Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Game 440: Danse Macabre (1986)

 
I'm not sure the artist got the Llŷn peninsula or Anglesey just right.
      
Danse Macabre 
France
Funlight Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for Commodore 64 and Commodore 128
Date Started: 26 December 2021
Date Ended: 27 December 2021
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)   
    
Danse Macabre is a perfectly normal, playable RPG that draws intelligently from the best American games before it; the only thing that's different about it is that it's in French.
   
Ha! Wouldn't that be something? I'm kidding, of course: Danse Macabre is a bizarre, senseless game with a strange plot and strange mechanics that barely deserve the "RPG" label. In other words, it's a French RPG. But while some French RPGs have been somewhat charming in their peculiarities, this one is just kind of dumb.
    
Approaching Newcastle while wandering the isle of Britain.
  
The game is set in 1476 in Britain. This was the year that William Caxton set up England's first printing press; nine years later, he would publish Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. The game isn't about that. Instead, it's ostensibly set during a plague, which is ironic because 1476 is a year in which the plague wasn't particularly bad in the U.K. (there was an outbreak in 1471 and another in 1479). None of this matters, as the year and the plague are only part of the framing story and play no role in the game itself.
   
The plot centers on the wealthy Mac Gregor family, who live in a "huge mansion" on the outskirts of London. Their son has been mysteriously murdered, his charred corpse discovered in a park. The most likely suspect is the child's tutor, a man named Ard, who mysteriously disappeared after the murder. The Mac Gregors hire the player character to track down the murderer. They advance you 40 gold pieces, a diamond, and a "Demonological Cube," which will "protect you from Hell in case you have to enter it."
   
Character creation offers an awful lot of options given that the game doesn't really make use of them. After you specify the character's name and sex, the game rolls for initial values in strength, dexterity, health, luck, skill, charisma, and wisdom. You only get one roll. The initial rolls are 3-10, but you can later increase abilities to at least 18. You then choose from eight possible races: Gael, Pict, Breton, Gallic, Roman, Arabic, Greek, and Saxon. Some of these options seem interesting, but the choice plays no role whatsoever in the game except perhaps as skill modifiers.
      
Character creation.
    
The game then shows you your derived skills: spellcasting, success in making contact with the gods, offense, defense, cheating at gambling, picking a lock, resisting magic spells, and "transformation," which I think simply means curing yourself of poison and disease. Based on these qualities, you choose a profession from a list of 19 possibilities, which is about 18 choices more than necessary given how the game actually plays. These professions are grouped into four categories--"knowledge," "strength," "magic" and souffle, which I can't find a good translation for. The category has thief, healer, bard, spy, and troubadour options, if that helps. Each category has a sub-label indicating the direction of the wind that somehow informs those classes. This is one of many details that makes me think that the authors must have used some other story or game as a template because, again, nothing about the four winds ever appears in the game itself.
   
The unnecessarily long list of character classes.
      
Gameplay begins in London, one of six menu cities that you can visit to buy arms and armor, check into a hotel (the only way to save the game), and gamble. The cities are London, Burningham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. Depending on the city, you may also be able to visit a temple and pray, visit a university to improve your statistics, buy equipment from a master thief, buy spells, and pay for attribute enhancements. Weapon and armor selections are lettered and have a "ladder" of quality and price, reminding the player of the early Ultima titles. 
      
Find something fresh in this, Besant.
     
The game's weapons, ranging from a dagger to a diamond spear.
      
Outdoors, the game is set on a map of Britain. Iconographically, it also looks like Ultima. In addition to the six menu cities, there are 11 hidden locations that you have to find by literally stepping on every square of the map. You get some hints as to the locations of some of these places, but because finding them all is vital to winning the game, you can't take a chance of missing any of them. You've got to literally walk on every square. The area is 72 x 42 at its maximums, but owing to water and mountains, only about half of that area, or around 1,500 squares, is explorable.
  
The hidden locations each open to their own indoor 16 x 16 maps, some with monsters, some with traps, all with locked doors that you have to pick, all with a handful of NPCs who deliver one line of dialogue.
      
