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The World of Western RPGs

The craftsmen - early 90's to mid-90's

We thought we reached perfection but people told us that we were dead.

Woah, we made it through 80's. Let's check again who is boss in town. ORIGIN is a big company now, and Ultima is fairly popular and steadfast in its simulated world design. New World Computing is just about to reach the height of its fame (which came in mid-nineties, more due to the Heroes of Might and Magic than the vanilla Might and Magic series). Sir-tech, the developers of Wizardry, are still kicking and they have a new director heading it, David W. Bradley, who steers the series to a more interesting direction. SSI is at its top with the Gold Box games, releasing two or three RPGs a year, but its death is looming.

Only Interplay (Bard's Tale, Wasteland) will mostly stay away for a while from RPG genre – they released two Lord of the Rings games (J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers), but they are not remembered for it, as well as the most typical 90's dungeon crawler Stonekeep in 1995 – until the glorious return with Fallout in 1997.

When it comes to games, this era pretty much consists of Dungeon Master clones. Except for the Ultima series, RPGs offered no innovative approach. They all followed the same design – 75% of them were Dungeon Master clones, only about 25% of them were different. But this era also shows that a simple clone can be much better game than the predecessor and achieve immortality. There are not many who fondly remember Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder, but Lands of Lore has enjoyed the attention of many.

There is talk about the mid-nineties being the dark ages of RPGs, which somehow implies that games released in this era are crappy beyond belief. But in retrospective it looks kind of funny to imply that this era was somehow crappier that what came before. The games are not crappy, they are much more user-friendly and the stories are more involving. It also marks the introduction of a lot of elements that the successful games in the late 90's made their own. Because SSI just stopped releasing three games in a single year, it seemed to some people that the end of the world was near. Also, this era starts the tradition of RPGs being buggy games, but they are still buggy nowadays, so we could say we are in Dark Ages even now.

The actual reason why this era is called the Dark Ages is because RPGs lacked the mainstream appeal that the growing genre of shooters had. If Oblivion and Mass Effect had not had the mainstream appeal they received, I'm sure that people would say that mid-00's were also Dark Ages. Calling it something does not make the games worse. Thinking about it, does the quality of Mass Effect or Oblivion really depend on the sales? No they would be good games without the success. It is just that the game industry judges quality by sales and fortunately for Oblivion and Mass Effect they were successful. The games in the mid-90's were not.

On the other hand, this "crisis" was actually a good thing to happen. Let's take a peek at the JRPG world for a moment, okay? In the mid-nineties JRPGs suddenly discovered that they were already perfect and needed no more improvement from the original Dragon Quest gameplay. They had success and mainstream approval. Thus there was nothing to drive them further. That is why JRPGs suffer nowadays; almost every game there feels just like another. This is the reason why there is so little variety in the genre.

The mid-nineties in WRPG world was a similar scenario. The games were pretty much perfect versions of the 80's RPGs. There was ORIGIN who was making games for the 23rd century, but outside of those Texans, RPGs were happy to just add minor improvements to the 80's style. And if these games of the 90's would have had been successful and gained mainstream approval, I believe that today's situation would have been similar to the state of JRPGs. We would have a bunch of games that consider themselves perfect. However, these near-perfect RPGs failed pathetically and thus WRPGs were driven towards change. This change brought the genre out from the clutches of sad and evil people who think that make-believe is the best thing to happen to RPGs (see Oblivion for further details).

Things to pay attention to:
  • first RPGs to feature a journal
  • first RPG to feature implied sex
  • first RPG to feature a semi-graphic 2D sex scene
  • first RPG to feature a homosexual semi-graphic sex scene
  • first RPG to feature no visible interface
  • the introduction of branching dialogue
  • the introduction of fluid 3D movement
  • what made the Ultimas different
  • how tired you will get of reading the words "dungeon crawler" until we finally reach 1997.

1990-1996

Ultima 6 and Wizardry 6I decided to start this new decade with the series that started the previous decade. In 1981, the differences between the first versions of these two games were not that obvious. Nine years later you would have to be stupid if you cannot find a single difference between these two series.

Wizardry 6 still featured the same dungeon crawler gameplay with the same premise of adventurers going into a dungeon. It is an unfriendly and a difficult game, and when it comes to graphics or sound it is behind times. Regarding combat you still have to possess esoteric knowledge in mathematics, since a party consisting only of deadly ninjas will get killed by a single rat. It is also the beginning of the new space trilogy in the series. The first five were not really directed in their design, but this one brings some sense of coherent continuity to the series. It also has five different endings which influence the way the next game in the series starts. So aside from the hardcoreness of it, this particular element is still pretty awesome.

Ultima 6 is a whole different matter. Rather than bringing a challenge, it delivers an experience. Ultima 5 already shaped almost a perfect, vivid world and Ultima 6 took it even a step further. NPCs now not only have detailed schedules, but they are actually individuals who you can have conversations with. Almost every one of them is memorable. It is the first Ultima to have conscious, character-specific writing. There are however some faults. Though the graphics and sound can be considered improved, nowadays it looks and feels even more horrible than Ultima 5. Secondly, while the previous game had specific musical pieces for individual moments (travel music for the over world map travel, etc.) U6 plays everything in a random order which can have horrible effects on a man. Thirdly, while U5 featured detailed NPC schedules, their dialogue did not change depending on the location. U6 tried to incorporate this into the game, but with varying degrees of success - for example you have one NPC acting like he is in the tavern when he actually is, (holding a cup in his hands, making jokes, some slight changes to the basic dialogue to deliver immersion) while another NPC beside him can act like he is in his shop during the business hours. Finally, this game has a war plot, but you do not see it anywhere in the game. People still live their lives as if nothing happened, everything is pretty colorful and peaceful and there are no effects of war on the population at all. Instead you receive ridiculous quests by the people. For example you need something from the mayor of the town to stop the gargoyles and he orders you to build yourself a lute and learn to play "Stones" on it.

