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Note how little the box art exemplifies the game's adherence to historical accuracy.
              
Darklands
United States
MicroProse (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 DOS
Date Started: 24 May 2019
Date Finished: 13 July 2019
Total Hours: 65
Difficulty: Moderate-hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Summary:
     
A highly-original and innovative game from a rare entrant in the CRPG market, Darklands offers a compelling setting in the medieval Holy Roman Empire. Four characters struggle to gain fame and riches through a series of repeatable, statistically-driven, scripted encounters based on common themes and beliefs of the era, including escorting pilgrims, fighting bandits, storming the castles of robber knights, routing towns of evil witches, driving dwarves back into the depths of their mines, and slaying dragons. A main quest involving the Knights Templar and the demon Baphomet caps the experience. Nothing is quite like other RPGs: combat draws upon the realistic limitations and strengths of various weapons and armor; divine magic involves praying to saints and going to mass; and arcane magic involves mixing reagents into potions. Skills like speaking Latin and reading and writing are rare and prized, and many of the game's perils involve (seemingly) mundane situations like surviving a blizzard, gaining entry into a city, dealing with an arrogant priest who wants a "tithe," and getting a local lord to receive your party. Unfortunately, the "repeatable" encounters end up being "repetitive," and the lack of traditional RPG approaches to equipment, combat, and leveling creates some unbalanced gameplay.

*****

Well, what a ride. Darklands offers perhaps the most original approach to role-playing that we've seen since the inception of the genre, and in several dimensions. The experience wasn't always a joy, but I never stopped admiring what the developers were trying to accomplish. In this case, the primary developer ("original concept" and "project leader" in the credits) is Arnold Hendrick. It was his only RPG. Hendrick wrote responses to 13 pages of questions on Steam between 2016 and 2018, participated in a three-part interview with Matt Barton in 2010, and submitted to a long interview on RPG Codex in 2012. Thus, I was able to pepper my summary below with many of his recollections.
      
(Hendrick, I should add, is a fairly unique game designer in that he came from a background of board and tabletop gaming and never learned programming. It reminds me of how Irving Berlin became immortal writing hundreds of hit songs while never actually learning how to read, write, or play music. I sometimes wonder if I could make a go as a game designer or a composer with a similar lack of foundational skills. Perhaps--but I don't think I'd ever have the gall to put myself out there as such.)
          
As often happens when I encounter an innovative game, at its conclusion I (perhaps unfairly) find myself lamenting missed opportunities. First, for a game that offers so many different types of encounters, Darklands doesn't really support much "role-playing." It is assumed that every party is trying to be good, to gain fame, to enhance local reputation, to build virtue. For most encounters, the worst option you have is a mildly neutral one, such as bidding pilgrims good fortune without helping them, or ignoring traveling merchants. You can't become robber knights, steal from church collection boxes, or join evil cults. You can be overly-zealous, accusing innocent towns of witchcraft or bursting down the front doors of helpless women living alone--but in those cases, the game goes out of its way to make you feel bad about yourself.
          
Don't burst in on a witch unless you're sure she's a witch.
          
Perhaps the one exception to the "no evil" rule is the ability to attack town guards, as a way to enter or exit the city without molestation, or as a way to avoid paying a fine for sneaking about at night. The consequences of such actions are relatively severe--you find it hard to enter that same city ever again--and thus hard to role-play. 

My second regret is that the game doesn't use its setting to its fullest potential. Early 15th-century Europe was one of tremendous upheaval. There were dozens of competing factions. There were two or three rival Popes at most times until 1449 and no settled Holy Roman Emperor between 1378 and 1433. When I started the game, I thought it was going to be like Pirates! and I was going to be encouraged to pick sides, perhaps favoring Bohemian rulers and thus losing reputation in Burgundy, or hustling messages for supporters of Gregory XII. I thought real-life events would have ripples throughout the game setting. There was none of that. Most cities were interchangeable.
          
Slight variances in the names of key locations is all that distinguish most cities.
         
Third, I would have liked to see better balance between the deterministic and random encounter and quest systems. Darklands features an early incarnation of Bethesda calls "radiant" quests: repeatable missions to fetch items or kill enemies that send you to a random area each time. The concept isn't exactly new--it goes all the way back to many of the PLATO games, plus Akalabeth--but this is the first game to feature these quests in such detail and variety. I certainly don't mind them, but I like to see them balanced with more hand-crafted, fixed quests and locations. In Darklands, the only unique quest locations were the Templar fortress and the Castle of the Apocalypse.

A game has to be good in the first place for it to spark so many desires for it to reach the next level, so despite my few complaints, expect Darklands to GIMLET well.

1. Game World. It's a great idea: set the game in the real Middle Ages, but act as if the superstitions and rumors of the time were all true. In this, Hendrick said that he was influenced by the Warhammer tabletop RPG, which took its inspiration from the Holy Roman Empire. As pointed out in a recent thread, the creators thankfully didn't take the concept too far, or my characters would have spent the game slaughtering Muslims or constantly in debt to Jews. But even subtracting the more offensive caricatures, it takes some guts to build a divine magic system on the pantheon of Catholic saints. I learned some new things about history, geography, and language as I played, which is always a bonus. The world is well-described in the manual, which makes a clear distinction between history and legend, and does a good job explaining the game's choices. I just wish that the world has been more responsive to my party's actions, and that it had (as above) made more dynamic uses of its themes. Score: 6.
             
If only the act of praying to saints cured plague victims in real life.
          
2. Character Creation and Development. The Traveller- and RuneQuest-inspired creation process is a lot of fun as you envision various career paths for your characters, so it's unfortunate that no reference is later made to those careers. I found that development, while rewarding, was also very uneven, with weapons skills developing almost too quickly and most other skills too costly or time-consuming, or not improvable at all. In particular, virtue--a vital skill--is oddly obstinate, only increasing a point or two occasionally no matter how many pilgrims you help or witches you slay. I would have liked more opportunities to improve attributes, too. On the positive side, your character "builds" have a significant impact on how you approach quests and encounters, and thus adds some replayability to the game. Score: 5.

3. NPC Interaction. The various political and economic leaders that the party encounters aren't really so much "NPCs" as "encounters." They're interchangeable ciphers with identical encounter options and no dialogue options--which was all disappointing given the various historical possibilities. The only real NPCs are the Hanseatic League representatives and small-town mayors who will join the party for a quest or two. They were a nice boost to the party's power, even if they had no individual personalities. Score: 2.
           
"Hanse" is really the only NPC in the game. He comes with pretty solid skills, and higher attributes than I think are achievable for regular characters during character creation.
         
4. Encounters and Foes. Unfortunately, setting the game in the "real" world creates a certain paucity of enemy types--but there are enough to require the player to make tactical adjustments. The monsters are thoroughly described in the game manual; you get not just a description and picture, but also a sense of their motivations and habits. I also like that they're slightly different than the foes you find in other CRPGs.

The crux of the game is, of course, its non-combat "encounters," presented in the form of menu options with associated skill checks, forcing you to find tactics for everything from entering a city (without paying the toll) to disrupting a coven of witches. Darklands is fundamentally an "encounter-driven" game in ways that we've never seen before. Unfortunately, very little role-playing takes place in those encounters; the player is usually trying to identify the option with the highest likelihood of success, not the one that best fits the party ethos. The encounters also become repetitive and boring over time. Nevertheless, it's an approach to RPG gaming that we've never quite seen before and may never again. Score: 7.
            
The long selection of options even extends to the party getting thrown in jail.
          
5. Magic and Combat. The real-time-with-pause combat system is an important innovation, although it hasn't quite reached its apex in Darklands. (In previous posts, I outlined some precursors to the Darklands system, but it appears from the interview material that the developers had never been exposed to them and came up with the system independently.) I outlined most of my problems with it in a recent entry, and these remained problems  until the end. Nevertheless, the system is more interesting and more tactical than most of the RPGs on the market at the time, and I like how the skills system allows you to create some specialties among your party members without any artificial considerations of "class."

I had mixed feelings about the magic system. I thoroughly enjoyed the pantheon of saints and their various uses, even if it did take me a while to fully grasp how it worked. I found offensive potions significantly under-powered, however, and I thought the alchemy system was far too complex and simply encouraged the player to purchase potions rather than make them. This makes arcane magic more of an "equipment" consideration than a magic one. Score: 6.

6. Equipment. This is another relatively strong category. I like the variety of weapons and armor, how they associate with various skills, and key considerations like quality, penetration, and encumbrance. Potions are also, of course, a major consideration, often making the difference between a difficult battle and an impossible one. But I was disappointed how few unique and powerful items you could find, excepting a few "relics." And it annoyed me how many useful-sounding but ultimately useless items I carried until the end, including spikes, grapples, and lanterns. Score: 5.

7. Economy. Darklands has perhaps the first truly good economy in RPG history. (Previous games that tie this score were rated too high, for the most part.) It hits all my points: you make money from successful encounters and quest-solving; there are multiple ways to make money (including working odd jobs); there are multiple ways to spend money; and you never reach a point in which you are "too rich." In a very real-world way, money is power in Darklands, and you can use it to compensate for party weaknesses--by, for instance, purchasing potions instead of making them, increasing virtue through copious donations to churches, and fronting tuition to increase your skills at the university. You can even bribe your way out of some encounters. I never reached a point where I stopped collecting equipment to sell, and I never reached a point in which I had too much money. I did think some of the quest rewards were unbalanced, however, with robber knights netting you dozens of florins while a more lengthy, complicated artifact quest might only get you half a dozen.

The only way a game could really improve upon the economy here is to offer more expensive and useful equipment and to offer the ability to purchase property, something that would have been within the game's theme and I'm surprised wasn't offered. Score: 8.
         
In a game were potions are so expensive and you can give copious amounts to churches for divine favor, money never stops being useful.
        
8. Quests. Another strong category. There's a main quest, of sorts, as well as innumerable side quests that serve to build the party's fame and fortunes. I particularly like that the party can assume only the quests that it wants and has the skills to successfully complete, ignoring others with no particular penalty. There are multiple ways to solve most quests (although they're not really role-playing choices), and there are even some alternate paths within the main quest, albeit with an obvious preferred set of choices.

As I mentioned above, I would have liked to see more scripted, deterministic quests to go along with all of the repeatable, randomized ones. (Such had been planned but were ultimately scrapped as the game ran over time and cost.) Plus, it would have been nice to have more quests that better used the history and characters of the time. But overall, Darklands earns a high score here in contrast to most games that offer a main quest and nothing else. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Graphics are a mixed bag. The still scenes that accompany most of the menu encounters are well-drawn and evocative, but the overland navigation screen is a nightmare in which it's hard to identify entire cities. I thought the character and enemy icons were also poor. I found the sound to be mostly forgettable.

The interface worked mostly okay. I appreciated the keyboard backups for all of the menu commands. I would have appreciated numbered options on the encounter screens, so I could choose them. There are a few too many commands that are indiscernible from the interface and must be looked up in the manual; for instance, pressing "A" to equip items in inventory, or "F7" to set an ambush. I didn't enjoy the number of places in which my party refused to walk in the outdoor environment, despite showing no obstacles, nor the micromanaging I had to do indoors to move the party through narrow hallways. There were other miscellaneous problems like the saved games not sorting in any clear order. Score: 3.
             
I found it difficult to see key features and to get my party to move where I wanted them to move on the overland map.
         
10. Gameplay. We finish on a strong note. Owing to the nature of the quests, plus the fact that every party starts in a different location, the game is both non-linear and relatively replayable. You could set all kinds of fun challenges for yourself, such as hitting a certain fame level within a certain time frame, or making a certain amount of money.

While I found the adjustment period longer than usual, overall the game had the right challenge level, and it's hard to complain about length in a game that has no fixed end and lets you retire whenever you feel like it. Score: 8.

That gives us a final score of 56. That doesn't quite put it in the top 10 list, but it's very close, and the game clearly will contend for "Game of the Year" for 1992. You could easily envision a near-perfect RPG that would, for instance, merge the Gold Box style of combat, Ultima NPC interaction, and the variety of equipment found in Might and Magic with Darklands' basic approach.
            
". . . and ends."
          
Like many games that appear near the top of my list, Darklands was controversial in its time. In the November 1992 Computer Gaming World, Scorpia loved the setting and character creation process, but she had many of the same combat complaints that I did, and she found the world a bit boring in its uniformity. She had issues with bugs, freezes, and a lack of features that were fixed by the time of my version.

But although I generally found myself nodding with her review, I have no idea where she's coming from regarding the ending:
             
The party's basic goal in Darklands is to acquire fame and virtue, to be remembered in times to come as great and daring heroes. While this appears to be a novel twist, something a bit different from the more common "Kill Foozle" objective, in actuality the game isn't quite so different . . . . Darklands operates in much the same fashion as any other CRPG, with the party working towards that big encounter with Foozle, although the final confrontation, in this case, is not exactly a battle in the usual sense of the word.
         
Not for the first time, I have to ask: what does Scorpia want? If a game with as original a main quest as this one still isn't original enough to escape being painted with the "Foozle" brush, what game could possibly avoid it? "Ho, hum," she seems to be saying, "it's just another RPG where the party gets more powerful and tries to complete some big objective. Yawn." As if there were any other satisfying way to structure a CRPG.

