Reviews by Wade Clarke
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Version five of Necron's Keep is a great advance on the buggy original I tried many years ago. I played this hardcore CRPG to completion over four hours and found it to be very entertaining, in spite of the continued presence of many bugs of inconvenience (mostly involving the automatic inventory management). In a nutshell, Necron's Keep is a challenging, detailed and unforgiving single-character fantasy CRPG. There's no UNDO, and you'll need to keep and label many a save file to make it through. What you get in return is an interesting spellcasting system, transparent die-rolled combat and a satisfying gaming challenge with plenty of danger. The story style is probably most like that of a 1980s Fighting Fantasy gamebook, complete with nasty surprises, while the combat adds some AD&D-like detail.
You wouldn't expect someone called Necron to be a nice guy, but the truth of this game's background story is that you don't know. He's an archmage who went off to live with his people in an enchanted castle and fell out of contact with the world. The king has sent you, a mage, to Necron's place to find out what's going on.
In the fashion of many an old-school (or old-school-styled) RPG, the beginning of this game can be the roughest time. It's when random die rolls and traps can kill you off quickly. Traps and monsters will eat your hp (there are both fixed and random encounters), and the spells you cast to try to protect yourself also cost hp. The multi-page tome you're given to read at the game's start is semi-overwhelming, but it combines lore on how the spell system works with hints that will help you later in the game. You start off with a good number of spells; they show up in your inventory. More spells can be learned from scrolls you find (doing that also costs hp!) and some require material components that you need to find on your journey. This is quite a cool aspect of the game, though it takes a lot of observation to work out which components get eaten by the casting of spells. In bad but amusing news, the game is prepared to incinerate your only held wooden weapon to cast a spell requiring wood if you don't have any other wood in your inventory. You can detect traps, mend broken items, divine the nature of things, cast offensive spells in combat. There's a good range of stuff and a lot of it works on a lot of the game's contents.
The thing that might drive some players spare is the inventory. You've got an unlimited holdall, but only finite hand space. So the game autoswaps items in and out of your holdall as required. This constantly results in situations like you putting away one of two things you need simultaneously when you take the first one out, or accidentally forgetting to get the wood out and burning your weapon as a spell component. This is the main site of bugs in the game that still needs fixing.
The early game is about battling through and finding healing items to sustain you. Once you have the power to create your own healing sphere (this is a cool effect, where you ENTER SPHERE, then sleep or meditate to recover), you enter the midgame, roaming around fighting monsters, collecting xp, healing, learning new spells. The late game could be considered tackling the bigger puzzles and challenges of the keep directly. I was stuck for ages in the midgame because one room exit wasn't mentioned, but I'm not sure if this was semi-intentional there's a magic item you can acquire that gives you an exit lister, and it was the exit lister that showed me the new way to go.
Once you've worked everything out in Necron's Keep, there's a degree of optimisation in stringing all your knowledge together, and probably revisiting older saves where you were in a better position. I felt really satisfied when I completed it.
This is definitely one for people who like this kind of game, and in spite of its inconveniences, I think it's a good example of the CRPG in parser game form. I wouldn't normally give a game with this many bugs remaining a four, but I can't go below four for a game that kept me this involved.
Drax... Who or what is or was he or she?
When I first completed this game by Paul Allen Panks, I still didn't know. But a couple of days' worth of Commodore 64 BASIC hacking later, I had unearthed the answer. I feel confident in venturing, for reasons which will soon become apparent, that at this time of writing I am the only player on earth to have completed Drax other than its author. And I can't even guarantee that the author did play through his own game, for reasons which will also soon become apparent.
Note that this review is extensive and therefore amounts to a complete spoiler of the game. I hide nothing behind spoiler tags.
I first heard about Paul Panks and his games when I played Ninja's Fate, Hannes Schueller's eulogy to the late game author. I then read numerous reviews of Paul's numerous games, most of which expressed a combination of bewilderment, infuriation and plain old fury at the games' apparent wonkiness. The reviews' tone of hair-pulling was often hilarious to me. I also read some of Paul's refutations to such reviews, and his notes on his own games on his website, and I knew that I would have to try one or more of his games myself.
