Pathfinder Adventures (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £18.99 (£29.99 for Obsidian Edition, £3.99 each for a cosmetic DLC and a “Some good cards and nice dice” DLC)
Where To Get It: Steam

You lose a lot of stuff when adventuring, it seems. Sometimes, in the most dickish of ways. “Get hit before the fight even begins, Discard 1d4-1 cards (Unless you have armour, which won’t always work)”, “Permanently lose this card to close this location (Which you need to do to win the adventure)”, “Permanently lose this thing to pass this other thing.”

“If you didn’t have a weapon, or have and roll low, become slightly more screwed. Oh, and it goes back into the location deck for you to encounter again later.”

If it weren’t for getting new cards, and not having to pay money for all but the best cards, I’d probably have quit Pathfinder Adventures (a tablet port of a collectible, co-operative card game that has now hit Steam) long ago. As it is, getting those new cards introduces its own irritations. But we’ll get to this in a bit. First, the general idea.

The general idea is that you play a party of adventurers (modelled after the Pathfinders, the mascot group of Pathfinder, which, itself, is off brand Dungeons and Dragons) , each with a limited hand, trying to fulfil quests where both time and hand size are against you. Run out of the Blessing deck (ticking down 1 per each character’s turn, more if you encounter the villain of each adventure early and let them get away), and you lose. Run out of cards to draw from your adventurer’s hand, and they die, making it harder to win the adventure (and dying permanently, losing you a lot of hard work, if you’re foolish or brave enough to turn Permadeath on.) There’s a lot more to it than that, and the tutorial feels quite heavy because it has to introduce a lot of concepts, pretty quickly, but that, in essence, is the core of it. You draw cards at a location until you hit either a henchman or a villain, and, depending on which it is, you either fight them to “close” the location (IE – “The Villain Ain’t Here, Boss, And They Can’t Run Here”), or you encounter the Villain, and try to make sure they can’t go anywhere else while you finish them off. Failure to do so, as mentioned, screws you, as the villain escapes and takes valuable turns to deal with said villain with them, to a random location you didn’t manage to close in time.

I have four or so locations to close. I *can* close three of them. Maybe.

This, in essence, is a lot of my problem with Pathfinder Adventures: It’s very adversarial, and, even in victory, most of your rewards (whether added to each characters deck in play, or via post adventure rewards) are going to be thrown away, sold for the pitiful in-game currency sum of 1 Gold Piece per card, seemingly regardless of rarity or use. To give some idea of how insulting this feels, a generic blessing sells for the same price as either a better blessing, or a spell that adds 1d10+1 (big numbers, for low levels) to a wizard’s normally quite shitty combat skills, a quest generally rewards you with 100 GP for completion, and a chest that allows you to add four random cards (and sometimes dice, a cosmetic item) to your Unclaimed pile (which, thankfully, you get to keep until you “claim” them, at which point they become subject to the same “Most things get thrown away” rule) costs 500 GP.

Generally, your progression will be upward, to better, more damaging and more roll increasing cards, but any adventure that involves a lot of banishing cards is going to reduce that trend, and there is, like very old school Dungeons and Dragons, the occasional “No, fuck you, you just take damage” that makes the adventure more difficult in entirely frustrating ways.

Just in case you thought I was joking. “Damage taken cannot be reduced.” Damage = Discard cards from your hand. The one saving grace is that it isn’t *Banish* cards from your hand (Permanently lost.)

Visually, it’s quite nice, even if some UI elements (like that Blessing counter that determines whether you run out of time or not) get lost in the crush, and the sounds are okay. But I got tired of the music (especially the wailing violin of the theme tune) very quickly, there is no multiplayer that I’m aware of (Unlike the card game itself, which you play with friends), and honestly? The adventures have started annoying the hell out of me with the aforementioned “No fuck you, things get worse” pretty early on. It has a fair bit of depth, it has a fair few strategic elements that help minimise the luck based elements (Such as adding dice via blessings, changing the skill used to one you have better dice in via other cards, etcetera, etcetera), and I will, in its defense, say that it currently keeps Pay 2 Win and microtransaction fuckery to an absolute minimum, but otherwise, if I wanted to be told “Rocks fall, you lose 3 cards” , I’d join a Pathfinder game without asking what kind of DM was running things.

The Mad Welshman hastens to add that, if you like Pathfinder, you may have a more enjoyable experience. Emphasis on “may.”

