Thursday, April 11, 2024

Game 510: Dungeon Hack (1993)

You know this is a serious game because it has two ©s, two ®s, and a "TM."
Dungeon Hack
United States
DreamForge Entertainment (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS, 1995 for PC-98
Date Started: 7 April 2024
Dungeon Hack is what I've been waiting for my whole life--a fun, replayable game of infinite variety. No more waiting for years for developers to release a new title. Just roll up a race/class/sex/alignment combination that you haven't tried before--there are 698 of them!--and a random dungeon that you haven't experienced before--there are over 4 billion of them!--then customize the dungeon to the challenge level that you want. Sure, there's no real story, but you have an imagination, don't you? Make up some narration as you go along. All you have to do is . . . 
Give me back the keyboard, you little delinquent. Sorry about that, everyone. Thirteen-year-old Chester briefly came forward and insisted on having his say. He and I have been arguing for days now. We've had debates before--usually resolved with a line or two in the "Summary and Rating"--but never before have our differences been so stark. Thirteen-year-old Chester (let's call him "Winnie," like one of his uncles did), who hasn't learned the value of time, whose days seem to stretch out endlessly instead of being calculated in hard, unforgiving hours, loves the idea of a "forever game." Winnie's already making plans to win it 698 times with one set of customizations, then turn around to do it again with another. He already has backstories in mind for half the characters. He'll somehow turn its repetitive, randomized corridors into a novel.
Dungeon Hack is much like Eye of the Beholder, but with a single character and, thus, most of the inventory options on the main screen.
Adult Chester has places to be. I don't have any idea what Red Crystal is, and I'm never going to find out if I waste time running around mazes for their own sake.
What's the difference between that and NetHack? This is "Winnie" again. I hated that nickname. That uncle ended up in prison, by the way.
Hoping for healing, my character tries a potion and instead gets confused.
That''s a better question than it seems. Until I started playing it, I thought that the word "Hack" in the game's name was a coincidence. Anything but. The game is a fusion of first-person Dungeons & Dragons games like Eye of the Beholder (1991) with roguelike elements, including potions and wands whose color and composition are randomized for each new game, random drawing of dungeon maps, and optional permadeath. Your quest, as in many roguelikes, is to find an orb. The executable to run the game is even titled HACK. 
And yet roguelikes are more than just randomization, permadeath, and potion lists that you have to re-learn. They're a full set of keyboard commands, for one thing, whereas Dungeon Hack is the second game in a row that a player has to approach with one hand on the numberpad and the other on the mouse, a contortion without an external numberpad. They're about complex inventory mechanics--or, at least, the Hack line is. I grant you that Rogue doesn't have that aspect, but it makes up for it by being short, which Dungeon Hack definitely is not. In fact, in offering the simplicity of Rogue with the length of some of its descendants, Dungeon Hack resembles Moria or Angband more than its namesake. I didn't like those roguelikes nearly as much. Winnie doesn't care about any of this, of course; he's never even played Rogue.
Winnie doesn't realize that all these locks and keys are just busywork.
The opening cinematic depicts a cross-legged woman hovering in the air before a generic adventurer, reciting (in recorded voice) a verse about an ancient orb she hopes to find. "My lady, I have answered your summons!" the adventurer announces, just as the mysterious woman divines the location of the orb: "A place of traps to crack brave bones . . . an ancient dungeon." She casts a spell that causes a little orb to shoot across the room and stick to a wall map. The adventurer gushes: "It's a strong magic that can point to maps." Is it really? I would think that would be a pretty easy spell. Incidentally, I don't think that map depicts any place in Faerün.
What about letting you levitate indefinitely in the air?
The adventurer questions her about the salary she intends to pay, but she dismisses him by saying he'll find his salary on the floor of the dungeon: "There lies gold and gem enough for any man." The adventurer protests: "You'll pay me now or I'll never get there! I need horses, supplies . . . " The woman cuts off his protests by zapping him with a teleport spell that apparently warps him directly to the dungeon. "Live or die, adventurer," she says as he disappears, "but bring the orb to me."
Our adventurer forgets what franchise he's a part of.
He appears in a swamp outside a blocky-looking dungeon, a gargoyle's head looming above the entryway. As he approaches the door on a wooden walkway, some kind of troll or similar beast leaps out of the swamp onto the walkway in front of him. In perhaps the most (unintentionally?) hilarious moment in introductory cinematic history, the adventurer reaches up and smacks the troll back into the water, barely breaking his stride. "Bring on your worst, dungeon. I am ready!" he declares, as the game transitions to the main menu.
