Sunday, September 15, 2013

Game 115: DarkSpyre (1990)

At last, a game that combines "CamelCase" with "phantasy spelling."
United States
Event Horizon Software (developer), Electronic Zoo (publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS, 1991 for Amiga
Date Started: 15 September 2013
In almost every way, DarkSpyre wants to be a top-down, single-character Dungeon Master, and it generally succeeds. It's got twisty mazes with pressure-plate, lever, and keyhole puzzles. There are multiple types of actions (thrust, lunge, cut, shoot) depending on the weapon you hold, and after you choose each one you have to wait a bit before you can choose another action. There are hit points and magic points that decrease in combat and slowly replenish when standing still. The magic system requires prepping spells before casting. Potions are made by invoking spells on empty flasks. Skill levels increase with use of particular weapons and spells. It even allows the same trick by which you can smash a door on advancing enemies.

A process that never really gets old.

By far, it's strongest link to Dungeon Master is in its use of a thickly-written framing story to justify all of this dungeon-crawling. I've used the term several times in my blogging, and I want to make clear the distinction between a back story and a framing story. Back stories simply explain what's happened in the past, and how we got to our present circumstances. The player then carries the narrative forward. Framing stories, on the other hand, describe the beginning, end, and edges of the game, and what happens in the middle is really unconnected. You could replace it with a different "frame" and the player would barely notice, because the story itself is hardly referenced in-game. In fact, it often feels like the developers wrote the story after designing the game. By the same token, you could put the same frame on completely different content. 

Ultima IV, Champions of Krynn, and The Magic Candle all use back stories. What happens in the game--all the NPCs and elements you encounter--is inextricable from the continuing narrative. Dungeon Master, Bloodwych, and most roguelike games use framing stories. I suppose neither is particularly better or worse, but when a game goes out of its way to put a lot of detail in its framing story, it feels slightly dishonest, like a film trailer that promises something different than the film delivers.

Using that term for DarkSpyre is, admittedly, a bit premature. For all I know, as the game progresses, the story is referenced repeatedly, and I'll be fully drawn in to its developing lore. I just suspect not.

Part of the 15 pages of framing story written by Scott Noel, who specialized in game manuals, first for Event Horizon Software and later SSI.

The story chronicles the unannounced arrival of three beings calling themselves the Gods of Intellect, Magic, and War. Dragging a host of monstrous warriors behind them, the three Gods of the Ways met with an assembled group of lords and ladies, claimed to be humanity's creators, expressed contempt for how little the kingdoms of man had accomplished in the millennia since their creation ("true men, of any worth, would have reached those stars by now"), and demanded that the people subject themselves to some kind of test.

None of the people really believed them. They had long regarded the Gods of the Ways as a myth and saw no evidence of divinity in the visitors. Instead of submitting to their terms, the kingdoms of men raised armies to oppose them. Chief among them was Lord Borel of Laeytroeb, who was particularly incensed at the God of Magic's apparent seduction of Borel's lover, the witch Chesschantra. Recalling legends of a magic sword that his ancestors used to conquer the kingdoms, he retrieved it from its hiding place deep in a cave. The sword turned out to be evil--demon-possessed--demanding the blood of the innocent for its powers, and Borel ended up slaying his closest advisor with it. Nonetheless, with the sword, Borel was able to successfully oppose the gods and their armies, and to drive them to the brink of defeat. In a final clash with the God of War, the god and the blade unleashed such destruction that they obliterated the armies on both sides and turned a forest into a wasteland.

In the midst of that wasteland grew...wait for it...the DarkSpyre, which all three "gods" were last seen entering. Before they disappeared into its depths, they told the people they would come back in 300 years and eliminate humanity--unless a single champion could navigate the levels of the spyre and defeat all its challenges. Borel himself, broken and guilty, eventually took the cursed sword and entered the spyre, never to return. Other warriors, mages, lords, and peasants have tried and failed. 200 years have passed, and it's up to the player to save the world.

The character creation process continues the framing story.