Going Back: Dungeon Hack

Goodness me, that rhymed. Lovely. Well, anyway, once again, it’s time to set the Wayback Machine, and the interesting game for this outing to the groggy times of yore is Dungeon Hack, the only official, licensed Dungeons and Dragons roguelike. Which is highly amusing when you consider how much early roguelikes (And even some modern ones) have been influenced by 2nd Edition DnD.

Dungeon Hack, released just after another title I’ve briefly dealt with, Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, uses an interface very similar to the Eye of the Beholder games. Similar enough, in fact, that I’m halfway convinced it’s the same engine, despite being developed by Dreamforge (Who, like SSI, created strategy and roleplaying titles, and did not survive 2001.) Nonetheless, it’s not the engine, so much as the visual style that impresses. There are several different level themes, all of them have a variety of different locks, tapestries, paintings, and gewgaws, and, if it weren’t for the rest of it, I would say that every run is a refreshing and different experience.

One of something like… An absolutely *silly* number of potential locks.

Unfortunately, I’m not saying that. Every run is, in fact, a tedious nightmare that often ends on dungeon level 2, due to the mechanical aspects of the design. Procedural generation has come a long way since the days of rogue, ADOM, and the like, and Dungeon Hack shows one of the weaknesses of early experiments… It’s predictable, and the difficulty curve is not so much a slope as one of the cyclopean steps of Great Cthulhu’s abode. As is often the case with roguelikes, there is a single, playable character.

But many of the monsters in AD&D are, in fact, balanced around groups taking them on. A perfect example of this is the main monstrous feature of the second dungeon level: The humble Ghoul. The Ghoul is normally a cowardly eater of the dead, picking on things it thinks it can eat, and making corpses when… Well, the corpses it normally feeds on are scarce. To aid it, it has a paralytic venom in its claws and fangs. Now, to be perfectly fair to the developers of Dungeon Hack, unlike in Eye of the Beholder, when your character is paralysed, they can still move (but not attack or use items), whereas if a mass paralyse from a Beholder hit in EoB 1’s later levels, you were pretty much dead.

The problem arises, then, from the fact that it’s corridors… And rooms. And corridors predominate. Corridors in which the other monster type that always inhabits the second level, the Troglodyte (in 2E, a stronger, but less intelligent relative of the lizardman) are very likely to ambush someone who hasn’t cleared the way behind them, and, even then, may get surprised by a respawn. As a Mage, you may just about have fireball at this point (Requiring a rest after every cast to regain it… We’ll come back to resting), as a warrior, you don’t really have any recourse except that old first person RPG technique of the sideways shuffle (Exploiting the AI in… Er… A room… To, er…Well, crap, that sort of invalidates it in a large set of situations, doesn’t it?), and it’s only as a Priest that you get… Turn Undead. Which, on the one hand, you have an infinite supply of. On the other, it’s not guaranteed to work, and you’re not guaranteed to hit on the attack that will break the Ghoul out of its “OhGodsAHolySymbolRunRunRun” mode Turn Undead tends to put it in.

Ghouls. There are many words I have to say about a lone adventurer fighting even small groups of ghouls. The vast majority of it is unprintable, even here.

So yeah, the difficulty’s a little sharp. Adding to this tedium is the predictability of monsters. Yes, you will always encounter Ghouls and Troglodytes on level 2. Just as you will always encounter Goblins and Orcs on level 1, with only the occasional Out of Depth monster to liven things up… Usually in a rather fatal manner.

And then, there are the keys. I mentioned before that there are a variety of different locks, and hoo boy, does the game use as many as it can. Each locked door has a specific key type. I’ve never encountered a situation where the key was behind a door, but each level becomes a case of three things: A sweep and clear, not unlike those annoying missions in Hero Quest and Space Crusade (Remember those?) where the victory condition was “Kill everything”; A hunt for various keys (Ice keys, flower keys, gold keys, chrome keys, platinum keys, bone keys, missing bull horns… The list is quite large); And, another staple of first person games and DnD RPGs of the time, either being a Dwarf, able to sense secret doors, or looking at the map, noticing large empty spaces, and wondering which of the walls you’re going to try and walk into will, in fact, turn out to be illusory.

Fun! It’s interesting to look at a game like this, because it has a lavish (if overacted) introductory cutscene (Involving the sorceress/demigod/secret deity… I forget which… Who sends you on the quest, and Sir Not Appearing In This Game, possibly the biggest, dumbest adventurer I’ve seen since Lands of Lore’s Conrad “The Scones Are Still Intact” McAdventurerson), a lot of thought put into a lot of locks and tapestries and statuary and fun things that mostly don’t have any bearing beyond looking pretty (Which I approve of), and yet… Once you get past that, there’s almost no balance, a steep difficulty spike on the 2nd level, and even less context than Angband or Nethack, relative contemporaries (1990 and 1987-2015.)

