GOGathon: Damn Your Eyes, Xanathar!

CRPGs were a mainstay of the videogame industry from early days – it seems like almost as soon as Dungeons & Dragons got published, enthusiastic programmers were trying to create videogame adaptations of it, the earliest of which actually predated the personal computing wave and ran on university mainframe systems. Through the 1980s, several major franchises of CRPGs rose and fell. However, despite their undeniable importance to the history of the medium, many early CRPGs aren’t that enjoyable to actually play.

Some can still find enjoyment in them – but the progress of technology has not merely yielded superior graphics and sound and more storage space for dialogue and narration (to support deeper stories): it’s also provided more scope to implement nicer user interfaces, more intuitive controls, more expansive in-game explanations, and a swathe of quality of life features that just make the games more pleasant to play.

Whilst old school players may fondly recall the days of drawing out maps in graph paper in games like The Bard’s Tale, this was still a time-consuming process (and, if you realised your map was wrong because you’d been fooled by teleportation traps, a frustrating one when you had to repair it). The Bard’s Tale Trilogy remake is, quite simply, much more playable than the original, in part because of quality of life features like the automap and in part because it can just process things faster as you go.

Similarly, unless you were playing in the early days of CRPGs, the critical and commercial success of the original Ultima feels in retrospect more like a damning indictment of the rudimentary state of the CRPG genre at the time than an endorsement of its timelessness. It’s not just that the graphics are simplistic, or that the sounds are just beeps and boops – that’s only to be expected of games of this vintage – but it’s that the actual material presented is similarly simple in terms of the experience presented, whilst simultaneously being rather inaccessible with it; there’s an awkward learning curve here where you have to do a bunch of work to figure out how to hold a weapon or talk to a king, and when you do either of those things the payoff is not really worth the effort. Look closely and deep in here is the fundamental blueprint on which may subsequent games were built – but many of those games offer a more compelling and enjoyable experience than this pioneering effort. Much the same is true of the first Might & Magic game, whose system is so rudimentary it seems outright obtuse.

By the end of the 1980s, however, new computing platforms made new methods of presenting a CRPG possible. In 1987, Dungeon Master‘s original Atari ST release showcased a dungeon-crawling game where combat unfolded in real time, presented in a pseudo-3D presentation with colourful graphics. If you compare Dungeon Master to what other CRPGs were doing in 1987, it becomes apparent just what a major leap ahead it really was, and it’s no surprise that even for some years after Dungeon Master clones were being put out.

Enter Strategic Simulations, Inc., or SSI. From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, SSI held the Dungeons & Dragons videogame adaptation licence from TSR (whose name stood for Tactical Studies Rules, so I guess the two companies were a natural match for each other). Whilst their tenure is largely remembered for the “gold box” games they put out, which provided a more traditional turn-based CRPG presentation which included a great many of the fine details of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system, right from the start of the licence they’d been casting their net wider and exploring other ways to present a CRPG-type experience, like the side-scrolling action RPG Heroes of the Lance.

SSI’s contribution to the field of Dungeon Master clones was the Eye of the Beholder trilogy of games. The original Eye of the Beholder, released in early 1991 and Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon, released in early December of the same year, were actually developed by Westwood Studios, with SSI acting as publsiher. Following the 1992 purchase of Westwood by Virgin, Westwood would step away from the franchise, instead producing the Lands of Lore CRPG series, and Eye of the Beholder III: Assault On Myth Drannor would be developed in-house by SSI themselves.

The original Eye of the Beholder has a fairly simple premise: the sinister Xanathar (who it eventually turns out is the titular Beholder) threatens the peace of the city of Waterdeep and is believed to have a secret base somewhere in the sewers, a party of adventurers must go down to investigate. There’s not much in the way of plot wrinkles beyond that, aside from a besieged community of dwarves who, if you help them, will give you an item which makes the ultimate battle against Xanathar substantially easier. Beyond that, it’s a fairly old-school dungeon-crawling affair, right down to annoying teleportation squares to mess up your mapping.

Still, what the game lacks in terms of an involved plot is made up for in terms of what was, for 1991, a damn good presentation. Sure, the general look of the game owes a lot to Dungeon Master, but graphically it’s clearly a step up, and the interface of the game is refreshingly simple. Though in system terms much remains based on the core Advanced Dungeons & Dragons mechanics – especially when it comes to spell memorisation – there’s a lot of simplifications here and there, especially when it comes to spell effects (there’s little chance of the party suffering blowback from a lightning bolt bouncing off the wall behind their enemies and coming back at them, for instance).

To an extent, the game purposefully keeps statistics obscured to encourage learning by trial and error. For instance, the manual doesn’t include the detailed weapon stats, though when a melee weapon successfully hits a foe you do see what damage it does, so figuring out what the better melee weapons are (and whether any particularly fancy weapons you obtain have special effects or are just for show) requires you to experiment.

Whilst you do get to know what your current armour class is – which can help assess the magical effects of unusual armour, rings and the like – you do not get to know what your THAC0 is. THAC0 – “To Hit Armour Class Zero” – is the number used in AD&D 2nd edition to determine what your chances of hitting an opponent are, so not knowing what your current THAC0 is makes it quite hard to figure out whether a particular weapon is magical or not.

Some may find this annoying, but to an extent this is part of the fun – trial and error, trying things out, bumping into walls to see if any of them are in fact illusory passages, it’s all part of the schtick, That said, playing Eye of the Beholder and its sequels has become a much smoother experience thanks to The All-Seeing Eye.

This is a companion program intended to run alongside Eye of the Beholder, and which implements an automap for you to consult during play. Some may consider this blasphemy – others, and I’m in this school, regard it as a neat way to implement a useful feature in the game which makes it much more convenient to play without the time-consuming hassle of drawing your own map, thereby improving its playability significantly.

