Written by  :  Jimmy Maher (8)
Written on  :  May 22, 2005
Platform  :  Commodore 64
Rating  :  2.8 Stars2.8 Stars2.8 Stars2.8 Stars2.8 Stars

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An ambitious but deeply flawed RPG from the end of the 8-bit era.

The Good

As the game description notes, Centauri Alliance was created by Michael Cranford of Bard's Tale fame. While Centauri has the same basic style of play, it improves upon just about every aspect of its beloved predecessor, and has some extraordinary features for an 8-bit RPG.

For instance, the Commodore 64 version make full use of a mouse, assuming the player has one. I don't know that I've ever seen this in another game for the 64. It isn't quite up to the standards of a modern GUI, but most of the game can indeed be played by pointing and clicking rather than by memorizing command keys.

This comes in particularly handy during combat, which has been considerably refined from Bard's Tale. Upon being attacked, your party is displayed isometrically on a grid of hexes, along with your enemies. In any given round, your party and your enemies can attack, move about on the battlefield, or attempt to flee, although success here is not guaranteed. This adds a welcome layer of strategy to combat. You can now visualize the positions of your party and your enemies spatially, rather than just watching text scroll across the screen. Most guns and spells -- I'll get to spells, just wait -- have a limited effective range. Woe to you if one enemy bad-ass should perch at the far end of the battlefield hurling long-range attacks at you which you can't counter from that far away!

I mentioned spells. But wait, you say, isn't this a science fiction RPG? Well, yes, it is, but it seems that the people of the far future have learned to harness the natural power of the mind to perform feats that would seem to us almost like... you guessed it, magic! They call this psioncs. Sure, it's cludgy, but it allows us to have the fun of spells along with our rockets and rayguns, so what the hell. It also allows you to import characters from the Ultima, Wizardry, or Might and Magic series if you so choose. I didn't try this out, and so I cannot comment on how well it works.

The society of Centauri Alliance bears other strange similarities to that of Bard's Tale. For instance, they seem to prefer to design their spaceships and stations as narrow little labyrinths of corridors, so much so that you'd almost swear you were in a Bard's Tale dungeon! All of this is in good fun, though, and bothered me not in the slightest.

All kidding aside, Centauri Alliance has much that Bard's Tale doesn't. Although characters are created as one of three classes -- fighters, technicians, or magic... er, psionic specialists -- advancement from there is skill rather than level based, giving the player much more control over the development of her characters than in Bard's Tale. Possible character races consist of a handful of fairly traditional SF tropes, the most interesting of which is the praktor, who possess the ability to metamorph, or transform themselves into other creatures for a period of time.

And then there are all the small kindnesses Centauri offers. Most blessed of these is the overhead auto-map view. Territory is revealed here as your characters explore, and the algorithim used is actually quite clever. Depending on the level of ambient lighting or the quality of your light source or spell, different amounts of territory are revealed on the map with each move. Also, turning to "look" in a given direction will often reveal more on the map. Quite clever stuff for such an early game running on such primitive hardware. Anyone who ever pulled their hair out over spinners, teleporters, and wrap-around maps in Bard's Tale will thank their chosen deity for this feature. It's not perfect, though. Important location are not marked in any way, and when you travel to a new level then return you will find your map has become a blank slate again. Thus you will still need to draw up maps for yourself (or download them off the Internet I suppose), but at least Centuari makes the process much easier.

There are other nifty little features worth noting. The game displays for each character the amount of experience she needs to acquire to train again, meaning that you always know where you stand. No more fruitless trips to the training grounds just to see if your characters are allowed to advance. Saving is allowed anywhere, even in dungeons, although only one saved game per roster disk is allowed.

Centauri Alliance even has a plot! It's not a particularly good plot, mind you, and it seems that some heavy editing was done to pack it in, because you often feel like you are only getting arbitrary little bits and pieces of it, at least on the Commodore 64 version. Still, at least they made an effort...

The Bad

All of the positives I've listed above are destroyed by one thing -- game balance. It is, quite frankly, a mess. Things are fine during the first third or so of the game, but then your enemies seem to suddenly increase exponentially in power while your skills do not. Cranford has not lost his delight in killing off his players. It's just that in Bard's Tale he made the beginning impossible, while in Centauri he made everything from the middle game on that way.

And I do mean impossible. You'll frequently be attacked by hordes of psionic using foes who seem to have incredibly high initiative bonuses, meaning they almost always get to attack first. They then proceed to conjure half-a-dozen more deadly foes at a time to attack you, or drain all your psionic points away, or paralyze you so you can do nothing even if you survive their initial attack, or hit you with brain drain spells that do 125 points of damage at a pop. You do have the option to try to run, but this is an iffy proposition at best. If you fail to get away, you get to absorb all of your enemies' attacks for that round with no opportunity to retaliate at all.

Thus from the midgame on, Centauri is a tedious cycle of die and reload, all the while hoping for that occasional combat you can actually win so that you can build up some experience points. Now, I know what you're thinking. Maybe I'm just really bad at the game? While I can't say for sure that that isn't the case, I've racked my brain trying to think of some combination of characters, spells, and weapons that could win consistently at these later stages, and have come to the conclusion that it just isn't possible. I believe that the game is simply broken. I decided that the only way to realistically win would be through sector editing, and I just didn't see the point. And so I did something I rarely do with a game which I have invested a lot of time in... I gave up.

The Bottom Line

Centauri Alliance for me represents the end of an era. Not only was it Michael Cranford's last game before pursuing his religious calling full time, it was also one of the last major RPG releases for the venerable Apple 2 and Commodore 64. I suspect this explains its apparently poor sales and relative obscurity in spite of its excellent pedigree. The gaming world had simply moved on.

With a little more play-testing and tweaking, Centauri Alliance would have been a classic. In the end, though, it's only an interesting failure.