Friday, March 27, 2015

Game 181: Escape from Hell (1990)

Escape from Hell isn't going to be the best game of my chronology, or even 1990, but I suspect it will be the only game on my list in which Josef Stalin joins my party and starts shooting the minions of Satan with a nailgun. If I can't have a high-quality CRPG, I'm at least grateful for one that shows me something I haven't seen before.

It's also the only game I can think of in which your PC is modeled on the game's author, Richard Seaborne. We previously saw his work on Prophecy I: The Fall of Trinadon (1988). His co-designer, Alan J. Murphy, later appears as an NPC. The setup is told in a few brief paragraphs in the opening screens: one day Richard goes over to Alan's house and finds a weird note stuck to the door with an unknown phrase on it. Alan is gone. Later, recounting the story to his girlfriend, Alison (named after Richard Seaborne's wife), Richard says the phrase and Alison disappears in a "poof!" Moments later, Richard gets a call from "the Divine Phone Company" who warns him his friends have been sent to hell because of the "powerful magic incantation."

"You must be joking," Richard protests. "I just said..." and repeats the incantation. In a split second, he finds himself in a small room in the midst of fire and brimstone. His goal, as indicated by the title, is to find his way out--ideally with Alison and Alan in tow.

This is the kind of game that could be fun and interesting or cringe-worthy and stupid depending on the quality of the narration. So far, it's doing a good job walking right on the line, but it could go anywhere.

This was reasonably funny.

The second 1990 game developed by Electronic Arts using the Wasteland engine, Escape lies somewhere between Wasteland and Fountain of Dreams in quality. The story so far is better than Fountain and the graphics are better than both preceding games, but it doesn't have the puzzle or role-playing complexity of Wasteland. As such, it's been an amusing little diversion, not unlike Seaborne's Prophecy.

The party navigates fire, brimstone, and pitchforks.
There's no character creation as such--Richard has fixed statistics for strength, intelligence, piety, agility, and stamina. Like the other games using the engine, there is a selection of passive skills (e.g., fist fighting, rifle combat, archery, acrobatics) and active skills (e.g., bluffing, lockpicking), all of which increase with use and with occasional NPC trainers. Leveling is through a standard accumulation of experience.

The main character after a few hours. He started at Level 0, so I have risen one level.
Combat uses a variant of the system developed way back in The Bard's Tale and used by almost all Interplay games to date. Each character chooses to attack, defend, hide, or run in any given round. Each weapon has an effective range, but unlike some of the other games, enemies can only attack from three (long), two (medium), or one (short) squares away. They can attack in multiple groups of multiple enemies each, and if attacking, you have to target the chosen group. The character who makes the kill gets the experience and whatever valuables the enemy was carrying.

Some of the combats are pretty hard. I doubt there's any way to resurrect dead NPCs, so I've been reloading when they die. If Richard dies, the game ends with a note that you've died. I don't know why the game didn't just have you wake up in your room in Hell again. That seems obvious.
Do I go to Hell's Hell now?

The basic gameplay experience so far has been to explore Hell and its various divisions, talk to NPCs, collect puzzle items, and fight random combats with fiends along the way. There's one large main cave (a map is helpfully provided in the manual) with entrances to smaller maps like Limbo, the City on the Edge of Eternity, and the Hell Guard Recruitment Center.

The game paraphrases quotes from real historic figures.

The game features the second use of nudity that we've seen in my list in a western RPG. I don't know if this one or Wizardry VI came first. All the female NPCs seem to look like this.
I started in small room with a chest, a sign, and a phonebooth. I don't know if the phonebooth was supposed to have come with me; that wouldn't make sense because the opening screenshots showed me at home when I got the call. Either way, the severed telephone handset was in my inventory along with a knife and a book of matches.

The opening room.
The chest held a cross, a silver flask with a healing elixir, and a pouch of fairy dust. A note warned me to save the cross and elixir for "when the powers of Hell are about to overtake you" and to use the fairy dust only in "dire need."
A skeleton blocked my way into the caverns and I wasn't strong enough to defeat him by myself, so I started by going the only direction I could, to the City on the Edge of Eternity. In this sub-map, I started meeting a bunch of random NPCs. A guy named Brad gave me a free laptop, which I honestly forgot was a thing as early as 1990. Stalin joined my cause because he believed that "capitalism is the wave of the future" and we needed to "overthrow the red devil" for "our right to vote for a free democratic Hell."

