Friday, November 17, 2017

Game 269: Ancients 1: Death Watch (1991)

          
Ancients 1: Death Watch
Canada
Farr-Ware (developer); distributed as shareware
Released in 1991 for DOS
Date Started: 14 November 2017
Date Ended: 17 November 2017
Total Hours: 17
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)  
      
Ancients--which seems to be the word-of-the-year for 1991--is a prosaic but playable little Wizardry clone. It doesn't offer anything we haven't seen a hundred times, but it surpasses the quality of the other shovelware with which it was distributed. The graphics are cute.

The by-the-numbers nature of the game puts me in the mood to simply structure this entry like a record in a database.

Backstory: Unnecessarily vague. The central character (the game is not clear which of the four characters this represents) is exploring the hills one day near his home city of Locklaven. He comes upon a beautiful fairy playing an instrument and falls asleep, awakening later in his own bed. The experience inspires him to be an adventurer, and he sets out. Years later, he returns to Locklaven and finds it transformed. The population is fearful and mistrustful, and some kind of evil seems to have gripped the city. The "main character" thinks it has something to do with the fairy being captured.
       
Part of the unhelpful backstory.
      
Party members: 4. Only two can fight in melee range; the other two can cast or use missile weapons from the back. 

Races: Human, dwarf, elf.

Classes: Warrior, rogue, priest, mage.
      
Choosing the class during character creation.
      
Attributes: Strength, intelligence, constitution, dexterity. Life points and  money ("dracos") are also rolled randomly during character creation. Attributes are theoretically between 3 and 18, but the rolls are generous and it wasn't hard to get characters with 15 and above in everything.
            
During character creation, you choose from a variety of portraits for the characters. There is only one female portrait. Sex is otherwise not explicitly given.

Game world: Town level and seven underground dungeon levels, generally 18 x 18. Town level has an armory, inn, temple, training hall, and casino with miserable odds.
     
Arriving in the game from the main screen.
     
Encounters: Both fixed and random, including some in the town level. Monsters are typical Dungeons and Dragons fare. Some have mass-damage attacks, but none have special attacks like poison, paralysis, curse, sleep, or level drain.

Combat: Standard Wizardry style, with options to attack, defend, cast spells, use items, and flee.
      
Mid-combat with a troll and a mis-named "black elf."
      
Magic: Both priests and mages have 24 spells, arranged in 6 levels of 4 each. They gain new spells every other character level. They're relatively standard for CRPGs, some single-enemy offensive, some multi-enemy offensive, some protection, some healing. Only one, "Enchanted Flame," is necessary for exploration. Unfortunately, there are no "buffing" spells; all protection spells are cast in combat.
       
A protection spell helps in an early-game combat.
      
The game is slow-going to start. The random combats on the first dungeon level are of extremely variable difficulty, just like in Wizardry. You might face 2 goblins in one fight and then 3 orcs, 4 giant rats, and 4 goblins in the next. The winnable battles deliver an average of 15 experience points, and it takes 500 experience points just to reach Level 2. I had explored and mapped the level (except for its final encounter) long before I was ready to level up. Combat is somewhat annoying throughout the game because the characters' accuracy, even with high dexterity, is abysmal. Even towards the end, your attacks connect maybe one-third of the time.

One thing I rather like is the tight economy.  A wildly successful combat might net 12 gold pieces. You're deep into the game before everyone has their best "regular" weapons and armor. Eventually, gold is only useful for healing (the shop doesn't sell any advanced gear), but it takes a long time to get there.
       
Late-game equipment for my warrior. I never did find anything for the belt slot.
      
Ancients does reasonably well with its equipment, too. You have a paper doll image with slots for left and right hands, helms, armor, gauntlets, boots, and belts, plus 12 backpack slots. There are the usual class-based restrictions on what you can wield, but there don't seem to be any armor restrictions. Since only two characters (the two "middle" characters in the party order, oddly) can engage in melee combat, the other two end up being missile characters and spell casters.
      
Purchasing equipment in the town's shop.
      
Only warriors can use bows, but I can't imagine wasting a warrior in a backup slot unless you were trying to do something unusual, like field an all-warrior party. In my party, the priest and mage both used slings. You have to buy sling bullets to go with the slings, but one bullet apparently lasts a lifetime. There's also a weird bug by which slings occasionally do ridiculous damage.
      
Maggar somehow ended up with the Sling of David.
    