…I smell a cutscene, VO so fine!

Would I recommend playing it for enjoyment? Oh, Mystra, no! Would I, however, encourage budding developers to look at it critically? If you’re into procgen, licensed RPGs, and step/tile-based first person RPGs, yes. Because it is, to me, interesting to examine. Even if the examination can be… Rather painful.

I’ll get you, Ghouls. And your little frogs, too…

Sword Coast Legends (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £31.99 (£44.99 for Deluxe edition)
Where To Get It: Steam

This is one of those times where I genuinely wish I could say more than “The developers continue to support the game and continue to introduce nice things.” I want to like Sword Coast Legends. I already like its voice acting, its environments, and how heavily abstracting the 5E DnD system makes it more accessible.

But right now, that’s just a wish. Because it’s clearly not for me as it stands.

Hommett, a wizard who had been thrown out by the Harpells (A Bad Sign)... One of the many characters, with great voice acting, that... Just don't grab me.

Hommett, a wizard who had been thrown out by the Harpells (A Bad Sign)… One of the many characters, with great voice acting, that… Just don’t grab me.

Sword Coast Legends, developed by N-Space, and published by Digital Extremes, just doesn’t grab me. It is improving, but it’s been almost two months since its release, and I fail to find the motivation to get very far, despite promises of an improved DM mode. And part of this, I feel, is that it’s quite clearly balanced towards a multiplayer experience. Dungeon Crawl mode, for example, has enemy groupings in its “Easy” dungeons that would quickly overwhelm a level 1 fighter, such as a pair of Level 2 Goblins supported by a pair of archers, and a shaman that keeps healing the bleeding lot of them. You don’t want to ask what happens to a level 1 mage, as the answer is nearly always a bitter frown and the word “squish” repeated in a deadpan tone, over and over. DM Mode is currently, and will remain until next month, a random dungeon generator where some monsters and simplistic quests can be added, and Story mode…

Look, I know that the Sword Coast is iconic. I know that Luskan is a hive of scum and villainy. I know that it’s right there, in the sodding title. But I’m somewhat tired of the Sword Coast itself, and I’m definitely tired of a plotline that can be summed up as “You might destroy the world you love because a great eeeeeeeevillll has chosen you to be its host!”

Luskan. Luskan never changes. Religion, Magic, Planar Politics... But Luskan. Luskan never changes.

Luskan. Luskan never changes. Religion, Magic, Planar Politics… But Luskan. Luskan never changes.

An Ancient Evil, if Forgotten Realms material to date is any indication, threatens Northwest Faerun once a week. I’m honestly surprised anything gets done in the setting, the amount of Ancient (and Current) Evils that are hanging around. It doesn’t help that the main players are introduced pretty much in the prologue (A Drowish sorcerer, some do-gooders who may have been tricked, some fanatical worshippers of Helm who may also have been tricked, and, of course, the Ancient Evil itself, a demon from the darkest, yet fieriest pits of the Abyss.)

This is all a terrible shame, because honestly? You can see a lot of love went into this, and the fact that N-Space Games are continuing to improve things says a lot. The voice acting is pretty damn good, and it felt right… Even the Scouse dwarf Larethar Gulgrin, which fits his character very well. The environments are pretty, and clearly abstracting the mess that is the Dungeons & Dragons Feat/Skill system into a series of easy to understand, and well compartmentalised trees? That takes effort, and it does work. The music feels like it could have been transplanted into pretty much any high fantasy game and still worked is more a comment on the genre’s conventions than the quality of the music (Which is also fairly nice.)

But how you feel when playing it is important, and I felt… Like it was busywork. Even with the pause for tactics that makes fights easier, you’re still going to be using the Stabilise (Get People Up Because They Fell Down) command a fair bit, and the items… This game is filled with vendor trash. So. Much. Trash. I have lockets and statues of various deities and rings galore, beer bottles and wine bottles and Luskan Coffee of various types… And I have no idea what might become important, and what’s literally here for flavour. The only things that are truly important to me are weapons, armour, and magical items, and, thanks to a procedural treasure system, beyond fixed drops, I’m never quite sure whether something I grab will be of any use whatsoever. Sorting through it all felt a chore, even with some of the ease of use features in the inventory. Combat never felt real to me, even with grunts and clangs and flashy spells going ZAP and thwaaaaBOOM.

