Thursday, June 17, 2021

Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen: Summary and Rating

 
With a title like this, you'd expect the game to be full of Star Wars references.
      
Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen
United States
New World Computing (developer and publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS and PC-98, 1994 for FM Towns
Repackaged with Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen and released as World of Xeen in 1994
Date Started: 20 April 2021
Date Ended: 1 June 2021
Total Hours: 44
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: 42
Ranking at Time of Posting: 356/417 (85%)
    
Summary:
   
The flip side of Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen, using the same tile-based, first-person, six-character engine that goes back to Might and Magic III. Darkside has the party foil the plans of Sheltem, the rogue AI from the first game in the series, again using the alias Alamar, again bent on returning to Terra. The main quest is not as notable as the hundred thousand side quests, puzzles, and encounters. Although packed with content and never boring, Darkside suffers from over-generosity in experience and a lack of significant character development, particularly for an experienced Clouds party with all the spells and skills. Its penchant for frivolity and its overall ease make it to me the least in the series so far.
    
*****
      
This is probably going to be one of those reviews where the game rates high but my prose makes it sound like I hated it. I feel that way every time I write about Ultima, too. So let me say at the outset, even if the rest of this entry seems to belie it, that the Might and Magic series is one of my favorite RPG series of all time. I have loved them since I played the first two as a child. Even then, I sensed that they offered something that no one else was offering. If I seem negative, it's only because of the game's performance against my own hopes for it.
    
The Might and Magic games have always been generous. Jon Van Caneghem clearly had a history with tabletop RPGs and early CRPGs, but he envisioned worlds of bounty where those titles were sparse and unyielding. In Wizardry, Might and Magic's most obvious forebear, a 16 x 16 map might only hold a couple of fixed combats and two textual encounters. Van Caneghem's strategy was to give you something in every row and column. I have maps from the first game in which I had to go into the double letters to annotate everything. A Dungeons and Dragons module might take you from Level 2 to 5 over the course of 30 hours of campaigning. Van Caneghem had no problem offering games in which you hit Level 100 or more. Where Dungeons and Dragons and Wizardry regarded attributes as closely policed within a 3-18 range, you might start at 15 strength in Might and Magic and end at 500.
        
All I did was open a barrel.
    
This generosity is key to the first two games, immediately distinguishing and elevating the series from Wizardry and The Bard's Tale (which I find hopelessly boring in contrast). Looking through my notes in on Secret of the Inner Sanctum and Gates to a New World, I see all kinds of messages and interleaves, prisoners you can torment or free, some kind of puzzle involving black and white checkerboard floor patterns, word games and riddles, a giant sudoku puzzle, a city where males take damage at every intersection but you can change sexes in the basement, an arbor in which you get rewarded for climbing every tree, and dozens of other encounters and side-quests--this in an era that otherwise showed no awareness of the concept of "side quests." Perhaps more important, each area offered a bit of lore, hinting at a large, complex story beneath the surface, one that occasionally (usually at the end) introduced elements of science fiction. Trying to figure out that story, filling in the gaps left by the materials, was a fun part of playing each game.
   
At the same time, the series has always offered a stupid side. You've heard me complain about it in every summary of every previous Might and Magic game. Wizardry acquired the same stupid side when David W. Bradley took over, and you've heard me complain about that. I've run out of original ways to complain about it. So I'll just say that Darkside of Xeen is a worthy successor to the previous games in the series in both the generosity of content and the stupidity of a lot of that content. If that doesn't bother you, you'll like the game a little more than I did. 
       
Is that pronounced the British way or the American way?
       
Beyond its thematic consistency, however, I thought Darkside was a lesser Might and Magic for a couple of other reasons. The first was also well-discussed during my last few entries: the game completely goes off the rails with the character leveling. It rewards the party with millions of experience points that no player would ever be able to redeem unless he engaged in some kind of optimizing financial strategy going back to Clouds of Xeen. At the same time, nearly everything you touch seems to bestow an extra 1, 3, or 5 levels. And it's not like these levels are ramping towards some major boss enemy or encounter. You could survive this game's toughest enemies at half the levels I achieved, which is only about two-thirds of the levels possible to achieve.
   
This gets into a second problem, which is that the game is simply too easy. Not only is the party over-leveled, but the proliferation of attribute-boosting fountains and altars exponentially increases the party's effectiveness in individual combats. As for accumulation of combats, they're hardly an issue when you can drop a "Lloyd's Beacon," ride a "Town Portal" to the nearest temple, and be back before anyone notices you're gone. Even if these easy teleportation puzzles didn't exist, the fact that you can sleep and fully restore health and magic--an issue that the series never solves--removes a lot of the challenge by itself. I'm anticipating lots of comments that say things like, "Well, if you find it too easy, just don't use those fountains/spells/whatever." Sure, but I don't think expecting the player to nerf himself is good game design.
       
It's amazing how fast enemies go from "challenges to be overcome" to "annoyances to be swatted."
       
I'm particularly disappointed in the lesser importance of spells. In the earlier games--and, indeed, in the later ones--magic is crucial to your strategy. Here, it so blatantly under-performs physical attacks that there's almost no reason to cast offensive spells except during a very narrow window of time in which a) your characters can't reliably hit some enemies, and b) those same enemies can be defeated with spells before they wipe the floor with you. The problem is largely the multipliers that the game gives with level and strength on physical attacks. By mid-game, you're whomping most enemies away with one hit. Someone needed to rework that math.
    
The number of people reading this who will one day play the game but have not already must be small. But to those few, I implore you: when you do play, try something like an all-druid party or an all-barbarian party. Among the three major character focuses--melee combat, clerics' magic, and sorcerers' magic--create a party that entirely lacks one of them. Without any melee strength, you'll be forced to rely on spells, and combat will be more interesting. Without one of the magic types, you won't have as many buffing or transportation options (you'll be able to rely on limited charges from magic items in a pinch). I guarantee it will create a more exciting game.
      
A paladin and ranger set out to solve Xeen's problems alone.
      
In rating Darkside, I'm also including the World of Xeen content. I can't see any good way to separate them. I think the GIMLET will even out. It was partly because of the World of Xeen content that I felt leveling was too generous and the game was too easy, but it was also because of that content that I ended up feeling better about the game world and story. 
    
1. Game World. I don't know. A couple of weeks ago, I would have said that there is no new content here; that the game is just a rehash of the plot introduced in the first three games, a plot for which I have lost patience since the game seems more interested in making Star Trek references than exploring its own lore. But the ending of the World content, despite the questions it raises, was pretty cool. I felt less interested in either side of Xeen as a game world, though--there is no attempt at consistency whatsoever, and there are numerous unnecessary races added to the six character races, a few of which never make an appearance anywhere else in the game. The two Xeen titles suffered from a lack of the "Corak's Notes" feature of III. Score: 4.
        
At the end of the game, Prince Roland sticks his "staff" in the queen's "cube." Wait . . . that doesn't work.
      
2. Character Creation and Development. I generally like the number of ways that the characters develop, but as we discussed, Darkside is so generous that it stops mattering very early in the game, particularly if you brought a party from Clouds with all the spells and skills and a decent set of equipment. And it's always disappointing when a game fails to integrate character choices into the encounters and quests. These last few games should have included the alignments of the first two and offered more role-playing options based on those alignments. Score: 3.

3. NPC Interaction. I'm going to do here what I did in my rating for Clouds of Xeen and give it a couple of points for having something of the concept of NPCs, but most of what you'd call "NPCs" in this game are really "encounters" that happen to feature a portrait of someone. True NPCs exist in the environment independently of the party. Previous games were rated for hirelings in this category, and their loss is also unfortunate. Score: 2.
   