But the climax of Scorpia's review is reserved for invective against the sacrifices the party has to make in the final battle, including the lead character's reduced attributes (she made the same choice that I did) and the loss of florins to Pestilence. These things didn't bother me as much as perhaps they should have, since finishing this quest essentially brings the game to a close. (Having these developments spoiled for me by Scorpia, on the other hand, would have bothered me quite a bit.) But Scorpia was livid:
          
Probably some Bright Mind at MicroProse though it would be a Good Idea to have the player "make a real sacrifice." If so, that Bright Mind needs a new brain. It is inexcusable to treat the player in this manner, to not only provide no real reward for success, but to make the victory a Pyrrhic one. For this point alone, I would not recommend the game to anyone . . . . This is a shame, since Darklands might have been one of the great ones. Instead, it turns out to be a game more to be avoided than anything else.
               
This is certainly in keeping with a trend. Scorpia knew her stuff, no question, and was probably the most experienced RPG player of the time. But when she was wrong, she was just..
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Prophecy of the Shadow
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Date Started: 24 June 2019
Date Ended: 10 July 2019
Total Hours: 19
Difficulty: Easy-Medium (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Summary:
Prophecy of the Shadow is a "lite" RPG that takes inspiration from Faery Tale Adventure and recent Origin Systems games. A sole character, presented throughout the game from an axonometric view, is thrust into the world when his mentor is assassinated as part of a political purge of mages. As he grows in power and skill, he learns of a prophecy that foretells the return of an ancient enemy named Abraxus. In his quest to counter the prophecy, he kills an evil regent and restores a princess to her rightful throne. The world is small and easy to explore. RPG elements--including combat, inventory, and character development--are simplistic but effective for the scope of the game. Graphics are mediocre in quality but are thoughtfully drawn to create interesting scenes and scenarios.
             
 ****
         
Prophecy managed to pack a lot of stuff into its small continent, but the full game took less than 20 hours regardless. I had the most fun exploring the game's 10 indoor areas, all of which managed to accomplish some fun things graphically. It's still relatively rare to find a game in which the environment is hand-designed instead of rendered as "textures." Aside from notable pioneers in this area, like the Ultima series (and particularly Ultima Underworld), we typically see it in adventure-RPG hybrids like the Quest for Glory series.

It's taken me a lot of games and time to understand how I feel about graphics. I'm not impressed by them just because they're good. Textures, no matter how advanced, can only take me so far. Even well-designed monster graphics, like the ones in Crusaders of the Dark Savant, fail to impress me if their appearance and animations are all abstract--that is, when they jump and dance around the screen, they're just following an animation pattern and not specifically responding to my characters in the moment.
         
I consider these good graphics--not because of the raw quality, but because of what they clearly depict. Such "scenes" are uncommon in RPGs even in the early 1990s.
          
I want my graphics to be functional in some way. I want the monster animations to tell me something about their reactions to my attacks. Most important, I want environmental graphics to set a mood, to tell a story, to offer a certain ambiance. If they do that, my bar for what constitutes "good" graphics is very low. Most people probably wouldn't think that Prophecy's graphics are anything special, but they establish their environments better than any game I can imagine recently. As I walk through a castle, I can clearly pick out the kitchens, and the guard barracks, and the torture chamber without any titles specifically announcing those places.
            
Assaulting my way into Granite Keep.
         
In the first two sections, my orphaned character found the titular prophecy and brought it to the Guild of Mages, which was soon slaughtered by the forces of regent Cam Tethe, ruler of the land in absence of the missing princess. As I loaded, there were five major places I hadn't visited:
           
  • The city of Jade
  • The Fell Swamp
  • Granite Keep
  • The abandoned Silver Mine
  • The city of Malice and its temple
  • Abraxus's Castle (I didn't even know about this one until I teleported there for the endgame)
              
I visited them in roughly this order, albeit with a bit of backtracking. The City of Jade was mysteriously purposeless--just another city with a few services at the southeastern tip of the continent. I don't think a single NPC had anything new to say.

North of that was the Fell Swamp. I probably forgot to mention in previous entries that if you walk into a swamp in this game, you don't get very far before an animation shows you drowning.
        
Entering the Fell Swamp at my own risk.
         
For that reason, I had been circumventing the Fell Swamp, but I decided it must be there for some reason, so I took the time to experiment and soon realized that you could walk through the swamp on squares that depicted foliage. Following paths of these squares, I reached a hut at the center of the area. It was occupied by a powerful witch named Esme who said that she'd killed Tethe's mage hunters.

As by now I was wont to do, I tried giving her my various objects. She had an immediate reaction to Larf's head, saying that if she could assemble the ingredients for a potion of "Necrotelecomicon," she could learn from him the secret of the resurrection spell. Fortunately, I had already picked up all the ingredients on her list: the fruit of the Desert Pango, the tongue of a Torlok chieftain, some spider venom, and a vial of acid, which apparently every "black potion" is.
            
I give the ingredients to Esme, who looks like a young Anne Ramsey.
         
With these ingredients, she soon learned the "Respirare" spell and then immediately attacked me. I killed her in a few blows. I spent much of the rest of the game wondering what I would do with a resurrection spell since the game is single-player. I went back and tried to cast it on Larkin's grave, but I got a message stating that I didn't have a powerful enough catalyst.

I next headed for Granite Keep because I didn't want to deal with the eye tyrants up near Malice. The keep's front door had blocked me in the past, but some NPC had hinted at a side door, and sure enough, I soon discovered one. Using my Death Warrant got me inside, and I had to kill two guards right next to the entrance, a fight that occasioned about five reloads. The entire castle was very hard, with enemies whacking away 25 hit points per blow, and I began to wonder if there wasn't some armor I might have missed. I had to rest frequently and gulp as often as possible from my "Everfull Flask," a healing potion that regenerates every five minutes or so.
          
If the penalty for everything is death, then you leave me with no incentive not to kill you.
        
There were multiple levels to the castle, including a dungeon with a large locked door as well as two locked doors on the second level. Eventually, I found a servant sympathetic to the Resistance who gave me a key to Cam Tethe's chambers, one of the doors on the second level. He attacked as soon as I entered, and he killed me with his "ebon ax" in about three hits.
         
Killing Cam Tethe on my fourth trip.
    
To defeat him, I had to "door scum": enter, attack him a few times, leave to rest and heal, save, and enter again. It's worth mentioning that I had a "Time Stop" scroll that you're almost certainly supposed to use in this fight, but I had forgotten about it. When Tethe died, he dropped a copper key and his ebon ax--a magic axe that returns when thrown.

The copper key opened the door in the dungeon, which released Princess Elspeth. I thought this would be the end of the game, but I realized I'd forgotten about the city of Malice. Elspeth gave me a key (that she'd palmed) to Tethe's torture chamber, then fled to reclaim her throne. It's worth pointing out at this time that the game world is not dynamic, and after Elspeth left, she was nowhere to be found. All NPCs reacted to her name as if she was still missing and as if Tethe was still alive.
           
The young princess, looking a little worse for the wear. She is played by an actress enigmatically named only "Kelly."
          
The torture chamber held a set of "evil accoutrements," which turned out to grant me access to the temple of Abraxus in the city of Malice. Tethe himself wasn't the shadow of the prophecy but merely the high priest of Abraxus's cult.

After I left the Granite Keep and sold my excess equipment, I finally had enough money to purchase "acrobatics" training from Chester the Great and increase my agility. I also bought a potion that permanently increased my strength. Between these upgrades and the ebon ax, no combat in the game was really much trouble after this. Maybe some players manage to save enough money to get the agility increase earlier.
            
I admit, this guy looks like a "Chester." Sometimes, I wish I'd picked a better pseudonym.
        
On the way to Malice, I remembered the silver mines. I had a much easier time this time, and after some combats with gnomes, I found the Shadow Sword. The weapon negates magic when in your inventory and wipes your spell points if you wield it, so from the moment you find it, you have to go through an annoying process of dropping it and picking it up again every time you want to cast a spell.
           
Finding the Shadow Sword on the gnome king. This is not a weapon that you want any earlier than necessary.
         
Malice had a handful of NPCs who praised Lord Abraxus and whatnot. The focus of the city was a large temple, where I killed a number of evil priests and walked out with a mysterious "Fan of Shadows" and a gold catalyst. I should mention at this point that from the various dungeons, I'd assembled several other spells, including "Cremare Magnus" (volcanic eruption), "Lamia" (steal life force), and "Umbra" (invisibility), none of which I ever found a reason to cast. I almost always needed to save my spell points for "Curare" (healing). I also never got much use out of the "Oculorum" spell or the redundant crystal ball, which shows your position in the context of a larger area. The larger area wasn't really large enough to be useful.

The final area was reached via a teleporter north of the temple in Malice. I'd learned to watch for those pairs of rocks. They're scattered all over the main island, but most of them just warp you a short distance from the origin. This final pair sent me to an island somewhere. A new monster called a "morgoth" attacked a few times, but it wasn't very hard.
             
This is one mean-ass morgoth.
           
The island housed a large keep with four corner rooms and a pedestal in each room. Each pedestal had a riddle that discussed a certain element and prompted me for a particular object. I hadn't realized I was saving the objects for this purpose, but it wasn't hard to figure out where they went. The "Fan of Shadows" went on the air pedestal, the "Everfull Flask" on the water pedestal, the "Eternal Lamp" on the fire pedestal, and the "Wand of Earth" on the earth pedestal. When all four were placed, a door opened in a northern wall, taking me to the catacombs.
            
Interpreting one of the pedestals.
         
The catacombs had a brief battle with spectral priests before leading me to a bier on which the body of Abraxus lay in state. Even though it seemed like an absurd thing to do, since I couldn't do anything but cast the "Respirare" spell on him, that's what I did. The ancient sorcerer awoke, laughed at me, and attacked me.
        
I love how the hero's one dialogue option for the insane resurrected sorcerer is "hello."
       
My hit points had been reduced by the ritual to 30, and as I fumbled about with my ebon ax, Abraxus swiftly killed me and, I supposed, took over the world. On reloads, I both discovered that only the Shadow Sword could damage him and remembered that I had two "Time Stop" scrolls. Through trial and error, I settled into a pattern of action: drop the Shadow Sword, resurrect Abraxus, use a "Time Stop" scroll, gulp all my healing potions, use another "Time Stop" scroll, pick up the Shadow Sword, and start hacking away. This sequence ultimately brought me victory over the sorcerer.
         
Conserving those "Time Stop" scrolls was key to defeating Abraxus.
       
The endgame was slightly reminiscent of Questron as the game showed my character marching through the halls of Granite Keep, NPCs arrayed around me, before I finally came to Princess Elspeth. She named me her Champion, Hero of the Land, Savior of the People, and announced a seven-day celebration. The ending text, cribbing from Casablanca, suggested even more rewards to come for our hero.
         
Lord British never offered to marry me. Just sayin'.
           
All in all, a satisfying ending that leaves me feeling positive about the game. Prophecy won't rate nearly as high as an Ultima, but in adopting Ultima as its model, the game provides a perfect example of the adage that if you aim for the moon, you'll at least get over the fence.

In a GIMLET, Prophecy of the Shadows earns:
             
  • 5 points for the game world. It tells a story commensurate with its scope, has a few moments of originally, and does a good job drawing you into the world graphically and textually.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. Definitely not a strong category for the game. With only three attributes, each serving multiple purposes, there wasn't much to develop, and there was virtually no creation process at all.
  • 4 points for NPC interaction. While you do learn a lot about the land and its lore from NPCs, the system was very mechanical and featured no one with memorable personalities.
               
Um . . . where did that last line come from?
          
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. Enemies are mostly unmemorable, excepting perhaps the fireball-spewing gazers. But the puzzles were pretty solid, and I liked the large variety of what I call "contextual encounters"--when you're given a clear reason for the combat to follow, even if you don't get many role-playing choices in those encounters. I wish some of the lesser creatures had respawned because the economy is otherwise very tight.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. I'm being generous here because I feel I should have probably experimented more with the spells. I did particularly appreciate the "Mark/Recall" pair. Aside from spells, the combat targeting system works fine but doesn't give you very many tactics. Enemies rush into range so quickly that missile weapons are particularly useless.
            
Fighting a row of guards in Granite Keep.
            
  • 2 points for equipment. It's hard to countenance at title that gives you nothing to wear or equip except a weapon. But there are a few additional potions and scrolls, and lots of items useful for exploration and quests.
  • 4 points for the economy. Between regular equipment, food, potions, and agility training, you have plenty to save up for, and finding silver never becomes useless. You have to make some tough choices for most of the game.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options, alternatives, or side quests.
                
The victorious champion walks past rows of NPCs on his way to his knighting.
              
        
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The sound is nothing special--a few scattered effects--but as I've indicated, I like the graphics and the interface is top-notch, with redundant mouse and keyboard commands for everything. My only quibble is how using any other object un-equips your weapon.
  • 5 points for gameplay. It gets half credit for nonlinearity. The game is mostly..
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Any god that teleports me directly from a winning combat to the nearest pub is a god I'm happy to worship.
             
After defeating the Templar's fortress, there was only one major quest left in the game: assaulting the temple of Baphomet and foiling his plans for the apocalypse. This was not as hard as I expected. I found the Templar fortress considerably more difficult.

I had found Baphomet's fortress ages ago while exploring south of Salzburg, so it was no extra effort to travel there again, dealing with the usual encounters along the way. When I got to Salzburg, I sold the rest of my looted equipment and stocked up on additional potions even though I still had plenty left from the Templar expedition. I also restocked my ammunition. I kept the first three characters armed with handguns, but I gave the artifact Hubert's Bow to Bianca along with a bunch of arrows. I kept everyone in plate armor, overloaded though they were, based on the reasoning from my last entry.
         
Arriving in the castle entailed combat against some large lumbering beasts.
       
We were attacked by some demons upon entry--I failed to get their names--but they didn't last long. The fortress consisted of a very large room which spawned seven hallways on its north end. Each led to a door. The ones on the right refused to open at first, so I tackled them from left to right. Each offered a different challenge aspected to one of the seven plagues, and in each I had to recover a "key."