I am pretty au fait with the Commodore 64, so as a starting place I plucked from the archives Paul's last Commodore game, Drax, from 2005. The experience of playing this game turned out to be amusing in most of the ways I'd expected, but also stimulating in ways I hadn't. Some bold features are spread out over 75 rooms of a fantasy RPG adventure in such a way that many of them would never be seen by the average player, nor do they need to be seen or experienced to complete the game. In this sense, the game's structure is kind of ridiculous. But if it wasn't for this curiosity-inducing weirdness, I wouldn't have been motivated to become intimately acquainted with Drax in the way I did.
When the game begins, you get to name your character, then you find yourself loitering in a tavern which opens onto a village square with a well in it. I've read that this is a common starting point for many of Panks's games. There was no introductory text suggesting what my goal might be, so I just started looking around. Upstairs of the tavern I found a bedroom with some typical adventurer's supplies in it; weaponry and a lantern.
My problems began after I picked up the lantern. When I tried to leave the room, I was told "You need to light the lantern first." This didn't make a whole lot of sense, since I had entered the room by a normally lit corridor. When I tried to light the lantern, I was told "You can't light that here."
Faced with this impossible paradox, I ditched the lantern so as to avoid being trapped in this tavern bedroom for eternity, grabbed the bowieknife (sic) and went outside. I found some townsfolk nearby and, out of curiosity, tried to murder them. Each one of them beat me to death in turn. The bard, the villager, even the priest. Combat consists of a bunch of you hit / they missed messages which you must page through by pressing a key every time the game says <MORE>. My multiple deaths here didn't seem to bode well for my life as a hero of no particular quest. Nevertheless, I tried to proceed out of town and into the ominous looking forest.
"It's much too dark to move in that direction!" said the game.
It turns out that without the ungettable, unlightable lantern, you can't actually go anywhere in Drax. I wondered if Paul ever tried to play the latest version of his own game, which the credits page advises is 1.15?
So I hit the Commodore's BASIC prompt and dumped a listing of the game to my Mac. I disabled the three lines in the program responsible for all the darkness blocks and reloaded my saved game. This worked, and I was now able to venture into the forest.
Drax's wilderness is sizeable, mazey, and satisfying to map. It comes across more like the cross-country terrain of a MUD than the functionally-oriented environment of a personal computer text adventure. Most rooms are empty and exist only to be navigated. Geography is often realistic, but pointless in game terms, like the large stretch of mountains which contains nothing but a bunch of dead ends. I felt I was in a big world, but what was I doing in it?
I passed a few fey folk in the forest, including an elf and a hobbit, and their descriptions indicated that they were friendly, so uncharacteristically for me I didn't try to stab them. But when I saw a black knight guarding a castle gate, I knew it was time for more violence. To my amazement (having been earlier clubbed to death by a villager) I was the victor of this battle. And victory was exciting. I gained experience and gold, a level and hit points, and cool items exploded all over the ground. I wielded my newly acquired broadsword, strapped on my newly acquired chainmail and strode into the castle the knight had been guarding.
In the throne room I met Mordimar, a recurring major villain from Paul's games. Thoroughly expecting to be pulverised, I saved the game and opened fire on the guy. To my surprise, I quickly beat him to a pulp. And as Mordimar's corpse fell towards the ground, but before it actually hit the ground, what appeared to be the missing introductory text to the game suddenly spurted down the screen... then Mordimar finished falling to the ground, died, and the game proclaimed that I was the victor and wished that I should live long.
"Is that it?" I almost asked aloud. You map some empty terrain, kill two monsters and then win the game, at which point you get to read the introductory text?
Weirded out, I returned to a saved game and set out to explore the rest of the world. When I found a werewolf blocking my path in the forest, I saved the game again before engaging him in battle. This battle raged and raged. I noticed that my broadsword was starting to throw lightning bolts at my foe. Awesome! But I had to press a key to advance each round of combat, over and over again surely I had done this at least 100 times now? We were landing blows, dodging, landing more blows, for pages and pages. Would this clash of the titans ever end? How many hit points did I have left? How many did the werewolf have, for that matter? The game wasn't telling.
My fingers were wearying, and I have enough RSI problems already, so I decided to abort the game and hack the program some more so that I wouldn't have to keep mashing keys to advance battles. With my new 'autoscroll' feature in place, I reloaded my game and went at the hairy fiend anew. I put the Commodore 64 emulator speed up to Turbo and watched the messages begin to scream past. I fiddled around in my web browser and came back six minutes later to find that neither of us had died yet.
