Eye of the Beholder

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The holy symbol or spell-book must be in the characters hand and right clicking brings up a menu from which you can select your spells. Again players of current gen games will be familiar with the spells as they have only been added to over the years, not removed. ~Rusty Quiva

Eye of the Beholder

To this day one can often find reference in  any official Dungeons & Dragons game to “the Heroes of Waterdeep”. This game is what they are referring to and i count myself lucky to have played this and its 2 sequels (Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon and Eye of the Beholder III: Assault on Myth Drannor). I have fond memories of sifting through reems of old-school laser print-outs of maps made entirely of ASCII characters trying to find my way through some complex dungeon puzzle.

Story: Waterdeep is having some problems with their sewers. The local council employs 4 heroes to do something about it. A few steps inside the sewers and a trap is sprung sealing the intrepid party inside. To escape they must venture deeper into the sewers which turn out to be the beginning of a sinister dungeon.

Gameplay: You start by creating your 4 heroes. Players of current gen D&D games will be somewhat familiar with the character creation process.

Once you have all 4 created you can enter the game and begin your adventure. Characters have 2 hands each in which can be placed a variety of weapons, or in the case of clerics and paladins a holy symbol, and a spell-book for mages.

Dungeons and Dragons - Eye of the Beholder

The weapons are activated by right clicking on their image next to the characters portrait. Melee weapons will be swung and ranged weapons will be fired or thrown. The hand that was just used becomes temporarily unavailable as the character recovers from its use. Spells are managed in a similar manner. The holy symbol or spell-book must be in the characters hand and right clicking brings up a menu from which you can select your spells. Again players of current gen games will be familiar with the spells as they have only been added to over the years, not removed. All spells had to be memorized before hand and the number of castable spells was limited by level. So a player would choose which spells to memorize and would then need to rest to be able to cast them. Inventory is a bit similar to Diablo in that each character has slots for particular equipment and a number of backpack spaces for everything else.

Everything in EoB takes up a single space and nothing stacks, with the exception of arrows fro which there is a quiver. Something not seen in D&D games since the EoB series is food rations. Characters get hungry and failing to feed them when their food bar is empty would result in hit-point loss. Movement in the game was square based like wolfenstein and relied on the numeric keypad. Puzzles were solved by interacting with the environment, for example clicking on a lever or placing a gem in a hole.

Dungeons and Dragons - Eye of the Beholder

The player party could grow to include 6 characters total, either by finding other living characters or resurrecting the bones of dead ones found in certain places. Characters in the front rank of the party could use melee attacks while those behind were limited to ranged weapons and spells.

Monsters range from kobolds at the start of the game right up to the Beholder itself at the end. Beholders have 11 eyes, 10 on tentacle-like stalks and a main central one. In the rules of D&D each eye is supposed to cast a spell, but for this game the beholder is limited to about 5 spells. Like its predecessor games EoB would also allow players to move their parties that had successful completed the game into the next game (EoBII) a feature not seen in other games until recently (mass effect 2). The dungeon is broken up into levels, but the gameplay is not entirely linear, requiring the player to return to certain levels after obtaining certain items or to gain certain equipment.

Dungeons and Dragons - Eye of the Beholder

Graphics: Excellent back in its era. Made full use of VGA graphics and was colorful and appropriate. The interface was simple and required little to no explanation. there were not a lot of sprites for each monster, but enough to let you know which way it was looking and which way it was moving and how it was attacking you. The screens I’ve included are only from the first few minutes of the game, but suffice to say there are few different looking areas, each inhabited by its own monsters.

Sound: Again, pretty awesome for its era. Made good use of your sound-blaster pro, but like most games from this era was equally good, just pumped out of a PC speaker. It is a common misconception that a PC speaker is only capable of beeps, but this is not true. The speaker is capable of the same range of sounds as any sound-card it just takes longer to program. However i do know of games that were released even earlier than this with better sound (like pinball dreams which had sound coming out of the speaker akin to today’s MP3s…  No really! It had voice and all).