A skeleton blocks my path. I needed Josef Stalin and Genghis Khan to defeat him.
In an alley, we grabbed a couple garbage can lids to use as shields. In Hell's Waiting Room, I got a ticket that promised me an audience with Minos, the ruler of this level, on April 1, 3024 "plus or minus several decades." A receptionist attacked me when she scanned me for identification and realized that I was alive. That didn't seem to otherwise have long-term consequences.

Genghis Khan joined my party at some point, armed with a broadsword. A guy named Melrose Amber, after hearing my story, gave me a pair of shades that would protect me against psychic attacks. A clown gave me a smiley face button.

Exploring a building in Limbo. Some foresaken souls apparently get their own rooms and beds.
When I'd finished exploring, I returned to the outer area and used my two new friends to kill the skeleton and escape into the caverns of Hell. I was attacked frequently by "stench beasts," Hell privates, Neanderthals, and--oddly enough--Indians.

This was not a good year for Indians in RPGs.

The presence of Indians in Hell is probably a reflection of the game's Catholic theology. One of the sub-areas off the main cavern is Limbo, or the "Place for Virtuous Pagans," where all the decent people went before Jesus Christ redeemed mankind and opened the way to Heaven.

Pity the poor Neanderthals for existing 40,000 years before the birth of Christ.

I met Virgil, Cleopatra, Nero, Aristotle, Socrates, Tamerlaine, Helen of Troy, and some Roman soldiers there. Oddly, Benedict Arnold and Shakespeare were there as well. Shakespeare gave me Yorick's Skull. I later gave the skull to Hamlet, who joined me (I dumped Stalin 'cause he know...Stalin) with a dueling sword.
I find the Prince in "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."
Hamlet isn't the only fictional character here: I ran into Horatio and Juliet, too (the latter in Hell for her suicide).

It was the Athenian philosopher Thucydides who gave me the rundown of the stucture of Hell. Originally one level, Satan has over the years expanded it to three. Various NPCs told me that Alan went to Level 2, which is apparently ruled by Al Capone. The hole from Level 1 to Level 2 is quite deep, and I need a parachute to descend. So far, I haven't figured out how to get one.

An NPC recognizes that I'm alive, and gives me some useful information about my friend.
A few NPCs imparted training just for talking to them, raising my skill level with the bow and rifle. The scores also go up occasionally in combat, just as in Wasteland. NPCs often give you quest items or things that might be quest items--it's hard to tell--and between that and the weapons you loot from combats, it's a constant struggle to shuffle inventory and make sure you have a few clear slots. Weapons break, so you need to carry some backups. There's no ammo--firearms and bows just run out of shots and become useless. There also appears to be no economy.

The game's approach to skill development.

As we wrap up, I'm exploring the Hell Guard Recruitment Center, hoping to find that parachute somewhere. I assume the levels get bigger and more complicated as you descend; if not, we're looking at a short game. My big question right now is whether the game is truly going to resolve its story--whether there's any interesting mystery behind the incantation that brought me here--or whether it's just an excuse for silly setpieces.

Time so far: 3 hours
Reload count: 4

Further reading: My series of posts on Wasteland, which provided Escape from Hell its engine; Fountain of Dreams also used Wasteland's engine and also came out this year. Prophecy I: The Fall of Trinadon was an earlier Seaborne RPG.


  1. LOL. Yeah, I'm leaning towards "bad" on this one. The thing about RPGs in these weird genres like archeology or the hell of Dante's Inferno is that fairly soon in the game, they run out of clever analogs to fantasy creatures and soon just have you fighting regular monsters. These may or may not have nonstandard names, but the point is that they give up on the concept and it might as well have been an ordinary fantasy world instead. Such a pity as an original world has such potential. Even well-trodden paths like Dante's Inferno can still be good, if done right. Fighting specters and cavemen? Just call them orcs and gnolls and be done with it.

