Monday, September 18, 2017

Game 262: Inquisitor: Shade of Swords (1987)

I could be wrong, but that just looks like the regular shade of trees.
        
Inquisitor: Shade of Swords is another title from the "Golden Age" of French RPGs, which tends to mean that it offers a plagiarized story, an interface made by someone who once saw an American CRPG but never played it, and a few random weird elements that the genre never saw before or after. I suppose the weirdness starts with the fact that the title is for some reason in English while everything else in the game is in French. The in-game title also lacks the Inquisitor part, although it's found on the manual and game box.

I say "plagiarized story" because every time I recount the backstory of a French RPG, commenters come along to tell me that the same story appeared in Conan, or some obscure British sci-fi novel, or The Adventures of Tintin. Perhaps that isn't the case here, and if so I owe the developer an apology for even suggesting it. But the backstory seems a little too elaborate to have been developed for an RPG of such limited mechanics.

The setting is the planet Astul, a formerly high-tech world on which civilization has collapsed and people have entered a dark age, isolated for centuries from the rest of the galaxy, ignorant of even their own history. Men fell into warlike tribes (called "Hellus Angelus"), modeled after ancient Sparta, and nearly wiped each other out.
      
The manual cover suggests a depth of story and gameplay that isn't quite present in the game.
     
Then suddenly came a warlord in electronic armor named Crassus Laurantus who brought an end to anarchy and united everyone under his tyrannical rule. He has taken over a citadel in the city of New-Cythere (which he renamed as New-Sparta). The citadal used to be a temple to the old gods (beings of great technological achievement), whose departure from Astul caused or was coincidental to the collapse. Great secrets are rumored to reside in a room at the bottom of the temple, and of course Crassus's wealth is scattered throughout. Four adventurers arrive at the temple's door, seeking wealth and answers. 
       
I would appreciate if any native French speakers could help me with nuances I might have missed. I have no idea what the bits about "Ephore" or the whole phrase "ze zouis vautre lit d'air" means.
        
The game starts you with pre-created characters named Alton, Elisabeth, Jofil, and Eddy. Each has statistics in intelligence, observation, constitution, agility, dexterity, mysticism, ego, sensitivity, "aura," and mental ability. They are all set to 7 by default. You can increase some by lowering others; the maximum range is 5 to 15. I tried to make each character good in 3 statistics, but I suspect I should have invested in agility, dexterity, and constitution for everyone.
     
Trading agility for intelligence.
      
After you set these attributes, you begin in a 3D textured dungeon. The goal seems to be to reach the last room of the temple's crypt and then return to the entrance. Four character portraits reflect current weapons and armor. The interface is meant to be played with a joystick, just as we saw with Fer & Flamme (1986) and L'Anneau de Zengara (1987). While the compass is selected, the joystick moves the party. Pressing the button releases the compass and allows selection of one of the other on-screen commands: search the area, check the compass, mark the current position, have a character attempt to determine in which direction the "mark" lies, manage inventory (with subcommands for picking up , trading, using, and dropping items), check character statistics, and save/quit the game.

The first level was 13 x 24. It had staircases going both up and down. There were a handful of one-way doors but no secret doors.
       
The game's first level.
      
A lot of the rooms have objects in them that look like they should be interactable but are not. They include a statue, urns, totem poles, and skeletons. For some reason, you can't turn right or left in the rooms that hold these objects, only progress forward (if there's a door on the other side), or back out the door you came in. There otherwise haven't been any special encounters or text within the game.
      
If there's anything special to do here, I'm missing it.
       
Combats occurred at mostly-fixed locations, with enemies like decurions, pretoriens, bandits, and in one case a lion. Combat uses a basic Wizardry template: specify an action for each character and watch them execute in turn, along with the enemies' attacks. Actions in combat are parry, thrust, swing, flee, use a potion, and something that translates as "try to influence the person" and has an image of a brain. Maybe this is some kind of Jedi mind-trick? It hasn't worked once. There otherwise appears to be no "magic" in the game.
      
Watching the combat actions scroll by.
     
I found combat relatively hard in the opening stages, at least until I got better equipment. Some of the fixed enemies are harder than others. A couple of my characters, with low dexterity and strength, hardly ever seem to do any damage. I do find that some enemies concentrate attacks on a single character, and if I just have that character parry every round, he hardly ever takes damage and the other characters can kill the enemies.
          
My characters hit a lot, but enemies are just "scratched."
       
