Thursday 5 December 2013

Temple Of Terror (ZX Spectrum/CBM64/BBC/Acorn)


AdventureSoft (UK) Ltd

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The 6th FF computer adaptation appeared in 1987. A 7th (Sword Of The Samurai) was advertised but never materialised, making ToT the final FF-related release for 1980’s platforms.

In terms of its design, this game is very similar to AdventureSoft’s previous FF effort (Rebel Planet) with its half-image/half-text screen presentation (unless you have the BBC version which is text only and loses all of the visual appeal, or for some reason you choose to play Side 2 of the Spectrum version which offers a text-only version too which you won't want to do as Side 1 gives the full graphic version.) There is no combat system or character stats and these two adaptations are much more command-driven and the emphasis is on figuring out how to negotiate certain situations by finding the correct command whilst, in some cases, having to beat limitations on time and/or number of moves. Certain actions can have consequences later in the game and forward-planning plays an important part in some sequences. In this sense, this was easily the most sophisticated of the FF computer games up to this point and probably seemed quite advanced for the time as it is quite intuitive in how it responds to what you do. For example, not bowling cannonballs down a particular passageway before going down it will result in you dying under a hail of crossbow bolts fired by a trap in the wall, whilst not jumping over a particular pit with your eyes closed causes you to be killed by an eye stinger. Clever.

Clearly then, the fact that the game can “remember” what you have done to avoid/cause certain consequences does mean that it will take numerous failed attempts before you can make any worthwhile real progress through the game. Even the opening screen can be tough to get past as the first event the game throws at you is a beat the clock situation where you have to make your moves before an angry mob of pirates gets across the beach and kills you and I must have died about 20 times before I figured out what I needed to do. That said, once you have worked out how to beat the various traps along the way, this game is not especially difficult overall, even if some of the solutions are total guesswork, in particular how to get past the lizardine guard at the entrance to Vatos – what are the actual chances of eventually stumbling on the “kick sand at serpent guard” command? (even though you can just walk past him as well, it turns out!)

The commands, whilst they are the crux of the game mechanics, can be so specific in places that even one missed or wrong word is the difference between success and failure (eg: “kill harpy” needs to be “kill harpy with trident” to work.) Likewise, some of the pre-planning moves (to avoid failure further along) are obscure to the point that you may not ever think of them - the moment where the only way to beat the torture chamber cameo by thinking of throwing a scorpion in the room beforehand so it kills the torturer is the kind of abstract option that would seem like an imaginative solution when offered as an option by a FF book, but how long it would take to simply guess at this is anyone’s, er, guess, ditto, a moment where you need to “drop mongoose” so that it kills a serpent for you. A particularly clever moment comes when you have to throw a lodestone at a pair of slashing metal sword-arms to magnetically join them but, again, the book would suggest this, whereas you are fairly unlikely to hit upon this idea without prompting. Whilst this adds challenge to what is fundamentally not all that tough a game (once you’ve fathomed out all the peculiar commands and pre-empted various deadly situations), there is a bigger problem with the game’s reliance on commands to drive it – whilst it has an undeniably impressive and varied vocabulary (the specifics of the commands involving what to attack foes with etc certainly add realism and thoroughness to the game and give a RPG feel where you are free-er to roam and make more obscure moves), some of the commands that are listed in the instructions do not work, which is irritating and suggests lack of play-testing to match claim with practice:
  • ·         “I” to access your item inventory does not work. You have to type “inventory” in full. This is mostly just an inconvenience, but it becomes an issue when pirates are tearing towards you and you are bumbling through your spell book to establish that you know the all-important Sleep spell that you need to cast on them
  • ·        The seemingly very handy “drop all” does nothing, neither does the similarly useful “get all”. Instead you have to laboriously enter a “drop” or “get” command for each item, should you want to drop or pick up more than one thing

These are just glitches, rather than fun-killers, but why bother even making us think we can use these? In short, this is careless design, which amplifies itself when you start to notice the number of typos in, not just the on-screen text, but also the paper instruction insert that comes with the game! At least there is a modicum of consistency in that you have to spell the affected creature/object in the same incorrect way to allow your command to work (eg: “examine alter”), but this is just shoddy, especially when the alter (sic) and also a terodactyl (sic) episodes are key to survival.

Spelling and vocabulary issues aside, some of the moves you need to make to find the true path are actually quite fun and, in some cases, darkly humorous. You need to get some flesh from a freshly-killed goblin and pour some water on it (that you have previously filled a bottle with from what transpires to be a poisoned oasis) to later use it to feed a hungry attack dog – this kills the dog and avoids it killing you. Similarly, dropping a shiny bracelet into some water attracts the attention of a Tentacled Thing that intends to kill you and makes it dive after the bracelet instead. But, by far the most amusing pre-planned moment comes when you need to take the body of a glowing moth that you have killed so that you can use it as a lamp later on! There is also a suitably realistic bit of cause/effect programming included where whatever you drop will be listed as available where you dropped it (in other words you can go back and retrieve it later if you need to) and this even extends to seeing the bodies of any enemies you have killed (handy given that you need to collect some of these – see above), plus we are offered detail to the extent that a creature that is reduced to dust by an item will be listed as “dust” in the items you can see and, when you turn the Basilisk to stone with its own reflection, the screen lists “statue of a basilisk” as an item you can see (nice touch.)