The character creation process uniquely weaves the player's selections with a little fable about the hero's life, born to happy parents who had always wanted (in my case) a BOY named GIDEON, from a young age showing both skill with weapons in his RIGHT hand and with HEALING magic. (In a witty inversion of normal tropes, the boy learns fighting from his mother and magic from his father.) One day, an oracle wanders into town and names the character as the fated champion, and before long, he's breached the gates of the DarkSpyre.

You assign attributes from an initial pool. I decided to prioritize magic, which I rarely do.

The game randomly assigns an initial weapon proficiency and starts you in an area where you can load up on a limited selection of inventory. Skulls on the floor provide occasional helpful messages, and you find weapons, armor, spell scrolls, and other items scattered about as you explore. On the initial levels, the enemies have been rare and easy, allowing the player to slowly become competent with the interface.

As for the interface, this is the earliest game I can recall that offers full replication of controls on both mouse and keyboard, in such a way that it's truly intuitive to play with one hand on the keypad and the other on the mouse, alternating use of the two control systems for particular situations. There are essentially two windows: the maze window and the character (inventory and attributes) window, though some portion of the latter is always visible on the former, and the balance between the two is as simple as a flick of the mouse on the bar between the two. Since everything takes place in real-time, it's handy to be able to see what's happening in the maze while you adjust inventory, prepare spells, and so on.

Preparing to fight two wraiths. My partly-visible inventory allows me to quickly swap out equipment.

I played through the first three levels in my opening session, and each featured a different look and feel, with the puzzles increasing in complexity (though none terribly hard) throughout. The first level was mostly about equipping items and getting used to the puzzle mechanics. The second introduced some more complexity, such as rolling balls to avoid and movable walls. The third was quick and odd, with two huge rooms ringed by treasure-filled corridors. Each level ended at a portal that took me to the next level.

Leaving Level 1.

From these initial levels, I can report:

  • The sound in the game is okay. There are no sound effects for things you'd expect, like casting "knock" spells at doors or moving walls, but there's a "bip" for every step and and a cute little victory tune that plays after vanquishing each foe.
  • Where Dungeon Master offered proficiencies in levels, DarkSpyre offers proficiencies in various weapon types (clubbing, long edged, missile, hurling, etc.) and spell classes (healing, wizardry, sorcery, etc.). These increase with use from "beginner" to I-don't-know-what; I'm at "average" with some of them already.

Increasing in my "projectile" skill.

  • Each item has various combat and non-combat uses that change with your proficiency level. You can "fling" throwing items, "shoot" missile weapons, "drink" or "throw" potions. When I first picked up my "saintese" (a kind of long sword), I could "lunge" or "cut" with it, but as my proficiency increased, the options changed to "thrust," "slash," and "block." Shields, in addition to providing protection, can "bash" or be "thrown" like Captain America, I guess. Each of these actions is mapped to a key (1-3 for right hand and 4-6 for left).

I'm not sure why I'd ever want to "throw" my spellbook.

  • Each level so far has provided two items at the end: a "Raido" rune, which allows saving of the game (destroying the rune), and a chalice of "Ambrosia," which adds to max hit points and spell points. The former is a bit of a mystery, since ALT-S will save the game whenever you want. I wonder if that wasn't added by whoever cracked the version of the game I'm playing. I suspect that the developers intended saving only once per level, using the rune, so I'm going to try to adhere to that.
  • Potions are made through the use of the "Liquify" healing spell. When cast by itself, it creates a JERA (health) potion. When cast with a gemstone in hand, it creates a potion specific to that stone (and consumes the stone). So far, I've found gemstones that create cure poison potions, poison cloud potions (when thrown), and a mysterious potion called "Teihwaz" whose purpose is unknown to me.

Getting ready to make a "JERA" potion.