Post-combat, you have the option to loot the enemy corpses for equipment, including weapons, armor, shields, helms, and (rare) potions. I don't know if there's a way to tell what items are better than others except by assuming those with the cooler icon are better. For instance, I assume the helmets with horns sticking out from the sides outperform simple caps. Characters are limited in what they can carry by strength. Once I got everyone with blades (some started with sticks) and what looks like studded leather armor, combat on the first level became much easier.
      
Looting a helm after combat.
      
I haven't been able to figure out how to interpret the grid of numbers under the character portraits. Each column is clearly a character, but I don't know what the three letters ("E," "P," and "M") stand for. The numbers seem to be a combination of armor class and hit points but don't respond in predictable ways. All I can say is that when they get down to 0, characters tend to die.

I'm also a bit confused about how health regenerates. It always seems to happen when I'm not looking, and it may have something to do with those urns, totem poles, and so on.

Occasionally, you encounter enemies who greet you with a "salut!" instead of attacking. For these encounters, you have a separate set of menu options to greet them back (which just makes them go away), attack them, barter with them, or question them. That last option always produces the same question: "Where can we find Crassus?" To that question, I always get the same answer: "I don't know."
        
Based on the backstory, I wasn't even aware that I was looking for Crassus.
        
Several of the combat encounters on Level 1 were with named enemies, and these generally produced a key at the end of combat. These keys opened a succession of locked doors, culminating in a treasure room in which I found 7,899 gold pieces. I have no idea what gold does for you except make you more susceptible to bandit attacks. There was one encounter on the level with a "gladiator" that I couldn't defeat. 
       
I suppose part of our mission is complete.
       
I went one level up from the starting area and found a small level that ended in a keyed door for which I didn't have the key. There was another stairway up, which led to an even smaller area with another keyed door. Each level has a different color tint.
      
Finding all that gold made me a bandit target. This one has a name.
    
There were no combats on the upper levels, but there were friendly encounters with some figures that looked like they might have been enemies before. I began to wonder if finding the treasure was causing former enemies to treat me fondly. (The manual suggests something like this.) I tried hitting "barter" a few times and discovered that I could buy keys from a couple of NPCs who I probably would have had to kill before the treasure haul. Unfortunately, the purchased keys didn't allow me to progress much more on the upper levels.
      
Apparently, finding the emperor's treasure elevated me to a new caste.
     
I turned around and went into the basement but also hit a dead end. A keyed door opened into a prison area with some cells and skeletons, but I didn't find anything there.
The summary on MobyGames suggests that there's five total levels, but I don't know where that comes from.

Speaking of levels, my characters don't seem to be going anywhere. There is a "level" variable in the character statistics, but Alton started at 1 and the others started at 0, and none have budged. Two different web sites covering the game say explicitly that there is no character leveling at all, and the manual doesn't mention anything about it, so perhaps this is just a placeholder statistic.
      
Despite all the battles, Elisabeth remains at Level 0.
     
At this point, I'm a bit stuck. The only encounter I haven't completed is with the gladiator on Level 1, but I can't even hit him. I don't expect to find much help online or via any commenters who have played this game, but perhaps I'm wrong. I'll take hints while enjoying another session of Might and Magic III.

Time so far: 5 hours
Reload count: 3

40 comments:

  1. Man, these old French RPG's look confusing. The story seems much more interesting than the game itself.

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  2. It's a pun: ze zouis vautre lit d'air = je suis votre leader = I am your leader

    'Lit d'air' means 'inflatable bed', but pronounced it sounds like 'leader'.

    Ephors was just a title for noble councilmen in ancient Sparta.

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    1. I am not so sure they were nobles. IIrc, Ephors were the only officials selected by vote -the democratic element in the Spartan constitution, if you wish.

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  3. Hey,

    I can translate that thing for you. I'll just have to say that's even to a native french reader the text oscillates between low quality and plain nonsense, i tried to keep the 'badness' intact but was forced to add some transition words. text between [ ] are notes from me:

    "On the Astul planet, cut from civilization... No history books anymore, only fiction books. Was Tartarin a roman emperor? We don't have any clue!

    Some said that in the far away northern steppes, men were often running after their shadow... All that running made them athletic, like Spartans. Soon after, Hellus Angelus hordes began killing each other. [the whole thing doesn't make much more sense in french than in English tbh]

    But a leader emerged, Crassus Laurantus, with his electronic armor. [so that's what transcribing a sentence written by a 10yo in English feels like..]