4. Encounters and Foes. The game's bestiary continues to be relatively original. I suppose the problem here is that combats are so short that you often don't find out about an enemy's strengths or weaknesses. The game also continues to benefit from a high quantity of non-combat contextual encounters and role-playing encounters, including--making their debut in the series--dialogue options. Add to this the dungeons' navigational puzzles, and we have probably the strongest category in the game. I just wish so many of the puzzles weren't so easy. Score: 6.
      
An important if clumsy step in the evolution of the genre.
      
5. Magic and Combat. I offered my thoughts above. There are a lot of options but not much reason to use anything but a mallet. Score: 3.

6. Equipment. A surprisingly disappointing category. I like how many slots the game offered, the item identification system, the use of magic items as backups for spells, and how easy it is to swap around and evaluate things. I didn't like that nothing seemed to matter. Your level multipliers matter so much more in combat than your equipment that I sometimes spent hours in which a character's equipment was broken and never noticed.
    
The game also does a bizarre thing by assigning either a material or an effect to equipment but not both. So you might have an Obsidian Long Sword or a Long Sword of Undead Slaying but not both. With weapons and armor, the material is so much more powerful than the effects that you wonder why they bothered with the effects at all. But with wearable items, an Obsidian Necklace does absolutely nothing despite being worth like 200,000 gold pieces, while a Necklace of Strength might only sell for 2,000. Madness. Score: 4.
       
This all must weigh a ton.
      
7. Economy. Over the game, I think I probably spent about 30 million gold pieces, which is probably some kind of record. This hyper-inflation made most of the economy--shops, temples, spells--utterly insignificant, with the sole exception of training--for which you never have enough. It's broken however you look at it. Score: 3.
   
8. Quests. With the World of Xeen content, we had a couple of main quests. Neither had alternate endings or role-playing options, but they were modestly interesting. More important, as always for this series, are the copious side quests. When will these finally become standard? Score: 5
   
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The graphics are perfectly nice; the sound is a bit overdone but otherwise fine; the interface has a number of excellent elements that I covered in the first entry. This is about as high as a game can score until graphics and sound get good enough that they're truly immersive. Score: 6.
       
I didn't notice this until late in the game: If you have sound turned off, you get subtitles.
        
10. Gameplay. Like its predecessors, Darkside gets a lot of credit for nonlinearity--to the point that I finished most of the World of Xeen content before finishing Darkside. Some of you didn't agree with my random exploration pattern, but you must agree that only in this series of games would such a pattern be possible. Everything else suffers a bit: it was a bit too easy; it's only slightly replayable (with different party compositions); and it lasted too long.
 
But to bring it full circle, I can't say that it was ever boring. I might have groaned or even shouted obscenities at much of the content, but at least I was having a reaction. I wasn't mapping miles of featureless corridor. Every few steps, there was a new hut on the horizon, a new alcove in a dungeon, a new book to read or box to open. The game may have been long, but it was easy to binge. Score: 6.
     
That gives us a final score of 42, one point lower than I gave to Clouds of Xeen and lowest for the series so far. I really do think the first and second games--particularly the first--were better games. I don't mean they were better "for their years"; I mean they were just better. Sure, the graphics were primitive, but a lot of the mechanics--including combat, equipment, and the economy--were significantly better. There were just as many encounters and side-quests, but fewer of them were so blatantly goofy. But 42 is still well into my "recommended" range, and Darkside is certainly superior to a lot of other games released in its year.  
     
The advertisement promised an interesting, gritty story. I wish the game had followed through.
       
Once again, my review aligns reasonably well with Scorpia's September 1993 coverage in Computer Gaming World. She covered the economic problem, though didn't seem quite as bothered about it. She was more upset about the ease of the puzzles--she called out the same one that I did, involving the Vowelless Knights. She also thought the crossword puzzle was "pointless and boring" and that the Dungeon of Death in general was ridiculous. (She agreed with the game that she was a "super goober" for having wasted her time with it.) She thought the cinematic ending was worth not having any kind of final battle, and I have to grant her that, since it was very well done for its year. She also thought the endgame to the Worlds content (which she completely spoils) was worth reaching, even if it involved so much pointless walking on the final level. "A satisfactory conclusion to the current Might and Magic saga," she concluded. Later, the magazine nominated it for "Game of the Year," but it lost to Betrayal at Krondor.
    
Dragon made some changes to its computer game reviewing in 1993. The "Role of Computers" section was re-titled "Eye of the Monitor," and a newer reviewer--Sandy Petersen--seems to have taken over. The over-inflated rating system seems to have gone with the previous title and reviewers, which I suppose is good, as I was running out of ways to make fun of that. Petersen makes it clear that three stars is "Good" and five is "Superb," and there's a new "X" rating for "Not recommended" that's even worse than one star ("Poor"). The combined World of Xeen gets only three stars. Mr. Petersen is himself a game designer, having written Call of Cthulhu and the third edition of RuneQuest for Chaosium. He also contributed to several computer RPGs, including Darklands (1992). It is thus too bad to see him bumble right out of the gate by calling the Might and Magic series "Eye of the Beholder-style games." His subsequent review makes it clear that he didn't get very far: he thinks the game is too generous with money and marvels at the 50,000 experience points he got for solving one puzzle. Most of the rest of the review is occupied with speed and loading issues. In summary, even though I agreed on the star rating, the review kind of annoyed me.
    
I'm mostly glad that for the next entry, we'll be moving on from this engine. I think the series has accomplished everything it can with tiled worlds. The graphics are getting sophisticated enough that we need a realism of content to match the realism of visuals. Magic and combat simply never worked well in this engine; it was so much better in the earlier games when you could face dozens or hundreds of enemies at once and choosing the right spells was a major tactical question. I'm also glad we'll be leaving the story of Sheltem being chased by the spectacularly inept Corak.
        
World of Xeen advertises some of New World's other titles in its final area.
        
As for that next entry, despite the in-game promise of a new title in 1994, it wasn't until 1998 that we saw Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven, a game that I was absolutely addicted to before I started this blog. I must have played it at least once a year between its release year and 2010, and not since. I may never reach it again. Before then, we'll have Swords of Xeen (1995), an ascended mod that I've never played. We'll also have the first three Heroes of Might and Magic games and Anvil of Dawn (1995), which looks to me like a prototype of the Might and Magic VI engine.
     
As I just typed that last paragraph, I noted that however annoyed I got with Xeen, my desire to check out Heroes (which I've never played), whether they qualify as RPGs or not, purely for the lore, is undiminished. This will always be one of my favorite series despite the developers' tendencies to trivialize it with goofiness. Live long and prosper, New World. Live long and prosper.
 

130 comments:

  1. "Anvil of Dawn (1995), which looks to me like a prototype of the Might and Magic VI engine."

    I've played both and never saw any connection.

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    1. Yeah, Anvil of Dawn is straightforwardly a Dungeon Master-alike, and only published by NWC -- the developer was actually DreamForge, who did the Summoning and Dark Spyre, and later went on to do the Ravenloft games and Menzoberranzen for SSI.

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    2. I guess I should have watched some video instead of looking at screenshots. Some of the screenshots looked passably similar.

      If there's one thing I've learned in 10 years, it's that the developer/publisher relationship is more complicated than that. Sometimes the publisher has people on the development team. Sometimes the publisher owns the final product, including the source code. We've seen publishers several times taking an engine built by a different developer and using it to create a game in-house, such as EA with Fountain of Dreams.

      But if it didn't happen in this case, great.

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    3. Interestingly enough, Ravenloft and Menzoberranzan's engine is closer to MM6, having free, non grid-based movement and a party of 4 characters. But those was published by SSI. And then for some reason for Anvil of Dawn Dreamforge decided to go back to grid-based - if you can actually call it going back, since they never actually released a grid-based blobber before.