Controls: Keyboard only or keyboard and mouse. Keyboard only is more difficult, but the game is paced so that with practice a mouse user would only have the advantage of convenience not speed. movement is via the numeric keypad using 8 for forward, 7 for turn 90 degrees to the left, 9 for right, 4 and 6 for strafe left and right and 2 for step backwards.

Overall: An excellent game which will keep you busy for days without a walk-through and at least a full day with one. Has some replayabilty by trying different party make-ups. The ability to move your party into the sequels is awesome. The simple GUI means that back then and today a gamer could pick up how to play in minutes. I never saw a single bug and the game never crashed out.

Deathkeep

Deathkeep

As I prepared for the excruciating experience of preparing my entry into the Review a Bad Game Day worldwide self-flagellation exercise, I realized two key historical gaming themes: first, the rise of the 3D adventure was not without its failures along the way, and second, the history of putrid games released on the PC is an unfortunately long and varied one. My choice, the promisingly-titled first-person AD&D game, Deathkeep, is an evidential exhibit in both.

Deathkeep - pc game - gameplay screenshot

To understand Deathkeep we need to journey back in time to 1987, when Strategic Simulations, Incorporated (SSI), was granted the AD&D license from TSR, Inc. The next seven years were wondrous for the PC Dungeons & Dragons player, as the company released many quality RPGs, beginning with the Gold Box series (of whichSecret of the Silver Blades remains my all-time favorite), the Eye of the Beholderseries, and the later SVGA games such as Menzoberranzan and the Ravenloftgames. I can recall many hours of gaming in the AD&D universe thanks to the talented development teams at SSI. Unfortunately, this review is not about one of those games.

Deathkeep - pc game - gameplay screenshot

The AD&D license expired in 1994, which meant that no new development of games using the AD&D ruleset could be initiated, but games already under production could finish their development cycle. This is how Deathkeep could stay alive and be released on April 30, 1996, a full two years after the license had expired. So between the extra time given to the game and the need to make it the crowning achievement – the legacy, as it were – of the SSI experience with the AD&D universe, you would expect this game to well-nigh pulse with energy while still in the box. You would certainly not expect what appeared to be a very late April Fool’s Day prank from the lads and lasses at SSI.

Deathkeep - pc game - gameplay screenshot

The game begins with a brief semi-animated (mostly a slideshow that occasionally animates, similar to the early days of graphic adventures) which sets up the quest: Stop a generic AD&D villain from reacquiring his long-lost power by recovering three special Orbs from his ancient lair – his “Deathkeep” – which he raised amidst a Dwarven fortress, and deliver them to an ancient three-armed skeleton creature’s temple hidden within that same fortress. Well, not every game can have an interesting and creative storyline, and the hope of those starting the game was that perhaps the game itself would rise above the “every DM in the world has run this story” plot. Unfortunately, the opening sequence may have been the highlight of the game.

Deathkeep - pc game - gameplay screenshot

 

The first real worry that this game might be broken comes immediately after the opening sequence, when you choose your character. Typically in a RPG, a player selects their gender, race, class, abilities, equipment, and so forth, customizing their character and giving it their own unique stamp. In Deathkeep, the game presents a total of THREE characters to choose from: a male Dwarven Fighter, a female Elven Mage, and a male Half-Elf Fighter/Mage. Astonishingly, that’s it. Not even a choice in gender for each character, so if you’re not into cross-dressing but you do like playing Mages, you’re out of luck. At least you could name your character.

Deathkeep - pc game - gameplay screenshot

As for the gameplay itself, the control mechanism was efficient enough: you could opt to use your keyboard or your mouse for a full range of motions. Combat was handled by facing the creature you wanted to disappear and clicking on your mouse until it was gone. No real problem, aside from the incredibly chunky graphics, that is. Maps and inventory screens displayed in 640×480, but the game ran in 320×200, resulting in walls with very poor textures, and creatures that looked like they would be right at home in today’s Minecraft but with lower resolution. The whole game was just hard on the eyes, and considering the some of the amazing games that were released that same year, SSI really had no excuse.

