Saturday, February 4, 2023

Brief BRIEFs, Part 1 (plus some notes on Elden Ring)

Since I introduced the BRIEF a few years ago, I've offered such entries on a couple dozen games. Before the BRIEF, my practice had been to dismiss them at the bottoms of regular entries, or in the comments on the master list. I decided I wanted to offer at least some documentation on games that were sort of RPGs, or that actually were RPGs but I couldn't get past a technical obstacle.
BRIEFs may be brief, but they are full articles. Occasionally I come across a game that doesn't even require a BRIEF--or, to look at it another way, a game for which I want to say so little that I can't bring myself to post a separate article about it. This entry is for those games.
Le Diamant de l'Ile Maudite
"The Diamond of the Cursed Isle"
Loriciels (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for Oric, 1985 for Amstrad CPC
Rejected for: No attributes, no character development
Diamant is a graphical text adventure that takes place on the titular Cursed Isle. The backstory indicates that the island was discovered by an English explorer named Steven Smith in 1925. Smith believed it was the cradle of a lost civilization. The character confirms this early on, as the game starts him facing a stone tower and ends deep underground. His quest is to retrieve the titular diamond while fighting various monsters and solving inventory puzzles. 
Yep, I guess people probably lived here.
The game doesn't look bad as early-1980s text adventures go. It deserves some credit for the parser, which autofills verbs and nouns after you've typed a few letters. Each location has four facing directions, offering a sense of first-person immersion that was rare in 1984. It's as much of an RPG, however, as Zork. Whoever contributed it to MobyGames must have thought that the presence of a "life" score must mean it's an RPG.
Picking up a mace.
This is the kind of game that I might quickly play if it was in English. I can read French okay, but I have to look up just enough words that I don't want to spend the time.
This is the only game I can find credited to authors Bertrand d'Armagnac and Frédéric Baille. The version I downloaded also gives one of the authors as "J. P. Belmondo," but I assume that's a "cracktro" screen, as it also assigns the copyright to "Walt Dysney." Anyone interested in the game who speaks French will want to watch this interview with Mr. d'Armagnac.

Legacy of the Wizard
AKA Dragon Slayer IV: Draslefamily (Japan)
Nihon Falcom (developer and publisher)
Released 1987 for MSX and NES in Japan, 1989 for NES in North America
Rejected for: Insufficient character development
A side-scrolling action game, part of the Dragon Slayer series in Japan. Five members of the Drasle family take it upon themselves to prevent the release of an ancient dragon named Keela. The player can flexibly switch from among the five characters (including a pet monster) to use their various strengths. Collectively, they must find four crowns that unlock the way to the fabled weapon DragonSlayer before taking on the dragon. I have no idea how the U.S. title makes sense.
I won the first Dragon Slayer game and played a bit of the second one, but like many series that start as RPGs, this one seems to have shed that status along the way. Based on what I read, the "RPG elements" in Legacy consist of inventory improvements and "power-ups." It appears from the screen that maximum life can increase (which I don't regard as sufficient character development to be an RPG), but I'm not sure how, as the game doesn't appear to have experience points.
Doc the Destroyer
Beam Software (developer); Melbourne House (publisher)
Released 1987 for Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum
Rejected for: No character development
I don't know why Australians are so attracted to fiction involving post-apocalyptic wastelands. This one is set centuries after an environmental disaster. Survivors live under an oppressive dome and have reverted to barbarism (everyone walks around wearing a loincloth and carrying a club). Doc the Destroyer wants to lead his people back to the surface world. The primary mechanism of the game is side-view action combat.
This one fails to meet my definitions on technical grounds. You set attributes (strength, intelligence, endurance, charisma, and luck) upon character creation, but they don't improve during the game (unless I missed something). I was tempted to play it anyway, as there are RPG-like role-playing options . . . 
I imagine "Charisma" and "Intelligence" are used in these scenarios.
. . . but I had trouble getting either version to emulate properly. (Screenshots are from YouTuber joe morris's brief coverage.) I'm sure the issues are solvable given the videos that cover the game, but sometimes emulation problems are doing me a favor.
Thoughts on Elden Ring
A couple of weeks ago, I did something somewhat stupid and bought an Xbox Series X and Elden Ring. I had tried Dark Souls II a few years ago and Lords of the Fallen, so it's not like I didn't know what I was getting into. I have read virtually nothing about the game online so as to avoid spoilers. A few notes:
  • In terms of backstory and setting, this is easily the most confusing game I have ever played. The introductory cinematic is just some guy shouting names. I'm about 15 hours into it, and I still have no idea what a "Tarnished" is. I like games where you have to piece together the story and lore from obscure clues, but I'm starting to lose faith that there are enough of those to make sense out of.