He won't be nearly as effective once he actually gets into the dungeon.
For his character, the player has the options to create one or choose from a slate of characters with existing names and backstories. I started to recount the list of pre-made characters, but there are like 20 of them, and they're not all that interesting. I'll just observe that a couple of them (principally "Fatzon Axemaiden" and "Kathra Shallowtaint") have unfortunate names, and many of their stories don't seem to go with their alignments. We're told repeatedly that nominally good characters are only in it for the wealth, for instance. 
I mean, it would be kind of weird if . . . you know what? I'm just going to let it go.
If you want to create your own character--and of course that's what you want to do if you want to be either Chester's or Winnie's friend--your experience is governed by second-edition AD&D rules. That means race/class restrictions and level caps. Only humans can be paladins; only humans or half-elves can be bards; only humans, elves, or half-elves can be rangers. Only demi-humans can be any multi-class.
It's nice to have all the character creation options on one screen.
Bards are appearing for what I believe is the first time in an official Dungeons & Dragons title. It's a funny game to make their debut, as they don't work great as solo characters. The game also didn't implement any bard song abilities, so the bard is basically a thief who can cast the occasional spell. Weirdly, his alignment must have the word "neutral" on either side but not both. Another oddity is that bards and thieves can wield any weapons.

Single-class fighters, rangers, and paladins start at Level 3; clerics, bards, and thieves at Level 4; and mages at Level 5. That's good; I was thinking about playing as a mage--which I almost never do--but I wasn't looking forward to casting "Magic Missile" once and then resting. 
Portraits for male characters.
You can re-roll the standard set of D&D attributes as many times as you want or just set the attributes to whatever you want. (The manual doesn't even pretend that you're trying to "match a favorite AD&D® character" anymore.) Alignments are from the standard set of 9, and I'm not sure what significance they have for this game. Your last character selection is a portrait.
After that, you get to customize the game's length and difficulty. There are sliders and toggles for the number of levels, the difficulty of monsters, the deadliness of poison, the presence of undead, and a dozen other features. "Easy," "Moderate," and "Hard" macro-settings toggle these switches accordingly. Of particular note is "Character Death Real," a toggle switch that turns on permadeath. The lowest number you can set the dungeon levels is 10, so you can't make yourself a game that's too easy. Finally, you can manually set the "dungeon seed"--the basis of the procedural level generation--in case you want to play the same maps as a friend or something.
All of the dungeon settings on "moderate."
For this introductory session, I messed around with a few character options, I tried a paladin, a fighter/mage, a bard, and finally finished the level with another paladin. I'll get some opinions before I move forward with any of these characters.
Once you commit to a dungeon, the game takes a few minutes to build it using the numeric seed you or the game chose. You're then deposited at the bottom of the entry stairs with a basic set of starting equipment, including a couple of rations. 
This bard seems out of his league.
Other than their size (28 x 27), dungeon levels are all randomized. I don't know that they share any specific code, but the nature of the randomization seems very similar to that in Anthony Crowther's Captive (1990). The levels are large but quite linear, since the randomization algorithm (unlike NetHack's, we must observe) does not allow access to the same destination from multiple directions. Doors are placed at random intervals, and opening them can involve a variety of buttons, chains, switches, and keys. If the door is keyed, the algorithm ensures that an appropriate key will always be found on the floor before reaching the door. "Keys" can include mallets that strike gongs, coins that drop into slots, and gems that fit into murals on the walls. There's an option in the customization settings to turn on multi-leveled puzzles, for which keys are sometimes found on previous levels, but I guess there are ways that this can screw up the game.
Hitting this gong with a mallet is a variant of a lock and key.
Textures for walls, doors, and floors are also randomized, including wood, rough-hewn stone, polished marble, and various types of paneling. To keep things from getting too boring, developers also threw in some random decorations and furnishings, most of which can be clicked on for a brief message. These include tapestries with demonic beings ("I certainly hope this creature only appears in this dungeon as a tapestry and not in the flesh!"), paintings, engravings, carvings, incense burners, and floor grates. 
It's also for young lovers to stick their hands in and then pretend they were bitten off by retracing their hands into their sleeves as an amusing part of a falling-in-love montage.
Every once in a while, a wall is replaced with a cool kneeling statue, blocking access (I don't know if there's any way to remove him) or a hole that only the smaller races can get through. There are also illusory doors and the occasional  niche with treasures.
