Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Secrets of Bharas: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

I don't mean to argue with the game, but I don't think I really did discover the secrets of Bharas.
The Secrets of Bharas
United States
Victory Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1991 for the Apple II GS
Date Started: 7 November 2020
Date Ended: 17 January 2021
Total Hours: 63 (but see discussion below)
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 29
Ranking at Time of Posting: 216/404 (53%)
Bharas is a long game from the creators of 2088: The Cryllan Mission (1989). The game uses an improved version of 2088's engine (itself inspired heavily by Ultima IV) to tell a somewhat standard fantasy story about an evil force threatening to engulf the peaceful world of Bharas. The game is notable for the detail of its world-building, as related in NPC conversations, but unfortunately those NPCs are not interactive. What would otherwise be relatively good RPG mechanics for character development, inventory, combat, spells, and economy are buried by the need to explore a dozen huge, boring dungeons, fighting thousands of long battles against unmemorable foes. Only the rarest player will push through to the end of this one.
I've grown cautious about making statements like this, but I have trouble believing that any other player has ever won Bharas, including the developers themselves. I only got through it by multi-tasking, and even then only barely. To play it through on the original hardware would be insane.
I have offered praise for aspects of the game, but its approach to dungeoneering makes it absolutely inexcusable. There are a dozen eight-level dungeons in the game, and you have to fully explore basically all of them. Each level is swarming with at least a dozen combats, and there's nothing else interesting about them. I got through it by playing mostly passively while I was doing other things. I would explore each level using a "rightmost path" system and let the computer fight each battle. As soon as the battle began, I switched my attention to another game, or work, or television, or whatever. When I came back, I healed my characters if they needed it and backtracked out of the dungeon if I was low on magic points (magic points regenerate on the surface but not in the dungeons). I did this until I got up to the eighth level and back down again to the exit, then moved on to the next dungeon. This went on for days. The entire week of 10-17 January, I basically had Bharas running full time--and I was running it on the emulator's equivalent of "turbo" mode.
Every time I actually found something on the eighth floor, it was a special thrill.
The purpose of all this dungeon-delving was to find a series of artifacts. Originally, it was the Amulet of the Third Eye, the Gem of Vision, and the Helmet of Goat Empathy, but once I had those, I went back to Yajiv the Big-Nosed and he said I'd need four more things to seal the crack in Jalamuki. I was pretty sure I already had two of them--Magic Water and Magic Ore. A third turned out to be the Cactus Flower I'd obtained from an NPC. I had to head back to the dungeons to find the last artifact, Magic Pebbles. Nothing was more depressing than getting to the eighth level of a dungeon and finding that it held something I already had, or just generic magic weapons or armor but no special items at all. 
I suppose one thing I can be grateful for is that the game doesn't try to trick the player by burying the key artifact in the middle of Level 5. You may have to take multiple up and down elevators to get to Level 8, but that's where the treasure always is. The Mines of Minere were particularly bad for this, with the sequence of levels going 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-7-5-8-6-8-7-8. To get into these Mines, incidentally, I needed the Crystal Key from an NPC. You'll recall that NPC was supposed to be June, and as I ended the last entry, I was confused because June had nothing to offer in response to that keyword. I ended up feeding the keyword to everyone else in the same town, and I got the key from another NPC named Kumar. Nothing in his dialogue or June's accounts for why he had it, and I assume it was just a bug in the program.
Most of the special items we needed to win the game.
Some of the artifacts that the game insists you find are interesting but not very useful. The Gem of Vision and the Amulet of the Third Eye do basically the same things: they show a region of land around the radius of the party. The Amulet shows a larger radius, but it's limited by the "star" shape that the map assumes. Neither is at a small enough scale to significantly aid navigation.
This would have been a lot more useful if it were, say, a square.
The Helmet of Goat Empathy does what it suggests: it lets you talk to goats. There are two unique goats in the Goat Herders' Village in Nadhi, Old Wally and The Old One, but together they simply confirm that there's an evil coming out of Jalamuki, which any thorough player already knew. The Crystals of Bolton are a theoretically-valuable tool that gives you a full rundown on the statistics of your opponents, but unless you're lucky enough to search that dungeon first, by the time you find them, you've got enough experience with all the foes that you don't need them. They don't work in the final battle, when they would have done the most good.
If there's anything more terrifying than a giant tarantula, it's a giant tarantula waving a short sword.
Exploring the dungeons took about two-thirds of the length of the game. By the time I was done, I had forgotten that in the early hours, I had found combat interesting, character development rewarding, the economy well-balanced, and the inventory and spell systems at least adequate. My characters reached Level 75 but stopped getting new level titles at 50. My characters had maxed in attributes, hit points, and spell points. I had mostly +2 equipment (the highest in the game), plenty of food and reagents, and hundreds of thousands of gold pieces.
The final battle was okay. At least it didn't prolong things. When I returned to Yajiv after finding the last artifact, he said that the "final password" was UUHP. I wasn't sure where to use that, but I figured it must be in Jalamuki.
We sailed to the continent, which I hadn't really explored earlier, and found a city on an island in the center. It was called the City of Doom.
So, the Evil One isn't so much coming out of a "crack" as a man-made city.
Unlike other cities, there was no one to talk with; all the inhabitants were hostile. A central building had a down stairway, which asked us for the password. I expected it to lead down into a dungeon where I'd find the crack. Instead, I guess it was the crack, because when I tried to go down, the game said that I used the various artifacts, which somehow caused a demon to come bounding out of the earth.
I'm not sure what this ritual is accomplishing other than making a mess.
The Evil One engaged me in combat alone, and he was relatively difficult even for my high-level party. Every round, he used a ray to strike one character with "Confusion," disrupting whatever I'd assigned to that character. He then cast "Tremor," doing between 1,000 and 2,000 hit points' damage to all my characters (whose maximum was 12,000). I had to keep up with healing spells every round while I tried to whittle him down with ranged attacks and offensive spells. At the end of each round, he taunted me with a line of dialogue. Together, they made up this speech:

I am your one and only god. Bow to me, mortal. You are my children and I am your king. I gave you life, now I give you death. Impudent fools. Die slowly. I have been watching your progress, weaklings. I control your lives. Did you think you are immortal? Vanquish me and you serve no purpose. Can you exist without me? I am life itself. Kill me and die.
He also changes icon every round. Here, he's mimicking one of my own character icons while shooting a character with a "Confuse" ray.
Eventually, he ran out of magic power and the battle became much easier. When he died, I got a brief message in the window: "CONGRATULATIONS! You have just discovered the Secrets of Bharas." I'm not sure exactly what that meant. For a game that spent so much time on world-building and lore, I had hoped that the ending would tie into that lore, whether clarifying or contradicting elements of the backstory. Was I supposed to get something from the Evil One's speech? We didn't die when we killed him, so clearly he was lying about that.

The game lets you continue playing after the victory, but no one seems to have any new dialogue. Overall, it was an intriguing but ultimately frustrating, unbalanced game. The balance might have been better with fewer or smaller dungeons, or easier ones, so the player could weave dungeon exploration with overland exploration, instead of doing all of one and then all of the other.
Here's the GIMLET:
  • 4 points for the game world. Bharas doesn't tell an original story, but it at least uses original themes. The lore is solid; the mechanics and graphics are just too limited to really exploit it.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Both are about as good as any mid-1980s Ultima-style RPG, with a basic selection of classes, races, and attributes, and experience-based leveling.
  • 4 points for NPC interaction. NPCs in this game are plentiful and interesting, but they're also static and non-interactive. The different buttons in the dialogue interface don't really do anything but advance the dump of text that each one has.
If nothing else, this is probably the only RPG that lets you talk to goats.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The enemies in the game do act differently depending on type, but most are still unmemorable. The more unfortunate thing is that there are no non-combat encounters or puzzles in the game.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. The tactical combat system is solid, and thank god for the extensive autocombat options or I never would have made it to the end of the game. There's still something unsatisfying about it that's hard to put my finger on. The magic system is extremely limited, for one thing, and the combat interface involves too much clicking. Unnecessary animations slow things down, even with the emulator cranked. There's also far, far too much of it.
Mixing a "Kill" spell for the final battle.
  • 3 points for equipment. Again, a fairly standard set of armor and weapons for a 1980s game. There are no special weapons and armor, and upgrades don't really feel significantly more powerful than base gear. I like the existence of the special artifacts, but as discussed above, they don't really help.
  • 3 points for the economy. Slay enemies, sell excess gear, earn money, use it to buy better stuff. This standard approach works well enough for the first third of the game, after which point you never worry about money again and don't really have anything to buy anyway.
  • 3 points for a main quest and a couple things that could be considered almost side quests.
  • 2 point for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are functional but not very evocative of the setting. (For instance, there is no graphical distinction between the cities and people of different races.)  Sound effects are rare. The interface does not offer enough keyboard redundancy, and there are too many awkward interface elements like the day/night cycle and the means of getting in and out of ships.