This was a bit much, so I quit and revisited the game listing yet again to try to work out what was wrong. I found one bug, then another; unless the player wields a weapon anew after returning from a saved game, their damage roll is likely to reset to zero. And when player armour gets over 100% (which mine was by now), enemy attacks actually GIVE the player hit points.
After rewielding my weapon, I was able to start killing people again. And kill I did, as I explored the rest of the forest and an underground cavern system. There were some cool monsters down there, like a black widow, and some pretty dull ones, like a slime and a skeleton. Every time I killed something, I gained another level and more hit points, and more ridiculously overpowered items, like the ring which would regenerate all my health during every round of combat. What with my lightning-throwing broadsword and the fact that being hit actually healed me, I didn't really need such a ring this point. I also discovered that I could pick monsters up like objects and put them down wherever I liked. Typing GET MORDIMAR produces "You cannot take that." immediately followed by "Ok." And then Mordimar is in your inventory.
If this stuff had been programmed without the bugs, it would have amounted to quite a flourishy RPG system. But it wasn't programmed without the bugs, and of course in practical terms its entire existence is obviated by the fact that you can win the game by killing just two monsters, with the caveat that you must first hack the game program so that you can leave town in order to be able to reach those monsters.
And what of the mystery of Drax? I still hadn't encountered any mention of it during my many plays.
Again, I broke out the game listing and started nosing around. I discovered that the secret passage which had been revealed when I played the piano in the castle had actually opened in the ceiling of the room, and not in the floor as the game had said, and that's why my attempts to go down at that point had not succeeded. I returned to the piano room, went up through the buggy passage and found myself in a small jail area. In one cell was a book called Drax, and when I read that book, I found within it the introductory text of the game, the text I had previously read as Mordimar toppled towards the floor, the text which prophesised that I, Wade6 (your character is renamed automatically after your latest saved game) would free the land from Mordimar's tyranny. But now that this text wasn't scrolling past during combat, I was able to read the last line, which said "The next chapter is awaiting "
And suddenly I realised why this text appears as Mordimar falls. It is because at that moment it is immediately followed by that 'next chapter', which is the triumphal game over message affirming that you fulfilled your destiny. In other words, had I picked up this book during the game, the otherwise entirely bizarre-seeming placement of the story of Mordimar during his death scene would have made sense, as it would have come across as a reiteration of the Book of Drax and its prophesy, followed by the formerly promised next chapter.
After the huge effort I had made to explore, debug and make sense of this game, and considering that I had initially laughed at the timing of the arrival, at the end of the game, of what I had previously thought of as the introductory text, I found myself smiling at the quite cool idea that Panks had come up with here about the book which writes its own end. He didn't pull it off properly, which it seems was often the case with him, but it was there.
Drax contains a fully imagined game world and system without the focus or polish needed to get players to become interested in either in any traditional sense. I am still glad to have spent my time in that world, and to feel that I have learned something about its author. Paul was obviously a messy creator, but it's also obvious that he enjoyed developing games like this one, and that he was always striving for something in them; witness his prolific output and his multiple attempts to realise whatever Westfront was ultimately intended to be. I find it easy to be inspired by the passion Paul obviously had, even as I imagine that when I try more of his games, some of them probably will turn out to be as annoying as people have said they are.
Vlad the Impaler is a grim and incredibly bloody choice-based adventure set in Istanbul in 1452. After choosing to play as the explorer, soldier or mage, the player is tasked by an old friend one who seals his letters with a big red V with saving the city from a blight of natural and supernatural corruption.
With its character classes, small array of stats and its karma meter, the game aims for replayability over linear depth. Concentrated initial plays may last from 45 to 90 minutes, and there are considerably more encounters available across the finite map of locations than are accessible in any one session. The presentation is lush, with a fixed colour palette of black and white with red highlights, an inventory of expressive pencil drawings of the characters and locations and brooding loops of string music in the background.