I have to have one of these for my house.
The programming part of this is all impressive, but I was already sick of it by the end of the first level. Randomization--or, at least, this kind of randomization--prohibits both interesting and realistic dungeon layouts. For all its randomization, NetHack manages to drop in the occasional castle, throne room, store, and treasure zoo. Does Dungeon Hack have anything similar? If so, it's not on the first level. What it does have is plenty of cases where you spend half an hour finding a key to a locked door only to find three squares of nothing on the other side of it.
This creepy arm is a lever that opens a door.
Each level does have plenty of monsters and treasure, and no matter what seed I started with, the first level had mostly goblins and orcs, maybe with a zombie or two towards the end. Monsters have a variable number of hit points, but they mostly die in one hit, even from the weaker characters. Of course, the character is also pretty weak, and once he or she is down to 8 hit points or less, a single blow could easily mean death, with no other party members to cast healing spells. The same tricks that work in most Dungeon Master variants work here, including the "combat waltz," backpedaling down hallways while throwing things (anything, it seems, can be used as a missile weapon), and so on. 
I got "held" for a little while by this undead. Fortunately, "held" characters can still move. They just can't do anything else.
The floors are strewn with treasures, including weapons, armor, amulets, potions, wands, scrolls, and rations. I didn't find any rings on Level 1, but I assume they're coming. Scrolls are all labeled, but nothing else is identified, which is a staple of both Dungeon Master clones and roguelikes. Potions, amulets, and wands are identified by color or material (e.g., pink potion, bronze amulet, pine wand), and once you find out what one does, you've identified all others of the same description. The problem is that the game offers no NetHack-like ways of testing what the different items do without trying them and hoping for the best. The effectiveness of armor can be assayed by changes to the armor class, but I'm not sure there's any way, save one, to identify weapons at all.
The one exception is if you have a mage or bard who can cast "Improved Identify," which allows you to identify items one at a time. The other classes must either have to rely on scrolls, which I haven't found, some other mechanism that hasn't appeared yet, or just guess. 
Now I just need to know what an "Amulet of Imminent Return" actually is.
Other notes:
  • There's a food meter that slowly depletes. So far, all my characters have found enough rations to keep up with it.
  • A minor-mode march plays over the title screen, but there is no music in the game itself. There are serviceable sound effects, mostly taken from Beholder.
  • You occasionally find machines that take single gold coins to fully restore your health. That's the only "economy" I've seen in the game so far.
A little boon to those of us who aren't clerics.
  • The game has no issue starting multi-classed mages (and bards) wearing armor that prevents them from casting any of their spells.
  • I bought the GOG version of the game. It comes with a pre-loaded "High Score" list that has "C. Nova" at the top with 1,024,000 experience points. Other names in the hall of fame are Sprig, Mario, Elizabeth Zazo, J. J. Farnsworth, Room 9B, Borel Darkonious, Jojo the Great, Brady Cosmo, and Reamy Ro. At first, I thought GOG had ripped some random user's disk, but since all the experience point totals are perfectly even, I suspect these names were in the original. 
SSI could have made these numbers more realistic.
  • The game has an excellent automap that annotates monsters (even in completely different parts of the dungeon) and items on the ground. It takes a good 10 seconds to appear, however.
A good automap. I can even see the colors.
  • Monsters appear to respawn.
How I move forward will depend on what type of challenge I want to create for myself. Obviously, if I just wanted to breeze through, I could use "easy" mode with a paladin or fighter/cleric or something. But some things walk a fine line between "challenging" and "annoying." I'm toying with the following settings:
  • Dungeon Depth = 13. Why prolong things? Setting it to the minimum, 10, seems lame, though.
  • Monster Amount = High. I like combat-related challenges. I might as well set this high to compensate for the other things I'm thinking about doing.
  • Monster Difficulty = maybe a smidge higher than normal.
  • Illusory Walls = Off. The last thing I need is to have to go all the way back to pick up three squares in some corner of the dungeon that I missed on the first pass.
  • Food Availability = High. Keeping myself fed is not necessarily the type of challenge I'm looking for.
  • Water Level = Off. I hate water levels. Plus, someone told me you can get into a "walking dead" situation where you can't survive them.
  • Encounter Undead = On. Who doesn't like undead?
  • Other settings default.
As for characters, I'm toying with:
  • Paladin. Just my default single-character game character.
