Time for another rundown of stuff I’ve been tinkering with from the depths of GOG. This time around, it’s three games which I really wanted to like, and early on in my playthrough I did like, but which ended up losing me partway through.
Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos
Back when I reviewed the Eye of the Beholder trilogy I largely came to the same conclusion as the broader consensus: the best two games in that dungeon-crawling CRPG sequence were the first two, developed by Westwood Studios for publication by SSI, with the second game adding a welcome level of additional story over the fairly bare-bones original, and with both of those games offering a fun take on the Dungeon Master formula (Dungeon Master itself being a welcome improvement on the format of Wizardry, a series which despite being undeniably pioneering when it first came out is nonetheless rather clunky and unwelcoming to play today), whilst the third game, developed in-house by SSI themselves, was kind of a botch.
Part of the reason for Westwood not taking on the third game in the series was that they were bought out by Virgin, who may not have wanted them making content for other publishers when they could be making material for Virgin to distribute. Among their first projects under Virgin was the Lands of Lore series, which are a sort of spiritual successor to the Eye of the Beholder trilogy liberated of the need to use the trappings of the Forgotten Realms and an approximation of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system.
The first game in the series, The Throne of Chaos, was unleashed in 1993. The evil witch Scotia has uncovered the Nether Mask, a magical ring which confers incredible powers of mimicry on its wearer. King Richard (voiced in the CD-ROM version by none other than Patrick Stewart), who rules the realm from Gladstone Keep, has dispatched you to recover the Ruby of Truth, a relic famed for its capacity to cut through all forms of deceit. Little do you or he know that Scotia’s forces are already one step ahead of you.
From there on in what you get is largely a further evolution of the gameplay offering of Eye of the Beholder (and Dungeon Master, which was a big influence on Eye), with some further elaboration in terms of story events, the inclusion of a currency system and some shops, and a wide range of quality of life improvements. Some of the latter are obvious; there’s an automapper now, for instance, and the interface no longer conflates the buttons for “use weapon/item” and “remove weapon/item from equipment slot” (in Eye of the Beholder one misclick could see you disarming a character midway through a fight).
Other improvements are more under the hood. Perhaps the major one is that, by working with their own system rather than being lashed to the mast of D&D, Westwood are able to craft their underlying system around what makes sense for their game, rather than trying to fit their game to the existing parameters of D&D. There’s a particularly nice magic system based on spell points rather than D&D‘s “Vancian” memorisation system, where rather than having lots of spells at different inherent levels, you have a limited list of spells, but you select which level you cast it at (the levels you have access to depending on your prowess as a magician). For instance, a level 1 or 2 Heal spell might just heal some hit points, but a level 3 one will also cure poison, and a level 4 one will heal the entire party.
I particularly liked the imagination used in how some of the spells can be used to achieve effects over and beyond their use in combat – examples include using fireballs to ignite gas in a mine, and using a Freeze spell to solidify waterlogged sections of a swamp so you can traverse them. However, there remain some issues. There’s some points in the game where the means of proceeding are rather obscure, to the point where I have no idea how you are supposed to figure some of them out without either wasting an enormous amount of time with trial and error or using a walkthrough. (Westwood may well have been following the Sierra model here of including fiendishly hard bits to drive the sales of strategy guides.)
In addition, whilst a token gesture towards difficulty adjustment is given, it isn’t really followed through on. You can turn enemy strength all the way down to “wimpy”, but some areas remain unreasonably frustrating and difficult (the spirit-infested top floor of the White Tower dungeon in particular). Eventually, these small frustrations nudged me into giving up on the game after the first half or so, but I did enjoy most of that first half.
The Longest Journey
This 1999 point-and-click adventure release might be the most significant member of the 1990s adventure game wave I haven’t covered here. Between capably combining 3D graphics with classic point-and-click gameplay (rather than undertaking weird format experiments like Gabriel Knight: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned to reinvent the point-and-click adventure wheel), the actually quite good voice acting, and the surprisingly deep and thoughtful writing on the part of the characters (including some genuinely sensitively-depicted LGBT+ characters, which for a game from 1999 is astonishing), I can see why it stands out in the field.
Nonetheless, I ended up tapping out before I got very deep into it. Part of the issue is that’s a very, very slow game. It takes you a little while to accomplish stuff, even when you run (the option to run is a welcome addition without which it would be utterly unbearable), and admittedly part of that is because of the sheer mass of writing involved here. There’s lots to read and experience, and I can see how adventure gamers at the time used to the comparatively shallow worldbuilding that both Sierra and LucasArts’ games displayed would have been impressed with the depth with which the twin universes of cyberpunk-esque Earth-adjacent Stark and the fantasy realm of Arcadia are realised.