  2. "All the female NPCs seem to look like this."

    Otherwise known as the "hehe boobs" design philosophy. I guess it did something for a niche group of folks in 1990, but looking at it from 2015 makes it seem childish and stupid.

    Maybe I'm just old.

    1. I agree. I didn't want to belabor the point, because I'd have a bunch of people (again) accusing me of Puritanical prudery instead of actually taking the time to read the reasoning behind my distaste.

    2. Hey, my mom bought this for me at the mall when I was 12, and it was very exciting, and the boobs were a part of that (and probably why they were included). It's all fine to tut-tut about it now, but it was an entirely different environment in 1990. Heck, people were still finding Leisure Suit Larry funny; funny enough to shell out $40 per game anyway.

  3. That "demon" from the Character Summary screen is clearly repurposed from the cover of The Lord of the Rings game you played earlier:

    1. Christ, I knew that demon was from something recent. Good memory!

    2. Yeah, good call on that. I never would have made the connection. EA owned the artwork, after all.

    3. For the be-all end-all on the uses and misuses of the classic Hildebrandt balrog, Google "Colbert balrog." You'll be glad you did.

  4. A few things:

    1. Escape From Hell may honestly be my pick for "most underrated CRPG ever." Not that it is even in my like top 10 CRPGs ever, but it has SO MANY good things (writing, graphics, out-of-left-field ideas, quick combat) and yet never really got any attention paid to it. I am so excited that you are here that I skipped from mid-May-2012 or wherever I am chronologically to post this!

    2. Per Richard Seaborne's recent interview at RPGCodex with Crooked Bee, that is actually an engine of his own design, even though it certainly shares some similarities with Wasteland (and the claim that it is the Wasteland engine has certainly popped up virtually everywhere BUT this interview):

    3. Seriously, this game is great. You doubters just wait. Though I will also acknowledge that it has predictable issues with women generally being background scenery and problems with things respawning when you reload sometimes leaving you super-mega-screwed if you do not plan ahead.

    4. I seriously thought you already played through this like a year ago. I may actually be confusing it with when you made it through Keef the Thief without me noticing in time to pop up with comments about how it should have been an amazing game but kind of felt like someone's weird tech demo instead.

    1. According to this interview, Escape from Hell was released in January 1990.

      So this is the first use of nudity in western RPG.

    2. I feel like there's a lot of hand-waving in that section of the interview. I don't doubt that Seaborne reconstructed the code, just like the developers did with Fountain of Dreams, but come on--let's get real. The game plays almost exactly like Wasteland. Combat is virtually indistinguishable, and I think Wasteland is the only game before EfH to allow direct employment of skills and attributes to solve puzzles.

      So we're to believe that Seaborne developed all of this independently from Wasteland and just happened to release it through Wasteland's publisher in the same year that another game is also released through Wasteland's publisher using an interface almost identical to Wasteland?

    3. Curious... in the 80s Electronic Arts assimiliated Interplay's output and recreated weaker versions of it, in the 00s Electronic Arts bought Bioware and possibly made them produce weaker sequels of their games.

      In retrospect, Wasteland must be one of the CRPGs with the biggest legacies of all time. Not just the technical successor, like this one, but also the spiritual successors like Fountain of Dreams and, of course, Fallout, and then the direct successor Wasteland 2. Again, in retrospect, it appears more important than it's own technical predecessor, The Bard's Tale.

    4. @ CRPG Addict well there is always chance that two people made same or similar things in same time,

      here is one example that I have found:

      never released PlayStation game The Contract is similar to Syphon Filter. Two games were in development at same time, have similar graphic and gameplay style, but through reasearch I didnt have find any connections that developers share ideas or engine.

      According to article. Brian Fargo thinks that there is possibility that some of the Wasteland code might have been used.

      I know that chance for this are small, but there is always possibility.

    5. Maybe Dave Albert can give clear answer?

      From interview: It’s interesting to note that EA’s Executive Producer for Wasteland, Fountain, and Escape was the same person – Dave Albert. He was a great champion for EA’s RPG’s.​

    6. There's always a possibility for anything. To me, the possibility that Seaborne misremembered how much Wasteland influenced the interface and mechanics of Escape from Hell is far more likely than the possibility that two developers came up with the same interface (even the proportions of the three windows are the same!) and happened to go to the same publisher.