The PC is written as a major force in this world of atrocious crime and madness. In almost anything you try to do, you will succeed, or have a solid chance of succeeding at least for a good part of each game. This may sound like a recipe for boredom, but the high volatility of the encounters and the oppressive atmosphere of Vlad ensure quite the opposite. There is a sense that no matter how many amazing things you do in the city, no matter how many individuals you save from being violated, sold into slavery, murdered or torn apart by monsters (and you tend to tear the bad guys apart yourself) that you're up against too much evil for one person. This feeling is reinforced by the great despair evinced by most of the NPCs about their situation. They also regard you with an awe that inspires heroism, or at least perseverance.
The writing is mostly pointed and effective. It's also especially vivid in a lot of cruel scenes, but this content is balanced by a moral weight. The PC isn't heedless, nor are the citizenry of the cursed city. The characters discuss what's happening, why it may be happening, where does evil come from without or within? The sense of these ideas is well conveyed through the whole dark aesthetic of the game.
The prose does suffer from bizarre technical variability, though. The strong focus and flow of the majority of it makes me wonder how it could also flop sometimes into great spates of overpunctuation (!!!?) and why there are phases where commas or semicolons just vanish, leaving a bunch of run-on sentences. It's as if half of it was proofread and half wasn't, or different people wrote different stretches in isolation. This didn't hamper my enjoyment overall, but did make me wonder how it happened.
What a greater number of players have been concerned about is the lack of continuity written into a lot of the encounters. You might see an option to 'Ask someone to translate the runes you found earlier' when you don't remember finding any runes. It becomes apparent from the prose that the scope of the actions you're taking in the city is assumed to be greater than just what you read during the course of a playthrough; you're a powerful figure achieving a lot off-screen as well as on. So if you take this attitude that a richer sense of all your character's doings will build up over repeat plays, you'll be okay, but I can appreciate this as a valid point of criticism against the game for many players, given how attentive Vlad is to mechanics in other areas, and that some players will just never accept being given so many shorthanded summaries of things they've 'done'. I personally felt the positive value of the game's approach in that it gives the PC's doings a breadth and depth that would be hard to effect if every single part of them had to be explicitly played through in a game of this length.
The trick of Vlad is working out what your stats are for and how they're affected by your handling of encounters. You can see your stat values and you can see when they go up and down, but 'die rolls' are not displayed at times when they're relevant, nor is it indicated when those times are. The game's structure is that of a broadening fan of encounters you can visit in almost any order you choose, followed by a narrowing into a gauntlet of situations in which deadliness to the PC increases significantly.
I found the whole game tremendously engaging for several playthroughs, but paradoxically, once I'd worked out how the stats figure into major events, the replayability factor the game pushes for weakens a lot. Too many critical moments in the game are either predictably easy, or so hard that it feels pointless trying to reach them again just to have another chance to roll a really high number on an invisible die. If you're killed, your saved games within the current play session die as well. So the weakness is that every game eventually becomes a stat test against the 'gauntlet' section, and you have to replay the whole game to get back there.
There are a lot of other tricks and secrets I can't elaborate on without spoiling, as well as a pile of Steam achievements to be had for people who like that sort of thing. It's just that these elements don't add up to the solid replay model the game seems to promise at the outset. However, by the time I'd come to these conclusions, I was already more than satisfied with my experiences in this dark and bloody world.
The Pyramid of Anharos hails from the heyday of Eamon, a time when Eamon authors who were making what you might call serious adventures rather than jokey or personally expressive ones were constantly trying to come up with new ways to outsmart (read: destroy) players who by now had about 100 different paths to hack or cheat their way around standard Eamon mechanics. Where swathes of powerful monsters might not ultimately stop a PC, difficult custom-programmed puzzles that paid no heed to the PC's engorged stats or superweapons probably would. Thus solidified the tradition of difficult, player-killing puzzle Eamons.
My speculation is that this author versus player attitude was exacerbated within Eamon because of authors' infuriating visions of character-hacking, upstart players who really needed to be facepunched to the floor. After all, if you had slaved away at making a challenging Eamon adventure, and you'd finally got it out there back in the days when getting it out there was infinitely more difficult than it is now, would you enjoy the thought of having your game cleared promptly by cheaty types?
Pyramid of Anharos definitely facepunches the player to the floor. It's not really wrathful about what it's doing, but if you put a character you like in the disk drive, it's guaranteed that they will be killed and deleted, probably multiple times, assuming you backed them up or cheated in the first place. The reason this is so tiring in Eamon is because you do have to keep cheating, hacking, breaking the game off and switching disks if you want to complete it, restarting every time. Your saves are deleted, too. Pyramid has tough puzzles and one undoable instant death after another. I reached a point where I become too annoyed with all this to want to risk experimenting any more, so I hit the walkthrough.