Door #1 led to a cavern of fire and brimstone. We prayed to a saint and he protected us, mostly, from the heat. Once we made it through the chamber, we recovered a seed.
          
 I don't know how much damage we would have taken without knowledge of this saint.
         
Door #2 offered a lake of fire that we had to wade or swim across. Again, a saint protected us from most damage. On the other side, in the wreckage of a boat, we found a chained woman. She related that we were in the Last Castle of the Apocalypse, founded by Templars a century earlier after they were expelled from France. They brought the "embryo" of the demon Baphomet with them and allied with the witch cult to fuel the demon with power. She gave us a globe full of water with a trout, which she said was one of the keys, and then produced a book containing the rest of the seals, which she soon destroyed.
               
An unnamed maiden gives us the scoop.
              
Door #3 led to a large room in which we were pelted by potions from alchemists. We killed them with missile weapons and then slowly threaded our way through a maze full of traps. At the end, we found a chunk of wormwood in which a vial of honey had been embedded.
          
Avoiding traps on the way to this area's key.
         
Door #4 started us in an area of darkness. It brightened as we entered, and we found ourselves in a maze of corridors in which groups of undead attacked us in melee combat. They weren't very hard. In the center of the maze, we found a glowing lantern.

Door #5 led us to an area that was like Door #4 but with buzzing swarms of insects rather than undead. We ultimately found a room in which a skeletal horseman sat astride a withered steed. He asked what we would give him to avert a famine. There was an option to pray to a saint, which I took, and the saint said to consider that "not everyone dies from a famine equally--who is the least subject to it?" I then had options to sacrifice our souls, our lives, or our wealth to the horseman. Based on the saint's clue, I chose wealth, using the logic that wealthy people don't die from famine as surely as poor people. The horseman gave me a balance and disappeared.
             
The party contends with Inflation, one of the four horsemen of the Secular Apocalypse.
           
Door #6 opened to a huge army of lancers mounted on "goblin-beasts." There was another saint option, but I didn't know any saints that would help. That left me with options only to challenge one of the lancers to single combat or to attack them all. I chose the single combat. The game didn't show the combat but just resolved it with a text screen, saying that Maximian defeated the demons' champion and won the Sword of War but was so wounded that his strength and endurance were halved--permanently. That's pretty brutal. I tried several reloads and that was actually the best outcome; if I fought all the demons, everyone suffered permanent damage to their statistics. Maybe knowing the right saint would have prevented it.
           
Maximian basically sacrifices himself for the quest.
          
Door #7 opened to a maze with walls of fire and traps all over the floor. I just had the party push through the traps and heal up at the end. I was impatient by this point, and a little annoyed about what the game did to Maximian.

When I opened the door on the other side of the chamber, I was confronted by a seven-headed, ten-horned dragon who offered me options to kneel or attack. Just for fun, because I had recently saved, I chose to kneel. The characters lost all their virtue and the dragon demanded Lambert, whom he tore to shreds before banishing the party from the castle.
            
Which head is speaking? Are they all speaking in unison?
           
On a reload, I did the right thing and attacked. The party had to approach the dragon across a platform with lava around the edges. The dragon shot fireballs at us, but the "Firewall" potion helped.
          
Walking through fireballs as we approach the dragon.
           
Eventually, we reached the dragon, or at least the area of the dragon. It was configured so that only one or two characters could fight in melee range, so I sent Maximian to chop at the beast with St. Olaf's axe while the rest of the party pelted it with missiles and potions. Naturally, I drank every buffing potion that would possibly help.

I accidentally took my eyes off Maximian's endurance for a few seconds, and when I looked back, he'd collapsed. I sent Lambert to finish the job, which took a few more minutes in which I had to keep the characters healed with potions.
             
Lambert stands on Maximian's inert form to pound away at the dragon.
           
Once the dragon died, we were transported outside, where we encountered the head of Baphomet. He announced that he was about to start the Apocalypse and scoffed at our promises to stop him. In a long series of subsequent text screens, Baphomet summoned six plagues, which we immediately defeated with the appropriate key. To wit:
             
  • Rain of ice and fire. Stopped by the seed which grew a tree that sucked up the rain.
  • Mountain of flame that will destroy all ships and fish. Defeated with the globe.
  • Comet called Wormwood, which plunges into a lake to make all water poisonous. Defeated with magic honey which counters the poison.
  • Darkness. Countered with the magic lantern.
           
The most sensible use of one of the "keys" in this sequence.
        
  • Plague of locusts. Somehow driven off by the balance.
  • Demon lancers. Vanished when we waved the Sword of War at them.
          
At this point, Baphomet asked if we had the key to ward off the seventh plague and we admitted we didn't. He said he'd be willing to delay releasing--and give us a boost in attributes besides--if we'd agree to go away and give him more time to perfect the Apocalypse. We said no, we'll deal with it now, and he screamed that "hope" was the final key and that says we clearly had it, he was "undone."
           
The old rascal tries to trick us.
        
A long, animated sequence followed in which the castle came crumbling down and the head of Baphomet was destroyed by lightning, after which beautiful rays of sunlight burst through the clouds.
              
Baphomet doesn't look much like a demon.
           
The party found itself at the gasthaus in Salzburg contemplating whether it was time to retire or whether we still had a few adventures in us. I was disappointed to find that there isn't really a way to "retire" the party in the game. You can retire individual members, but that's just a matter of party composition. Someone has to remain. I had hoped for a Pirates!-like summary of my accomplishments. Instead, the best I could think to do was sell my excess stuff to build my finances again, donate my relics to the local Dom . . .
            
Despite the prelate's promise, I got no fame for this.
         
. . .  and check my party status one final time:
                
"Legendary heroes" doesn't go far enough. After what we've been through, I'd think we'd be up for beatification.
          
As endings go, the defeat of Baphomet was pretty epic, drawing a lot of material from Revelations plus a sort-of slanderous mythology built up around the Knights Templar by their enemies.

I like the ability to keep playing after the main quest, though I didn't feel particularly compelled to. Nonetheless, as I was wrapping up this entry, I envisioned someone coming along and saying that I hadn't really "won" until I'd defeated a dragon, too. Thus, against their moans and protests, I roused my retired party from the inn in Salzburg and headed north, chasing rumors of a dragon in that direction.

It wasn't long before we came to the same message of a blasted landscape and a ruined village that I had included in a previous entry.
            
The party enters the Soviet Bloc.
 
Rather than march around fruitlessly, we used the "Ambush" command to set up surveillance in the area. After a message about a plundered village, we came to a scene in which the dragon swooped down to pluck a knight off his horse. The knight referred to the dragon as "Baruch ophidious." We kept our ambush, and finally we were treated to a scene of the dragon coming out of a fissure in the ground.
       
This game has some of the best static artwork of any RPG thus far.
         
We had options to pray to a saint or attack the dragon, but these just led to him flying off forever. On a reload, we waited for him to return to his lair and then approached him in the lair, where he couldn't flee as easily. We had options to "reason" with him, fight, or flee.
     
"Listen, we know you're supposed to bring about the apocalypse, but perhaps we could convince you not to attack innocent villages?"
            
Reasoning just led to combat, so either way the party found itself in battle against a fire-breathing foe. A few gulps of "Firewall" potions did much to blunt his attacks. In the ensuing combat, Maximian went down (remember, he'd had his strength and endurance halved in the Baphomet encounter), but the other three carried the day with minimal need for healing.

Battling the dragon as he sends a fireball into our midst.
              
In victory, we looted some of his treasure, which admittedly put my party in a better retirement situation, as they had come out of the Baphomet temple famous but completely broke, thanks to Pestilence taking all the wealth they hadn't spent on potions.
     
Happy?
         
Now, I assume I can say that I've won the game. If anyone has any final requests or feels there's anything else I should investigate, feel free to speak up; otherwise, I'll post the GIMLET and final thoughts in a few days.

Final time: 65 hours


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An Ultima game would have inscriptions on all these headstones, likely in runic, likely rhyming.
           
Prophecy of the Shadow has helped remind me that games often have momentary value that exceeds their inherent value. I think such a statement even applies to entire genres of games. I value RPGs significantly more than, say, first-person shooters, but there are times that a first-person shooter is exactly what the doctor ordered. I value PC games more than console games--except on a winter's evening on the sofa with the fireplace going and a drink on the end table.

In the case of Prophecy, while it's a decent game on its own, it has much greater value as a contrast to Darklands than when considered in isolation. I don't often deliberately engineer my "upcoming" list to create contrasts in approaches, but it's nice when it happens. Darklands is a good game, but it's long, and any long game eventually becomes a bit tiresome. On those days that I take a break from it, the last thing I would want is to play a second game that's exactly like Darklands. Prophecy, fortunately, is the near opposite. This makes me feel better about the game in a way that exceeds what will ultimately be its GIMLET rating.
         
Where Darklands is epic, Prophecy takes a more intimate, personal approach.
          
The Wikipedia entry on the game quotes The New Straits Times as saying that Prophecy is "the game Richard Garriott would have produced were he an SSI employee." (I have to hand it to that Wikipedia author for not only digging up this Malaysian newspaper article but also leading with it.) I, too, have noted what I see as the similarities to Ultima VI, or at least Times of Lore, which used a precursor to the Ultima VI engine. But I exchanged e-mails with author Jaimi McEntire, who said he was more inspired by MicroIllusions' Faery Tale Adventure (1987). This makes sense. While the row of icons recalls the Origin games, the nature of the axonometric graphics and wilderness exploration are more reminiscent of Faery Tale, albeit with many more things to find in a much smaller space.

Another element that Prophecy shares with Faery Tale Adventure is what I would call a "deceptively open world." That is, you can technically go anywhere (at least, after you leave the starting island), but you're mostly wasting time if you don't hit the locations in a specific order. For instance, even if you can get past the fireball-speweing "gazers" in the northern part of the continent this early in the game, there's no point visiting the city of Malice until you have an object from Granite Keep that will allow you to enter the temple. Prophecy, at least, gives you more clues as to which areas it makes the most sense to visit next.
          
These guys give you no quarter.
       
Many elements of the game that seem to suffer in contrast to Ultima are clear improvements if we consider Faery Tale Adventure as the base. NPC dialogue is more meaningful, the combat more tactical. Even the equipment system, which features no armor or other wearable equipment, is more advanced.
       
At the end of the last session, I had been warped to the main continent from the starting island with instructions to take the prophecy to the Guild of Mages in Silverdale. My attempts to stray from this path having been thwarted, I first visited the nearby village of Glade. There, I found an NPC named Chester the Great (no relation) who teaches "acrobatics" for 500 silver pieces. Functionally, this improves your agility score. Health and magic improve from using them.
          
Best NPC name ever.
          
Another of Tethe's mage hunters was coming out of the defunct ferry building, and I was forced to kill him. On his body was a "suspect list" that included "Gerald of Glade" and "Goren of Silverdale."

I eventually found their houses, but while exploring I stumbled into the abandoned silver mines east of Glade. A note in a miner's journal indicated that he mine had been attacked and overwhelmed by gnomes. I didn't get far in the mines because I kept getting attacked by "creeping oozes," which do unbelievably devastating damage. I was also running a full inventory again, and didn't see anything particularly obvious to discard. As we'll see in the next entry, it's a blessing that I decided to retreat instead of finishing this dungeon this early.
          
These guys are nearly impossible.
           
Garen and Gerald both turned out to be mages-in-hiding who had huts in between Glade and Silverdale. They both reacted with horror to the vellum scroll containing the prophecy, and told me they would gather the Council of Mages again in Silverdale. The guild is closed until you find these two NPCs, apparently.

Garen and Gerald, who were of course trying to remain icognito, pretended to be big fans of Cam Tethe, but other NPCs didn't hesitate to criticize. A man named Arian claimed to be the former mayor of Silverdale before Tethe abolished civil government. A few others whispered about a Resistance.
             
Sorry; I'm with the Oppression.
          
At the guild, the mages complained that they only had part of the prophecy, so as the next step, they sent me to the Great Library to obtain the whole thing. None of them knew where the Library was, but they related that Larkin had recently visited with someone named Urik of Glade. URIK became a new keyword, and one NPC told me that last summer, Urik had left the area to seek out Maia, a forest witch, and then go hunt a legendary boar along the coast.
        
If you return to the Guild before finishing your quest, the mages are mean.
    
Let's pause to consider the nature of NPC dialogue. It's better than most games of this era--which have no dialogue at all--and of course Faery Tale, where each NPC only had a single thing to say. Still, I'd rather than the author had pared down the selection of keywords and responses rather than allow me to ask every NPC almost every keyword in the game. Most NPCs only have substantive responses to one or two words, and a good portion (including the entire city of Jade) have no substantive responses at all. The NPCs give stock responses to most of the keywords, even when those stock responses are completely out of character for the specific NPC. For instance, when I meet a peasant in a town, it makes sense for him to say, in response to TETHE (the regent): "He's our ruler. Nice guy, huh? His indentured servant work plan has gone over real well with us peasants." It makes less sense when the same line is delivered by a forest nymph. And why do I have the option to ask so many NPCs about FOOD and DRINK and LODGING when they just stare at me blankly or tell me to go to the inn?
           
Why even offer me the keyword?
         
I headed for the coast, battling a new enemy called "torloks" along the way. I soon found a grave marking for Urik along with a journal that placed the Great Library in the forest south of a hunter's lodge. Intel in Glade had suggested that the hunter's lodge would be just south of Glade, so that narrowed down the area. I later met Maia but she had nothing new to offer.

Around this time, I stumbled into the city of Granite, where the innkeeper, in response to the keyword RUMOR, told me of a man who "came in with a pack that was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside." Unfortunately, he "disappeared beneath the city."
          
