Saturday, January 21, 2017

Game 240: Phantasie II (1986)

    
I played Phantasie (1985) and Phantasie III (1987) early in my blogging career and, given my inexperience, failed to realize how good they were. Six years later, they remain in the top 20% of rated games. Because I was following a DOS-only rule back then and Phantasie II didn't have a DOS release, I skipped it--a stupid decision, but one that now allows me to use the game as a retrospective on the entire excellent series.

Phantasie and its first sequel are two of only a few titles from their era that feel like complete RPGs as we might understand them today. It was common for the games' contemporaries to be good at one thing or another--Ultima III's use of NPCs, Wizardry's challenge and tactical combat, Starflight's plot--but rarer for a game to offer all of the elements that we ultimately came to consider important: a compelling plot, world-building, character-development, inventory, economy, multivariate magic and combat, both dungeon and overland exploration, and interesting encounters that allow some degree of role-playing. Pre-1988, we find this "total package" in Ultima IV and V, Might & Magic, Phantasie, and only a few others. That Phantasie doesn't rank higher is a reflection of the fact that it doesn't always do these elements well, but playing the games, I never feel that they fundamentally lack something.

As I review my experiences with the first and third games in the series, a few original mechanics jump out. The first is the game's approach to dungeon exploration. Slowly revealing an auto-map had been done before, of course, all the way back to Beneath Apple Manor (1978) and prominently in several roguelikes. But Phantasie might be the only game to provide this approach in hand-crafted dungeons, rather than randomly-generated ones, with logical layouts to the dungeons, evocative room descriptions, and exploration punctuated by frequent special encounters. Every few rooms, the player has to make some kind of decision or take some kind of risk--a few of them involving NPCs and approaching actual role-playing.
    
Meeting an NPC in the corridors of Phantasie.
    
Second, the games flesh out their very brief backstories with a series of scrolls. You find them at key intervals, and they serve much in the same manner as books in The Elder Scrolls games, outlining the history and lore of the land and its characters. There are oh-so-few games, even today, in which information serves as a reward for exploration. This would have been a key element of the game I proposed over the summer. I suppose you have to give the Fallout series some credit in this area; any player who breezes past those computer screens and doesn't bother to read the miscellaneous notes or listen to the miscellaneous holotapes is missing half the fun of the games.
    
Learning more about the history of Gelnor via a scroll.
    
The third memorable aspect is the approach to combat. I suppose the underlying mechanics aren't much different from what we see in other multi-character games of the time, like Wizardry or The Bards Tale: you choose an action for each character in the party and then watch as they execute (along with the enemies') in a sequence determined by dexterity and random initiative rolls. But Phantasie is unique in how it renders these actions visually, with your party lined up against the enemies' ranks and the characters literally lunging forward as they make their attacks. We'd see these visuals replicated in The Legend of Faerghail but almost nowhere else. Although when I played the Japanese RPG Lost Odyssey (2007) for a brief period a few years ago, I found that the combat system was very much in the same spirit, and I guess this might be common among modern turn-based JRPGs.
      
Setting combat options in Phantasie II.
     
Phantasie II is so unchanged from its predecessor that all the manuals I was able to find cover both games at once. The back story is also mostly the same, just with different proper names. Both concern an unnamed adventurer (presumably the lead character of the party) who arrives on a continent (Gelnor in the first game and Ferronrah in this one), talks to some old guy, hears about the cruelty and oppression of Nikdemus, and vows to do something about it. If you maintain the same party throughout the series, you're basically cleansing continent after continent of Nikademus's control (the third game starts on Scandor).

I opened my first Phantasie III posting by making fun of the series for continuing to resurrect Nikademus and make him the villain of the game. No explanation is given, I said, for how Nikademus lives after the party defeats him in Phantasie. Years later, a commenter corrected me and said that you don't defeat Nikademus in Phantasie; you defeat the "Black Lord," leader of the Black Knights. When I played the game, I had just assumed that the "Black Lord" was a euphemism for Nikademus himself. Now, reviewing the documentation for the first game, I think my confusion was understandable. For 2/3 of the game, you're told repeatedly that your quest is to defeat Nikademus. The "Black Lord" doesn't show up until Scroll 17, and if you miss a few words, it's not clear that it's not referring to Nikademus himself. Finally, the end of the game takes place in "Nikademus's Castle." In any event, I assume the conclusion of this game will have me defeating another of Nikademus's lieutenants.
  
The second game has the same spells, monsters, equipment, and mechanics as the first game, so it also has the same rulebook.
    
You can play the series one of two ways. If you keep the same party throughout, the assumption is that you're pursuing his retreating forces from place to place before you finally tangle with the sorcerer himself. If you generate new parties, the assumption is that each victorious party is composed of natives of that continent, and they're only concerned with getting Nikademus's forces off their own soil. Phantasie III even alters some dialogue accordingly. Since my victorious Phantasie party is saved in DOS form, and I'm playing the Commodore 64 version of Phantasie II, we're going to have to go with the second assumption.

In character creation and development, the games blend elements of the Dungeons & Dragons and RuneQuest tabletop RPGs. Core races are humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, and halflings, but the games follow the spirit of RuneQuest by allowing any intelligent creature as a PC. By choosing the "random" option during character creation, you can play gnolls, goblins, kobolds, lizard men, minotaurs, ogres, orcs, pixies, sprites, and trolls. Unfortunately, the disadvantages to playing these characters outweigh the advantages. Some of them have extremely high attributes in one or two categories, but they also have shorter lives and insane training costs (explained by racism). I toyed with the idea of creating an all-monster party before remembering that the monster classes can only be fighters or thieves. Plus, you'd never be able to afford to train past Level 3.

