SpellCraft: Aspects of Valor: Summary and Rating

From The CRPG Addict


What awaited me if I had won the game.

      
SpellCraft: Aspects of Valor

United States
Tsunami Productions (developer); ASCII Entertainment Software (publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS; SNES port developed but never released
Date Started: 27 July 2019
Date Finished: 25 August 2019
Total Hours: 26
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Summary:
SpellCraft is an unusual, original RPG in which an American named Robert learns about a parallel magical universe and, under the tutelage of a wizard named Garwayen, grows from an apprentice to a master wizard. Most of the game consists of a series of missions in one of seven realms: Earth, Fire, Air, Water, Mind, Ether, and Death. As Robert solves these missions, he gets clues to the recipes for several dozen spells, mastering which is the key to winning the rapid game of rock-paper-scissors that soon develops between Robert and enemy wizards. Robert periodically visits Earth in between his explorations of the magic realms, getting clues, reagents, and side quests from various NPCs.

**** 
        

I admire and am somewhat envious of the player that could not only play but excel at SpellCraft. It’s too much for me. I so lack the skill set needed to win such a game that it staggers me that winning it is even possible. You’re dealing with dozens of spells constantly flying at you from dozens of directions, monsters constantly trying to drive you off the edge of an abyss, and dozens of your own spells through which to shuffle and try to counter enemies, constantly trying to remember which spells work in which domains, while keeping your eye on a bunch of meters and maps. It is so far removed from the careful deliberation that goes into, say, Gold Box combat that it’s amazing we consider the games part of the same genre. A Gold Box game is like a good game of chess. SpellCraft is like three simultaneous games of speed chess played while wearing oven mitts.
          
Usually, when I have to enter “no” in the “Won?” column, it’s because I didn’t want to invest the time necessary to win the game. Rarely do I feel that I couldn’t have won it with a little more patience. Here, I have to admit that the game didn’t wear me out or bore me. It simply beat me. I could not react fast enough to the barrage of spells the enemy wizards threw at me. In this, SpellCraft offers a “first”–specifically, the first appearance of a dynamic common to modern games that I described in an entry eight years ago in relation to Dragon Age: Origins:
         
Most of the time, I have no idea what the #&*$ is going on. Seriously. Combat begins. My party members go into their tactics. I select one of the foes for my lead character to fight. I start using his special attacks. Meanwhile, there’s a cacophony of sound as friends and foes meet each other and cast spells. Colors streak across the screen. My character starts sparkling for reasons I don’t understand–am I being affected by an offensive spell, or did one of my party members cast a buffing spell? Sten starts calling for healing but then suddenly he’s at full health even though I didn’t heal him. Liliana starts saying “trap, trap, trap” even though we’re in combat and it’s unrealistic to disarm traps. My character is suddenly paralyzed and I don’t know why. The screen shakes and I go sprawling against at tree–what hit me? Then, all at once, it’s over, and apparently we’re all alive.
      
The difference is that in the case of Dragon Age, the game is fighting for you as well as against you. I don’t understand what’s happening most of the time on either side, but at least some of it is benefiting me. This isn’t the case with SpellCraft. My failure to complete the game, and my assessment of why I’m unable to complete it, has implications for any number of future titles. I’ll analyze that more at the end.
Shortly after the events I recounted last, I reloaded and re-explored each of the domains until I found the Orb of Eternal Enlightenment in the Air Domain. With that in hand, I was able to re-kill the minion in the Water Domain. This was followed by the revelation that the Orb had now opened up two new domains: Ethereal and Mind. There, as Garwayen put it, “much of what you know about magic in the elemental domains will no longer be applicable.” That generated a vocal multi-syllabic response that I will not reprint on family blog.
On Earth, there were fewer places to visit but also some new places. Jack Hendricks, the paleontologist from Alberta, had moved to Dry Gulch, Arizona. Selina, my flirtatious friend from Salem, was found hiding in Agra, India, without her costume. A new friend named Spiros Talos showed up in Athens. The NPCs continued to give clues about formulas and ingredients.
             

Spiros Talos delivers some unwelcome news.

               
I gave up after a couple of attempts to defeat the minion in the Ethereal Domain. The graphics made it difficult for me to determine what was just a starry backdrop and what was a bottomless chasm. In three attempts to assail the place, the minion positioned himself on a thin thread of “land” with chasm on either side, making it impossible to approach and engage him directly without getting knocked off by other monsters. I tried keeping myself in the air with “Magic Wings” but the spell runs out fast, and I kept plummeting to my death before I could kill the minion with other spells. (I think he may have been dispelling it a couple of times.) In the few cases I did manage to do some damage, he just teleported away. I’m sure there’s some set of options that would have worked, but I simply don’t know what they are.

          

The confusing Ethereal Domain.