  • "Queen Marika the Eternal is nowhere to be found." Neither is anyone else. Does anyone actually live in this world? Who do these wandering merchants trade with? Does this game have anything like a town?
  • It doesn't appear that enemies scale, and I like that if you have trouble with a boss, you can run off and grind for a while and then try again.
  • That Tree Sentinel is one of the cruelest enemies in any RPG. It's like the authors said to each other, "Let's give the player no doubt as to what kind of game he's playing."
  • I started off with a "wretch," who begins at Level 1 with no equipment, mostly because I like the early-game experience of assembling your kit piece by piece. But I had so much trouble that I restarted and chose a "vagabond," who starts at Level 10 and a bunch of armor. Oddly, I didn't find him much easier. Character development is extremely incremental.
  • I have no idea if I'm "leveling" my character appropriately. I was going for a balanced character, but I guess that was a mistake given how hard I'm finding the boss fights.
  • I don't necessarily mind that boss fights require you to try multiple times and "git gud." I do mind that a) the game gives you a "dodge" mechanic that doesn't seem to let you dodge a single boss attack; and b) the game gives you healing potions but makes the drinking animation takes so long that you always get hit while you're trying to take one. It took me a long time to learn that bosses have to be fought with pure offense.
  • I'm never going to enjoy this system of quasi-saving where you get to keep your equipment when you die but not your experience unless you go and find it at the place you died. For that matter, I don't really care for the confusing auto-saving in games like Assassin's Creed and Grand Theft Auto, either. I want a damned "Save" option. And when I reload a save, I want it to be as if everything that happened after the save point never happened. 
So, yeah, this sort of game really isn't for me. And yet the visuals are so stunning and the monsters so interesting that the game has kept my interest. Plus, defeating Margit the Fell Omen last night gave me a sense of accomplishment that I don't get from a lot of RPGs.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Game 483: Ultima VII: Part Two - Serpent Isle (1993)

The main title screen . . .
Ultima VII: Part Two - Serpent Isle
United States
ORIGIN Systems, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS
Date Started: 29 January 2023
Over the course of almost a dozen previous games, Origin has demonstrated a certain lack of forward-thinking when it comes to the lore of Ultima. They're only ever interested in the current title. They rarely plant seeds for future games. Expansion of the game world is always through retcon--often a needless one that creates conflict in the series' history and geography. For a more thorough analysis of what I'm talking about, see my first entry on Ultima VI: The False Prophet, but we've discussed plenty of other examples in relation to Ultima VII: The Black Gate and the two Ultima Underworld titles.
. . . and the subtitle screen. "The Silver Seed" is an expansion that I'll talk about later.
Nonetheless, I can almost believe that elements of Serpent Isle were plotted all the way back to Exodus: Ultima III (1983). I know they weren't, but this is how to do a retcon well. Find obscure references that you made in previous titles and bring them to the forefront, even if that's not what you originally intended. Star Wars has done this well in places (and, of course, not so well in others). Think of how an obscure reference to "The Clone Wars" in A New Hope spawned the entire prequel trilogy and television series, or how Yoda's "No, there is another" paved the way for the revelation of Leia as Luke's sister. Writing good serial fiction is a process of either a) scripting everything from the beginning, or b) planting a lot of seeds and deciding later which ones you're going to harvest, and how you're going to use them.
I thus have to give credit to the many Ultima authors for planting such seeds in the form of snake or serpent symbolism throughout the previous games. I went back through my notes and entries and what I could find online, and I made a list of all the times that we've seen snakes or serpents as something other than foes to be killed. Let me know if you think I missed any:
  • Ultima (1981) has the City of the Snake in the Land of the Feudal Lords.
  • Starting in Exodus: Ultima III (1983), the game manual has an illustration on the cover that shows an ornamental disc with a serpent in the middle.  I suspect Richard Garriott was influenced by depictions of "world serpents" in various mythologies, including Norse (Jórmangandr) and Hindu (Shesha).
  • In Ultima III, the ocean entrance to Exodus's castle is blocked by a giant silver snake. The party has to find the Mark of the Snake in the Dungeon of the Snake to pass it. The Ultima IV manual explicitly names this snake as the Great Earth Serpent.
