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SummaryUltima gets some serious competition
The GoodIn the early 1990s the German developer Thalion released Dragonflight, their first RPG that would serve as a template for their later work. That game was largely based on the Ultima formula of role-playing rather than the more hardcore Wizardry and Might and Magic approach: character creation and meticulous customization were less important than interaction with characters, quests, and non-linear exploration of a vast world.
While a lot of things still felt derivative and raw in Dragonflight, its spiritual successor Amberstar was another story. With this game Thalion firmly established themselves as a powerful RPG developer to reckon with. One of the game's most notable advantages is the way it combines the relatively simple Ultima-style gameplay - in particular the user-friendliness brought to us by its sixth installment - with a heavier challenge in basic role-playing categories, such as party management, character growth, and combat.
Indeed, Amberstar is in a way a nearly perfect compromise between the "esoteric" role-playing of Wizardry and the ever-increasing lightness of Ultima. It is easy to pick up and just start playing without being obliged to study the manual for hours before coming up with a reasonable party. It is certainly more sophisticated than Might and Magic games with their emphasis on combat at the expense of meaningful interaction. It is, however, also clearly more methodical, more traditionally demanding than its contemporary Ultimas.
Amberstar masterfully captures that unique spirit of role-playing, partly thanks to the excellent balance it achieves between free-form exploration and quest-oriented, plot-driven advancement. There are few elite RPGs that know how to mix those two in the right doses, and this game is one of them. Right in the beginning of the game you can leave the first city and just wander around. You won't be lost in a sea of identically-looking towns and dungeons. You'll visit coherently placed locations that create an illusion of a real world. You'll still feel that the first town is a sort of a home base, a place to be attached to, from where your journey can evolve in different ways and directions. Yet theoretically, you can just try to cover every square millimeter of the map right away. Buy a horse, cross the rivers, find a raft, sail across the bay; travel to other cities and remote lands, recruit companions - the world is open to you, but still designed in such a way that every location has meaning and personality. This is one of the game's greatest achievements.
Amberstar is, therefore, open-ended and non-linear, yet you can always figure out a "recommended" way to play. What I particularly love in RPGs are "shortcuts" - when I study the game enough, I find easier ways out of situations, learning how to solve problems in different manners and then choosing the preferred one. Right in the beginning of the game, you can choose to explore the graveyard for some cool bonuses or just go to the city. In the city itself, you can acquire plenty of items and much-needed information if you take your time and explore - or you can just try to travel to another town straight ahead and recruit that awesome higher-level wizard waiting for you at the tavern. This freedom of action stems from great design, not from multiplying locations and challenges by copy-pasting them. Amberstar is, above all, a game designed with great care and attention to detail, clearly loved by its designers and tested on many levels to provide an engrossing experience.
I particularly love how Amberstar provides challenge without relying on excessive combat. Fighting hordes of monsters can be fun, but Amberstar has learned from Ultima and knows that quality role-playing doesn't necessarily depend on that. Against all previous RPG concepts, this game followed Origin's philosophy and created role-playing based on choices first and stats second. You can explore most of the world without being overpowered by overleved freaks, and can escape from most battles. Almost nobody ever attacks you on the overworld, and even in the dungeons enemies are reasonably spaced and don't respawn or appear randomly.
However, that doesn't mean that Amberstar is just a "tourist's game" or a disguised adventure with just a tiny bit of actual RPG meat. Far from it, it is actually more heavy on old-school role-playing than Ultima VI. Every battle is a challenge, and character management, preparation, and actual tactical considerations during combat do play a major role. You'll find yourself trying to tackle the same group of pesky orcs ambushing you at different levels, with different equipment, party members, formation, and so on. There are many ways of developing your characters, particularly by promoting them to various classes of your choice. There are loads of spells for the magic-inclined, and all sorts of benefits and equipment restrictions when you try to play around with the classes. Unlike many other RPGs, combat is truly intelligent, and everything you do matters. All this is both very enjoyable and true to the spirit of role-playing.
The world of Amberstar may not be as splendidly interactive as in contemporary Ultimas, but it is nevertheless very rich and detailed. Unlike Dragonflight, it allows you to actually explore indoor areas. You can search many objects and often you'll find items if you meticulously explore the surroundings. There are plenty of optional and secret areas to discover, loads of weapons, armor, and other items, supplies to buy, well-balanced money management, and so on. A day-and-night cycle, an interactive keyword-based conversation system, and plenty of side quests not only remind us of the great Ultima tradition, but also foreshadow the development of the genre in the end of the decade. Amberstar is not just a direct predecessor of Ambermoon and Albion - it is also a step towards the "RPG Renaissance" represented by games like Baldur's Gate, which chiefly followed and further developed its design philosophy.
The BadAmberstar had some of the finest and well thought-out combat systems at the time, but it cannot be denied that already then many people weren't satisfied with its heavily turn-based, tactical nature. Battles became more and more streamlined, with real-time combat gaining more and more prominence even in traditional party-based games (such as Eye of the Beholder or Ultima VII), and action RPG style (Ultima Underworld) becoming a growing force. Combat in Amberstar cannot be fast-forwarded - you'll have to manually move around the grid and watch combatants miss each other time after time. This is countered by the low frequency of battles, and personally I liked the combat the way it was, but I can understand why it didn't have mainstream appeal.
There is only one slot for saving your game! This is definitely something I wish the developers of Amberstar would not have done. You can save your game at any time, but if you accidentally save in a dangerous corner of the world, out of supplies, with most of your characters dead, etc., you'll have a hell of a time just trying to get them out of that predicament instead of simply reloading another save and trying again.