That bug is representative of an unpolished feeling to the game in general. Spelling errors abound; for instance, the equipment shop has an option to "sell and item" and a main menu option advertises the game's "sequal." The interface works poorly. There are theoretically redundant mouse and keyboard commands, but in practice you have to use the mouse for almost everything. There are times the game outright lies: when casting spells, for instance, it offers function keys for each selection, but the function keys don't do anything. Often, it's unclear how to back out or exit a menu option.
    
Despite the labels to the left, the function keys do not in fact serve as shortcuts. I have to click with the mouse if I want to cure "serius" wounds or "casue" wounds to the enemy.
        
Anyway, as you penetrate the dungeon, you find the occasional magic equipment upgrade, like elven boots and dwarven helms. Platemail is also only available from looted enemies, not the shop.

The world is small, as it uses the "wormhole" convention by which corridors always have 10 feet of dead space around them. The town is particularly void of anything interesting except a few hints in the tavern. A large number of "private residences" plus the use of the term "review board" when you level up suggests a Bard's Tale influence, but you can't actually enter the residences and encounters on the town level are few and far between. It would have been better as a menu town.
      
Level 6 of the game
      
Among the dungeon levels, there are fewer than 1,200 mappable squares, and among those squares fewer than 20 fixed encounters. Thus, you'd coast through the game pretty quickly except for the difficulty of the monsters. Because of that, about 16 of the 17 hours I spent playing the game, I spent grinding. I might not have done it, but the game came along right as Netflix released The Punisher, so it was easy enough to go through the motions of fighting combats while I binged the episodes. Plus, grinding in Ancients 1 is authentically rewarding. Attributes, spell points, magic points, accuracy bonuses, damage bonuses, and resistances all increase notably between levels. The spell rewards are particularly palpable, as characters go from single-enemy damage spells to single-group damage spells, to all-enemies damage spells.
       
A late-game character sheet.
  
The plot unfolds as you progress through the dungeon. As with Wizardry, there a couple of special encounters on each level, and a number of wall messages. Level 1, the sewers beneath the town, has a light puzzle in which a well asks you to drop in "a ball of force that can crush bone," a fancy description for a mace.
      
The game's first puzzle.
      
Beyond the well is a fixed encounter with some priests and skeletons. Winning provides a key for a lower level. Miscellaneous encounters on the level include orcs, goblins, "kobalds," giant rats, and "riff-raff."
      
Messages--some helpful, some not--are scattered about the levels.
     
On Level 2, labeled as "access tunnels," you fight barbarians, black ogres, evil priests, skeletons, and giant snakes to the Tomb of Relnor, an ancient knight. Sleeping in the tomb rewards you with a vision and both the Sword and Mace of Relnor. These are powerful artifact weapons, but oddly they show up as random treasure in later combats.
     
     
Level 2 also has a key encounter with some yellow mold. Killing the mold allows you to take some of it back to the bartender in town for a key.
       
       
Level 3 brings an encounter with a "golum" holding a key in a chunk of ice. You have to cast "Enchanted Flame" to melt the ice, then kill the golem.
       
      
The three keys obtained so far open the way down to the next level. There's a bug in the game, though, by which other found equipment can accidentally replace one of the keys. I didn't find this out until I had lost the key and saved the game (there's only one save slot). I had to start over with a new party. I hex-edited them to where my old party was in terms of experience so I didn't have to do all the early-level grinding again. I also took the opportunity to replace my rogue, who has absolutely nothing roguelike to do in the game, with another warrior.

Level 4 is an odd one. It hardly uses any of its allocated space. It consists only of two long corridors, one through a secret door off the other. The secret door is cued with a message that it's windy (plus a message on the previous level about a hidden area), and as far as I can tell it's the only secret door in the game.

The corridors culminate in a battle with Kilrah, a red dragon. Killing her gets you a fireball wand which only has a few uses.

A lot more undead enemies--wraiths, ghouls, zombies, and such--start to appear on Level 5. There otherwise isn't much on this level, but I did most of my late-game grinding here.
  
Some vague warning accompanies my arrival on Level 6.
      
Level 6 brings gargoyles, dragons, vampires, and hell hounds. As you enter the level, there's a message suggesting that you've entered a keep on the outskirts of town; a tavern tale mentions the keep as being inaccessible from the outside. This doesn't quite fit with the geography of the dungeon in which all the staircases go down from level to level, but whatever.
 