  • Mage. For the challenge and "Improved Identify."
  • Fighter/Mage or Cleric/Mage. Less of a challenge, still get the spell.
  • Bard. For the novelty of it, and I still get "Improved Identify," plus he's kind of a fighter-thief without the restrictions of multi-classing.
I'll be happy to take your thoughts before moving forward. Even 13 levels feels like it's going to be long.
Time so far: 3 hours 

Monday, April 8, 2024

Game 509: Labyrinth (1980)

United States
Released 1980 for the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Date Started: 4 April 2024
Date Ended: 7 April 2024
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
It's amazing how, this far in my chronology, I'm still not quite done with the PLATO games. I could almost believe that people are somehow going back in time just to invent new ones for me. Ha ha! Seriously, Randy Harmelink and Michael Wei: In 1980, I should be in Mrs. Biedenharn's third-grade class at Prairie Creek Elementary School any weekday. Drop me some stock tips and convince me never to go to Tulsa.
[Ed. I got so caught up in a stupid joke that I forgot to credit El Explorador de RPG, whose coverage of the game alerted me to it in the first place.
Labyrinth is a somewhat significant game, too, because it's the only PLATO game (so far) to offer the single-player experience of The Dungeon (1975) and The Game of Dungeons (1975) but in the context of a first-person interface. It takes obvious inspiration from the previous first-person games--Moria (1975), Oubliette (1977), and Avatar (1979)--which were all intended for multiple characters playing in parties. A PLATO player who wanted to navigate from his character's point of view otherwise had to wait until Camelot (1982), which--although doing its own thing quite well--didn't precisely replicate the experience of the earlier dungeon crawlers.
In the labyrinth, doing pretty well. I have a gnome "charmee" to protect me and I'm just facing one orc.
(If you're a new reader and already lost, some quick history: The earliest computer role-playing games that we know about were developed by students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on the university's educational mainframe, called PLATO. Many of them were adapted commercially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but because the mainframe had more power than any microcomputer of the era, the PLATO games tend to offer advanced features that we don't see in the microcomputer market until the late 1980s. To learn more, see my entry on "The Earliest CRPGs," which I intend to update as soon as I finish this one.) 
Like most PLATO games, Labyrinth benefits from extensive documentation, but there's no backstory.
The game begins with a simple character creation process. You choose from 11 races: dwarf, elf, gnoll, gnome, goblin, hobbit, human, kobold, ogre, orc, and troll. The ability to play monstrous races was likely inspired by Oubliette. You set a sex and an alignment from lawful, neutral, and chaotic (again, Oubliette). Based on your choices, the game rolls values for strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity, and charm. You give your character a name and password and then start the game with 2,000 gold pieces. You may note there's no selection of class. Just like the original Dungeon, every character is a generic fighter/cleric/magic-user/thief.
Creating a new character.
You appear in the menu town at the top of the dungeon, where you can visit the hostel, play in a casino (also drawn from Oubliette), buy and sell weapons and armor, buy and sell magic scrolls, buy and sell monster companions, pay to increase your attributes, and buy "adventuring supplies" (basically food). There isn't much for a Level 1 character to do but buy a staff (250 gold) or dirk (500) or gamble everything on a single hand of blackjack for a more expensive weapon. Some notes on the town level:
  • The hostel is where you rest to restore health and magic. You have to pay per point restored.
  • The "weapons" store sells both weapons and armor, which took me a few levels to realize, as the first page only has weapons. Weapons range from a staff (250) to a mace (21,340). There are also a couple of shields, three types of body armor, three types of helmets, boots, a cloak, gauntlets, a ring, and separate bits of armor for arms, legs, and neck.
Some of the weapon store options.
  • You have to buy magic scrolls to be able to cast spells. When you outgrow your spells, you can sell the scrolls back. There are 30 spells in the game, organized into 15 levels, ranging from "Level Detection" (250 gold) to "Teleport" (1 million gold). 
  • The casino offers a simplified version of blackjack in which there is no splitting, doubling down, or insurance, and the dealer wins on a tie.
Perhaps the game's most interesting contribution is the ability to buy or charm monsters to your team. They're called "charmees." You can have up to two at once. You either pay for them in the monster shop or charm them with a bard song or a "Charm" spell. If you charm the monster yourself, you can bring it back up to the surface and sell it to the shop. I'm not sure I've ever seen that dynamic in another RPG.
If you use them in combat, they get to attack after you do, adding a bonus to your damage. They do run away eventually, though.