  • Both the game maps for Ultima III and Ultima IV (1985) have serpents in the oceans in the margins.
  • Ultima IV's spellbook has the same serpent on the cover but without the disk around it. Ultima V's (1988) has a smaller version underneath an image of a scepter and crown.
  • Ultima IV's reconfigured Britannia has the Serpent's Spine (mountains north of Castle Britannia) and Serpent Castle (later Serpent's Hold), headquarters of the Order of the Silver Serpent.
  • The illustration of the druid in the Ultima IV manual shows her carrying a serpentine staff. But more importantly, the illustration of Lord British sitting in his throne shows serpents on the upper corners of his chair back and more on the tapestry behind him.
And on his crown, too! Jesus, man, we get it.
  • An illustration in the Ultima V manual depicts Lord British meeting with his councilors at a table with a huge tapestry of a serpent (the same from the Ultima III cover) behind them. 
  • In, Ultima VI (1990), we're told that the official currency of Britannia has Lord British's face on the front and a serpent on the back. The game also gives the knights of the Order of the Silver Serpent a special serpent shield.
  • In Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992), Gwenno has left a note for Iolo that she's gone to find Serpent Isle. When you defeat Batlin, he says: "Return to your precious Earth and rest. Sleep, that [the Guardian] may visit your dreams with countless visions of death in the belly of the Great Sea Serpent."
  • In Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds (1993), several characters invoke "the Serpent" in oaths. Dupre says: "By the Serpent, Avatar!" Julia says: "Thank the Serpent thou didst find the ice caves." Patterson also says "thank the Serpent" at one point, and a guard shouts "by the Serpent!" in response to Patterson's death.
  • Also in Labyrinth of Worlds, goblins have arrived in the Britannian sewers through the portal gem from an unknown place. They give the Avatar a blackrock serpent statue (although I never got this in my game).
The last four references on this list are to Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld II, and by the time those games were released, the plot of Serpent Isle must have been known. The references are quite deliberate. But what to make of the earlier ones? You don't put serpents on your throne, banners, clothes, and currency unless you're making a clear reference to something. There is, in short, some serious serpent worship going on in Britannia. And yet the developers, not exactly known for their subtlety, somehow managed to keep it low-key across multiple games.
I'd love to know what the Avatar has been doing during this time.
Serpent Isle takes all of these clues and weaves a plot out of them. The introductory cinematic has the game taking place 18 months after the end of The Black Gate and the "dismantling of The Fellowship" that had been led by the oily Batlin. On a dark and stormy night, one of Lord British's guards (perhaps Geoffrey himself) approaches him in the halls of Castle Britannia.
"My liege," he says, taking a knee, "all we found among Batlin's belongings was this enchanted scroll--and a map showing the way to a place called the Serpent Isle."
This seems like a lot of sorcery to convey a simple message.
"Indeed," Lord British responds. "Put it on the table." The guard does so, and the scroll immediately bursts into flame, prompting British to cry, "Stand back!"
The flames swirl into the air and resolve into the face of the Guardian, who says: "Batlin! In the unlikely event the Avatar stops me from coming through the Black Gate, I command you follow the unwitting female human Gwenno to the Serpent Isle. There, I shall outline my plan to destroy Britannia."
"'Tis my worst fear," Lord British says. "I must send the Avatar through the pillars to the Serpent Isle." The cinematic shows a boat, presumably the Avatar's, sailing along a narrow rivulet cut into pack ice. The ship approaches two enormous pillars with sculpted snakes coiled around them. As it reaches the point between the pillars, it disappears in a flash.
How did the passage get cut in the ice in the first place, one wonders.
It's a decent setup for the game, but as usual, Origin manages to be ham-handed with it. Some thoughts:
  • It has nothing to do with the story, but I'll mention here that Origin didn't change the awful "Lord British presents" giraffe-print pre-title screen that we discussed in this entry. Literally every stylistic choice on this screen is horrible. 
"This Ringling Brothers production of . . . "
  • Why did Lord British have this enormous room constructed to contain a single table? 
  • Why did it take Lord British's men 18 months to search Batlin's place?
  • "Female human"? Did the Guardian get his skin color by swallowing too many pills?
  • Why create a scroll that produces a visual message? Why not, you know, just write the message on the scroll? Or why couldn't the Guardian just tell Batlin directly, as he's clearly done in the past? (Likely counter: the message is clearly a trap. "Outline my plan to destroy Britannia" is a little too on-the-nose.)
