Shannara (DOS)

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Written by  :  Cor 13 (174142)
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 curiousity. 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).

There is a lot of clever, memorable conversations in the game.I remember when the guard in Tyrsis refused to let "dwarf scum" into the city, Shella replied with: "Of course, there must be enough human scum in there already". There is plenty of such subtle irony in the game. It never turns the story into a comedy, and it is never too evident to ruin the serious themes of the game, but rather provides wonderful intermissions between the epic parts. The troll conversations, for example, were really funny, yet this humorous effect never took away from the seriousness of the situation.

Indeed, the story of "Shannara", 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.

I liked the slight RPG touch, even despite the pointless battles. The feeling of traveling together with other people and having a real party instead of being a lonely protagonist was great, and I also enjoyed the movement on the world map. Even avoiding those wandering monsters added the feeling of realism, danger, and adventure.

"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; "Shannara" 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 cut-scenes 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 one of the last examples of a classic adventure that continues the tradition of interactive fiction in a way that honors its predecessors.