But I hope you realize what I am actually doing there. It is normal to gently direct attention to some oversights that break the realism in games like Oblivion, but for a game in 1990 to have this kind of detail is unbelievable in every way. It is because of the Ultimas that I can judge the RPGs of old by the same standards that I judge recent games. That is, I am thinking in the terms of design and offering more than a nerd-fantasy, not the accessibility, graphics or interface. On top of that, Ultima 6 is the first RPG to actually acknowledge your character's gender. There are different dialogues when you play as a woman and it is the first RPG to hint at a sexual situation when you sleep with a prostitute. You can also sleep with your own gender, thus making Ultima 6 the first RPG to contain homosexual sex just for the sake of it.


Wizardry 6


Ultima 6



Ultima AdventuresThese two games were basically experiments. Savage Empire featured the classical pulp plot of guys getting stuck in the valley of dinosaurs, but it had even more world interactivity than Ultima 6. Your goal was survival and you were required to be very MacGuyverish in the execution of it; you had to build stuff from the natural resources surrounding you (for example you can use bamboo sticks and other chemical substances to construct a gun). Also, by having a smaller world than Ultima 6, the writing quality has also been improved. Writing itself was not the goal in creating Ultima 6 and for this reason the Ultima Adventures are much more enjoyable games.

Martian Dreams on the other hand is an experiment in "how weird can we make a game and still get away with it?". Not only does Martian Dreams take place on Mars, but it is also set in the 19th century and you are trapped in there with famous people of that time. It also keeps the wonderful world interactivity of Savage Empire. Let me just recite a few keywords to illustrate how unique Martian Dreams is: Freud, Shadowlords, Rasputin, female robots, Warren Spector, dream world, time travel, Nellie Bly, Martians... There is a lot more, and yes it is one of the first Warren Spector games.

All things considered the Ultima Adventures games are some of the most enjoyable games from that time; they have simple and intuitive gameplay and enjoyable pulp writing. If someone still thinks that the WRPGs of the early 90's are all about killing monsters and drinking potions, then they should take a look at these two games.


Ultima: Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams


Ultima: Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams


Ultima: Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams



The rest of the Gold Box seriesWhat else can be said about the Gold Box games? Pool of Radiance already had everything that made Gold Box games great, and the later games only added the command Fix (automatic rest until healed) and different storylines for their games. Gameplay-wise and graphically nothing was changed. The last two games did update the graphics a bit, but other games had moved ahead by then and already had in-game dialogue, while for the Gold Box games most of the text was inside the manual.

So rather than repeating myself I just count all the games here as one. SSI finished the Pools of... series themselves, made the Dragonlance series and also dabbled in sci-fi with the Buck Rogers games. The remaining three games were developed by an interesting studio called Beyond Software, Inc. (later known as Stormfront). The funny thing about Beyond Software is that they were an old studio. The team was already doing games in the 70's and they were still around. And yet it is not a studio that people know about. Well I find it funny. Anyway, Beyond Software did the last two Gold Box games and the last one featured a romance between the player character and a NPC. That is something nice for the BioWare fans to know.


The Dark Queen of Krynn


Pools of Darkness


Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday



Interplay's Lord of the Rings series (1990-1991)I am not going to spend a lot of time on these games, because I found them to be god-awful boring titles featuring too many ugly colors and fedex quests. They are probably the only LotR games that hold much respect for Tolkien and they have been crafted with love. But them fedex's kill it. At first glance they look quite similar to Ultima 6, however any sort of visible interface has been removed. So all you see is the game world. No interface. When you want to interact you have to summon the interface with a left mouse click. Also, unlike Ultima 6, quite a few scenes and interactions actually take place in the manual. Ultima 7 later picked up the lack of a visible interface, adding own enhancements to it.


J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I



Eye of the Beholder seriesThe most famous Dungeon Master clone. Even more famous than Dungeon Master itself. The first game delivers the same kind of puzzle-oriented dungeon crawler gameplay that has made any dungeon in a self-respecting dungeon crawler (like Bard's Tale) fun. Of course being a DM clone, the puzzles usually consist of pulling the right lever or finding the right button.

The interface is also like the DM game – there is a screen with the game world in 3D, and on the side movement commands and combat options. Everything has to be done manually by a mouse. It is a bit tedious, but a step away from the dungeon crawlers of the past. The first game, while providing great gameplay, suffered in the story department. It even lacked an ending. But the second game does everything what the first game did and features NPC interaction (about as much as the Gold Box games) and the same kind of "being in a fantasy novel" feeling that made the original Gold Box games great. And thus it stands as an example that dungeon crawlers are not simply soulless hack-and-slash fests.