  • This is the first mention, I think, of having to sail through "pillars" to reach the Serpent Isle. Why is this necessary? Where were these pillars before, and why couldn't I find them in The Black Gate? Why not just make Serpent Isle accessible through a moongate like everything else in this universe?
  • Of course, I'm hardly the first person to point out that the most notable part of the cinematic is the voice acting. Richard Garriott himself (creator of Ultima and president of ORIGIN, for new readers) voices Lord British. It is a strong contender for the worst voice acting in the history of video games. (See if you agree.) I can only imagine that Garriott must have been a terrifying boss and no one had the nerve to tell him that they needed another take.
Perhaps the most significant issue that I have with the game is the title. This is not Part Two of anything. The Black Gate was a complete game in itself, and Serpent Isle is even longer. (That's based partly on recollection, but HowLongToBeat puts Gate at 37.5 hours and Isle at 52.5.) I know ORIGIN's policy, or perhaps Garriott's, was to only give new numbers to games that had new engines, but this is a little extreme. They made updates and improvements to the Black Gate engine and created an entirely new world with new NPCs, items, and quests. There was no reason not to call it Ultima VIII
I don't really have any screenshots to go with this section, so here's the party arriving.
I could see using Part Two for a game set again in Britannia, with the same landscape as The Black Gate, in which the Avatar goes around undoing the damage done by the Fellowship. (And perhaps the events of Ultima Underworld II besides; we never did find out whether the invasion of Britannia outside the blackrock dome was a lie or not.) I would have actually liked to see such a game. ORIGIN spent four games in a row on the same continent, and the one time I think it would have been most thematically justified to keep the same geography, they go and pull the player into a different universe.
These are relatively minor quibbles, though. Let's turn to the manual to get back on a positive track. The world-building, as usual, is fantastic. For the second time in a row, Origin manages to tell the player how to play the game in the context of a deliciously subversive manual that builds the lore of the setting by showing rather than telling. The manual is called Beyond the Serpent Pillars, ostensibly written by a mage named Erstam.
Erstam's history reaches back to the First Age of Darkness in Ultima, when "eight great kingdoms coexisted, often uneasily." He's referring to the continents of the first game, although there were only four of them: The Lands of Danger and Despair ("Shamino's kingdom," Erstam mentions), The Lands of the Dark Unknown, The Lands of the Feudal Lords, and The Lands of Lord British. When Mondain was destroyed by The Stranger, the resulting unleashing of dangerous magic destroyed all but The Lands of Lord British, which became known as Sosaria after the collective name for the previous world.
More dialogue from the arrival.
We've heard this story before, but like Batlin in The Black Gate's manual, Erstam has a Perspective. We've already learned that he fled Sosaria because he considered Lord British's rule "tyrannical." He criticizes British for being "unable to marshal his own forces" to deal with Mondain, instead inviting "an outsider" to handle things. He continues in this vein, decrying British's impotence in dealing with both Minax and Exodus.
But his worst criticism comes from the period between Ultima III and Ultima IV, when Lord British "forced" the world to unite under his rule--a rule that soon turned theocratic. "In the name of these virtues, Lord British turned ethics into law--his ethics and his law." A large collection of separatists, representing the populations of Fawn, East and West Montor, and Moon, decided to leave. Erstam had discovered that some of the pre-cataclysm lands had survived beyond the Serpent Pillars, and he led an exodus from Britannia to this world, leaving the "Beast British" behind. Erstam not only explains why those cities are found in III but not IV, but he also anticipates my objection to the pillars: "Stories mentioned that the pillars would rise only when both moons were above the horizon; some said the sun itself must be visible. Yet other tales suggested that the pillars would only appear in the depths of winter."
Unlike the history of Britannia presented by Batlin in The Black Gate, Erstam's is entirely reasonable. In fact, I find his interpretation of past events more trustworthy than what we get in the manuals for every Ultima up through VI. I've levied many of the same criticisms myself:  Lord British is an autocrat; Lord British is impotent; the people of Britannia ought to be able to do more for themselves; the way the people of Ultima IV treat the eight virtues (especially the organization of the cities around them) is a little cultish.
Did Exodus's kidnapping of the Great Earth Serpent cause the Ophidian War? How did Exodus even accomplish this?
