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SummaryGood gameplay marred by lousy graphics, sound, and cramped quarters.
The GoodThe Thunderscape engine utilizes a 2½D approach similar to Doom and Duke3D, except that the map being played in is actually a mesh. The intersecting points of the grid lines are raised and lowered to give the paths slopes and valleys, which adds some interesting topology to the map. The game runs fast and smooth, and the terrain you wander through in the first map actually looks fine.
A decent character creation system starts the game off right, but there is no class distinction, anyone can develop their magic and weapon skills as levels are earned. At the start and with each level increase you are awarded skill points which may be allocated to a number of important game skills. Another who has played Morrowind will be familiar with this system. Personally, this is a nice change of pace from the rigidity of strict classes in more hardcore RPG's like Might & Magic or Wizardy. This leaves you completely free to develop the characters in your party as you see fit.
In terms of usability the battle system is reasonably well done; there are plenty of options for attacking your foes. Of course you have your standard weapon and spell attacks, plus 'berserk' attack, drop-kick, attack vital organs, shield bash, and mighty-blow which is great for users of clubs/maces. The system gives you some conveniences such as reuse of your last attack method, so the player can get through a battle quickly. The battles themselves are turn-based, and the action is supplemented with weapon and enemy animations.
As time passes while traversing the map, your party members HP and MP will regenerate, and likewise the maps will slowly spawn new enemies if you take a long time. While exploring you'll encounter traps, treasures, and some puzzles. There are also scripted events many of which take the form of text pop-ups, "The air is sickly sweet with the odor of carrion" would be an example I saw. In the second map - called the Troll Caves - you can be trapped by cave-ins, fall into floor traps, and crawl through tunnels. Plus you'll have to deal with the usual find keys to unlock doors scenario.
One of my favorite features in the game is the map system. Its implementation is excellent and captures the surrounding topology well - much better than the auto-mapping systems of most games that have a flat 2D floor plan. In map mode you can also zoom, pan and rotate your view of the area, and it will even highlight the position of doors and enemies in areas where you've walked.
When I first sat down to play this game I thought it was all pretty good. The potential in Thunderscape to be fun is clearly there. On the first map I found it quite enjoyable exploring the mountainous terrain. There is an elevator that you have to ride to get higher, plus you can jump over chasms, and duck down to crawl through lower spots. It was fun to fight hungry panthers, giant bees, and angry trolls. Fortunately the game starts you off right next to a merchant shop where you can go back to sell the various items found in the caves and crevices you'll explore. Once the first map is completed access to the Troll Caves is opened up and then that's when the dungeon stomping begins; lots of complex winding passages and plenty of enemy encounters...
The Bad... and plenty more passages, more monsters to fight, yet more passages, with many more monster encounters. Ugh.
Overall the game just looks bad. Anyone willing to look past this game's shit graphics is a real trooper, and I can say that because Thunderscape uses even more brown in it's color palette than Quake did. There's no variety in the textures used, everything looks the same. Right from the beginning it's obvious that graphical presentation is going to be a problem. A story character named Theros meets you and offers to join the party; when he appeared the first thing I thought was, "what the heck is that"? Meanwhile he's giving you some back-story, and the picture of him has no animation, not one pixel moves while he's talking. Later as I'm encountering enemies it's the same thing, "Is that a scorpion?", "Oh, it's a Mantis". I know this because of the text messages that appear during the many battles. The only difference here is that the enemies do have animations, although they seem out of sync with the action.
The sound system is problematic and detracts from any chance the game has of setting the right mood. Sound samples are the same volume, so if a gate is closing far away it still sounds like you're next to it. The sound samples don't mix well, they seem to interfere with the music, which is too bad because the 22 audio CD tracks are one of Thunderscape's highlights. The looping of the music seems rather incoherent, while exploring there are weird stops and starts to the music. Periodically you'll hear a very loud thunder-clap that quickly gets annoying. Sure the game is called Thunderscape, but come on! Why couldn't it be varied and play back as a more distant sounding rumble? I'm walking through caves and it's the same volume as outside the caves. The worst aspect of the sound system are the samples played while battling the Mantis. When injured it has this high-pitched squeal that made me wince; I tend to play games with headphones as a courtesy to my neighbors, but these sound problems made playing Thunderscape a nearly masochistic chore.
The enemy AI isn't very bright either. The path-finding algorithm seems to be easily confused as monsters tend to get stuck on corners. They wander around frantically trying to get to you, but it's a curious sight seeing this behavior. A game player shouldn't be thinking about programming algorithms when he is supposed to be crawling through some caves. Also battles seem to have a strange feel to them. They can start from three grid squares away, which makes you ask, "How can I hit with a sword from that distance?". Inexplicably, the battle can start if you and the enemy occupy the same grid square. Fighting a Rock Lizard like this is strange because you can't see it, you're just hitting something at your feet, off the screen.
As much as I enjoyed the first map, the second, fairly large map had became a grind mostly because of a claustrophobic feeling. The passages are too tight; as the passages twisted and turned I felt like I was constantly running into the cavern walls because I was seeing wall textures up close. Like most non-hardware-accelerated 3D games of that era, the textures don't look nice when pixelation occurs. The graphics engine actually seemed to run pretty fast and smooth, so why didn't they use a higher resolution than 320x200, or at least give the choice?
A couple final irritants; there seems to be no resurrection available beyond reloading the game, and four save game slots is a bit cheap.