Westwood later got kicked out from doing Eye of the Beholder games. The third one was done by SSI itself and it is pretty much forgotten. However, the feeling of being inside a fantasy story is actually more prominent in Eye of the Beholder 3 (it had more interesting NPC interaction). And EoB 2 had a lot of deathtraps. Accessible rooms that lead to a trap through which you are unable to finish the game. EoB 3 did not have those, just a lot of respawning monsters. In a way, Westwood repeated what they did right in the EoB games and at the same time ignored the things they did wrong in those games. That lead to Lands of Lore.


Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon


Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon


Event Horizon gamesEvent Horizon was a tiny, unknown RPG development studio from the early 90's that above else emphasized storytelling in their RPGs. At that time, RPGs with such focus were rather scarce, mostly it was not their goal. But the guys at Event Horizon felt that telling a good story was important. That is probably the biggest element that differentiates them from other games: the amount of dialogue. When it comes to gameplay or graphics then these Event Horizon games are sadly lacking compared to others; they are uncomfortable to play and they look rather ugly. What I mean is: they looked ugly and felt uncomfortable then. These games suffer from very slow player character movement and dice-based real-time combat. But they have the honor of carrying the torch of quality in storytelling during these pre-Halo times. They rely too much on getting all the pieces of something fantasy together the way they tell their stories, but they did this with much more characterization and love than the standard at that time. It is definitely a step up from Gold Box.

I am going to dissect the games a little closer. Their first game Darkspyre is pretty much a boring dungeon crawler. I only mention it because I have to. The only thing distinguishing it from other dungeon crawlers is that it is not a Dungeon Master clone, and the combat is more action-based.


DarkSpyre


But with their second game, Dusk of Gods, Event Horizon delivers us one of the finest treatment of Scandinavian mythology ever in video games. The way it stays so true to the Edda material and delivers a satisfying experience... it is beautiful. It is not often when we see Norse Gods staying true to their original personality in modern treatment of these stories.


Dusk of the Gods


Their third game, Summoning, is actually a sequel to Darkspyre. It is pretty much a fairly straight-forward dungeon crawler, with much more emphasis on the plot though. A silly, contrived plot, but told with passion.


The Summoning


Their last game, Veil of Darkness, takes place in a cheap Dracula/Frankenstein movies inspired Transilvania. You are playing a crashed pilot who now has to find his way out this cursed valley, and while doing that you have to become the chosen one, kill the vampire and get the girl. If they had hired Bruce Campbell for the role it would have been a hit, but... still, for all of the Even Horizon games, this one is the best one when it comes to storytelling and writing.


Veil of Darkness


Anyway, Event Horizon later became Dreamforge and we deal with them later.


Might and Magic 3, 4 and 5The Might and Magics came back with a design that would mark the series forever – an old-school dungeon crawler with almost zero NPC interaction (well the only interaction is getting quests), with lots of exploration and a very user-friendly interface. I decided to hump them together since these three games play and look alike.

The third one is a bit of an unfinished game, cause after killing all the required monsters the game ends with a freaky space-travel scene. The main virtue lies in getting the Might and Magic experience right. The interface is inspired by Dungeon Master, but unlike the Eye of the Beholder series with their coherent direction, the Might and Magic series wallows in the old-school nonsense, random and esoteric, with the right toxin feel of the old RPGs.

What about the 4th and 5th? Well let me say this, coming to an idea to travel from sequel to sequel and then combining them both into a third game - it is a brilliant idea in my opinion. World of Xeen (combining the fourth and fifth title) is a long game filled with looting, plain old hack-and-slash, lots of dungeon-crawling puzzles and exploration. It also involves the space theme, which takes a ridicolous turn when the player is killing futuristic robots on a cloud... but Might and Magic is a ridiculous series and it does it with pride.

Also, starting with MM3, the Might and Magic series brings the first RPGs to have a journal to record your quests and stuff. I am of course still following the "MM series – pioneers of everything user-friendly" agenda, but except for Might and Magic and the Magic Candle series, games lacked journals until the 1996-1998 era, where they became a must.


Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen


Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen



Ultima 7: Black Gate and Serpent IsleThis is the peak of Ultima design. It is also the last "real" simulated world game for a long time. The games surrounding it (surrounding as in before and after) were either dungeon crawlers or Event Horizon games. Some had a nicely moving plot and NPC interaction, and some did not. While with some RPGs you already knew to expect a satisfying story, none of these stories were really above your typical pulp fiction. Ultima 7 does not tell a story, instead it is about the people; living, breathing, realistic people.

An element where Ultima 7 was not matched is in the way it brings life to its world. It is the first RPG project to have professional scriptwriter brought on board; Raymond Benson directed the writing process. I figure it is him the honors of this social approach belong to. Every single NPC is written as an individual. No, there is not that much text, it is just written that convincingly. And unlike Ultima 6, NPCs really say different things depending on where to you talk to them. Also, the game uses its world to portray social problems like the class war, social tensions between rich and the poor, a well-fed conservative familiy making the life of a single mom difficult – things like that. It does abandon the virtues but is therefore more mature than any game released before or after.

Also, God appeared to me when I was sleeping and he had this to say about Ultima 7.

