Sunday 15 December 2013

#37: Portal Of Evil


Peter Darvill-Evans

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Darvill-Evans’ second FF sees a return to the same region of Khul where his first (#25 Beneath Nightmare Castle) was set, with its Germanic-sounding naming conventions, but names and locale apart, this is otherwise a very different-feeling and less successful book than BNC. There is no sign of the eerie gothic atmosphere that pervaded BNC, instead PoE is far lighter material. The inclusion of large numbers of dinosaurs and very little creature diversity beyond the basics of elves, goblins, and dwarves, almost make this feel like an entry-level adventure.

The idea of a dinosaur-themed FF is something of a rarity in the series. The only other book that really has this feel is #7 Island Of The Lizard King (which is more akin to the Raquel Welch sun-drenched One Million Years BC version of prehistory) and the parallels are made more evident as both books also feature Alan Langford’s very appropriate-looking internal art. But there is a twist with PoE inasmuch as Lizard King’s Fire Island is a very primitive environment, whereas the area surrounding the Cloudhigh Mountains where PoE takes place is the equivalent of 19th Century America with its themes of gold rush fever and proto-capitalism so, on initially starting this adventure, you do find yourself wondering quite where the dinosaurs are going to fit in. This is not Valley Of Gwangi or 2000AD’s Flesh so do not expect cowboys farming dinos. Instead, dependant on your level of realisation (and the secret is hardly much of a secret for anyone who can read between the far from subtle lines here), it turns out that the dinosaurs that are roaming around wreaking havoc are actually people who have been turned into dinos as part of the arch-baddie Horfak’s evil plans. Opinion is that the dinos are passing through the titular Portal from another world (which is true) but they are seemingly just ex-people who fell foul of Horfak’s machinations. The Portal itself was accidentally uncovered by Horfak whilst digging mineshafts and it has gradually warped him into a hideous mutation (which is why he’s banned mirrors, incidentally) and this is where YOU come in, as a warrior who has been commissioned to try to establish what’s going on and stop it from going on anymore.

There is an interesting take on linearity in this book and, whilst it is definitely pretty linear, it seems (I emphasise “seems”) to be possible to visit certain key locations out of order, especially on initial playthroughs given how areas that are presumably miles apart link very closely into one-another, and working out the correct order is as surprising as it is frustrating. On starting out, you can go directly to a key town or the forest/mountains – should you do this, you can get the feeling that there is hardly anything to this adventure as you will quickly a) get close to the Portal, and b) fail completely. Once you find the correct route, it becomes clear that this is actually a pretty long slog involving a seemingly endless and pretty uneventful ride down a river (a good excuse to get a Plesiosaur into the proceedings though), interspersed with constantly being forced to either eat or lose Stamina due to hunger. And this part is the book’s biggest problem as it is boring and repetitive – ride along, do nothing, have something to eat (repeat ad nauseum) – but yields essential items and information that you can’t win without. There are some slightly baffling moments in this part’s latter hill climb section (especially involving an existentialist ex-person Ape that just accepts your suggestion that it bugger off somewhere else rather than killing you, as it will no doubt be far happier that way) and an initially intriguing but actually pointless run-in with some Goblins on a jetty. Get through the tedium of all this and you reach the first real tour-de-force in this book where you need to negotiate a brilliant and almost Arthurian trial lake to get to a Wizard who holds a key piece of information, not to mention his aiding you in going to the next key stage – handy given the fact that you will by now feel that you are about to fall off the edge of the World considering how far you have travelled to get to this point. From here on, the pace of the book increases noticeably as you go to the town of Kleinkastel to undertake a really well designed and fun series of trials to ensure you are good enough to be the champion who can sort out the region’s problems, followed by a trek through a forest to try to find various contacts and get important facts from them, and then on into the Cloudhighs themselves.

It is this interim stage between the never-ending river ride/eating and the actual Portal sections where the real depth of thought that has gone into this book becomes apparent. All the different races you can meet have very distinct behaviours and cultural idiosyncrasies that you need to figure out and navigate your way through. These are interspersed with increasingly frequent “dinosaur” encounters along with similarly growing numbers of mindless zombies roaming around the place that are also a product of the Portal. There are moments where you need to decide if the beings you meet are what they seem or if they are just more zombies and you will need to use a modicum of mental wit to survive this part and manage to get your hands on the items you need.

