Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny: Summary and Rating

From The CRPG Addict


        

Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny

Germany

Released in Germany as Das Schwarze Auge: Die Schicksalsklinge
attic Entertainment Software (developer); Fantasy Productions (German publisher); Sir-Tech (U.S. Publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS, 1993 for Amiga
Date Started: 13 November 2019
Date Ended: 7 February 2020
Total Hours: 38
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)
Summary:
First in a lineage based on the German tabletop RPG Das Schwarze Auge, Blade of Destiny is a gem waiting to be cut and polished. A party of six, comprising familiar races but original classes, stops a horde of orcs from razing the city of Thorwal by finding a legendary sword that defeated the orcs in the past. In an effort to offer a computer game that adhered closely to tabletop rules and gaming style, Blade perhaps errs too much towards obtuse statistics, lengthy character creation and leveling, myriad spells, and exhausting tactical combat. Yet the developers managed to create a large, open game world and populate it with interesting encounters of a variety of length and difficulty, thus feeling a lot like a series of tabletop modules. Nothing in the game–first-person exploration (in Bard’s Tale style, but with an interface drawn from Might and Magic III), paper-doll inventories (looking a lot like Eye of the Beholder), axonometric combat (clearly inspired by SSI), dozens of skills and spell skills–works badly, but almost every part of the game needed a little tweaking, editing, or tightening. I enjoyed it more as I became more familiar with its conventions, and it left me looking forward to its next installment.
****
      
I grew to enjoy Blade of Destiny more as the hour grew later (the opposite of what usually happens), although the game never really did manage to solve some of its early weaknesses. In the end, I’m struck at how much it reminds me of Pool of Radiance, the first attempt at a serious adaptation of another tabletop system. Both feature the standard party of six. In neither game do the party members have a direct, personal connection to the main quest. In both, the main quest is somewhat low-key–the fate of a city versus the fate of the world. Both keep character leveling in the single digits, and both err towards keeping faith with their tabletop roots, even when it might have been best for the computer game to improvise a bit.
I don’t know whether to blame Das Schwarze Auge or the computer game for my chief complaints, most of which can be rolled up into three words: combat is exhausting. Combat is a major part of any RPG, so you don’t want your players doing things like reloading to avoid it, which I did a lot. I abandoned entire dungeons because I was sick of all the fighting, so it’s a good thing I didn’t need an extra character level to win. The primary issues are:
           
  • The axonometric perspective doesn’t work well for combat. It’s hard to separate the characters and enemies from each other and particularly hard to move to a specific tile.
  • Everyone misses too often.
  • Attacks don’t cause enough damage.
  • Spells, which would make the whole thing go faster, eat up so many magic points that you can rarely cast more than three or four before needing multiple nights’ rest to recharge.
         
In light of these things, the “quick combat” system was a good idea. Unfortunately, combat is hard enough (at least until the end) that you can’t really use it until there are only a couple enemies left. Even then, quick combat isn’t really “quick.” (To be fair, I guess they don’t call it that; it’s something like “Computer Fight.”) You still have to watch the computer take all the actions and monitor your characters’ status. It just means you can watch a television show at the same time.
           

If you can make out individual characters in those blobs, your eyesight is better than mine.

         

The spell issue had more consequences than just a difficult combat experience. The developers took the time to put several dozen spells into the game, and I never used more than about 5 of them. I kept meaning to find a good place to save near a known combat and then just keep reloading and experimenting, but I never identified an ideal position for this. Most of them would have failed anyway because the nature of the spell skill system means that you can’t possibly specialize in more than half a dozen. When I play the sequel, it will absolutely be my priority to more fully investigate the spell catalog.

I had a few lingering questions after the last entry, such as what happens if you try to kill the orc champion with a weapon other than Grimring, and what happens if you don’t honor the rule that only your champion fights. Unfortunately, the final save prompted me to overwrite the save game I’d take just before the battle. My next-most recent save was from before exploring the orc caves and getting the message that led to the endgame. I’m not willing to do all of that again, so we’ll have to leave it a mystery unless someone has some experience with it. But I was able to check out the alternate “bad” ending, which I would have experienced had I lingered for extra year in the quest. As I typed the rest of this entry, I had my party sleep at the inn for batches of 99 days until the game work me up with the fateful message:
             

So the orcs are the “Vikings” of this setting.