The puzzle collection and overall coherence of this game is actually pretty good in an adventuresome sense, and that's why I give it three stars I consider it a worthy example in the Eamon catalogue of the kind of hyper-frustrating aesthetic I've described. I don't recommend playing it today if you're seeking an entertaining challenge; I only recommend playing it to see what these killer games were like.
There's a desert maze you can overcome if you just hire a guide. Glyphs you can read to learn secret words you need to say. Mummies you can search to find magic items. A few annoying riddles to answer. A gauntlet of deadly rooms with increasingly ravaged corpses on their thresholds as a warning. You also need to keep your water supplies topped up or you die of thirst. The main problem with Pyramid is that you get killed just for trying things out. The other problem is that it's particularly variable in its implementation approach. Sometimes important items are picked out, sometimes they're buried in the scenery. Sometimes you find a secret door by just LOOKing again, sometimes you need to examine a specific unhighlighted object. This amounts to you having to try interacting with everything in about four different ways to pluck the needles from the haystack. And in Pyramid, nothing is not in the haystack.
The author, Pat Hurst, was known for throwing some moral content into his Eamons, mostly of the 'help a beggar or pay later' variety. There's another beggar in Pyramid, though weirdly there's also a desert raiders camp where you basically need to pick which group of folks you'll hack down in order to get to the other side the children, the women or the men. Tom Zuchowski's walkthrough opts for the women; like he says, it's the most direct route. And when a game is as unreasonably difficult as Pyramid of Anharos, you probably don't want any more indirect routes. It has notable production values, but it's also a prototypically devilish player-killer from middle school Eamon.
The relative explosion of H.P. Lovecraftian text adventures occurred in the non-commercial period of IF dating from the 1990s and onwards. It might have happened irrespective of all external factors, but because Infocom released The Lurking Horror in 1987, that game is an obvious landmark. I was therefore a little surprised to find an earlier example in the form of 1984 Eamon adventure The Tomb of Y'Golonac. This game exhibits most of the qualities of the later Lovecraft games reverence towards the subject matter, wide-ranging knowledge of the author's made-up mythologies and a competent or better pastiche of Lovecraft's writing style, liberally sprinkled with words like 'loathsome' and 'unwholesome'.
Being Eamon, this is Lovecraft done as a kill-em-all-before-they-kill-you explorathon, but Tomb's writing is decidedly above average for an Eamon. It creates an underground world of dank corridors and weird landscapes, and is capable of generating suspense about what dangers may lie ahead. A plethora of weird stains, evil smells and inexplicably dreadful feelings mark the corridors. While this atmosphere is likely to impress a new player, numerous harsh gameplay difficulties become apparent as one spends more time with this game and, unfortunately, they stop it from being fun in the end. Y'Golonac does have cause to be hard. As Pat Hurst pointed out in his review of the game back in the day, it reproduces the core aesthetic of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, itself a logical extension of the implications of Lovecraft's stories. That aesthetic consists of players having an incredibly low survival rate due to them being frequently smitten by the powerful and unknowable horrors from other universes encountered during play.
It's easy to make an Eamon hard in a thoughtless kind of way: Just give the monsters massive stats and pack the map with unheralded instant death rooms. In Eamon's time there was a degree of competition to make 'the hardest Eamon ever', and I don't blame people for trying to achieve this using the relatively limited toolset which was available. Eamon evolved pretty quickly during the 1980s, and later versions of the engine (6 and 7 especially) gave authors the ability to do more sophisticated stuff. Y'Golonac is a version 4 Eamon which mostly hacks the player down using a combination of big-statted regular monsters, super monsters which can kill with one blow and hard-to-avoid instant deaths. The SAVE command is locked and a cave-in prevents players from escaping back to the Main Hall if they want out early. The kicker, once all of these features are in place, is that 90% of the game's secret doors aren't clued at all, and can thus only be found by walking into every wall in every room. The map of 90+ rooms has been slyly arranged to maximise the difficulty of making real progress and the player who discovers the nature of the secret doors after a long spell of vigilant mapping is likely to feel as great a deflation of their spirits as I did.
