Menzoberranzan, PC

An RPG with a funny name, based on the AD&D Forgotten Realms campaign setting, Menzoberranzan is a 1994, first-person, party-based adventure game developed by DreamForge Intertainment for Strategic Simulations Inc.

You can have up to four characters in your party, but start with two, which you create at the beginning (via some fairly dodgy pre-rendered graphical screens). More characters can be recruited as you go along, including some unique monster race characters, which is somewhat refreshing.

Starting in a village you realise that you must first put out a fire in a nearby building to continue the introduction to the story, which then leads into open fields populated by monsters. Combat is by frantically clicking the mouse cursor on opponents and hoping they die before you do. By fighting off enemies and gradually exploring you will eventually find better weapons, armour, and magic spells.

The way you memorise and learn magic is identical to all the other AD&D adventures published by SSI at the time – you Memorize wizard (offensive) spells and Pray for priest (healing and defensive) spells.

Moving around and manipulating objects is easy enough and playing Menzoberranzan is reasonable fun. It doesn’t take long to reach the tougher monsters and to lose your first life, but – like any good RPG – gaining a foothold is possible with careful play. There’s a good automap, which helps. Ultimately your quest is to find the underground city of Menzoberranzan itself. The place where the Drow live.

Graphically, Menzoberranzan does look a bit dated in places – especially with regard to the 3D sections (the 2D graphics are beautifully drawn), but then so do many of the classic SSI RPGs from the ’90s, but most are still good to play today. I remember reviewing this for PC Player magazine when it first came out through US Gold in 1994. And I recently bought it again on GOG.com. It’s still an interesting and playable game. Not a classic by any means, but decent enough on its own terms.

More: Menzoberranzan on Wikipedia
GOG.com: Menzoberranzan on GOG.com

Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession, PC

Released in 1994, Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession was developed by DreamForge Intertainment for Strategic Simulations Inc. and was distributed by US Gold in the UK.

I remember it well because I reviewed it for PC Player magazine back in the day.

Even back in 1994 I thought Strahd’s Possession looked a bit basic. But don’t let that put you off – it’s not a bad game at all. In fact it’s quite absorbing.

Strahd’s Possession is based on the AD&D Ravenloft campaign setting, set in the land of Barovia – a place full of vampires, undead, wargs, brigands, and cads, and one that you must explore in order to escape. Unfortunately a poison mist surrounds you, forcing you to seek counsel from the ruler of the land – the titular Count Strahd.

If you can get over the very basic 3D graphics and the ridiculous-looking monsters (the 2D graphics are excellent though) you’ll find an interesting game underneath.

Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession is still available to buy on GOG.com now, which – considering that it’s 25 years old – is something of a feat.

More: Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession on Wikipedia
GOG.com: Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession on GOG.com

PC-Player-Ravenloft-Cover

Realms of the Haunting, PC

I have to admit that, in spite of the slightly wonky graphics/cut scenes, I have a real soft spot for Gremlin Interactive‘s 1997 PC MS-DOS release, Realms of the Haunting. Mostly because I was lucky and got to visit Gremlin‘s offices in Sheffield to see the game in production, and to talk to the people who were making it. I drove all the way from Bournemouth – where I worked as a video games magazine editor – and spent an entire day there to preview the game for PC Power magazine.

Back then, Realms of the Haunting looked good. It was a Doom-type 3D engine-based survival horror game, co-programmed by Tony Crowther, and written and produced by Paul Green. It had specially-filmed cut sequences using professional actors and came on four CD-ROMs. The thing it had over Doom, though, was being able to interact with objects on-screen, by clicking a mouse cursor on them.

Now time has passed and we can use hindsight to inform us, I have to say that I still quite like Realms of the Haunting, even though it’s dated badly and the graphics look weird (especially when looking up and down – the game doesn’t have any real perspective correction, just like the original Doom). Also: I always thought the cut scenes were hokey – even back in 1997 – so watching them now doesn’t appal me. It’s not the acting in them that’s bad (it’s actually pretty good), it’s the way the cut scenes have been produced. The film “special effects” are awful; the compositing is basic at best; and the video encoding is worse than standard definition. And I’m being charitable…

Thankfully the story is quite good. You play an investigator called Adam Randall who goes into a dark house looking for clues about the mysterious death of his father. And of course he finds more than he bargained for… Again, thankfully: there are weapons to be found and used against whatever it is that is out to get him. Eventually Adam discovers that the house is in fact a portal to different universes and that he must prevent an impending apocalypse by visiting each universe and unlocking its secrets. So nothing major…

Realms of the Haunting is involving and atmospheric – even gripping in places. It’s been designed to be scary, and succeeds in places. Some of the monsters look a bit dodgy but are tough opponents to beat, and the environments are relatively simple, but overall RotH is well worth a play if you like old school survival horror games. It’s still available to buy on GOG.com and Steam, which is heartening.