From the moment I heard of its existence, the Pack of Holding was my most important priority.
         
This is a classic CRPG moment. Friends, family, prophecies, the fate of the world . . . they all go out the window the moment you hear a Bag of Holding is nearby. I was soon wading through the sewers beneath Granite in search of this treasure, which I finally found next to the corpse of its previous owner. Sure enough, activating it gives you enough slots to just about quadruple your inventory space. That was a palpable relief. It's amazing how much something like inventory mechanics can ruin your experience of a game. After I found the bag, my only complaint was how using any item causes you to un-equip your active weapon, which means you have to remember to re-equip it or you end up fighting with your fists.

With the encumbrance issue addressed, I started looking for passages in the lump of forest that I had to circle around to get to Granite in the first place. I finally found a route that led to the Great Library, but not before passing by a cave of torloks first. I explored it and kill about a dozen torloks and wolves, culminating in the torlok chieftain. After he was dead, the game invited me to take his tongue. I took it, of course, because another unwritten rule of RPGs is that if a weird or unusual item appears, it will almost certainly be needed in a quest later. That's why I have a rotting head in my sack along with the tongue.
          
Winding my way through the Great Forest.
       
Eventually, I reached the library. The game does books well, imbuing each with a decent amount of text and lore. The "Gazer/Common Dictionary" presents gazers as an ancient race destroyed by their own pursuit of magic. Another book discusses how apprentice mages were sent to the last gazer, Bardach, who lives in a grotto on a small island southwest of the mainland.
            
Some of the books are quite wordy. No complaints, though.
         
Fighting through feral rats and more torloks, I made it to the second floor of the library, where I found the prophecy on a pedestal. "Seek ye the last of the High Gazers," it said. I headed back to the Mages' Guild, but they wouldn't even let me in the door. A terse message simply said, "The council instructs you to do as the Prophecy said." Well.
             
Searching the Great Library as a torlok wanders along.
          
The map doesn't show an island off the southwest coast, but there's room for one, so I headed in that direction after a failed attempt to enter Granite Keep to confront Tethe. (I apparently need a key.) The journey took me into the "Withering Lands," where I had to slay a few desert bandits. I got distracted by a hole in a cemetery leading down to "burial crypts," where I found the "Terrae Motus" spell (tremors) as well an earthen wand. Surprisingly, there were no enemies in the burial crypt.
          
Like many places in the game, the burial crypts had some evocative graphics.
          
There was no way to walk to the island (you can't swim in this game), but in the southern tip of the Withering Lands, I found a pair of side-by-side conical rocks, which indicated a teleporter location. I tried Larf's Rod there, and it seemed to take me to the southwest island. South of where I arrived I, I found another pair of rocks, and using the rod there took me to the Gazer's Grotto.
         
Pairs of stones like this denote teleporter locations.
        
Although Bardach is supposed to be the "last gazer," clearly he isn't because there were hostile gazers wandering around the grotto. I don't know how you're supposed to defeat them without copious reloads since they immediately blast you with fireballs that deplete dozens of hit points. I had some luck killing them with a great bow that I found near the grotto entrance, but you have a limited number of arrows and I ran out after two gazers. After that, whether I lived or died was down to luck.

The game has an odd relationship with hit points and hit point regeneration. As long as you have food, you get one hit point and one magic point restored for roughly every 30 seconds. If you have no food, you suffer no ill effects except that you get no regeneration, which makes sense, but if you're already at maximum health and magic, the game still consumes a unit of food every half-minute. This means that food (which maxes at 99) lasts no more than about 45 game minutes and is mostly wasted unless you get wounded. At first, I was angry at this paradox, but then I realized that the regeneration benefits from food are dwarfed by those from resting--which restores 5-10 hit points and magic points, and you can do every 3 minutes, anywhere in the game. In short, it makes little sense to waste money on food, and if you're willing to wait around a while between combats, you can get your health back up to maximum with a few rest breaks and the occasional casting of "Curare." Perhaps that's why the game introduces so many enemies that can swipe away your maximum hit points in three blows. I'd mind more if combat or reloading took longer, but they don't. Reloading five times to defeat one gazer is still a shorter process than regular combats in some games.

In one chamber, tablets related the history of the High Gazers, who learned to mistrust the instability of magic and turned their attention to natural laws instead. They created less intelligent servants to do the work while the High Gazers studied and researched, bur their working class eventually came under the control of a mage named Abraxus, who incited the lesser gazers to overthrow their masters. When I finally met Bardach, he said that to stop the end of the world, I would need to "restore the gold stolen by the sorcerer Abraxus" (I am compelled to note that this name sounds like a household cleaner) and he gave me directions to an ancient ruin called the Hall of Mages to do this.
           
Learning the history of the High Gazers.
        
The Hall of Mages was the site of the last battle with Abraxus. There, documents discussed a couple of measures used in times past to deal with Abraxus, including a weapon that negates magic and a spell to discover the true name of Death, and thus compel him to kill Abraxus. The weapon, called the Sword of Power, was apparently a failure. But when the mages called Death, he killed the entire council after destroying Abraxus, so that plan went a bit awry, too. Other notes mention that "all the gold in the world is gone" and that the weakest catalyst, lead, is now "the only source of magic."

I couldn't find a way out of the Hall of Mages without trekking all the way back through the grotto, so I used REPETERE to return to Bannerwick--the last place I cast it. From there, I made my way back to Silverdale and, predictably, found all the guild members slaughtered.
         
I love how a primitive medieval society still apparently has a C.S.I. unit.
        
The game stopped leading me by the hand at this point, but I could tell from the map that the only places I hadn't visited were the Fell Swamp, the city of Jade, the city of Malice, and Granite Keep. In the next session, I ultimately figured it out and won the game. I was figuring that Cam Tethe must be some modern incarnation of Abraxus, and that the endgame would take place in the Keep, but it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.
                  
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The CRPG Addict by Crpg Addict - 1w ago
Praying to a saint causes direct damage to a demon.
          
If you were designing a real religious system from scratch, this wouldn't be a bad way for it to work. The world is governed by a large number of mini-gods, or "saints," each in charge of a different portfolio of existence. When you need to get something done that exceeds your normal abilities, you call for a saint's aid. But doing so requires that first you have been studious--that you have taken time to learn about the saint and his life, and the lessons that his biography has to impart. It also requires that you are virtuous, or the saint simply won't listen to your prayer. Finally, you can't over-rely on saints by calling for their help too often.

This is what people in the medieval period believed, and so it's what the game runs with--a system of divine magic entirely unlike anything presented to us in other RPGs. Perhaps the closest is The Dark Heart of Uukrul, which contrasted a system of deterministic arcane magic with a system of divine magic that basically put you at the god's whim. But things are more deterministic here. The saints operate on a specific formula. You have to have a minimum virtue to have any chance with them at all. Once you've crossed the threshold, your virtue determines the probability that the saint will act on your behalf for a specific amount of invested "divine favor," a statistic that is replenished largely by doing good deeds.

First you have to know about the saint in the first place. There are about 140 total saints in the game. Each town's kloster (most towns have one) teaches three or four of them, and your party can study in each kloster about once a week, imparting knowledge of a saint to a single character. You can also learn about saints at universities and from wandering hermits.
        
Part of the very long list of saints that one character has learned.
       
Once you know a saint, there are two ways to call upon him. The first is situation-specific. The game describes a situation and offers "call upon a saint" as one of the options, if you know any saints that might help. Hovering over this sub-menu gives you a list of saints that might offer something in the current scenario. For instance, St. Lutgardis might assist if you need to levitate over something, such as a city wall where the guards are looking to arrest you.
        
St. Boniface is a good one when you need to purify something Satanic.
        
But you can also call on saints at your own whim from the character menu, praying on behalf of one of your party members. For instance, the same St. Lutgardis will temporarily improve perception, virtue, and charisma for the prayed-for character. Every saint has a selection of attributes and skills that they improve.

I find myself using some saints repeatedly. If it's important that I visit a city's political leader without getting kicked out, I pray to St. Alcuin. He raises the "Read/Write" skill, intelligence, and "Read Latin." But he also makes noblemen more disposed to see you instead of kicking you to the curb. More important is St. Gregory Thaumaturg, who among other things increases the "Artifice" skill. It's only because of his help that I've gotten through the doors and chests in most of the indoor areas. None of my characters do well with this skill.
          
Praying to St. Gregory gives Bianca more "Artifice" skill.
        
I was frankly hoping for more from St. Crispin, whose day I know as sure as my own birthday. Every 25 October, patient Irene listens to me recite the speech from Henry V, though in the last few years, in the interests of time, I've taken to doing it in the shower. Anyway, I was disappointed to find that all St. Crispin does in this game is improve the quality of non-metal armor. 

In case you're curious, St. Edward the Confessor is the most laissez-faire saint in the game, responding to prayers from people with virtue as low as 5. He increases endurance, intelligence, perception, all the weapons skills, and "Riding." On the other side, St. Ita is the biggest prig. She won't give you the time of day unless you have a virtue of 85. She performs some pretty significant healing, but there are lots of saints who heal.

In my last couple of entries, I mentioned that I was trying to find information on St. Wenceslaus, to whom I needed to pray to end the constant aggravation of Wild Hunts. When I started this session, I made a list of all of the cities in the Empire and crossed them off one-by-one as I visited their monasteries and found no information about St. Wenceslaus. At first, I tried to thread these visitations with quests, but eventually I got so impatient that I abandoned all other pursuits and just ran from town to town. I finally learned about the saint at the kloster in Marienberg, in the far northeast of the map.
       
At last!
        
When I invoked Wenceslaus against the Wild Hunt, it had a satisfying ending--but an annoying promise of return.
           
That's all right: I know all the saints by now.
          
This occurred after about 6 hours of random adventuring, building my finances and my fame. I ended the session with the party's fame at 615, or "legendary heroes," which is the highest classification that you can get. Other than the usual--robber knights, artifact quests, Wild Hunts, boars, spiders, wolves, schrats, bandits, pilgrims, towns full of witches, and so forth--the only new experience was an encounter with a knight, where I had the options to challenge him to either a race or a joust. Since my characters suck in both "Polearms" and "Riding," the result was predictable.
         
A fancy game for fancy lads.
             
I solved another mine quest. This one involved a bunch of "vulcans"--basically, fire elementals--who had managed to open a gate on the lower level of the mine. I had to battle my way through them and close it. The creatures are particularly annoying because they degrade armor quality, and by the time I was done with the adventure, I basically had no armor left. If I'd had a few "Firewall" potions, the monsters would have been easier, but I just fought through them rather than leaving the mine to go buy some.
          
I want to call attention to the skillful use of dactylic octameter here. You can sing this verse to the same tune as "Out in the West Texas Town of El Paso."
         
During these experiences, I tested and confirmed my theories about armor. Specifically, I think it's better to have everyone wearing plate, top and bottom, accepting the consequences of over-encumbrance, than to equip lesser armor and remain below the encumbrance limit. With all my characters in plate, hardly any enemies do any damage at all, so it hardly matters if the characters are slower on the swing. To ameliorate the effects of encumbrance during tougher battles, I invested heavily in "Ironarm" and "New-Wind" potions, which raise maximum strength and endurance respectively.
          
My party hits new heights of fame and wealth.
       
In fact, I spent nearly every coin I made on potions, buying roughly three "Essence of Grace" potions to every one "Ironarm" and "New-Wind." I sold my ingredients and stopped wasting time trying to make my own. Yes, I know that you can theoretically make more powerful ones if you make your own, but it's easier just to buy two. 

I kept firing a couple of handgun volleys before each combat, and before long my characters all had near-99 skills in "Impact Weapons," "Edge Weapons," and "Missile Weapons." The handguns are a lot of fun. They're very slow, but they take the edge off demons and Templars nicely at the beginning of a battle. 
         
The temple had multiple combats with multiple plate-clad Templars.
         
When I thought I was ready, I tried my assault on the Templar compound again. The building is large and multi-leveled, with about 20 battles against knights, soldiers, hell hounds, and bears. (The random battles with multiple enemies were much harder than the two "boss" battles, described below.) There were lots of chests with treasures, including three holy relics (I hadn't encountered any until now): St. Olaf's battle axe, St. Hubert's bow, and St. Raphael's water. Is it blasphemous to equip the first two as actual weapons? Are they particularly good weapons? I guess we'll see.

It's fun to reflect on the game's treatment of Templars and witches. The manual is unapologetic about basing its depictions on 15th-century popular ideas of witchcraft. It draws a distinction between this kind of witchcraft and benign neo-paganism of the 20th century. Similar, the idea that Templars were actually Satanists comes from 14th-century persecutions of the order by the Avignon Papacy. Hundreds of Templars were arrested, tortured, and forced to confess to homosexuality, Satanism, and the worship of a demon named Baphomet. The authors of the game of course knew that none of this was true, but the average 15th-century commoner didn't, and thus that's how the game treats the order.
          
The party comes across a gathering of evil witches . . . which is ridiculous 'cause witches they were persecuted, Wicca good and love the Earth and women power and we'll be over here.
           
The battles in the Templar headquarters were difficult, but I kept the party going on enough potions to have purchased my own kingdom. Eventually, I found the chambers of the order's Preceptor and heard him talking about the seals that protect the castle of their "Master." The Preceptor attacked me alone and died quickly, leaving a high-quality set of plate armor.
          
My first two characters fight the Preceptor in melee combat while my rear characters shoot him.
           