By default, ASE only maps out the parts of the dungeon you’ve explored when it’s running, so if you are well and truly stuck you can turn it on, use it to figure out what you’ve missed, then keep going, and it also has lots of nice optional features – it can indicate where enemies are (provided they’re not hidden by the “fog of war”), where items are, and even include notes on locations from the official hint books, reveal illusory walls, or just plain expose the entire level’s map to you, and all of these features can be turned on or off individually.

About the only criticism I have of ASE is that it can tend to get confused whenever the composition of the adventuring party changes, but otherwise it’s quite impressive. It also works on Eye of the Beholder II, since that game used a tweaked version of the same engine; a separate ASE3 is being developed for Eye of the Beholder III, due to the game working on an entirely different engine which is less well-understood than that of the first two games.

I mentioned tweaks to your party composition above, so I should detail that more: as you adventure you can encounter either living NPCs who are willing to join your party or the skeletons of NPCs who were slain in the dungeon, who the cleric in the dwarven settlement can resurrect. This gives you the chance to add them to your party or not, as you wish, though aside from the dwarven prince they tend not to have very involved subplots available to them – if you’re expecting party interactions to the level of intricacy (or intimacy) of your typical Bioware game, you’re going to be disappointed.

Your initial party of four, however, you most likely created yourself, and if you were sensible you maxed out all their stats because the game allows you to do so and won’t penalise you for it, and it’s just challenging enough that you’ll appreciate giving yourself that edge. Once your party hits six characters you can’t add more without dropping existing party members. I found that I was very reluctant to swap out original members of the party, so I ended up with the original four plus a revolving cast of two NPCs at a time.

Annoyingly, once you have dismissed NPCs you can’t re-recruit them if you get tired of the ones you currently have in the party – even if you left them in a well-settled spot like the dwarf stronghold. The implication seems to be that they find their own way out – an impressive feat, given that you can’t actually leave the dungeon due to a cave-in right at the start of level 1. (You find a secret passage out once you defeat Xanathar.)

Another point where the simplification of the game feels like it’s gone a little far is in the near-total lack of any sort of shop; on the one hand, this means the game can concentrate on providing you with useful items and you don’t need to worry about tracking treasure, on the other hand this means there’s no neat way to get rid of unwanted or redundant items of no further use to you and buy snackier ones, which feels like a bit of a gap.

Still, the first Eye of the Beholder – especially with ASE engaged – remains one of the earliest CRPGs which I can play and actually enjoy without feeling like I am constantly wrangling with a rudimentary user interface which, though necessary in the days of similarly rudimentary personal computers, is just a pain to deal with in the modern day. The second game, The Legend of Darkmoon, managed to work a somewhat more involved plot into its framework and some neat cut scenes, and felt like something of a step forwards, the only major issues with it being that some of the late-game content was difficult in a just plain annoying way, rather than in a way which was interesting, and the main villain’s design was a blatant rip-off of Q’s inquisitor costume from the series premiere of Star Trek: the Next Generation.

Unfortunately, the third game in the series – Assault On Myth Drannor – ended up being rather lacklustre. Developed by SSI in-house, it ended up being a clunky, fiddly game, in some respects more true to the system source material and general verisimilitude but rarely in a way which actually made for compelling gameplay.

Red flags show up before you even boot the game proper, when the import system (allowing you to port over your Legend of Darkmoon characters to the game) somehow ended up being clumsier and clunkier than the one in Legend of Darkmoon for porting over characters from the first game. Once the game itself boots, the title sequence opens with a “city streets” image blatantly lifted from the title sequence of the second game, and the first major area is an annoyingly large and largely featureless forest grove full of somewhat too many ghosts who can’t quite manage to actually hurt you. Escape from the grove involves hacking down trees with an axe in a slow, laborious process that takes rather too long. NPC encounters seem terse and lack interactivity compared to those in Legend of Darkmoon, and the writing seems less polished.

Some additions to the game are welcome – an “all attack” button allows all your party members to attack with their primary weapons at once, which is handy, and polearms can now attack from your party’s second rank. Nonetheless, the game still feels rushed and uninspired, with the main engine and system changes feeling like a misguided attempt to incorporate stuff from the tabletop RPG that just isn’t fun in a CRPG context (and is of debatable interest in a tabletop context).

This is also why I struggle to get into the Gold Box games and a lot of the other AD&D games SSI developed in-house: SSI had a bad habit of prioritising fidelity of adaptation over quality of experience. They were not the last to make this error with D&D videogames; I didn’t like Troika’s The Temple of Elemental Evil because whilst it was an extremely loyal adaptation of both the original module and the 3.5 D&D rules, at the same time the adaptation was so exacting and fiddly is the adaptation that I found it just as joyless as wrangling that particular edition of the game in general.

In addition, the Greyhawk setting of Temple is by this point so archetypal it’s gone all the way past that into being cliched. SSI’s take on the Forgotten Realms setting was also fairly bland, especially when you compare it to Westwood’s version; in the first version of the game and, especially, the second, the wilder and darker atmosphere of the early Forgotten Realms material (before the setting became as utterly genericised as Greyhawk itself was) shines through in a way that SSI never quite managed to pull off.

In short, I see no reason to depart from the consensus on Eye of the Beholder: the first two games were pretty decent, but attempting to tackle the third is a chore these days which you can largely skip.

One thought on “GOGathon: Damn Your Eyes, Xanathar!

  1. Pingback: GOGathon: Call of the Longest Journey to Pripyat, the Land of Lore – Jumbled Thoughts of a Fake Geek Boy

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