  • Early in the game, I got a spellbook. Spells are added to the book by finding scrolls. So far, I've found "Liquify," "Knock," "Fireball," "Magic Gas," "Freeze," and "Sight." (Of them, I don't know what the last one does.) I've found duplicate scrolls, and spells can be cast directly from them, but they can also be added to the book again. I'm not sure if it increases the spell's power in any way to add it to the book multiple times. Anyway, you cast spells by first "readying" them, in which case they get a function key assignment, then by casting them. Both readying and casting require a certain number of spell points.
  • My colorblindness is going to hurt me in this game again, as some objects are hard for me to discern against the backgrounds.

Can you see the token on the floor to my lower-left? It took me a bunch of passes through the room before I noticed it.

  • In addition to the "Raido" rune, I've found one called "Fehu" that, when invoked, adds a random item to the inventory.
  • I haven't found any significant armor yet, just a leather helmet and some shields.
  • Already, I'm having inventory problems. I have a ton of potions and empty flasks, a couple redundant weapons (I read somewhere that weapons can break), and a few throwing weapons. I decided to jettison a crossbow and bolts just because they were taking up too much inventory space.

My rapidly-growing inventory. I suppose I don't need those empty chalices anymore.

  • I don't love the character portrait.
  • It does not appear there's any way to return to an earlier level once you leave it.
  • So far, none of the levels have re-spawned enemies. If this continues, it suggests that there are no real grinding opportunities. Thus, I suspect the best course of action is to specialize in a particular weapon type rather than spread proficiencies among multiple weapons.

It appears that a big part of the game is going to involve puzzles. So far, the following have appeared in some kind of combination:

  • Pressure plates, some of which you activate simply by crossing, some of which require you to place items on them to keep permanently activated.
  • Teleporters, some of which you want to enter, others of which you need to find a way to close with a pressure plate.

Any item placed on the pressure plate to the north closed this teleporter.

  • Levers that open doors or cause other things to happen.
  • Movable walls
  • Rolling balls that must be avoided.

It's like four times as hard as Indiana Jones had it.

  • Doors with keyholes that require specific keys
  • Doors with holes that require tokens
  • Doors that must be "knocked" to open
  • Doors with holes that require specific items. One on Level 3 required a "potion of water." It's a good thing I didn't drink the one I found. I suppose it's possible to get into a "walking dead" situation on a level if you lose key items.

  • Skulls that offer hints to all of the above

I'm sure I'll see more variants, and of course puzzles can occur in multiple combinations, such as a movable wall that has to be pushed onto a pressure plate to activate a lever to close a portal and allow access to a keyholed door. In most RPGs, these types of puzzles just exist, seemingly for no reason. At least in DarkSpyre, their artificial nature seems justifiable in the game's own lore, in which the gods created them specifically as tests for mortals.
Pushing a movable wall towards a pressure plate on the other side of a skull. Note the lever to the left.
Level 4 has started me in the midst of a complicated-looking maze, and I might have to resort to mapping, which I rarely do in top-down games. But DarkSpyre seems to assume this will be necessary and even came with a gridded "scratch pad" to facilitate mapping.
The fourth level begins. I'm holding hurling weapons in both hands.

DarkSpyre strikes me as the kind of game that will take a long time yet offer very little material for intensive blog entries. I experienced this most recently with Bloodwych, and I got bored when I realized that the only thing I could keep saying was "explored another huge maze, solved more puzzles, killed more creatures." But so far it's been fun, and I could see it achieving a high score as long as it doesn't reach a point where it seriously overstays its welcome. Let's continue on and see.


  1. It's not just your colorblindness, the token is extremely hard to see, probably on purpose. And that's exactly what Sight spell is for.

    1. That's true. And also, there is no ALT-S saving feature. The only way to save was with a rune. This is definitely left in by the hacker to check for bugs.

      Say, why does the guy in the character portrait have the head of a blow-up doll?

    2. The token is grey on a brown floor; Took me ages to see it and I knew where to look!

    3. Yeah, it wasn't your colorblindness at fault. It's hard to see even if you know where to look.

    4. I can see it pretty easily, but while playing the game and moving around I'd probably miss it.

    5. That particular floor tile seem designed to hide small objects. Also, I think Chet's color blindness is making the issue even worse -- that floor tile almost look like one of those color blindness test pictures.

