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.

76 – Elminage Gothic

The Big Three of 80s RPGs–Ultima, Might & Magic, and Wizardry–all finished up in different states circa 2000. Ultima 9 is spoken of bitterly if at all–even if it weren’t a bug-ridden mess it still goes against a lot of thematic and tonal things that were long established in the series; at least Ultima Online was popular in its day. Might and Magic 9 isn’t an inherently *bad* game, and it is very much a Might and Magic game in spirit, but it’s underdone: Every single element feels like a rough draft that needed another year to refine and pare down; as it is, we get gigantic, aimless areas with nothing in them. Wizardry ended up the best–6 and 7 were and are very well-received, and if Wizardry 8 is not without its flaws, it features some frankly heroic direction on the part of Brenda Garno-Brathwaite-Romero–one of the most interesting takes on a turn based battle system I’ve seen, with this weird real time system that I haven’t seen any other game pick up on. The stats–which, frankly, in 6 and 7 were confusing and slightly convoluted–were also completely revamped, and for the first time, character classes had distinct abilities and passives, as opposed to the earlier games which mostly affected stats and equipment. I read that one of the first design-related things she ever did, as a teenager, was rewriting the encumbrance rules for a game she’d been playing with her friends, and I guess what I love about Wizardry 8 is how it takes a set of mechanics that had worked fairly well and makes a few tweaks here and there and suddenly they’re that much better.

Wizardry is, however, Big In Japan–it’s one of the inspirations behind Dragon Quest–and there’s been a fairly solid base of dungeon crawler fans over there; not only are there tons of clones, but due to a quirk of rights or licensing or something, there’ve been a *bunch* of Wizardry sequels developed in and for Japan–one or two have been released in the US, but that’s only been in the past few years. The Nintendo DS was (is?) a pretty good time for these kinds of games–stuff like The Dark Spire and Etrian Odyssey had a natural home on there (and there’s probably an essay or two about how the Nintendo DS exposed a lot of people to things like roguelikes and more avant-garde RPGs, and man, I’m gonna start waxing nostalgic for the PS2 days if I continue on this way). They’re usually, oh, about as hardcore as a niche genre of Japanese-developed RPGs can be, which is to say, you’re gonna be grinding, you’re gonna be bashing your teeth against it, it’s gonna be hard. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen–masochism is half the fun.

Elminage Gothic is one of these such games; it’s the kind of game that I spent some time mapping the first level, looked up, and realized two hours had passed: If you’re the kind of person who likes drawing graph paper maps, it’s got you covered. I can’t say I understand the mechanics as far as character stats are concerned, but I’m playing with the default party, and it’s the kind of game that, you can tell is going to encourage you to swap your party in and out. (One of my favorite parts of Etrian Odyssey, in fact, was its extremely low level caps; when your character hits it, you can “retire” them and swap them out with a character with higher starting stats and a higher cap. By the end of the game, I’d cycled my entire party out a good two or three times, each incarnation stronger than the previous one, and a completely different party than I’d started the game with–giving the feeling of managing a guild of adventurers rather than actually role-playing as one.)

In some ways it’s a few step back from Wizardry 6. Wiz 6 begins with your party trapped inside a ruined castle they’re exploring, and throughout you get short messages talking about the abandoned decay. DW Bradley writes, frankly, fairly purple, but it kind of works–it has a melodramatic tone of elegance corrupted into decadence and finally rot. And the very substance of the level propels you through–it’s shaped like you’d imagine the floor plan of a castle to be, and you’re restricted to certain sections that you gradually unlock, Resident-Evil style. The castle also serves as a sort of hub–you branch out into other areas which lead back to the castle through different ways, unlocking deeper areas of the castle. Even the endgame takes place behind what is more or less the last door you couldn’t get through.

“There’s monsters in the cave,” a messenger says at the beginning of Elminage Gothic, and by golly, you’re gonna solve it–and that’s about as basic as you can get and fine for a game of this type. But there is nothing to the cave beyond it being a cave–there’s no flavor text, and I guess that’s what I’m missing. There’s a couple of bits where it basically says, oh, a bloodstain! or oh, some bones!, but it’s very flat and matter-of fact. A couple of NPCs give gameplay tips to you. That’s about it.