Getting a hint from an NPC.
     
Combat outdoors only happens if you step on a forest square. Either indoors or outdoors, combat consists of a number of rounds in which you can attack, parry, or cast a spell. When killed, enemies deliver a paltry number of gold pieces.

I didn't explore spells, but as far as I can tell, they're basically an alternative to weapons for spellcasters. You can purchase, lock, and load up to three spells at a time. You cast them in combat the same way you swing a weapon; once purchased, they never run out, and there are no magic points or other limitations to how many you can cast.
     
Fighting a bandit in the forest.
    
At this point, I should mention that Danse Macabre is really two games happening at the same time. The first game is the RPG in which you fight, kill, and use your winnings to improve your weapons, armor, skills, attributes, and hit points in town. (Hit points are purchased directly from a sorcerer in "Burningham" or purchased by paying and praying to the god Belenos, which has a chance of failure.) The thing about the RPG half of the game is that it's almost entirely superfluous, since fleeing from battle works about 95% of the time in the first round and 100% of the time within two rounds. The only exception is the game's final battle, which would catch you unprepared if you spent most of the game just fleeing.
     
Contacting the gods. Belenos heals you; the other two give you an Amulet of Armor.
     
To get yourself into shape for that final battle, you do have to engage in a bit of character development, but there are a couple of ways to circumvent actually grinding for all that money. The first is to exploit the gambling system. You can save-scum and play the regular gambling game or put all your earnings into paying Tebaldeo the Thief to improve your "cheat at gambling" skill. However, there's an even easier way: for some reason, the first three types of armor sell for more money than they cost. You can just stand in the armory and alternate the "B" and "V" keys to get all the money that you need.
    
You can improve your skills at the university.
      
So that leaves the second half of the game, which is a very basic adventure. You visit each of the 11 hidden locations, talk to the NPCs, and occasionally trade items with them. The 11 locations, in the order that you need to win, are:
   
  • The MacGregor House. This is just one square northwest of London. There are no enemies and two NPCs. Miss Mac Gregor says: "There's talk of a powerful wizard who is always good to consult." Mr. Mac Gregor says: "Ard lives in Cornwall."
      
Starting my explorations in the Mac Gregor mansion.
      
  • The House of Ard. Technically in Devon, not Cornwall, on the northwest edge of Dartmoor. There are no enemies. Ard's mother says: "My son is not an assassin." His sister offers: "He hid in a place where only magic will be able to remove him."
      
Stumbling upon the House of Ard.
     
  • The Realm of Gnomes. Nestled in some mountains in Wales. There are no enemies. A small man sitting on a throne says, "I am the king of gnomes." An old gnome says, "There is an ancient city in Scotland that is now abandoned." A young man with an enraptured look says, "Leuse." I'm not sure what that means. As far as I can tell, it's not a French word. Anyway, this young man takes your starting diamond and gives you a love potion.
  • The Manor of Als the Vampire. No enemies. Als the Vampire cries because the woman he loves doesn't want him. The woman cries over her situation. The solution is to give Als the love potion, which he exchanges for the Skull of Lixit, which is supposed to bring luck to the unlucky.
      
A mummy attacks as I explore one of the dungeons.
      
  • The Inn of Illumination. There are no monsters in this tavern. The patrons give you clues about the love potion and the Skull of Lixit. A card player named Gorex, destined to always lose, gratefully accepts the Skull of Lixit in exchange for the Cube of Ultimate Magic. You have to come back here at the end.
  • The Sewer of Death. This charmingly-named location is in the Yorkshire Dales north of Leeds. I'm not sure it's actually necessary. Amidst battling (or fleeing from) slimy octopuses, giant slugs, sewer worms, and generic slimes, you learn to "watch out for the slimy octopuses" and " equilibrium is made up of neutrality and the law."
  • The Northern Abyss. This is way up in the Scottish Highlands, practically to John O'Groats. It's a tough dungeon, with major and minor demons, demoscorpuses, and small dragons. Here, you meet Asmodeus, Master of the Infernal Armies, who yells at you for disturbing his work. But he happily takes the Demonological Cube and gives you a Wand of Fire. The first time I visited Asmodeus, I was attacked by a dragon right after speaking to him, and I could neither hit him in combat nor flee the battle. He whittled down my hit points and killed me in six rounds. I spent some time buffing before attempting the area again, but the second time I didn't face an inescapable dragon.
      
