Midboss (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £10.99 (£14.98 for game and soundtrack, £3.99 for soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam, Itch.IO

It has always been the position of TMW that experimentation is good. It’s good to try new things, because by trying new things, exploring new possibilities, games as a whole improve. Unfortunately, while Midboss experiments, it also falls prey to the problems of genre past, and feels somewhat humdrum and unfriendly as a result. Let’s unpack that.

The game, essentially, is a turn based dungeon hack, where you play that most maligned of any Dungeon Lord’s denizens, the humble Imp. Except the Imp, rather annoyed at being the punching bag of all those skeletons and zombies, decides to finally use its power of possessing creatures to work its way up the hierarchy. Viva La Impvolution!

Alas, La Impvolution often ends quite quickly. Imps are not the beefiest revolutionaries.

And this, in the end, is its core gimmick. You have an ability in Imp Form, to mark an enemy for possession. Kill it, and you become it. Kill other creatures with it, and you unlock its powers. You then have the option of using those powers in imp form, and, if you’ve got all the skills, mastering the form, you can also gain their stats. It’s clever, it’s understated, and that understatement, along with the unfriendliness of the traditional roguelike, forms the main problems.

Yes, it’s nice to be a high damage skellington, for example. But animations are light on the ground, so combat is mostly “Bash self into enemy, numbers happen, enemy bashes itself into you, numbers happen.” It is more involved than that (Speed factors into how many turns you get to move and hit people versus them hitting you and moving, for example), but it rarely feels more involved than that. Similarly, you hit crates, cratefish (Normally a subject for a joke, but here, it’s just A Thing That Happens), yarn, and maybe items pop out. The items, except for potions, blend somewhat into the floor, it’s not always clear what kind of item they are due to this colourblind unfriendly problem, and, of course, in roguelike fashion, you don’t know what they are until you pick them up.

The game has “Retro modes” , shaders that appear mostly accurate to older graphical modes. Here’s the VIC-20, one of the *less* eye-searing ones.

There is a lot of vendor trash, so improving yourself equipment wise becomes an exercise in tedium, itself not helped by the fact that there is, as far as I am aware, one vendor, who is a cat, and may exist on any given dungeon level. See, again, potentially interesting and amusing thing, made humdrum. They accept balls of yarn as currency, and, for some reason, this Dungeon Lord keeps lots of bundles of yarn. No, I don’t particularly know either. There’s one kind of scroll that I’ve seen (Identify), a variety of potions, and skill/spell books, which let you use abilities without having the form equipped (A limited number of times.)

Even with the turn based nature of the game, odds are high you’ll forget that you can go into your inventory, right click a book or a potion, and lo, your odds of survival/damage/stunning/whatnots have improved… Because yes, you have to do this.

There are some nice touches to this game, don’t get me wrong. When you equip a form on top of another form, your palette changes to reflect this (So a vampire bat/skellington is a red skeleton, while a lightning bat/skellington is pale blue), and there are unlockable “Retro Modes”, basically palette accurate shaders of days gone by, from the eye-searing CGA palette (Pictured), to the more reasonable tones of the VIC-20 or C64. They don’t help the colour blind problems of the game (In fact, CGA makes it worse, because CGA was always a fucking terrible video mode), but they are somewhat nice.

When the majority of items are vendor trash, and there is only one vendor… Problems arise.

Overall, though, Midboss places me in an awkward spot. It’s not quite friendly enough to be a starter for folks wanting to get into Roguelikes, beyond its core gimmick, it isn’t quite interesting enough to recommend to Roguelike fans looking for something new… I could maybe recommend it to folks looking at game design and gimmicks that change gameplay, but otherwise… It just doesn’t really seem to get me going, and I don’t feel like I’m doing more than going through the motions when playing.

The Mad Welshman sighed as he watched the Imp. Soon, he would have to reveal himself, and he was getting really tired of saying “Yes! I WAS that sheep!”

Dead Cells (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store, Itch.IO

For a bundle of ooze, condemned to murder and drain the genetic information of magical weapons and experiments just like itself, the titular Dead Cells are quite an expressive character. They sort of have to be, as they can’t say anything, and that’s easily explained by the fact that they’re an oozing thing with one burning eye and no mouth. But hey, they understand folks fine, what’s the problem?

Ahhh… Soon, I will have *aaaall* the goopy vials… And maybe then, I can rest.

Anyways, Dead Cells is a game about dodging blows from various enemies, leaping about frantically, slashing and murdering frantically, and occasionally dying frantically, before your little pile of ooze is piped into another headless corpse to begin the whole palaver again for the nefarious purposes of a Necro-Alchemist. It’s a simple game, and pseudo-random level generation means that while I know roughly what to expect from a level, I don’t know the full ins and outs.

Design wise, it’s pretty tight so far. It’s one of the first games where I haven’t found a subweapon I haven’t found a use for, the weapons, similarly, are solid. Enemies telegraph things well enough that I’ve quickly worked out how to dodge, say, the venom of the scorpions in the old sewer. You start with only one path, but unlock more by getting far enough (You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road… And I will be murdered by scorpions!) , you have a fair few weapons already (From main weapons like the electric whip and the BLOOD SWORD, to subweapons like the Meat Grinder, or my personal favourite, Ice Grenades), and, obviously, a bevy of monsters.

What’s that coming out of the ground, is it a Scorpion, it is a scorpion!

It must be said that, if you can’t play twitchy games, Dead Cells is sadly not for you, because it’s twitchy as hell. In fact, one of my current criticisms of the game is that Elite enemies following you gives you absolutely no chance to heal (Which takes time), and sometimes, the fight goes so quickly that you’re not sure what actually killed you (Each individual fight tends to take between 1 and 3 seconds, and, at the end of that time, either they’re dead, or you are. Unless they’re Elites, in which case the fight lasts either too long, or a painfully short time.)