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    4. Ravenloft's maps are still grids, though. Organized in blocks, flat, no diagonals (I think) . Movement is continuous, but you can deactivate that. It's been a while since I played Anvil of Dawn, but I think if you set Ravenloft to grid-based movement, they play pretty much the same as far as movement is concerned.

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    5. Anvil of Dawn is grid based because the whole game is CG rendered and it was too hard to do full 3d. All the door animations and such are little movies.

      Strahd's Possession felt similar to Might and Magic 6 to me too, albeit slower, clunkier, and generally worse in every way. Kinda got the same vibe from Thunderscape.

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  2. Applause for adding The Wargaming Scribe to the blogroll. Wow, that guy is powering through some very early games, forgotten today but extremely influential in their time. Some of them look like a great deal of fun...but interfaces being what they were back then, I'm glad he's playing them and not me. Computer Ambush looks spectacular, I don't think the new Xcom did such a good job with squad level combat. I would have enjoyed the hell out of Invasion Orion had I had a computer or the game back then. Sigh.

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    1. Thank you for bringing my attention to that blog. I halfheartedly considered starting something similar but the vastness of what can be considered a strategy game (which includes things that I have absolutely no interest in like most of the RTS games) extinguished my enthusiasm.

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  3. You're not going to be seeing too much more of Petersen. For some reason it seems he didn't really review many RPGs and instead talked about how amazing all these ID Software and Apogee titles were. I dunno, I think he might be a tad biased...

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    1. Well, that was an interesting rabbit hole your comment led me down. It looks like Petersen lasted until September 1994. Then the magazine took a month off from computer reviews, but the "Eye of the Monitor" returned in November with two anonymous reviewers, "Jay & Dee," who did an annoying back-and-forth with their reviews but kept Petersen's rating definitions.

      They didn't last long, it seems. By Spring 1995, "Jay & Dee" traded months with guest reviewers, usually Dave "Zeb" Cook, who didn't assign star ratings at all. A September 1995 letter complained about "Jay & Dee," and the editor responded with a note saying that month was their last column, and the magazine had hired new reviewers for the column. But the October 1995 issue featured a new design and a new editor, and no "Eye of the Monitor." As far as I can tell, the magazine didn't review any more computer games until near the end of its life in around 2006-2007.

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    2. I've had the dubious pleasure of meeting Mr. Petersen several times at the Kraken Convention in Brandenburg, Germany, during the 2010's. Maybe people become aloof after having conventions based on their work, but he seemed like the worst caricature of a Texan ever to me.

      He'd gleefully kill you in an unfair way during tabletop-sessions, constantly shout orders at no one specific ('Bring me a Fanta Zero!') and frequently start phrases with 'I hate...', while being rude and obnoxious all around.

      I love me some 'Call of Cthulhu' and still entertain my own pen'n'paper group, but boy, do I not want to meet its creator again...

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    3. I never knew Petersen reviewed games. He was a level designer on Doom and Quake and worked on the Age of Empires series, none of which are games you'll cover in this blog.

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    4. I read Dragon Magazine in the 80s and 90s and I remember the change from The Lessers to Sandy Petersen, and I always thought SP's reviews were much worse than The Lessers. At the time I never noticed the inflated ratings, but it just seemed like TL's reviews were more interesting to read, and they had a Q&A section and a tips section that were useful in the days when I did not have an Internet connection or any particularly good way to get hints for computer RPGs.

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    5. Ah, I forgot how Petersen heralded the decline of Dragon's game section. I just remembered how Petersen came at precisely the right time for him to ignore Legacy - Realm of Terror (which even had another former Dragon contributor/self-promoter as the lead) to give 5 star reviews to Doom, Wolfenstein, and I forget which Apogee titles he shilled.
      Its hilarious in retrospect, but I imagine if you actually cared about getting CRPG advice from Dragon back in the day it'd have been infuriating.

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    6. I thought it must be a coincidence until reading these comments. I had no idea Sandy did things before DOOM.

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    7. Aside from the probably valid criticism of his reviews, regarding the rest of the comments:

      I think it's rather crude to publicly gossip about someone like this when the alleged flaws are either irrelevant to the topic, unspecified (last comment) or pretty inconsequential anyway (someone was annoyed by his behaviour during a tabletop session - so what?).

      But then I'm seemingly in a minority with my opinion that well-known people deserve just as much respect and privacy as anybody else. Imagine if it was a neighbour who is the game designer in question - would it be appropriate to publicly gossip about the things mentioned above?

      Coming back to the topic of games, Mr. Petersen not only created very influential RPG systems and numerous board games, he also, together with John Romero, created DOOM's excellent formula for FPS level design from scratch. It should be noted that right from the start, these levels were not only great, but actually a new watermark in action game level design, in my opinion. And this from somebody who only joined the team 10 weeks before release, and even created the majority of the levels.

      The level principles that he applied, such as foreshadowing, telegraphed traps, and having a theme for each level, are probably due to his RPG roots - and they would certainly improve many contemporary CRPG's indistinguishable worm tunnel dungeons.

      A video about Sandy Petersen's Level Design: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9oG2LBuMwY

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    9. The point I was making is that someone can be a brilliant game designer and at the same time an insufferable dick in real life. Thanks!

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    10. Bitmap, I would happily gossip publicly about any insufferable bastard I encountered, and I assume I would receive the same treatment. So I think you are advocating for celebrity to confer more respect than your typical person, and that I cannot agree with.

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    11. Thomas Edison qualified for this definition as well, a brilliant businessman and a colossal dick.

      But the answer to the earlier question is that, no, well-known people do not deserve just as much respect and privacy as anybody else. Because the very concept of being 'well-known' implies that one is, in fact, well-known -- the polar opposite of not being well-known. To be well-known means to intentionally invite public opinion into one's life, be it praise or scorn, in exhange for monetary rewards, social status or some other benefit. That is the exchange agreed upon with society like it or not, and a choice one makes going down this, a one-way path one can never return from.

      In respect to game designers, authors, directors, publishers, artists or any creative type who produces works for the public to consume. Of course they should expect to be gossiped about and judged, heck the sole purpose of this very blog is to pass judgment on the created works of others, a rating system devised for the very purpose of judging through the lens of hindsight and (unfairly I might add) often times scorn. Famous people live by the motto 'The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about' and I think any game designer pushing half a century later would appreciate being talked about in any context they could possibly get. In the end we all try to be remembered, you are the sum of what you create.

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    12. Chester, "sped" is sort for "special education". Can you please ban the use of such disability-denigrating language in comments?

      If someone comes across as an "idiot", I think it's nicer and more educational to the readers of the comment for the commenter to describe the person's harmful and unkind QUALITIES that lead them to be an "idiot" - the target could lack self-reflection, be unwilling to change beliefs in response to evidence, mock discussions or topics that they deem overly-intellectual and unworthy of discussion, etc. Someone being an idiot is not a crime, it is only when they do harmful and unkind actions like the above three that harm other people that they become a danger to others, which is why not only is it wrong to call them such inflammatory words as "speds" that mock the perfectly kind people who need special education, but also to call them "idiots" without explanation as well.

      I don't remember who said it, but "I used to think being smart made someone an admirable person. Now I think being kind makes someone an admirable person."

      I am proud to highlight BESTIEunlmt's great criticism of Sandy Petersen because they focused on his unkind actions.

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    13. Sandy Petersen will always have a special, eldritch even, place in my heart for creating Call of Cthulhu.

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  4. I am guessing you'll check out the Heroes series, write something short about how they're fun but not RPGs, and move on.

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    1. Agreed. They're fun games - I spent a lot of time with HOMM 3 while I was evacuated for Katrina, but there's no way they're RPGs.