    6. I guess I'll be staring at things extremely carefully for the rest of the game, then. VK, thanks for clearing up what "Sight" does, but it's a little cumbersome to cast it repeatedly to check out every set of floor tiles I want to verify, so I suspect I won't be using it often unless I know I'm missing something.

    7. I thought, as your magic Power increases, the duration of the "Sight" spell also lasts longer? And you'd have to keep using it repeatedly to become better at it?

    8. Yep. My memory of DarkSpyre is extremely rusty (and I never got very far) but I also remember it being duration-based. But doesn't it increase rather with Divination skill level?

    9. I thought the character portrait looked like he was wearing a ball gag, for lore related reasons I presumed.I guess we all see what is in our darkest heart.

  2. I believe there are 39 levels, so you have completed 1/12th already! The back story does have more impact than Dungeon Master's as well, the 3 gods come into play quite a bit.

  3. The hard to see token reminds me of that hard to see key on the first level of Dungeon Master.

    "In a witty inversion of normal tropes, the boy learns fighting from his mother and magic from his father."
    Even more shocking (to me) was that the hero is not an orphan. Now _that's_ crazy!

    DarkSpyre and the two or three sequels Event Horizon made were among the games I eventually decided not to play, due them looking too "twitchy" and too much like arcade games. So it should be interesting to follow your blogging about them.

    1. Also:
      1) Not being specifically chosen by the people to go in the tower? Crazy!
      2) No evil wizard as last boss? Crazy!
      3) No princess locked up in the top of the tower? Crazy!
      4) Gur hygvzngr jrncba vf abg n ubyl fjbeq bs yvtug? Freaking crazy!!!

      DarkSpyre only had 1 sequel (The Summoning) from my knowledge. Veil of Darkness is a gothic-horror RPG using the same engine as The Summoning. It had surprisingly aged well as I completed Veil Of Darkness last year without being put off.

      Also, a little trivia, Even Horizon (which would become Dreamforge Studios) is the 1st company to go bust after trying to make a World Of Darkness (from White Wolf) game based on Werewolf: The Apocalypse, starting a WoD curse that will doom any developer who had the gonads to make a WoD RPG.

    2. There's also Dusk of the Gods. I guess I just lumped them all together since they seemed like a natural evolution (engine, not story) from each other.

    3. Engine yes, but mechanically they're very different - I wouldn't even call Dusk of the Gods and Veil of Darkness RPGs (because of little to no stats), they're more of an action-adventure.

    4. To be fair, anyone trying to make a White Wolf RPG is probably pretentious enough to deserve it. (I jest, I just, I know of at least one cool studio to go under after making a VtM game).

    5. By the way, makers of VTM:Redemption are still in business, so it's not that much of a curse ;) The fate of developers of TDE-licensed games so far has been much, much worse.

    6. @Canageek- Aww... come on, man! The WoD system is pretty cool. Me and my mates had a lot of fun playing VtM. I think it's who you choose to run the game. If you have some emo-punk goth as the Storyteller... By the Blood of Cain, I wouldn't touch that shit with a ten-foot-pole.

      But, in the hands of a few drunk guys playing a campaign where they infiltrated Jersey Shore and turned Snooki into a Ghoul? Hilarity!

      @VK- Yeah, but barely and from what I see, their games are all going downhill from there.

    7. Another interesting plot choice is that you enter the tower on 200th year instead of 300th, implying that even if you die and fail, there would still be plenty of other attempts - no big deal.

      I have never heard of this game but it looks very much like a low-tech version of a later SSI game called The Summoning, down to details like moving the inventory up and down and getting hints from talking skulls.

  4. You know, I've never thought that "framing" was inferior to "backstory". I view (or used to view) computer games as first and foremost *games*. You know, things you do so as to have something to do. The gameplay doesn't offer a goal, the gameplay is a goal in itself. Today we insult the mechanics of playing a game as "grinding" but I never thought of it that way. To me, it was just playing the game. Who cares why you're doing it? It's just going to be some dumb story anyway. The wizard of whatever kidnapped the princess of who cares, and you're off on a quest.