I couldn't get past this battle the first time.
       
  • The Necropolis of Gaar. This is in Lincolnshire, right about where Lincoln is. The dungeon is full of skeletons, ghosts, mummies, and other undead, plus a number of unavoidable traps. An undertaker offers: "The Master of Chaos does not have total power." A man with a shadowy face says: "Find the City of Sewers. A man can tell you." Finally, a man of ice says, "I am a representative of the people of winter. I know to be very cautious." Whatever he's talking about, he takes the Wand of Fire and returns a crystal butterfly.
  • The House of Dreams. Some kind of abbey west of Aberdeen in Scotland. A man says, "Our lady is sad to have lost her pendant." The lady is a young woman in white who takes the crystal butterfly and hands over the Stone of Law. 
     
What is legal about a stone?
      
  • The Temple of Chaos. Another Highlands dungeon, this one in the northwest. The only NPC is the Master of Chaos, who takes the Cube of Ultimate Magic in exchange for the Stone of Chaos.
     
I speak to the Master of Chaos.
    
  • The Black City. This is right on top of Castle Douglas in Galloway. You fight or flee from centipedes, bats, giant rats, thieves, and assassins in this area. An old woman warns you that, "Hell is a forbidden place." A blind man with empty eye sockets comments, "There is a place where they celebrate chaos." Finally, the black blacksmith (he dresses in black) takes the Stone of Chaos and gives you the Stone of Neutrality. 
      
At this point, the character has the Stone of Neutrality and the Stone of Law, both of which are needed for "balance," which according to an old man in the Inn of Illumination is necessary to find Ard. (The game's concept of "balance" is odd; you'd think it would require law and chaos, not law and neutrality.) Most players will be stuck here. After re-visiting each dungeon and verifying that none of the NPCs want either stone, then bumbling about for a while trying to figure out anything else to do, I inspected the code and figured out the problem. The next NPC is the old man (the one who polishes a pentacle) in the Inn of Illumination, but the game's code has him looking for the pierre de neutralite, while what you have in your inventory is the pierre de la neutralite. The extra la prevents him from recognizing it. I edited the save game file to remove the la, and it worked. After giving the stone to the old man, he teleported me to a new dungeon.
      
I think I got the short end of the stick on this one.
     
The new dungeon had no enemies and one NPC: "The ferryman of the ages." I gave him the Stone of Law, and he gave me Ard. I guess Ard was dead and the ferryman brought him back from the land of the dead? Who knows.
  
The final dungeon looks a little like a face but not quite.
       
I didn't have a chance to question Ard; he immediately attacked. There was no way to escape this battle, so it's a good thing I didn't ignore character improvements throughout the game, as it lasted about a dozen rounds and cost me nearly 100 hit points. Eventually, I killed him. This message appeared:
     
You regard for a moment the corpse of Ard. And you feel a doubt (a little late) about his true guilt. The evil character of this man does not escape you, but did he commit this crime? With such doubt in mind, you return to the Mac Gregor mansion. You are not surprised to find that it is abandoned.
  
What really happened? Why were you deceived? The future will answer this question in Danse Macabre II.
     
The funny thing is, the game's code gives the announced sequel a subtitle: The Litanies of Satan. This does not appear in the game's message, though.
       
The winning message.
    
I have no idea what to make of the bizarre story. Ever since we discovered that Tera: la Cité des Crânes was a pastiche of themes and names from Michael Moorcock books, I've been on the lookout for such adaptation. I can't find the source for this game, but it feels like that kind of borrowing--one in which the original made a lot more sense. 

In a GIMLET, I give the game:
   
  • 2 points for the game world. The story is unique, but I also couldn't really follow it, and it didn't make use of its geographic or temporal setting.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. You have a lot of options, and because I played a paladin, I missed some of them, like the ability to mix potions or cast spells. Any "development" is mostly wasted except for the final battle.
      