The abilities often have evocative names. That doesn't always improve the experience.

The abilities often have evocative names. That doesn’t always improve the experience.

This, honestly, is a damn shame, and, in the interests of fairness, I am going to give DM mode another chance when the improvements hit in December, because, as Neverwinter Nights proved, you can have a less than stellar story, and still be a game worth remembering because of its other features. Folks who are less critical of high fantasy’s foibles than I am may find this a more interesting game, but… It really does seem to be rubbing me up the wrong way, and that makes me sad for reasons I can’t entirely articulate.

The Mad Welshman examined the statue of Sune Firehair he had found in the Goblin caves. Even with her warm smile, her hair tastefully lined with amethysts and opals, she felt… Lost, somehow. Her gown was cracked, and dust had settled in her blazing hair. Undeniably beautiful. Undeniably precious. But, equally undeniably, another religious icon to place in his pack.

RPG Worlds Can Do More

Some say that games are a limited creation, only able to replicate certain experiences. Indeed, this was a core argument behind the “Games cannot be art” statement: They were believed (Although contradictory evidence has existed since the early days) unable to speak to experience, or make statements, or do many of the things art can do. Indeed, as time has gone by, we’ve had to invent new genres to talk about new games, and not a year goes by without me looking at something and saying “Ah, that’s pretty innovative!”… And meaning it. Unlike many times I’ve heard the word (That’s no doubt an article for another day…)

But games do have a limiting factor, and it’s a limiting factor that doesn’t promise to go away: The creativity of its makers. I’m going to pick on DnD games in this case, because there are interesting facets of Dungeons and Dragons universes past and present that RPGs, as my chosen example, just don’t replicate. And it’s not that it’s impossible… Tell a particularly stubborn or creative game designer something is impossible, or even “hard to make entertaining”, and there is a strong possibility that you will find, some time later, that they’ve proven you wrong. Pacifist games. World Simulations. Multiple path murder mysteries… I could find you examples of these, and quite a few more out there ones. There’s a game about the dangers of assuming simulations can give clues to historical events (Opera Omnia, by Increpare). There’s at least two games about jobs of crushing futility (Papers Please and Cart Life). There are procedurally generated murder mysteries (A small, but fun example is The Inquisitor, from ProcJam 2014). But let’s get back to DnD. Specifically, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and (briefly) Forgotten Realms.

The only Ravenloft games to be made, to my knowledge.

The only Ravenloft games to be made, to my knowledge.

There are two Dark Sun games, two Ravenloft games, and several Forgotten Realms games, but each setting has elements that games struggle to replicate. Let’s start with the most interesting one, Ravenloft. Ravenloft was TSR’s attempt at horror, and one of its core supplement series are Van Richten’s Guides. Van Richten’s Guides, much like Trollpak, many 90s RPGs, and countless race supplements have done (or at least attempted), attempted to make monsters we normally fought as fodder interesting, unique, and, because horror monsters have to be more powerful than the protagonists in some fashion, harder to dismiss as Just Another Kill. It explores it from the perspective of a premiere monster hunter, all the ways they could be wrong, all the ways they have been wrong, and what it cost. They’re pretty good reads, and, for good or for ill, are also good examples of how tabletop RPGs deal with making threats interesting.

And then you play the two games and… It’s set pieces, a series of fights and puzzles. They’re limited, not only by the technology of the time (The Ravenloft games, and the one FR game using the same engine, Menzoberranzan, were notoriously picky to run for the time, and are still technically tile based, first person view games), but by game design thinking of the time. RPGs must have a BOSS MONSTER… So for the first game, they picked the most iconic, Strahd Von Zarovich, Darklord of Barovia… A character who can never actually be defeated, due to the way Ravenloft works. And the means of defeating him is, of course, a McGuffin. Along the way, you can cure a werewolf of his affliction. Sounds like an average day for the adventurer, right? Oh, and they make it horrific by having endlessly respawning monsters.

Pictured: A dull, uninteresting fight with a dull, uninteresting monster.

Pictured: A dull, uninteresting fight with a dull, uninteresting monster.

