Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Citadel Of Chaos (ZX Spectrum/CBM64)


Darryl J Mattocks & Simon J Ball

Reviewed by Mark Lain

After the almost totally unrelated nature of The Puffin Personal Computer Collection’s first FF release (TWOFM), the designers of the second conversion produced something so faithful to the original that you would expect it to be pretty damn good. The book’s strengths lay in its urgency, imagery, relative (and logical) brevity, and the novelty (at the time) inclusion of magic to give variety to your character and how to handle him or her. The big frustration for anyone who has ever played the computer version is that it takes a winning formula, changes basically nothing, yet the presentation is so turgid and cack-handed that the brilliance of the source material is all but lost.

From what I can establish, very few people actually bought this for the Spectrum or Commodore 64 (or if they did, they binned them in disgust, possibly?) as original cassette copies seem to be by far the least commonly seen of all the FF computer games on eBay or Amazon and even pictures are few and far between. I used to own a CBM64 cassette in my general FF memorabilia collection, but the Spectrum version seems even rarer. The problem of playing this now is worsened by the fact that emulator ROMs of this are also difficult to find. The generally pretty exhaustive World Of Spectrum does not have any files of it and no other emulator sites seem to have the Spectrum version either. After extensive searching, I eventually found a working d64 file for the CBM64 version, but there is no doubt that this one is tough to track down. Sadly, it is really not worth the time and effort to find it.

On loading the game up, the first thing you are struck by is the screechy and intrusive music that plays relentlessly throughout the game, sometimes creating completely the wrong impression of what’s going on. There is a particularly annoying sound (similar to the one associated with Wile E Coyote falling into ravines) that makes you think something might be going wrong but generally just seems to be a recurring part of the soundtrack. In places, the “music” inexplicably ends and then starts back up again when you least expect (or want) it to and it is not long before your ears are close to bleeding. If the stupid white noise doesn’t give you a headache after a few minutes of playing, the game’s other big programming failings probably will.

The main adventure sheet/combat screens are in garish colours, with the images of what you are fighting being in very bold greens, reds, purples, etc that look like a child has gone berserk with colouring pens and ruined your copy of the book’s art pages! The text screen is less stroke-inducing, but your eyes will soon tire of a sky blue background with a white panel positioned centre-screen that has constantly scrolling gothic text appearing on it to the extent that, when you turn away or the screen changes, the image is burned into your corneas for a few seconds as if you have left the same image on the screen of a plasma TV for too long.

The biggest problem by far with this version is that it is excruciatingly slow and quickly becomes frustrating. It takes an age just to create your character. The dice rolling animations are admittedly pretty quick which means you get your four stats together fairly efficiently, but the process of choosing spells is torture. You have to wade through several screens of the already mentioned scrolling text on white panel on sky blue background, each listing three spells per screen. You select a spell by pressing a corresponding number. Unfortunately, after screen one, the spell numbers carry on increasing (eg 4 thru 6 on screen two), but the selection buttons switch back to 1 thru 3 making things very confusing until you get used to it. The spells are exactly those from the book, but this time you get no explanation or even slight indication as to what they do so, unless you have prior experience of the book, you are left to draw your own conclusions about their purpose. There is a nice added touch where the spells have three-letter codes that you need to know to be able to use them (lifted from Sorcery! presumably), but this doesn’t really help you if you don’t know what it is you are trying to achieve by casting any of them.

Once your character is created (and you can give him or her a name this time, not that it makes much of a difference to anything), you are then thrown into a relentless (and very slow) cycle of scrolling text/white panel/blue background screens with scatterings of the adventure sheet or the very similar combat screens thrown in where appropriate. There are many points where it seems that the game has crashed (especially if the music has done you a favour and briefly stopped for a moment), only for it to come back to life and move on. This is particularly noticeable after combats where there is a long pause before your adventure sheet logs any items etc, followed by a longer pause before the next text screen appears. Due to the awkward and sluggish way this game runs, all the snappiness and momentum that is present in the book version is totally absent here and even the opening coda of getting into the courtyard and then into the tower itself seems to go on for an age.