The monsters become particularly difficult on this level because a lot of them have a way of shrugging off spells. I learned through experience that there's not much point in conserving magical energy, since you can rest anywhere, resting has only a small chance of interruption, and it only takes a few rest periods to restore all spell points. Thus, you might as well bring out the big guns every combat. This means mass damage spells called "Disfiguration," "Mar Enemies" and "Vision of Pain" for the priest, at Levels 4, 5, and 6 respectively. At the same levels, the mage gets "Lightning Storm," "Fire Burst," and "Disintegrate." At Level 6, both the mage and priest get a "Death" spell that kills a single enemy.
     
A typical late-game enemy party.
     
Warriors with their single attacks become somewhat useless towards the end of the game, particularly since their accuracy never really improves. If I had to play it again, I'd probably do two priests and two mages. For the most part, I let the warriors use the magic wands and scrolls that I found.

Things become a lot easier after a fixed encounter on Level 6 with a "Lord Vernon," apparently a lich, who attacks with a group of vampires.
    
"Vernon" might be the least-intimidating name in RPG history.
   
It's a tough combat, but it rewards you with a magic amulet that, when used in combat, negates enemies' magical protections. After that, the game becomes almost too easy. No single enemy resists the "Death" spells.
      
Of course, it took me a while to figure out what "negation" meant.
     
Level 7 pounds the party with dragons, death knights, more golems, and so forth. The goal is to make your way to a magic portal. It took me a while to figure out how the portal works. There are two levers on either side of it, and you have to click them to change where the portal goes. Nowhere else in the game do you interact with elements on the screen this way.

One lever takes you back to town. This is the only shortcut back to town in the game. Towards the end, I neglected to raise myself a couple of earned levels simply because I didn't want to trek up and down all the levels again. The second portal presumes to take you to the "sequal" of the game. Until I discovered the third option, I thought this was the end of the game. I was pretty angry.
      
Cue enraged entry.
     
Pulling both levers takes you to a throne room. After a battle against three red dragons, you face two demons named Binatuus and Arulus. As far as I can tell, they're named for the first time when you encounter them, and their story is never really explained. They attack without allies and thus die extraordinarily fast to a combination of the magic amulet and two "Death" spells.
    
The two final foes.
    
Upon their death, the game says that their "black, ghost like" forms "dissipate into the air, returning to the evil dimension from which they came." Pressing forward through a door, you encounter the beautiful harp-playing fairy that at least one of the characters remembers from his childhood.
   
Let's hope it's not the priest.
      
She smiles and whisks the party from the castle to the wilderness area where the character first encountered here. Game over.
      
One character is happy; the other three would rather be in a pub.
    
Aside from the rampant spelling errors, interface issues, occasional bugs, and a lack of any sound, Ancients 1 offers a reasonably solid, classic RPG experience--the kind of experience I describe as "fight orcs, level up, fight stronger orcs." It wouldn't compete with more polished classics for anyone's attention today, but if I was a poor teenager in 1991, I would have been happy enough to find this game on a shovelware disk.
 
It earns a 30 in the GIMLET, boosted by decent character development, combat (particularly magic), equipment, economy, and overall gameplay length and difficulty. It does worst in the area of NPCs (there are none) and the nonsensical story. I thought the graphics were fine, but the lack of sound and a good keyboard interface hurt the game in that category.
      
Even if it's unpolished, I always appreciate a game with rewarding character development.
     
Ancients 1 was apparently released as shareware in 1991, then picked up by Epic MegaGames for re-release in 1993, when a sequel had been prepared. I guess it's technically "freeware," not shareware, as the documentation makes it clear that the shareware fee is for the sequel and not the present game. After its 1993 release, the title found its way onto about half a dozen shovelware disks.

The sequel, Ancients II: Approaching Evil, is on my 1994 list. It seems to use the same interface, but with slightly more refined graphics, and it promises additional character options and a larger game world. It does not appear that the Ontario-based Farr-Ware is known for any other games. I've had trouble discovering if lead programmer Mark Lewis ever worked on other titles; his name is simply too common.

Frill-less though it was, Ancients 1 offered a better classic RPG experience than its concurrent title, Twilight: 2000. Some intelligence from commenters in my last entry gave me reason to hope that it will be over soon.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Twilight: 2000: Stalemate

Read the second sentence. Is that some kind of Polish metaphor?
      