"I want Ultima 7 to be rediscovered amongst the RPG crowd - designers and players. When it comes to the social aspect of it, U7's world is the most realistic game world out there. It is not realistic because its lore is so complicated (Morrowind) nor is it realistic because you have NPCs bumping around (Gothic, Oblivion). It is realistic because every NPC is given life through combining writing and scheduling (that put the Gothic series and Oblivion to shame). They were written into human beings. And they were written to affect the persons around them. And thus you see things like conservative rich family making life difficult for the single mom and her son, two beggars spending their days around in bitterness and world-hating, a father killing his daughter's best friend because she was not human, social tensions between the rich and poor, tensions between the poor and poor, outcasts of the society trying to fit into this cruel world, a man cheating on his wife with a young religious girl and so on. Ultima isn't realistic because of its game mechanics, lore or graphics. It is realistic because of its human values, because the game world is filled with humans. They lie, they hurt, they laugh, they do random acts of kindness, they fuck around like animals, they live, they enjoy simple things, etc - Ultima 7 realized the importance of the human heart and used it. It is not perfect, but there is no reason to leave this thing in the 90's and never perfect it. There is a lot to learn from Ultima 7 and much of it could improve current games."

It's God's favorite game and that should say a lot.

Also, it is the first RPG to have weather effects like rain or snow, and the level of interactivity is only just being matched by the later Elder Scrolls games. Even Oblivion does not allow you to change babies' diapers just for the sake of it.

The sequel Serpent Isle was described by one of our most famous reviewers as Ultima meets Final Fantasy. This statement, though making me cringe, is not that far away from truth since it is the most plot-driven RPG of its time, with heavy doses of character drama. The themes are dark, with most of them involving death and sex... Speaking of sex, there is also a graphic sex scene it, though you can sleep with more people than the one whom the developers dedicated the graphic scene to. And depending on your gender, it is also the first graphic lesbian sex scene in an RPG. Serpent Isle is also one of the early Warren Spector games.


Ultima VII, Part Two: Serpent Isle


Ultima VII, Part Two: Serpent Isle


Ultima VII, Part Two: Serpent Isle



Ultima Underworld seriesDungeon Master also inspired the Ultima Underworld series. But unlike Eye of the Beholder or the first Lands of Lore, they were no Dungeon Master clones and featured real, fluid 3D movement. You could jump, look up and down and this was even before Wolfenstein 3D! Two months before in fact. And in Wolf and DOOM you could not jump, or look up or down. They are also the first RPGs to have branching dialogue. There I said it. It is the truth. In fact UU did a lot of things that makes it rise above from the status of a mere dungeon crawler. The writing itself is also pretty fine even by nowadays standards.


Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds


Like other Ultima games, UU also went for the simulated world design. You can fish, combine random objects into useful objects, have conversations with NCPs, throw stuff at people – it is interactive in more ways than one. This was done by Looking Glass Studios, who during their short lifespan always have tried to combine gameplay and narrative in the most brilliant way possible. This can already be seen in the first Ultima Underworld. They managed to make the dungeon a living world with living people, and they did it without any form of NPC schedules. This game is dungeon crawling at its finest. It took some time for the RPG genre to actually use fluid 3D movement (Lands of Lore still had the classic step-by-step movement to it). It also has a really comfortable interface for that time; in other dungeon crawlers you had to click on "step" to move and on "sword" to kill, while in this game it all depends on the way you move and use your mouse.

Ultima Underworld II uses the same engine and gameplay mechanics as the first game but adds a more detailed plot to it. Chronologically it is the chapter between Ultima 7 part I and part II. It starts with you and a bunch of other characters stuck inside a castle. You have to travel to different dimensions to find the key to escape this magical prison. As a way to continue the themes of Ultima 7, UU2 also features socialistic themes that sometimes approach a communistic agenda. It is only a small part of it however, because in the end you will be involved in something that is entirely in the realms of the surreal.

If the Underworld games were so cool, mature, ahead of their time, then why did not anyone try to copy them? The truth is that no one played them. No one could in fact. The graphics were just too extreme and demanding then. Sadly now, Underworld's extreme graphics are not as extreme anymore, especially when compared to Mass Effect's extreme facial expressions, so no one will play them nowadays either. Sigh. Let's give another huge collective "fuck you!" to history.


Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds



Micropose RPGsAround this time, Micropose, known mostly for their strategy and simulation games, tried its hand at other genres too – three adventure games and four RPGs. I will let someone else introduce Micropose's adventure games to the world.

Darklands is a game set in 15th century Germany, though a mythical version of it. I see similarities to today's Elder Scrolls games: big open-ended world, ability to play after finishing the main quest, etc. It also is the first RPG game to use real-time gameplay with combat that can be paused (later popularized by Baldur's Gate games). The level of historical detail is just amazing. If you ignore the fact you kill demons and dwarves in this game, it really manages to bring that 15th century Germany alive. Sadly, the game can get boring. Since there is a limited amount of things you can do in a city and since all cities and quests are variations of each other and... well it is one of the games that can be described as repetitive procedure generation. However, Darklands must be praised so someone would consider making another RPG with a historical setting.