Erstam and his fellow emigres left Britannia after the events of Exodus, so he doesn't provide a summary of the other Ultima titles. Instead, he gives a background of Serpent Isle, the continent his expedition found beyond the pillars. The continent was abandoned, but it held the remains of a past civilization called the Ophidians. A scroll told the fate of the people who lived there. Their society was structured around principles of balance, symbolized by the Great Earth Serpent. They believed that the three forces of chaos--Tolerance, Enthusiasm, and Emotion--could be reconciled with the three forces of order--Ethicality, Discipline, and Logic--to form Harmony, Dedication, and Rationality. Something happened to upset this balance, however, and the Ophidians were destroyed in the resulting war.
Erstam's party, meanwhile, quarreled among themselves and split off to found cities named after the ones they'd left on Sosaria: Fawn, Monitor, and Moonshade. Each has its own society, culture, and currency. I'll reference the manual more as we encounter various people and places in-game.
Character creation is as simple as in The Black Gate. You specify a name. Instead of a sex, you choose from among six portraits, three male and three female. The male ones are all awful. The canonical long-blond haired guy looks even dumber than usual, but it's better than the greasy-haired drug-user or the guy in his 50s clearly modeled after Paul Winfield. The women look much better, although the middle one looks a bit sinister. 
Three badass women and the younger brothers living in their basements.
The game begins with the Avatar's ship literally crash-landing on a foreign coast, the teleporter between the pillars having apparently propelled it through the air. The party, consisting of Iolo, Dupre, and Shamino, starts commenting on the crash, the colder climate, and the search for Iolo's wife, Gwenno, as well as the evil Batlin. There also seems to be a strange storm afoot, with snow flurries punctuated with lightning.
"Or her body, at least," the Avatar helpfully adds.
We walk off the ship and find ourselves on a grassy coast. Mountains block movement to the north and east, leaving only the south open for travel. A check of inventory shows that for the first time in an Ultima game, Lord British has equipped us properly. The Avatar has:
The Black Sword from the Forge of Virtue expansion. It is upset about being in the new world.
What a whiny sword. Give me Lilarcor any day.
  • A magic shield, leggings, armor, boots, and helm.
  • An ankh amulet.
  • A pocket watch.
  • A spellbook full of spells, but I can't cast any of them because I guess I don't have any reagents. Doh. There are also no "cantrips" as in The Black Gate. You only get the "Great" versions of "Douse" and "Ignite."
I'm not sure how useful these ninth-level spells will be to my third-level Avatar.
  • A glass sword.
  • The blackrock serpent that I was supposed to have gotten from the goblins in Labyrinth of Worlds.
  • Rudyom's wand, which makes blackrock explode (though curiously not the serpent; I tried).
  • In Dupre's hands, the Magebane sword and Dupre's Shield.
  • In Shamino's hands, a magic bow and 34 burst arrows.
  • Iolo's item configuration is strange: he has his lute in one hand, a pair of leather pants in another (despite the fact that he's wearing chain leggings), and a crossbow in his pack. Why is he carrying a random pair of pants?
  • Regular armor for the non-Avatar characters.
  • Several items of food.
  • Half a dozen torches.
  • A combined 120 gold coins and a gold nugget.
  • A note from Lord British explaining the most significant items in case the player didn't get them in the previous games.
"Doth make blackrock to explode"? Is English your first language, Lord British?
The Avatar, Dupre, and Shamino start the game at Level 3, and Iolo at Level 2. I guess they've spent the last 18 months letting their skills rot. The Avatar has 25 intelligence for some reason, and 18 strength and dexterity. The companions have a different balance of attributes. Shamino is 1 point less intelligent than the Avatar, but Dupre is 4 points stronger and Shamino is 5 points more dexterous.
The interface hasn't changed much from The Black Gate. If graphics have changed at all, they're too subtle for me to discern. You still get the excellent full-screen exploration window, with the mouse used along with hotkeys to call up inventory, character stats, and dialogue, and to activate combat. Movement can be by mouse or keyboard. The only major change is that the paperdoll inventory portraits show items equipped on the characters rather than just occupying certain character slots. It's an improvement, but not a huge one. No complaints here, however, as the interface to The Black Gate was one of the best parts of the game.
I think I'll wrap up here and get into the opening gameplay hours next time. As we contemplate heading south, my party feels confident that they're equipped to face anything this new land has to offer. 

Monday, January 30, 2023

Game 482: Knight's Quest (1991)

Knight's Quest
United States
Independently developed; published by Softdisk (via Loadstar 128 magazine)
Released 1991 for Commodore 128
Date Started: 24 January 2023 
Date Ended: 2 February 2023
Total Hours: 6 (not won)
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
In my reviews of Spirit of Excalibur (1990) and Vengeance of Excalibur (1991), I talked a bit about my experience with Arthurian romance. It was a passion of mine while I was in college, although it had nothing to do with my degree. I probably spent more time researching the development of Arthurian legends than I spent on the studies I was paying for. 