Once you're healed and outfitted, it's time to hit the dungeon. It's presented in a very small first-person wireframe view. Movement is with the WAXD keys--lowercase for regular movement, caps for going through doors or secret doors. The levels are procedurally generated, and according to the help file, they go down to Level 500,000. Each level has multiple 14 x 14 sections, and I think they may generate indefinitely. Each section has at least one staircase--the staircase is used for both up and down travel--and the game remembers what section you were in when you took the stairs.
I don't know what "scylla" meant to the author, but this definitely isn't the same creature that the Greeks envisioned.
As far as I can tell, the entire navigable part of the dungeon is superfluous, since all of your encounters are random. You can just take the stairs to whatever level you think you can handle, then walk back and forth to generate all the encounters you need. The stairs themselves are always a safe zone, so you really just need one other square.
In the dungeon, you meet monsters of four types: beast, human, mythical, and undead. Until you get pretty far down (dozens of levels), you only meet one at a time. Combats may last one or more rounds. Each round, you have options to try to charm the creature with a bard song (which pits your charm against his intelligence), cast a spell, fight, evade, use an item, hide and let your charmees do the fighting, pray for help, or trick the monster. The last option comes from Moria and causes instant death if your intelligence beats his intelligence. 
About one in six monsters drops gold or a chest. You can also just find gold or chests randomly. Chests and their options are similar to The Game of Dungeons: They can have traps, which can be detected and disarmed. Chests may have magic items in them, including stuff you can buy and stuff that you can't, principally magic weapons and armor and potions. Potions have a variety of potential effects, including increasing attributes, poison, aging, and polymorphing you into a different character. You can try to sip potions to test them before drinking.
Guess I should have sipped that potion.
Every successful combat action gives you experience, which counts downwards from the amount you need for your next level. Every gold piece you bring to the surface also gives experience (which goes back to The Dungeon). When you level up, your attributes increase.
The game is pretty easy as long as you don't try to head downstairs too fast (although see the strategy below). It's easy enough that I managed to survive until character Level 6 before I realized a) the shop sells armor; you just have to page past the weapons; and b) after you buy weapons and armor, you actually have to equip them. I had been fighting naked with my bare hands the entire time and still never felt in much danger. 

There are no real multiplayer options, save the ability to shout messages to other players. 
I get a message from myself.
That's about the size of it. You keep going into the dungeon, to lower and lower levels, fighting monsters, leveling up, gaining riches, buying improvements, trying to achieve the highest rank possible before you die of old age. (There's some talk in the notes files about a possible secret ending in which you escape from the dungeon, but this is uncorroborated.) There are several characters in the Hall of Fame who achieved the maximum level of 127 (with 127 in each attribute), but you could keep earning experience and gold indefinitely.
Several players have talked about their strategies in the notes file. I had some luck with the "deep dive" strategy--jumping immediately down to Level 100,000 (or something else ridiculously low) and hoping to evade monsters long enough to find a treasure on the floor. (I don't care how old or primitive the game is, there's always a moment of sheer joy when I pull off a stunt like this and it works.) Nine out of ten characters doing this die practically immediately, but the 10th rises to character Level 8 or 9 from the gold in a single chest, and he can buy most of the best stuff at that point, including an "Invisibility" scroll, which in turn makes it easier to find chests without having to fight monsters. I got to Level 10 this way, but money can only take you so far. Most of the highest-rated players have hundreds if not thousands of game days. 
I made it to position #75!
The title screen credits the game to Randy Harmelink and Michael Wei. Mr. Harmelink unfortunately passed away in 2022 after a long illness. I haven't been able to identify Michael Wei, but he did turn up in the conversation in the notes files earlier this year, and I've invited him to visit or contact me. A note on the main page suggests that the game was lost at some point but recovered in 1993.
It's not a terrible game--it's at least as fun as most of the so-called DND variants that we saw on microcomputers throughout the 1980s--but the loss of multiple party members, guilds, a main quest, and other features seems a step back from the earlier PLATO games. Still, it's a bit of a mystery why this one is never mentioned in PLATO histories and the others are.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Shadow Caster: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

The endgame cinematic doesn't even remember the opening cinematic. I wasn't called "Shadow Caster" because I cast a shadow on your future; it was because I cast a shadow on the ability of others to read my future.