Similarly, the lack of split-screen between words and art to complement and visualise the text (as would appear in the computer adaptations of Seas Of Blood, Rebel Planet and Temple Of Terror) that had made some of the best early text adventures such as The Hobbit or Lord Of The Rings work so well, makes this seem like a very alien experience. Russ Nicholson’s art in the book presented Steve Jackson’s setting perfectly with atmosphere to spare. Ridiculously brightly coloured text screens do not have the same effect and this really does go to show how well matched the text and images in the book really were. Any sense of dark mystery (in the early stages) and/or lavish decadence (in the latter sections) that should be felt are not likely to be and the whole way this is presented is botched in the extreme. There is a perfunctory nod to imagery that you only ever get if you engage in combat, whereby your foes appear in a small box centre screen but, as noted above, these are so appallingly rendered that, if you can even make anything out, you are still none the wiser about what the thing you are trying to kill looks like. No feeling of terror is given either by seeing what you are up against or by reading its description, given that the text takes forever to work its way onto the screen. Even the opening title screen is pixelly, but it is the only evidence of any attempt to set the scene, so we have to be thankful for that at least.

Magic is handled in what could have been a manner to rival the exemplary approach used in the Sorcery! books where you are placed into character by having to learn codes to allow you to use spells. This is an actual departure from the original book and is welcome in the sense that we get some slight variety, but you are never given any options of which spells to use. If you are able to use a spell, you are asked to key in the code of the one you want to try, almost always with the outcome that the spell you chose has no effect. I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, if you are the Grand Wizard of Yore’s star pupil you will probably know a fair bit about what spells will do what and in what situations, so this is quite realistic and demands that the player learns their lines, as it were. On the other hand, it gets very frustrating when your spells rarely do anything because you chose wrongly and you do start to wonder why you even have magic if all your spells will just get wasted, leaving you with none left for the big magic showdown at the end. The book offers you a handful to choose from at the most in magic use situations giving you at least a half-decent chance of doing something right. There is a neat touch that isn’t in the book where, on casting a spell, you sort of commune with the elemental plain (invoking the maelstrom from Maelstrom, maybe?), but this manifests itself by making the adventure sheet screen flash manically which just accelerates the onset of the headache that this game will almost certainly give you.

Other than the slight differences in spell use, there is precious little digression from the book and this is very much a literal copy of the source material with not enough variation to make it worth playing. The book version is far better executed and this computer attempt gives completely the wrong impression of what to expect from the book, for those who might play the computer version first. Yes, Steve Jackson’s words are the same, but the book worked on levels beyond just the text itself.

As this release appeared in 1984, it uses the much worse original book cover with Emmanuel’s picture of Balthus Dire’s hordes emerging from the Black Tower, being led by the black furry thing that made the first cover picture look so silly. But at least it isn’t cropped and is faithful to the book which might be an indication that this is basically the book in computer form to encourage potential buyers who were disappointed by the irrelevant TWOFM computer game to part with their cash. I assume it didn’t work as it seems that there aren’t many copies of this out there. It is worth noting that this and the third computer adaptation (The Forest Of Doom) were advertised together, including the planned released (as with TWOFM before them) of Software Pack editions (with the cassette and book bundled together) for both. FOD definitely appeared in this form for both the Spectrum and CMB64 as did COC for the Commodore 64, but there is scant evidence that a COC software pack ever got produced for the Spectrum or, for that matter, that the Spectrum edition ever even saw the light of day at all. Is this because it sold poorly? Or could it be due to people noticing that there was no discernable difference between the book and the computer game so they thought it wise to avoid making it too obvious to the buying public? Who knows, but there is no doubt that this is the weakest of all the 80s FF computer games and that it is all but ruined by its horrible visual presentation combined with its painfully snail-like pace.

If this game has one saving grace, it is with the dice roll generator. Two dice appear on screen and randomise numbers to simulate rolling real dice. This works exactly as dice would, giving a totally random element of chance and fate and really does make this feel like a RPG. These would appear in many of the subsequent 1980s FF conversions and are very effective, considering the limitations of the hardware at the time these were coded.

It is a great shame that this has been cocked-up so spectacularly as a faithful (but not totally slavishly similar) FF adaptation would have been welcome. Unfortunately, we would have to wait for Adventure International/AdventureSoft to enter the FF market before this would really happen and COC’s elusiveness is no loss to the world.