From The CRPG Addict
Treasures of the Savage Frontier
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
Treasures of the Savage Frontier added a handful of tweaks to the Gold Box experience and told a competent story. It was in no way a shame to the family–not like those Buck Rogers cousins. But neither did it offer anything, in real terms, that we haven’t experienced already. Since what we experienced already was pretty good, this isn’t exactly a problem, but in some ways it’s too bad that the lineage didn’t continually improve over its lifetime the way that, say, the Ultima series did. Perhaps the comparison is inapt because Ultima used different engines for every release.
I said that Treasures told a “competent story,” but even that is only true up through the end of my last entry. The Zhentarim/Hosttower/Kraken plot didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat, but it did at least keep me interested. The final battle of this segment was a worthy challenge. Then, all of a sudden the Lords’ Alliance leaders started talking about The Gem and the importance in keeping it out of the hands of the Zhentarim. I promise that The Gem had never been mentioned at any point in the story before, but all the journal entries acted as if everyone already knew about it. “It was this magical Gem that was used to destroy [a white dragon named] Freezefire centuries ago,” King Steelfist said. “The powerful magic item may still be there, awaiting adventurers with the strength and courage to come find it in the barren wastes.”
|I expected him to turn on me, but mostly I forgot he was even there.|
And thus the last chapter of the book had the party traipsing through villages and caverns of the frozen north. Accompanying us was an NPC fighter named Kriiador, servant to the human leader of Mirabar. A previously-unavailable dock in Neverwinter now sold passage to the northern city of Fireshear.
When we arrived, we discovered that the city (which occupied two levels with multiple ladders) had already been sacked by the forces of evil. We slowly retook it from the various yeti, ice hounds, remorhazes, and umber hulks that had made homes in the former shops and businesses of the residents. Umber hulks–which look weirder here than in any other game in which I’ve seen them–did their usual “confuse” trick.
|An umber hulk, looking very cartoonish.|
The hardest battle–and this became a recurring issue–was with a large group that included about half a dozen yeti chiefs. I guess the creatures get a chance of “terrifying” each party member when the battle starts, and with so many of them, it was common for every one of my party members to get terrified. Terrified characters flee the battlefield. They ultimately return, but only after four or five rounds in which the remaining characters have to hold out. There seemed to be no way to protect against the effect, and so the battle occasioned several reloads before I got enough party members to stick with it.
|This is what finally frightens my party?|
Even after I finished this battle, I had to immediately fight another one with a beholder and more yeti. Fortunately, my characters were under the effects of “Haste” (I used it so often that the party ended the game in their mid-30s having started in their early 20s). Resisting the beholder’s more serious attacks, my three lead fighters ran up and pounded him until he was dead.
|This guy wasn’t as hard as he could have been if the dice had gone the other way.|
Once Fireshear was clear, the shops and services opened up again, including a boat offering passage further up the coast to the Ice Peak. This area consisted of four maps, including three interconnected towns: Aurilssbaarg, Bjorn’s Hold, and Icewolf. The areas featured numerous encounters with tribal northerners, and I regret to say I was done with the game at this point, so I stopped meticulously recording everything that happened.
|The type of encounter I got in the final maps. I probably didn’t even read the entry.|
The tribesmen were nice and didn’t give me any trouble about pronouncing “Tempos” as “Tempus,” and there were more battles with ice creatures. Ultimately, I found my way to the passage that led to the final area.
|My ranger gets impatient.|
The final map, Freezefire’s Lair, had a lot of secret doors but not a lot of special encounters. One exception was a combat with a creature I’d never encountered before (in any game) called a “gorgimera”–a cross between a gorgon and a chimera.
|These guys were pretty bad-ass.|
The penultimate battle occurred when we stumbled into a cave containing Freezefire’s corpse. A bunch of mages, spies, and priests had beat us there, and fighting them was about as hard as the last battle in Mirabar. It all came down to who drew first and paralyzed everyone else with “Hold” or negated their spellcasting abilities with “Ice Storm” or “Fireball.” I’d gained a level or two since the final battle in Mirabar, however, and this one had fewer enemies suddenly appearing in later rounds.
|My ranger is taken out of the action, but we were victorious in the end.|
When it was over, there was a scripted scene in which the party drooled over the piles of treasure in Freezefire’s chamber before remembering that their duty was to collect The Gem. (The game never gave any indication of what, exactly, it did.) Ghost pried it out of the dead dragon’s claws, which somehow caused the dead dragon to come back to life.
|I like how the game tries to make the dragon scary, as if we hadn’t been fighting dragons since Level 2 in Gateway.