Shadow Caster
United States
Raven Software (developer); ORIGIN/Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS, 1994 for PC-98
Date Started: 16 March 2024
Date Ended: 27 March 2024
Total Hours: 13
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
The adventure continued in what the cluebook calls the Flooded Caverns, a large map where areas of water alternated with areas of what I thought was lava, but I guess was acid. To get across the acid, I either had to jump with the Caun or fly with the Opsis, though in the latter case, I had to fly at the top of the screen to avoid "acid bursts" that kept popping out of the acid pools. Thanks go to MorpheusKitami for alerting me to the controls on the side of the main game window that raise you up and down. They were key to this area.   
Enemies on the level included spinning mines and red Ssairs, which I had encountered before, as well as two new ones: a "tar creature" that camouflages himself as a rock until you get close, and a "morpsphere," which looks like an asteroid, but it can shoot fire. I made things more difficult for myself by insisting that the new Kahpa get as much experience as possible, despite being horribly weak.
"Tar creatures." There weren't many of them.
On the level, I found weapons and armor that seemed intended for the Kahpa, including Water Armor and a Trident of Might. 
The book indicated that the old inhabitants of this world, who destroyed themselves in a panic when Veste started conquering other worlds, lived in both the shallows and the depths. I kept looking for a door or portal that would take me to what I assumed would be a water level. I finally realized the solution was to enter the water and use the controllers on the side of the screen to move down, beneath the surface. Only the Kahpa is able to survive more than a few seconds of this.
Dropping below the surface took me to a completely separate underwater map, the Sea King's Labyrinth. As underwater levels go, it wasn't so bad. At least I was playing a water-breathing character. I could move in three dimensions, and the water put natural restrictions on what types of items I could use. For instance, the shuriken naturally didn't work. I did find that the game was overly sensitive as to whether I was exactly on the right plane when I tried to attack enemies, though. I got killed a lot as I made micro-adjustments to my position so that my attacks with the trident (in particular) would actually hit. 
This is not a good illustration of what I'm talking about. I know I'm too far away here. I was just trying to get the shot.
Enemies included giant piranhas, skull mines, manta rays, and blue cousins to the flying red Ssairs. They almost all shot blue things at me. I didn't find that the Kahpa's special attacks helped much. I used a Potion of Strength with my trident to wipe most of them out, my Kahpa far exceeding the other characters in experience points in the process. I found an Amulet of Defense in a corner. I had to retreat back to the early level a few times for rest and healing.
The level culminated in a battle with the Sea King, which I won mostly with wands and other ranged weapons saved for that purpose. His chamber had a throne, a teleporter to the next area, and a square tablet on the floor. The tablet instructed me: "Go to the Ssairs' hall and cast the water tablet into the acid. They will allow you to touch the obelisk after you have done this."
The Sea King and one of his Blue Ssair minions.
The Ssairs' hall was on the other side of the teleporter. Four red ones were flying around the room when I entered, so I morphed quickly to the Opsis and took them out with my "Death Blast." It is absolutely worth the time I have to wait to recharge my energy after I use it. I use that time to write these entries.
One Ssair dissolves as another waits behind.
After I cleared out the enemies from what was essentially one large cavern, I threw the tablet in a river of acid and it turned to blue water. On the far side of the cavern, I found an obelisk that granted my fifth and penultimate form: a red SSair. The SSair is pretty cool. His claw attack is better than any regular weapon in the game, and he can also whip with his tail and shoot powerful fireballs. He also moves a lot faster than the other characters. The clue book has a long history of the Ssair people, a proud warrior race who could not be conquered martially, so Veste did it by poisoning their waters with drugs.
I liked the Ssair stained glass windows.
A teleporter brought me to yet another hidden area of the Temple of the Dark God (I think this was the fourth visit). I had to find my way to the central area, where a new teleporter took me to the Mud Mines, the home of a race called the Grost, a kind of stone golem with the power to create earthquakes and merge with the earth around them.
My Ssair sailed through their hallways, destroying giant spiders and earth elementals with claw and fireball attacks. I found the tip of an obelisk in the far northwest corner.  
Those are some sharp claws.
An area of lava with lava men (basically lava elementals), fire elementals, and fireballs constantly shooting from the walls was challenging. I stubbornly kept my Ssair active since he needed the experience most, but his fire-based attacks were useless and I probably should have switched to the Opsis, especially since there was a magic pool on the other side, and I could have restored my energy easily. 