    7. Hah yes, after all, 25 years passed since 1990.

      Its hard to remember all things.

  5. I have to confess that from what you wrote so far this is the first game in some time that I am tempted to try out myself. Wastelandish engine and whacky humor? Sounds good! Then again Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of my favourite movies... Let's see how long that blasted Pillars of Eternity download takes, the way it drags on I might need something to distract me till it arrives on my mac! :)

  6. "The resemblance to L.A. is uncanny"

    Foreshadowing the 1996 movie 'Escape from L.A.'

    1. Also 'Predator 2', which is a great movie, I don't care what anyone else says.

  7. Mr. Addict, maybe a little break for "Pillars of Eternity" - a worthy successor to Baldur's Gate?

    Did you think about that?

    1. It does sound like the kind of game I would enjoy. Perhaps after I wrap up 1990.

    2. Cthulu saves the world is dreadfully repetitive.

      I've seen plenty of articles about it (and it's sister, Breath of Death VII), Half-minute Hero and The Binding of Isaac, the last of which was a big hit.

    3. Penny Arcade's Precipice of Darkness tetralogy is good too. But it will be decades later that Chet will see them on his list.

    4. I played some of PARSPOD 1 & 2. I would describe the product as: Moderately funny humor encased within mediocre JRPG.

    5. Last two new games on this blog were:


    6. @Tristan Gall - Try 3 &4. They are made by Zeboyd games. The controls and game mechanics become a lot more primitive but it gave way to a better plot line that is tightly written; despite it being a game that's not supposed to be taken seriously.

    7. I don't think I would call Half-Minute Hero, Aquaria, or Binding of Isaac RPGs: imo they are action game, Metroidvania, and action-roguelike, respectively.

    8. I'd call them Action-RPGs. The damage output is based on your statistics but the hitting/dodging part is based on your dexterity..

    9. Hearing action games described as roguelikes makes me grumpy every time. The main standout point of roguelikes is that they are slow and methodical. Random generation and permadeath are part of that, yes, but the methodicalness and careful choices are also part of it. Rogue Legacy? Great game, but not a roguelikes on so many levels, same thing with Binding Of Issac.

    10. I agree, CG. The ability to think and strategize is a huge part of the roguelike genre. A lot of these action games also don't have the interactive equipment systems of roguelikes.

  8. Yeah, I just noticed Pillars of Eternity got released yesterday, looks pretty great. I did so because I googled the Planescape: Torment soundtrack, which Escape from Hell reminds me of. That naked woman there, she has the aura of Deionarra. I realized I really like those games about regret and souls in the afterlife. The second expansion of Neverwinter Nights was also memorable in this regard.
    Even if these last 1990 games might not be particularly good, they should at least be interesting.

    1. The second expansion had the unusual (perhaps unique) quality of being far superior to the main game (and first expansion).

    2. You should probably learn some simple research skills before engaging in any more rants. Either that or stop being a troll.

      Two of the central individuals to the design of PS:T are those 'lazy incompetents' from Wasteland 2: Chris Avellone and Colin McComb. Brian Fargo managed to lazily and incompetently found Interplay and become one of the most respected figures in the industry.

    3. The personal relationships between Wasteland 2's InXile Entertainment and Pillars of Eternity's Obsidian Entertainment are just as intertwined as the relationship between Black Isle Entertainment and Bioware in the 90s. Often, they are even the same people! It's probably too early to say that now there's one group of people making mediocre games, and one group of people making the better games, though Obsidian apparently is on a run at the moment. Let's see how Tides of Numenera will be doing...
      I guess there are 20-30 people who have formed the "core" of CRPG mainstream for about 30 years now, Brian Fargo, Chris Avellone, Tim Cain, or even Jeremy Soule, composer of the Elder Scrolls soundtracks AND of the Icewind Dale soundtrack. In fact, I know hardly anybody important in the development process of CRPGs since Fallout who does not come from this cluster. I could name Todd Howard, but I just had to look up the names of the current Bioware designers (of the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises), but there is no name that stands out. Wikipedia doesn't even show the designer credits of Dragon Age 2, haha...