Deathkeep - pc game - gameplay screenshot

So why was Deathkeep such an embarrassment? The answer lies in the timing of the loss of the AD&D license and what system the game was originally designed to play on: the Panasonic 3DO. Deathkeep was first released for the 3DO in 1995, a full year before the Windows release. The 3DO was a 32-bit video game system whose core processor ran at 12.5 MHz, and whose video output was either 640×480 or 320×240 (on 60 MHz North America systems…50 MHz PAL versions ran much better graphics at 768×576 or 384×288). The game was simply ported over to Windows, with less than stellar results.  Of course, the game wasn’t all that good on the 3DO, either.

Deathkeep - pc game - gameplay screenshot

Here’s a little humorous tidbit of knowledge found in the game’s documentation for anyone wondering why I don’t have any screenshots of gameplay: Deathkeep does not permit Windows multi-tasking. Attempts at doing so exits the game. Not a single screenshot utility works, not the standard PrtScn/Paint combo, not Gadwin, not MWSnap, not Screen Rip32, nothing. Perhaps the developers wanted no visual evidence that might implicate them in this sorry mess of a PC-RPG, perhaps not. Truly this is a bad, bad game.

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Deathkeep was promoted as a 1st person 3D game set in the AD&D universe, with “…dungeon delving the way you like it – fast, furious and fun!”  I was one of the unfortunates who purchased the game upon its release (and still have it in my collection of AD&D PC games), and after revisiting it for this review, I am reminded of what I thought back in 1996: This game is neither fast, nor furious, nor fun. It’s games like this one that helped spawn the world-wide “Review a Bad Game Day” phenomena which hopefully will help gamers tell other gamers of some of the pitfalls that await them, while simultaneously presenting an opportunity for us to share our pain with sympathetic readers. So my fellow retrogaming enthusiasts, consider this a solemn warning: should you encounter the excrement that is Deathkeep in your travels, run, don’t walk, away from this game before you suffer as I have suffered!

Panzer General

By the 1990′s, turn-based strategy war games had become highly specialized with a very thin customer base.  Most required a grognard’s ability to juggle multiple battle statistics at once, and had a limited visual appeal.  Then, in 1994, Strategic Simulations Incorporated (SSI) released Panzer General and the wargame genre transformed into a mass market product.

Panzer General game box

Panzer General game box.

Unlike real-time strategy (RTS) games, turn-based strategy games permit the user time to ponder their next move without having to press the pause button.  The drawback is that once you’ve committed your resources you must watch your turn – and your then your opponent’s – play out.  To state the obvious, chess is an example of turn-based strategy.

Typical combat screen in Panzer General

Typical combat screen in Panzer General.

Panzer General offered players both single scenario play, in which they could assume the role of an Allied or an Axis general, as well as a Campaign Mode, in which the player attempts to win World War II for Germany.  The campaign runs from 1939 to 1945, and as units gain battle experience, they become stronger, and the player (as general) gains access to upgrades and reinforcements – assuming they are victorious, that is.  If the player achieves their scenario objectives with five or more game turns to spare, it is considered a “Major Victory,” which unlocks further game elements.  Major Victories enable the player to alter history, such as invading Britain on the heels of victory in France, or even landing an invasion force in North America to capture Washington, D.C.

The invasion of Malta in Panzer General

The invasion of Malta in Panzer General

The game was published across several platform, including versions for the Panasonic 3D0 system, MS-DOS and Windows based computers, Sony PlayStation, and for the Macintosh.  It also spawned a plethora of sequels, including: the 5-Star Series (Allied General, Fantasy General, Pacific General, People’s General, and Star General), Panzer General II, Panzer General 3D Assault, Panzer General III: Scorched Earth, and Panzer General: Allied Assault.  Clearly gamers enjoyed wargames once again!

Furious combat in Panzer General.

Furious combat in Panzer General.

Panzer General was both well-reviewed and well-received by the gaming public.  Besides receiving high review scores from the critics, gamers just kept playing the game.  To this day, there are sites on the Internet devoted to this game, with hundreds of scenarios, new units, and even new features.  Mods are the fountain of youth for classic games, and Panzer General was no exception, as they managed to keep the game fresh and interesting years after its release.

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Ultimately, the game’s fabulous gameplay coupled with its genre-changing aspect make it a classic retro game that every retrogamer needs to play!