You know, it’s clear that this is just the first level, and it is enjoyably twisty to map. I’m also finding the game surprisingly easy, to the degree that I double-checked to make sure I didn’t have a setting on. Again, I’m playing with a default party, which may simply be stronger than a created one, but I also do have the feeling I’m gonna eat my words soon enough. The monster design is very good.

The equipment also feels a few steps back: In the shop screen, there doesn’t appear to be any way to compare a prospective piece of equipment against your current one. I can forgive Wizardry 6 for not having that–even though by 1990 when W6 came out, there was beginning to be no excuse, Wizardry was necessarily foot-dragging in that regard–but as old-school as Elminage wants to be, that’s not not so much a convenience anymore as it is a requirement.

I am looking forward to defeating the monsters n the cave, though.

59 – Gothic II

I end up talking about Skyrim a lot, just like I end up talking about Final Fantasy VII a lot, and BioShock a lot, and it’s obvious why: Everybody’s fucking played them. And it’s obvious why everybody’s fucking played them, and, oh, let’s be honest with ourselves, most of these games deserve their position–they do what they do very well and in a way that a lot of people like, and if BioShock isn’t quite as deep as its press releases say it is, it’s deep enough. (We’ll leave the subject of Infinite closed indefinitely.)

Skyrim is one of those games that I love in theory, because let’s face it: I do very well with games where you’re placed in a land and you have to bum around and figure it out and maybe you fight dragons. But Skyrim is an extremely flat and homogenous game. In its effort to be all things to all people, in its efforts to be so large and so sprawling and so massive, the game simply doesn’t have enough tricks up its sleeve. Cast your net at a section of gameplay–dip in and pick a dozen quests and dungeons and maybe every one will be different. Dip in and pick another dozen, and another dozen, and there are going to be a few too many similarities in each packet. Skyrim is the kind of game which doesn’t want to leave any players unsatisfied. Oh, sure, there’s more to do if you’re Cheevo-hunting, and there are enough variants in the quests to make things interesting, but I’m a dungeons guy, I’m an exploration guy, and the dungeons are all samey and the exploration is so brief–it’s traversing rather than discovering.

Gothic II is the kind of game where I had to start over after about ten hours of playing because I squandered a few resources and built my character in an unproductive direction and wanted to do it right this time. In those ten hours I explored a relatively small area–the initial city and the surrounding woodlands–and in the entirety of that time I was able to chart only about two thirds of the entirety of that area and I certainly didn’t feel safe at all. Rather than large, Gothic II is going deep and intimate. There’s shit hidden in different corners, some shortcuts–it’s not as much of an intertwined cartography maze as Dark Souls is, it’s rather a single large island rather than a selection of interconnected areas which loop upon themselves in surprising ways. But it’s a hell of an island.

I find I like games which invite an intimacy with the land, which are based on developing a familiarity with the environment. It’s why I love Might and Magic so much: VARN is a world that you chart and become familiar with and eventually learn to navigate on your own. Same with the Wizardry Cosmic Forge trilogy. It’s why people love Dark Souls and why I loved ICO–hell, it’s why people love Ocarina of Time. I have never been able to have that intimacy with an Elder Scrolls game–although I’ve never played Morrowind which I’m told is one of the finest in the series.