"Mission: Interminable" wasn't a bad idea for a Twilight: 2000 post subtitle, but I used it too soon. I was less than 20 missions in, and figured I was at least half done with the game. Since then, I've been on about 100 more missions. That can't be right; that sounds insane. Maybe it hasn't been 100 missions, but it's been at least 50. It's been enough that if I ever visit Poland, I could probably drive from city to city without a map, although there's a decent chance I might accidentally visit Wojnicz when I mean to visit Wosniki.

The mission types haven't changed from the last entry. They're still a mixture of hostage rescues, tank combats, ground combats, spy hunting, healing, vehicle retrieval, and supply delivery. The only one I haven't received again is what I titled "restore the deposed"; that must have been a unique mission. The missions are at least somewhat randomized. Several times, I've had to quit and reload, and I've gotten different missions.

Unexpectedly, I find myself liking the tank missions best. It took me a while to get used to the controls, and to realize that you switch from driving view to turret view by toggling the F1/F2 keys. It takes some skill to get the tank heading one direction but the turret aimed sideways or backwards.
     
I catch a enemy tank by surprise.
    
Once I got the hang of it, I have a great time careening through the city streets, blasting enemy tanks, dodging their fire. You can even destroy houses, although such destruction only appears in tank view and doesn't seem to have any consequences when you switch to top-down view (I've even destroyed my own base from tank view). It doesn't have anything to do with RPGs, but it's a reasonably fun action game.
      
I level a random house for fun.
     
There are never more than three or four tanks per mission, and a lot of missions only have one. Half the time, it's already destroyed when I get to the city because of the "spawning in the middle of the sky" bug. Thus, the tank missions are generally my favorite.

Spy missions and retrieve-the-damaged-vehicle missions aren't so bad, either. They're very short. The spy is almost always the first NPC I talk to. For the vehicle retrievals, you just have to keep using tools until it's repaired. 
      
Supply runs are also pretty quick.
     
In contrast, I've grown to loathe the ground combats. Each one involves like 20 guys and takes an hour. To survive, I typically have to start hundreds of yards away from them, fire as they advance (wasting a ton of ammo) and hope that a lot of them get hung up on buildings. The various exploits that my commenters discussed really don't work with my party because they largely depend on the party members going first, which rarely happens because in character creation I didn't understand the importance of initiative.

It's too bad because the game almost has a good tactical combat system. It's the best Paragon effort so far. The primary problem is that your enemies are almost always off-screen, and overall the limited screen view doesn't give you a good sense of terrain, obstacles and positioning. There's a "tactical map," but it goes too far in the other direction, with the enemy dots barely perceptible. And if there's a difference between the colors of living enemies and dead enemies on that map, I can't tell.
     
The tactical map shows either enemies around me or flecks on my computer screen.
      
Another problem is that you can't tell what weapons the enemies carry until after they've fired them at you. "Ah, Enemy 11 has a grenade launcher! I need to target him!" is useless intelligence when it comes after a grenade has just landed at your feet. Enemy grenades and rockets will instantly kill your characters and destroy your vehicles, which is of course realistic, but no one is looking for a realistic battlefield simulation in an RPG. In any event, "realism" is hardly a virtue of the game in other areas. My characters are capable of holding M-60s in one hand and grenade launchers in the other, for instance.
    
I've let a few tanks go because I didn't feel like reloading at points like this.
     
You have the issue of characters not developing after creation. By the time the combats get really hard, if your characters can't hack it, it's too late. I realize now that back in creation, I tried to even out the skills too much. I didn't make anyone a "jack of all trades," but I tried to make each character good for at least a few things. That was a mistake. With 20 characters, you want 20 specialists. Better to have a character who's insanely good with heavy weapons, with a skill at 10 or above, than one who has 5s in heavy weapons, rifles, and thrown weapons. That way, you'd get far fewer infuriating misses in combat.
     
Rambo chooses between weapons in combat.
     
Finally, it would be nice if the enemy forces didn't insist on fighting to the last man. There's no mechanism for retreat or surrender. The last man always ends up stuck on a building's corner in some far-flung location. There's nothing like killing 19 enemies over the course of an hour, walking across the game map for 10 minutes to find the last one, finally coming into each other's mutual view, and then having him whump a grenade at the feet of your lead character.

