Robb Sherwin once observed quite sagely about Zork that the game actively hates its player. That may well be so; in which case Quondam wishes to eviscerate the player, gouge his / her eyes out and wrap one's entrails around one's neck while forcing said player to watch the Father Dowling Mysteries box set plus extras. What we have here is unequivocally the hardest text adventure that I have ever played in my forty years of puzzling. Compared to most of the Phoenix oeuvre it is compact in size but almost every location provides ample scope to die or misuse an item in one's inventory.
This was the third of the seventeen games written on the Phoenix mainframe in 1980 by the author Rod Underwood. It appears to have been his only foray into the world of text adventure creation but he indelibly left his mark with this one. The original mainframe version is sadly lost (like Andrew Lipson's Xerb and Alex Shipp and Steve Tinney's Hezarin) and it only survives thanks to a Peter Killworth port to the BBC. We have no way of knowing how much the original version differed from the BBC Acornsoft version but you can be sure it was ball-breakingly hard as well.
I played this game after finally nailing Acheton, Hezarin and Castle of Riddles from the same Cambridge stable and was fairly convinced that no game could be tougher than that holy trinity of mind exploders. I was wrong.
The game itself is the traditional treasure hunt (up to a maximum of 250 points) with an interesting time travel theme, hence the title which is Latin for former. You need to collect all of the treasures available and deposit them somewhere, but finding out where is like attempting to untie the Gordian Knot. Suffice to say that some puzzles should be attended to in the present day and some in the past. And at least one in the past and also in the present. Exactly. This game has more obscure verbs and off the wall object manipulation than any I have come across in forty years of text adventures. I have currently visited 72 locations and have discovered 28 ways to die, many of which almost lapse into parody. There are also many ways to lock yourself out of winning, both obvious or not. Indeed it is possible to make the game unwinnable in your first move!
All the tropes of early games are here, including massive turn critical mazes and outrageous puns. It's just that in this game, like the giant spiders on the web maze, they come at you in swarms filling just about every location. As if these obstacles didn't make your task difficult enough, the game uses some objects in totally unexpected ways. I found myself desperately trying all kinds of obscure commands to boldly go where no parser has gone before and some of them actually worked. Having played around five hundred text adventures in my time I have successfully used three verbs in this game that I have never used before and I guarantee that you have never utilised a mirror or a harp in the ways necessary in this game. When stuck try anything and it may just work. The knight, the fanged customs official, the Spanish Inquisition (I wasn't expecting that) a man-eating vegetable being and the dragon are all puzzles that require endless experimentation to overcome and the solutions to each are unique in the text adventure canon as far as I know. There are a couple of apparently illogical answers to puzzles as well; one in the apothecary's shop makes no sense to me even though I solved it; I'd tried everything else and found the answer by default. Another oddity is that some objects are deliberately described in a misleading way. One in particular has two different descriptions depending from which direction you came when you found it for the first time.
Aside from the incredible toughness of the game and the necessity to perform actions in an exact order you can even die typing save or attempting to use an object. The desert affords you all of two moves before you die of thirst, in fact when you drink water the game reponds with "your thirst is removed" then avers "you are thirsty" in the same move. Boy that is one dry desert. There is also an unmappable area of trackless forest in which you must thrash about until finally emerging into familiar territory.
Playing via the BeebEm emulator at least allows you to save without it costing you a move as it did in the original. As I have spent a lot of time racing around a spider's web with the residents only one move behind me this at least has made things slightly easier than it was for those masochistic souls playing on their BBC micros back in the day.
It has the standard T/SAL two word parser and no examine command plus an inventory limit of eight objects. I have come across two items that have multiple uses thus far so discard nothing that you find. Some treasures double up as tools for solving puzzles and all are suffixed by an exclamation mark in the manner of the day. There is an inventory limit of eight objects so you will need to work out how to manipulate the in-game system for leaving items and picking them up later at a different location. Some areas of the game are closed off after your initial visit so you'll need to carefully consider which items you haul around with you in any given area. I have so far discovered 36 takeable items.
This game is described with classic understatement as being for advanced players. That is rather like describing World War 2 as a spot of fistycuffs.
An update: I have now finally completed the game and can quite honestly say that this is the most difficult text adventure game that I have ever played. I make it 35 ways to die in 79 locations. It has the most obscure verbs, the most tortuous inventory manipulation and the most soft and hard locks as well.
All this aside I would recommend it for die hard purists like myself as it has enough clever puzzles to satisfy the most avid dissectologist.