Gothic is doing a great job at balancing some tight reins with an extreme degree of freedom; the monsters are hard, and the point–that your character is, right now, a supreme wuss–gets very strongly made when two flies kick your ass. Combat is sporadic and fixed–there aren’t too many enemies around, but all of them are legitimate threats and every combat feels very meaningful. But skill plays a part as much as your stats; restarting the game, the initial bits were much, much easier because I understand the timing underlining the combat a tiny bit better than when I first played. (Those flies are still really difficult though.) Everything has these really stringent requirements–half of the weapons I’ve picked up require strength 40, strength 80, strength 100 when my 10-hour character only had strength 10 (part of the reason I restarted was because I put some points into the wrong stats.) It’s a game where you chip and chip and chip away and every bit of progress feels like a rush, and the density of stuff and the rarity of stuff and the importance of stuff–finding two arrows and a healing herb has not stopped being a good find–means that every time you find stuff it’s rewarding. Skyrim threw crap at you, it gave you more treasures than you knew what to do with and gave merchants too little gold for you to sell everything and gave you weight requirements that meant you simply couldn’t take everything–and I don’t know about you, but it breaks my heart to have to sort through the items in a chest and have my decisions very easy to make because half of that shit is absolutely useless. Sure, it’s possible that the early game of Gothic requires gold in a way the late game does not, but all I know is that I’ve got to get 1000 gold pieces in order to do one quest, 500 to do another, and a good 200-300 to buy a couple spells I need to buy, and I’ve been scrimping and saving to capture 200.

I speak as if this is my character in the present tense, of course–this is all from that abandoned 10 hour playthrough, again, part of the reason I want to restart is because I want to manage my money better. I’ve loved the density of the world so far, and I’ve been told that it stays that way for the whole game, and I’m so excited to see more on the island and find more stuff out. All of the quests I’ve been given have been very meaningful and different–again, so far–and I just want to be able to play more of it. It’s just an immensely satisfying game in a way that Skyrim never was.

50 – OKAY FINE I’M PLAYING WIZARDRY 7

I think I reeeeeally wanted to get out of playing Wizardry 7 for some reason. Look. I loved, loved, loved Wizardry 6. If it isn’t quite one of my favorite games, it’s certainly one of the five most important games I’ve ever played. I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say that I started playing Wizardry 6 around a point in my life where the only other viable option was “commit suicide”, and that I could write an amazing Personal Essay about how crawling through the Bane Castle and the surrounding dungeons represented the dark, sludgy, smokey, fly-infested basement where I played the game and how my ending decision to take the Cosmic Forge represented my decision to become a writer of Twines and all of that Chicken Soup for the Dark Souls crap.

But, I mean, my darling, my darling, my life and my groom is Might and Magic. I love mapping, and it was Wizardry 6 which made me realize that fact. The moment that I fell hard for Wizardry 6 was the moment that I realized that the entire map was artfully and perfectly arranged to scale. Oh, let’s not compare everything to Dark Souls, but it’s got a similar enough structure. There’s a central area which connects to a bunch of side dungeons, and you’re constantly discovering new shortcuts and connections between the areas. I mean, at that point I had regularly been using the phrase “It’s not a world, it’s a series of videogame levels”. As primitive even for its time as Wizardry 6 was, as much as it was a maze full of questionably-designed monsters–there are a number of naked lady enemies with large bosoms, so you have to have a veeeeeeeeeeeery healthy sense of camp–it was a world. You could build the thing–if I ever get a larger apartment and go completely insane I’m going to build a model of Wizardry 6 entirely out of Lego(s).

But Might and Magic’s mathematical regularity just happens to be more aesthetically appealing to me–certainly it’s easier for me to get that game in my head than Wizardry 6’s sprawl. Might and Magic consists of 55 interconnected maps, each of which is 16 X 16 squares. It is organized in a regular fashion as well: The overworld is four rows of five columns–each designated by a letter and number. Coordinates are very important in the game, and you learn the system very quickly. They’re even referred to in-game. The effect this has on notetaking is astounding–a lot of Might and Magic is focused around knowing the precise location of a lot of stuff. For example, at E4 8,5 is a fountain which temporarily increases your Might by 20–a VERY helpful gameplay bonus. And of course I made plenty of notes on my Wizardry 6 map itself–noting locations of locked doors, unsolved puzzles, etc.

But while Might and Magic 3-5’s level design discourages graph paper mapping–their levels are larger and more sprawling, not tightly curled in on themselves like 1 and 2’s were but given the freedom to sprawl out a bit and–my experience with 3 so far–be a little less interesting–while Might and Magic 3-5’s level design discourages graph paper mapping, every square still has a coordinate. Notes are so easy.