  • 1 point for gameplay. I give it some points for nonlinearity, but it's in this category that I'm punishing the game for its length and balance.
That gives us a final score of 29. That seems right. The range from around 25-35 is full of games with promising elements that don't quite come together.
I exchanged e-mails with Vivek Pai a few weeks ago. He said that Bharas came after the brothers first tried to write a sci-fi shooter. They also played around with some ideas that would have involved American national parks or American colonial times, both of which would have been unique. Ultimately, a family trip to India and readings of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses inspired them to design a game with Indian themes, "but usually with some amount of intentional corruption . . . We wanted to borrow mythology without being tied to it."
The cover uses a photograph of the ruined Fort Bassein in Mumbai.
There is some indication in the winning dialogue that the brothers planned to move on to a sequel to 2088 called 2119. Instead, as we learned in my entries for 2088, the three brothers ended up getting jobs at some of the largest technology companies in the United States and regard their time as game developers as a "good failure" that taught them a lot.
I still have to check out 2088: The Second Scenario (1990), which lies between the two games I've already covered. I'm still not sure whether to treat it as a remake or a sequel, but it will at least be worth a BRIEF. Until then, I thank Victory Software for at least providing something unusual.


  1. Maybe the real secrets of Bharas were the friends you made along the way.

    Congratulations knocking another one off the list!

  2. “Vanquish me and you serve no purpose. Can you exist without me? I am life itself. Kill me and die.”

    If you think about it, if you never play the game again, all this is true.

    1. Deep.

      The impression I got reading through the block was of a narcissist who started the fight overconfident and when he realized he was losing made up crazy excuses.

    2. I'm going to try that next time someone tries to rob me in New Orleans. "If you shoot me, you'll never know the truth about your father!"

    3. I would recommend against that strategy for a number of reasons.

      Question: when you communicate with the developers of games like this, do you feel any hesitation if you know you aren't going to rate the game highly?

      Is there any difference in how you reach out, or how you behave if you know you'll be playing another game by that developer in the future?

      Have you gotten feedback on any game you've covered in which the developer was angry with how you discussed the game?

    4. If the game absolutely sucks and I can't find anything redeeming about it, I don't usually try to contact the creator. If I can at least find some innovative elements to highlight (as I did here), I feel better about contacting him. I also typically don't initiate contact unless I have a few questions to ask that haven't been answered elsewhere. In my first contact, if I've been critical of the game (or I know I will be), I usually say so. I don't think anticipation of future games has ever influenced my approach.

      No developer has ever written to me angry at my coverage, but a couple have stopped communicating with me after my coverage was published. I don't know if the one caused the other. Sometimes, these creators are older, retired, not on e-mail every day, and so forth. I've had to explain to one or two what a "blog" is.

    5. Some of those may just have felt they answered your questions, and now that you have finished your post mothing more is needed.

    6. Still reading the blog with great pleasure. 😊

  3. I don't know if they have goats, but the Divinity Original Sin games have the ability to talk to animals. If there's at least one goat in them, Bharas would not be the only RPG where you can talk to goats!

