Saturday, January 25, 2014

Vampyr: Won! (with Final Rating)

The game ends on a joke.

VAMPYR: TALISMAN OF INVOCATIONIndependently developed and published

Victor H. Shao and Brian J. WestonReleased 1989 for DOS

DATE STARTED: 19 January 2014

DATE ENDED: 23 January 2014TOTAL HOURS: 23 DIFFICULTY: Hard (4/5)

FINAL RATING: (to come later)


Well, my suspicions at the end of the last post were correct: the blue rose protected against the instant-death attacks of Vampyr. This means that the player has to die at least once to win the game.

It still wasn't an easy endgame. It took me five tries before I got the right combination of low-level mooks and made it through most of the castle with enough hit points and spell points to face the last two foes. Dalagash almost beat me, but I won with a handful of hit points to spare. I healed and attacked Vampyr. Sure enough, every time he went for the one-hit kill, the rose blocked him. That didn't make him a pushover. His regular melee attacks still sapped my hit points quickly, and he destroyed my armor.

Note that having no armor makes me "nude." I guess I was going commando.

When I finally killed him, I was down to 13 points. Then I had to finish off his summoned clerics. For some reason, rather than try the "Disintegrate" spell, I just attacked. Their magic missiles had me down to a solitary hit point when I killed the last cleric and won the game.

The one time that the rolls went my way.

All that was left was a scripted end sequence.

The Vampyr turns to gaseous form and returns to his tomb, defeated.

At the same time, the castle starts rumbling . . . The whole place is coming down!! Retracing your steps, you managed to scramble out of the castle in time.

TV Tropes calls this a "."

You seem to be stuck on this island. With nothing to do, you look around Calatiki. A dramatic change seems to be taking place. There are no more monsters running around trying to kill everything in sight. The vibrant birds sing a song of peace under a bright blue sky. Two serene days passed before you spotted a shop over the horizon. It's heading for the island! Aboard the ship, the captain tells you that he was sent by His Majesty to bring you back to the castle.

In the castle, you are given a very shiny suit of armor and a beautiful sword. Afterwards, you are escorted to the throne room.

"Gideon, you have proven yourself to be a strong and courageous soul. The whole world of Quilinor owes you a debt of gratitude. To repay you for your service, I now pronounce you to be my castellan."

(Gasps, ooooo's and ahhhh's fill the hall. And then, a deafening round of applause.)

Let me get this straight: my reward is that I get to WORK for you?

At this point, the developers/gods spoil the solemnity of the occasion by showing up, shouting "Hey, dudes!" and chastising King "Tevin" (called "Tevon" everywhere else) for starting a party without them. They thank the player and disappear. The ending screens show Mr. Weston and Mr. Shao and an unnamed woman sitting in cabana lounges on a tropical island, attended by bikini-clad blondes.

It might seem like my playing of this game was rapid because I only made three posts, but it wasn't. I started a few days before my first post, and owing to having given myself the week off, I invested far more time than was sensible in the game. Though the main plot progressed at a quick pace, all the grinding and reloading took its toll, and in the final tally, I spent 23 hours on it. (Admittedly, about half of those hours, I was simultaneously watching episodes of The West Wing.) I don't think it was quite worth that kind of time.

To summarize what I said last time, and how I still feel: The game offers too few tactics to justify the raw difficulty of the monsters you encounter. Dungeon exploration is a frustrating, thankless experience, as you never find anything but a few key NPCs and a ton of random monsters along the way. Though in appearance it evokes Ultima, it has no complexity in its inventory, economy, spell system, or NPCs.

I'm not saying all of this to take down the game. As something written and published by two high school students, it's an impressive effort. But the nostalgia and love that I see online is a bit absurd. Everywhere someone talks about it, he or she seems to have been brainwashed by Dalagash. Its page on MyAbandonware calls it "one of the best of the early EGA RPGs." in a thread asking "What is the best RPG game ever made?" Hell, my own comments board has been a bit Pollyannish. Some fan took the time to create a for the game and notes:

I frigging loved this game as a kid, and I still do love it. It's one of those games that kinda grows on you. I'm yet to find another game as good as it.