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    2. the relevant part of the above post would surely be this: "my desire to check out Heroes (which I've never played), whether they qualify as RPGs or not, purely for the lore, is undiminished."

      So it seems like he's gonna play through the story parts of the games at least? I suppose he might reconsider this after the first one or two, but it'll make a nice change of pace I'm sure, so I look forward to it.

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    3. It's not like I've never taken a detour with a non-RPG before. We're talking about something that's not going to come up until 1995, and even then it will be one game per year at most. It's raally not worth speculating about.

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    4. Heroes of Might & Magic 4's first expansion is both structured like an RPG and, IMO, a pretty good RPG.

      The rest of the series never really felt like that to me, outside of fanmade RPG-style maps, which are both very common and something I like.

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    5. If you're interested in HOMM then you may want to check out the King's Bounty series of game as well. The reboot by 1C, haven't tried the DOS original by New World Computing yet.

      KB is similar to HOMM but with added RPG elements like character development and leveling, a skill tree system, expanded equipment and a direct storyline progression. Of course being released in 2008 it probably won't qualify for any kind of write-up here but the series is fun nonetheless as an aside.

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    7. The Addict will probably also detour by Stronghold (1993) before HOMM, given Stronghold is a tycoon/strategy hybrid that tries to fully respect the AD&D rules which has ... strange results.
      Unlike HOMM, the game is pretty short (no main campaign), so it will not be a long detour, but the inappropriateness of the AD&D "straight from player's handbook" ruleset to a tycoon will probably make for a funny review.

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    8. My manual says it's a D&D game. It uses the usual THAC0, hit points, damage for unit combat, a very restricted list of spells, but I don't think much more? In my opinion Stronghold is not even worth a brief. It's not an RPG, there's no lore/series reason to play it, and it is neither very bad nor very good.

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    9. I second Stronghold for a BRIEF. Not an RPG, but an interesting game and relevant to this blog in that it showcases some of what was done with the Dungeons & Dragons license between the Gold Box and infinity Engine games.

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    10. I spent most of my childhood with Stronghold and would get a kick out of seeing it receive a BRIEF on this blog, though it really isn't an RPG at all.

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    11. Fanmade RPG-style maps, huh? I'm intrigued to hear how a strategy game can be structured like an RPG, especially because their acquisition of new abilities and consideration of resources required to use those abilities, all in service of a goal, map up very well to an RPG. All that's left for the map-maker to do is give it that "traversable-world campaign" (as opposed to a series of linear stages, albeit with retaining skill progression and resource increases/decreases between stages) flair, so I'm curious to see how that's done in the HOMM engines - especially by non-professional authors.

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    12. Yeah, depending on which ones you have, look for Ghost Planet for Heroes 2 or Sander's Folly for Heroes 3, for some examples. All of them from 2 to 5 at least have a lot of examples, which you can probably also find by looking for single-player maps on a Heroes map site.

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  5. I always heard that Darkside was better than Clouds. I've played through most of Clouds but only bits of Darkside so to avoid spoilers I avoided your Darkside posts, with the exception of this final review.

    I enjoyed Might and Magic 3 a lot. About as good as 2 but the modern engine and UI was and is still amazing. MM4 was fun, but a bit bland. That's why I heard that MM5 was the one where they went crazy and is supposed to be better than MM4.

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    1. Everyone has their own preferences, but I thought the sense of character development was much better in Clouds, and because the characters are lower-level, combat, inventory, magic, and the economy matter more. I thought ALL of this was better in MM3.

      The extent to which someone agrees with me is going to come down to how well they agree with my GIMLET categories. You might weigh story more than I do, or not care about economy at all.

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    2. Interestingly, your closing remark for Clouds was "by all accounts, Darkside gets better". I guess this isn't the case after all.

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    3. Ha. Well, not for me anyway. But it didn't get a LOT worse. We're talking about a 1-point difference, after all. I did think Darkside's story was better.

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    4. I thought you'd like Darkside better, but then I tend to favor story, exploration, and immersion. I don't really care about character development or economy, as long as I'm still strong enough to win. I think NWC sort of purposely broke MM5 (+2,000,000 exp!) as a joke to let the player know they were intending to end the series (it was originally supposed to be the last, IIRC, hence the Corak/Sheltem showdown). So naturally, I liked it quite a bit better.

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    5. Darkside does not have a whole lot of story and immersion though (to be fair, neither does Clouds). So I'm not sure what you're getting at.

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    6. That's where you're wrong then, since it was the last story in that part of the series, which finished the main story. You can argue about immersion, but there was plenty of stuff to do to immerse yourself in Xeen, whether it satisfied you or not. Perhaps troll somewhere else?

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    7. I don't think anonymous was trolling, just expressing an opinion that I happen to share. I, like Judd9, "favor story, exploration, and immersion." I, unlike Judd9, did not get much out of the story and immersion of MM4 or 5. I will grant that the games are exemplars of open-ended exploration, though.

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  6. My best experiences with Darkside came from playing it as a standalone title, because I didn't own Clouds at that time. Starting with a level 5 party makes the early game much more interesting and challenging, only the last third of the game being spent overpowered and unable to level up anymore by lack of money. I'm quite sure that going into the Darkside with lvl 20 characters ruins the best part of the game.

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    1. Maybe. I can only rate what I experienced. Either way, it's still something I blame on the game. If a game allows multiple modes of entry, including bringing characters from a previous game, then it should be fun and well-balanced for each of its modes of entry.

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    2. It would be nice if someone could catalog all the gold and experience rewards in this game and then hack adjust them down so you only get enough to reach somewhere between 50-60 levels by the end. It would fix so much. Add challenge, restore melee/missile/spell balance, meaningful character development, and actually being excited about getting an experience/gold reward.

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    3. Someone did: http://www.jeffludwig.com/xeen/download.php

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    4. I know Chester hasn't had much experience with them, so I'm wondering how the second two The Bard's Tale games handle using imported characters vs. new characters.

      I know Wizardries 2/3 required imported characters from the first, but I'm not sure if they needed to have actually beat it to be permitted for importing. If they allow both Level-1 and Werdna-killer parties to play Wizardries 2/3, I'd like to hear about how those play out as well. (I hear the third has "descendants" [That "Legacy" thing, right?] who do not retain a lot of the first two games' boons, but descendants of the two groups may still have a power imbalance.)

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    5. I played through the jeffludwig mod and it's actually much better than the original which often felt like a barren world after you cleared each area. I would not replay the game without the mod anymore.

      Many older games have community mods from their dedicated fan bases and I especially appreciate this guy taking the time to give MM 4 and 5 the makeovers they both deserved.

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    6. Wizardry 2 and 3 require imported characters from Wizardry 1.

      For Wiz 2, they recommend characters of about level 12 but they do not have to have beaten WERDNA and the imported characters retain their current levels but no equipment and limited money.

      Wiz 3 just requires characters created with Wiz 1. The advantage of higher level characters moving to Wiz 3 is that they can already be prestige classes. All characters begin at level 1 with minimal money - apparently the inheritance taxes in Llyllgamyn are quite extreme.

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  7. 'I'm anticipating lots of comments that say things like, "Well, if you find it too easy, just don't use those fountains/spells/whatever." Sure, but I don't think expecting the player to nerf himself is good game design.'