    1. Same goes for Amberstar/Ambermoon. But I don't remember goats in the former and I haven't played the latter.

  4. Wasteland 2 has some caprine conversation

  5. Congratulations for mastering another difficult one!

    Your 25-35 point bracket... didn't really move in the roughly ten years that form the bulk of this blog (the release dates of the games, roughly 1982-1992). I wonder if/when we get to the point that these games can just be regarded as complete failures. And I wonder when the "recommended" threshold is going to move up. Looking at the playlist, we might have to wait until 1996/1997!

    1. I'm as surprised as you are on the failure of the mean to budge much. I assume we'll eventually get to the point where bad or even mediocre RPGs can't compete in an expanding market.

      I do agree that the "recommended" threshold probably has to adjust. Starting with a base of around 30 in 1980 would do it, incrementing one point per year. By 1995, if a game isn't hitting 45, there's something fundamentally wrong.

    2. Oh boy, we're going to see some real lows once we reach the age of crappy Diablo clones. Trust me Chet, you haven't seen the depths of true shovelware yet.

      The late 90s and early 00s saw games so terrible, nothing from the 80s and early 90s can hold a candle to them in terms of badness. It's gonna be fun.

  6. As I was reading the GIMLET, I suddenly had the thought that the game I'm most anticipating Chet playing that wouldn't be considered Mainstream (at least at the time that the game was released) has to be Spiderweb's Exile: Escape From the Pit. I had Shareware copies of the Exile games back in the day and, although I never had bought the full versions, had a blast playing them.

    1. I loved all the Exile games. They're available for free on Spiderweb's website, but apparently they're pretty tricky to get running.

    2. There are quite a few Vogel fans on this blog. I havent played Exile, but I played both reboots.

    3. Yes, Blades of Exile was a very important game to me growing up.

    4. They're not that tricky to get running. I still got a small Win XP laptop which runs them just fine. My main PC runs Windows 7 64 bits and doesn't run them at all because they're 16 bit applications, so you need to run them on a 32 bit Windows.

      That means using an emulator, simple as. Virtual machines for earlier Windows versions aren't that much harder to set up than the emulators Chet is already using.

    5. A copy of Blades of Exile on a demo disc is where I got my start on the series. I played the shareware version of the first remakes, but did buy the full games of the second remakes on Steam over the last few years. Played through all of the first game and about half of the second game of that one.

      I kind of wish Spiderweb would rather modernize the actual Exile games, though, so they would run on current hardware without the need for old or virtual machines. There were things they did that the remakes don't do which I found I missed terribly upon playing the remakes...

    6. Exile 3 was the first CRPG I ever played. It was only the shareware version but it blew my little ten year old mind that if I just walked in a random direction I'd find new things I had never seen before. It felt almost endless to a kid who had never played an rpg before. Its great. I assume that most if this is nostalgia personally though. But I hope I'm wrong.

    7. Yeah, can't wait to see Chet get to Jeff Vogel's works. Also, I haven't realized that both Exile and Exile 2 came out on the same year. Wow, that was such a great year for Spiderweb. Though it's going to be a while before we get to 1995...

    8. Spiderweb Software has been doing exactly that: the Avernum series is the modernization of the Exile games, and at least the first three have been completely redone in the past decade. (I'm a bit fuzzier on the status of the ones beyond that...)

    9. They remade Exile into Avernum, and continued the series into three more Avernum games after that. Since then, they have remastered those original three remakes and released them on Steam (and maybe elsewhere, but I haven't checked GOG and I'll never touch epic).

      Personally, I prefer Exile to Avernum, though mostly because I dislike the changes made to stats and mechanics. I thought they did a disservice by reducing things as much as they did when making the jump to Avernum.

  7. I must ask: as an rpg player, don't you miss a lot of the modern games of the genre because you spend so much time with older ones? You can't have the time to play both, or do you?

    1. I miss 100% of the modern games of the genre if you mean PC games. Since I began this blog, I haven't played a single RPG on my PC that wasn't part of this blog.

      However, I do play a fair number on my console, which I regard as a very different experience and thus keep mentally separate. I've played most of the major epic western releases. I sometimes talk about them here tangentially, often don't.

    2. Well, thanks for the insight :)


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