         
I was able to watch the rest of the game in a series of YouTube videos. There are three full series available, by users Garg Gobbler, Duke Donuts, and Fonze. Mr. Donuts doesn’t even try to win honestly, frequently switching to a cheat menu that makes him invulnerable, gives him unlimited spells (he loves to spam “Dragon”), and keeps “Magic Wings” active. “I wouldn’t wish a legitimate playthrough on anyone,” he says at one point. Nonetheless, the other two seem legitimate, although I think they’re both playing with foreknowledge of the game’s spells, mixing them as soon as they have the right aspects and words rather than waiting for the clues.

Watching the videos, I experienced a major revelation that nearly made me quit this entry and try again. I hadn’t realized that it was possible to cast certain spells, like “Teleport” and various conjurings, off the visible screen. With enough power, you can cast them anywhere on the map, using the attempt to scout the map as you go. This makes a big difference in your ability to find and target specific enemies and to acquire necessary treasures before you’re killed. But I slept on it for a couple of nights and still couldn’t motivate myself to go back to the game.

The video series let me check out the development of the plot and the ending. The Ethereal and Mind Domains deliver the Damascene Sword and a couple of spellbooks. As usual, the minions seemed to be cool guys who had just happened to become enslaved by their masters.
            

The Mind Domain has some interesting terrain.

           

At the end of the sequence, the Earth Master appears to taunt Robert, saying that the Council lured Garwayen away and has now imprisoned him. Robert must circle his allies on Earth to find a series of keys to access the various domains, as the portals in Stonehenge no longer work. Ultimately, he finds Garwayen’s soul in a treasure chest. He continues to find upgrades to the other equipment items.
Robert then has to invade each domain and kill the wizards themselves. In the Ethereal Domain appears a “tear-stained letter” that hints at developments to come:
            
There is a wizard who has sworn himself to the College of ——. He is the most fearsome and terrible wizard of all. This wizard can call on ANY spell of ANY Other college, so powerful is the De—– Magic to which he is sworn. Beware this Wizard, for he is a great liar. His name is ——–.
           
After defeating each wizard, Robert can destroy or preserve their spirits. Garwayen comments either way, usually expressing sorry at the wizard’s demise.
        
After the death of the final wizard, Garwayen reveals that his body has been hidden in the trunk in Robert’s workshop the entire time, and every time Robert went off to battle a lord, Garwayen reunited his body and spirit to work his own mischief. Proclaiming himself the “Grand Wizard of the Universe,” he announces his plans to conquer Earth and return magic to the real world, at which point he will become “Grand Wizard of the Cosmos,” as if the cosmos is somehow greater than the universe.
         

Shouldn’t you conquer Terra before designating yourself the Grand Wizard of the Universe?

           

A few new NPCs pop up, a few die, and others continue to move around the world. In the late game, Selina is found in the caves in Lascaux, France. She tells Robert to find the Pearl of the Beloved in the Mind Domain and bring it to her.
          
Robert must chase Garwayen through each of the six domains, defeating him in each one. When he finds the Pearl of the Beloved, he brings it to Selina, who gives him the Skull of the Marquis de Sade, which allows access to the Death Domain via a portal in Dry Gulch. Later, she gives Robert a Ring of the Full Circle, which allows Robert to use magic in the Death Domain.
The final battle takes place between Robert and Garwayen in the Death Domain. The videos showed so many spells flying back and forth that I couldn’t even begin to keep track of them all. Duke Donuts eventually destroyed Garwayen with unlimited castings of “Meteor Storm” and “Dragon.”
             

The chaotic final combat.

              

Exiting the Death Domain via the correct circle of stones brings you to the Mentor Wizard’s Workshop and the endgame cut scenes. It turns out that each of the “minions” destroyed by Robert earlier were actually the wizards of each domain, and they survived, as did Garwayen. Everything that previously transpired was in fact a “rather elaborate ordeal to test the extent of [Robert’s] powers.” Even Garwayen’s betrayal was staged, I guess. (One hopes the NPC deaths were also staged.) Robert becomes head of the council and Selina helps him restore Stonehenge and reforge the link between Earth and the universe of magic. Selina then warns of an “anti-hero” of prophecy who Robert will soon have to face. The two hop a jet to return to the United States, “where the leisurely flight home will allow us time to get to know each other better.”
                

I can think of a few.

             

The game concludes with a series of humorous newspaper articles covering various subsequent events: a dragon in Stonehenge; Selina kidnapped in New York while Robert fights her abductors; an undead uprising in Romania; and a worldwide shortage of pomegranates.
              

Isn’t the real news that the Chronicle is publishing again after 227 years?

            

SpellCraft is a tough one to rate, owing to the confusion in categories that I describe below. My best guess GIMLET is:
          

  • 4 points for the game world. This was a tough rating because the game has such extremes in the good, bad, and weird. The magic realm isn’t terribly imaginative, with the same series of maps appearing repeatedly in each domain. But it was fun how you could visit the various locations on Earth, and I liked seeing how they changed for each stage in the game. I want to call the backstory “interesting,” but on the other hand it’s so, so horribly written.
  • 3 point for character creation and development. There’s no creation. “Development” consists solely of hit point maximum increases that you receive at fixed points. Attack and defense scores are more a matter of “equipment” (and hardly seem to affect anything anyway). The method of earning new spells, partly based on accomplishment and partly based on the player solving puzzles, is worth a couple of points.