I spent far too long trying to win the game for this entry, but the missions just wouldn't stop. Again, I'd suspect that they never stop except that every once in a while, the intelligence officer gives an extra message that suggests you're moving into a new phase. For a while, it was resource-acquisition: each mission resulted in a new vehicle or some supplies.
     
Town leaders start rewarding me with "loyalty."
      
After that, I started to get missions in which my team "captured" a city by securing the loyalty of its leader. In between these missions, the intelligence officer would tell me that Baron Czarny had also captured a random city. This would almost always be followed by the exhortation that, "For each territory Czarny conquers, we must gain two!," except that the game doesn't really have a mechanism for taking over two territories per mission.
      
How come I can't use intimidating force or propaganda?
    
As Czarny and my team conquered various cities, a symbol would appear on top of them on the campaign map: some kind of green or brown for Czarny's cities, and some kind of green or brown for my cities. Incidentally, I don't think a lot of the cities in the game are real places, such as Szczekoiny and Loruszno. You'd think those were obvious misspellings for Szczekociny and Lopuszno, except those cities also exist in the game.
    
The cities that I and/or Czarny control.
     
This seemed to be a kind of progress, except there are 56 labeled cities on the game map, plus two unlabeled cities, so even if every mission resulted in my team taking one city and Czarny's taking one, this phase alone would have involved 29 missions. And they didn't all have that result. A lot of the missions involved defending cities I already held. In a couple of cases, I completed the mission but lost the city to Czarny anyway. As I write this, there are still eight cities that neither side controls.
     
This is just what you want to hear after a one-hour battle.
     
There seemed to be some kind of plot developing when my intel officer relayed a threat from Czarny: that if we didn't surrender, he was going to gather every child in Lopuszno and execute them. The intel officer thought it was just a bluff. I don't know why it didn't occur to me to head for the city anyway, except that I figured it was a plot point rather than an actual mission. Several missions later, the enraged officer told me that Czarny had in fact killed the children.
      
Notice he doesn't apologize for misinterpreting the previous intelligence.
      
I braced for a series of endgame missions, but it didn't come. Instead, I got a few missions in a row that involved defending cities I already controlled.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • It is possible to run out of fuel. I don't know how to avoid this if the mission takes you far from your base. You can't take extra fuel with you, and there's no way to refuel while on the road.
     
I love that my character seems to be reading this message.
     
  • A church had an ankh cross instead of an actual cross. 
    
In post-apocalyptic Europe, the Cult of the Avatar rises in popularity.
     
  • Characters keep suggesting I put "combat webbing" on my tank. Finally, I broke down and did it. I have no idea what it does, and it disappears every time I enter and exit anyway.
    
Now my tank just looks stupid.
    
At this point, I would appreciate explicit spoilers on how many missions I have to go. My worst fear is that I'm going to have to conquer every city that Czarny controls one-by-one, which would mean another 30 missions at least. I'm not sure the game is worth that kind of extra time.

A couple of awesome commenters sent me sourcebooks and modules for the tabletop RPG, so I could compare them to the CRPG. I'm reviewing them now. Even if I don't play any further, we'll have plenty to discuss in the final entry.
    
Time so far: 34 hours


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Revisiting: Le Maître des Âmes (1987)

      
Le Maître des Âmes
France
Ubisoft (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for DOS and Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 24 December 2010
Date Ended: 12 November 2017
Total Hours: 17
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
               
Like most French games of the era, including Ubisoft's prior two titles (Fer & Flamme et L'Anneau de Zengara), Le Maître des Âmes ("The Master of Souls") offers a sense of the bizarre that goes beyond the simple fact that it's in a foreign language. French RPGs of the 1980s feature weird combinations of plot elements from mythology, fantasy, and sci-fi, NPC dialogue that makes little sense even in its original language, vague quests, and odd in-game asides. It's as if their developers felt that RPGs were the next frontier for the Surrealist movement. Like the British ZX Spectrum games from the same era, they stand out for their originality in game elements and interfaces. In contrast to Germany, where RPG development was immediately influenced by The Bard's Tale and a few other U.S. titles, France built everything from scratch. More often than not, I hasten to add, the results were weird and unsatisfying rather than praiseworthy, but at least I never look at a French RPG and say "this again?!"

