Last month I made a brief pause to talk about the impact of local cultures in games, but today I'm back to rant about obscure CRPGs! Check part I and part II here if you missed, and let's dive into it.
The Phantasie series (1985-1991)
One of the things I most enjoy about RPGs from the 70's and 80's is that "frontier" feeling, as no one had a blueprint on how to things, people just kept trying different things.
Douglas Wood's Phantasie, is one of those frontier series, with a very unique approach. Instead of first-person graphics like Wizardy or top-down like Ultima, it used various distinct views. Towns were animated side-view screens, the world map was Ultima-like and dungeons had a fascinating mini-map-like view. You didn't need graph paper or even a basic sense of direction - it was all there, filled with various traps, encounters and text-based interactions. Simple, yet elegant.
Besides the unique map system, death was also memorable. Upon defeat, your party was judged by Hades, who would resurrect some, kill others permanently and bring a few back as undead!
Combat had a unique look, with character laid side-by-side in the bottom and enemies displayed in various rows on top. But also because of the multitude of races players could play, from traditional elves and dwarves to fairies, minotaurs, trolls, gnolls, lizardmen and the aforementioned undead.
Phantasie III: The Wrath of Nikademus, released in 1987, upgraded the visuals and added a new feature: locational damage. Now you could injure, break or remove specific body parts in battle, including the chance to decapitate an enemy with a luck blow.
Sadly, the Phantasie series failed to endure as much as the Ultima games. It did have more of an impact in Japan, where the first game received an remake by StarCraft Inc, with side-view battles:
The whole series made so much success in Japan that in 1991 Douglas Wood and StarCraft developed Phantasie IV: Birth of Heroes, which remains to this day a Japan-exclusive.
A few years ago Douglas Wood also mentioned in a RPG Codex interview that he was working on Phantasie V, but sadly the project was canceled since.
Back in the late 80's, SSI was a giant publisher that dominated the Strategy and RPG markets. Its hen layed not golden eggs, but the fabled Gold Box AD&D RPGs. Like, a lot. From 1988 to 1992, SSI released no less than ELEVEN of those, plus some spin-offs. Suck on that, Assassin's Creed.
Somehow, someone thought that wasn't enough and so SSI reached to Westwood Studios to produce Hillsfar, a game best described as a stand-alone pack of side-quests.
Basically, you import a character from the Pool of Radiance or Curse of the Azure Bonds Gold Box games and take him to the city of Hillsfar, where he can engage in a series of mini-games, like fighting in an arena, robbing houses, competing in an archery contest, riding a horse and visiting the most amusing depiction of a fantasy tavern to ever be programmed.
After finishing a brief quest for one of the guilds in town (which depends on yout character class), you can then export your hero back to the main Gold Box games, along with some bonus XP and hit points. (I wonder how many power gamers played this just to buff their characters).
By itself the game isn't a bad idea, but while the mini games are interesting for the first time, they are extremely limited and get boring fast. The sole exception is the lock picking mini game.
Released 26 years ago, Hillsfar still has the best lock picking mini game I've seen. Basically you have a set of picks and must use the correct one to open each of the lock's tumblers, under a harsh time limit. It's tense, requires speed & good eyes, scales very well and even - shock - makes sense!
BTW, a big shout out to the unsung heroes at GOG.com, who managed to scavenge the Gold Box games from legal hell and just re-released them, Hillsfar included.
Snatcher SD (1990)
Since the talk of the week (and likely month) is Metal Gear Solid V, let's talk about a Hideo Kojima game, Snatcher. Released in 1988, it's a bizarre adventure game/visual novel hybrid where robots are taking the bodies of people and only JUNKER agent Gillian Seed can stop them!
Snatcher is a great game, full of ideas Kojima would later use in MGS, but it's an adventure game, so I have little to say about it here. If you're curious, try this extensive Hardcore Gaming 101 article.
What interests me is that two years after releasing Snatcher, Kojima decided to make a reboot of it. With cute super-deformed graphics and first-person turn-based RPG combat.
Yes, you read that right, combat is first-person AND turn-based.
Each turn you pick a gun and use the reticule to aim at a point on the screen - you can fire at the robot's body to deal damage, or at specific points to decrease its stats & eventually cripple it. For example, attacking its eyes/sensors will reduce its accuracy, and if you deal enough damage the eyes will be destroyed and he won't be able to hit you anymore (and will likely self-destruct).
The twist is that before you fire the enemy will likely move, meaning aiming for small areas is tricky - you'll have to anticipate his move or stop him from moving by destroying its legs. Different guns also have different speeds and damage area, so choosing your equipment is important.
