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Anvil of Dawn seems to have inspired deep but not widespread love; there’s not very much written about it and even the GoG forum page has only one page worth of topics. GameFAQs’s message board has four topics, all of which are barely going through the motions, and one FAQ written by comic book writer James Hudnall, whose name I did not know until today. (Given Anvil’s focus on interesting monster designs, I can very easily see how a comic writer could become a fan.)

One of the more salient pieces comes to us from Abandonia, and it’s breathless as hell, hilariously so:

Now, where should one start to describe a masterpiece? I can’t think of anything about the game that could have been done better. If you don’t understand it by now, the game will receive a score of 5 – without ANY doubts whatsoever!… could go on all week about this game and its greatness, but I won’t. Look at the screens and download it at once. It is without a doubt THE best RPG I have ever played!

One gets the impression that the review was written by a small dog, and it’s so tempting to be the cynical bastard and point to a lot of things the game could have done better–Character leveling is almost an afterthought, casting spells is cumbersome, the inventory is unnecessarily complicated–but it’s the kind of review I can understand completely because, shit, if I had played this in ’95, when I was thirteen, I probably would have felt the same way about it. Many of the issues with the game come from it being 2013, come from the fact that, again, I’ve played Legend of Grimrock. I can see flawed if valid reasoning behind everything–the missteps seem made out of a sense of experimentalism that just didn’t quite work out.

I guess why I am enjoying Anvil of Dawn so much is that it seems to have been created with great love and care–it very much loves its player. The rhetoric surrounding AAA and indie these days seems to be that AAA is focus-grouped out of any teeth, and that indie is abrasive personalitites arrogantly calling for the death of the player. Both cases are expressions of an unabashed contempt for the audience–in the case of the former, that the player only deserves soothing pabulum and in the latter that the author is wiser and cruel. I’m punk rock enough to be equally disgusted with both attitudes.

And so to a real degree Anvil of Dawn reminds me that another, and–when you get honest about it–more prevalent attitude exists: Picking an audience you like and spending your time making things they’ll think are cool. Anvil of Dawn‘s 1995 release date–on Hallowe’en, we just missed its 18th birthday!–isn’t insignificant. It was released almost simultaneously with Interplay’s StonekeepStonekeep‘s 18th birthday is tomorrow, so perhaps we’ll just take both of them out for dinner over the weekend. They’re considered to be two of the last traditional grid-based dungeon crawlers ever made before the transition to full 3D free movement; Stonekeep and Anvil are the swan songs of an era that games like Grimrock and the upcoming Might and Magic X are deliberate throwbacks to–and god damn am I glad we’re exploring these concepts again. But they’re beautiful swan songs: They cap off the period beautifully.

I don’t know where the Anvil of Dawn team’s head was at. The game was apparently reviewed well at the time–but it’s not one that you hear a lot about. I have to feel like they knew, even at the time, that they were making one of the last examples in a subgenre beloved by an increasingly small number of people. You know, everyone who painstakingly mapped out every Wizardry game. People who’d cleared out World of XEENAnvil of Dawn feels very strongly like a gift.

 

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Here’s how much I’m liking Anvil of Dawn: I’ve played through the beginning three separate times. I don’t do this: There’s a billion games out there and if I’m finding a game troublesome in any particular way, I’ll usually just move on from it if it hasn’t hooked me. Anvil is–oh, I think flawed gem is the best term for it. So far I’ve found a dozen things the game does wrong; it’s wonderful regardless.

First time I made it halfway through the first dungeon before deciding I wanted to rebuild my character. I traditionally like playing magic-based builds–although in my old age I’m usually opting for something a little beefier–and the magic system is…not great. In-universe, spells are cast with a series of arcane gestures; in practice, this means that when you click the spell icon, you get to slowly watch your character draw the glyph, then you see the spell effect slowly form, and then it misses because the enemy moved. In addition, the spell icons live in an area which takes up most of the real estate for the “turn right” hotspot, and so time after time instead of turning I end up casting a spell. There’s an option in the menu to hide the spell icons (and, in an awesome display of flexibility, all of the separate elements of the interface!), and that’s what I end up doing with a strength build. It’s much less frustrating to go into options and reshow them every time I want to cast something. (Allegedly, hitting V shows and hides the interface on the fly; I can’t seem to get it to work.) Playing as a strength build, it’s a much less tedious proposition.