Glasgow has this whole potion-creation mechanic that I didn't understand or explore.
   
  • 2 points for NPCs.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. The enemies are not memorable.
  • 2 points for combat. Other classes had some options I didn't get to explore.
       
Trading blows with Ard in the final combat.
   
  • 1 point for equipment, a very basic set.
  • 3 points for economy. As the primary mechanism of character development, it remains relevant.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. There's no sound, but the graphics are at least functional, and the keyboard interface works fine. Available commands are usually listed on screen.
  • 2 points for gameplay. Though linear, not replayable, and mostly too easy, it at least doesn't linger.
    
That's a subtotal of 20, not awful but not recommended, but subtracting a point for the bug for a final score of 19.
     
The game has nothing to do with the themes on this advertisement.
       
The game is credited to Jérome Noirez, with graphics by Olivier Lebourg. I believe that Noirez is the same man who became a relatively well-known author of science fiction and children's novels. He would have been 17 when Danse Macabre came out. His life and career alas took an unfortunate turn with a child pornography conviction in 2013. Lebourg went on to a long career as a graphic artist, filmmaker, and editor. He was a producer at Dark Horse Comics and Cryo Interactive in the late 1990s and early 2000s; as such, he has credits on Cheese Cat-Astrophe Starring Speedy Gonzales (1995), Hard Boiled (1997), and Hellboy: Dogs of the Night (2000). Funlight Software seems to have only existed for this game, and if there was a Danse Macabre II, the world has lost all memory of it. Plenty of sites say that even this one was never released, although advertisements and at least one physical copy have turned up.
  
I don't know what any of this has to do with the Danse Macabre, an artistic theme from the late Middle Ages, eager to remind us that we're all going to die someday. As one year dissolves into another, perhaps there's a lesson for a CRPG addict to take from this genre. I'd better play as many RPGs as I can.
   
 

52 comments:

  1. Wow, thank you, this one I've never heard about. How do you unearth those games?!

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    Replies
    1. Oh, and 'souffle' could mean 'vitality'

      Delete
    2. I think a fitting translation for "souffle" (breath) here would be "stamina".

      Also, I wonder if "leuse" could be verlan for "seul" (alone), but that's a bit stretching it. I'm not sure it fits the context.

      Delete
    3. Maybe souffle classes are those with high experience requirements for levels, so they don't rise very often.

      Delete
    4. In this case, minando, I was alerted to the game by commenter Narwhal, who saw a video of it.

      Nice joke, Mento!

      krys, I think something went amiss with that dialogue, and we ended up just getting the last bit of a longer word.

      Delete
    5. Pretty nuts that you play a game in a foreign language with a game breaking bug and finish it anyway.

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    6. Yes, and I am sorry for that. Though honestly it made for a pretty fun entry. The game looked better on the video. Also it was apparently released by "Ubi Soft" as it was called then - according to said video anyway.

      You get to force me to play any obscure wargame you find in the future and and that I try to toss aside. Especially if it is in a foreign language.

      Delete
    7. Isn't English technically a foreign language? ;-)

      Delete
  2. Hmmm, I don't know - apart from easiness of fleeing and the armor cost issue, both of which are probably bugs, it seems to me a lot more "normal" than a regular French RPG.

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    Replies
    1. Agreed, in comparison to some of the mechanically weird French RPGs we've seen, this one is really normal.

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    2. It seems to me like the normal level of weirdness compared to most Ultima-style games we've seen. Perhaps a little bit of Paragon's habit of putting too many skills into a game sprinkled in.

      Delete
  3. This video playthrough has a few additional comments for the game. One by Olivier Lebourg's brother who mentions that an Atari version was attempted but not completed. Someone else mentions buying this game back in the day, so it must have been commercially available in some form.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paMOLjAqywM

    I tried playing this myself but couldn't make any sense of it (I did discover the armor bug and it made me quit, as it made combat pointless). I'm impressed that you finished this one.

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    Replies
    1. I'm just happy I successfully found the problem. There was a time I would have required help with that sort of thing.