When I first encountered Maître back in 2010, I lacked the overall historical perspective that I have now. I liked the game but didn't understand the full scope of the originality that it offers. Take its approach to its dungeon structure. Among its American peers, featureless corridors with minimal interactability will be the norm into the mid-1990s. Maître, on the other hand, offers hand-crafted rooms for its tiles. Not only do these rooms show details sensible for their types--bunk beds in the barracks, tables with food and discarded bottles in the dining hall--but each tile offers different views from each of the four facing directions. Even more important, many of the objects seen on these screens are interactable, including objects you can pick up, switches you can pull, food you can eat, and signs you can read.
    
Maitre offers a strong sense of mise en scène.
     
Its approach to NPCs also predates most U.S. titles by nearly a decade, offering a variety of questions and answers for each character you encounter, including some clear role-playing options. And just about any intelligent creature doubles as an NPC. Orcs can be engaged in dialogue before they attack you. A sample:
      
Q. Who are you?
A. I am an orc guard of the castle.
Q. What are you doing here?
A. I stop strangers from getting in.
Q. Give us a hint.
A. Tremble, for the demonic lord is coming to Earth.
Q. Come with us.
A. Over my dead body. Sons of dogs.
Q. Goodbye, and good luck.
A. I curse you for eternity.
          
Conversing with an orc.
    
Unfortunately, it's not all positives. The control system is cumbersome, the CGA colors awful, the magic and combat system stunted and unsatisfying. Navigation is difficult, though by design. These negatives allowed it to slide off my radar after I first engaged it, never intending 7 years to pass before I returned. I have to make sure the same doesn't happen to Deathlord.
    
Part of the in-game backtory.
    
Maître begins as a party of four adventurers enters a keep to find out what happened to its wizard, Kharam Akkad (sometimes spelled "Kharram"), who disappeared during a violent storm that still ravages the land. The characters are drawn from six classes--warrior, magician, cleric, thief, dwarf, and elf--and assigned random scores between 1 and 99 in life, strength, intelligence wisdom, dexterity, and charisma. You only get one shot at the random rolls per character; if you don't like the statistics, you have to start completely over. The game also changes the originally-rolled numbers behind the scenes. Some of the changes make sense; for instance, warriors always get a 30-point increase to strength and thieves always get a 30 point increase to dexterity. Other changes make less sense, such as the elf losing intelligence (though not a consistent amount). Charisma is either bugged or the developers didn't want anyone having a high score; anyone who rolls more than a 30 is sent down into the single digits.
     
The game describes a thief like he's MacGyver.
     
You don't get to name your characters. After creation, you can spend a randomly-generated amount of gold on weapons, armor, shields, and lanterns. One oddity of the game is that you can only have two items equipped at once. One will assuredly be your weapon, and except when solving puzzles, the other is likely to be your suit of armor. Thus, shields are somewhat useless.
   
Choosing from a selection of equipment items.
   
I went with a dwarf, thief, magician, cleric party. They begin in a nondescript hallway with a small sign on the wall that warns that the château will be defended under "pain of prosecution." A locked door to the west would seem to serve as the entrance, but later the party finds a key to this door, and it leads further into the castle, so it's not really clear how the party arrived at the starting square.
      
Starting out. We'd better get those weapons equipped.
     
Movement is with the number pad. A row of buttons activates the game's various actions: look, listen, eat, sleep, take, open a door, talk, attack, and disk operations. Most of the buttons have dual purposes depending on whether you apply them to the environment or to the party. The eye icon reads signs in the environment, for instance, but checks statistics and health when applied to the characters. The hand picks up items in the environment but goes to the character's inventory when used on the left side of the screen. The manual says that these various actions have keyboard backups, but I wasn't able to get any of them to work.

The opening area seems small. A few squares of corridor offer doors leading into an armory, some barracks, a kitchen, a dining room, and a passageway with a couple of bedrooms. A chef in the kitchen says that he's making lunch. If you pay him for a tip, he warns you to "beware of howling mushrooms," a reference to creatures in a nearby hallway. The dining room has a bag of gold on a shelf and a note on the wall advertises a "catch the axe" contest next Saturday. Both rooms have a couple items of food.
     
A rat sensibly appears in a pantry.
    
Orcs guard the barracks and the bedroom foyer. The armory and one of the bedrooms serves up combats with rats. Keys found in the various rooms open doors to other parts of the castle, but to really progress, you have to find secret doors. Some of these are activated with chains or switches; other times, you just click on the wall that you think might have one (meaning you have to click on every wall). Soon you discover that the small opening area branches out into a multi-leveled castle of hundreds of rooms.