The concept of some cameos being time/move-limited is another good inclusion as it adds a sense of urgency at key points in the game. The opening pirate sequence is a case in point, as is an encounter with a Giant Centipede where you only have one move before it kills you (firing a pre-loaded crossbow that HAS to be pre-loaded as you can’t load AND fire in the same move turns out to be the rather thoroughly-planned solution.) All the pre-planning and cause/effect scenarios add a noticeable RPG aspect to this game and you are totally free to roam backwards and forwards and re-visit previous locations at will so this game is far from linear and is certainly unusual and welcome within the FF cannon due to this. By the same token, the sheer amount of to-ing and fro-ing, along with a seemingly endless cycle of picking up, dropping, and retrieving items at the right times, can get fairly repetitive and it does seem that you are caught up in an endless Rubik’s puzzle where you are forever trying to make one move without ruining something else you have already managed to sort out and it does feel like you are going around in circles, especially in the Vatos dungeon itself.

Until you realise that you need to go back-and-forth so much (along with finding the convoluted solutions to various stages), it may seem that this game is impossible but, as we have said, it is relatively easy to beat once you’ve cracked it and is certainly the easiest computer-based text adventure I have played and it has to be said that it is ultimately fairly short on overall content, relying instead on solutions gradually discovered through multiple attempts at playing it. There is undeniable scope for re-play, but this is still quite a short adventure and is far shorter than the book, preferring to only include the most important moments and episodes from its source material (and, yes, the Messenger Of Death is included), to which it is generally, but not slavishly, faithful. There is enough puzzling to keep you interested, but this is not up to the high standard that the book version set.

An interesting (and useful) inclusion that I have not seen in other Spectrum/CBM64/BBC/etc FF adaptations is the “BOM” command. If you die, you can use “BOM” (ie “back one move”) to go back to the previous stage and try again. This is the computer’s version of using fingers to mark previous paragraphs in case you go wrong and can be handy (assuming you hadn’t already blown it at an earlier stage, of course), especially to avoid dull re-treads through all the sections you have already beaten before. The game can also be saved at any point as well, which is another useful and welcome feature that aids progression.

Very occasionally in FFs (and commoner in spin-off games than in the books themselves) you have restrictions on how many items you can carry. Again, this is a realistic RPG encumbrance idea and it does make you think about what items you will need to carry and when to have them with you. Granted, this only really holds value after a few plays where you can use the benefit of hindsight from past attempts, but it is certainly a plus point and is another neat programming touch. More traditionally for FF, your spells (taught to you by Yaztromo, just like in the book) can only be used once each and you only have four full-stop, with each having an optimum episode where they should be used. You can also carry more than one weapon and, interestingly, each one also has a corresponding foe that it is most effective against. It is worth giving credit where credit is due to the programmers for this, as this works in a very logical way – throw the trident at the flying harpy, kill close foes with your sword, etc. Furthermore, there are times when only a specific weapon will successfully kill an enemy, so this is a nice touch too.

A really winning feature of this game’s sister production, Rebel Planet, was the graphics that, whilst a bit garish and undeniably restricted by what could be achieved with 48 or 128K, were still effective. The graphics in ToT are not so good and are mostly blocks or outlines in black-on-yellow or blue-on-black. In some cases, the description mentions features that are not in the images and, whilst a screen full of text would certainly be uninteresting, I’m not convinced that ToT’s graphics add much, except in a few isolated cases (especially the rendering of the famous cover image of the lizardine creature at the entrance to Vatos, which is nice in a naive and simplistic way.)

A rummage through the internet will throw up numerous articles and letters in computing magazines from the late-80s where people have asked for help with the more bizarre solutions to some of the moments in this game. More worryingly, this will also reveal (assuming you haven’t already reached the end and found it yourself) a serious shortcoming of this game. Typos and commands that supposedly work but in fact don’t I can forgive, but ToT cannot be completed as there is a bug at the final stage. When you insert the four stone shapes into the wall key puzzle thing at the game’s climax, you are bafflingly told that the pirates that you will have caused to fall in the river and be eaten by crocodiles at the start of the game are falling into the river again and being re-devoured by the same crocodiles. This will just go on forever until you grow confused and think you’ve lost or you realise the game is irretrievably buggered and you’ve wasted your time trying to get this far.

In terms of playability and learning as you go, this has a lot to offer and it will certainly keep you guessing. There are some cleverly thorough programming touches along the way, but the game is all but ruined once you discover that it simply does not work properly. From what I can determine, US Gold did offer refunds once people started sounding-off in the gaming press that this could not be completed due to its ending bug (and at three times the price of the book, they had a right to!), but that does not make up for the ultimate let-down in what is otherwise a generally worthwhile game to play. What a shame, as this could have been another Rebel Planet in the context of computer FFs.

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