      Delete
  4. That love potion quest is a bit weird. You're basically complicit in facilitating the rape of that woman.

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    Replies
    1. I thought of this , but also question the wisdom of giving the Lord of Chaos Ultimate Magical Power

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    2. Yeah, that whole quest seems way more evil than the murder mystery you're actually trying to solve. Then again, it was the 1400's...

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    3. It's an interesting philosophical question. I suppose it depends on what a "love" potion really is. If it's just a fancy way of saying a roofie, then of course it's rape, but if it actually changes one's biochemistry into someone who now wants to have sex with the other person, is that really rape just because the pre-potion person wouldn't have done it?

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    4. It would be if you changed their desire without their knowledge and consent, but it wouldn't be if they willingly took the potion knowing what it is.

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    5. And there's, you know, the whole vampirism thing...

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    6. Meh. I think vampirism is, ultimately, kind of a victimless crime. Sure, you stole someone's blood and probably damned their soul, but they don't need those anymore anyway right? Plus they get immortality, a bunch of super powers, and ultimate goth cred out of the deal. At worst they're breaking even IMO. Sure, every once in a while you get a vampire who's all "woe is me i am cursed", but mostly they're all "haha being a vampire rules fuck yeah let's have an orgy".

      Delete
    7. It's like if someone steals your car but gives you a jetpack. You might miss some things about your old car, but... jetpack.

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    8. What if someone turns you into a vampire, but you really like watching the sunrise? That would be a curse for sure.

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    9. @JarlFrank, here a hilarious short film about a vampire suffering from seasonal depression because of sunlight deficiency: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Qei-obmpoY
      Fittingly to the subject of the post, it's in French (with English subtitles).

      Delete
    10. I am reminded of the Key and Peele Sexy Vampires skit where the guy says "I got bit on purpose, because I wanted to see future cars."

      Delete
    11. What's the difference between a love potion and a fancy meal with good wine? I'm half serious here.

      But I'm not sure forcing someone to love you is rape. Coercion, sure, but it could mean platonic kind of love only.

      Delete
  5. I laughed hard at those opening paragraphs, well played!

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  6. So if this game requires modifying the save because of an item being misnamed, would you be the first person to actually beat this game?

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    Replies
    1. Maybe with it being so obscure, but not because of the spelling. I had to sector edit the disk for Wizardry II to determine the exact wording needed to finish the quest, and this was probably late '80s on my Apple II+.

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    2. Heh, I remember using a sector editor on King's Quest 1 to find out the name of that friggin' gnome. Anyway the point is that it wasn't that hard at the time to find or learn tools to do low-level hex searches.

      Delete
    3. I still have never forgiven Roberta Williams for that one. Rumpelstiltskin...sometimes it pays to think backwards...hmm. I've got it - Nikstlitselpmur!

      Nope. Wrong.

      Despite the difficulty of spelling Rumpelstiltskin correctly as a pre-teen and then spelling it again correctly in reverse this is nowhere near the solution. You had to write down the alphabet forwards and then write down the alphabet backwards on a line underneath. Then you used the corresponding letters (A = Z, B = Y, etc.). This way, the gnome's name is "Ifnkovhgroghprm".

      And *I* was the dumb one for not figuring this out. Man, fuck you.

      Delete
    4. Actually patching a game-breaking data bug is a much higher barrier than just scanning the data for hints. I've done some data scanning in my day, and patched up stats in a couple places, but never fixed a bug...

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    5. That King's Quest puzzle is a rough one, but am I correct in remembering that it's optional? I'm pretty sure you could still finish the game without figuring it out, which seems fair to me. That's how ultra-obscure puzzle solutions should be deployed.

      Delete
    6. Yes, it is optional, unless you want the maximum score. Getting max score in older Sierra games is not easy.

      Delete
  7. the first three types of armor sell for more money than they cost. You can just stand in the armory and alternate the "B" and "V" keys to get all the money that you need.