         

As far as I got with Robert.

          

  • 4 points for NPC interaction. The friends you make on Earth have interesting personalities, and again it’s fun to visit and cycle through them to see what new tidbits they have to offer. Unfortunately, there are no dialogue options.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The small selection of monsters gets old quickly, leaving your only important “foes” the various simulacra, minions, and wizards that you have to face and counter. There are no non-combat encounters.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. It really is all about magic. The system of acquiring spells is one of the more original see in my chronology so far, and the enormous variety of spells gives you a near endless set of combat tactics. I frankly thought it was too much, and at some point the game simply lost me. More patient or talented players might increase this category by a point or two.

              

The final list of magic words.

            

  • 2 points for equipment. You have four slots in which the items replace each other automatically as you acquire upgrades.
  • 6 points for the economy. It’s surprisingly robust. You need a lot of money for spell ingredients as well as jetting around the world, which you can make by selling excess ingredients and artifacts, or by simply buying low and selling high when circling the Earth.
  • 4 points for a main quest with the occasional side-quest involving some kind of item acquisition. I’m also giving a point here for how Death Domain is an optional area in nearly every series of levels.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics work well enough, but I found sound effects minimal. (The music, which I don’t rate, is quite good, featuring different themes for different domains and people.) I didn’t care for the interface–in particular how you cannot fully use the keyboard for selecting and targeting spells.
  • 1 point for gameplay. For me, it hits all the wrong notes in this category: too linear, too long, and too hard. I gave it a point for some limited replayability based on selecting different schools of magic as the character’s specialty.

               
That gives us a final score of 34, which falls below my “recommended” threshold despite good performance in some categories. The GIMLET is, of course, subjective and has always been subjective, but it feels necessary to call out its subjectivity more in this game than others. Those who take better to this style of gameplay could easily rate it closer to 50.

Computer Gaming World avoided a full review of this one, but they did cover it briefly in the December 1992 “holiday buying guide.” The author said that it “offers the most extensive magic system that we’ve ever seen in a game,” which is fair praise. Dragon gave it 4 out of 5 stars, but the reviewers clearly didn’t finish it. Like me: “We had more than one occasion where we battled enemy creatures but were defeated because we simply couldn’t find the right spell in time. At other times, it was difficult to successfully face an enemy wizard’s volley of spells.” MobyGames catalogues only two other reviews: a 79/100 from Power Play and a 67/100 from ASM.

Either Tsunami or ASCII or ASCII’s Japanese parent worked on an SNES version of the game but never released it even though it seems to have been completed. A pre-release beta version has made the rounds of abandonware sites. A YouTube video suggests that the conversion preserved few aspects of the original. Some of the character portraits are the same, and domain exploration looks similar but with different (better, frankly) graphics. Combat is entirely changed, however, with the character and enemy moving to a separate one-on-one combat screen. There are far fewer spells and no puzzles inherent in determining their mixtures. There also appears to be no Earth section.
               

Combat in the children’s version of the game.

            
It would be fun to hear sometime from lead designers Joe Ybarra or Michael Moore about the inspiration for SpellCraft, since it’s so unlike anything that preceded or followed it. Ybarra had been a producer at Electronic Arts for about a decade before starting his own company, but none of the titles he worked on show any hints of SpellCraft. Nor are there any clear similarities in the two following titles in which Ybarra is credited as a designer, Shadow of Yserbius (1993) and Fates of Twinion (1993), except for Mark Dickenson’s graphical style.
           

             
SpellCraft is a new sort of game, and there are some implications to my failure. I would say I’m unlikely to complete any game that requires a) constant reaction to b) real-time enemy attacks, c) in which the attacks and responses are extremely varied; and d) your cues as to the nature of the attacks are purely visual. So, this doesn’t rule out all real-time games because most of them only have a handful of attacks and defenses and you can get used to patterns fairly easily. It doesn’t apply to, say, the Infinity Engine games because in addition to the visual cues, the transcript tells you exactly what spells the enemy has cast. I frankly don’t yet know what games it does rule out, but I can tell you that I’ve tried a few modern action games (one of the Devil May Cry editions comes to mind), and I simply have no idea what is happening on the screen at any given time. It makes me feel old.

And speaking of feeling old, I began teaching college this week! Specifically, I began teaching students who were not yet born for, or otherwise have no memory of, September 11, 2001. I’m teaching students who never saw any of the Lord of the Rings films in theaters. Students who think of the Star Wars prequel series as “old movies.” Students for whom Back to the Future is as recent as The Bridge on the River Kwai was for me. Not only do they have no memory of an original Ultima or Bard’s Tale, they were barely alive for Morrowind and the last Infinity Engine game.

Anyway, it’s been a crazy few weeks. I hope I can get back on a regular schedule now, but there might still be a few rough patches before I return to the regularity that we saw in April to August. Thanks for sticking with me.



Original URL: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2019/09/spellcraft-aspects-of-valor-summary-and.html