The final section involving getting through the Portal and passing into another dimension is fairly brief and maybe a little rushed considering the unnecessary length of the first section, but it also allows you to get to Horfak quickly and try to win. Surviving the Portal section itself does involve needing several items that can take some finding (as well as remembering to leave some explosives at the door – are you really likely to think this is a good idea given the likelihood of someone else blowing it up and trapping you in another World?), but the other dimension itself is quite easy to get through, plus Horfak doesn’t take much beating once you realise that/why he hates mirrors. The cultural aspect from the forest/hills episodes is continued here and there is nice fleshing-out of the primitive peoples who live in the other dimension so you can put them into some kind of context as you meet them.

So, as hit-and-miss as the plotting is, swinging as it does from tedium all the way through to highly innovative ideas and good contextualising of the region this is set in, there is certainly a lot to recommend and, once you’ve figured out what’s going on (which is hardly difficult given the relative simplicity of the overall idea here), this has a lot going for it if you can bare with it through the really dull first third.

I have to say I was left a little disappointed when I realised that this isn’t really a FF about dinosaurs, although a real plus-point for the book is the way the numerous dinosaur encounters are handled. Some have “handlers” (ie their non-transformed friends) who are using them to extort money from people by threatening menaces of dino-combat, whilst others are trying to defend themselves from hunters and/or just mind their own business for as long as they are stuck in their dino-bodies. The various dinosaurs’ combat stats are especially well thought-out in that they have low Skill scores (dinos should be essentially stupid and should react on instinct alone) and very high Staminas (anything as massive and leathery as them is clearly going to be hard to hurt.) Additionally, in some cases they will have special attacks that you also need to defend against (horns, big tongues, etc) so they are handled very realistically and also, importantly, very consistently. There is also a nice touch where some will lose interest in fighting you if they realise they can't get an easy meal and will just wander off. Another nice aspect of the dinosaurs’ inclusion is the balance of well-known famous species (Ankylosaurus, Pteranodon, Stegocephalian, Oviraptor, Triceratops, Plesiosaur) and some of the more obscure types (Dromaeosaurus, Noasaurus, Phororhacos, Struthiomimus) which, mixed with the fact that these are all real species that existed on Earth, gives the impression that these are not just thrown in for a laugh and that they are intended to fit in well with the plot. Of note is the fact that all these species are described as extinct on Khul. Khul must be distinctly different in its evolution from Allansia, as Triceratops and Pteranodons are alive and well there, but long gone on Khul. This is subtle but interesting in terms of the development and expansion of the FF universe and this book adds value in that respect. Plus, D-E avoids the obvious fall-back of using any Tyrannosaurs which I was pleased to see.

One of the best features of Darvill-Evans’ FFs is the atmospheric writing and the sheer depth of description in his long paragraphs. He uses the cultural aspects of each race to create vivid encounters/locations and Kleinkastel in particular is a hive of gold rush mania mixed in with determination to find a strong enough champion offset against the sheer megalomania of its Margrave leader who is one of the more satisfyingly arrogant yet also easily flattered NPCs in the FF series, making him a lot of fun to interact with. My only gripe with the excellence of Darvill-Evans’ writing in this book is that the lengthy descriptions do somewhat amplify the endless nature of the first section, but at least it’s boring in a thorough and expositional way and we certainly can’t complain about lack of depth or involving prose here.

The generally light nature of the material on offer here contradicts the dark, gloomy cover which, whilst suitably mysterious in its depiction of the Portal, is not an accurate reflection of the tone and feel of the book, and in this sense it is something of a surprise when you play through it and see just how un-claustrophobic and non-threatening the adventure is, hence my opening theory that this is intended as a Beginner’s book. There is none of the terror (not to mention the difficulty) of Beneath Nightmare Castle and, once you’ve found where the items you need are hidden, this is one of the easier books in the series.

To summarise, this is a decent (but not brilliant) offering that sums up the feeling of general “meh-ness” that many of the books in the 30s part of the series leave you with. It’s OK, but it’s hardly ground-breaking, and its intelligent second and third parts are let down by your having to drag yourself through the initial part. Give it a go for the dinosaurs and the elven/dwarvish/goblin culture and for Darvill-Evans’ writing, but I’d recommend playing it after you’ve attempted Beneath Nightmare Castle, if only to prove that D-E is a genuinely good game creator.

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.