    I still shake my head at people who can put together a game in the challenging development environment of the era and then create something with zero challenge or interest. I mean, why bother?

    the game's code has him looking for the pierre de neutralite, while what you have in your inventory is the pierre de la neutralite. The extra la prevents him from recognizing it.

    Yet more proof, if any is needed, that these people didn't play their own games. I'm not talking about subtle bugs, I'm talking about headscratchers that jump out at you on your first playthrough.

    What really happened? Why were you deceived? The future will answer this question in Danse Macabre II.

    And the trifecta is complete: an unfinished story soon to be explained in a sequel that was never going to happen.

    Despite this I love love love these small games. I just wish the creators were more often competent at achieving the goals they set for themselves. :/ It's the Dunning-Krueger effect.

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    Replies
    1. The best proof that it was never playtested is the game-breaking bug caused by a simple difference in spelling an object's name. If they had playtested it, they would have noticed the extra "la" breaking the code, but they didn't.

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    2. Frankly the whole design decision, to store inventory items as text and find them via string comparison, is baffling.

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    3. Amusingly, one of the French youtuber got stuck at the Pierre de la neutralité bug and well, did not know how to go further and stopped his long play there :

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1or2pKYgjd8

      On his obscure old French videogames blog, same problem :
      https://arkalysproject.blogspot.com/2018/07/danse-macabre-solution-partielle-video.html

      [All in French]

      Chet managed to go beyond them by fixing the bug.

      The youtube comments are actually debates on the various bugs of the game. They found the "armor trade" exploits, and from the comments it looks like Chet missed nothing by not going the magic route as apparently only one spell works.

      Delete
    4. The programmer must have been about 16 when he wrote this. I doubt there were any conscious design decisions - using the display stings as identifier is pretty much something I'd expect an inexperienced basic programmer to do.

      On the other hand, they managed to give it the Ultima look, got the game released in a box with a manual, and even got a full page review in a magazine.

      Delete
    5. Some of the most infamous code disasters in released games, iirc, come from things that WERE tested, but then at the end of testing someone made a little bitty fix for one problem and failed to replay the entire game to see what else might have been affected by it.

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    6. True. And if you're a competent programmer, if you think you can just fix this tiny little thing and it won't affect anything else, you're usually right. USUALLY. Not always though :O

      Delete
    7. While it's an MMORPG, in Everquest there was briefly once a bug that broke the shadowknight's harmtouch. It turned out to be caused by a CRAFTING change. It turns out that harmtouch and crafting both accessed some other part of the game and it wasn't either documented or was forgotten about over the years. So when they changed that other part to modify the crafting portion of the game...

      Delete
  8. Olivier Lebourg may not be into child porn like his co-author, but he's into some weird stuff. Check out his old web site on archive.org if you want to see Batman's dick.

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    Replies
    1. I mean, who doesn't want to see Batman's dick?

      Oh, that's right. Me.

      Delete
    2. I have to admit I'm mildly curious. Are we talking an artist's interpretation or, like, canonical?

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    3. It's just a stock-standard nude photograph of someone sitting backwards in a chair, who just happens to wear a batman mask.

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    4. At this point I'd be surprised if we encountered a French developer who wasn't somehow weird.

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    5. There is an issue of a canonical comic in which BatMan is naked and there's full frontal dong. He's returned from a night of crime fighting, has stripped off his suit and has his computer running a diagnostic check for injuries.
      So there's that.

      Delete
  9. Menu cities in Europe in the high middle ages? Wow, I thought that Darklands was innovative but it turns out it was just an enhanced English remake of an obscure French game all along.

    (I'm kidding of course, but something about the way you described the game really gave me Darklands vibes even if the games are nothing alike -- and of course Darklands is greatly superior )

    ReplyDelete
  10. >Burningham
    Oh no, what a waste.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Small correction: you misunderstood one of the lines on the end screen.
    It's not "You are not surprised to find that it is abandoned." The text actually says the opposite, that you are very surprised to find it abandonned.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All right, thanks. I thought I could read French okay, but I guess the beginning of the sentence is tripping me up. I read Quelle n'est pas votre surprise de decouvrir as "what is not to your surprise [is] to discover..."

      Delete

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