Monday, August 27, 2018

Citadel of Vras: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

That verse / is all over the place with its meter and rhyming scheme / but what's even worse / is that I spent 15 hours on the game and only got this winning screen.
Citadel of Vras
Independently developed; distributed by Megadisc
Released in 1989 for Amiga
Date Started: 5 August 2018
Date Ended: 22 August 2018
Total Hours: 15
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 24
Ranking at time of posting: 117/305 (38%)
Citadel of Vras started with a quest from the Galactic Federation of Planets to find the Talisman of Truth before the pirate Sarkov could get to it. By the time I reached the end of the game, I had essentially forgotten the framing story (referenced only obliquely throughout). This is par for the course with the Bard's Tale line, which has always been more about combat mechanics and inventory than story.
The game consisted of 3 levels of the Nigris moon, 1 level on Vras's surface, 2 levels in the ruins of Vras, and 3 in the titular Citadel of Vras, all with relatively convenient teleporters (with codes you have to discover) back to the Nigris base for shopping and leveling. Each level requires some amount of puzzle solving before proceeding to the next level.
Getting from the Citadel back to Nigris involved inserting a floppy disk into a computer and getting the code.
The three citadel levels each introduced a new demonic foe. Level 1 has the Demon of Greed, Level 2 the Demon of Fear, and Level 3 the Demon of Power. All are immune to psychic attacks and must be encountered multiple times. When you fight them, they inevitably kill one character, but combat with them only lasts one round before they take off. After a few such combats (and associated resurrections), you finally defeat them. If you haven't defeated them by the time you reach the last square in the level, they remain there and block you until you do.
The Demon of Greed attacks me in a random encounter.

Finally defeating the Demon of Power.
The other obstacles are mostly doors that require a special key or codeword. Usually, the codewords refer to lore within the game or its framing story, but occasionally (as we saw with the Thorium riddle), you have to bring in outside knowledge of mythology or science. "Red, Green, and ______," one door on Level 2 demanded, testing your knowledge of additive color models. At another one, you have to know that Jedi use the FORCE (though not in this game).