I mean, really? Have you looked around? At all? Let's get it together, people. This is an okay game, impressive for the circumstances for which it was produced, but it's not up to competition with most of the commercial RPGs of the time.

These exuberant comments are even more mysterious when you note that half of them are followed by admission that they never won the game, or got stuck in some kind of impassable bug. That's a symptom of a bad game, guys. The only evidence I've found of anyone else winning the game is a YouTube user named "Firebrand319" who posted a . You might note that he was only able to win by hex-editing his character to ridiculously high stats and hit point totals. I'm not pointing that out to bolster my own "accomplishment," but to suggest that if such a thing is necessary, the enthusiasm of his comments (one actually says, unironically, "this is probably the best game ever made") is a little misplaced.

Let's look at my own sober assessment, via the .

1. GAME WORLD. Quilinor is a generic high-fantasy kingdom. Unfortunately, having been unable to get my hands on the manual, I can't account for the back story, but the world in the game itself is inoffensive but bland. None of the towns have any particular character, nor is there anything to find in between them. I give it some credit for the sequence in which a town is taken over by evil forces and then liberated, imparting a small sense of dynamism to an otherwise-static world. The inclusion of "Heaven" was an interesting touch, if a bit self-indulgent on the part of the developers. Score: 4.

2. CHARACTER CREATION AND DEVELOPMENT. During creation, you specify the name, roll for attributes, and allocate points to fighter, mage, and thief skills. The skill system is intriguing, but by the end of the game I wish I'd channeled everything into fighting and magic, as the thief skills proved completely unnecessary. Despite the sense of being able to create your class through these skills, only a certain limited type of character can hope to prevail in the game.

Experience point rewards and leveling are steady but not overly-generous. This is one of only a few games of the time to award experience for quest completion as well as combat. I'd think this was a good aspect of the game except for the level cap. I hate hitting a level cap before the end of the game. You could argue that it was my fault, since I did so much grinding, but I maintain that the giants' dungeon would have been functionally impossible at a lower level. Score: 4.

3. NPC INTERACTION. Good in the sense that the game has a lot of NPCs--maybe eight or nine per town--and that the player learns the clues necessary to advance in the game from talking to the NPCs. There are no dialogue options or role-playing choices here, but it's still about as good as Ultima III. I was a bit disappointed at how few NPCs offered anything valuable, though. In the Ultima series, you could trust that if you spent some significant effort to get to an NPC (finding a secret door, unlocking a door, dispelling a force field, finding him in the corner of a dark grove), he'd have something important to say. In this game, there's no correlation between the position of the NPC and his utility. I also didn't like that the NPCs weren't named, and their dialogue wasn't long enough to get any sense of "character" out of them. Score: 3.

I do like how nemies have dialogue lines, too.

4. ENCOUNTERS AND FOES. There are no special encounters in the game or puzzles to solve, with the exception of needing that rose for the endgame. There is a small selection of monsters, almost all of whom exclusively do melee damage--though evil clerics, rust monsters, the dragon, Dalagash, and the Vampyr are exceptions. Unfortunately, I can't say how well they might or might not have been described in the documentation. If you like grinding, the good news is there are plenty of opportunities, as no area ever "clears." Score: 3.

5. MAGIC AND COMBAT. Both very weak. Although combat takes place on a special screen, like Ultima III, the limited inventory and spell system doesn't support any real tactics, and it plays more like Ultima II, where enemies line up to be smashed down. The spell selection in the game is extremely limited, and as I noted last time, you really have to save almost all your spell points for healing. Score: 2.

The game's non-combat spells. "Wizard Eye" helps in dungeon exploration, but it doesn't last long, and you can't afford to waste too many spell points.

6. EQUIPMENT. The game is also weak in this important RPG category. You have a standard D&D-inspired selection of weapons and armor, purchased in shops or (sometimes) looted from corpses. There's a "condition" system that I didn't spend a lot of time covering, by which both weapons and armor slowly degrade with use, and you have to replace them when they break or fall apart. Functionally, this just means you need to carry a few backup weapons. The lack of any other items--potions, rings, wands, scrolls--just makes your exploration and combat options even more limited. Score: 2.