At the top of the fortress, I met a demon in a hot room full of smithy fires. I prayed to St. Dymphna ahead of the ensuing battle, and the demon was significantly weakened. He died very quickly, and afterwards we broke the seal on the holy book that we found in the room. "Suddenly," the game told me, "you know that your ultimate fate lies south of Salzburg." I already guessed that from having stumbled upon the castle when I was searching for the witches' High Sabbat.
          
Another step solved in this quest.
        
Miscellaneous notes:
           
  • I really enjoy the puzzle doors in the mines. Here are a few if you want to try your skill:
            
Hope you have a Bible handy!
Svir'f fgngrzrag vaqvpngrf lbh arrq na rira-ahzorerq snpr gb bcra gur qbbe. Guerr'f rafherf gung gur guerr rira ahzoref unir gur guerr anzrf. Bar'f fgngrzrag ehyrf bhg Qbbe Gjb, yrnivat Qbbef Sbhe naq Fvk. Fvk'f naq Sbhe'f fgngrzragf gbtgure zrna gung Qbbe Fvk vf Tbyvoreg, juvpu pna'g or gur evtug qbbe orpnhfr Gjb fnvq gb bcra vg. Gung yrnirf Qbbe Sbhe.
Snprf Bar, Gjb, naq Sbhe unir qrcraqrag fgngrzragf, fb gurl'er rvgure ylvat be gryyvat gur gehgu gbtrgure. Fvapr vs Bar naq Gjb jrer obgu ylvat, gur nafjre jbhyq or qvssrerag qbbef, gurl zhfg or gryyvat gur gehgu. Fvapr tbyq pnaabg bcra gur qbbe (Snpr Sbhe), Snpr Svir vf ylvat naq guhf fb vf Snpr Guerr, fb cre Snpr Sbhe, gur qbbe zhfg or fvyire.
             
  • I figured out the nature of the bug that has prevented me from collecting any robber knight rewards in Flensburg. It's not just Flensburg. If the town doesn't have a "town hall" and the only political leader is located at a separate castle or burg, he never acknowledges that you've completed his quests.
  • I haven't played an Infinity Engine game in over 10 years, but I constantly catch myself hitting the "equals" sign (=) because that was the "select all party members" key in those games. This game doesn't even have a comparable key. 
  • I started spending more time storming robber knights' castles in this session instead of just calling them out or sneaking in and fighting them one-on-one. You get more wealth that way.
  • Going into this session, Bianca was my character with the highest "Artifice" ability at about 25. Somehow, she lost all of it--her skill is at 0. I don't think there's a non-bug mechanism that would account for this. 
  • I found yet another witches' High Sabbat and again destroyed it, but I didn't learn anything new. 
  • You can tell when a town is full of Satanists. when they get something screwed up about Catholic doctrine. 
         
Basic Christianity: knowing good from evil is a bad thing.
        
Selling all the equipment that I looted in the Templar fortress netted me nearly 300 florins, which is about as much as I need to restock my potions and go for the castle south of Salzburg. I've been assuming that the witchcraft/Templar/demon plot is the "main quest" of the game, but feel free to tell me if I'm on the wrong track or if there's anything I should do before heading to what I assume is the endgame.

As I came to the end of this session, I became determined to track down a dragon. I keep hearing rumors of dragons north of one town, east of another, but every time I've searched in the stated direction, I haven't found anything. This time, I started in Flensburg, where rumors around the political center said that there was a dragon ravaging areas to the south. I rode south to Hamburg and heard the same rumors, but this time to the southwest. In Bremen, I heard south again. 

A few klicks south of Bremen, I encountered a message that "the land is sere and lifeless," the trees nothing more than "blasted stumps," a ruined village in the distance.
            
Darklands segues smoothly into Fallout.
          
Not far away, I came to the destroyed village:
              
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Prophecy of the Shadow
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 24 June 2019
             
SSI began as a wargame company, and their best games--principally the Gold Box series and the Wizard's Crown series--have always reflected those roots. Nonetheless, by 1992, the company seemed to be on a mission to dominate, or at least compete in, every RPG sub-genre. Eye of the Beholder and its sequel were their answers to the first-person, real-time category, while Shadow Sorcerer took inspiration from British axonometric titles. Neverwinter Nights had virtually no competition online, and they were entering the console realm with Dungeons & Dragons: Warriors of the Eternal Sun. The company's streak of 22 published RPGs between 1991 and 1994 has never been broken on the personal computer. 

Prophecy of the Shadow is so blatantly the company's answer to the Ultima VI that it's a wonder they didn't license the "look and feel" from Lord British the way they did for Questron. It's got the same mostly-top-down-but-slightly-oblique perspective, the same row of icons with keyboard backups (even most of the icon symbols are the same), the same targeting of enemies and objects with a cursor, the same keyword-based NPC dialogue, and the same continuous scrolling movement through a landscape that desperately wants you to think it's not just tiles but really is.
           
Character creation even has some Ultima IV-style questions.
         
But just like Ultima clones from independent developers with a lot fewer resources, Prophecy of the Shadow lacks a lot of Ultima's complexity. To start, you control only one character. The box puts an exclamation point after the game's single-character nature, as if that by itself is a good thing, as if other developers were sitting around thinking, "Gee, it never occurred to us to allow the player to control just one guy." It also greatly simplifies the inventory--the protagonist can wield one object at a time and can wear nothing at all--and it runs dialogue by feeding the keywords to you. (In many ways, it's more like Origin's Times of Lore, which used an early version of the U6 interface, than Ultima VI.) Whether by intention or limitation, it's clearly geared towards the RPG novice.
           
The game map shows a small world. I already explored the northwest island.
           
None of this means that it's a bad game. There's always a place for an easy, familiar title telling a new story. Here, the story is probably the game's best feature. It calls upon familiar tropes without being overly cliched or obviously based on a single source. Told mostly in the form of the naive protagonist's journals, the backstory casts the character as an apprentice mage in a world where magic is outlawed. In infancy, he washed ashore on the island of Bannerwick, which I gather is part of the larger kingdom of Ylowinn. This is a world in decline. Every season, the crops get smaller and plants go extinct. Mines are exhausted of ore. Civilization itself seems to be coming apart at the seams; when the local ferry to the mainland breaks down, no one bothers to repair it. A princess named Elspeth was supposed to take charge on her 18th birthday, but she mysteriously disappeared, leaving the land in the hands of the regent Cam Tethe, who blames a conspiracy of mages for the disappearance and spends more time hunting them than searching for Elspeth.
            
An NPC delivers part of the backstory.
        
The townsfolk distrusted a baby who managed to survive the sea unscathed, so it was left to the local healer, Larkin--himself regarded with suspicion--to raise and tutor the child. The child of course becomes you. You've had so little contact with the outside world all your life that when you head into town at the beginning of the game, no one knows who you are.
          
"Yeah! I hope you find . . . him!"
        
In the game's opening moments--so sudden as to be comical, particularly with the accompanying scream--Larkin is assassinated by a thrown dagger, leaving the protagonist to bury him in the back yard. With his dying breath, Larkin tells his ward to "get the text of the prophecy from Berrin," as "it must go to the council in Silverdale," which is on the mainland.
          
The main character's master dies in the opening scenes.
                  
In these opening moments and almost all the NPC dialogues that follow, we see that Prophecy of the Shadow was on the cutting edge of what would become the early- and mid-1990's worst trend: the use of full-motion video (FMV) instead of computer animation (or just static graphics). Naturally, the subjects of these animations were whoever was sitting around the developers' offices and not actual actors. Blessedly, it only seems to have been about five years before developers realized this was not the wave of the future, and I don't remember seeing FMV after about 1998, though of course there are a lot of titles I haven't played.
          
A little FMV upon entering the inn.
        
Character creation is a simple process of giving your name and sex. A few role-playing questions set your initial values for health, magic, and agility. Health and magic are both attributes and pools of points, and the maximum goes up with successful actions (swinging weapons and casting spells), which is a bit different than the Ultima titles. These attributes automatically regenerate, albeit slowly, as long as you have food. If you run out of magic points, you can still cast spells, but they draw directly from your health.

A row of icons--all, blessedly, with keyboard equivalents--defines how you interact with the world: look, attack, cast a spell, enter, drop, search, use, give, and rest. "Search" on Larkin's door mat revealed an iron key to his house, but all I can do there is spend the night.
             
Using the L)ook command--and learning a new piece of vocabulary.
          
As I began the game, the passages through the forest around Larkin's house naturally guided me to his neighbor, Berrin, who related that rumors have already spread that I killed Larkin. He gave me the key to Larkin's workshop but otherwise wouldn't help me (including giving me the prophecy) until I could prove my innocence. Behind Berrin's house, incidentally, are two gravestones--his wife and son--both "killed by guardsmen." I wonder if that bit of backstory will later come out.

Larkin's workshop was accessed through an underground hatch near the house. There, I found a book of spells and a "lead catalyst." You have to be holding a catalyst in your hands to cast a spell, and I guess lead is the lowest-level catalyst. The book had four spells: "Incendiere" is a basic fire blast that strikes one target; "Curare" is a healing spell; and "Memoria" and "Repetere" are a pair of mark/recall spells that let you designate a point and later warp back to it.

Using the game map as a guide, I eventually made my way to town, where I found about half a dozen NPCs, including some generic "peasants." You converse by selecting keywords on the left side of the screen. As the NPCs respond, more keywords appear. Today, the local news was that the sheriff had caught Robin One-Eye, a famed bandit whose gang lives in the woods north of town. I was able to visit Robin One-Eye in jail but he just taunted me.
         
Getting lore from a local. Where did a bunch of programmers get access to so many actors who look like unwashed peasants with bad facial hair?
       
I also heard some talk of Larf the Terrible, a gnome wizard who lives in a tower to the east. There was a note in Larkin's workshop that a circle of mages expelled Larf for necromancy. I suspect that either Robin or Larf is responsible for Larkin's death, and I'll somehow need to prove it to get off the island.

The local shop had some weapons and other items that were outside my price range, although the innkeeper was willing to pay me 10 silver for odd jobs. I repeated this option about 8 times before he finally said he had nothing more for me to do. I bought a sling and a torch but spent most of my money on food.

Outside of town, I started encountering bandits. Attacking is a matter of hitting "A" (or the attack button) and then moving the cursor to your foe. If you have a melee weapon equipped, you can only target the 8 squares around you. (Well, technically you can target your own square, but the game just admonishes you not to attack yourself.) If you have a missile weapon, you can aim anywhere in the visible window. Missile weapons are tricky because enemies will typically move out of the square before the missile reaches them, meaning that you really want to attack the square in the direction they're going. It strikes me that missile weapons are going to be mostly useless in this game. There simply isn't enough distance in the view window, and enemies close the gap too fast.

You can cast a spell instead of attacking by using the spell catalyst--or, if it's already equipped, hitting the M)agic button. At the outset, I only had "Incendiere," which kills most enemies in a couple of castings, but two castings cost 20 magic points out of the 45 I started with.

If you choose to fight with a weapon, your health occasionally goes up a point. If you cast spells, your magic pool occasionally goes up a point. This is the game's approach to "character development."
         
My health increases as I kill a bandit.
        
Slowly, I explored the rest of the island. It turned out there were two major indoor areas to explore: the bandit camp and Larf's tower. You need a rope from the former to access the latter. I needed a password to enter the bandit camp, which required me to trudge back to town and buy Robin One-Eye a bottle of white zinfandel before he would tell it to me: ZINFANDEL.
           
Why does zinfandel have such a bad reputation? I rather like it.
        
The bandit camp was one small level and one large level. I had to kill a bunch of bandits. I rather like the game's search function. If you wander over to a chest, a dead body, or just an interesting area, you hit S)earch, and the game tells you what you find. It's rather tolerant in its distance allowance, so you don't have to hit the command every step. A lot of what you find are notes, journals, and other writings that flesh out the game's lore.

The bandit camp held a few healing potions, a rope, a rapier (better than the starting dirk), a magic potion, and several black potions. The black potions are acid that damage you when you drink them, so I'm not sure what good they do. Late in the dungeon, I fought and killed a "mage killer," who was carrying a "death warrant" for Larkin.
             
The "T," of course, probably stands for "Tethe."
           
A book called The Joy of Pies held a treasure map that directed me to a specific square from one of the stone heads on the island. There, I found a chest with several pieces of jewelry.

By now, I was running up against the inventory limit, which dogged me the rest of the session. It became clear that you want to drop most items as soon as their utility is done, including keys and notes. Actually, a better idea is probably selling them to the general store, because the store keeps sold items in their inventory and will re-sell them to you in case you made a mistake. The problem is that you constantly have to leave locations and trudge back to the general store. I ended up selling most of the black potions because I couldn't find any use for them and they were preventing me from picking up other things. I also sold all the jewelry I found, assuming it was for that purpose.
             
A few too many things in my backpack.
          
Showing the death warrant to the sheriff cleared my name, and showing it to Berrin prompted him to give me the prophecy on a vellum scroll. I read the prophecy. Larkin's notes indicted that "most of it has already come to pass."
           
And it shall come to pass that in the day, the end of all days, a Shadow will come forth from the wilderness. The Lord of the Shadows, the Bringer of Darkness, the Master of Death. At his hand, Evil will arise anew. Green fields will wither, and a plague will smite the land. Cry mothers for your children, for when you see these things, know ye that the fate of the world hangs in the Balance.
             
It's probably going to turn out that Cam Tethe is the Lord of the Shadows, but it would be nice if the game had some kind of twist on the standard template, like maybe it's me (I did kind-of come out of the wilderness). Either way, I had to get off the island. Since the ferry was broken, I turned to the only place I hadn't explored: Larf's tower. It sits in a ruined heap on the coast, near a graveyard where a ghost wanders. I tried talking to him, but it didn't work.
          