Darklands



Darklands


The other two RPGs by Micropose are BloodNet and Challenge of the Five Realms. BloodNet is the best known. It is an adventure-RPG hybrid, though definitely much more uncomfortable than the Quest for Glory games. The setting's theme is cyberpunk-vampire. You play a hacker that recently turned into a vampire, but the implant in your head stopped the disease and now you have limited time to find a cure. Challenge of the Five Realms on the other hand is a classic fantasy game where you take on the role of a king on a quest to save his kingdom from destruction. Both these games are really uncomfortable to play, but BloodNet is the one that takes the dive in how awful it plays out. The sad thing is that the writing is just brilliantly entertaining in (though it is all style and no substance).


BloodNet


BloodNet


"What about The Legacy: Realm of Terror?“

What about it?


The Legacy: Realm of Terror


It is a dungeon crawler set in a Gothic mansion with a touch of Ctulhu. You kill monsters in it. Satisfied? Now let's move on.


Wizardry 7The last Wizardry game for quite some time as the 8th game came out at the end of 2001. It is a very difficult dungeon crawler with lots of random combat. Graphically and sound-wise, it also did not evolve as much as the Ultima games, or even Might and Magic. All the dungeons, towns, forests... basically all the screens look the same. It has step-by-step movement and NPC interaction with typing. It has a certain appealing atmosphere, thanks to the narrator who starts talking about the meaning of life and existence in almost every screen. It also tried to bring some life to the world by making the events random; you are competing against other factions and often when you think you have found the articfact you have been looking for, it turns out that it has been taken. Then you have to find out who took it and sometimes the guy is already dead when you finally find him. It is not scripted, it is all random and brilliant in a certain way... and quite frustrating.

There are several different beginnings, depending on your ending of the last game and several endings depending on what you did or did not do in the game. It is a pity that it is so hard and uncomfortable, cause there are a lot of good ideas. It is also the first real cosmic Wizardry, taking your 14th century knights into a galactic-wide war.




Realms of Arkania seriesMost of the RPGs previously discussed were developed in the United States. But with Realms of Arkania there is finally a chance to talk about German RPGs. This trilogy is based on the German "pen and paper" game. It is also the most complex computer RPG series ever, even more complex than the Wizardries. Wizardry had more frustration than complexity, there is a subtle difference there. Realms of Arkania is complex because of the realism. There are just so many ways to die or frustrate the player in this one. Forgot to sleep in blankets? Dead! Well not really, you will just get diseased, which ends with death, unless you have studied your manual and know how to find good herbs to make some healthy herbal tea. Also, saving your game costs 50 gold.

It was followed by two sequels. The second is considered the best and the third has full voice-acting. The interface remained the same throughout the series and it is similar to the one from the Might and Magic series. The movement style is inspired by Dungeon Master and the use of pictures instead of commands comes from Might and Magic 3. The graphics received some minor improvements throughout the different releases, with the last one being a fluid 3D game. The battles take place in a separate grid-based combat screen meant for tactical gameplay. Basically, this series is complex enough that beating it will earn you the title of "the man" in some circles. Question is, do you really want to be the "the man" in those circles? Haven't you got anything better to do?


Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny


Realms of Arkania Vol. 2: Star Trail



The rest of The Magic Candle gamesSince I do not really want to repeat myself, I am just going to say that the rest of MC games offered pretty much the same thing as the original The Magic Candle. But here is a short overview of them. The main hero is the same, you pick companions in the beginning, a lot of situations can only be solved if one of your party members has certain skills, you still save the world from blights and shit while exploring the lore and the world, and so on. The graphics engine received a little update. The games look somewhat like Ultima 6. However, Magic Candle 2 is one of the first games to have a journal. And for a long time, games not in the Might and Magic and Magic Candle series did not have a journal.

Bloodstone looks quite hopelessly outdated since it uses the same engine. It stands out for being the only all-dwarven game in existence, made for dwarf fans featuring lots of dwarf stuff fantasy. In the Magic Candle lore it is considered a prequel of sorts. You take on the role of a dwarf who lost his clan and now you have find other clans so that all dwarves of dwarrovrealm can be united against non-dwarven enemies. For dwarf fans wishing for something entirely dwarven, this is something to look into.


Bloodstone: An Epic Dwarven Tale



Lands of LoreRemember Westwood of Eye of the Beholder fame? Well, this is the game they did next. Lands of Lore is basically a plot-driven dungeon crawler featuring almost exactly the same kind of gameplay like the Eye of the Beholder series. The graphics certainly suffer from the "every location looks the same" syndrome. The difference is that unlike Eye, or any other RPG, Lands of Lore is not epic fantasy. Instead it is more like a classical fairy tale about kings and witches. This fairy tale atmosphere is what makes this game unique.

It still has the old step-by-step movement, unlike the Ultima Underworld games, but on the other hand this probably allowed more people to play this game since the UU games were ahead of their time. The CD version of the game is one of the first examples of full voice acting in RPGs and it is the first RPG ever to star Patrick Stewart, here as a noble ruler figure in mortal danger.

There are some elements that distinguish it from other RPGs. For example, you do not create your character, you pick one from the four available. They all have different personalities, which comes out when they comment on something (the player can click on objects in the game world, just like in an adventure game, which triggers the comments of the character). Okay, the comments are not that different... but their personalities are especially established through the the stellar voice-acting (for that time at least). And another thing, you only get to play a male character in this game.

There is no player-controlled interaction like in Eye of the Beholder (keywords) games or Underworld (branching dialogue) – character interaction is done through cut-scenes similar to the style of recent action games. In essence, Lands of Lore is the finest Dungeon Master clone in existence and if you have played one then there is no reason to play the others.