    The litmus test of this is Atari Adventure. It's just a game, eh? Play it! The fun's in the playing! But I've seen modern reviewers just take out the long knives to this idea of gaming. They rip it a new asshole with zero regard to the fact that someone might have had a different idea of gaming other than interactive improv theater. "Who are you? You're a featureless square! Why are you there? The manual doesn't say! What an utterly stupid game! I won, but why? For what purpose did I seek this Chalice, and why did these dragons oppose me? And nobody even said anything about the name of the bat, nor bother to explain the mythology behind the bridge, the magnet, or the dot! People sure were stupid back then, to buy this game.

    These days I like to prioritize magic in RPGs. I've just been a strongarm so often, and supposedly the game offers equal opportunity to both paths. It's fun to try the other way, especially if it's some random game that I've never played and will probably never play again. Who cares if I get bored with the game a few hours in? It was fun while it lasted. I just have a really thin skin for RPG boredom these days. Burnout, I'm sure. Once or twice a year I'll be in the mood to fire up a game...although I still enjoy living vicariously through someone else doing all the tedious typing and clicking for me.

    1. Everyone has different preferences, of course. I prefer good gameplay mechanics that take place in a world full of history and lore that the player directly influences. To my view, there are plenty of RPGs that offer stories that are not "dumb."

      If you're just in it for the tactics and mechanics, I guess I understand that, but we differ as to what makes a "good" game.

    2. I think that what would constitute a "perfect" RPG for me would be one where great gameplay mechanics is fused with great storytelling in such a way that it is hard to tell them apart.

      Regarding prefering story or gameplay mechanics, I prefer an RPG where the author(s) created game mechanics first and slapped on a story as an afterthought over an RPG whose author(s) began with a story and slapped some gameplay on it as an afterthought.

    3. But is the latter kind even possible? I mean - if the only thing author cares for is the story, why would s/he bother adding some gameplay to it? Seems like a lot of trouble for no reason.

    4. @VK- Of course it's possible! NWN2's 'Mask Of the Betrayer' is such a game. And it was great.

      I think the problem lies in building a game engine from scratch. Let's say you've spent an entire year coding it, then another couple of months adding assets (sounds, music, art, animations & etc.) into its library and another few more months testing it out by making some really cool contents and features.

      You don't really have much more time and money left to create new contents based on a great story that you have yet to think up of. So, what better way to start earning some much-needed moola than to slap on a few text screens to give some reason as to why your character just dove headlong into some dungeon, subjecting him/herself to certain doom, and release the game with the test contents built earlier?

      Compare that to games built on existing engines. You'll get much better stories and contents, which explains why the Gold Box series, the Infinity Engine series, the Neverwinter Nights series and future games that just uses 3rd party engines (Gamebryo, Unity & etc.) boasts more background story that are coherent and/or even being central to the game-play.

    5. VK, if the only thing author cares for is the story he should write a book or make a movie. The gaming industry really doesn't need anymore Hollywood rejects.

    6. @PetrusOctavianus, my point was that in such circumstances any sane person would rather make a book or a movie that a game, maybe I didn't make it clear enough. Can't think of a single reason why someone would do it the other way around - and of a single game that has its gameplay "added as an afterthought".

      @Kenny, all these examples have it exactly the other way around: they apply new story onto existing gameplay. I.e gameplay comes first, story - second.

    7. Maybe it isn't that common for games to have stories first and I'm just confusing having bad gameplay with focusing on story.

  5. Darkspyre appears to be the prequel to The Summoning, which I adored. The Summoning improved on nearly all the issues that the Addict brings up, if I recall correctly. But in the end many of the game conventions are the same--I think there's still a Fehu rune that gives you a random item, but the Raido rune definitely does something completely different. And there are definitely still rolling ball puzzles, teleporters, etc. My hazy memory suggests that there is a lot more story interaction, with full conversations with NPCs, but you certainly go through a lot of puzzles between each NPC.