    4. My Pillars download came in after all (I had supported the kickstarter) -> really good so far, very distinct classes with unique mechanics, engaging NPCs and storyline, challenging even on normal difficulry on the first playthrough... Sorry Escape From Hell, no retro game for me for a while :)

    5. Alexander: One of the things I find pretty remarkable is how few flops have come from the Interplay/Bioware stable. You've got about 30 single-player rpgs from that group, and none were (critical) flops. Granted, trying to turn Fallout into an action game was regrettable and Dark Alliance, while a respectable ARPG, should not have borne the Baldur's Gate name.

    6. @ Tristan: Yes, that's true. Though I guess they often had a good foundation to build their games upon, with the D&D rules and settings, or with their version of GURPS and their own creation of Wasteland which was a refinement of their own The Bard's Tale and which then inspired Fallout. It's interesting to watch this evolution.
      I guess conceptually, they took few risks. Planescape: Torment was probably one of the times (because the role of combat was completely marginalized in favor of storytelling) and its sales were a little disappointing.

  9. This could just be an issue I had, but I tried playing this one a few months ago, and had an issue with saves spontaneously corrupting, or at least just refusing to load any more, so make sure you keep back ups!

    Interested in seeing what you make of this one as it progresses, it's a really odd mix of clever and dumb.

  10. I've just found a small mistake in Chet's "must play" list. First game shouldn't be 1979?

    1. Indeed. I'm always thinking that Dunjonquest started in '78, but it didn't. I had to correct myself several times in that 'Wrapping Up the Early Ages" posting.

  11. Well, I feel obliged to note that Limbo was never a part of official Catholic teachings; it was proposed, rather early in the history, by some theologians, but actual Church authorities rejected that idea. Church doesn't actually talk much about possibility of salvation for people who don't know Gospel (for any reason), assuming that it is left in the hands of God. And certainly no Catholic worth their salt would declare with straight face that all Native Americans are burning in Hell. In fact, Catholic Church never declares _anyone_ to be in Hell; the saints are declared to reside in Heaven, but as far as we, Catholics, are concerned, the Hell might just as well be empty. But there is no Limbo, neither in Hell, nor anywhere else. :)

    1. 1) Didn't the Catholic church declare that was outdated theology a few years ago?

      2) Where will the poor Saaldi live? If you take limbo where will the frog-chaos-things live? (This is why D&D players made a bunch of jokes when the Catholics made that declaration)

    2. In the next post, I clarify that the source of the game's ideas is more Dante than Catholic Dogma, but thatnks for the expanded discussion.

      While we're on it: "And certainly no Catholic worth their salt would declare with straight face that all Native Americans are burning in Hell." I thought I remembered that some recent Pope declared that Hell isn't "burning"--or any kind of torture--anyway. Rather, it's simply the absence of God.

    3. @Canageek

      Ad. 1) No, Catholic Church actually never declared this to be valid in the first place. It was part of folklore, perhaps, but never official teaching. To the point that I've only ever heard about Limbo when reading Dante, despite living in a country 90% Catholic, me included. It's perfectly possible that the Church _reminded_ that it was never true (different from outdated!) a few years back, but that's hardly surprising; it's a catchy idea, there's need to reinforce the fact that it has never been official.

      Ad. 2) Only good answer I can give you is: God only knows. ;) Also, I don't know about Church, but nobody is making whoever the publisher of D&D is erase Limbo from existence (not that it had anything to do with Dante's Limbo anyway). Also, Githzerai are only Limbo-dwellers that count. :P


      Yeah, I've seen it in the next post, but only after writing the comment. I'd have probably written it anyway, since it's not always obvious that Dante's ideas are somewhat eclectic in where they come from. :)

      If I'm not mistaken, we don't have any definite teaching on what does the Heaven or Hell look/feel like, since it's generally beyond human comprehension. But 'burning' was generally figure of speech, mostly because the game depicts Hell as being all fire-and-brimstone kind; thus, taking Escape from Hell at the face value, it would seem that all Indians do, indeed, burn.


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