The level was large but pretty quick. At the end, I came into a small chamber with a frozen ceiling, two pressure plates in alcoves, and two boulders on the ground. It was obvious that I was supposed to put the boulders on the pressure plates. This caused lava to flow into the room, melting enough of the ceiling to expose a chain, which I pulled, opening a secret door to the exit teleportal.
I don't think I've ever said this before, but this game probably could have used more pressure plates.
The same sorts of enemies were present in the next area, the Lava Tunnels. I continued to play mostly as the Ssair, although there were enough patches of dry earth to settle down and rest if I needed to restore health or energy.
I got trapped at a dead end early on the level. There was a stone frog's head on the wall with an open mouth. I couldn't figure out what to do with it. I had to consult the cluebook to see that the solution was to have my Caun cast his "Insect Swarm" spell on the mouth. This caused it to close and a secret door to open nearby.
Kermit got frozen in carbonite.
After a bunch of enemies, the level brought me to an hourglass, and then to a slot clearly intended for the hourglass. Inserting it caused an obelisk to stop rotating, allowing me to affix the tip. Moments later, I had the final form: a powerful Grost. His punch does twice the maximum damage of any other weapon in the game. He has "Earthquake" and "Paralysis" special attacks, and things that would massively damage other characters just bounce off him.
It's clobberin' time!
More important, he was able to bash through some weak walls and find the exit portal, which again brought me to an unmapped part of the Temple of the Dark God. The Grost bulldozed through some Rice Demons and made it to the teleportal to the next area.
I was enjoying the Grost, so it annoyed me that so many of the enemies in the Maze of Madness were way up at the ceiling, where I had to use wands or change into the Opsis or Ssair forms to get at them. These included two new enemies, Green Monitors and Pterodactyls, both capable of just blasting me to pieces. The Pterodactyls are practically invisible against the level's grotesque, undulating walls. I had to spend a lot of time resting and healing.
These mouths move and open and close. It's creepy.
The maze had a central room with three pillars. Each wanted me to place a different crystal on it. I found a bone crystal and a flesh crystal (yuck) without much problem--the latter required me to put a stone sword in the hands of a statue--but I couldn't find the third. It turned out that the game wanted me to go swimming in the literal rivers of blood and use the Kahpa to swim under some of the walls. Thankfully, the automap showed the adjacent areas, or I probably wouldn't have figured it out.
There were tough enemies called Blood Creatures on the floor of the river. I probably didn't need to clear them out, but I figured every experience point counts. I had trouble hitting them, too, though. That seems to be a theme in general for the last few levels. On early levels, I could swing my sword or wave my claws in the general direction of the enemy, and my attacks were sure to connect. Towards the end, the game got a lot more finicky. 
This looks like a turkey breast affixed to the ceiling.
I emerged from the river of blood in a small chamber with some kind of sack hanging from the ceiling. An attack caused it to puff out of existence, leaving a blood crystal behind. That crystal lowered the last pillar and caused a teleportal to appear on the floor. 
I knew from the cluebook that the next area was the final one. It was mercifully small--basically just a single room with a few wings. The final battle began as soon as I arrived. I wasn't ready for it the first time and got slaughtered. I wasted some time trying to win it with the human form--I thought that was important somehow--but I couldn't even defeat Veste's first form.
Preparing for the final confrontation.
Veste started off in the guise of a cleric. As each form died, he morphed into the body of another previous boss: Zarduz, Green Ssair, Wolf Lord, Sea King, Boar Lord, and finally his native form, a gray gargoyle. I gave the Grost the Amulet of Defense and had him take a swig of a Strength Potion before battle, and from there all I had to do was stand there and punch away. I defeated Veste without even losing half my health.
Veste in his final form.
In some ways, it was good that the final fight was so easy, because the game crashed repeatedly while transitioning to the final cinematic. After four or five tries, I made it. First, Veste offers a death speech:
You are stronger than I thought, Shadowcaster. If the gods could not foresee your power, I cannot be faulted for a similar blindness. And now, when I am gone, you will be truly alone. I hope the gods treat you more kindly than they did me . . . Good luck, kinsman . . .
But why am I not a gargoyle?
Then, an old man appears and congratulates me, saying that my name "shall be added to the Book of Heroes." The face morphs into Kahpa and some insectoid form as it continues, saying that the power of shapeshifting will be granted to all my descendants. He finished off by saying, "Return now to your village, where your grandfather awaits you." Honestly, I have no idea who this is. Plus, my "village" is Manhattan. I've never been to the shapeshifter village, so I can't "return" to it. I thought it was destroyed anyway.