Dark Sun seriesDark Sun was a game SSI worked on for a long time. And because of this game SSI hired other development studios like Cybertech, Stormfront and Westwood to do D&D based games. SSI spent years on developing an engine for this game and when it finally arrived, computer graphics had taken it a step further with games like DOOM. This game just did not arouse the attention it deserved.

But first we will take a closer look at the setting. Dark Sun is one of the few with an interesting Dungeons and Dragons setting. It is basically Vanilla Fantasy meets Post-Apocalyptic World. The world is a huge desert, halflings are cannibals and people do all sorts of evil things to each other. The setting has a slight Mesoamerican atmosphere to it, thanks to stuff like god kings called Tectujacthlpact and the whole society living on the whim of its god kings and their priests.

In the first game you take control of slaves who are used as gladiators. Your goal is to escape. And here we see how this game provides alternative solutions, and some choices and consequences. Though not affecting the main plot, you have different ways to escape from your life as a slave. Some of them lead to the death of certain NPCs. That is however only the beginning. Wake of the Ravager follows the adventures of that party and your goal is to save the world.

In both Dark Sun games you have to create the entire party so you won't have any character drama like in Serpent Isle or Betrayal at Krondor. But there is branching dialogue and lots of interesting quests with memorable characters to meet. Combat is the same tactical complex turn-based system from the old Gold Box games, though it is a bit more intuitive to get into it here. And that's all about the Dark Sun games - the last D&D games from SSI and in essence pretty nice Baldur's Gate-like RPGs before they arrived.


Dark Sun: Shattered Lands



Quest for Glory II-IVWhile discussing the first title, everything has already been said that you need to know as why the QfG games are awesome. I won't repeat that, but I will put the next games in the series in the spotlights because they are awesome. And must be preached. The second game is much more plot-driven than the first, has more fleshed out characters and is set in an Arabian Nights-style, spiced up with some elements from Humprey Bogart movies and from the Marx brothers. The world of QfG II conveys a very unique and a remarkable feel. Also, QfG II starts the tradition of allowing you to transfer your character throughout the series.

QfG is the only series that has used this to the full potential. Character transfering already existed in the 80's, but since you could transfer your characters from the Wizardry series to Bard's Tale, there was not much room for a purpose regarding narrative. QfG is the first game series that gives the impression to continue an imported character's story. Aside from the Baldur's Gate series and the later Wizardries, it is also the only one. RPGs have usually ignored this wonderful mystery of character transfering and the effects it can have on the narrative.

It is because of these small things, the way the game responds to your playing style and remembers what you did, that makes the QfG character transfer memorable. For example, you have the ability to become a Paladin in this game if you prove yourself worthy, through your actions and not on how many monsters you kill. If you become a Paladin in this game and you transfer your character to the next game, the themes of the that title will adjust themselves to your character's history, meaning that with paladin the focus is on learning what a paladin is and traveling with your mentor. With other classes this is different for instance.

The third game takes place in an African setting and has a story about war. It involves psychedelic drugs and even a sex scene (not graphic, and romantic sex scenes tended to be common in serious Sierra games).

The fourth game however turns back to the basics of the first game. Smaller environment and the emphasis on exploring this small area instead of a plot. The fourth game is also considered the best by both fans and Lori Ann herself. Also, it is one of the first examples of full voice-acting in RPGs. Even better: it is good. John Rhys-Davies as the narrator, Jennifer Hale as the mysterious female, Rob Paulsen, Jim Cummings, Cam Clarke, and many other awesome names. It is even more surprising because there is more text (all good) in this game (all voiced) than in some of the recent games with full voice-acting. The fourth game takes place in a Slavic, early 19th century community and has a very morbid, autumn feel to it.


Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire


Quest for Glory III: Wages of War


Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness


Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness



Betrayal at KrondorThis is an open-ended plot-driven game. What does that actually mean? It means that while possessing a linear plot, you have limitless ways (an obvious exaggeration, but it is required to deliver a point) to aquire the requirements for finishing the chapter. When it comes to writing this game is one of the most beautiful RPGs ever. Yes, the writing is better than in Ultima 7, despite the lack of mature topics. You see, while Ultima 7 suffered from the "Thou knowest, I hath hearken the crow sitteth on the fence last fornight ago" pseudo-medieval speak, and Serpent Isle was sometimes over-written in its execution, Betrayal at Krondor stays balanced. There is a moving plot with many twists, well-defined characters with different motives, a sad ending and a beautifully written world. It really is one of the most beautiful RPGs when it comes to exploration. You can go anywhere, any time. The soundtrack is also years ahead in quality compared to its contemporaries. It was published by Sierra after all, who back then possessed some of the most talented composers in the industry. There is also combat, which is turn-based, but you can as well avoid it when you sneak past enemies. I wish I had more words to say how great this game is, but sadly this game is so good that I just do not find the words for it. It is a different shade of epic, something we have not had for a while. Definitely one of the heroes of the RPG genre fo the writer of this article.






The Elder Scrolls: ArenaWhile many franchises of the 80's were continued in the 90's, most of them faded away. The 90's themselves did not really produce any franchises that would last more than a decade. But there was this one, random game that later birthed such blockbusters as Morrowind and Oblivion.