The actual “final battle” with Freezefire was laughably easy, as battles with single dragons tend to be in Gold Box titles. He had a few dozen hit points, which the dancing blades of my hastened fighters depleted before he could even breathe once.
|I swear his name is spelled “Freezefire” everywhere else.|
The endgame screens then commenced. A group of dwarves carried us victoriously back to Icewolf, where we had a feast. The two rulers of Mirabar showed up to lay plans for diving Freezefire’s treasure among the Lords’ Alliance cities, plus the northern tribes.
|Yeah, that’s going to pretty much ruin the local economy.|
The party was offered 40 jewelry, 250 gems, and 15,000 platinum pieces (but why)? The Lord’s Alliance took charge of The Gem, and the Zhentarim, Krakens, and Hosttower forces all slithered back to their homes. After the final screen at the top of this entry, the game allowed me to keep playing.
|That’s nice, but just once I’d like someone to call us by our names.|
As I noted in the last entry, the ending felt tacked on. On the other hand, without it, the title didn’t make any sense, as the game preceding it wasn’t about any treasures. On yet another hand, it still doesn’t make any sense, because while the ending is about treasures, the treasures are not “of the Savage Frontier.” Then again, hardly any of the game took place in the Savage Frontier.
There are more than a couple hints that the developers were setting up a sequel to occur in High Forest. First, there was the mystery to do with Siulajia and how the Axis of Evil knew her family. Second, the mages and priests we encountered at the Ice Peak appear to have been sent not by the Zhentarim conspiracy but by “the Masters of Hellgate Keep,” as one captured enemy squealed. Hellgate Keep is on the edge of the High Forest. Even the cover, showing Siulajia holding a magic gem, seems to be from a sequel more than the current game.
After I won, I took a few minutes to create a new party out of my massively-overpowered characters from Pools of Darkness. These were characters so powerful, you’ll recall, that at the end of Pools, they were basically sent into exile. They were all around Level 30-40, some of them in their second classes, and the mages among them had Level 9 spells. Treasures read their character files, including all their equipment, as if they were native characters.
|The imported party. Look at those ACs!|
The game wouldn’t let me outside until I won the big battle in Llorkh. There were a lot more enemies than the first time, but I’m not sure if that’s because Treasures “read” my party as being more powerful, or if it was because I didn’t clean up the side encounters first. Either way, the large party still went down quickly to “Delayed Blast Fireball.”
|A lot more foes than last time, but that’s just more fodder for a “Fireball.”|
I immediately brought the party to Luskan and attacked the Hosttower. Despite the level of my characters, the defending mages still mostly acted first, suggesting that the initiative rolls are rigged for this battle. It didn’t help them much, however, as they mostly cast “Ice Storm” and I had “Resist Cold” on every character. Although multiple new enemies joined each round, my vorpal swords and spells like “Meteor Swarm” cut through the masses faster than they could replenish them, and I won with minimal damage in just a few minutes.
|I forgot how much I like vorpal swords.|
The battle earned me 19,751 experience per character. When it was over, I was taken back to the 3-D screen where a message said, “The great gates slam shut!” I then had the option to bash them again for, presumably, another battle. So much for that. I’m sure this combat could be won with native characters, particularly late in the game. “Resist Cold” and “Haste” would do most of the work.
|The whole point of fighting that big battle was to get through those gates.|
I always like to check out the uncircled journal entries to see which are likely to be fake. There aren’t many here. Out of 88 entries, I checked off 73, and at least 5 of the remainder fit known story developments and events, so it’s likely that I just missed them. Of the few obvious “fakes,” one has the dwarves of Llorkh betraying and imprisoning the party. Another would have the party waste time looking for a beholder in Port Llast. There was a fake map, and a misleading entry about the pirate Redleg. That’s about it. I miss some of the older games’ fake entries, which often had an entire fake sub-plot running through them.
With all the corners explored, it’s time to get on to the GIMLET:
- 5 points for the game world. It makes good use of Forgotten Realms themes, adequately continues the story from Gateway, and does a reasonably job evolving the world as the game progresses.
|The Forgotten Realms campaign setting says Mirabar is ruled jointly by dwarves and humans, and that’s how the game presents it.|
- 5 points for character creation and development, which is essentially the Gold Box/AD&D1 average. Only the Dragonlance games do significantly better with their unique races and classes. Here, I thought some of the level caps were a bit low.
- 6 points for NPC interaction. This series has never featured classic NPCs (with their own icons, independent existence, etc.) so much as “encounters” with memorable characters in them. But this game does better than most by allowing so many characters to join the party, including one who will engage in a romance with the lead character. The romance is a bit dull and progresses mostly in the background, but it has actual consequences for statistics and behavior in combat.