    He tells [Crassus] us that under the shade of swords, the sun hits hard [i have no clue either]! Why not invading our neighbors so we don't have to fight each other anymore! [?] And the Praetorians from the ultimate horizon entered our lands [i suppose he forgot to switch perspective here, otherwise it doesn't make much sense]. The Praetorians invaded the New-Cithere city and renamed it New-Sparte, then Crassus proclaimed himself an Ephore for 5 years [spartan leader in the old days]. His preatorians,

    [Ok, this part require an explanation, Ephore sounds like 'effort' in french which means basically the same as in English. I assume it's supposed to be a "clever" play on word to say that his Praetorians were behind him but didn't like working too hard either. In any case, it's very bad]

    His lazy Praetorians cheer up, "I ham yer leador" yelled Crassus. End of Anarchy.

    [here again Ze zouis = Je suis (i am), Vautre = votre (your), lit d'air = leader . I suppose it's how he imagined the language to evolve during those dark times. It kinda has a comical overtone to it, but yeah... not good]

    --

    The rest is pretty much what you found by yourself, so i'll save myself some brain cells by not translating is. It's barely middle school french, so I assume google translate shouldn't have too much of a problem with it.

    Cheers.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks a million. I figured the language was trying to achieve a certain effect but didn't understand what it was going for.

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    2. Wow, I am french speaking, but I really didn't get that "leader" part. It's really a dumb word play.

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    3. @CRPG Addict: you're welcome. Been following your blog for years, it's the least I could do.

      @Georges: To be honest it took me a while too :) I had to say the sentence out loud to figure it out.

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    4. Reminds me of that ST:TOS episode where Kirk ends up on that planet the the Kohms and the Yangs and they're reading the declaration of Independence (or was it the Constitution) but only with messed up, barely literate phonics.
      Sort of like that sentence.

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  4. So French "Quest for Tanda"? It seems really basic and story seems forced - and I believe I read something along these lines in an old SF magazine.

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  5. I wonder if stronger min/maxed characters could take out the gladiator through combat or will power.

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    1. Most probably minmaxers would fare better, as it seems that only physical combat was implemented. Or maybe will power would be enough, but I suppose in this case it means state saves after each succesful round...

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  6. The grid of numbers is described in the manual, section "ecran de jeu".

    E = espérance de vie jusqu'a la fin de l'aventure [life expectancy until the end of the adventure??]
    P = état physique [physical state = hit points?]
    M = état moral [moral state = magic points?]

    It doesn't make much sense to me, but I'm not a native French speaker. I hope somebody figures it out.

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    Replies
    1. Okay, I see that section now, but none of it really jibes with how the statistics change in-game. Christ. Why can't the French ever produce just a simple, normal, understandable RPG?

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    2. espérance is "hope," so I'd translate that directly as "hopes of living through the adventure" and loosely as "morale."

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    3. ...except then I read the third one, which is also morale. I... uh... what? Okay, no idea.

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    4. It sounds to me like it's the difference between "morale" (hope, spirits, enthusiasm) and "morals" (principles, conduct, belief).

      But then I don't actually speak French.

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    5. I'm positive "espérance de vie" does mean "life expectancy" on account of it meaning exactly that in spanish (esperanza de vida). Proof via wiki: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_des_pays_par_esp%C3%A9rance_de_vie

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    6. Yes, there's no way espérance de vie can mean anything else related to hope or morals. It's life expectancy (duration).

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    7. Yeah, it's a weird statistic. What it basically depicts (I think) is how may rounds you'll probably last in combat given your current armor and hit points.

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    8. 'état moral' means 'moral state' or 'state of mind', in the confidence or mood sense, I think the game likely makes the nuance clear by playing it. I don't know how that works in the game itself, but likely some kind of combat modifier? Is it a mental energy factor or a fear/courage factor? It likely has nothing to do with magic.

      'état physique' means 'physical state'. I guess hit points or constitution?

      'espérance de vie jusqu'a la fin de l'aventure' is exactly 'life expectancy until the end of the adventure'. That's really weird, even for these unusual French RPGs. :)

      I agree, these French games were certainly obscure, even by CRPG standards, likely barely known by the French themselves. There were only American CRPGs in Canadian computer stores.

      I had wondered as a teenager what else might be out there, but then thought of the success of translated Japanese RPGs on consoles, and figured Europe must have been producing crap that didn't sell well enough to be exported, even to French speaking markets.

      Thanks for confirming my hunch was correct, Chet. :)

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  7. "Based on the backstory, I wasn't even aware that I was looking for Crassus." - perhaps they are asking this to NOT go there.

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  8. It's interesting to contrast this game and Heimdall as exemplars of their respective cultural origins.

    You get the British game that presents a basic narrative, takes no real risks, doesn't much innovate, but is straightforward and yields to a modicum of effort; and then you get Shade of Swords that throws together some crazy plot that doesn't appear to connect to the gameplay, is as opaque as possible, and certainly doesn't care for your precious logic because it is art, and it is not for you!