    The Summoning has a great auto-map, and you can go back to any earlier level up until the final section, which means you can leave a stash of items to come back to later. It didn't come out until 1992, though, so it will be a while before The Addict reaches it.

    1. Its not a 'prequel,' just a predecessor. A prequel occurs AFTER the original game or movie but tells a story that occurs earlier.

    2. Technicalities aside, I agree with Oneiromancer that, if Chet enjoys Darkspyre now, he's gonna be very pleased with The Summoning.

  6. With the leather helmet on, the character's bright red beard looks like a ball gag. I cannot un-see it and it probably speaks volumes on how my mind works.

  7. O I certainly saw that as a ball gag too. So at least you're not the only one whose mind works that way.

    1. I wish I could say that I didn't see it as a ball gag, but that's the first thing that came to mind.

    2. I'll throw my lot into this conversation too. Definitely looks... odd.

    3. First thought I had as well.

    4. I thought he had an apple in his mouth at first. Then I thought that someone had removed his lower jaw and that is what remains.

      What is it supposed to look like?

    5. Also, when he's helmless, his hair and beard look a lot like a crab ))

    6. Well, as you'll see next time, there's--in light of this discussion, anyway--"good" news on the portrait.

  8. 1.Rune names are not made up. Found here discriptions of runes.

    2.You couldnt save without spending corresponding rune. So in kind you have limited saves (1 save = 1 rune).
    Alt+S is probably added later by someone.

    3.I warned you already in prev. post that some items are taken from prev. level and you cant go back to get them if you didnt bring them with you. One for sure is Driftwood is needed for one of last levels (you get it from prev.levels).

    4. Game uses its story during later levels. 100% sure story wasnt written after game was.

    5. Most important: weapons break and if you specialise (sp?) too heavy into one of weapon types and cant find weapons of this type after some time - you will be at disadvantage. I think, its preferred to spread some weapon skills at least a bit, so you can use secondary weapon while searching for replacement for main weapon.

    - K

    1. Well, I just spent some time on the Internet, and now I know a lot more about runes than I did before.

      I'm not using ALT-S anymore, although it's tempting sometimes.

      I'll reserve judgment on the story until I see it. But if Dragon Wars can make up its story--and insert dragons--well after the game is programmed, I find it hard to believe that this game couldn't come up with its framing story in the latter stages and just adjust some in-game dialogue.

    2. Cheers to learning something totally impractical (unless you're trapped in a tomb ala Indiana Jones), Chet. RPGs do this to us. I recently learnt that Mages live in Tehran nowadays. I dunno how useful and how often I might need this information.

      Regarding the story, I think it was more probable that the developer had a basic concept, made the game, then told an author what he wants and just shoved them into the documentations. Probably the same way that they get cover art from illustrators.

      I remember that any mention of the story does not come in the game (as in NPCs talking about it, carvings on the walls/floors/pillars, notes/scrolls/books outlining the world's literature & etc.) but through text screens that can be easily inserted at a later date after the game is fully developed.

  9. I like it when the people in stories fight the gods instead of worshipping them.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    2. But even if the gods are good, enlightened despotism is still despotism. I guess it ties in a bit with the other thing I complained about where the heroes so often help som king get back on the throne when they should institute democracy instead.

  10. This game looks more like a puzzle game. It also has the looks of a console game to it. I know that the Addict grew to hate this game a little, but it seems that it has some innovations, if one regards it as an RPG...the simple early levels and the skulls serve as a tutorial, although this mechanic is quite ordinary in puzzle games... Maybe it's more a puzzle game enriched by RPG elements than the other way round?

    1. That is how I would characterize it. I actually thought the RPG elements were quite good.

  11. Firstly, oh man did I ever love DarkSpyre, and oh man did I never get past like the fourth or fifth level (I seem to recall the level order is randomized after the first few, possibly even after the first one). I still have my graph paper pad and occasionally deem a new game awesome enough for me to take notes on it.


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