- 6 points for encounters and foes. Most of that goes to the foes. I really do like the AD&D bestiary, with its incredible variety of special attacks and defenses that constantly change up combat tactics, and this game had some creatures I’d never heard of. Non-combat encounters aren’t as thick or memorable in their role-playing options as some of the earlier titles, but the game does feature at least a few.
|Monsters are introduced in memorable fashion . . .|
|. . . and the manual tells you what you need to know.|
- 7 points for magic and combat. Few changes to a very good combat engine and magic system. I didn’t feel strongly enough about the two additions–consideration of the weather and the ability of enemies to join the combat midway–for it to affect the rating either way.
- 5 points for equipment. I like the variety of equipment, but I don’t like that every item is predetermined and fixed in location.
- 2 points for the economy. There’s more interesting stuff to buy than in the typical Gold Box title, but it’s so cheap that you end up with the same problem as every other game: too much gold, not enough to spend it on. A party could easily get through this game with its starting allowance.
|“What is . . . the Gold Box games’ philosophy for how much money the party should get after a battle with 4 orcs?”|
- 4 points for a main quest and a fair number of side-quests and side-areas. I never finished whatever the dwarves wanted me to do.
- 6 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics and sound effects are both adequate, though I’m getting sick of empty environments. Most of the points here go to the extremely intuitive interface, which manages to accommodate keyboard, joystick, and mouse users.
- 5 points for gameplay. I like the quasi-nonlinearity, and I thought the challenge and length were about right, or maybe just a tad too easy. I don’t see it as very “replayable.”
The final score of 51 is about middle-of-the-road for a Gold Box title. I’m surprised to see it only two points higher than Gateway, but I can’t pinpoint where I expected Gateway to do worse. At this point, it’s clear that no Gold Box game is going to outperform the first entry, Pool of Radiance (1988), which got a 65. It has the most interesting world and story of the series, the most memorable and challenging battles, the best non-combat encounter options, and the best variety of quests.
It doesn’t appear that Computer Gaming World even bothered to review this one. Scorpia offered some hints in the July 1992 issue but not a full review. In an October 1993 summary of CRPGs on the market, she said that the game had “a couple of twists” but was “otherwise pretty much a yawner.” Dragon gave it 4/5 stars in an August 1992 review and said that while it was “enjoyable” and “satisfying,” there was “nothing really new.”
(A couple of weird things about this issue of Dragon: 1) it features a screenshot from SSI’s Sword of Aragon from 1989 but labels it from Treasures; 2) it has a joint ad for Twilight: 2001 and MegaTraveller 3, neither of which were ever released.)
I would venture that Treasures is more fun today, when the player isn’t really expecting innovation, than in 1992, when the Gold Box engine was 4 years old and players were excited by more immersive environments as in Ultima Underworld or even Eye of the Beholder and its sequel. Such attitudes surely pervade the horrid series of reviews that the game received from European Amiga magazines, the best being the 69 in the June 1992 Power Play and the worst the 34 afforded by the November 1992 Amiga Power. Amiga magazines, and particularly the British ones, never really “got” the Gold Box, and it annoys me that the reviewer (Les Ellis) seems to define “playability” as the ability to immediately start playing without reading the manual. Otherwise, the review is oddly forgivable in its historical context, opening with the rhetorical question: “After the likes of Eye of the Beholder 2, is there really any need for games like this?” I rated Eye of the Beholder II lower than Treasures, but even I kind-of get where he’s coming from.
In my ignorance as a non-programmer, I have to wonder why the Gold Box couldn’t have evolved better than it did. For instance, why couldn’t a player exploring the tiled maps of Neverwinter be treated to some of the same menacing background sounds, perhaps growing when enemies were near, that he receives in Eye of the Beholder? Why couldn’t the graphics have featured more environmental clues? Why was it so important to stick to 16 x 16 maps? I know some of my helpful commenters will try to give answers, but I suspect they’ll sound to me more like excuses than explanations.
|“Players can now interact with NPCs–they can even have romances!” is a bit misleading.|
Ah, but it’s too soon to bemoan the loss of the engine–we’ll do that after Dark Queen of Krynn. For now, we say goodbye to Beyond Software, soon to rename itself Stormfront Studios. It will develop one more RPG in the near future (1993’s Stronghold) and nothing again until the 2000s. SSI, the most prolific RPG publisher of the period, will continue to entertain us with RPGs of all types until 1995, when it will suddenly get out of the RPG business for good.
I move now to The Magic Candle III, of which I know virtually nothing. My entries may continue to be a bit spotty for the next few weeks (though hopefully without any more very long breaks) as I adjust to a new job and schedule.