For its atmosphere and quality of writing alone, The Tomb of Y'Golonac is a remarkable Eamon. It's also significant for being one of the earlier Lovecraft-themed text adventures around. However, the standard of unreasonably difficult play the game adheres to is most definitely of its time. I enjoy the challenge of discerning and hacking out the path through some of these harsh old combat adventures, but Y'Golonac is meaner than even I can stomach. I lost count of the number of times I died, restarted, missed exits or cheated without success (cheating with BASIC hackery is an easy and common tactic in Apple II Eamoning). Eventually I broke out the Eamon Utilities disk and used the Dungeon Mapper program to look at the parts of the game I hadn't been able to reach or find on foot. So while I don't regard Y'Golonac as worth completing for bragging rights, it is worth sampling for those interested in Cthulhu mythos text adventures, especially those interested in actually fighting Lovecraft's grotesque monsters rather than just imagining that they might be slithering about nearby. Y'Golonac doesn't become insanely difficult immediately, but those things which are good about it are present immediately.
This entertaining and incidentally educational Eamon sees your character plucked from his or her usual fantasy setting and transported to the present day (of 1983) to explore the Tower of London from the perspective of a tourist. The tone is a bit whimsical; your unusual dress and armour don't draw too much attention because the tower is already heavily populated with guards wearing funny traditional costumes and brandishing funny ornamental weapons. Just before you're hurtled through time, a couple of big suggestions are offered as to how you might play:
BECAUSE YOU'VE HEARD RUMOURS OF AN IMPENDING ATTEMPT TO STEAL THE CROWN JEWELS FROM THE TOWER OF LONDON, YOU DECIDE TO GO THERE... TO PREVENT THE THEFT?? OR TO STEAL THEM FOR YOURSELF!!
The only disappointment, then, is that the game doesn't follow up on actions you might have taken towards or away from either of these ends when it reaches its own end. It just finishes with the default "You ride off into the sunset" message and the pawning of your (likely enormous) haul of bounty. It's easy to play either protector or thief, though it's easiest to play both roles at the same time: To both kill all the thieving bad guys you will encounter on the premises, ranging from the pickpocket to the American tourist, and to also grab every treasure that isn't nailed down, including the Crown Jewels.
Tower sports a large and interesting roster of NPCs. It begins with the Friendly Woman who starts tagging along with you on the underground before you even get to the tower. On the grounds you'll meet numerous historical ghosts, everyone from Guy Fawkes to Sir Walter Raleigh. There are a bunch of beefy guards and yeomen stationed about the place, some friendly and some hostile, and lots of amusing and poorly disguised thieves. The Japanese tourist attacks you with his camera, while the weapon of the American tourist is his sharp credit card, that of the French tourist his loaf of bread. Fictional celebrities "Dr Hoo" and "Professor Moriarity" show up as well, the spelling of their names presumably tweaked to avoid any copyright issues.
I appreciate the authors' feat of converting the layout of the real Tower of London tourist site into a satisfyingly arranged game map, something that is fun to explore, a little bit tricky and consistently interesting. The prose in this game is very clean and vivid by Eamon standards, and there's also humour in your adventurer negotiating mundane features of the modern world like the gift shop, or having to buy tickets to enter certain areas of the grounds. A sign declares that weapons are prohibited inside the tower, and the programming enforces this at least in the moment in which you try to step through the front gate. This gesture is probably intended to stop you from bringing in any superweapons from your previous adventures, and will cause you to instead arm yourself with something found on the grounds which is balanced for the toughness of the local monsters. I gave in to the sign's demand on my first play, but was later pleased to discover that there is a way to get around the sign built into the game. That's a pretty neat piece of design.
There's not much custom programming in this Eamon and there are no in-game payoffs for your play style vis-a-vis stealing the crown jewels or protecting them, but the recreation of the tower and the various characters encountered on its grounds are charming, and the humour of time travel and anachronisms is well used. The game may also be of historical value through what I suspect is its fairly accurate recording of the state of the Tower of London as a tourist destination in 1983.
One of the strange things about the mind is how seemingly long-forgotten information can be revived by the apprehension of brand new but similar information. Watching the floridly entertaining 1960s thriller Brides of Fu Manchu recently reminded me that an Eamon game called Superfortress of Lin Wang existed, and made me want to play it. So I did.