What results is a tiresome slog. But, within their limitations, they try to be atmospheric, in the sound design, the speeches by (rare) scared peasants, gypsies, and, of course, Strahd’s Vampiric Monologue… But what it amounts to is a Dungeon Bash By Any Other Name, complete with Helpful, But Oddly Powerless Deity that gives you the knowledge that you need the McGuffin of Vague Holiness, the Potion of Protection From Arbitrary Obstacle (Obtained by making sure you collect every coin in a certain dungeon, and giving them to the local Vistani Wise Woman), and, of course, the RPG equivalent of an 80s Training Montage (Grinding on monsters until you have the right level to safely proceed in the story. Not helped by the fact that some monsters drain experience levels. Have fuuuun!)

Now let’s compare that to the experience in tabletop. Strahd as a direct enemy is usually right out. He has Cursed Plot Armour (No really, he’s cursed to forever make the same mistakes, to never outright be killed, all for the giggles of cosmic entities who hate everything nice and fluffy). On top of that, he’s somewhat boring, precisely because of this. It’s a common problem with making Ravenloft a campaign setting: As soon as you actually involve the Big Bads, or the players try to get out of Dodge, it’s a rapid downward spiral. And, due to the way DnD works, eventually you will.

While each concentrates on a single type of monster, each of Van Richten's Guides had interesting ideas.

While each concentrates on a single type of monster, each of Van Richten’s Guides had interesting ideas.

But the setting takes a great effort to keep things interesting. Yes, McGuffins are still involved, to some extent or another, but they most often take the form of symbolic weaknesses. Certain things nearly always work, such as a stake to the heart and decapitation in the case of vampires, but other things depend on the vampire. In fact, a big part of a monster hunt in Ravenloft is recognising the monster for what it is. People are disappearing in the area? Not good enough. That could be quite a few things. There’s investigation, both in the sense of becoming aware of the type of threat, and investigating how to defeat it, with real consequences for fucking up. And, competently told, this story is suspenseful, can be heartbreaking and entertaining, and has the potential for an interesting game. There’s lots of variation possible there, too. For example, curing a werewolf of his affliction could, due to the way it works, take a small campaign and still fail, whether due to the person not wanting to be cured, or not having correctly gone through all the steps, and, even when things are done right, it involves an immense effort of will on the part of the afflicted. Keep in mind, even failure can be made interesting if you do it right.

Meanwhile, back in the computer game world, Strahd patiently sits in his castle and waits equally patiently for you to jack him up. He’s mentioned as the owner of all he surveys (Which, as an aside, gets around the vampire weakness of not being able to enter a home. He owns all the homes in Barovia), but… He’s a glorified boss monster.

These beetles actually have brains. And mind control. But here, they're a monster with some ranged attacks.

These beetles actually have brains. And mind control. But here, they’re a monster with some ranged attacks.

Dark Sun, also, is an interesting setting. Magic is harmful to the world’s well being, relying on life force to flourish. Water and metal are scarce, and survival is considered more important than trust. Even in the desert, there’s a flourishing (and lethal) ecosystem, and unwise magic or decisions can make an area barren forever. There are entire cultures, with their society dictated by the world they live in, but when you get to the computer games… Again, due to a limitation of beliefs and mechanics of the time, it’s… Once again, mostly a series of fights and puzzles. The closest you come to any of this interesting stuff is that defilers aren’t allowed as characters, only enemies (But become less effective as enemies in the second game’s fights as less and less foliage becomes available as fuel), a few sidequests where you can be betrayed, or help a village or person survive (Occasionally involving water, which you’ll otherwise never use), and the fact that the endgame is easier (Although still a massive, painful battle) if you’re not a dick. Oh, and sometimes weapons break, if they’re not steel.

You could have a Thri’Kreen (Mantis person) in your party, and never be aware of their customs, their culture, their language, or their psychology (It’s interesting stuff, and the book you want to read there is “Thri-Kreen of Athas”, from 2E AD&D… TSR #2437). By the end of the game, you’ve got metal plate armour for everyone who can use it, steel weapons for everyone who can use them, and you’re quite happily roaming through scorching deserts with all this on, giving nary a single fuck about the consequences. Equally, the plant life, the ecology… They’re just monsters to beat up.

For all that the artwork appears goofy, this is a *good* book.

For all that the artwork appears goofy, this is a *good* book.