    While I agree with your statement there, I think there are limits. Example from Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal, in rot-13 just in case you don't want to hear things about it:

    Va Puncgre Rvtug (gur svefg puncgre bs gur rkcnafvba, Guebar bs Ounny), lbh svaq lbhefrys va n pvgl juvpu vf orvat obzoneqrq jvgu synzvat ebpxf ol sver tvnagf evtug bhg bs fvtug bss gur fperra. Lbhe znva punenpgre pna rnfvyl or vzzhar gb synzvat ebpxf ng gung cbvag. Ba gung znc, eneryl ba gung frevrf, lbh pna frcnengr lbhe cnegl--sbe rknzcyr, chggvat svir bs gurz fnsryl va gur vaa juvyr bayl bar vf bhgfvqr naq zvtug or uvg ol n synzvat ebpx. Lbh pna rnfvyl unir n enatrq jrncba jvgu hayvzvgrq nzzhavgvba. Gur NV jvyy frr gur whfg-bss-fperra sver tvnagf naq gerng gurz nf rarzvrf.

    Fb, fbzr crbcyr bayvar chg gubfr snpgf gbtrgure, naq fgnegrq frggvat hc gurve pbzchgref jvgu OT2 ba, bayl gur znva punenpgre fgnaqvat ba gur onggyrzragf bs gur pvgl jvgu n enatrq jrncba, gur NV ba, ab nhgb-cnhfrf frg, jura gurl jrag gb orq. Gurl'q pbzr onpx gb n cnegl nyy ng gur 8 zvyyvba KC pnc.

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    1. I remember that. Sure, every game is going to have exploits like that. My definition of "not nerfing yourself" doesn't extend to actually cheating. I suppose there are exceptions, but generally speaking, if stuff is happening in the game while you're not at the computer, you're probably cheating.

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    2. In one of the early Wizardry conversions for the IBM you could leave the disk drive door open at a certain point and it would give you an extra level... we generated several 25th level parties for exploring longer periods.

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    3. The issue with this game is that it has so many ways of making things easy, that if you ban a couple, there's still more of them.

      If you play without fountains? There's still Super Shelter for instant refreshing everywhere, so the effect is largely the same. Ban Super Shelter too? Ok, there's still Time Distortion and Lloyd's Beacon. Ban those? Ok, but keeping all your buffs up all the time ALSO makes the game too easy.

      You have to ban quite a lot of the game before it becomes a challenge. It's not just one exploit; it's like the game is intentionally designed to be a pushover.

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    4. There's definitely a different between "taking advantage of exploits" and "playing the game in the way the developers apparently intended". The history of the M&M franchise shows that players are clearly intended to combine fountains and teleportation spells to get an edge in certain combats - or at least that it's an allowable strategy that the developers are aware of and are enabling. Whereas there is no doubt that the BG2 example above is an exploit that the devs didn't intend.

      You shouldn't have to deliberately avoid engaging with intended content in order to have a satisfying experience with a game.

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    5. I don´t know, I somehow appreaciate that this game is accessible and probably winnable for different kinds of players, "newbies" and hardcores in the same time. Are you experienced hardcore player? Then probably you will not need in-game hints about solutions of puzzles and riddles, you will beat every monster in your way without boosts etc... For that others not-so-hardcore there are these things to help them.

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    6. For the not-so-hardcore, there's also Easy Mode which gives your party a big damage boost.

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    7. GregT, I don't disagree, but then if you find it too easy and unsatisfying, why would you take advantage? Would the Avatar do that? No. Different series and all, but still. A virtuous person that objects to taking easy advantages just doesn't take them. But then, I've never subscribed to the idea that the Avatar was meant to literally be anyone but a character on the screen. I also believe that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and that it's possible to take things like this so seriously that you stop enjoying the good things about it. But that's just me.

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  8. "Before then [M&M VI, 1998], we'll have Swords of Xeen (1995), an ascended mod that I've never played. We'll also have the first three Heroes of Might and Magic games "

    HoMM 3 was released in 1999.

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    1. I was referring to HOMM1, HOMM2, and the Price of Loyalty expansion for HOMM2.

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    2. Sure - PoL is just an expansion pack with some new campaigns, artifacts etc., but otherwise it's not a separate game.

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    3. By that logic, one might also argue that MM4 and MM5 are new campaigns etc for MM3...

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    4. I've never played the games and don't know anything about them. Cut me a little slack. Is whether I said "two" or "three" really that important? There were three separate "Heroes" boxes that you could purchase at a store between 1995 and 1998. Expecting that level of pedantry in my entries simply encourages me not to write.

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    5. To anonymous, that's not a good comparison. Expansion packs require the original game to be installed. Sequels are standalone.

      One might argue whether Darkside of Xeen is just a standalone expansion to Clouds because they can be combined into one game but also work alone (like for example Fall of the Samurai for Shogun 2 Total War, which is a classic expansion but can also be installed alone). But since they're numbered 4 and 5, they count as separate games.

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    6. I think Price of Loyalty may be one of the first expansion packs we see that fundamentally changes the *experience* of the base game (through significant balance changes) and raises the question of whether it should be installed alongside the base game, or only later.

      While U7: The Black Gate added content that appeared in U7 from basically the moment you boot it up, it didn't substantially get in the way of experiencing the original content in the way it was intended.

      Probably in this case the correct answer is to play HOMM2 vanilla, and install Price of Loyalty once you're done. (The issue is a rebalancing of the Necromancer faction that makes them overwhelmingly broken.)

      If you end up classing Diablo as an RPG (and you probably will) you'll face a similar experience with the Hellfire expansion, which wants you to re-experience the core story with it installed, but which fundamentally transforms the game, not entirely in positive ways.

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    7. Diablo meets comfortably all the blog's criteria for considering a game a CRPG (in the FAQ).

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    8. "I think Price of Loyalty may be one of the first expansion packs we see that fundamentally changes the *experience* of the base game (through significant balance changes) and raises the question of whether it should be installed alongside the base game, or only later."

      Not sure what you mean by "significant balance changes"?

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    9. I think he means the shrines of evil they added in place of the blank space where a tavern would be for the Necromancers in vanilla that give a 10% boost to the necromancy skill. HoMM2 is my favourite of the series, but even in Vanilla it's absurdly exploitable, PoL doesn't change that much that you would notice, it just makes things like exploiting Ghosts way easier. If he only plays the campaigns he won't even notice much in the Vanilla campaign since most of it is new buildings that aren't on the vanilla campaign maps like the alchemist tower for un-cursing items.

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  9. At best, Swords of Xeen deserves a BRIEF. Buggy, unbalanced mess of a (fan) game.

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    1. Yeah I really like the Xeen games but Swords was bad. Not even half as enjoyable as Clouds and Darkside. I predict it to get the lowest GIMLET in the M&M series.

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  10. Wow, so you still prefer Might and Magic III over IV and V? I was always told it was better to be Xeen and not third.

    The Heroes games always occupied this odd niche because while they were strategy games the hero system allowed for some mild RPG character development, especially in the later games (and in peers like Master of Magic). Obviously it'll still need to meet your criteria, and I can't imagine they'll review well on the GIMLET either way, but it might be an interesting thought experiment. If nothing else, HoMM maintains the M&M franchise's numerical silliness with all its single unit stacks containing 10,000 peasants apiece.

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    1. Yes, I prefer MM3 over MM4 or MM5. I prefer MM1 to all of them.

      That doesn't mean what you were "always told" is wrong. We're talking about subjective preferences here.

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    2. I maintain that Terra is a more believable place than Xeen, and that's why I prefer MM3 over 4 or 5.

      Of course that's just MY opinion, but at least now you haven't just been "always told" the opposite any more.

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    3. I think MM1 is the worst of the seven I played (1-7), but I agree with Chet that 3 is better than Xeen.

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    4. I felt MM3 was the best of the DOS games myself; MM1 is somewhat crude and still bears it's Wizardry origins, while 2 is wildly unbalanced and bipolar. Xeen had the poor economy, and it seemed that a good chunk of Darkside was just thrown together rapidly, with large areas not really used effectively compared to Clouds. Terra always seemed to be the most cohesive and balanced of the the series until 6, IMO.

