Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"Secret of the Silver Blades", 1990.

Here's a blast from the past... I think there's a very good chance the box for this one is still kicking around my basement.

The stunning sequel to


The frigid valleys of the Dragonspine Mountains echo with the desperate plea of terrified miners: "Heroes of the Forgotten Realms, save us from evil!"

Unwittingly digging in unhallowed ground, they have disturbed an ancient vault and released its terrible content. Scores of horrific creatures now infest the mine shaft -- and threaten to escape into the world above!

You and your heroes must find the way to contain this scourge. All hope depends upon your ability to unravel the age-old mysteries surrounding this evil infestation.

SECRET OF THE SILVER BLADES improves on the award-winning game system used in POOL OF RADIANCE and CURSE OF THE AZURE BONDS. Continue your exciting saga in the FORGOTTEN REALMS game world -- transfer your characters from CURSE OF THE AZURE BONDS. Or create all-new characters. Either way, explore the largest 3-D adventuring expanse ever in an AD&D computer game. Battle monsters you've never before encountered. Use higher character levels, and invoke new, wondrous spells.

All this plus spectacular graphics add up to unequalled excitement in AD&D computer fantasy role-playing!

The what mountains? Eww. If the miners are lucky they might hit a rich vein of pink, throbbing draconian spinal cord. "Unwittingly digging in unhallowed ground"? Isn't most ground unhallowed? It is not customary to mine in the cellar of a rectory. "Released its terrible content" -- the use of the singular there is probably correct, but rings false in the way you might try to describe a single leg-clothing as a pant. Horrific creatures threatening to escape into the world above? We can solve this secret with a single strategically-placed cask of black powder, I think.

"Find the way to contain this scourge." OK, how about we burn fires at the mine opening until the mine fills up with carbon monoxide, asphyxiating its unspeakable inhabitants? Oh, that's right... science doesn't work in fantasyland. (I recall a similar solution to a related problem in one of Piers Anthony's Xanth books, the reading of which was probably near contemporary to the release of this game. Now let us never mention that again. Discussing having read Dragonlance novels is one thing, but some shameful indulgences are unredeemable.) "All hope depends... unravel the age-old mysteries..." Well, yes and no. Is it really necessary to understand an evil infestation in order to remedy it? Can't it suffice to merely ice all the monsters without getting to the bottom of the circmstances that delivered them here? Maybe that is the real engine behind the D&D alignment system: monsters attack because they are monstrous, while heroes slay in search of depeer knowledge. If you meet the Buddha in the cave... and any one of those 40 goblins might have Buddha nature.

Again, a claim that Pool's engine has been improved upon, which sounds a bit like claiming that a house whose extension has itself had an extension attached to it enjoys new architectural sophistication. No: the game designers have merely raised the level cap from the arbitrary and constraining level prior games had imposed on them, likely to cater to the somewhat limited calculating abilities of the positively primeval microcomputers the earlier games were intended to support. Here's a very specific claim: "explore the largest 3-D adventuring expanse ever in an AD&D computer game." Hey, Nimrod the hunter, your only competition in this category are your own previous efforts, which you've just been praising as "award-winning". So: game 3 in this series is "larger" than games 1 and 2 were. (One way I wouldn't think of these games is 3-D: there's this 2D grid, see, and you can go up and down staircases to other, different 2D grids. Ergo: 3-D. Well, yes and no. But what about the 1st-person view of the mine passages? Well yes, if a series of procedurally-generated still pictures of interior rooms drawn using single-point perspective means that we can call a game 3-D, then the descriptor is, technically, correct. I think they're just setting themselves up for player disappointment. This whole paragraph is usefully summed up in the final two sentences: "Battle monsters you've never before encountered. Use higher character levels, and invoke new, wondrous spells." Those are the improvements.

"All this plus spectacular graphics" aaand that's when I stopped reading. SSI, this game looks just like Pool of Radiance did two years earlier -- and it was no spring chicken. We understand that there are nails that your marketing department has explicitly demanded you hit on the head, but you need to find ways to more artfully work them in. Here you're just looking us straight in the eye and lying to our faces. Players do not expect spectacular graphics from a Gold Box game and they know they won't be getting any. "Unequalled excitement"? All I know is that I played through Pool and Curse, but never came out the other end of this game. Maybe its improvements were too extensive for me.

The box artwork is curiously repellent. The earlier Gold Box game boxes have obvious hooks: dragons, babes, etc. Here we are faced with an apparently-evil band of enemies so motley it doesn't look like the same type of monster appears twice: a mage (ooh, dark robe -- badass!) rides a death-sled (check those gnarly metal runners and the spikes on the side and back!) with a red-bearded barbarian at the reins and some sinister human remains (Secret of the Silver Blades: Weekend at Bernie's 3), while a pair of mangy demihumans patrol on horseback (c'mon, the ugly mug staring down the reader doesn't even have an intact helmet!), one more follows on foot as well as a giant and two human warriors. Oh, a couple more sinister heads can be seen behind the ridge the sled is traveling on. All told, a menacing dozen. We'll be sipping tea topside within 20 combat rounds! The only question is: whose living room wall is the sled's monster skull going to grace? "Oh, this? Yeah, we stole it from a handful of presumably evil opponents we ran into who were going sledding. I think we're going to make it the logo for our heavy metal band." I guess they needed art that telegraphed "Dragonspine Mountains", since art depicting the actual setting of the game -- inside a mine -- wouldn't be very exciting. Well, not until Peter Jackson's storyboard artists got ahold of it.

(Do evil creatures ride evil steeds? Does this goblinoid feed its horse the hearts of innocents or oats and apples like everyone else? Does he brush and groom it every day? Is the fantasy teamster profession a true neutral one, granting use of horses and tackle to all buyers, good and evil, provided they promise to treat the animals well and give the stableboys paid coffee breaks and health benefits? The economy of fantasy kingdoms has always been a rich field for speculation to me.)

(My next question was going to involve the attire of the skeleton and the giant, but this may be going off in a Seinfeld direction. "Skeletons in cloaks? What's the deal with skeletons in cloaks? Are they afraid of getting chilled to the bone?"