There is no strategy to combat. You simply select the combat option and repeatedly hit the SPACE bar. You and the enemy exchange blows which are registered with the word "Paf!" Enemies have a way of respawning if you linger around the room. None of them are named, but by visualization, you fight orcs, werewolves, goblins, giant spiders, bats, rats, and various demonesque creatures.
     
Paffing down the hit points of something like a minotaur.
     
As you kill enemies, you gain experience, which causes your attributes to increase. Well before the end of the game, my characters hit the max of 255 in their primary statistics.
       
Some of my attribute values towards the end of the game.
      
I have no idea about spells. The spellcasting classes start with a few: "Language," "Protection," and "Vision" for the mage and "Healing" for the priest. But once cast, they don't seem to replenish. There seem to be no offensive spells.
     
Once I cast them once, just to try them out, they never came back.
     
The castle ultimately has somewhere between 150 and 200 rooms; a detailed map is vital. Many rooms have locked doors, and during your adventure you collect an astounding number of keys, none of which can be safely dropped. Other times, you have to hunt for a switch to a secret door, and still others, you click on a blank wall with a key to open a secret door. Even more insidious are the common navigation puzzles and traps, including one-way secret doors. Several times in the game, I found myself trapped in a room I simply couldn't get out of.
     
Opening a door with a key.
And activating a secret door by pulling a wall switch.
     
Worst of all are the pit traps. About half a dozen rooms have floors that spontaneously collapse, dumping a random selection of party members to a lower level. They never dump all the party members, and usually you can't simply walk around until the remaining members fall into the pit, too. Instead, you have to navigate separately until you can find a place to reunite.
      
The entire party besides the NPC falls through a pit trap in a kitchen. You switch between parties with the top icon.
     
For the most part, you don't get any weapon or armor upgrades. Almost everything you find is identical to what you purchased in the beginning. Other than keys, you're mostly looking for potions and food. (Light sources are also important, but you only need one per party and they never run out.) Each character has an individual nutrition statistic. When you eat, it goes up, then slowly counts down to 0. There's enough food in the game that it's not hard to keep from starving. Potions are more of a crapshoot. Some will poison you or outright kill you, but you have to experiment anyway because it's the only way to restore hit points. Sleeping, as far as I can tell, doesn't seem to do anything.

Inventory management is frustrating as hell. Each character only has four slots, and it takes an annoyingly long time for a little animation to complete that makes the slots appear. None of the inventory items are labeled. Well until the end of the game, I had things in my inventory that I had no idea what they were, including a couple of things that looked like bottles and one thing that looked like a book. I found no productive way to fiddle with them. Dropping items is also much more difficult than it should be, as you can only drop an item where the game screen has a designated space for one--usually because an item is already there. You don't so much drop things as exchange them.

Moving to one of the game's positives, there are several NPCs who will join your party, including:

  • Maltorn, a knight from a village up the river from the castle who also seeks to end its curse.
  • Baldigorn (but "you can call me Baldi"), an orc searching for Kharam, who he calls his "benefactor." You have to make sure to take him, as he has a key vital to the final area.
  • Shazall, a mage and an old friend of Kharam. He carries a runic dagger that's necessary to defeat the guardian of a magic sword.
          
A knight and the party discover that we're on the same quest.
     
NPCs sometimes have key quest items, so you want to take them all at least briefly. They have a way of randomly disappearing when you enter another NPC's section of the castle.

There are also a few NPCs who won't join the party but offer hints in dialogue. A woman introduces herself as Aniella the Valkyrie, for instance, and claims she died in the castle but Kharam Akkad wouldn't let her go to the land of the dead. She warns you about the necessity of having a dagger to defeat a specific guardian. Elsewhere, a thief named Licors, looting the castle "for nice things for my home," confirms this intelligence.
     
"I am from the realm of the dead, where I would like to rest in peace."
    
Before I describe the endgame, there's one last aspect worthy of commentary: the signs. More than half of the rooms have some kind of sign, placard, or inscription, some almost hidden in regular patterns on the wall. Some are clues, some are warnings, some are jokes, some are just there for atmosphere. It certainly made my progress slow to have to stop and translate so much. They're alternately written in orcish, kobold, or magic runes, and you have to have the character with the proper language skill active to read them (just as you do in NPC dialogue). A number of examples:
    
  • "You who enter here, know that you will never go out again"
  • "There's no point in dying"
  • "To open your mind, break your head."
  • "The location of the final combat will be scattered with stars." 
  • "You had so much trouble coming here, you deserve to stay forever."
  • "Take advantage of the weak point of the demon to slay him." 
  • "Save me from the abyss of time. - Kharam Akkad."