Superfortress is an out-and-out hack, slash and loot Eamon consisting entirely of exploration and combat. There are no secret doors or examinable room features, nor is there any custom programming. Bad guy Lin Wang has enslaved Japan and taken up residence in his henchmen-filled castle. Your job is to eliminate him, hewing through numerous ninjas, dragons and karate champions in the process and grabbing all weapons and treasures you see en route.
There are countless Eamon games in this vein, but Superfortress at least distinguishes itself with its clear aesthetic of martial arts bad guys and a sense of escalation of threat and variety. The author knows how to lay out a castle and to make the encounters heavier and more interesting as you progress. And the game's monsters don't just exhibit arbitrary stats. When you walk into a room with a dragon, both the prose and the nature of the preceding bad guys will have correctly cued you to expect that this will be a rougher fight.
With no puzzles or custom mechanics to test the player in other ways, this game is ultimately about how good your stats are versus those of the bad guys. Freshly minted characters who have completed nought more than Beginners Cave will get torn apart here. Even though I used the relatively tough Sam character from the Eamon Utilities disk, I died about five times before I won. (Proceedings weren't helped by the fact that there's a friendly NPC also called 'Sam' in Superfortress, meaning that reports on the status of his health were indistinguishable from reports on the status of mine.) There's always a chance that the worst monsters will take you out in two hits if you're simply unlucky, but if you save up all the hit points you can by learning the whereabouts of unnecessary fights earlier in the castle, you will optimise your chances of surviving on any playthrough.
Superfortress wasn't rated highly by the Eamon Adventurers Guild back in the day ("Once you've killed one Ninja, you killed them all" - Tom Zuchowski) but as an example of an unadulterated combat Eamon, it's decently designed and coherent. That counts for something, given the number of nothing-but-fighting Eamons in the library which aren't.
I had a problem during the 2011 Interactive Fiction Competition. I was supposed to be getting a move on and reviewing all of the other entrants' games, but I kept procrastinating by sneaking away to play Kerkerkruip. By the time the competition was over, I had played it at least 50 times in my quest to complete the game on Normal difficulty. This is testimony to Kerkerkruip's addictiveness, which grows out of the stiff but strategically overcomeable challenge it presents and the relatively infinite pool of circumstantial variations it offers to dungeongoers. The latter quality is what makes the game really memorable and anecdote-worthy once a player has got a handle on its mechanics.
A moment's divergence for the consumer guide part of this review: Kerkerkruip is certainly not a traditional IF game or text adventure in which the player solves unchanging puzzles en route to particular goals while possibly becoming involved in a narrative the author has laid out. This is a high-stakes game of Dungeons & Dragons adventuring in randomly generated dungeons. At the same time, it is delivered by text and controlled by a parser, and uses explorative elements in some typical adventure game-like ways. In all of these capacities, it is obviously from the school of text adventures, and not completely unlike a combat MUD or a modern incarnation of Eamon, though a plotless one. Also note that it is essential to at least read the Beginner's Guide before playing (I found this three page guide to be the easiest way into the game, as opposed to traveling through multiple inline HELP menus) or Kerkerkruip will promptly kick you to the pavement.
Your goal is to find and kill the evil wizard Malygris of the dungeon Kerkerkruip. You begin armed with a rapier; more significant weaponry and equipment must be found in the dungeon. Usually there will be about five other groups of monsters lurking around, and it is only by defeating these monsters and absorbing their powers and health in a wisely chosen order (new powers only accumulate if they are weaker than powers you already possess) that you will have a hope of becoming powerful enough to defeat the wizard. The dungeon contents and layout and the roster of monsters change every time you die or restart. You can't save the game except to take a break, and there is no UNDO. These danger-increasing elements are common to another genre of game Kerkerkruip announces that it belongs to: the roguelike, named, unsurprisingly, after a particular game called Rogue.
Movement is handled with the traditional compass commands, augmented by a "go to" command and a handy "remember" command, but the combat makes use of the ATTACK system originated by the author and is divided into Action and Reaction phases. By working with just a handful of well balanced temporal elements, Kerkerkruip ensures each decision you make about what to do next in battle carries significant weight. Should you Attack now, or build up the strength of your next attack by pausing to Concentrate? You can try to build up to three levels of concentration, but if you're struck in the meantime, your concentration will be broken. On the other hand, if you never concentrate, your attacks won't grow strong enough to finish off the bad guys before they finish you.