Second time I encountered a glitch. There are a fair share of moving parts–perpetually rolling boulders which toggle pressure switches or just form traps–one of those boulders got stuck, and because I wasn’t staggering my saves, I had to start over. It’s the rare glitch which feels slightly like my fault: Anvil is fairly late, 1995, it’s considered one of the last great sprite based grid dungeon crawlers, and so maybe it’s not quite forgivable that there aren’t autosaves or checkpoints, but it IS an old-school game. The typical advice I’m seeing is to create a backup save at the beginning of each dungeon, just in case.

But for all of this, there’s a lot of charm and love to the game: For one, it’s beautiful. Corridors are fairly simple CG, and the outdoor areas in particular are artifacts from the mid-90s, which was the beginning of one of the ugliest eras of computer graphics in history, but creatures and characters are all done in gorgeous sprites. I cannot stress how much I am loving the monster design. I’ve talked about this before: Skyrim is a fantasy epic in which the team could not have been bothered to come up with any interesting monsters and so throws bandits, bears, giant spiders. One of the things I love about older fantasy games is that they’re not concerned with being realistic–more likely, the servant of the King WOULD be slaughtering poor citizens who, in their desperation, have turned to banditry–but are concerned with giving us Cool Shit To Look At. The second dungeon contains the most interesting snake monster I’ve ever seen: It looks like a regular rattlesnake, except instead of a head, it’s got a human hand holding a knife that it slashes at you. When you kill it, it immediately turns into an ouroborical circle and dissolves. It’s the kind of game that I bought because of the screenshots, which GoG chose wisely to showcase some of the stranger monster designs.

But two steps back: That first dungeon, the one I’ve played three times, your only enemy is a soldier. A very well-designed soldier, but there’s only one enemy in the entire dungeon. Strange decision. You’ve got to work for a while before you can begin to see the cool stuff the game has in store.

One of the oddest and most consistent areas of praise is the automap; it’s one of the finest examples of the form. It’s a very clear and elegantly-designed one; most importantly it loads instantly. There’s plenty of games like these which pair the map with a soundclip of taking out the map and maybe a little animation. In dungeon crawlers like this, looking at the map is something you do CONSTANTLY: Taking the second gets irritating. I’ve quoted this bit before, but let’s check in with Plotkin on the subject of interface animations:

…if you go to the inventory screen, the “cancel” button (returning to the game) runs an animation. The animation is about a second and a half long. This is about a second and a half too long. Quick, name an operation which the player is going to perform seven hundred times during your adventure game. Now, for twenty dollars: is the player (1) desperate to keep playing this game, or (2) desperate to see the same minor animation which he’s seen six hundred and ninety-nine times before? Think hard!

I know some of this has to do with the time it takes to load the interface elements, but that doesn’t make it less annoying–and particularly when games do that today, it feels like an irrelevant bit of eye candy. That the map–and all interface elements–in Anvil load instantly is wonderful–it’s a sign of care for the player.

Which is not to say that the interface is all great: The inventory is…odd. One of the reasons I haven’t been able to get too far into Ultima VII–besides my general distaste for the series which has as much as anything to do with being too young for the majority of the series and not imprinting on it at all–is because of its terrible inventory system, which basically gives you a series of non-grid-based containers and lets you dump all your loot in. I’m not sure if Anvil is directly influenced by it, but it’s the same basic thing, and it suffers greatly for not having a very organized grid. Looty as the game is, I haven’t found a major problem with encumbrance yet, but you do have to babysit what you’ve got. When you pick stuff up, right-clicking will drop it in your inventory, but it’ll just kind of dump it wherever it feels like; picking up only a couple items reduces your bag to a confusing state of clutter, and so every few minutes you will need to stop and just shove the healing potions to the side, put the weapons in your weapons bag, toss out any spell figurines you’re never gonna use, collate all of your amulets. Now, I don’t mind this. To a degree I like reorganizing an inventory, and a couple of odd choices aside–you can’t just open a bag, you have to place it in your hand and temporarily store whatever was in that hand in the inventory, which adds nothing–moving everything around is fairly quick and easy to do. Come up with a system of organization and just run with it–I guess you just have to accept that one of the aspects of Anvil is inventory management.

I’m not adequately conveying why I’m liking this game so much; maybe I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I love its genre: I respond very well to a maze filled with Kobolds that I have to best. It’s nice to look at, the mazes are cool, and I guess there’s the sense so far of discovery. It’s mentioned in the same breath as Lands of Lore, which, unfortunate as that series quickly became, has a near-perfect first installment; Stonekeep, which in many ways is kind of terrible but so goddamn goofy and exuberant that it’s hard not to love; and Eye of the Beholder, which I’ve never played but badly want GoG to offer. As far as these things go, that’s excellent company to keep.