The characters translate yet another insulting sign.
     
To win, you have to find your way to a chamber in which the demon Gol Golgoth resides. Although his chamber has doors, I was never able to find a key for them. The only way I was able to enter was to drop through a trap door in the level above. The right character has to do this, as Gol Golgoth is only defeatable with a magic sword that you find in an armory in a different section of the castle, and only thieves and warriors can wield swords. The armory, meanwhile, is guarded by a creature who's only vulnerable to daggers. 
     
Two party members disappear down the hole.
    
It's even more complicated than that. I wasn't able to find a way back from the armory area except through yet another trap door. Again, since all your characters won't fall down trap doors, the only way I was able to win the game was to lose most of my party along the way. First, my warrior, thief, and cleric fell down the door returning from the armory, leaving the mage behind. Then, I had to reload a few times until it was my thief who fell down the trap door leading to Gol Golgoth's chambers. He took on Gol Golgoth alone, but he was able to kill him with the magic sword and end the game.
     
The thief takes on the mighty demon lord by himself.
     
The epilogue shows a cool graphic . . .
       
I'll bet that within 12 hours, we'll know where this was copied from.
      
. . . and then proceeds with some text:
     
Moons and moons have passed since this glorious adventure. The sky gradually cleared up and let through rays of sunshine on a fertile land.

Vanir, freed from its fears, became the city of the Blue Star, a sacred place, an eternal symbol of peace and justice.

Of our heroes, no one knows where they went. But their story will be told for centuries to come.
     
The story ultimately ended up being somewhat nonsensical, more allusion than tale. It's unclear why Gol Golgoth is called "the master of souls" or what exactly happened to Kharam Akkad, particularly since the latter doesn't return in the endgame. Like Ubisoft's previous efforts, much is cribbed here from the legends of Conan, including the proper names Vanir, Kharam Akkad, and Gol Goroth.
    
Some kind of giant insect pledges loyalty to Fafnir, King of Vanir, another character from the Conan mythos.
     
In the end, I found Le Maître des Âmes rather charming. Its mechanics are poor, but the NPC interaction was top notch, and I liked the sense that I was exploring a real place. In a GIMLET, it earns:

  • 4 points for the game world. The textual parts are a bit unsatisfying, but the castle has a strong sense of thematic and physical integrity.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. There aren't enough options during creation, but development is relatively steady, and you do feel the characters becoming more effective in combat.
  • 6 points for NPC interaction. With a number of questions and attitudes, plus the ability to enlist NPCs into the party, few games of the era are doing it better.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are boring and unnamed and lack anything that really differentiates them. There are no non-combat encounters.
  • 1 point for magic and combat. The magic system is nearly non-existent and there are no combat options.
     
A giant spider blocks a hallway.
        
  • 3 points for equipment. The system is annoying to navigate and there aren't many items, but I like the way they're distributed in the environment.
  • 1 point for economy. There are a handful of treasure chests and bags of gold, but you only need them to bribe NPCs for hints, and there are only a few of those.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options or side quests.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. Graphics are well-detailed, even if the color is awful, but sound is minimal and the control system is frustrating.
       
The Amstrad CPC version is capable of multiple colors at once.
      
  • 5 points for gameplay. Somewhat non-linear, the right difficulty, and the right length.
               
That give us a final score of 30. That's about where it should fall. It doesn't have enough good RPG mechanics to truly recommend it, but there are some innovative things here. It's certainly much better than Ubisoft's previous offerings.
     
The manual's artwork is a bit different than the game's.
      
I haven't been able to find contemporary reviews or accounts of it, but I guess it was popular enough to justify a sequel, the even-more obscure Le Maître Absolu, in 1989. It promises a sci-fi setting, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the developers updated the engine. Both games are credited to Eric Doireau and C. Le Scoarnec, neither of whom have many credits beyond these titles.

It's nice to finally complete this game in my spreadsheet, leaving only my suspended attempts at Deathlord blank. I'll return to that one before the end of 1987 as well.