Monsters encountered on the last levels included Dark Jedi, Shambleaus (which drain levels unless you have silver amulets in the party), Galactic Grues, Martian Erms, Trimantars, and Light Worms (which blind you). Combats got progressively more ridiculous. Basically, after the second Vras level, any combat is capable of wiping out the entire party if the enemies get the initiative. You don't get any chance to react or prevent it. "Greet" or "Retreat" are horrible options because when they don't work, the enemy gets a free round and kills everyone. Every battle becomes a quick-draw in which either the party acts first and is able to kill or incapacitate the enemies while taking no damage, or the enemy acts first and the party is destroyed and must reload. I must have reloaded 100 times on the final three levels alone. 
Fighting a Sith lord toddler.
The game also became fond of life-draining traps such as pits, walls of fire, and corridors that sap hit points for no reason. Fortunately, I had spells like "Heal All" when things got too low. I also found healing crystals and energy crystals that, when in your possession, greatly increase spell and hit point restoration rates.
I lost far more hit points to these than to enemies.
On Level 2 of the Citadel, I encountered the pirate Sarkov, who died quite fast and had on his body a sonic key, needed to progress to Level 3.
Poor little guy. He doesn't even have any minions.
Level 3 was mostly just a standard maze of rooms and corridors. The compass went haywire and stopped working. Some of the doors required a blue diamond to open, and I only ever found two of them. I kept getting stuck and having to reload earlier saves to explore new rooms.
My map of the final level.
Ultimately, after about 25 resurrections, I defeated the Demon of Power. I made it to a final loop of corridors in which a pit, wall of fire, or hit point-draining square dogged me just about every step. A final door asked me what I sought, and I had to re-consult the documentation to recall that I wanted TRUTH. That brought me to the single endgame screen at the top of this entry. After that, I was returned to the Nigris spaceport. The party could re-enter the maps, level up, and keep playing if I wanted.
The final puzzle.
An interesting but mostly flawed effort. On a GIMLET, it gets:
  • 2 points for the game world. The framing story is highly derivative of popular science fiction, as are the themes found during gameplay, which freely mixes lightsabers, sonic screwdrivers, and Vulcans. There's no consistency to the theme and few in-game references to the plot.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. You get 5 slots for 6 classes. Creation is otherwise pretty RPG standard. Leveling up during the game feels rewarding because of the extra hit points, spell points, and attacks.
My final stats for my Lamian Elfin character.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. Enemies are mostly goofy, but some have special attacks and defenses. Scripted encounters are sometimes interesting, at least graphically. The puzzles weren't challenging enough to be truly satisfying, but they punctuate otherwise-monotonous levels.
Special encounters like this didn't offer any options, but at least they broke up the game.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. A boring Bard's Tale derivative in which tactics don't matter and (random) initiative is everything. The game entirely wastes its system of mental abilities, since most direct-damage abilities under-perform physical attacks. You basically need healing, resurrection, a couple of incapacitation spells, and a couple of navigation spells.
I only ever used a few of these powers.
  • 3 points for equipment. You get one weapon, one piece of armor, and a variety of utility items. Weapon class and armor class statistics help determine effectiveness. Weapons have interesting names--towards the end of the game, I was wielding death rays and wearing shimmer fields--but are otherwise distinguished only by damage.
  • 1 point for the economy. You need credits mostly for leveling up, and I always had plenty.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no choices.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. All were adequate.
  • 2 points for gameplay, mostly for its moderate length. It was otherwise very linear, not replayable, and not very challenging. Despite what I said about the insane difficulty of combat in the final levels, you can also save every step and reload when things go astray.
That gives us a final score of 24, which is admittedly the highest score out of Australia so far. The other two were The Stone of Telnyr (1990) and Dungeon of Nadroj (1991). I'm compelled to note that two out of three Australian games so far have featured the developer's name reversed in the title.
We only see a dozen more Australian RPGs through 2009 (and I'm not convinced that some of them, like 2008's Neopets Puzzle Adventure, are true RPGs), so I'm glad I had a chance to fully document a somewhat rare origin. I hope that the country eventually has a chance to develop its own traditions within the RPG titles instead of copying American RPG mechanics and popular culture.
The author offers whatever the opposite of "fan service" is.
As commenter 6530 helpfully pointed out, the game was reviewed in the January 1990 Australian Commodore and Amiga Review. It had been sent to Megadisc with a note that said, "Put it in your public domain collection or throw it away." Megadisc decided to publish it. The reviewer, Paul Campbell, uses the term "no frills" at least six times in his discussion of Vras, but he seemed to like it overall, failing to note any of the issues that I've discussed.

What's more interesting is that the article names the author as "Gyan Sarvagata," whereas the documentation that came with my download uses the name "Sarva Engelhardt," sometimes abbreviated "Sarv." The latter name is also given as the author of 1995's Sword of the Elder Isles, a strategy game that seems to have been inspired by Warlords. Deepening the mystery even further, an e-mail address in the "Read Me" file for Sword suggests that the author's name is in fact Lutz Engelhardt. It's possible that "Sarva Engelhardt" was a pseudonym for two people working together, but on the other hand, someone named "Sarv Engelhardt" wrote a letter to the same magazine in April 1991 looking for help finding the ninth tear in Drakkhen (I had the same problem!). Googling "Gyan Sarvagata" and "Sarva Engelhardt" produce no substantial results not related to this game, but there's a Lutz Engelhard living in Western Australia in the 1990s who would have been 47 when Vras came out. Meanwhile, "Gyan Sarvagata" seems to be a Hindu term meaning "knowledge pervading all things" rather than an actual name. My best theory is that Lutz Engelhardt used both of the other names as pen names and just switched in the middle of all this. Barring a visit from the man himself, I guess we'll never know.

Let's head back to our headliner now while I simultaneously try to figure out Die Dunkle Dimension.