Arena is quite different from games of its time. Well, not really since it borrowed ideas from Legends of Valour, an open-ended, random game, with fluid 3D movement and combat more similar to Underworld than to Dungeon Master. But where Legends of Valour failed, since it was a ugly and a buggy game, Arena succeeded.

Why? I don't know, but to me it looks as ugly as Legends of Valour. I would not say that it is a good game, it is not even huge in scope once you take a look in detail. This game randomly generates its world and quests, so you can spend your whole life playing this game (but if you really do it then you are a sad sad person). NPCs are just random sentences walking around: "I am a thief!" which is just like the early Ultima's (think Ultima II). Some of them provide quests in the vein of "Go north, bring me, thank you!" You can try to walk from one end of the world to the other, but since the game randomly generates the world as you walk, you will never reach your destination (the keyword here is that you have to travel in the "defined" ways). So basically, this game is just a huge pile of shi... I mean randomness.

You do get snow and rain, and holidays that affect what monsters roam the town, as well as the prices in stores. There is also a story that involves finding the seven pieces of shit to stop the great evil. But the gamers of 1994 liked it. They thought the graphics were pretty (in reality they are uglier than other games of that time). They liked the replayability that they would not need to buy another game as it could be played forever, and so Bethesda was in the business.




Superhero League of HobokenNow this unknown game here, is one of the few RPG parodies. It is not the first one, since RPGs from the 80's mostly parodied the genre. But as time passed and the makers changed from sophomoric college students to respectable human beings, games started to take themselves more seriously. Superhero makes fun of similar dungeon crawlers, though the combat system is actually lifted more from Bard's Tale than from the Dungeon Master clones. Since it is made by Steve Meretzky and Legend entertainment, known for their adventure games with horrible humor and bad puns, Superhero features a lot of that too. It is a required taste.






Ultima VIII: PaganUltima 8 moved away from the open-endedness of Ultima 7. Instead it is much more like an action game with jumping and real-time combat using the mouse. However, it is also one of the first sensual, dark games (like Diablo or Bloodlines) and instead of the keywords of previous Ultimas this one has branching dialogue.

The graphics are the most beautiful of its time, and indeed they are more beautiful to these modern eyes than most other games of the 90's. While some Ultimas had interesting music, it is not until Ultima 8 that music plays a major part in setting the atmosphere. The Ultima Underworld series had a dynamic, ambient soundtrack accompanying the player's actions, but the quality and the memorability is much more higher in Ultima 8.

Regarding the plot, it is the middle chapter in the Guardian trilogy with as a main theme "ends justify the means". The Avatar is trapped in a dark, occult mushroom world where they cut people's heads off on a regular basis. Naturally, it angered a lot of fans who had not played an Ultima since the 6th one and had no idea of the new, more darker direction starting with Ultima 7.

Ultima 8 also has the honor of possessing the most detailed spell-casting system involving semi-occultic magic rituals with pentagrams, candles and chants of the most satanic nature. Unlike the previous Ultimas, this one does not allow you to play as a woman and there is no sex or reference to it in the game.






Ravenloft seriesRavenloft was one of those D&D games that SSI published and some poor unkown company developed. This series was made by Dreamforge, formerly known as Event Horizon. Their first RPG as Dreamforge was a simple attempt called Dungeon Hack, created to drive players to suicide, published by SSI in 1993. After these Ravenloft games they did Anvil of Dawn, a pretty typical 90's dungeon crawler, and probably their most famous game: an adventure gem called Sanitarium.

Now on to Ravenloft. First about the setting. In D&D lore, Ravenloft is a place of hopelesness, it is a pocket dimension where people get trapped. They are then taken from their homeworld and thrown into a place of torment, sadness and pain. And as is common in Ravenloft campaigns, the adventure should feel like a nightmare, something unreal. In Ravenloft the player should doubt the reality of his surroundings and also his sanity. Unfortunately, none of that is in these games, though they try to be rather melancholic. Essentially these games follow the "story dungeon crawler" route like the Westwood games - Eye of the Beholder II and Lands of Lore. But the writing style takes some time to get used to. Just check the screenshots below.

These games did introduce some improvements. For one, two years after the release of Ultima Underworld step-by-step movement was history finally history; these games featured fluid 3D movement. Combat is more similar to the Underworld games as well, though you cannot control your sword directly with the mouse. You can only click the monster, which is a huge relief after the clumsy interface of those Dungeon Master clones where you had to click on the sword picture for each character. They also feature semi-branching dialogue (looks and feels like branching, but most of the time you only get one branch), which appeared to become a must for RPGs. And not only that, each alignment received differently written responses to NPCs. While the NPC responses did not change, it still provided a nice sense of immersion.

Dreamforge also did the Menzoberranzan game, which is quite similar to the Ravenloft games, except that it takes place in the classic Forgotten Realms setting and has Drizzt as a party member. And it is quite an awful game.


Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession


Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession



World of Aden gamesTwo games in this setting released in the same year. Thunderscape is a first-person perspective party-based dungeon crawler developed by SSI, and Entomorph is a Zelda-like RPG developed by Cyberlore (who previously did Al-Qadim, which was also a Zelda-like RPG in semi-Arabic setting and whose most famous game is Playboy: The Mansion). I do not have much to say about these games, since I covered enough first-person view RPGs to know how they play (and Thunderscape is a horrible, awful game). Everyone also knows what Zelda-like is (you walk around, waving your stick in real-time while solving puzzles and killing monsters). Naturally Entomorph is more story-oriented, with its pre-defined character with a dark past.