This core system is simple enough for anyone to understand, but its application in any moment is modified by a huge number of variables, amongst them: the geography of the room you're in (e.g. it doesn't pay to Dodge while fighting on a narrow bridge over lava), the nature and habits of the enemy you're facing (e.g. animated daggers attack ceaselessly and break your concentration as often the jumping bomb will never break your concentration, but if it gathers enough concentration itself, it will explode and kill you instantly), the Tension in the air (how long has it been since anyone last struck a blow?), your current status and arsenal of powers, and the interference of a further array of supernatural stuff like fickle dungeon gods or weird summoned entities.
The sum effect of the play amongst all these interrelated elements is that Kerkerkruip is capable of generating the exciting sense that with almost every move you make, the whole game is at stake. The circumstances of danger can rearrange themselves into so many different patterns that a lot of your battles will strike you as uniquely memorable, even when you're dealing with the same small roster of monsters over and over again. You can marvel at a seemingly (or actually) brilliant series of moves you make that succeed in resuscitating your prospects when you're down to 1 hp. Similarly you can laugh at the results of a particularly bold, stupid or unlucky move that backfires spectacularly, or at some confluence of events so extraordinary that you'll feel like telling someone else about it. You will certainly die far more often than you will win, but this is a game where experience, exploration and repeat plays really pay off, and the strategic element is always vivid, the prospect of victory always tantalising.
Ultimately, Kerkerkruip is an essential and massively replayable game for dungeon and combat fans, and also demonstrates the kind of novelty and elegant design that is inspiring in general.
I find myself reviewing this game as a consequence of a series of somewhat stupid events.
There aren't a lot of horror games in the IFDB, and I had pulled up the meagre list of those that there are by searching for the word "horror". From there, I clicked on the link for the game The House of Horrors, thinking, "This will certainly be a horror game. Why, it even has the word 'horror' in its title." The game's homepage revealed it to be an Apple II Eamon Adventure (number 146) from 1987. I am well au fait with Eamon, so I downloaded the game and fired up my emulator, ready to take horror in the face.
I was bemused to discover that The House of Horrors is not a horror game, but actually a satiric sequel to the crappy but infamous (in Eamon circles) porn adventure called The House of Ill Repute, which was the thirty-second Eamon. Ill Repute was set in a brothel, but as per the majority of Eamon adventures, was otherwise about killing everything in sight and then returning to the Main Hall with the loot. The House of Horrors is not pornographic, and has the player re-entering the House of Ill Repute to recover funds stolen from the K.E.C. (Keep Eamon Clean) committee, clearing assorted bats and rats from the premises en route. In other words, your goal is to kill everything in sight and then return to the Main Hall with the loot.
The House of Horrors has a lot of poor spelling, grammar and punctuation, but is still written with gusto, and is also filled with in-jokes at the expense of dungeoncrawling in general and other Eamon adventures in particular. It even manages to demonstrate the nifty features of the Eamon parser by having a poem which appears to be part of a room description turn out to be a series of monsters, each one with the name of one line of the poem. In turn, the appearance of the four corpses (once you've killed the monsters) creates a new paragraph. There are a couple of neat trap surprises as well, and the overall mood is one of non-complex fun.
The House of Horrors didn't have any of the horror I was after, but playing it did turn out to be a happy accident. Still, I'm certainly not recommending that non-Eamonites contemplating visiting old Eamon for the first time start here. You should go with something more renowned or 'normal' first. And probably without all the weird spelling.
This is the one of the best of the very early Eamons. A king hires you to rescue his daughter Rowina (sic.) so off you go to Hogarth's castle where she's being held.
The principal schtick of this game is that you should be loyal to your allies. Don't rip off your pals and don't rip off the king if you want to win... but of course in Eamon it's fun to see what happens if you muck everything up, as well.
Frequently saying the codeword 'HOWDY' elicits neat advice from your pals, which proves variously helpful or essential for the castle section. The castle itself is possibly over-elaborate, given that careful mapping can get you to your goal quickly and obviate the need to explore the whole thing.
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