Seriously, for all that both settings got silly, the computer games really don’t give you much of a clue as to how much effort went into each setting. Even Forgotten Realms, a world where the gods literally depend on belief for their survival, and can act directly in the world, in a setting with enough computer games to fill a small bookshelf (If you so chose), don’t really give you as much support between the setting and mechanics as you may like. Yes, not even Baldur’s Gate 2, widely considered to be the best Forgotten Realms computer game around. There’s an excellent and informative VideoBrains talk on the subject of religion in games by Jenni Goodchild here, and even though Dragon Age is the main example, it applies equally well to Forgotten Realms.

Now, you may be saying that size, or complexity, is an issue here. And in a sense, you’d be right. Previously, this was the case. But it’s much less of a problem now, and size, or complexity, aren’t the main issues here. The main issue is one of how well games sync up with the things they’re trying to talk about or portray. We talk about The Last of Us because of how it deals with survival, and relationships, and responsibility. We talk about Bioshock because of how it deals with choice, and the degradation of ideals. We talk about Analogue: A Hate Story because of, again, relationships… But also how the known past can be misleading, and about societal expectations, toxic or otherwise. These games, while they are by no means perfect, are held up as games that do the job they aimed for particularly well. We don’t have as many problems with authorial intent in these examples as otherwise, because it’s more often the case that the game laser focuses on these specific issues.

Sometimes, you just want to make or play a dungeon bash, and that’s cool. Done well, it’s entertaining, and it’s all good. But that is by no means the only kind of game you can make, and I think it’s time that more people realised that. I wouldn’t mind seeing an Eberron game about being an Inquisitive. Or a Dark Sun game about a tribe’s survival, or the ecosystem of the world. I wouldn’t mind, in short, seeing more games that explore their settings. And I pick on RPGs, because, very often, we’re too focused on The Hero’s Journey, or on pretty numbers going up and Big Bads. There are games out there that do more… And there can be more. While this article picked somewhat on licensed RPGs (For the simple reason that licensed media often vary widely in quality), it’s true of pretty much any setting or genre… How you show an aspect of your setting is important. And you can completely miss aspects that people might find more interesting than you’ve actually shown.

Going Back: The Eye of the Beholder Trilogy

The Eye of the Beholder Trilogy is a microcosm of the problems of the games industry, even today. Despite this, they’re still pretty much lauded among RPG players, with the exception of the third game, which has widely been panned, for reasons we’ll go into. So let’s go back, to the early to mid 90s, to see exactly why these games are both good… And why I said that first sentence.

D'aww, isn't that Kobold adora- AHH KILLITKILLITKILLIT!

D’aww, isn’t that Kobold adora- AHH KILLITKILLITKILLIT!

Eye of the Beholder was developed by Westwood games, who you may remember for the Command & Conquer series, and, if you’re old or savvy enough, the Lands of Lore and Kyrandia games. It was published by SSI (Who had a license from TSR to make Dungeons and Dragons games) in 1991, and, for the time, it was pretty good. In essence, it was a simple dungeon crawl beneath the city of Waterdeep, which had a big problem: An unknown threat (That totally isn’t a Beholder, folks!) wanting to conquer the city from beneath. As you travelled, first through sewers, then through ancient dwarven tunnels (Recently recolonised by some of said dwarves), and through ever weirder locales until you reached the Xanathar, head of the monstrous guild of the same name, and slew him. Along the way, you had hints of a larger plot that, for the most part, went unanswered. What was up with the dark elves (Drow) under the city, and their fight with the dwarves? Were they connected? What were these portals, and how did they come into the whole picture? Why did Waterdeep’s Sewers have a prison system, of all things inside it?

Meet one of the tenants of the "Correction Facility". Next stop, the Death Room!

Meet one of the tenants of the “Correction Facility”. Next stop, the Death Room!

Part of this would have been the 90s “Rule of Cool” design (Where style over substance was the key), but just as importantly, the game was rushed. How do we know it was rushed? Because we can see cut content, if we look hard enough. And, since games were somewhat simpler back then, and state or save hacking was easier, it was completely possible to see hints of cut content, just by exploring empty space. For example, there is a stairway, from the lowest level to the highest. You can never walk to it without a trainer, and there is one final portal, with no missing slots for you to put one of the many portal keys you get in the game into. The official guidebook doesn’t even have them on the map. There’s other, smaller signs (Such as one of the surefire ways to kill Xanathar being hidden behind a “Secret Quest” that it’s kind of hard not to run into, or the somewhat abrupt ending, partly fixed in the Amiga and Sega CD versions of the game), but even reviewers of the time noticed it was incomplete.