      In my ranking, it would be 3, Xeen, 2, and then 1 as dead last. Though they are all enjoyable, so don't take that as putting 1 and 2 down; I'm currently making my way through MM2 as we speak, though my lack of free time makes it hard to play these long titles any more.

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    5. Mento, I chuckled at the second sentence of your comment.

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    6. I feel like everyone missed Mento's "Xeen and not third" joke.

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    7. There is a series called 'King's Bounty' which is not the original King's Bounty that was the start of HOMM, but takes the RPG part of HOMM. That is, there is a single hero, who buys creatures to fill his or her army, but no town-building strategy element or wandering enemy heroes. Of course the plot is on rails and it is all about combat strategy, but you can develop your hero in somewhat different ways, and make armies of different monster types. Playing King's Bounty Darkside (no relation of Xeen) at the moment and enjoying it. I recently learned they are working on a proper sequel.

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    8. I had never played any game of the series before discovering the blog.

      I have played 1 through 5 over the last few years, and my ratings mostly match Chet's (maybe placing 2 before 1).

      Despite their primitiveness, 1 and 2 gave a much higher sense of discovery and achievement than the sequels IMHO.

      Difficulty for sure has to do with it: allowing to save anywhere in 3, and not respawning enemies in dungeons removed much of the challenge of the original games.

      Between 4 and 5, 4 feels more balanced due to the level cap and more meaningful progression: also some of locations in 4 (Dragon Cave) probably provide the hardest challenge in the game, if tackled before going to other side.

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    9. The rights to King's Bounty were bought by some Russian or Polish firm and they've been making games under that name since 2012 or so. I tried them and I liked them, but there is a style of play that experts use which does not lose ANY creatures in combat. It seems the game expects you are an expert and will use this perfect play, because after a few levels there are simply not enough replacement troops and tough enemies you cannot defeat. You get into a walking dead situation and have to quit. Oh well I guess their target audience are those experts anyway.

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    10. "Xeen and not third" is the best pun I've read on this blog so far, and seems entirely appropriate for a game with so many bad puns.

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    11. I think they were just setting up the joke, not expressing an actual opinion.

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    12. That one definitely whooshed right over my head. Well done, Mento.

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    13. I never found you have to preserve ALL your creatures in Kings Bounty. Generally there are decent creatures in large supply, so long as you have the cash. If you lose half your army every fight, you'll run out of cash - but too much attrition will kill you in original HOMM too.

      Admittedly, I'm kind of cheating it in Darkside at the moment, because two of my troops are vampires which can resurrect themselves when they kill human(oid)s. And my demon priestesses can even add to their starting numbers by sacrificing summmoned creatures. Imps and priestesses have to be topped up periodically, but my Dark Master has thousands :)

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    14. That is a brilliant pun.

      I grew up with M&MII after watching my BFF and his brother playing M&MI. (He still swears by I.) I always thought it was nostalgia that made me prefer those over III-V, but Chet fleshes out the position well and with cabbage theory. One encounter per map tile and only saving at inns makes the games feel denser (both in and out of combat), the combats more tactical, and the stakes higher.

      Chet, this was an excellently written review—for any game. Very succinct.

      P.S. I cherish the Heroes series, but I think only IV comes close to being a CRPG.

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  11. Live long and prosper...

    ROFL at that good Sir! Peace and long life to you.

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  12. I think Dark Side would have been better served if it had been released as a budget episode (not sequel) in the series; using the same engine from Clouds but not "attached" to it. The whole World of Xeen concept meant I almost felt obligated to play both at the same time to see everything (I very much "suffer" from RPG OCD). The problem stems from the fact the World is exhaustingly huge to finish off. This may be a case of too much of a good thing.

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    1. I agree partly. Uniting the worlds and having some joined content is certainly a fun gimmick. New World was the first to do it, and while they didn't succeed 100%, who ever does the first time they try something? (Obvious answer: Ultima Underworld, but it's still pretty rare.)

      I admire your honesty in saying "I suffer from RPG OCD" instead of pretending that you "follow the philosophy of completionism."

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  13. So Chet, what's your final verdict on the "combined game" or "three games for the price or two" deal? Does it add to the experience or is it just a marketing gimmick?

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    1. It adds a little to the experience. I certainly would have thought it was cool in 1993. If I had to play them again, I probably would switch more flexibly between the two "sides" rather than so resolutely cover one, then the other.

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    2. Marketing has something to do with it. I think they were charging full price($70) for each game.

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  14. I think I like combat being easy in M&M and similar games. There's just too much of it, and not much variation due to its simplistic nature. Once I've figured out a new type of enemy, I don't want to spend too much time/thought fighting them for the n-th time.

    It's different with a game like Jagged Alliance 2, where combat is less frequent, and each battle is a unique challenge using unique maps and terrain.

    But the boss fights should at least pose some challenge. I think Wizardry 7 does this a little better, at least when it doesn't decide to generate a solo encounter.

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  15. World of Xeen was my first Might and Magic played amd while I enjoyed it (and subsequently 6,7,and 8) I have never been tempted to go back and play any of them compared to say, the Gold Box games,the Dark Sun games, or Wizardry 7/8. That being said I absolutely love the Heroes seried and look forward to you playing them someday. Here's hoping Shattered Lands or Betrayal at Krondor come up soon

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  16. Just on the topic of difficulty, I think it's worth noting something which I call "the downhill" in games design. That is to say that for at least a sizeable number of players, periods of challenging gameplay need to be compensated by period of "easy" gameplay - not easy in the absolute sense, but easy in the sense that the skills or stats you've accumulated during the "challenge" now temporarily enable you to smash through tasks and obstacles that were once difficult.

    It's an important part of making that difficulty feel *meaningful*. If things just keep getting more difficult in a linear progression, it can feel like there's no progress actually being made (and it's one of the reasons many players hate auto-scaling monsters in RPGs, either generally or in some specific implementations). It's *fun* to get better and then go and smash things that you couldn't before.

    I know that's not really what's going on in Darkside of Xeen - it's not a well-designed curve of alternating difficulty with satisfaction, but rather a general progress towards trivialising almost everything in the game. But I just point out that in small doses, being able to trivialise some challenges is actually *good* game design.

    (And of course, you can have a whole game where the difficulty is fairly trivial, as long as the process of interacting with it is inherently satisfying for enough players that you can find an audience - see for examples the entire Dynasty Warriors franchise, which is all empowerment, and very little actual challenge.)

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    1. This sort of thing is a big trope in action games. You'll meet a tough enemy that kicks you around a bit, find an item/skill/weapon that lets you deal with it, then have a cathartic moment where you get to dominate them now that you have the tool to do so.

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    2. I think you're on to something, Greg. Relatively linear but recursive games like Wizardry have an automatic advantage in that while the player is always trying to get stronger to beat the next level, he has to get there by traipsing through all the previous levels, where ever random encounter will be with an enemy that used to be tough but is now eminently defeatable. It makes the player feel powerful while still challenged. It's tougher with open-world games. But you're right that no one wants a completely linear game where every notch in character development is met by a harder enemy. It feels like you've gone nowhere.

      This is worth organizing my thoughts for a special topic entry at some point.

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    3. @Alex your description made me think of the bit where you fight the Apache helicopter in Half-Life.

      The moment you finally find the rocket launcher and realize it's payback time it's just glorious.

      Haven't played that game in more than 20 years but I still remember that moment.

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    4. How to engineer difficulty curves well is its own important area of study in game design for sure: http://www.davetech.co.uk/difficultycurves

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    5. Pretty much the entire Valve catalogue between the original Half-Life and Portal 2, inclusive, is a masterclass in game design. And luckily most of them have a developer commentary track, which is always worth the time to engage with.