    P.S. The gladiator represents the eternal losing battle with our own ennui and anomie in a society too mechanistic for such concepts as joy or comfort. *Takes long drag from cigarette, emits weary sigh*

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    1. Presumably American games are full of lazy, inaccurate cultural stereotypes?

      (Apologies if you're not American - swap for your won nationality if not.)

      Delete
    2. I'll have you know I put a lot of work into my inaccurate cultural stereotypes. Hardly lazy at all!

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    3. A visiting alien that played through the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series would be extremely surprised, upon landing, to find that Russia still existed at all.

      Yes, American games are genuinely full of lazy, inaccurate cultural stereotypes.

      Delete
    4. French games are genuinely bonkers in a way that no other nation's games are, though. It's a real thing. Even back in the 1980s, it was understood.

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    5. @Gerry Quinn Looking at the entries for French CRPGs reminds me of the French comics featured in Heavy Metal. Most of them are genuinely Gonzo train wrecks that are a ton of fun to read.

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  9. Replies
    1. Amstrad CPC, I believe (Chet didn't specify, but with these graphics, and being a French game, it's almost certain.) This looks like mode 1: 320x200x4 colors. Very similar to CGA, although with custom palettes (CGA was limited to 3 specific palettes, I think). Sadly, being able to customize palettes didn't necessarily mean developers had good taste. :)

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    2. You are correct. Someone else commented on thi recently. I should put an "info block" like I do in the "summary and rating" postings at hte top of the opening entries, specifying the platform I'm using.

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    3. That would be a really good idea Chet, please do! :)

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    4. Specific sound/video settings might also be useful to put in. Not only can it be a good reference for your comments on the game, it would also give commentators an easy way to point out game-specific issues with a given combination.

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    5. I'll put a header block in future games, but NO WAY am I putting in sound and video settings. I'll ask if I have a problem,, but I'm not letting every comment thread devolve into an argument over the optimal sound card. There's already too much of that.

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  10. I played this a while ago to write the MobyGames entry. I recall the stats in the right hand corner referred to stamina (decreasing every time you swung your weapon), hit-points and magic. I was never able to get "persuasion" to work either.

    Although I couldn't complete the game, I think I did get a little further. There is a secret door in the basement (just walk through it) allowing access to a sub-basement. This contains many small rooms which you can enter but not leave (requiring a reload).

    Hope this is useful.
    I

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    1. Congratulations on an accurate MG entry. You called the lack of character development despite the "level" statistic.

      One day earlier, you would have saved me a ton of frustration! No other place in the game has secret doors, so I assumed they didn't exist. But studying the dungeon map, I realized they must HAVE to because otherwise the dungeon had no purpose.

      Did you "win"? I won't spoil my final entry, but wow, did it get weird.

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    2. No, I didn't win (although I think not having to play the game any more counts as sort of a win). After finding the book in the sub-basement, I couldn't find any more keys and/or secret doors, so couldn't figure out what to do.

      I'm looking forward to your next entry to see what I missed.

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    3. It sounds like the only thing you missed were the instructions telling you how to end the game. You have to do it proactively.

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  11. Was this thing sold in stores? One thing that's been notable about early rpgs is that there was a lot of shovel-ware, with placeholder values just dangling all over the place.

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    1. I'm not 100% sure, but as I point out in my final entry, the publisher gave the packaging enough production qualities that I suspect that it was, in fact, sold in stores.

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    2. Yeah, it definitely was sold in stores & Chip was a somewhat known publisher in France. Not as prominent as Ubi Soft, Lorciels & Ere Informatique, but they had their fair share of reasonably well-known games.
      As for shovel-ware, maybe you are a bit harsh. These games tried to do their own things & experiment with conventions. Not to great effect, but not every game out there needs to be Ultima IV (for one, I'd get bored after a couple of the same). There is more than enough room for weird, atypical experiences. And if they fail, that's fine too.
      This is the problem these days, games are majorly derivative, sequels of sequels (or prequels), yearly installments, remake, remasters and so on. You have to realize that in the 80's most developpers were still experimenting with game ideas & designs. Some were great at it (Garriott, Van Caneghem...), but the vast majority was middling at best :) Anyway, I far prefer an experimental failure than a safe turd (cf Gates of Delirium).
      Point is, don't be too quick to judge developpers, mostly because most of us wouldn't even have the creativity or skills to even create something barely playable (I sure can't, much as I've tried).
      This reminds me (sorry for the tangent) of tennis discussions, where every player is expected to be the top player & anyone not winning Grand Slams is a failure, nevermind whatever else they accomplished. Even being ranked would be a huge achievement.

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