Shannara (DOS)

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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
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Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (174061)
Written on  :  Jun 07, 2008
Rating  :  4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars

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Charming tale with elegant gameplay

The Good

I'm ashamed to admit, but I hadn't played an adventure game made by Legend before I discovered Shannara. The quality of this game made me realize how lacking my game education was. Now I'm determined to play other Legend adventures.

What's so good in Shannara? To answer this question, I had to think about adventure games in general. For me, one of the most important aspects in adventure games has always been interaction. Choosing verbs or action icons and trying every possible action on every possible object. If the game rewarded me with interesting (often humorous) statements instead of generic answers like "you can't do it", I had a feeling that I was rewarded for my curiosity. After all, isn't experimenting one of the cornerstones of playing a video game?

Unfortunately, adventure games seemed to evolve in a direction entirely opposite to what I hoped it would. Instead of writing even more text messages for the game and refining interaction even more, adventure game designers have greatly reduced the amount of text and limited the interaction over the years. Today we have adventure games in which all you can do is click. The game will choose the action for you, and won't even comment on it. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that unlike some other genres (for instance RPG), adventure games have become less interesting than they were before.

Shannara was developed by a company with rich traditions of interactive fiction, which began as a sub-genre of text adventures. There is no text input in this game, but the interaction through verb commands is rich, and the text comments are plentiful. It's an absolute pleasure to try stupid things, only to see that the game acknowledges your efforts and rewards you for them. Shannara gives you this magical feeling of unity with the game. You feel that you and the game are working together and becoming close friends.

Like most adventure games, Shannara has puzzles. The problem of many adventure games was to find a proper balance between puzzle-solving and advancement of the story through exploration and dialogue. Many games had overly complex, illogical puzzles, that took away from the overall enjoyment. This was particularly evident in the more "serious" adventure games, even in the best of them, such as Gabriel Knight series. Shannara tackles this problem with great elegance. Its puzzles are very logical, they flow naturally, never slow down the exploration, and never impede the progress of the story. At the same time,Shannara is certainly not a "puzzle-less" adventure; the puzzles are sometimes quite clever and require attention and thinking. The game was designed by the great couple who brought us the unforgettable Quest for Glory series. If you've played Quest for Glory games, you'll instantly recognize the writing style of Shannara. The text is well-written and has a certain warmth and kindness in it, something I think only a female author can fully achieve ( Jane Jensen's wonderful writing in King's Quest VI and Gabriel Knight games had a similar effect on me).

The game's story, despite its seeming simplicity, is very deep and serious. It is one of the few adventure game stories that are truly epic, coming close to the proportions of a RPG. The story is a variation on the eternal "good vs. evil" theme, but what makes it outstanding are the "sub-stories" that constitute it. The hero Jak has to travel to different lands and convince different races to confront a common enemy. Problem is, those nations have plenty of unresolved issues with each other, so Jak has to find solutions for many conflicts before he can think of his main goal. Even though the races are your standard medieval fantasy setting representatives such as elves, dwarves, and trolls, the game simply uses those names to address some very realistic issues that the modern world is certainly not unfamiliar with. There are no "good" and "evil" races; each one has appealing and not-so-appealing sides, and some of the decisions Jak has to make are anything but simple. The game deals with racism, tolerance, loyalty, patriotism, war, and other serious matters. And it does so gracefully, without becoming too intellectual or deteriorating into a soap opera.

The game also has wonderful characters. Unlike most adventure games, in Shannara there are characters who accompany you on your quest. Naturally, this makes you feel more attached to those characters. That makes Shannara a very emotional game, comparable in this way to Japanese and Chinese RPGs. Certain scenes are very touching, but I won't spoil here anything.

Shannara was based on a series of books I have never read. The knowledge of books is not required to appreciate and enjoy this wonderful game. But it is obvious that a lot of work was put into crafting the world of Shannara, its nations and its characters. There is plenty of detailed information, plenty of "lore" in the game. There are some books you can find in the game world, and the game menu has an extraordinary option - to view a pre-rendered video that introduces you to basic history and geography of the game world. This kind of attention to detail is part of what makes me respect the game's developers so much.

The Bad

The graphics are not really much better than in early VGA games, with the exception of the nice pre-rendered monster models during battles. The animation is sparse, and overall graphics are certainly not one of the game's strongest points. One of the downsides of the interactive fiction legacy is the first-person perspective, which - due to absence of any 3D engine - does not allow any physical movement in the game world and effectively reduces it to a collection of pictures. The flaw is not as serious in Shannara as it is, for example, in Myst; this game is all about text, not physical appeal of the game world. But I'd certainly prefer the classic Sierra third-person perspective any time.

The absence of cutscenes reduces somewhat the dramatic impact of the story. In fact, for inexplicable reasons (budget problems?) some of the game's most intense scenes are presented as text descriptions over black background.The game suddenly turns into a text adventure, preventing us from seeing what happens. Granted, the text descriptions are good, but I expected more from a game that was made during the days of the multimedia revolution.

The addition of enemies on the world map is a nice touch, but it's a pity they haven't developed it into a real role-playing system. You have a party whose members participate in combat, but those characters don't have any statistics and don't grow stronger; defeating monsters does not benefit the playable characters in any way, which renders the battles unnecessary.

The Bottom Line

Shannara has everything that is truly important for an adventure game: well-written text, plenty of interaction, lovingly crafted story, wonderful characters. It is a charming, beautiful game that made me fall in love with it, and eventually embark on my own personal epic journey of discovery of other Legend games. Shannara is an example of a classic adventure that continues the tradition of interactive fiction in a way that honors its predecessors.