Still, for the time, it was a pretty good game with a difficulty curve that nonetheless spiked rather hard toward the end, with some good enemy visuals, real time combat (Which was a slightly awkward fit with the spellcasting system… Right click on the spellbook/holy symbol and… Oh, shit, whole party paralyze from the Mind Flayer) and, despite the incomplete feeling, a surprisingly good story for RPGs of the time. I say this, in spite of the seemingly nonsensical placement of monsters (Kobolds on level 1, followed swiftly by undead, then Gnolls and Kuo-Toa, Spiders and Dwarves… ), because it was aimed at AD&D fans, and it was set in one of the more well known settings of the time: Forgotten Realms. Specifically, the City of Waterdeep, and the dungeon the city was built upon, Undermountain.

That Mind Flayer fires invisible all-party paralyzes, to represent his psychic powers. He has brothers.

That Mind Flayer fires invisible all-party paralyzes, to represent his psychic powers. He has brothers.

That’s right, in a true blue example of Fantasy Characters Are Not The Smartest, they built a capital city on top of a massive, active dungeon. Several years before Recettear and other games lampshaded this rather distressing tendency.  A shining example of Civic Planning in Fantasy Worlds, people!

Playing through it, at first, is a delight. It’s a simple setup: We’re sent to investigate the threat beneath Waterdeep (One of, it must be stressed, a multitude), and along the way, we find shining gems that defy explanation. The Sewer system has a small, forgotten prison complex inside it (With an execution chamber, hence the undead), and evidence of some pretty nifty, if badly applied fantasy technology (The Rapid Access Transport System… Teleporters for sewer workers. A pressure plate based flow management system). Later on, there’s a small, failing dwarven kingdom, besieged on all sides, but unable to ask the Lords of Waterdeep for assistance (And, as it turns out, hold a key to defeating the Xanathar.) Both the known henchmen of the Xanathar are treacherous (Shindia, and a threatening mage who sadly remains unnamed) , aaaand… While it’s absorbing, it’s bittersweet to look back and know that precisely none of those mysteries (Shindia led a group of Dark Elves planning to attack the surface. What became of that? What was with that “Museum” full of monsters in stasis? Had we upset the delicate balance of power in Undermountain?) are explained.

Outdoors! Finall- Eeee, wolves! Crap!

Outdoors! Finall- Eeee, wolves! Crap!

For the second game was to take place somewhere entirely different. Now, one thing about the Eye of the Beholder series (And many other RPG franchises of the time, such as The Bard’s Tale, Wizardry, Might and Magic, and a few other games, such as Breach and the rest of OmniTrend’s “Interlocking Games System” series) is that the characters can be preserved between games, and Eye of the Beholder 2… Depended on that. EoB 1 was an incomplete game (Albeit a fully working one). Eye of the Beholder 2 suffered from a second common problem in game design: Difficulty Balancing Issues.

Eye of the Beholder 2, very early on, pitches you into a cramped room with sixteen skeleton warriors. It has an entire set of levels where you can’t heal, or regain spells. It’s a tough game to finish. But it’s still lauded as the best of the trilogy. Why is that? Well, partly rose coloured glasses, but it has to be admitted that Westwood stepped up their game on every front except balancing. More spells. More moments where your characters’ alignment/class actually means something (For example, if you try to dig up some graves you find in the first area, your Paladin will tell you it’s wrong… And then just straight up leaves if you push. No, I’m not going to tell you if it’s worth losing them.) Better music, and somewhat better visuals. The main villain is still a stereotypically evil cackling… Er… Skeleton Dragon (Dran Daggoran, or A Grand Dragon… sigh) with stereotypical, cacklingly evil plans (Build up a fake church in a world where atheism is a bad choice, gain an army of undead goons, rampage for a bit… ??? … Profit?) but the writing, overall, is better. Here, let me take an example from the beginning.

See! She's so harmless... Like... That other lady, from Lands of Lo- Oh. OH...

See! She’s so harmless… Like… That other lady, from Lands of Lo- Oh. OH…

There’s a nice old lady you meet in the woods who can guide you straight to the Temple of Darkmoon (Where your quest lies), avoiding encounters along the way… But, in a fit of Adventurer’s Paranoia, you strike her down. On her body is a single note. No, she’s not a mimic, or a spy… She’s a terrified old lady whose family is being held hostage. Well, now you know the temple is shady… But at what cost?