Maybe later, I'll find a "Seance" spell.
        
A rope gets you into the basement of the tower, which turned out to consist of five levels. Every one is dark, so you need a light source. The game keeps track of torches as a statistic, along with food and silver, rather than as inventory items, but you need a flint and steel in your inventory to light them. An alternative is to purchase a lamp and lamp oil, the latter of which is also tracked as a statistic. It would be a waste of inventory space, I gather, to have both a lamp and flint and steel.
          
Arriving in the dungeon.
        
The levels of Larf's tower were full of evidence of Larf's macabre experiments, including zombies that I had to kill. His notes indicated that he was more than a necromancer: he was a serial killer, having captured living subjects for many of his rituals. These notes also said that he eventually created an undead butler to serve him, but the creature went insane, stole something called a "translocation rod," and hid it in a lower level of the tower. Larf was apparently making plans to destroy the creature when it attacked him in his bed at night, killing him and leaving his severed head behind.
           
Later, I killed the butler, Jeffers, with fireballs.
         
This scene is graphically illustrated, and it's worth making a note that the graphics are detailed enough that they can show rather than just tell evocative stories like this. This hasn't been true of many games up until now, but it's good to see it becoming more common. We'll of course see another murder scene with the same level of gruesome detail in the upcoming Ultima VII.
        
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The party has gotten strong enough to challenge a demon.
       
Darklands introduces a combat system that I find hard to call "good," and yet it's perhaps a necessary stopover point to a truly good system. It probably took an RPG outsider like MicroProse to think of it. Every other U.S. title, if it had any complexity to combat at all, showed slavish adherence to a very few precursors: the abstract turn-based system of Wizardry, the action-oriented attack-and-cool-down system of Dungeon Master, and the tactical grid of Ultima IV-V and the Gold Box series.

Still, the Darklands system has a few antecedents. It is perhaps closest to Drakkhen (1989), which had a "studio" perspective. The moment combat began, characters carried out actions as previously set by the player. The player could change actions in the middle of combat, but he had no way to pause and think while doing so. Ultima VI also offers some hints of the Darklands system, with the player able to set computer or manual control, as well as general combat strategies, for each character. We should also note that the British Legend (1992) had characters mostly act on their own. The player could pause to consider new tactics but could not issue commands while paused.

Darklands is the first game to combine all of these elements: a) independent character action in the absence of specific orders; b) combat in which the player sets general strategies and targets but otherwise mostly watches the action; and c) the ability to pause combat to issue new orders. I believe the style would reach its zenith in the Infinity Engine games, although there are so many titles from the post-1990 period that I haven't played that I'm open to the possibility there are even better ones.
         
Assessing my enemy, which in this case is a bear.
        
Combat begins paused, with the party grouped in a standard formation and the enemy often off-screen. The player can choose "Enemy Info" to see what types of enemies he faces, but I don't think there's really any way to gauge how many there are. It also doesn't tell you anything about their hit points. At the outset of combat, characters don't do anything on their own unless an enemy attacks them in melee range.

Once you see the enemy, you can select each character and then issue an order: walk somewhere, flee somewhere, throw a potion, fire a missile weapon, or perform one of three types of melee attacks: a defensive parry, a standard attack, an attack that tries to seek vulnerable areas on the enemy, and an all-out "berserk." You can cycle through the characters, assigning a different action to each. Hitting the SPACE bar then un-pauses combat and the actions execute.
          
Bianca is in the middle of reloading her gun as I switch her to a melee attack. Note the symbols in the lower left of each character. Maximian is executing a regular attack; Lambert a vulnerable attack, and Viridia is walking to her target.
          
Characters have minds of their own, both fortunately and unfortunately. On the positive side, they're smart enough to switch to a melee attack if an enemy comes into melee range, and they usually chose the best one based on their current endurance and strength, their weapon, and the enemy's armor. For instance, if the character has a short sword, a "berserk" attack would be wasted on an enemy in plate armor. Instead, it makes more sense to restrain yourself and wait for a vulnerable spot. Characters are also smart enough to target a new enemy once the current enemy is dead.

There are times I don't even need to participate in combat. If I get attacked by thieves in an alleyway at night, I just let them come to me, activate my characters, and my characters' AI does the rest. Enemies, for their part, never seem to concentrate attacks on a single character the way it would make sense to do. They always try to engage everyone.
          
Two groups of witches. Viridia is about to throw a potion on the group to the west (off-screen).
        
At any point during combat, you can enter the characters' sheets, switch equipment, pray for saintly aid, and drink potions. Those don't even seem to count as actions.

So far, this doesn't sound too bad, but there are numerous problems with Darklands' nascent approach.
           
  • Characters don't obey. If I want a character leave his current opponent and run across the battlefield to engage a different opponent (for instance, to save a weak character), I'm out of luck. Characters might accept my choice of two targets within melee range but they almost never leave melee range to go fight someone else. Sometimes I have luck getting them to "flee" in a particular direction, then re-engaging, but that's a lot of micro-managing.
  • There's no way to select all or multiple characters at once. This was a major benefit of the Infinity Engine games. If you wanted all six of your characters to fill a particular target full of arrows, you just had to select all of them and then execute a joint command. Here, everyone has to be tasked separately.
  • Actions unselect characters. Let's say I want a character to walk to a particular point, then turn around and throw a potion. I can specify the first action, but then hitting SPACE de-selects the character and I have to select him again to perform the second action once he gets where he's going. Another way to say this is that the very act of selecting a character pauses the action. In the Infinity Engine, pause was separated from selecting and issuing orders.
  • The game is very literal about vision paths. You can't toss a potion above the heads of other characters or fire a missile weapon just over a companion's shoulder. Any use of a ranged weapon has to have an absolutely clear shot to the enemy. This makes missile weapons a lot less useful than they could be. For instance, you can't have your lead character block a doorway, fighting oncoming enemies one-by-one while your rear characters fill them full of holes. They'll refuse to shoot with the lead character in the way.
          
Viridia can't target this potion because Winchester is standing in front of her.

        
  • The game is equally literal about movement paths. In the Infinity Engine, characters had no problem nudging each other out of the way. Here, you get tangled up into clumps all the time and you have to carefully pick them apart so everyone can move.
  • Everything is really slow, especially when there are a lot of enemies on the screen. You can crank up the DOSBox cycles to speed things up but then you run the risk of the game over-reading key inputs and accidentally drinking two potions and such. 
  • There's no way to keep a character completely out of combat. Enemies will lock onto him and chase him to the ends of the world. In such cases, you hope that your endurance runs out before your strength. If your endurance runs out, you just collapse and are revived at the end of combat. If your strength runs out, you die.
  • Potions are not exactly spells. I'll cover this in more detail in a minute.
             
I also don't particularly like the system by which current strength and endurance serve as your pool of hit points and stamina, respectively. It hardly seems worth micromanaging the characters' armor to avoid encumbrance when losing a few hit points in combat knocks down their strength and leaves them encumbered anyway. In fact, although encumbrance supposedly hurts weapon speed and skill, I'm beginning to think that it's worth having encumbered characters (even at maximum strength) just to gain the benefits of the better armor.
            
Targeting a demon with a pistol.
        
Let's talk more about magic. It's a pain in the neck. If I want to mix up a batch of five "Thunderbolt" potions, which act a bit like fireballs, it's a long process. First, I have to know the formula. If I don't know it at the start of the game, I have to purchase or trade for it with an alchemist. Alchemists are irritable bastards who frequently tell you to buzz off every time you ask for anything, and if that happens, you can't visit them again (in the same town) for a couple of days.

Assuming you get the formula, you then have to get the ingredients. Although a lot of places sell them, I always seem to be low on one reagent or another. In particular, "Aqua Regia," which almost every potion uses, seems to be in short supply.
          
I was lucky to find it here.
              
Then you have to take the time to mix them. You can mix a couple of potions per day depending on skill, and there's a chance that the mixture may fail. There's also a chance that it might blow up and damage you.

But assuming you get past all this, congratulations, you have three "Thunderbolt" potions, which will last only about five minutes in a tough combat (assuming you can even get a clear shot) and will collectively do as much damage as a first-level casting of "Fireball" in a Dungeons and Dragons game. Yes, I know that the potions get more effective as your skill goes up, but training skills is a pain in the neck, too. You have to get a trainer to agree to train you, then take the time each day and pay the fee, and you maybe get a 1 point increase every 4-5 days that you pay, and the trainer disappears after a couple of weeks, forcing you to enlist him again.
         
Getting ready to toss a potion at a group of Templars.
         
Having used a lot of potions in combat in this last session, my considered opinion is:

1. You're better off just buying potions instead of buying ingredients and then trying to make potions. Yes, they cost a lot of money. That's what all the quests are for. Plus, it gives you a reason to keep looting equipment from the battlefield.

2. You're better of focusing on defensive potions. I've found a lot of the buffing potions helpful, such as "Deadly Blade" (improves weapon damage), "Strongedge" (improves penetration), "Great Power" (increases weapon quality), "Hardarmor" (increase armor quality), "Ironarm" (increases strength), "Quickmove" (increases agility), and "New Wind" (increases endurance). Most useful of all is "Essence of Grace," which restores endurance and strength, and is thus equivalent to the standard "healing potion" of other RPGs.
           
"Truesight" is particularly valuable for dungeon exploration.
        
I should mention that potions are also often used from menus, as a solution to various puzzles and to get you out of various situations, so it's good to have a few bottles of just about every potion for that reason. "Thunderbolt," for instance, works as a kind of demolition spell if you need to destroy a pagan altar or break the wall of a crypt.

I began this long session continuing my movements around the landscape, solving quests and engaging in random combats. Everyone's "Impact Weapons" skill neared 99. I made fortunes in florins, spent them, and made them again. I've learned dozens of saints, but I still can't find any place to teach me of St. Wenceslaus, which means I still have to deal with the Wild Hunt practically every time I'm outdoors.

I think I got a bead on the main quest when I visited a random hut and found a woman performing satanic rituals. After defeating her pet wolves, the party captured her and had various options, one of which was to "reveal the time and place of the witch cult's next High Sabbat." She told me it was on 26 December, south of Salzburg. It was 31 October at the time. I checked the map and saw that Salzburg was pretty far to my southeast, but I figured I could just make it.
          
I think I see the loophole in the first one.
          
When I got to the area, snow was on the ground. South of Salzburg, the only structure I could see was a castle. When I tried to approach, I got a message that "The First seal is intact. The Castle of the Apocalypse is secure," and I was unable to approach closer than that. Nothing changed on 26 December itself.
            
We're just here to listen to the music of the night.
          
I wasn't sure if the witches were meeting somewhere else nearby or if I just didn't have some precursor item to get into the castle. I reloaded to before 26 December and dithered around looking for it for a while, but I have a lot of trouble picking out structures on the overland map even when the ground is clear. Finally, I had my party mess around for three months until the snow cleared, at which point I could see some kind of building or monument to the west of the castle. Reloading, I headed for that area on 26 December.

Pretty soon, I had infiltrated the large gathering of the witch cult. I got there early, and there were a couple of days where I had the option to investigate various witch activities like cannibalism, flying broomsticks, and participating in a mock baptism ceremony. I could participate in these things (for a loss of virtue) or try to sabotage them; for instance, by freeing the captives intended for the evening meal. There were a lot of skill checks during this process, and I confess that I reloaded a few times just because I wanted to see how different options played out.
           
Different options for messing around with the witches.
         
On Christmas night, the party had a vision in which someone said, "You must find the location of the fortress monastery. This is the next step of your quest."

The next day, the gathering culminated in the summoning of a demon. We tried to sabotage the altar but it didn't seem to work. We decided to let the demon appear and then attack it. I fully expected to have to reload, but the demon was actually pretty easy. A lot harder were the waves of witches that followed. We must have killed 50 of them. When the battle was over, we purified the site, found an evil book, and destroyed it to break the first seal.
            
Solving the quest came with significant virtue rewards.
          
As for the "fortress monastery," its location was given during the ritual when the high priest made reference to it, and someone else shouted out, "The Great Monastery--isn't that northwest of Flensburg?" The funny thing is, I had already found it, way back in my first session with the game, when I got attacked and slaughtered by some Templars.
         
There it is just to the northwest of the city. It couldn't be more obvious.
       
Flensburg was at this point at the opposite end of the map, so I headed that direction on a round-about route, turning in quests as I went. On the way, I finally solved one of the mine quests, near Breslau. Unlike the one I failed, which involved a demonic gate deep in the mine, this one was much simpler: the kobolds were rebelling against their dwarven slavemasters, and the conflict had boiled up to the upper levels.
     
Both parties wanted my assistance. I chose to help the kobolds for some reason. Probably because I found the entrance to the dwarven region first. After I killed a bunch of dwarves and subdued the leader, the kobolds gave me a bunch of reagents and my fame went up by about 30.
            
The dwarven king had a poetic surrender.
           
As I noted in a previous entry, indoor exploration is like being in combat mode permanently, except that when no enemies are on the screen, you are able to move the party as a unit. There are also other exploration-related commands such as open door, pick lock, and disarm trap. The latter only works on chest and door..
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A nice shot of the museum as the game comes to a close.
         