            
Overall, I felt that the time constraint was generous enough that it wouldn’t have impacted my approach even if I’d been more eager to explore every trail and sea lane. This is a good thing because there was quite a bit more to find. I took a look at a cluebook for the game, and among entire dungeons that I overlooked were a “wolf’s lair” between Ottarje and Orvil, a six-level “ship of the dead” that I would have found if I’d taken more boat trips, and a three-level “dragon’s hoard” on Runin Island. This latter location sounds like it would have been especially lucrative, with an option to do a side quest for the dragon and receive four magic items as a reward.

But I’ve always been fine with missing content. It’s practically necessary in modern games, let you exhaust yourself before the end. It also enhances a game’s replayability. It’s nice to see the number of titles with such optional content growing.

Let’s give it the ol’ GIMLET:

1. Game World. I didn’t find the Nordic setting terribly original, but I enjoyed it just the same. The backstory is set up well, and as previously mentioned, I liked the low-key nature of the main plot. The main quest did a good job encouraging nonlinear exploration of the large world. The problem is that the game itself doesn’t quite deliver on the backstory (or the tabletop setting in general). The various cities and towns are too interchangeable, the NPCs too bland. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. Well, I can’t complain that it doesn’t give you enough options. The leveling-up process in Blade of Destiny is probably the longest in any game to date. Not just longest, but most frustrating, with the caps on the number of times you can increase a particular skill per level (even if you neglected it in the early levels) and frequent failures as you try to increase. The caps in particular make it feel like the characters are never really getting stronger or better. (I think the final battle could be won by a Level 1 character.) Hit points and spell points, in particular, are almost imperceptibly slow to increase.
         

No, not now! I have an appointment in 90 minutes!

         
Still, I like the nature of character classes in the setting, including the use of “negative attributes” and the plethora of skills. I just wish I had a clearer sense of what skills, attributes, and negative attributes came into play in what circumstances, which bits of equipment compensated for them, and so on. The game text is obtuse enough that sometimes it’s not even clear whether you succeeded or failed. When it is, it’s almost always because you failed. Honestly, how high do I need to jack up my “Treat Wounds” skill before it has a greater than 50% chance of not making the character worse?

Back on the positive side, I think different party compositions would make a considerable difference in gameplay. I think you could have fun with some interesting combinations, like an all-dwarf party or an all-magician party. It’s just too bad the different race/class templates didn’t have more role-playing implications. Score: 5.

3. NPC Interaction. This was a really wasted area of the game. The developers give you the ability to talk to ever bartender, innkeeper, smith, and cashier, but most of the dialogue is stupid when it isn’t confusing. I’d blame the translation, but my German readers report that it was stupid and confusing even in German. The few dialogue options are either false options that lead to the same outcome or confusing ones with counter-intuitive results (e.g., asking to see the map makes the NPC give it to you; asking for the map makes him just show it to you). That said, you occasionally get an important hint from your various NPC interactions. I just wish it had been more consistent and that the developers had used the system to give more blood to the game world. Score: 4.
              

This conversation made no sense as a whole, and these individual responses made no sense in detail.

         
4. Encounters and Foes. The game shines, though sometimes with a marred finish, in this area. I really enjoyed the variety of encounters, some fixed, some random, that the party gets on the road and as it explores dungeons and towns. I like that some of them are a single screen, resolved instantly, and others lead you off on a multi-hour digression. I contrast to the dialogue, the text of these special encounters is usually evocative and interesting, and I can even forgive the occasional shaggy dog joke like the “wyvern” encounter. I just wish for a few more role-playing options in these encounters.
           

These diversions and side areas never stopped being fun.

           
Foes were mostly high-fantasy standards with similar strengths and weaknesses that we’ve seen in a thousand RPGs but at least they appeared in appropriate contexts. We’ve come a long way from the days when we were inexplicably attacked by parties of 6 orcs, 3 trolls, 2 magicians, and a griffon right in the middle of town. Score: 6.

5. Magic and Combat. Very mixed. I like the combat options, the variety of spells, and the turn-based mechanics. I just didn’t like the execution, which was partly due to interface and partly due to the game rules. Either way, combat was generally a tedious, annoying process rather than the joyful one I typically find in, say, a Gold Box game. As for spells, the game really needs some in-game help to assist with them, perhaps annotating the spells in which each class is supposed to specialize. Every spellcasting session and every level-up was a long process of flipping through the manual. It’s too bad because the spells are so varied and interesting on paper. Score: 4.
           