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    6. Eeeeeh I find the Half-Life games to be a bit overrated. Technically impressive for their time (and still pretty cool today even), but way too linear in its level design and filled with gimmicks. The mute protagonist worked for the first game where your social interactions are limited to "Hey Gordon you're late to work, hop in your suit and get going!!" and "Hey Gordon, good of you to come here, I need you to go to a dangerous area and flip a switch there so we can escape!" The one-sided conversations where you don't reply make sense because there's a sense of urgency and what you're told is always immediately goal-oriented.

      Then in HL2 they had you enter safe havens where you're surrounded by friends who do small talk with you... and you're completely silent. And nobody reacts to you derping around like an idiot. Tossing all the equipment against people's heads? Giving Alyx a boob massage with your crowbar? Nope, the scripted scene goes on as planned. You're not an actor in those scenes, unlike HL1 where you can kill the scientists that talk to you if you want to. The silent protagonist and all cutscenes being in-engine and not taking away player control didn't work in the sequel because they introduced all these scenes where it makes no sense.

      Also both HL games (and the episodes) are painfully linear. There's always just ONE way forward, never a branching path, and very rarely an open hub-like area. That is quite in contrast to other FPS of the era, like Quake, Unreal, Blood... those featured a lot of open levels where you hunt for keycards in a hub-like area with a couple of buildings you could explore in any order you liked, and then returning back to the central hub. HL doesn't have levels like that, it constantly pushes you forward in a very linear way.

      I honestly consider Half-Life to be among the weaker FPS games of its generation. Unreal was released in the same year and is much, much better.

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  17. Regarding worldbuilding, I was thinking that MM3 establishes itself as a fantasy setting and eventually you discover there's a network of scifi tunnels underneath the world. That feels like a pretty good twist.

    Contrast this with MM4, which doesn't really have a scifi element except that the last castle arbitrarily has robots in it. And contrast this with MM5, which doesn't have "the reveal" but states right at the beginning that Alamar is a robot (and also arbitrily has robots in the last castle).

    I feel that's a fair example of how MM3 does much better at worldbuilding.

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  18. I have to admit that I still have a bit of the baby duck syndrome for M&M5. It was the first game of M&M series I have played and won.
    An interesting fact - I have indeed nerfed myself by not using the fountains for buffing before dungeons and tough combats. Simply by not thinking about doing it. And the the game was STILL a fairly easy win to the about 13-years old me. That tells a lot about the game's balance, now I must think.

    "The game also does a bizarre thing by assigning either a material or an effect to equipment but not both. So you might have an Obsidian Long Sword or a Long Sword of Undead Slaying but not both"

    You can. Material and elemental/stat effect both are "prefixes", so you indeed can have only one of them. The 3x damage to a creature type mod is a "suffix", so it can appear with a "prefix". But it is a rare occurrence. A wasted potential, really. They could have made some of the "prefixes" to appear as "suffixes".

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    1. Baby duck syndrome, what a great term! I always feel a bit sheepish when I have to say "I only like this because I was more easily-impressed when I played it/it introduced me to a great concept that other games used better", but we can't do anything to help our emotions more than a duck can, can we? At least an irrational fondess is far better than an irrational hatred.

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  19. I have not played MM I and II (at least yet), but I think if I will play them sometime, it will probably not change the fact, that my best memories belong to MM III (and I have played all MM games except that first two). My reason is probably similar like Vladimir´s feelings about 4 and 5 - it was just my first MM game, everything was new and wow. I think in that time it was absolutely great game and we spent much time trying to figure out solution of puzzles and how to beat some new enemies... yeah, young years when grass was more green and sky more blue :-).

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  20. *Sigh* Those where the times. When you could sell computer games even if somebody let a fourth-grader do the art for the box.

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    1. The art is a bit juvenile in its sensibilities and mediocre in execution, sure, but equivalent to many a newly-minted pro on Artstation or DeviantArt today, hardly comparable to something actually from a kid. I'll give you that the time period did involve a MUCH less competitive fantasy illustration scene than there is today. A few greats (your Michael Whelan, Keith Parkinson, Larry Elmore, Denis Loubet, etc) were on the scene, but seems there wasn't a particularly robust mid-tier list compared to the legions of concept artists and illustrators today. The mid-to-late 20th century art school obsession (in America/The West) with abstract/conceptual art led to a relative dearth in the numbers of illustrators coming up who had a solid handle on the fundamentals much less advanced principles and design. Another problem being whenever a company doesn't have a competent art director who knows good artists to source and can direct the art to be its best self. I suspect that in the pre-AAA era of games, there may not have been a lot of art direction worthy of the name. Ultima of that time being a notable exception. Worst of all is programmer art, but that's not what we're seeing here. Maybe programmer art direction?

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    2. I don't feel like there's anything wrong with the cover at all.

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    3. It's basically fine for what it is: a cartoonish homage to Frazetta's Death Dealer. Most of what's 'wrong' with it is the sort of thing non-artists aren't going to consciously notice at all.

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    4. I mean compared to your average modern game cover consisting of a close-up of the main character's face looking angry, against a generic background with few details if any at all, this cover is a masterpiece.

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    5. That's the flipside. Modern AAA covers are going to be unimpeachably professional quality, but mostly fairly generic because they've made a science of figuring out what types of covers will best sell a game to either its core demographic or the common denominator (note: same situation in book publishing). If there's something horribly wrong or cliche about cover art you can pretty much bet on blaming the marketing department not the individual artist. Lots of 'design by committee'.

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    6. The cover art is by Mike Winterbauer (I checked out of curiosiry) - he also did the maps and additional artwork for the manual, as well als Xeen and several other games (Wing Commander, most prominently). He's certainly not an amateur, and he wasn't an amateur in 1993.

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    7. Agreed Bruce, it is also a problem in book covers. It is rare these days that a book cover makes me curious to check out the book. Usually it's just the main character as a photo of a professional fantasy cover model - dude with a sword, girl in a robe, etc. Or it's just a symbol centered on the cover - the emblem of a prominent faction or something.

      But when a self-published author uses 80s style fantasy art for the cover, I'm immediately intrigued. Dragonfly by Raphael Ordonez immediately caught my eye when I saw the cover art and I had to get a paperback copy of it.

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    8. I know I would definitely enjoy fantasy fiction a lot more if artists (and writers) embraced the inherently radical, heavy metal van painting nature of the genre. Give me wizards on mountaintops shooting lightning at dragons any day. If you aren't hearing an Iron Maiden guitar solo in your head when you look at a piece of fantasy art, it's rubbish.

      I'm not sure what started the "sigil on a blank cover" trend - probably Hunger Games - but it's not limited to fantasy fiction. It's basically a plague on all cover design, along with "weapon man walking away from camera" on anything male-targeted.

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    9. The cover shows Sheltem on horseback wielding an axe, and of course he never does anything like that in the game (it's ridiculously out of character for him). Then again, it's pretty common for covers to show a nonexistent scene anyway.

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    11. minando, if you're arguing that the rainbow of colours makes the art seem drawn by a fourth grader*, I'd beg to differ. It certainly is colorful, but it catches the eye quite well and they do not stick out jarringly against the terrain and sky - they are just as muted. Sheltem has a high opinion of himself, presenting himself twice as a king - so of course he would dress ostentatiously - both as a show of material wealth (protective metal, paints, feathers, smithing, and even the ornamental gold on his axe's handle and his horse's bridle) and to strike fear into his opponents (he can wield an axe even while riding a horse! even his horse has armour! he has a pointed, draconic shield!). His pose is appropriately-threatening as well.