Waxworks
United Kingdom
HorrorSoft (developer); Accolade (publisher)
Released in 1992 for Amiga and DOS
Date Started: 11 June 2019
Date Finished: 23 June 2019
Total Hours: 17
Difficulty: Moderate-hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
     
Summary:
Waxworks is a first-person adventure game with some RPG elements. The protagonist enters his late uncle's wax museum and must travel through time via four exhibits, to ancient Egyptian pyramid, a zombie-infested graveyard in 15th-century Wallachia, 19th-century London on the night of Jack the Ripper's latest murder, and a 20th-century mine taken over by a malevolent plant. In each scenario, he inhabits the body of a "good" twin who must stop his evil brother; the culmination of his efforts will end a witch's ancient curse on the protagonist's family. The game uses the same engine that HorrorSoft built for three previous titles, including the two Elvira games (1990 and 1991). While the graphics have been improved from Elvira and Elvira II, the RPG elements have been lessened. That character gains experience and max hit points as he explores and fights, but he loses it all between scenarios. Combat difficulty is extremely erratic and really only applies to two scenarios anyway. The driving game element here is inventory-based puzzle solving. The game is notable for its gruesome death scenes, of which there are several dozen.
       
*****
       
I began Waxworks hoping that, unfettered from Elvira, HorrorSoft would be able to make a better game. Alas. Elvira and Elvira II not only had more interesting settings but better RPG elements, including attributes, a spell system, and RPG equipment other than just a primary weapon. None of these elements were great in the Elvira games, but Waxworks mostly abandoned them entirely. Sure, it has leveling, but I'm not even convinced that leveling is that important. 
         
The area of the London scenario as given in the game.
The modern equivalent in London.
        
The last two levels were a bit harder, I thought, than the first two. But I largely solved them the same way: Upon arriving in each scenario, I just assumed I wouldn't last long. I concentrated on mapping and annotating as much of each area as possible, identifying items and puzzles, reloading upon death. Once I couldn't map anymore and had a few puzzles I knew I could solve, I'd reload from the beginning and try a bit harder with the next character, until I finally found the right sequence to get through the level.

One thing I learned from the graveyard and its broken railing was to turn and face every wall and then run the mouse cursor around it, ensuring that the name of some barely-visible object didn't pop up in the view window. Without this method, I wouldn't have found numerous items in the mine level, where the walls have (to me) such a uniform color that I can barely pick out any detail.
         
Winning this scenario required me to notice that this small section of this support is burned.
        
The "Jack the Ripper" scenario had the character running around the streets of London, trying to intercept his brother, Jack, before he could murder another prostitute. The primary difficulty involves dodging MPS patrolmen and random mobs, both of which execute you the moment they step into your squares. Since these enemies start approaching from the moment you enter the scenario, you're encouraged to flee the scene of the murder immediately. This has implications.
          
I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, gov'na.
         
Unlike the other three scenarios, there are no battles to fight in this one until the end. Instead, you run around invading houses and offices and assembling an inventory kit, none of which seems to lead anywhere. I got stuck entirely and had to look up a hint. It turns out that in the very first screen--the one you're encouraged to leave on the double--there's a barely-visible "bag" on the ground that belonged to the victim.
          
And I think I'm being generous with "barely-visible."
         
When you open the bag, you find a diary, which leads to a story that suggests the last few victims have been deliberately baiting Jack in order to catch him.
            
That seems like a bad idea.
         
The first victim's diary gives the name of another prostitute, whom you have to find by paying a pickpocket to relieve a pimp of his address book. After that, you track down the prostitute--Molly Parkin--in a wharfhouse, just before Jack is about to kill her. You duel Jack with a dueling cane--the scenario's one weapon--and (after a couple of reloads, in my case), stab him through the heart and toss his body into the Thames. Bright light, back to the Waxworks.
         
Sword-fighting with the Ripper.
         
My last scenario, into which I was again rudely shoved by Boris's butler, suggests that the "evil twin" has somehow turned into a hideous mutated plant and taken over a mine. His tendrils and spores cover the walls of the mine, sometimes resolving into deadly vines and pods. He excretes some kind of toxin that converts the miners into walking plant zombies. The character deaths are more horrific here than in any of the previous scenarios, including one animation in which vines rip the character's head off.
          
Trust me, you want to thank me for not putting an animated GIF here.
        
Melee combat is nearly impossible on this level, and I suspect the player isn't supposed to do it at all. Early on, you find a canister of weed-killer which reliably works on anything deadly in the mine. When it runs out, you can replace it with gasoline. As long as you have a lighter in your possession, too (found in the first square), the canister works as a flame-thrower. Once you know where these things are, you don't have to fight melee combat except once or twice after the game forces you to give the canister to an NPC for a while.
       
Fire-balling a plant monster.
        
The scenario consists of a single small level that takes a while because of backtracking. One key puzzle involves a mining cart that rolls along the tracks after you've gone a particular distance east. You have to stop the cart with a length of wood, but you have to do it in precisely the right square, or the cart ends up blocking at least one vital passage. The worst part is that you might trigger the cart without even knowing it because you move down a side passage before the cart comes into view. I went through the scenario twice only to find the cart blocking the exit both times and not understanding how it got there or what I was supposed to do about it.

The mine scenario involves true NPC conversations, with dialogue options, for the first time. A wounded professor is in the first square, in a broken elevator carriage, begging for a doctor. The player has to find a blowtorch and a welder's mask to free some captives from a cage. A doctor agrees to look at the professor; a soldier agrees to help demolish the mine if the player can find the right items; and an electrician agrees to fix the elevator so everyone can escape safely.
        
Getting ready to escape with all my NPC friends.
         
You have to find two gas masks and protective suits--one for you, one for the soldier--to safely enter the evil twin's chambers. In a gruesome sequence, the player pokes out all the monster's eyes before he and the soldier plant 8 sticks of dynamite in the monster's chambers. The healer revives the professor, who provides an antidote to heal the electrician, who fixes the elevator, which you ride to the top of the shaft just after detonating the dynamite. It took me about 15 reloads to get the sequence completely right.
          
Sorry, brother.
          
Once you finish the fourth scenario, you find yourself back at the Waxworks. One more exhibit--the witch--is unveiled. The butler gives you four magic artifacts from the previous exhibits: an amulet, a ring, a knife, and a bottle of poison. (The butler is polite as he greets you, but I must note that he keeps shoving you to the final exhibit.) Uncle Boris explains exactly what to do with them once you return to the witch's time: wear the amulet to avoid the witch's spells, toss the poison at her to distract her, find a weapon and attack her, when she's down, stab her in the throat with the knife, and escape back with the magic ring. 
           
Lurch welcomes us back for the finale.
        
The final scenario has just one screen, and that's pretty much exactly what you do. The weapon you find is a crossbow. If you're not quick enough with any of the steps, she's able to cast the curse and you lose.
         
This is a lot of drama over a chicken.
       
Even winning feels pretty dirty, as the game graphically depicts you shooting the old woman--who's just had her hand chopped off!--in the eye with a crossbow bolt, then stabbing her in the throat several times with Jack the Ripper's knife. Brutal.
      
And right then, we shoot her in the face.
      
Assuming you do it right, you return to the Waxworks to find Alex huddled in the corner. He wakes up and relates a "dream" in which after you killed the witch, she "muttered something" and you "turned into a demon with horns and hoofs." This is perhaps setting up a sequel in which a different curse turned the protagonist evil, but I guess we'll never know.
         
1. Does Alex somehow not realize that he's still a teenager while I've grown up? 2. Does he look a little like Zach Gilligan?

           


In a GIMLET, I give the game:

             
  • 5 points for the game world. You have to admit, we haven't seen anything quite like it.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There's no creation, and "development" is just an accumulation of levels and an increase in maximum hit points. Only two of the scenarios have regular RPG-style combat, so this type of development hardly matters. Plus, you lose it all in between scenarios.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. They're mostly limited to the mine scenario, but it is fun to see some RPG-style dialogue and to make NPCs part of the puzzle-solving process.
         
An NPC professor has a lot to say about the plant monster in the last scenario.
          
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. Despite the name of the category, for this type of game I typically use it to rate puzzles, and that's what I'm doing here. They are neither the best nor worst adventure-game puzzles I've experienced.
  • 1 point for magic and combat. I found myself missing the magic system of Elvira II as I repeatedly slashed at creatures. There are really no tactics in combat, and too much of the outcomes is based on luck.
          
Slashing at a plant monster with a metal rod.
        
  • 1 point for equipment. There's plenty of it, but it's all adventure-style puzzle-solving stuff. On the RPG side, the best the game did is occasionally give you the choice of weapon.
           
Some screens offer way too much stuff to pick up, most of it useless.
         
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no side-quests and no decisions.
  • 5 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Graphics are very nice--but that's only worth a few points in this category. Sound effects are sparse. People who like music will probably like the music. The dual keyboard/mouse controls work okay, but the buttons should have had keyboard backups. 
            
This is one of a few games where you deliberately die a lot, just to see the death animations.
          
  • 4 points for gameplay. It gets a little credit for nonlinearity, although there is something of an "obvious" order and I don't consider the game "replayable" just because you can try again in a different order of scenarios. The difficulty wasn't too bad, and the length was just about exactly right.
           
That gives us a final score of 26, worse than the 29 I gave the Elvira titles.
             
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Bokosuka Wars
Japan
ASCII (developer and publisher)
Released in 1983 for Sharp X1; 1984 for MSX and PC-88; 1985 for FM-7, PC-6001, PC-98, and NES 
Date Started: 25 June 2019
Date Finished: 28 June 2019
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Hard (4/5), but would probably go down to 3/5 with more experience
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Well, I did it. I downloaded a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) emulator--Nestopia--and I gave it a shot. It was easier than I expected. I was the thinking that the NES had a directional pad and an analog stick, but I guess that came with later consoles. The original NES controller is little more than a joystick (albeit one that made it harder to move diagonally) with two buttons. Easy to emulate, easy to remember.

Bokosuka Wars was on no one's list of "must play" console RPGs, but I figured I'd give it a try anyway. It's the earliest Japanese game on my list that had a western release and the earliest Japanese console game, beating several 1986 titles by a month or so. That it's not actually an RPG by my definitions (no inventory) shouldn't bother us too much. It was an easy step into this sub-genre.
            
A common screen, probably responsible for a lot of the hate the game receives.
         
The game is an "afternoon RPG," as any console must be until saving was possible. The setup is simple. You are King Suren, and your country has been overthrown by the evil King Ogreth of the Basam Empire (Ogreth is called "Dragonet" in the original Japanese versions). Ogreth has used his magic to turn all your knights and soldiers into rocks and trees and cacti. You embark on a mission to reclaim your throne. You start 600 meters to the east of King Ogreth's throne room and slowly make your way left down the battlefield, fighting his forces as you go.
          
The king starts alone, with 595 steps to his evil counterpart.
           
You're not alone in this endeavor. Along the way, you can rescue many of your knights and soldiers. (In the Japanese PC versions, Suren starts with many of his warriors already activated, but in the NES version, he starts alone.) Some are inanimate objects, but they're revived if you touch them. Others are kept in stockades and must be rescued. Either way, you slowly build (and, just as fast, lose) an army. Eventually, if you survive, you reach Ogreth's throne room and throw your remaining forces at him, including King Suren if necessary. If any of your units defeat Ogreth, you win the game.
         
King Suren turns a tree into a knight.
          
The problem is that you can revive and rescue only 50 warriors (about 15 knights and 35 soldiers), and opposing you are 180 enemies: guards, mages, warriors, and pages. Some of them can be avoided, but most must be fought. Characters move around the battlefield in real-time, but this is in no way an "action RPG." As frenzied as the game looks, no part of your success depends on your speed with the controller, particularly since enemies cannot attack you and combats are resolved statistically.

The game's strategy lies in who fights what enemies, and in what circumstances. Your one huge advantage is that enemies can never initiate combat. They can block your way, but combat only begins when you decide to move Suren or one of his warriors to the enemy's square. Thus, you can almost always choose who fights.

Combat is a probability test that pits your character's power against the enemy's, but with a heavy random component. If the die rolls go in your favor, you win; if not, you die. If the character fighting on your side was King Suren, and he dies, the game is over. Winning and losing is completely binary; there are no hit points in the game, so one character can't "weaken" an enemy for the next character.
           
My king battles a "summoner" in the middle of his spirits. Since my king has 320 power and the summoner only has 50, I'm relatively confident. During battle , the tile flashes between crossed swords and "B." I'm not sure what the "B" means, but it doesn't have anything to do with the "B" button on the controller. Maybe it means "Bokosuka."
       
If you win, the winning unit gets an increase in power--sometimes substantial. For instance, soldiers start at a power of 30 and rise to 40 and 50 with their first two victories. But if they achieve a third victory, they change color and rise to 140. Knights do the same thing, with the progression going 150, 160, 170 and then jumping to 260 on the third victory.
          
Note that one of my knights and one soldier have "gone gold," making them more powerful than their counterparts. A knight is needed to bust through the shield around the stockade.
         
King Suren himself starts at 220 and maxes at 320; soldiers and knights max at 310. Throughout the game, you have to keep making the decision about whether to throw your more powerful figures into combat, thus risking them, or try to build up weaker units. There's no easy answer. And occasionally even the most disproportionate combats can go wrong. I saw plenty of knights at 310 power killed by enemies at 10 power.
        
Enemy and ally unit powers. This is from the Sharp X1 version. NES players had to read the manual.
                     
There are a few other tactical considerations. Regular soldiers (for some reason) knock enemy guards from 100 power to 10 power when they engage in combat. Knights are the only units that can break the walls of stockades, so you want to keep at least one around. You need soldiers to disarm traps (which don't appear until after your first victory). Only the king can trigger special squares that remove the walls blocking "summoners," who then summon a bunch of spirits (which don't count against the enemy's total) until you kill the summoners.
           
Every once in a while, the king runs out of soldiers and stands alone.
          