In many ways, the typical Arthurian story is tailor-made for an RPG. Whether you're reading the romances of Chrétien de Troyes, like Lancelot or Yvain, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal, or the middle sections of the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles, Sir Thomas Malory, or Edmund Spenser, the stories follow a predictable pattern. There's an inciting event that causes a renowned knight to head off on a "main quest." Said quest is resolved in the end, but along the way, the knight has innumerable random adventures, often with mystical elements. Yvain meets a lion that becomes his companion. Lancelot finds a mysterious pavilion in the forest, intercedes in an act of domestic violence, or escapes a murderous woman who kills knights in their sleep. A temptress tries to get Sir Bors to break his vows of chastity. Pellinore is always after the enigmatic Questing Beast. Even Arthur gets distracted by a hunt for a giant on the way to the Roman War. And in addition to copious tournaments, knights joust with each other just about every time they meet in the field.
This game has a Questing Beast, too.
Many RPGs evoke the spirit of such legends, but Knight's Quest is perhaps the first to do it literally, with random encounters and side quests drawn directly from Arthurian sources. It appears that author Jon Mattson (a prolific Loadstar contributor who wrote Labyrinth the same year) was as much of a fan of the Arthurian stories as I was. He doesn't set the game explicitly in Arthurian Britain, but the names and themes are familiar. Quest is an independent game, and a diskmag one at that, and there are times that it can't quite meet its goals, but I love the setup and had a great time for a few hours.
This is not an option you get in a lot of CRPGs.
The game world and content are highly randomized: Mattson wanted to create something that he could enjoy playing himself, alone or with his wife--something with "indefinite replay value." Your first step in loading the game is to create a game world and name it. The setup program randomizes the terrain and the locations of cities. You then start a new game within the game world; you can have multiple games going within each world. The algorithm used to create terrain could have been more sophisticated. You mostly get a completely random allocation of grass, forest, swamp, hill, and mountain tiles. I've never written such an algorithm, but I think you'd want to give a higher probability of identical terrain occurring in adjacent squares to create larger forests, mountain ranges, and so forth.
Exploring the new land.
Character creation has you specify a name and then allocate points to seven attributes: prowess, speed, strength, health, wit, will, and charm. You start with everything at "average" ability, but you have 18 bonus points to raise the attributes to "high," "excellent," or even "prodigious." You can get more bonus points by lowering any attribute to "low," "poor," or "dismal." The role of these attributes in the game is a little ambiguous, particularly since the manual doesn't mention any of them and you don't see them once the game begins.
The fictional Chester, like the real one, gets by on wit, will, and charm.
Two players can play at once, each with a joystick and half the screen. A single player game wastes half the screen, in fact. Characters start on top of a random city with a sword, platemail, a normal shield, and between one and two dozen gold pieces. Two new attributes appear on the screen: honour and valour. Honour starts at an average level and valour at a bottom level. You must seek to improve both. Honour is like a karma meter and affects how people treat you, while valour is more like an experience level and affects your combat prowess. Each is depicted by color, with lighter colors indicating higher values.
Starting out at the city of Jagent.
Every step the character takes has a small chance of triggering an encounter. Some of the encounters I experienced include:
  • Combats with goblins, trolls, ogres, druids, duergars, brigands, wyverns, hydras, and other creatures.
  • A "crone" who turned out to be a white witch. She gave me a healing potion. But on another occasion, a crone put me to sleep for 24 hours and stole all my gold.
  • A hermit who wanted me to accompany him on a pilgrimage.
  • A dwarf who gave me 10 gold to "aid my quest."
  • Peasants who enjoyed hearing my tales.
  • A wood nymph who seduced me. I lost a couple of days.
  • A crystal pool that tempted me to drink. When I did, a water spirit attacked. In the ensuing combat, she dissolved my armor and sword and then cast a spell that made me flee. But on another occasion, a crystal pool healed all my wounds.
Note that my action is rendered in the third-person but the enemy's is rendered in the second-person.
  • A hermit who invited me to join in his prayers and healed my wounds when I did so.
  • A unicorn who healed me and inspired courage.
  • A wizard who gave me a magic sword.
  • An ogre menacing a lady. I rescued her and she agreed to be my paramour. 
Hasten this way, Aileen.