  1. Unfortunately the games industry has never really taken off here in Australia. Part of the problem is that the best talent usually ends up heading to the US to chase better opportunities. There have been a few studios pop up (2K Australia was notable) but they seem to all go bust after a few games. The only RPG of note developed here is one you won't be playing, Shadowrun for the SNES. All the rest look like mostly independent releases.

    1. Well, the Shadowrun on SNES was a bit of inspiration for the Shadowrun Returns on PC, so I have a fleeting hope, that Chet may play it, as an exception, then the things with the multiple playlists get cleared, and then the blog will get to less numerous RPGs of the mid 90s.

    2. I never knew Shandoerun snes was from Australia, it's a bit different but I really liked that game. I was a genesis fanbou so I still like it better but Jake Armitage is one of my favorite Shadowrun characters. Actually I played a few games by that developer on my nes looking at it, maybe Australia could be the great untapped resource for new ideas to add into the rpg market. Never know.

    3. Yeah Australia hasn't exactly been prolific.

      LA Noire and Fruit Ninja might be the most successful games wholly developed here.

      As mentioned above, we had a division of 2K in Canberra and the first BioShock was a joint American/Australian exercise.

      Fallout: Tactics and Freedom Force are probably the closest Australia has come to making a big-ticket RPG, though both are squad-tactics games.

      Funnily enough, the above games are all set in the US (or US-themed dystopia).

    4. There could have been "Stones of Arnhem". Google it.
      Unfortunately the juiciest thread about it is buried in the "Retardoland" dumping ground at RPG Codex, which only registered users can read.

    5. The most fantabulous RPG of all TYME (according to it's author), Grimoire, Heralds of the Winged Exemplar was developed in Australia. Surely this wasn't mentioned here because it transcends all RPG categories or labels.

    6. I remember downloading a demo for Grimoire years ago, that is an interesting story the development of that game, and it relates to Chet's other game he's playing, Wizardry 7, too.

    7. Cleveland Blakemore doesn't exist. It's just 3 codexers in a trenchcoat wearing a fedora.

    8. The Freedom Force games are excellent! (I'd call them more "mission-based" than "tactics" - it certainly feels like a different category than Disgaea, at least.)

      I do own Grimoire but ... wow, that's a hard one to bite into. There's also a V2 coming so I figured I just will wait for that. (Knowing the dev, the wait might be a few years, but I've got enough of a backlog it's ok.)

  2. Shadowrun on SNES is quiet a good game. Very rewarding leveling-up, super atmosphere, alas the combat is flawed IMO. The Genesis version was more true to the p&p template, but very repetetive. I would recommend to take a look at it.

  3. I've read Shambleau on your suggestion, nice story and nice to see the character in the game!

  4. That always infuriated me about RPGs. They spend all this time setting up the story, and after level 1 it's never referenced again. Why even spend the effort? Hey, I'm all about games that are combat and inventory. I like 'em. The "interactive movie" style makes me want to break things.

    If I can remember the quest for the talisman or whatever, then why can't the developer? Of course, I know the answer: he's unprofessional, and what started as a fun project became work. He started to resent having started this, but it's too far along so he has to finish it, and starts cramming in levels. Then there was the big rush to finish the game and none of it was any fun. Then the bug-testing, which of course programmers hate. Playtesting? No time for that, ship it. Whew!

    1. I guess I agree with your frustration, but such framing stories--lightly referenced or not referenced at all during the game--are very common in the era, and I've mostly gotten used to that fact.

  5. I might be wrong, but CRPGs nowadays don´t appear to have these "cross-genre references" anymore (I mean literature, movies and so on...). For instance, I didn´t know about Shambleau and now I am eager to read it, especially after this link

    1. I just think they're more oblique. An RPG will have a character clearly influenced by Spock but won't explicitly call him a "Vulcan."

  6. Isn't 5 lives studio an Australian company, and doesn't Satellite Reign qualify as a CRPG? Ok, there isn't much role playing, but at least some of the mechanics with leveling up and skill trees are present.

  7. Be glad that it's done / and happy that you've won!


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