But the sound design is good (The slish and squish of your ooey-gooey body shlorping into your next headless host is… A thing to behold), the visuals are good (Pixellated gore, goo, and viscera is the order of the day… The game revels in its griminess, but everything except the pipe ladders in the sewer levels are clearly differentiated), and even getting past the first level means you improve, albeit slower than if you get further each run, so the difficulty evens out over time. Overall, Dead Cells is already looking promising, and, along with Drifting Lands, is currently my go to for a quick, fun game. The tunes are good, and my only grump right now is that Elite enemies are, if anything, too elite.

Are you… Are you *Bratting* on me, Cursed Chest? Goodness me, I’d almost be tempted if I didn’t already *know* you’d bite me and inflict a death curse!

The Mad Welshman grimaced, if a pile of sentient goop could be said to grimace… This zombie looked… Different somehow. “Is it your hai-URK.”

Welp. Time to start over.

Dungeon Kingdom: Sign of the Moon (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.99
Where To Get It: Steam

If it weren’t for my party, I think I would have given up on Dungeon Kingdom: Sign of the Moon long ago. They’ve revealed dungeons to me, told me about buttons, and, in at least one case, showed me where a puzzle was that I absolutely needed to progress (And hadn’t found in any of the previous updates.) But I can’t help but think a middle ground between “Tell me where things are (occasionally)”, and “Give me one line in dialogue and another in a book to clue me into a puzzle’s existence” would be helpful. That this is true for more than one aspect of Dungeon Kingdom is, sadly, damning with faint praise.

Ninja, Warrior, Priest, Wizard... Where have I seen those before... *Think*

Ninja, Warrior, Priest, Wizard… Where have I seen those before… *Think*

For all that a lot of effort has clearly gone into the environments themselves, with lovingly rendered caves, temples, and towns, and again, work has clearly gone into the various character portraits we encounter, a game is the sum of its parts, and what fills these environments and character portraits is less than impressive. My last session was a couple of hours, but in that time, I had progressed from a kitchen knife to… Er… A slightly bigger kitchen knife, wailed on rats and bees for what seemed like hours, gained four spells (Three of which I had discovered simply through experimenting), and kicked myself as I missed out on a bashable wall, before reminding myself it took several swipes to knock it down.

I’d also met a high priestess Bavmorda, who was obviously up to no good. This shouldn’t be too surprising, considering the naming seems to be geek reference heaven. The priestess Eilistraee, taking a break from being the deity of Good Dark Elves and Hunting. The dark knight Astaroth, in no way a duke of Hell, honest! The list goes on, and… This reminds me of how the game goes on. And on. And on.

This is the oddest problem… A step-based RPG that feels too slow. And it’s obvious there’s time pressure, as the developers have taken leaves from the Dungeon Master book pretty much wholesale… Character recruiting is the Recruit/Resurrect mechanic from both Dungeon Master games, the classes are exactly the same, the emphasis on puzzles is exactly the same… And both food and water meters are present. Oh joy. Oh joy of joys. And yes, that was an incredibly tired and sarcastic “Oh joy”, because, outside of a setting that demands it (Dark Sun, for example), I do not like water meters. I haven’t seen a desert, and don’t think I’m likely to. In any case, that’s your time pressure, as while water is largely unlimited (Making it just added tedium), food isn’t. I have yet to see a “Create Food” spell. So the game is, much like Dungeon Master, very much a case of “Save Early, Save Often” (And use different saves, obviously.) At the very least, you’ll want to save before hitting the inn to avoid the long walk into town.

No, really. Bavmorda. Luckily, we're all pigs anyway, by virtue of being adventurers!

No, really. Bavmorda. Luckily, we’re all pigs anyway, by virtue of being adventurers!

This, in essence, is my main problem with Dungeon Kingdom right now… That there is potential, but it’s also got a lot that has me saying “Meh.” I hit things, and honestly, only the bashable walls react. Throwing things, oddly, involves physics where good placement is often important. The music is generic, and what voicework there is, is often flat or poorly directed (“Big… Trouble…”) There are awkward moments where it’s not very clear what to do, even with very simple instructions (Stand facing the entrance, and I will come back. What this means is “stand in the next tile along for a little while, which is facing the entrance of the place you have to go, and I will come back. Nowhere else counts, nor does any other direction), and the story… If I didn’t know Bavmorda was evil, or at the very least suspicious, I would have to find confirmation in… Everyone’s private quarters. There’s no consequence for looking at them, there’s no challenge in looting them, but you have to know, ahead of time, that this is old school enough to expect you to do this. The game also assumes the main hero(ine), chosen by being… The first character you pick is a man in the intro. Whoops!

Dungeon Kingdom: Sign of the Moon is undeniably pretty. Some of its puzzles are actually quite good (Which races don’t bow down? Oh, I get what you mean there, haha!) and the developers have made strides in making the game somewhat more accessible with the aforementioned Party hints, a map system, making the food and water meters go down more slowly (Yes, I did notice, and am grateful.) But it feels slow, it seems to progress quite slowly, and it seems to be learning the wrong lessons from Dungeon Master and its ilk.

Monsters will attack, but not always consistently. They generally won't respond to being hit until they die.

Monsters will attack, but not always consistently. They generally won’t respond to being hit until they die. Also this is a ghost bat. I thought I’d best mention that.

The Mad Welshman peered myopically at the scroll… Damn these fantasy worlds and their lack of Opticians!

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.