I suspect the game would be "easy" for those with a lot of patience. One key problem is the movement of your forces. By default everyone moves together when you press the directional pad; if they're up against an obstacle, they just stay in place. You can toggle so that you're only selecting one type of unit at a time (i.e., the king, all soldiers, or all knights), but it's still tough to move them in unison, and I probably left more allies stuck on obstacles behind me than I lost in combat. This problem is the source of a lot of modern complaints about the game, I later found, but I think it added somewhat to the game's strategy. When you have a lot of units in your army, you have to be careful about every move, noting who is going to end up in what square, and thus what units will find themselves in combat. A player who develops a huge army is handicapped by having to more carefully manage its movement. I can't claim that I exactly "enjoyed" such a gameplay element, but that doesn't make it inherently bad.
          
Moving through terrain like this is easier when you only control one unit "type" at a time.
          
You don't have to fight every battle. In fact, there's a good argument to be made in fighting as few as possible, thus reaching the end of the game with as many forces as possible. On the other hand, it helps if those forces have gained a lot of experience along the way, so you don't want to eschew every combat. It's a tough call.
           
Having broken a bunch of soldiers out of a stockade, now approaching a phalanx of guards. To get the soldiers out of their building, I'm going to have to move everybody back and up a few spaces.
         
You eventually reach a point where you have to thread a narrow hallway to get to the throne room, which features a number of unavoidable battles with "killers" with 250 power. Even though you might have more than 300 power at this point, the killers seem to win more than half the time. The same is true for King Ogreth himself, who only has 250 power but seems to beat 300+-power allies at least three-quarters of the time. So whether you win or lose upon reaching the end is largely a matter of whether you have enough allies to overwhelm the probabilities of losing individual combats. You definitely don't want it to come down to King Ogreth vs. King Suren.

Reaching the final throne room. Looks like I'll have to take out a summoner before engaging the king. I only have three (promoted) units with me, but there are 10 more somewhere behind me if I didn't want to risk Suren in the final battle.

A good opening strategy is to have Suren fight all the combats until he gets to his maximum power of 320. If he's going to die, better it happens in the opening few minutes than hundreds of meters down the battlefield. After that, I tended to prioritize building weaker units than risking more experienced ones. That had the effect of keeping my numbers small but my individual units powerful. However, I'm sure there are several strategies that would work. I'm sure it's possible to have King Suren charge down the battlefield alone, fighting only the necessary combats (i.e., when an enemy is blocking you and there's nowhere to go), and make it all the way to the end. I tried it and made it to about the 300-yard line--halfway through the game--before I was overwhelmed by a group of knights and ultimately killed. Some other player makes that strategy work in this video, winning the game in just under 5 minutes, but there's a note that the session somehow "manipulates luck," so I'm not sure if it's an honest win.

A winning game takes about an hour, taking modest care, and perhaps two hours being extra careful. If you win you get a nice screen and then an invitation to try again. Small squares in the upper-right corner keep track of your victories. The only thing different about subsequent loops is that they feature traps that kill you instantly unless a soldier walks over them. Apparently, you face more traps the more previous victories you have under your belt.
          
An angry King Suren chases his enemies off screen.
            
The game scores poorly as an RPG, getting only 15 points on the GIMLET, nothing rating higher than a 2, with 0s in economy and equipment. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable for a few hours as I tried to figure out the right strategies, watched the odometer count down my distance to Ogreth, and held my breath every time Suren entered combat. I lost 8 times--twice in the last 100 meters--and I suppose I would feel differently about the game if that had continued much longer.
           
The box captures the somewhat linear nature of the game.
           
Given my generally positive feelings, I was surprised when I started doing my post-game research and saw Bokosuka Wars repeatedly referred to as the worst game ever made for the NES, with multiple sites calling it completely impossible. Granted, PC games were significantly ahead of the experience that Bokosuka Wars could provide, but even console-only players seem to love to trash this title. I suspect what's happening here is that RPG-oriented players want their success determined by statistics that they can manage, and arcade-oriented players want their fate decided by their own dexterity. A game that's so heavily based on random probability serves neither group. Nonetheless, I had fun with it. It showed me an approach to gameplay I haven't experienced before. I wouldn't want every game to take its mechanics from Bokosuka Wars, but as a one time experience, it was fine.

(Believe me, I appreciate the irony of me, who never heard of this game two weeks ago, who resisted the console sub-genre for a decade, suddenly mounting an impassioned defense of the first console RPG that I played.)
                
The Sharp XI version starts the king with a large army.
           
As poorly as the game was apparently received, it is credited in many sources in laying the foundations for the tactical RPG genre in Japan. I'll reserve judgement on that until I actual play more tactical RPGs. In a funny footnote, Bokosuka Wars II was released for the PlayStation 4 in 2017. (There's a so-called sequel called New Bokosuka Wars for the Sharp X1 alone in 1984, but I really think it's just another version of the original game.) That gap of 33 years must be one of the longest between an original game and its sequel in gaming history, although Bethesda seems determined to beat it.

I'm disappointed that the game didn't explain what bokosuka meant. Does anyone know? Googling provides mostly this game and a VR game called Bokosuka Girls. I'm trying to think what adjective could apply to both wars and buxom women and I'm coming up short.
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The dangers of low reputation.
           
It's becoming clear that a large part of Darklands is developing the party's fame. Fame gives the party access to more political and economic leaders, and thus more quests, and thus more rewards, and thus more fame. This eventually leads to the main quest? I'm still not certain about that. But in a game where the ultimate goal is to retire with a high score, fame is a key metric. Since I began the game, my party has progressed from 0 to 168 ("modest reputation"). I started at 95 ("barely known") for this session.
        
The party's status at the end of this session.
        
Related to fame, but not the same thing, is local reputation. I gather that fame is a global measure while local reputation has more to do with how the immediate region sees you. You can be famous and still despised by a particular city. In general, cities seem to be warily neutral towards the party, no matter what fame they've achieved elsewhere, until they start doing things for that city. But it's much easier to gain local reputation. One night of killing alley thieves is enough to get you to "respected" level, and a single robber knight quest makes you "a local hero."
           
Sneaking into a robber knight's castle.
        
I thought one approach might be to build local reputation over a certain value (say, 50) in a systematic order as I worked my way through the cities. As this session began, I had just sneaked my way into Schleswig, where my reputation was -20 and guards were actively looking to arrest me. I got it to the positives (albeit single digits) by spending several nights hunting thieves. It's not a bad way to spend time. My armor is good enough that the thieves don't even do any damage by now, and I still occasionally improve weapon skills by clonking them on their heads. 

While dealing with thieves helps with local reputation, it seems to do nothing for overall fame. For that, you need to accomplish things outdoors or to finish quests. Killing robber knights adds a reliable 10 points to fame and also significantly increases local reputations in the towns that gave you the robber knight quest. By the time I left Schleswig, I had 4 quests to kill the same robber knight, and I picked up another 2 in Hamburg. Unfortunately, that robber knight was again Anton Seibt. I guess the game just keeps re-using the same names for robber knights in the same region, no matter how many times you kill them. That breaks the immersion a bit.
          
How many times do I have to kill you?!
       
This session, I kept careful note of what actions led to what effects on reputation and fame. This is what I noted.
          
  • Killing a robber knight: +10 to fame, +50-60 in local reputation at city where quest was given
  • Retrieving an artifact from a shrine: +10 to fame (even before turning it in to the quest-giver)
  • Donating money to a small village church: +3 to fame (may not be consistent)
  • Killing a pack of alley thieves: Between +1 and +3 to local reputation.
  • Getting rejected for an audience with the leader of a city: -1 to local reputation. 
  • Getting physically ejected from the city hall: -10 to local reputation.
  • Attacking city guards: -40 to local reputation
         
Actions that didn't have any effect, which surprised me: trying to sneak or coax my way into or out of cities; giving money or escorts to traveling pilgrims; bribing guards; donating large amounts to churches; rescuing merchants from bandits; destroying villages practicing witchcraft; or killing bands of roving marauders in between cities. I also didn't find any actions that had a negative effect on fame.
          
Getting a miscellaneous artifact quest.
           
In this session, I spent over a year moving randomly around the landscape. I mean that literally. Every time I reached a crossroads, I used a random number generator to determine which path I took. Yes, sometimes this took me backwards, but I almost always had as many quests (or quest rewards) in my backpath as in any of the forward options.

Upon reaching a city, I settled in to a comfortable pattern, at least assuming it was a new city and my reputation was 0:
        
  1. Enter during the day
  2. Immediately head for the Kloster or university and ask to study a saint. That process usually takes until nightfall. Donate money if I need the divine favor.
  3. Spend the first night killing thieves, so as to boost my reputation to "respected."
  4. The next day, visit the political leader and the Fugger, Medici, and Hanseatic League representatives for quests.
  5. Sell any excess equipment in the markets and look for potions and potion ingredients to buy.
  6. Rest at the inn if I needed it; otherwise, continue on.
        
Purchasing potions is a good way to get rid of excess money--fast.
           
In between the cities, I've killed numerous robber knights. I purged at least three villages of Satanism. (Each one offered me a hint about where the Satanists would next meet to "get revenge," but I've always been too far away to get there in time.) I killed a couple of lords who were oppressing their peasants. I've escorted and donated to countless packs of hapless pilgrims. I've killed so many bandits and highwaymen that I must be approaching a whole percentage of the population. I've recovered several artifacts from pagan altars. I've fought off wolves, boars, spiders, and schrats in the dozens.

I've come to not like the quests in which I'm asked to sneak into a Fugger, Medici, Hanseatic, or other office in the middle of the night and retrieve documents or something. Success in these missions involves a sequence of skill checks, starting with sneaking into the market in the first place, then actually opening the doors. Sometimes, the doors are trapped, and several times, they've refused to open even when I have an NPC with a high "Artifice" skill. They often give me the option to use "Eater-Water" potions (which never work) or "Thunderbolt" potions (which inevitably summon the guards). If I happen to be successful, the rewards are low, and I think it might lower my local reputation. I'm probably going to stop doing these missions.
              
I'm not even sure he's telling me the whole story.
        
I had meant to return to Goslar eventually and finish that "knocker" quest. Now I'm hearing rumors that the mine at Freiburg is having the same problem. I'm not sure if this means there are two potential mine quests, or if I waited too long in finishing the first one. I guess the only way to tell is to return to Goslar and see if I can resume.

A couple of interesting things happened regarding the Wild Hunt. In a couple of cases in which I heard the Hunt approach, I perceived that it was after a helpless schrat--a hairy "wild man" of Germanic legend who I suppose is equivalent to Bigfoot or the yeti. Both times, I saved the schrat, who rewarded me with an increase in strength for one character. Later, a holzfrau--a female schrat--showed up a few times to warn me of an approaching Wild Hunt. She told me that I could protect myself from the Wild Hunt if I learned of St. Wenceslaus. As it happens, I know quite a good deal about Wenceslaus and flesh and wine and pine logs hither, but I suppose my characters don't. I haven't been able to find a Kloster that teaches of him. This would be more of a priority if my party got seriously beat up by the Wild Hunt, but it's always just one hunter, and it's not hard to kill him.
             
A holzfrau helps protect me against the Wild Hunt.
         
I had been so used to thinking of the schrats as friends that I was surprised when a group of them attacked me later in the game. There didn't seem to be any "noble" way to avoid the combat, so I reluctantly killed them.
        
Fighting schrats. I thought they were my friends!
        
Miscellaneous notes:
            
  • The mayor of Flensburg has given me the quest to kill Anton Seibt three times and has never rewarded me for it once. The quest utility says that all three are still active.
  • Nothing has ever happened to me at the clothmakers' guild. I only ever get options to leave.
             
I'm sure glad I visited!
        
  • Similarly, reading notices, engaging in gossip, and listening for rumors only ever produces the same notice prohibiting people from being out at night. 
  • During this session, Lambert achieved a skill of 45 in "Healing," and now my characters regenerate 3 points per rest session. That really makes a difference.
           
Lambert studies while everyone else just relaxes.
         
  • The save game system is a bit annoying. Every time you save, the game generates a new file. To whatever name you give the file, it prefixes your current location and date. It then precedes to sort these files in absolutely random order, so it's a hunt to find your last save, and you have to constantly delete the excess.
          
What is the logic of this order? It is neither by date, nor alphabetically by location, nor alphabetically by the name I gave the file.
      
It took me this long in the game to realize that the "leader" is different than the person at the head of the "marching order." This is why I got kicked out of every alchemist's shop for the first 20 hours. Somehow, the leader had been set to Bianca, who has the worst charisma and speech skills, and for at least two game sessions, she's been doing all my bargaining and coaxing. It's a wonder I've been successful at anything.
             
That Bianca passed this particular skill check--which resolved the situation at the top of this entry--is a miracle.
           
Towards the end of the session, something happened that I think may be the first step--or an early step--on the main quest. While sheltering from a blizzard one night near Passau, everyone in the party had the same dream. It started with a terrible demon looming over a bloody altar stone while crazed Satanists danced nearby. In succession, we then saw an ancient monastery populated by monks wearing white robes with blood-red crosses, and two seals that broke apart to reveal seven paths on the other side, each path with its own terrors--famine, fire, storms, poison, etc.--that slowly grew to overcome the world. 
            
You all awaken from the dream in the early morning sunlight. There is no doubt that you have been called. The only question is, what should you do now? As in most dreams, there is no clear path of action only premonitions.
           
True, but I have a couple of ideas. One involves returning to the northern part of the map and trying to find the seer that I encountered early in my career. The second is running around to the small villages until I find one where the residents are practicing satanism and swear revenge at a time and place I can actually reach. Whatever the case, this new mystery came along at just the right time. Things were starting to get repetitive.
           
The party has a vision out of Revelations.
         
I've compiled enough information now about combat and potions that I think I can finally focus on those things for my next entry.
            
Time so far: 36 hours

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