7. ECONOMY. The towns and dungeons feature scattered treasure chests, but I got all the money I needed from killing monsters. Even the most expensive weapons aren't that expensive (which is good, since you have to buy multiple copies). The most expensive thing in the game is training. The bottom line is that I always had the amount of money I needed when I needed it, and there was neither any struggle when it came to money nor anything to really "save" for. Score: 3.

It was interesting that you can pick pockets, but utterly unnecessary to the game.

8. QUESTS. One main quest with only one outcome. There are no side quests, but after I won I discovered (through online material) that there is one "side dungeon" off to the east. (It has one of those barely-noticeable entrances.) Judging by , it appears to be a bit of a navigation nightmare, but it has a bottom level covered in treasure chests. I confess I'm a bit interested in what the signs on this level say, so if anyone's been there, please comment. Anyway, nothing terribly special about the main quest, though I did enjoy its progression of individual stages. Score: 3.

This bit of NPC dialogue references that side-dungeon.

9. GRAPHICS, SOUND, AND INTERFACE. Decent iconographic graphics. The PC speaker sounds were at times creative, but mostly bothersome enough that I turned it off. The interface was easy to master and familiar to an Ultima veteran. I just wish I could have moved on the diagonal or that my enemies couldn't. Score: 3.

10. GAMEPLAY. Mostly linear, too difficult, too long. No replayability. Score: 1.

The FINAL SCORE OF 28 puts it lower than the threshold at which I typically "recommend" a game (which is around 35). It was certainly worth a look, though, and if they ever stumble upon this entry, I congratulate the developers for accomplishing this much at such a young age.

As I noted last time, I wasn't able to get in touch with them. The person I'm reasonably sure was Mr. Shao never returned my phone message. I think I found Mr. Weston's workplace, but the woman who answered the phone both times I called said he wasn't in, and the place oddly doesn't have any voicemail. I wasn't about to leave a paper message with her. ("Mr. Weston, a man named Chet called. Something about a vampire?!") In both cases, it doesn't look like they went on to do anything with games.

There was an oddity during gameplay that I wasn't sure where to note, so I'll cover it briefly now. NPCs in the game make repeated fun of someone named "Erik." One NPC notes that he "angered the gods" and that "he's been turned into a eunuch." If you visit Heaven, you find Erik behind a fence, next to a sign that says, "Erik the Scum -- Don't feed the animals! He won't bite now. He's been neutered. He's now a eunuch."

If you kill him, in Heaven, the voices of Shao and Weston laugh about it and express admiration of the player.

In short, the game progresses in its treatment of "Erik" from what first sounds like teasing to actual malice and cruelty. So who is he? Well, an Erik Naylor is credited with the "basic game design" in the manual, which sounds rather important, yet Weston and Shao are the only listed authors and are the only ones to ask for shareware funds. Was this just two teenagers having fun with a friend who contributed a bit to the game, or were the developers originally a trio who had some kind of major falling out? I guess we won't know until someone shows up and comments. It's not a "who wrote Swords of Glass?"-level mystery, but nonetheless an intriguing addendum.

In list news, I've had to list two games as "NP" (not playable). The first is Empire II: Interstellar Sharks (1982). I'm upset about this because one of my commenters, Odkin, took a lot of time to scan the manual for me. I can't find the game anywhere. I'm wary about saying this because every time I do, someone responds with a link and says "this took literally 5 seconds of Googling." But I think in this case, I've exhausted the possibilities.

The second is The Missing Ring (1982). I'm able to find the game, but something about every version I can find makes the text unreadable. I thought it was an issue with my emulator, but it's true on as well (you have to get to character creation before the problem appears).

I'll hold out hope for finding playable versions for these games, but in the meantime it elevates Sword of Fargoal to the next early game while Synergistic's Spirit of Excalibur will be my next 1990 offering. The latter seems like it might be more of a strategy game than an RPG, but I want to play it because of is theme.
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