Who are you again?
Nope. There are cheering, waving people standing before me as Grandfather ties a new cloak around my neck and says that the people have chosen me their leader. Honestly, this game's story is just a mess. 
Golly gee! A new cloak! That was worth risking my life.
It wasn't terrible as a game. It offered a relatively even experience from beginning to end and didn't overstay its welcome. I would have liked harder puzzles, a more coherent backstory, and a better inventory. The endgame was a missed opportunity for the character and Veste to engage in a real shapeshifting duel, each picking forms meant to counter the others.
In a GIMLET, I give it:
  • 3 points for the game world. They kind of try, but a lot of the world-building is confusing and contradictory. It feels like it was created in post-production. And why did it all have to be indoors?
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There's no creation. The only development is the occasional score-based level and the power that comes with it. They should have just offered a single experience statistic instead of having each form earn experience at a different rate. Because I didn't know which forms would be called into play at which times, I wasted time trying to spread out the experience.
  • 0 points for NPC interaction. It doesn't have NPCs. It has cut scenes in which people occasionally talk to you.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. It gets most of that for its original bestiary. Learning their strengths and weaknesses is a key part of the game. I give another for some fairly easy puzzles.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. The various forms give you an increasing series of tactics from the beginning to the end of the game, and I want to rate that higher, but a few of the characters' attacks are so obviously superior to the others that they break the system somewhat. 
  • 3 points for equipment. There are only a few standard RPG swords and armor types. Most of the rest is devoted to wands and other usable items that I alternately used too soon or saved for no reason. I guess that's not the game's fault. I shouldn't have needed the cluebook to determine how much damage weapons do.
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. They're all generally okay, but they all also have slight annoyances that ought not be there by 1993. The graphics try too hard; the sound is too sparse; the controls are just a little uncomfortable. Movement with the left side of the keyboard should have been the first step, maybe also a "rest" mechanic that involves more than just standing there. The ability to look up and down, as in Underworld, would have been nice. Great automap, though.
  • 4 points for gameplay. Linear and not very replayable, the game is nonetheless the right length for its content. Difficulty is extremely variable from level to level, but the average is good.
That gives us a final score of 25, a big step back from Ultima Underworld, which makes it all the more mystifying that Gary Whitta, writing for the December 1993 PC Gamer UK, wrote that, "Underworld fans will lap this up." The same magazine, in April 1994, named it the 49th best computer game of all time, "an admirable attempt to show that RPGs don't have to be boring, complex, and number-heavy." Just when I think I've heard the most absurd statements ever from a British gaming magazine, another comes along to top it. While we're at it, here's another from the December 1993 PC Format: "The best role-playing game to appear for a long, long while." It's hard to imagine that we have legions of players who refuse to accept Skyrim as an RPG, and yet in the 1990s, British magazines didn't even question whether the label applied to this relatively simplistic, short title.
In the January 1994 Computer Gaming World, Scorpia at least recognizes that the game isn't really an RPG ("Origin is advertising it quite accurately as an action game") and recognizes that beyond free-scrolling movement, the game has very little in common with Underworld. Bless her. She found the graphics "excellent," though--which I suppose they may have been for the era--and she seems to have found it a better action game than I did. It was even nominated for Action Game of the Year in 1994, but lost to Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame.
MobyGames's review roundup shows most European magazines put it in the 70s and 80s. A year after the original release, as was the style at the time, Origin re-released the game on CD. Its principal addition is narrated cut scenes, including a new introductory cinematic in which Grandfather tells Kirt about his heritage on a bus bench, right in front of an ominous gargoyle statue.
Couldn't we have done this at home, next to a roaring fire?
The story otherwise proceeds about the same. Later cinematics play every time you transition to a new area, showing the situation and identifying the boss. Sometimes, new forms or puzzles also have cut scenes. Actor Keith Kelley, in perhaps his first commercial gig, does the narration.
Indeed they do.
Raven Software went on to a long career making Marvel games and working on parts of the Call of Duty franchise. MobyGames tags X-Men: Legends (2004), X-Men: Legends II - Rise of Apocalypse (2005), and Marvel Ultimate Alliance (2006) as RPGs, so we might see them again. 
In the future, I might not be as generous to games with such simple and nebulous character development, particularly if there are a lot of them. As a 13-hour mostly-action game, Shadow Caster contrasted well with the other games I was playing, which doesn't affect the score but makes the experience more interesting than my rating conveys.