I only ever tried about 6 of these spells, which coincidentally is the number of spells I got above 0 in my ability to cast after 5 levels.

         
6. Equipment. Another disappointment. I like the approach to equipment, with a number of slots, but you get upgrades rarely and it’s extremely hard to identify them when you do. This is something that perhaps no game has done very well up to this point. I don’t mind if it’s hard to identify a piece of equipment–if you need a special skill, or spell, or money, or whatever–but I mind if it’s annoying. I mind if I have to swap the item around to multiple characters to try different things, especially when the interface makes swapping annoying and time-consuming. I mind when there’s no symbol, color, or other mechanism to distinguish weapons and armor with different values. 

Blade offers perhaps the largest variety of “adventure” equipment that we’ve seen so far, which makes it all the more frustrating that either so much of it is useless, or the game doesn’t bother to tell you when a piece of equipment has saved the day. Finally the encumbrance system is geared towards making most characters chronically over-encumbered. The ability to make potions is nice, but again the system is a little too complicated. Score: 4.

7. Economy. Blade almost perfectly emulates the Gold Box series here: money is plentiful from the first dungeon and you hardly have any reason to spend it. My party ended the game with well over 1,000 ducats. Even potions don’t serve as a good “money sink” because they don’t stack and you have the constant encumbrance issue. A rack of +1 weapons, the ability to pay to recharge spell points, or temple blessings that actually did something all would have been nice. Score: 3.
         

I just donated 999 crowns!

         
8. Quests. Generally positive. Blade is one of the few games of the era to understand side quests, and they sit alongside an interesting-enough main quest with multiple stages. It just needed a few more choices and alternate endings. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I know that some readers will defend the game here, but I found all three to be somewhat horrid. Graphics are perhaps the least so. Some of the cut scenes are nice. Regular exploration graphics aren’t bad, but the inability to distinguish stores from regular houses is almost unforgivable. Combat graphics are a confusing mess from the axonometric perspective. Any virtues the sound effects may otherwise have are obscured by the jarring three-note cacophony that accompanies opening any menu. And there’s no excuse for the interface, which occasionally gives some nods to the keyboard but really wants you to use the mouse throughout.

Aside from my usual complaints about mouse-driven interfaces, the game is full of all kinds of little annoyances. When you find or purchase a piece of equipment, it always goes to the first character. You’ve got to then go in and redistribute it. It’s annoying to transfer equipment between characters, especially if one is over-encumbered. Messages often time out before you’re done reading them, or pop up so quickly that you don’t have time to read them before you accidentally hit the next movement key, making them disappear. There’s a lot of inconsistency, particularly in dungeons, about when you need a contextual menu and when you need to use the buttons on the main interface. There are dozens of other things like this. The developers took the appearance of the Might and Magic III interface but none of its underlying grace.

The auto-map didn’t suck. I’ll give it that. Score: 2.

10. Gameplay. We can end on a positive note. This is one of the few open-world games of the era, and in between the opening screen and closing combat, it’s almost entirely non-linear. The many things that a first-time player doesn’t find makes it inherently replayable. And the length and difficulty are just about perfect for the era. I particularly love that you have to lose experience points to save (except at temples), which discourages save-scumming. Score: 8.
               

This NPC seems to think he’s living hundreds of years in the past.

         
That gives us a subtotal final score of 46, a respectable total that would put it in the top 15% of games so far. But I’m going to administratively remove 2 more points for an issue that really isn’t covered by my GIMLET: a lack of editing that created unnecessary confusion at numerous points in the game. There are numerous places that go unused, such as the tower and “Ottaskins” in Thorwal. NPCs frequently tell you things in dialogue that aren’t true. There are numerous false leads on the map quest, and I don’t think they’re there to challenge you–I think the developers changed things and didn’t update the dialogue. All of the NPCs in Phexcaer were clearly written for an earlier game in which the nature of the backstory and quest were quite different. It’s common now, but relatively uncommon back then, to find a game released in what was clearly it’s “beta” stage.

So that gives us a final score of 44, which still puts the game in the top 15%. It had a lot of promise, and I’m sorry that the developers didn’t find more time to tweak and tighten it.
            

This is not the sort of game for which you really want to emphasize “conversation.”

