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SummaryInteractive fiction at its peak
The Good"Death Gate" appeared during what many people consider the most creative epoch of game-making - the beginning of the so-called "multimedia revolution". It was also the last great era for the adventure genre. LucasArts was completing its brilliant game constellation; Sierra was wrapping up its famous comedy series and moving on to interesting experiments; Access Software created Under A Killing Moon; Myst conquered the masses and began to radically change the development of adventure games, for good or for bad.
At that time, Legend Entertainment had already firmly established its reputation as the leading developer of what could be considered a sub-genre of adventures - interactive fiction with graphics. This sub-genre began its life as a logical descendant of text adventures. At first, some still pictures were added to the text. Then the old text input was replaced by a more user-friendly context-sensitive verb selection. This way interactive fiction became almost the same as graphical adventure; but true to the tradition, the graphics in those games were still restricted to pictures (sometimes sparsely animated) viewed from first-person perspective. And of course, text interaction was still the priority.
Text interaction is one of the strongest points of "Death Gate". The game immerses you through the sheer wealth of interaction. Every action evokes a response from the game. You can easily lose yourself in this gameplay depth. I was amazed to see how many different responses they have written for different actions. Trying to do things was exciting; experimentation was rewarded and encouraged. Even if there were some generic messages, they were so well-written that you didn't notice they were generic. Many other adventure games of the time lazily rewarded your attempts with pitiful remarks such as "you can't do that". Well, in "Death Gate", you certainly can do that! Trying different actions is so fun when you know that the game reacts to them. I don't even want to mention adventure games of later times with their lack of text and terrible "smart cursor".
Oh yes, there is plenty of text in "Death Gate". That alone wouldn't count as a compliment - there is also a lot of text in Metal Gear Solid. But the text in "Death Gate" is good - oh, so good. It feels like salve on the wounds caused by the text of Japanese RPGs. From time to time you just need quality writing in games, and "Death Gate" delivers. It's a pleasure to read the text descriptions. It's a pleasure to read (and to hear, since they are well-voiced) the dialogues. There is feeling, there is rich vocabulary, there is humor. It's simply excellent writing, and it makes "Death Gate" similar to a book.
But it's not a book. It's an adventure game, and it shines as one. "Death Gate" has some of the best puzzles I've ever encountered in an adventure game, period. There is only one puzzle in the game that I found frustrating and unnecessary (rotating arrows) - but the game gives you hints for it, and even offers to solve it for you if you're stuck for too long. The rest of the puzzles follow crystal-clear logic, are given proper clues, require imagination to solve, and are perfect in difficulty. Some of the puzzles are simply brilliant and so imaginative, like for example manipulating an undead nanny who keeps reading the same children's rhyme and an undead worker who obeys every order.
One of the coolest features of "Death Gate" are magic spells, which you'll use to solve many of the game's puzzles. You'll usually learn those spells when somebody else uses them in front of you for his own reasons - I found this a very natural way of introducing magic spells in a game, much more interesting than buying them in shops or "remembering" them by leveling up or any other contrived gameplay device usually seen in games. Those spells are fascinating and guarantee a gameplay experience unlike any other adventure game around. Turning a portrait into reality, switching bodies with a dog, setting statues in motion - those are just a few examples of the interesting, creative magic spells of the game.
So far we have a great adventure game, but "Death Gate" also has something I value very much in games - it is set in a believable, rich, detailed world. In this way it reminded me of an RPG. The story of "Death Gate" comes with a huge background, there is plenty of historical, political, social information that you learn from dialogues with characters and from books you find in the game. I know that the world of "Death Gate" wasn't invented by the creators of the game (it was based on a series of novels I've never read), but the way it is shown in the game is impeccable, it's a joy to explore a world so interesting and so believable, in its own way.
The story has a certain shade of fairy tale, and is wonderful. Without any melodrama the game touches upon serious issues such as war and peace, tolerance and racism, freedom and control, and draws profound philosophical conclusions from them. But it never does it with annoying moralizing or overblown emotions; it keeps the plot simple and puts all the depth into the dialogues and interaction with the characters.
The BadNot much. Can't say I loved the static first-person perspective. I'd certainly prefer real movement. The screens themselves are still, save for some sparse animations (like a bartender continuously wiping a glass). The graphics are good but not really "state of the art".
You can use a lot of magic spells in the game to solve its puzzles, but most of them need to be used only once or twice. Most of the time you'll have to use a spell shortly after you've learned it. The game conveniently puts you into rough spots in which the newly acquired spell is the only solution, but after the problem is eliminated, the spell in question will usually become neglected. I'd love to see more spell-based puzzles, with more creative use of those spells.