  • A beautiful lady who seduced me when I was already in a relationship with the woman above. This caused me to lose honor. 
Some random encounters lead to quests. You can also get quests in taverns in cities. These are as varied as the encounters above. They often involve combat--ogres or basilisks are menacing a town, for instance. But I also had quests to waken a sleeping maiden and find a hidden treasure in a ruin.
And this is a problem? You know how much I'd give to do nothing but sleep?
In addition to all these fun Arthurian-style encounters, the game offers another surprise: a jousting simulator. You can engage in jousting when you meet another knight or when you come to a city holding a tournament. In tournaments, you compete against 10 other knights of various experience levels. There are multiple rounds of jousting at tournaments. Sometimes, you get to select your opponents and sometimes they select you. You and your opponent charge at each other across a field, and you have to select a position to aim your lance and a complementary defensive posture. As you win jousts, you gain experience that makes future jousts easier.
I'm not sure I ever figured how to interpret those diagrams properly . . .
. . . but I didn't do so badly with the defaults.
On paper, this all sounds wonderful, and I did enjoy my time with the game, but there are a few ways in which Knight's Quest doesn't fully work. First, combat is a bit simplistic and at the same time too hard. When you encounter a potential foe, the game tells you the creature type and disposition; for instance, a goblin who looks hostile, or a mercenary who looks unsure. You have options to attack, threaten, chat, bribe, yield, flee, quaff a potion, or sheath your sword. I found that threaten, chat, and bribe almost always lead to combat with neutral or hostile foes, though friendly ones often stop for a talk, even "monsters" occasionally.
Initial encounter options.
When combat begins, each round you have options to charge, attack, defend, parley, yield, flee, quaff a potion, or sheath your sword. As in many RPGs, "Charge" is supposed to favor offense over defense; "Attack" is a balanced attack; and "Defend" favors defense. In practice, I hardly noticed any difference. Even simple foes take multiple rounds to kill, and the messages come slowly. A modern player can't really crank up the emulator because then it over-reads inputs. 
Trading blows with a wyvern.
Second, I was not fond of the all-joystick control. I understand why it was necessary, as it's hard to use a keyboard in a simultaneous two-player game, but it was still a little torturous. Everything in the game is quite slow, but increasing emulation speed just causes problems when you have to run the joystick up and down the menus and land on the right command.
The jousting simulator is a nice idea, but I couldn't make it work for me. If I didn't touch anything and just let my character charge at his foes with the default offensive and defensive posture, I had greater success than when I took control and tried to aim the lance. 
But the worst problem has to do with exploration. The game has a day/night cycle like the Ultima titles it clearly draws on for graphics. At 17:00, darkness starts closing in. By 19:00, it's pitch dark, and you can't even see the square you're standing in. You don't really want to keep traveling at that point anyway because you and your horse need to rest for 8-12 hours a day to avoid collapsing from fatigue. It starts to get light again at 06:00 and is fully light at 09:00.
Some combats have multiple foes.
Every step takes one hour. Traveling through anything but easy terrain (like grass) takes multiple steps. In practice, this means that you have to stop and sleep every dozen or so moves, which translates to roughly every 20 seconds if you don't have an encounter. That's way too often to have to go through the process of activating the menu, selecting "Rest," choosing the number of hours, and waiting for those hours to pass.

While I love the variety of encounters, they are essentially random. Whether the hermit you meet turns out to be an actual hermit or a bandit, whether the wizard is good or bad, whether the pool of water is refreshing or poisonous, comes down entirely to luck. Building your honor means doing the right thing, though, so you have to deontologically approach every non-hostile creature with open arms and then roll with the punches when they inevitably punch.
More could have been done with the map features. Cities only have three options: visit a tavern, visit a temple, and visit a shop. Shops sell replacement arms, armor, and horses for when they break, get stolen, or get destroyed. They also sell healing potions and buy excess equipment. They pretend to sell magic items but never have any in stock when you ask. Taverns cost 1 gold piece to visit and often have rumors or quests. Temples are a crapshoot: sometimes they provide healing, but other times they just ask you for a donation. 
Visiting a shop.
I'm not expecting Darklands in a diskmag game, but it would be nice if there were a few other options, like visiting the governor or king (you can't even proactively do that in the capital, although some quests lead you there), resting at an inn, and so forth. Ruins are similarly wasted. Though they dot the landscape, there's no reason to visit them unless you have a specific quest directing you there.