         

Blade of Destiny wasn’t released in the United States until 1993, so Scorpia didn’t take it on until the October 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World. It’s one of her more ornery reviews. After saying that the English translation of Das Schwarze Auge, “The Black Eye,” “might be appropriate,” she goes on to spoil the entire plot in the next paragraph, including the one-on-one combat at the end. She found the plot unoriginal and wasted three days trying to figure out how to find the orc cave, noting that there are no clues to be found anywhere. (Remember: I had to use a walkthrough for this.) She hated the failures when trying to level up, complaining that one of her fighters “made no advance in swords on two successive level gains.” She noted a lot of discrepancies between the manual and actual gameplay, particularly in the area of spells, and she agrees with me that combat is a “tedious, frustrating, boring, long-drawn-out affair.”
She liked the automap, the ability to reload in the middle of combat, and the extra experience you get the first time you face a particular monster. That was about it. I was surprised to see how much she hated the experience cost for saving. She says she wouldn’t have minded if the creators had awarded a bonus for not saving, apparently seeing a difference there that I don’t. 
But her worst vitriol was for a bug that I didn’t experience: apparently, if you quit in the middle of the final battle, you get the victory screen anyway. “This is not just a scam; it is the Grand Canyon of scams,” she sputters. “How did the 20+ playtesters manage to miss this one? If they didn’t miss it, why wasn’t it fixed?” In summary:
            
Those who worship at the mythical altar of Realism often end up sacrificing fun and playability on it. That is what happened with Blade of Destiny. In their attempt to make the game “like real life” (something few players want in the first place) the designers went overboard in the wrong direction more than once. I would not recommend Arkania to any game player, but I do recommend it to game designers as an example of what to avoid in their own products. Let us all hope we don’t see another one like this any time soon.
             
Ouch. I don’t disagree with the elements she didn’t like, but I found more that I did like.
On the continent, the game had polarized reviews. Some thought that the designers went overboard in the right direction, or perhaps didn’t go overboard, or perhaps only did it once. Whatever the case, the ASM reviewer (92/100) said that he’d “rarely seen a perfect implementation of an RPG that also remains really playable on the computer.” PC Joker (90/100) said that it is “only surpassed by Ultima, leaving the rest of the genre competition far behind in terms of freedom of action and complexity.” But not all German reviews were positive. PC Player (48/100) recommended that players “close your eyes, put the lid on, and wait for Star Trail.”

(At least there were some positives in the reviews for the original game. A 2013 remake by German-based Crafty Studios came out to almost universally negative reviews despite improved graphics, voiced dialogue, and other trappings of the modern era. It was apparently quite unforgivably bugged. Crafty went on to remake Star Trail in 2017.)
             
Combat in the remake. At least you can identify the squares a bit easier.
         
The original game sold well despite a few bad reviews and certainly justified the two sequels, Realms of Arkania: Star Trail (1994) and Realms of Arkania: Shadows over Riva (1996). Together, the trilogy established the viability of Das Schwarze Auge setting, which continues to produce RPGs into the modern era, including The Dark Eye: Drakensang (2008), Deminicon (2013), and Blackguards (2014). Lead developer Guido Henkel would eventually tire of the setting, quit attic, move to the United States, join Black Isle studios, and produce Planescape: Torment.
I haven’t attempted to reach out to Henkel, as his work on the Arkania series has been well-documented elsewhere. In his 2012 RPG Codex interview, he explains that the publisher of attic’s Spirit of Adventure, StarByte, originally approached the company about creating a series based on Das Schwarze Auge, claiming they already had the rights. The attic personnel were reluctant to work with StarByte after a dreadful Spirit experience (“a horribly crooked company that cheated us and all of its other developers”), so they were delighted to find that the company had been lying about the license. attic managed to get it for themselves, although at such an expense that the three Arkania games barely made a profit despite selling well.

From a 1992 perspective, I would call Blade of Destiny “a good start.” I look forward to seeing how things change in the sequels.

*****

B.A.T. II will be coming up next. For the next title on the “upcoming” list, we reach back to 1981 for Quest for Power, later renamed King Arthur’s Heir. Come to think of it, the Crystalware titles are so similar and quick that I might try to cover Quest for Power and Sands of Mars in a single session so I can be done with 1981 entirely. Again.



Original URL: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2020/02/realms-of-arkania-blade-of-destiny.html