Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Shadow Sorcerer", 1991.

I gush over Westwood's Forgotten Realms AD&D games for SSI, but vomit all over U.S. Gold's Dragonlance AD&D games for them. Was it the companies' different corporate cultures that resulted in such a strong divergence of opinion? Is the problem just the subject matter -- as with Dragonstrike, could Westwood have made better Dragonlance games than U.S. Gold did? These and other questions... have no answer.

A whole new look!
A whole new way
to play!

SHADOW SORCERER
AN ANIMATED FANTASY ADVENTURE

SHADOW SORCERER combines elements of role-playing with strategy, exploration and animated action. It's an exciting new way to play computer AD&D fantasy gaming!

Control four characters at the same time -- even during fully-animated real-time combat! All in 3-D isometric perspective!

Select your party from 16 different heroes, each with pre-made attributes. You've got nothing but trouble ahead: hundreds of refugees who desperately need your help to find safe haven.

Strange monsters that inhabit the vast wilderness, caverns and dungeons. An army of Draconians led by a red dragon!

When the spells and weapons start flying, you'll love the simple "point-and-click" interface!

SHADOW SORCERER. It's a whole new experience in fantasy gaming!

[screenshot]
Control four characters at once even during real-time combat!
[screenshot]
Play in the DRAGONLANCE game world -- in 3-D isometric view!
[screenshot]
One of the many colorful characters who can help you on your quest.

The screenshots don't entirely sell me, and the captions just reiterate points made earlier in the copy. I see an isometric view reminiscent of Populous or (if you like) Knight Lore, but (I bet) less fun. The bottom screenshot tells me that this is a game for babies -- this game's Tom Bombadil moment, I suppose, a mismatch with its intended tone of refugee salvation.

They keep harping on its "animated" nature. "Animated action"? Is it possible to have an action game with no animation? Still Life: The Arcade Shooter. (I suppose you can have non-animated sprite movement, like eg. the textmode sprites in ZZT.) Touting a combination of role-playing, strategy, exploration and action concerns me, colouring with all the crayons but ending up with brown rather than rainbow. But no, they reassure me, "[i]t's an exciting new way to play computer AD&D fantasy gaming!" More fun than Pool of Radiance? The box isn't gold, to that's not a good sign. Here's the deal, U.S. Gold -- this is your third kick at the can, and your previous two were duds. Why should I trust you now? Well, they did change their approach -- this game is a plot sequel to Dragons of Flame, but the gameplay is very, very different.

Then we get this shopping list: control 4 characters simultaneously -- fun in Syndicate, but this is no Syndicate -- during fully-animated (there they go again) real-time (uh-oh) combat -- sounds like a headache to me! -- in 3-D isometric perspective ... wihch is a design decision, not a selling point. Congratulations, SSI, you've compounded my concern with more concern. I suppose they're just trying their hardest to talk up the game they have to sell, rather than coming up with misleading or deceptive claims about it.

Why would I want to select from a pool of characters with pre-made attributes? Then I can't cheat and give them all 18s! (Not such an egregious cheat, since the AD&D games are still quite difficult even with stat-pumped characters.) I suppose this gives the game more of a "turn on and play" feel without needing to go through tedious character generation? Here we have a third concern: hundreds of refugees desperately need my help. That tells me: "you will need to protect countless NPCs with no sense of self-preservation." Maybe it's more fun than it sounds, as broken "accompany and protect" missions weren't yet such an industry cliche at this point. Then I start getting more interested: strange monsters, caverns, dungeons. (Am I leading refugees through dungeons? Doesn't seem the most prudent...) The army of Draconians sounds like an un-fun pain in the ass, but I concede to interest in the encounter with the red dragon. I like that GUIs were sufficiently novel in 1991 that the simple "point-and-click" interface warrants mention and quotation marks rather than just being something gamers swim through like fish in water.

You know what I don't need, Larry Elmore? Dragons with fins for ears, spikes on their nose, and hipster beards. Feathers on dinosaurs I've come to terms with, but when you start making my dragons scruffy and shaggy, you cross a line! I do dig the chain mail over Kitiara's background helmet's mouth -- offering extra protection in an opposite fashion to Lord Soth's lackadaisical helm. I can see that the screenshots very deftly erase Tasslehoff Burrfoot the kender from the scene -- probably an improvement. Now can we get rid of Tanis Half-Elven's hipster First Nations feather earrings? Tika Waylan is looking like she just stumbled off the SnarfQuest backlot, and Laurana has about as much dignity as one can muster with slightly crossed eyes.