The Temple of Darkmoon, in a shift from the first game, is pretty self contained. Everything is to do with the quest, and there are no unexplained details that I’m aware of, and this actually adds to both the quality of writing… And the feel of isolation. You are definitely up against it, but alas, the difficulty really does spike in this game. Fought Xanathar last time without the oh-so-secret item? Had a hard time? How about multiple Beholders? Or timed puzzles? The ending, once it comes, feels less of a reward, being almost as perfunctory as the last game. Well done, said Khelben Blackstaff, High Wizard of Waterdeep. You stopped the evil plans, go rest for a bit in a pub, that’s what you adventurers do, isn’t it?

Sod you, Blackstaff. You and the rest of Waterdeep.

Yes, and you're a 20/20/20 Wizard/Fighter/Plot Device , maybe, just this once, you can sort it out?

Yes, and you’re a 20/20/20 Wizard/Fighter/Plot Device , maybe, just this once, you can sort it out?

So we come now to the third game. The one that, of the trilogy, is widely considered both the worst, and part of the reason the “Legends” series didn’t continue. And it arose because of a third common problem in the games industry: Creative Differences. Now, that label covers a multitude of possible reasons for cutting ties with a studio, not all of which are actually to do with the creative direction intended, but, for whatever reason (I refuse to speculate, although I’m quite happy to be told), Westwood and SSI parted ways, with the in-house team creating Eye of the Beholder 3.

Visually, it was much better. The music was good, the cutscenes were good. But other things were… Not so good. No, let’s not mince words here. Other things were abysmal. Once again, you could import characters, and that was all well and good. But I hope somebody kept an axe, because without one, you’re going to be wailing and gnashing your teeth… In the very first area. At least until you firstly find an axe, and secondly, realise that large portions of the first area (A forest) can be cut away to reveal treasures, more encounters, and a dungeon. The game was relatively nonlinear, but the encounters felt weaker (With a few surprise exceptions, such as the Feyr… A mostly invisible monster. Thanks, folks, for reminding me to always have See Invisibility on… Or, y’know, flail in that general direction until it died), and the story.

The story also felt weaker. Especially since you could see the plot beats before they happened. From the top…

Yep, this isn't in any way going to lead to resurrected evil gods, no sirree! That's a trustworthy face!

Yep, this isn’t in any way going to lead to resurrected evil gods, no sirree! That’s a trustworthy face!

…A totally not suspicious guy asks you to go to a lil’ place called Myth Drannor (Known among FR fans as a place where Ancient Magic and Things Not Meant To Be Woken Up reside) to kill a demilich (Known to be mostly good), which is guarding something Not-Suspicious Guy’s boss claims is endangering things.

At least one god (Lathander, the Morning Lord) has to help you clean up a mess that you, the player, knows is coming. Hell, the characters, being longstanding adventuring types, should know this is a bad idea. But no, you wake up an Ancient Evil, have to put it back in the box, and…

…Really, as in Wargames, the only winning move is not to play. The cutscenes are pretty, it’s true. But they’re the story of four to six folks doing something they should have known better than to do in the first place, then cleaning it up with divine assistance. The characters, rather than tied up in a cohesive plot, are split among the history of Myth Drannor, and… Don’t really have much to say, beyond what you already know (This Is A Bad Idea). All the extra nice bits, the new monsters, the pretty outdoors areas… They don’t compensate for this core fact. The difficulty curve, if anything, swung the other way to EoB 2… And the critical reception was, as I’ll get to in a moment, deafeningly negative.

Looks meaty... Not actually all that bad.

Looks meaty… Not actually all that bad.

Good writing won’t always save a game. But bad writing, and frustrating design decisions can definitely help kill it. Reviewers at the time disagreed with my note on the visuals and audio, and, if anything, were more disappointed than I am, looking back after some years. It was seen as a Cash-Grab (ding), a disappointing end to a series, and it was unequivocally seen as an end. They were perfectly correct. Apart from the remakes of the first two games, the Eye of the Beholder series was dead, dead, dead.

Now, for all my talk of the games showing that problems have existed in the games industry for some time, and are by no means new, does that mean they’re bad games? Funnily enough, no. Just as some games have their flaws, but are still enjoyable (And indeed, enjoyed) by many, the Eye of the Beholder trilogy is enjoyable. You can even try them yourselves, thanks to the wonderful folks at Good Old Games. They even come with the official cluebooks and manuals of the time, which are themselves worth commenting on, because they’re good examples of such things done pretty well. I have fond memories of the first two games, and, when I feel I’m confident enough to tackle them, will definitely try to Let’s Play the trilogy, warts and all.

But I wonder how things could have turned out differently, sometimes.