81 – Veil of Darkness

Anatoly Shashkin tells me that Veil of Darkness–another SSI game!–is a lost gem, and dammit, he’s right: A single screenshot on his twitter convinced me that what I needed to be doing today was playing this game.

Veil is one of those adventuresome games with some RPG elements–some light RPG elements, I stress: There’s no XP (an automatic strike against full-blown RPGness in my book), and everything seems to be built more around weapon types than any particular statistics: In other words, you’re gonna use a mace to bash a skeleton, and a silver sword to fight undead. Stuff like that. Combat, as is the case with a lot of these kinds of games, is horrible and awkward, half dice rolling and half finicky placement that, in my case, requires some shifting from mouse to keyboard and dancing around while you bop whatever enemy you’re facing, but for whatever reason, the combat is coming off as endearingly horrible and awkward.

Basically, Veil of Darkness is Quest for Glory 4 without the puns. You’re an incredibly Aryan, incredibly blonde, incredibly square-jawed fellow taking your daredevilly plane over mountains of Transylvania–as you do–when the local vampire flings a few bats at the cockpit, causing you to crash–there’s a great scene where the vampire is gloating in his castle as he sees a vision of your plane. The art is gorgeous, I must add. The valley is so isolated that nobody even knows what a plane is, and you’re prophesized to save everyone from the supernatural curses. The prophecy itself serves as a neat riff on the quest journal–it’s in the form of a cryptic poem, as these things usually are, and as you decipher each line and solve the related problem, it fades away, allowing you to track your progress as you go through the steps of the prophecy.

The game is very well-paced–it opens up new areas steadily enough that the initial stages give off a sense of progress even though most of what you’re accomplishing is simply meeting characters and learning the locations. Many of the quests are in several parts–find the goblet, the ashes of someone you want to resurrect, AND three somewhat-rare silver coins is a major one. I’ve found the goblet in the course of other branches of investigation, and while I don’t need to resurrect anyone just yet, this sequence is firmly held in a balance between the satisfaction of progress and the mystery of an unsolved puzzle. And in the same location, there’s a locked door and another character who has his own curse. The quests are very intricately knotted together.

Veil, being an adventure game made in the very early 90s, is, at its heart, a gigantic puzzle which uses its narrative as its puzzle pieces. There’s a keyword dialogue system, and not every keyword is decided for you: One character requires a certain herb, and you find another character chewing on a sprig of it. She suggests you ask her son; you’ve got to remember that and type the keyword in. Which reminds me that I haven’t been taking very careful notes; I think you need to take notes. The RPG elements are just kind of there–you can warp out to a healer with a couple of clicks at any time, it seems, and get freely healed to 100%–but the challenge of the game lies in untangling the knot.

The interconnectedness of it goes a long way towards worldbuilding. If everything is General Transylvania, it’s a fairly well-realized version of it, and the story even goes out of its way to not make it a simple Dracula retelling–there’s a short story in the manual which details a fairly original backstory for the main villain, and its one which, purple as it is, goes a long way towards reinforcing the plot. The characters all know each other, and many of the situations are a nice little soap opera of so-and-so wrongfully accusing so-and-so for someone else’s murder; a witch, who’s intent on wresting a secret from the monastery, has a spell cast on the wrongfully-accused man; her grandfather, in ghost form, is guarding the mausoleum–frankly, it’s hilariously ridiculous typing it all out, we’re practically in Dark Shadows territory. When it’s revealed that a catatonic woman who knows a secret was the fiancee of another character’s previously unmentioned dead son–I mean, this shit is awesome.

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80 – Thunderscape

It’s hard to tell what’s gonna click and when. The first few times I attempted Thunderscape I petered out somewhere in the second level. Where the first area is a somewhat open area filled with a couple simple puzzles, the second is a winding cavern, and a fairly awful automap made the experience a miserable one. Yesterday I gave it a whirl and ended up playing for five solid hours.

Thunderscape comes to us from the World of Aden, which was a setting that SSI really wanted to happen but, frankly, couldn’t really get off the ground. In addition to Thunderscape, they published a game called Entomorph: Plague of the Darkfall as well as three novels, and what I’ve played of both games gives kind of an idea as to why the setting might have failed. It doesn’t really seem to have an identity: Both games are very different: Thunderscape is a broody first person turn based dungeon crawler where Entomorph is a third person hack and slasher set in a colorful insect laden island. I’ve only scratched the surface of Entomorph, but Thunderscape doesn’t do a great job of making the setting clear. That’s a problem too.

The backstory, and the most salient bit of lore that we get (Thunderscape’s manual has no flavor text, no short stories about the world, just a little bit of handwaving around the different possible player species) is that sometime in the recent past, something called the Darkfall happened in the peaceful world of Aden. You’ve read fantasy novels before so you can probably figure out the gist of it: During this night, demons and other monsters called Nocturnals invaded. A magical barrier called The Shield prevents their main forces from full-on destroying everything, but a small force of Nocturnals manages to disable the barrier. In Thunderscape, your party is tasked with restoring it.

Thunderscape plays like a cross between Ultima Underworld and Wizardry, and if it isn’t quite as good as either, it’s also–I wouldn’t call it casual by any means, but it is a much less tasking game. The automap, while terrible, is ultimately legible, and once that’s done the bulk of the exploration is fun enough, the puzzles generally hitting that degree where they’re all very solvable but not insulting. I gave up on Wizardry 7 because, even with the hint book, I couldn’t make head nor tail of some of the puzzles or where to go, and it’s not a bad thing to have a direction in mind.

Thunderscape simply doesn’t feel as sprawling as Wizardry can get. The starting area more or less branches in two different directions–troll caves on one side, a cave with a steampunk complex underneath on the other. The troll caves are hidden behind a password and the steampunk complex behind a key found in the troll caves. Ultimately a barrier prevents you from going further, and going further into the troll caves takes you into the area I’m in now, an area I believe will let me remove the barrier.

I’m playing with combat on easy mode, and combat is *extremely* easy–but frankly, the balance is so bizarre that I’m not sure switching to a higher difficulty would be satisfying. For one, you’re given several different types of attacks–if you’re armed with a club, for example, you can do a normal attack, hit vitals, or do a mighty blow–which I’ve found hits just about every time and does so much more damage that it’s a waste to even consider regular attacks. That fellow is doing, let’s say he averages 100 damage. My other attackers are doing about 30-40, and my magic users somewhere around 10. Magic, beyond healing, seems to be useless–casting a spell at a low level does maybe a point or two of damage, and increasing the charge of it uses so much mana that it’s not worth the tradeoff.

I’m not quite sure what I’m finding so compelling about the game but I think it might simply be fun enough and easy enough that it’s a nice relaxing experience. I don’t want *every* game to be grueling, you know.