More: Realms of the Haunting on Wikipedia
Steam: Realms of the Haunting on Steam
GOG.com: Realms of the Haunting on GOG.com

Dungeon Master: Theron’s Quest, PC Engine

Theron’s Quest is a modified version of the incredible Dungeon Master, released for the PC Engine in Japan in 1992 and the TurboGrafx-16 in North America in 1993.

Developers FTL/Software Heaven changed the premise of the main quest (this time you specifically play a named character, called Theron, who must find seven parts of a set of knight’s armour); they also changed the layouts of all the dungeons (although some places might seem familiar to DM fans); they added cut sequences between levels (kind of unnecessary, but they don’t detract too much); they made the game easier (by reducing the frequency of monsters, and also by replacing the save option with plenty of resurrection points), and of course they also made it playable on a gamepad (for one person).

If you sit down and play Theron’s Quest intently, like I’ve done, you’ll know that “making the game easier” doesn’t necessarily equate to “making the game easy”; and even in a emulator I’d say that Theron’s Quest is a decent challenge. In fact: I rate Theron’s Quest very highly. A lot of people dismiss it as “just Dungeon Master on the PC Engine“, but it is in fact a little bit more than that – it’s a completely new Dungeon Master sequel, and (thankfully) doesn’t go in the same “ultra hard” direction as Chaos Strikes Back did…

Theron’s Quest does a very good job of making a brilliant game more accessible to mainstream gamers. And it also allows Dungeon Master pros to flex their muscles in an environment they love, but don’t have to commit too much time to beating. It’s a ‘win-win’ for everybody. 🙂

More: Dungeon Master: Theron’s Quest on Wikipedia

Stonekeep, PC

Stonekeep is a strange first-person Role-Playing Game, developed and published by Interplay Productions in 1995.

I say “strange” because Stonekeep comes from a time when developers were looking for any excuse to inject some full-motion video into their games, and Stonekeep uses digitised video quite a lot, and it now looks very dated. Actually, Stonekeep uses two very dated graphical techniques to create the world you’re exploring – the second technique being Silicon Graphics-rendered graphics (the first being the aforementioned digitised video technique, a la Mortal Kombat). It’s the clash of the bad graphics techniques…

The way the digitised video has been used in the game means that a lot of the characters and monsters in it look kinda like pantomime villains… Well I felt like I was playing a pantomime fantasy game with Stonekeep… The visual style of this game reminds me of that TV show, Knightmare – the one that superimposed live actors over painted fantasy backdrops… That’s what they tried to do with this game – film people in costumes and incorporate them into a Role-Playing Game… And the end result is a bit of a weird mess!

In spite of the outdated presentation Stonekeep plays excellently. Movement is quick and simple, and is tile-based. A journal keeps track of quests, items, maps, stats and available spells (which are cast using runes inscribed on wands). Combat is real-time; similar to that seen in the mighty Dungeon Master. Quests and puzzles are fairly simple – mostly unblock a route or kill a bad guy – although there are a few surprises along the way that take Stonekeep beyond the merely ‘generic’.

I wouldn’t say that Stonekeep is a ‘solid gold classic’, but I would recommend that RPG fans give it a try. Or even better: play it to the later stages at least, because that’s where it gets more interesting. That said: if you have a low tolerance for goblins, faeries, and ice queens then maybe this game isn’t for you…

Stonekeep is a game that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten and does have its moments, even though the story and setting are a little trite. Don’t let me put you off though – Stonekeep plays nicely in DOSBox and is cheap on GOG.com and is well worth adding to the collection.

More: Stonekeep on Wikipedia
GOG.com: Stonekeep on GOG.com