But the most important thing about these games is that they are the first RPGs to have really inspired, quality soundtracks. Of course, their quality is thanks to something called Red Audio Book techonology that is too complicated for this article to get into. They deliver the first, most beautiful soundtracks in an RPG, both composed by Danny Pelfrey.


World of Aden: Thunderscape


Entomorph: Plague of the Darkfall



AlbionAnd another RPG from Germany. This one actually makes me want to compare it to Japanese RPGs. For one thing it feels like Star Ocean. It is space fantasy. You – the space traveller – gets trapped on a not so technological planet filled with sexy cat people. However, comparing it to Star Ocean is unfair since the approach is much more serious in Albion. You also get to deal with environmental issues as a sub-theme. Evil space capitalists want to deprive this primitive planet from its natural resources.

Albion is a rather... curious game. I will try to illustrate what I mean. It switches between between 2D screens and 3D screens. 2D is what you get when travelling in the wilderness or visiting someone's house. 3D is what you get when exploring cities and dungeons. But unfortunately the 3D perspective is terribly confusing and ugly. NPC interaction is done through a mix of keywords and branching dialogue. It is like a mix of everything – a 2D JRPG-like game and a 3D dungeon crawler. It is a unique game and definitely one of the historical must-plays. There is very little support for the furry subculture in western RPGs, but Albion does this job quite nicely.






Anvil of Dawn and StonekeepTwo rather typical dungeon crawlers of the nineties. What makes them so typical? I cannot exactly pin-point it, but it is a "been there, done that" affair with these games. Games like these make me glad that Martian Dreams exists. Both these games follow the Lands of Lore story dungeon crawler route - you dungeon crawl from one dungeon to another until you manage to kill the final boss. Anvil is bit more sophisticated than Stonekeep though (especially in the story department), but the latter looks better. On a surprising note, while most games started to adopt Ultima Underworld's fluid 3D movement, these two still feature the classic step-by-step movement. It is fluid step-by-step but still the classic principle.

You might wonder why I do not mention Ishar as one of the most typical dungeon crawlers of the 90's. It is because Ishar sucks. Only masochists and sad people like Ishar. These games however do not suck, no matter how uninspired they are. In fact, they are quite awesome, for dungeon crawlers that is. But Lands of Lore is more awesome and all dungeon crawlers are too similiar for their own good. Anvil of Dawn also has the honor of carrying the torch of journal in these dark times.


Anvil of Dawn


Stonekeep


DaggerfallThe second Elder Scrolls game, and the one where the series got its face. It was in this game that the universe of Tamriel was finally thought out. It was the first game where the player could go into a library of some sort and read through all those books that tell interesting tales and facts which have nothing to do with the game itself. The basic gameplay was also put down – join a lot of guilds, do a lot of linear quests, become more powerful, travel around, kill stuff, get loot, live your own life in the game and never finish the main quest – that has become a must for an Elder Scrolls game.

This game also goes for the simulated world experience, though being more like Darklands than Ultima 7, since it does not use the game world to portray social problems (how could it when NPCs only serve to give out quests or say something random?). The game world itself is not hand-crafted but randomly generated like in Arena.

When it comes to dialogue, it is all keywords again, and no, there are no characters in this game. But on the other hand, you have more freedom than in every other game that precedes it. And as a child of its time, it has FMV cut-scenes with live actors. In essence, there was something very different with this game and it stands as an example that games made in the Dark Ages are not worser than games of before, because it is much more playable and enjoyable than Arena and it provides a nice variety from the usual Dungeon Master clones with its political tone and unique feel.



DiabloAnother interesting game from the mid-nineties that also started a rather famous franchise. However, unlike any other RPG past or future, this one is the most notorious one ever. Why? Does it to anything ambitious? Not exactly. Diablo, like the Might and Magic series, takes the simplest form of gameplay, which in this case is inspired by the 80's classic Rogue, and makes it easy, user-friendly and accessible to everyone. You just need a finger to play Diablo (well technically you need the rest of your hand to, since you have to hold and move the mouse with something). And to top that, Diablo has excellent production values – a marvellous soundtrack, beautiful CGI movies and detailed isometric graphics. Surprisingly, since it is a simple dungeon crawler after all, Diablo has really memorable NPCs, though partly thanks to the stellar voice-acting. I consider it the first RPG to have quality voice-acting.

Like Dungeon Master, Diablo also inspired an entire decade of similar RPGs which will be ignored here, since there is a limit on how many times a man can chant "Diablo clone, diablo clone" without losing his sanity. I will mention one important thing about Diablo much further in the article.


Diablo


You might have noticed that I did not mention any Amiga RPGs in this section. That is because that Amiga RPGs are not really anything compared to the ones for DOS/Windows. They are usually pale imitators, except for Darkmere. But Darkmere's main reasons for being worthy of mentioned are the pretty look and that is has a sensual, dark atmospheric feel. Here is a bit of Darkmere to satisfy that one raving mad Amiga fan.


Darkmere


Now let's move on.


Continued: The birth of new era - late 90's to modern age

Table of Contents: The World of Western RPGs