      It was rather trite even back in the day to portray a villain on the cover, but he's still framed well in the natural landscape, which as others have mentioned is something sorely-lacking on focus-group-tested covers.

      The only thing I'd argue as a flaw is... that lime-green force field? over Castle Alamar? which sticks out like a sore thumb and does not adequately portray its nature and shape, looking like a palm frond on top of the castle. Showing the castle and a display of Sheltem's magical/technological power to intrigue and intimidate the customer was a fine idea, since it presents a goal for them to reach and promises excitement just as Sheltem and all the other "villain covers" do, the execution is the only problem.

      *whoops, forgot this the first time around. Firstly, Mike Winterbauer is still alive, and calling his art childlike is just rude to an adult. Please give more detailed criticism instead of direct insults to the artist. Secondly, commercial work often comes with deadlines and content/style requirements. While it is obviously partly on the artist to do a good job under these constraints, please show more empathy for the artists of art produced in these types of situations. At least say you did not enjoy the particular piece of art, instead of the entire artist themselves.

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    12. @P-Tux7, it's interesting that you interpreted the green mass above the castle as a forcefield. I believe it's overlapped by both the cliffs and the cloud layer, so I've always assumed it's intended to be a moon or planet that's close enough to Xeen to be visible through the Darkside's twilight atmosphere.

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    13. @JarlFrank I've asked a friend who is a VP at one of the big four publishers why book covers are the way they are now (those sigils/icons and vague photomontage or cliche cloaked figures, etc) instead of the more illustrative, immersive genre covers many of us grew up loving. A surge of popular 'genre' movies and TV shows in the early-mid oughts led to a larger demographic of people buying SFF novels who would be outright embarrassed to be seen in public reading a book (Game of Thrones, say) with what used to be typical-for-genre vivid, painted cover art. What sells the most books is by far the #1 concern of the publisher when considering what cover art needs to do (although believe me, the art directors love when they can sneak in some illustration that's actually really good), as the industry relies on a very small proportion of best sellers to effectively cover the unprofitable investment made in the rest. Almost by definition those best sellers are reaching a much larger audience than just the hardcore SFF geeks. So, the trend goes away from what we like, understandably because a poor choice of cover leading to bad sales could potentially sink the entire career of a promising new author. So, as a result publishers are incredibly conservative in their choices. They look at what is working best and copy it as much as they can get away with rather than taking risks. On the other hand, I also have it on authority that trends are changing, what's old can be fresh again, and special editions collector book companies (your Grim Oak Press, Subterranean Press, & Centipede Press) are leading the charge back into lushly illustrated books. After years of hearing from an art director in publishing that hiring me as an environment-focused cover artist was a hard pitch to make at their company, I finally got a gig with them on the special edition of a book that all of us CRPG enthusiasts should be VERY familiar with. So, perhaps there's light at the end of the tunnel.

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    14. "I'm not sure what started the "sigil on a blank cover" trend"

      Sounds like the original edition of The Lord of the Rings.

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  21. Swords of Xeen is hardly worth playing. It has mostly the same monsters, traps and puzzles, only differing in arrangement. The plot has nothing to do with the main M&M line and the main quest (find six Elder Weapons to battle the final boss) can be limited to just one because you can pass it around like the Sword of Xeen in MM4.

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    1. I get that people don't think it's a good game, but it's hardly the first bad RPG I'll play. If it satisfies my criteria, it gets played, even if it's not worthy of the series name.

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    2. I was about to suggest the opposite :)

      My (admittedly very nebulous) memory of Swords of Xeen is that the game was harder (because of a number of "timed" events), and had no goofy moments -- both factors that were arguably a problem with Darkside.

      Yes, it reuses all the graphical and sound assets of Darkside, but that's not a really a problem, is it? As long as it captures the pleasure of exploration of the original series.

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  22. I would like to see mentioned somewhere that there IS a way to collect infinite amounts of gold and do all the levelling up. Yes it is tedious and no fun, but there must be a reason the developers added the option to recharge all the gem veins in the mines?
    Just for some numbers: My party ended the game at levels 246-249, by saving all the free level rewards until after training to 200 (the limit in Olympus). Except the +5 levels for Dungeon of Death level enter level 2. Not sure there is enough XP before the lower Dungeon of Death levels.
    I must have spent ~150Mio gold, maybe 200.

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  23. Ah, Sandy Petersen.
    The guy had quite a versatile and interesting career.
    I never knew he reviewed computer games for Dragon, though.
    Few people know he was an executive producer of the indie movie "Whisperer in the darkness", a lot more know him as a tabletop RPG guy working at Chaosium, but most of us know him as a game developer on strategy and RPG titles, but mainly as one of the most prolific level designer for ID software's Doom, Doom II and Quake. He also runs a Youtube channel nowadays.
    (and he's turning 66 this September. How time flies).

    On "Heroes":
    Haven't you played any of the titles before?
    On one hand, that's surprising, on the other it's a blessing, since they are absolutely insane time-sinks.
    They're a pretty fundamental series though, and the first three titles show a pretty linear progression, which is interesting to witness.
    In 1990 New World published the game "King's Bounty" designed by Jon Van Caneghem. It's interesting because it's now considered a "prelude" to the Heroes series - gameplay-wise, that is. New World decided to create the Heroes spin-off series based on this game (with Van Caneghem as the lead designer still), while injecting the M&M world and lore into it.
    The first game in the series feels like an early test-version of Heroes II, and Heroes III feels like a somewhat more finely tuned and vastly expanded version of Heroes II. I think both II and III are brilliant (yet very much unbalanced) games, that are definitely worth a try. Personally I wouldn't really consider them as CRPG's, but this very Blog has highlighted that even by using the most well-rounded categorizations, the definition is still pretty vague/flexible (and you have already played games with way less RPG elements).

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    1. A blog that has room for Pirates! and Star Control 2 has room for HOMM2 and HOMM3. Two of the finest PC games I've ever played which I hope to play with my kids some day.

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    2. I'm going to play the games, but it needs to be understood that making an exception does not set a precedent. "If you played x, then you should play y" isn't a think on this blog unless x and y are both incontrovertibly RPGs.

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  24. "Is that pronounced the British way or the American way?" - Clearly the American way, as 'honor' is spelled incorrectly (honour) ;-)

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  25. I found out about this blog a few months ago through The Skald RPG's Discord channel and I've been diligently going through your posts since then. I've thoroughly enjoyed them, both for being well-written and for their educational value to me as a gamedev. There are also some good insights coming from the comments. In MMIV (P3), a discussion that arose around the topic of enemy respawns was particularly interesting. The conclusion, at least on my part, was that enemies should respawn after a while. but should also flee if the odds are clearly in favor of the player in order to avoid trivial battles. Respawning also repopulates the world, which may otherwise appear barren and devoid of life once "cleared". I never noticed it when playing Xeen, but it's a great point relevant to many games, not just CRPGs.

    WoX has always been my favorite of the genre, and finishing reading your series about it coincided almost perfectly with the blog's actual timeline. I replayed WoX a few years ago and it was fun completing quests and finding secrets that I had missed back when I originally played it as a kid with little English. It was everything I remembered it to be - and more. I was sad to see that it wasn't much fun to you. I think you enjoyed Terra's moderation more, while WoX is essentially Terra on steroids. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding didn't get as big of a dose as other aspects did, while the amped-up TNG references ended up taking away from the little worldbuilding that was present. On the other hand, the graphics and the variety of quests reached their epitome in this series, both carrying through into the HoMM series.

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    1. Hi, shoTgun. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I really do like the entire MM series, and I meant what I said in my first paragraph. I just think people get too wrapped up in "graphics and sound" that they ignore the mechanics of games, which I feel got worse throughout the life of the series (so far). It's still a good series.

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