I have a smaller apartment this year, and I don’t really have the space to graph out a gigantic map–from what I know about W7’s structure, it’s a lot larger. Having played for a couple days now, it appears to be a large interconnected forest type area with cities and dungeons peppered throughout–in other words, a Might and Magic-style structure without Might and Magic’s regularity. Wizardry 7 has an automap, and it’s actually one of the more interesting automaps I’ve seen–the quality of the map increases as you increase the character’s map skill at levelups, so it starts off shitty and useless without even walls drawn in, just a blob of floor tiles, and gradually fills in walls and, I assume, doors and probably hidden shit.

The issue is it’s still not fantastic yet–and there’s so much the automap can’t do. There’s, you know, locked doors and puzzles I have to return to, and I need to know the relationship of certain locations to each other, and that the automap just can’t do. I probably should buy the largest pad of graph paper I can find, because that’s probably going to be the only way around this. Yeah, fuck, I’m going to have to end up mapping Wizardry 7. I’ll go to Staples.

You know, I’d created a new party for Wizardry 8, and i started that, and it’s awesome so far–but Ben Chandler and a very sincere “thank you” addressed to players who imported their characters through the whole trilogy in the Wizardry 8 manual guilted me. It’s actually a little hard to go back. 7 is pretty much a facelift and a restructuring of 6, but in terms of interface and mechanics it’s the same as 6. 8 revamps everything–refines the skill system into a much less punishing and esoteric one, automates so much of the repetitive nature of turn-based games and takes away a ton of micromanagement–and, well, yeah, 7 is a step back. So I don’t know. 7 is very good. It’s a beautiful-looking game, particularly in the monster designs, but there are problems.

Like, it feels a lot more narrative based, and yet there are large and strange gaps in the game that make me feel like I missed something vital. From what I know from reading the manual and stuff about the game online, the game is structured like a giant free-for-all treasure hunt. You and a bunch of other factions are all on the same planet hunting for the pieces of a map that’s going to lead to an ultimate treasure. As you move through the game, you can find out rumors about where the pieces of the map are and if any of the factions have them. So from what I can gather, you’re supposed to be able to align with different groups, and certain ones can obtain pieces of the map and then you have to get it back from them.

I’m a little unclear so far as to how this works in practice, largely because I haven’t gotten that far and because I’m not sure how advanced this game was in ’92. I can see that being impressive and really difficult and really cool if it has a bit of proceduralness to it. I’m having the usual difficulty I have with keyword conversation systems…and I’m not sure how much this is integral to the plot or if it’s mostly window dressing. Is talking to people going to provide clues to where to go, or do I just need to bum around and explore and that’s how I’ll get most of it done? So far no one’s been able to tell me anything that seems that crucial–it’s all nice bits of worldbuilding and stuff, and there are a few recurring characters that are starting to appear–but I don’t know if I’m just not asking the right questions. One of the factions has given me a couple of quests in a chain–I’m on some sort of a spiritual journey and I’m learning little bits of a poem–so far I’ve got “Slay not he that cannot hear/Be thankful ye that hath an ear” which should give you an idea of the atmosphere of the game–but I don’t know if that means that I’m aligned with the faction or not.

You know, the general view of designer DW Bradley is kind of an ass, that his writing is a little purple–but also that it kinda works. Wizardry 6 had a decent amount of flavor text throughout–descriptions of rooms, evocative enough to supplement the minimal graphics–but it’s all over the place in 7, and yeah, there’s a really odd feeling that comes through. We are on a decaying planet, and an end of world prophecy is going around, and different alien factions are going to war over the planet’s great secret, and there is a feeling of faded glory throughout; it’s very Shelley’s “Ozymandius”. Every shop I’ve gone into has a couple of lines about how everything is broken down and cobweb-filled and how you see a strange shopkeeper who’s desperately selling his few items. The empty cities are actually abandoned cities. Ugh, let’s go back to Dark Souls again–Wizardry 7 is about abandoned glory where Dark Souls is about decaying glory, but the lands you’re exploring in both have been long since dead. You think this is cool now? You shoulda seen it in the gold old days. They’re elegies for places that were never quite appreciated in their time, and there’s no going back. The past is the past.

41

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.