It's an extremely original system, that suits the game perfectly. It even throws some curveballs, like enemies using hostages. Unfortunately, the game is very grindy and some battles take a long time to beat, requiring you to first weaken the enemy and then slowly damage it...
Still, I would love to see some modern iteration of this concept.
I'll open this one with a cautionary tale on the dangers of second-hand information. Some websites & posts I read mentions the game has a locational damage, similar to Phantasie III, as seen here:
That's misinformation being repeated without any fact checking (I found quite a few while researching for the book). Those bodies on the left picture are actually the game's bizarre control scheme!
Click on the right leg to move a single character, click on the left leg to move the whole party. Meanwhile, the right hand uses items or attacks, while the left one picks up items or interacts. The head is used to read or eat held items. It's weird, but you get the hang of it after a few minutes.
You see, Shadowlands is the first real-time RPG to feature a party of characters that can be moved individually - thus this primitive, experimental control system - no one knew how to do this! You can tell how novel this was just by playing the game, you can feel how excited the developers where to feature puzzles that required you to split your party and make them operate various levers.
Another innovative feature was the lighting system, called Photoscope. The whole environment had real-time simulated lighting, that would acknowledge every single light source, from torches to magic spells and cast shadows accordingly. The game itself is named after this unique feature, and the designers also employed it on puzzles that required a certain level of light or darkness to solve.
Shadowlands was followed by Shadoworlds, which is basically the same game, but IN SPACE!
A nice detail I enjoy is the back story of the various characters you can pick. It's entirely cosmetic, but still fascinating. I would definitely play a game based on these guys.
The Maimed God's Saga (2010)
This brilliant Neverwinter Nights 2 mod more than deserve its place here, for it's a master class on how to do role-playing in a computer game and how to go beyond the usual tropes and cliches.
The module's creator, Russ Davis (who also worked on NWN2's Mysteries of Westgate), went in a bold direction: while NWN 2 is know for its extensive implementation of the D&D ruleset, with dozens of classes and prestige classes, the module is solely devoted to Clerics of Tyr.
Your quest begins simple, as a woman writes to the church of Tyr begging for help, saying her family is cursed. You are then dispatched to the remote town where she lives to investigate the curse.
The twist is in how the game plays, not as a dungeon crawl or a epic power fantasy, but almost as a adventure game, controlled by your stats and choices.
It makes full use of the Cleric, in various was. For example, unlike other D&D CRPGs, your spells won't return when you sleep. You are required to find an altar and pray to Tyr. And sometimes Tyr will reply, showing you visions or warnings. However, when you first arrive at the village, you will naturally go after an altar to pray, and finding it in ruins you'll seek the means to rebuild it & purify it.
Similarly, your daily choice of spells will affect more than just combat. For example, the Bless spells give a +1 morale bonus on attack rolls and on saving throws against fear effects. That's all we see in RPGs, but this module reminds us that it's a blessing from a cleric in name of a God - it carries Tyr's power, it can be used to purify, to cleanse.
The whole module is full of these interactions, like casting Dispel Magic on a charmed guard, or Hold Person on a man trying to burn evidences:
The same thing happens with skill checks, that are used to solve issues and to help immerse players into the game's world and the sensibilities of the main character.
For example, the Lore skill means your character knows about the world around him. When someone talks about uncommon subjects, a successfully Lore check will present the player with a brief description of what they are talking about. Failing it means be left in the dark about what they said.
Even in combat the game shines. The original NWN2 campaign had horrible encounter design and pacing. Often your party of adventurers would enter a small house and then proceed to murder hordes of copypaste enemies inside massive rooms, in what felt like a clown car joke:
Maimed God's Saga expertly goes in the opposite direction, making encounters meaningful and short. You won't casually cut 50 mindless orcs during your stroll trough the wood - you'll encounter a small group of orcs that will talk to you, but also might attack and likely kick your ass. Similarly, the small keep in the mountains has only 4 guards and a handful of rooms, and the leader of a small pack of bandits is right next to the bandits, not at the end of a giant castle with 5 floors and 200 thugs.
These things matter. They make things have weight, purpose.
The Maimed God Saga is a reminder of how complex and enticing RPGs can be, of how the problem was never "Forgotten Realms / D&D is boring and cliche", but how it's often used in boring and cliche ways, as nothing more than a bunch of numbers to kill goblins and battle dragons.
Finally, I mentioned this before, but just so we keep this in mind: this mod and thousand others were originally hosted at IGN's NWN Vault, which was pulled down without any warning. We only have access to gems like these thanks to devoted fans that fought to backup everything.
My deepest thanks to them.
Thanks for reading and, once again, if you enjoyed this list there's a 200-page preview of the upcoming CRPG Book right here for download, filled with this kind of content! And it's still free! ;)