At the same time, whilst I would have probably been very into this if I had played it back when it came out, I feel like this sort of “technology vs. magic in balance” plot is stale now. It’s been rehashed so many times in so many different ways over the years, and I kind of had my fill of it in Mage: the Ascension, and the social commentary it offers has aged like milk – just look at today’s society and the problems we’re facing and tell me, with a straight face, that the problems we are facing are the result of too much rationality, too much science, and not enough magical thinking. Take a good look at, say, QAnon or Brexit or Islamic State before you do it. Go on, I’ll wait.
In addition, there’s a tonal dissonace at points between the puzzles you are expected to solve and the overall atmosphere of the story; one of the major puzzles you have to solve early on involves fooling someone using a voicebox from a toy, in a way which is faintly absurd – not least because you’ll make so many trial-and-error attempts to pull it off and fail because you missed some element of the puzzle at first, that it’ll seem absurd when the NPC in question is finally fooled because he should have realised from all your past attempts that it was all bullshit. (Also, the puzzle is – like many I encountered – quite bad at giving you feedback about what you are doing wrong and why what you are attempting isn’t working.)
Fundamentally, I respect The Longest Journey for the additional thought and depth it brought to the table when it came to point and click adventures, but at the same time I think later games, like the output of Wadjet Eye, have been able to produce material which manages to be simultaneously just as thoughtful if not more so, but far better paced, and often with better game design.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat
This is a followup to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, which was one of those games which is very janky but does something just far enough off the beaten path to be interesting and worth putting up with the jank. Sure, in the 2000s there were plenty of modern-day FPS games, and some of them have even used the Chernobyl exclusion zone for some of their levels. (The Russian army LARPed this early on in the invasion of Ukraine, moving in through the Red Forest and digging trenches, which might be one of the creative ways to die of cancer ever conceived.)
The trend in FPS design at the time, however, had been increasingly leaned towards quite linear levels, even more linear plots, and a very streamlined experience. Conversely, Shadow of Chernobyl aimed at a sort of FPS-RPG hybrid experience, replete with side quests, with several factions you could fight or align yourself with at your discretion, and with large, sprawling maps you could move back and forth between more or less freely.
Call of Pripyat takes the timeline forward a little (as opposed to the other followup, Clear Skies, which was a prequel), but feels like a more constrained and limited game. There’s only three fairly large maps, but it feels to me like there’s less that’s interesting in them. In particular, each of the maps has only a single HQ-type area where most of the major NPCs you need to talk to for trading, repairs, medical help, and other game functions cluster.
You are forced by the game to holster your weapon when you go there, in part because if you were allowed to shoot the place up and kill the NPCs there you’ll break your ability to progress in the game, because you can’t just walk from one map to the next – for the most part, travel between maps requires you to talk to a particular NPC who takes you from one map hub to another.
Even more surprisingly, the first two hubs both have two factions in theory at knives-out competition with each other unaccountably choosing to base themselves out of the same safehouse, rather than each establishing their own headquarters. In the second one you have the Duty and Freedom factions from the first game hanging out with each other, though at least they seem to be sticking to opposite sides of the safehouse. That feels silly enough.
But then, in the first hub, there’s a stalker faction and a bandit faction whose two leaders are hanging out in the same room with each other, literally sat there facing each other, who will each try to recruit you to act against the others’ interests utterly in the open like that. This, and the way their dialogue is written, makes it ruthlessly apparent that they were originally meant to have two separate headquarters, or at least be sat in different locations, but the developers had to compromise on that to get the game out of the door.
There’s lots of little improvements here and it feels like a tighter, less buggy, more stable game in general, but it also feels less ambitious and less consequential than Shadow of Chernobyl. In some respects, that’s reasonable enough – this wasn’t meant to be S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, that’s still coming – GSC Game World having moved develop of the game to the Czech Republic whilst their Ukrainian development team deal with the aforementioned unauthorised Russian S.T.A.L.K.E.R. LARP currently unfolding. It’s fun, but I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much by giving up on the game at the point where I did.
This was quite close to the end, where your main missions are largely reduced to fairly simplistic combat missions in central Pripyat – and on checking the wiki, it feels like it was a fair bit past the point where I’d made most of the choices which make a difference to the final Fallout-style slideshow, which further gives me the sense that GSP Game World got short on funding making this and had to finish it up and push it out the door in a fairly threadbare state.