Character development is mostly lacking. As I mentioned above, you never see your skills again once you set them, and it's unclear if they actually play a role in the game. Increases in honour and valour are supposed to improve your combat abilities, but if this is true, the effect is very subtle.
And finally, while the game's use of color might work for some people, it's not a good interface for a colorblind player. Color tells you where you stand in honour, valour, injury, and fatigue, and there are a lot of variations here that I just can't interpret. 
I tried the two-player game for a little while. In some ways, it's an impressive bit of programming. Each player uses one joystick, and while players are moving, it really is like playing two separate games side-by-side. It even handles resting well. When one player rests, the other player can keep moving as the first player remains immobile. The problem comes when either player hits the joystick button to bring up the command list, or when either player triggers an encounter. At that point, the inactive player has to sit and twiddle his thumbs while the active one makes his decisions, fights his combat, or whatever. The manual doesn't suggest that players can meet, help each other in combat, fight, or trade equipment, so I'm not sure what the point is. (I suspect that if they both show up in the same city on tournament day, they can participate in the same jousting tournament, but it would have taken a long time, trying to control two characters at once, to confirm it.) I think I'd rather just play a regular CRPG and trade turns. When I was a kid, my friend and I used to play "until someone dies," which really added some consequence to death that I haven't experienced since except in permadeath games.
Two players can move simultaneously, but they can't do anything else simultaneously.
Some other notes:
  • Sound is limited to looping musical tracks consisting of medieval-ish public-domain tunes like "Greensleeves." It's well done, but it gets (to me) repetitive.
  • You never kill foes; you "incapacitate" them.
  • Some of the quests seem to be broken and do not trigger events when you arrive at the given destination. For instance, someone might tell you that ogres are menacing Durham, but when you get to Durham, nothing happens.
Nothing, in fact, was found in Milestone.
  • You can only have one active quest at a time. If you forfeit a quest to take another one, you lose honor.
  • Every randomly-generated map randomly chooses a city as the capital. City names are drawn from real English (or European) places and some Arthurian characters: Arden, Sherbrook, Bedigraine, Durham, Bristol, Newcastle, Stafford, Brandegoris.
You can get a featureless "map" that shows the relative positions of the character and the cities.
  • The economy is pretty tight. You can loot enemies post-combat, but hardly anyone ever has anything. Potions go quickly, and some encounters strip you of gold. If nothing else, you can build honor by donating to temples.
  • If a lady agrees to be your paramour, she'll tell you what city she lives in, and you can visit her there. She occasionally will then have news of an upcoming tournament or quest.
The latter option is only available if you have a "lady."
There is a "main quest" in the game. It's supposed to be triggered when your honour and valour rise so high that both icons are white. You then visit the ailing King Morgan and get a quest that leads you to become his heir. Unfortunately, I can't seem to reach this point because of a final problem, probably having to do with emulation rather than the original game. You can save at any point outside of combat, but I find that after a certain amount of time playing a character, the game freezes when you try to save. Even if you could avoid that, it also occasionally crashes from random keypresses.
Normally, I'd use emulator save states, but I can't get save states to work for the Commodore 128 in VICE. I couldn't get them to work for Labyrinth, either. They seem to save all right, but when I load them, nothing happens. I've tried both regular and "quick" save states, and I've tried the options that have you embed the disk and ROM with the save state, but nothing seems to work. I'm not sorry that there aren't more Commodore 128 exclusives, as I almost always have trouble with the emulation. But thanks to commenter Tristan Miller for alerting me to this game and helping me with the configuration; without him, I wouldn't have gotten this far. I'm still a little fuzzy on the distinction between PAL and NTSC and why some games only work when I have "true drive emulation" enabled, some only work when I don't, and some only work when I have it enabled on autostart but not regularly, or vice versa.
I have some options that I'm going to experiment with. (Please, I am explicitly not asking for help from anyone at this point). This is really a one-entry game, but it has enough original ideas that I want to try a bit harder and experience more of it before rating it. 


Edit from 2 February 2023: I continued playing for a few hours and tried some different versions of the disk dump, but they all had the same problems above, plus some new ones, such as quests being given for cities that did not exist on the game map. I'm going to have to call it "not winnable" except by a lucky player who never has to save and doesn't encounter any of the quest bugs. It get a relatively high 27 on the GIMLET, with 2s, 3s, and 4s in most categories except for "Graphics, Sound, and Interface," where I gave it a 1 for only modest graphics, no sound except music, and a horrid joystick interface.

Time so far: 4 hours