had no idea what to, where, or how. I tried again as a grown up, and concluded that wasn't my fault. French weirdness overload...

      Delete
    2. Lost Eden (by ERE Informatique successor (spinoff?) Cryo) has very unique worldbuilding and a simple, intuitive interface. It's plays like Myst without the puzzles, though.

      Delete
    3. Maybe I've just been lucky, but I haven't seen many French adventure games with difficult controls, outside of a few hybrid titles and Shadow of the Comet. I think once you get to '92, '93 they don't have too confusing controls but still maintain that French weirdness.

      Delete
  5. Replies
    1. I was going to guess maybe TAKE PURSE was the way to get the gold. There's got to be something like that.

      As for the character portrait, it may not be a great one but looking at your stats you've got, what, a 2 in Beauty? I bet if you'd rolled a 20 for that instead of constitution, your picture would be as fine as the quest-giver in Pool of Radiance.

      Delete
  6. Long time reader, first time commenter.
    First of all, let me thank you for several years already that I'm enjoying your brilliant coverage of the CRPG history.
    As for the manual, please take a look at this page: https://www.old-games.ru/game/download/8567.html (in Russian) - I believe they have the set of documentation for Phalsberg

    ReplyDelete
  7. here is a manual
    https://www.c64games.de/phpseiten/spiele.php?aufruf=true&Suche=phalsberg&Bewert=0&Hersteller=&Katego=0&medium=0&anfangb=

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A bit under 7 hours. ;)

      Delete
    2. Thank you! I found that site while Googling, but somehow I assumed clicking on the links would just take me to the game alone.

      Delete
  8. "an RPG, designed by a Michel Valentin (now MIA)"

    Maybe he has gone back to his water brothers on Mars, if you grok what I mean.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Henlein is a gap in my education. Probably a pseudonym, then.

      Delete
    2. Nice catch! Heinlein wrote some weird ones in the later period... you have to expand your mind to grok them!

      Delete
    3. Heinlein really liked to write about "grokking" little kids. He was a gross sleazeball creep who should be forgotten.

      Delete
    4. I tried "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" but stopped a ways in after I realised a more accurate title would be "Teach Libertarianism to the Stupid Female"

      Delete
    5. Paul Verhoven's adaptation of *Starship Troopers* may just be the only time there's been a major Hollywood adaptation of a book where the director is actively giving the middle finger to the author

      Delete
    6. Well, there's always Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' when talking about directors disrespecting the author's work.

      Delete
    7. I always have a soft spot for Heinlein, despite (or because of) having very different views on most things. His later stories got pretty creepy/weird, but Stranger in a Strange Land I still like a lot.

      Delete
    8. I think he nearly died from TB somewhere in the late 60s and was quite off after that.

      But accurate comments - he went more than off the extreme Libertarian reservation in later years.

      Honestly... read a good number of his books when I was younger, but wouldn't recommend now.

      Delete
    9. I've read almost everything he wrote before Stranger in a Strange Land, and his earlier books and short stories are still good IMO. I think Stranger was the turning point where he got increasingly more "eccentric" and/or was such a Big Name that he was above editors.

      I doubt that he "grokked" little kids. Maybe our brave anon is confusing him with Forrest J. Ackerman? But Heinlein certainly liked to speculate about alternative life styles and family structures (and was known to be a nudist and maybe a swinger). But then he he did write Speculative Fiction...

      Delete
  9. I have been waiting for this coverage ! You can read my old rot13 comment, you already got past the point where it is a spoiler.

    I have the French manual somewhere. Next week I should have enough time to continue the translation, but if you think that it will answer your questions, well... think again !

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous above linked an English manual, so don't kill yourself.

      Delete
    2. I see. I thought the link was to the French manual. Definitely not worth continuing the translation for this one.

      Delete
  10. Maybe 'cause I grew up with it I really like C64 full screen title art. This game offers another fine example.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Ah, another 'Excuse my French' entry, I never get tired of those...

    ReplyDelete
  12. Maybe you can't mate at such low levels? Most parents would want their kids to be at least in their late teens (if not older)... ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  13. My theory on why french games are always a little weird: language. What if their attempts to merge anglo/american coding language with their french language-infused minds leads to unique ways on how to make a game? There are always acts of translation required, and I've always felt a difficulty with the french language that I did not feel with either english nor spanish.

    Also, I wonder when the french "RPG school" ends, if it ever does.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd suggest playing Arx Fatalis if you want to experience a ""modern"" French RPG. I don't think there is much left of what Chet experiences with French games in the 80s and early 90s, I'd say it's a competent Ultima Underworld clone.

      Delete
    2. Arx Fatalis is pretty much Ultima Underworld in a more modern engine. No "Frenchness" about it.

      I'm not aware of any quirky French games from the last decade... except for the very recent Dungeon of Naheulbeuk. The most well-known weird French company was Cryo but ever since they went bankrupt, quirky French games went off my radar.

      Delete
    3. We're always discovering new games, but there's a natural break in French titles in the mid-1990s. I don't show any between 1994 and 1998. Already in the 1990s, they're getting fairly "normal" with the Ishar series. By the time they really come back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I think we'll find that country-of-origins ceases to be of much importance except for some indie titles. All modern games are made for worldwide markets and thus don't have the luxury of being regionally eccentric.

      Delete
  14. The race = class coming from original D&D is a common misconception. In that game race and class were separate, but non-humans didn't get to choose: dwarves and hobbits were all fighters, and elves were all fighter/magic-users. Later editions of Basic D&D (specifically the set from 1980 designed by Tom Moldvay) simplified this by making these races work like classes. Later original D&D supplements gave the non-humans more options, and these carried forward into AD&D in the late 70s.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes - and non-humans were kevel-capped in Basic D&D, as well as in AD&D in every class except Thief. If this game follows the Moldvay Basic D&D 'race = class' formula, I'm wondering if it also caps elves and dwarves at lower levels than human characters.

      Delete
  15. A game that is so out there that it takes you literally back in time.
    That's a first!

    btw, I was so disappointed with the C64 disk drive that I sidegraded to an Amstrad CPC 128 (3 inch disks!). Not my best decision ever ...

    ReplyDelete
  16. Knowing the latter, I can confirm that Michel Valentin and Ulysse are not the same person. I think Tera is more influenced by Lords of Midnight (at least visually). And I didn't know Phalsberg had been translated in English !

    ReplyDelete

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

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

2. Please avoid profanity and vulgar language. I don't want my blog flagged by too many filters. I will delete comments containing profanity on a case-by-case basis.

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

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

5. Comments on my blog are not a place for slurs against any race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or mental or physical disability. I will delete these on a case-by-case basis depending on my interpretation of what constitutes a "slur."

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

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

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

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