Classes are fighters, priests, thieves, wizards, monks, and rangers. The series is unique in that all classes can learn some spells, but wizards and priests are the most powerful, and I think you'd face a challenging game without the priest's healing and "deconditioning" spells and the wizard's "transportation" (town teleportation) spell.
   
Characters start with one spell; others must be learned for gold, with a chance of failure.
    
Attributes are strength, intelligence, dexterity, constitution, charisma, and luck. The combination of attributes and class (and perhaps some additional randomness) determines the character's level in 9 skills: attack, parry, swim, listen, toss, spot trap, disarm, find item, and pick lock.

After toying around with some unique party combinations--all monsters, all priests, 3 priests and 3 wizards, and so forth--I decided to let chance guide me. I created each character by rolling a 1d6 for the race and a 1d6 for the class. I generally accepted the first random roll for statistics, although I allowed myself the freedom to discard a character if his attributes were really bad. Then I used the random name generator Karnov made for me years ago to come up with the names. 
    
What kind of orc has a higher charisma than strength?
    
The result:

  • Fimmet, a gnome fighter. Despite his race, he rolled with extremely high strength (19), and his dexterity (18) and constitution (19) are also excellent. The best set of attribute rolls that I got from all the characters.
  • Izzi, a sprite thief. High in dexterity (22), which is the whole point of a thief, average in most other attributes, but miserable in constitution (5). Might be trouble keeping her alive. And a charisma of 11 is going to make her extra expensive to train.
  • Menk, a dwarf priest. Decent intelligence (17), which you need for all spellcasters, very good strength (20) and dexterity (17) but low constitution (8).
  • Shannel, a halfling wizard. Solid intelligence (18) and constitution (18), but I'll need to keep her out of battle with a strength of 4. And her charisma of 6 will do no favors at training time.
  • Zashes, a lizard man fighter. I probably should have dumped him. He has no truly outstanding statistics: his strength of 19 and constitution of 17 could probably have been achieved with one of the core races. Blah dexterity (11), low charisma (8). He might be the first to get replaced.
  • Phummus, a gnome priest. Moderate-to-high on just about everything.
   
My radomization had the effect of creating a party who collectively can't see above the weapons store counter, and has neither of the "hybrid" classes (monks and rangers), but the balance is otherwise good, and two priests is never a bad idea.
    
A complete character sheet.
    
The game begins in the city of Pippacott, which houses a guild (create and delete characters), an armor, a bank, an inn, and a "mystic" who tells you your current rank. I started to go through the usual mechanisms of purchasing weapons and armor for my party members. (Each character begins with 256 gold in the bank). I had forgotten how primitive the game's approach to inventory is. Each character has a "slot" for a weapon, armor, and a shield, and all you can do is purchase something to replace what's already in the slot. When buying, you don't get to see what you already have. It turns out that the items in the shop would have afforded only a minor upgrade, so I decided to save my money for training.
     
Buying items.
    
The shop did sell two information scrolls, however, and I bought them both. Scroll B told of a peaceful kobold village west of Pippacott on Pippacott Bay. There, an ancient kobold oracle gives useless advice for a large sacrifice. Scroll M discussed the theology of the world--specifically, what happens to the soul when someone dies.
    
An early predecessor to the books in Skyrim.
    
The controls, I'll note at this point, are optimized for playing with a joystick: you arrow around to various options and hit the fire button or spacebar. Only in a few places can you hit a letter corresponding to a command. I find this annoying. Why make me scroll through 5 menu options that all begin with a different letter rather than letting me hit the first letter of the command I want?
    
Moving outdoors. The options to the right must be chosen with arrows and the spaebar, not simply called with the keyboard.
    
Exiting the town moved the party to a tiled overworld with a inn north of the city and the kobold village to the west. I entered the village and began exploring the first "dungeon" of the game (this required swapping a disk). It was as I remembered. I really enjoy exploring these games and revealing little rooms and key encounters. I didn't get very far, however, owing to frequent combats and retreats.
    
Slowly fleshing out the dungeon.
    
For Level 1 characters, combat was as hard as I remember from the first and third games. Until you're Level 3 or 4, you need to spend a lot of time retreating to the inn (which restores all hit points and spell points). You can't save anywhere but in town, so exploration has that tactically-tense quality of Wizardry or Might & Magic, where you wonder how long to stay out and risk death in the next combat. Unless some towns have healers (I don't know yet), resurrection really isn't a possibility until the priest hits Level 7.
   
More detail on combat in the next post.
    
Unfortunately, some of the features I remembered fondly from my previous plays seem to have arrived only in Phantasie III, including a system of injury and loss to individual limbs, and the ability to specify ranks for your own party members. And while the C64 graphics aer more colorful than the DOS version of Phantasie, they're also less detailed, creating a more primitive and childlike feel to the game's interface.
   
The town of Pippacott in the C64 version of Phantasie II...
....versus the less-colorful but more-detailed town in the DOS version of Phantasie.
   
As I returned to  Pippacott to save and close this session, I was re-introduced to a mechanism that I love and have never seen in any other game. When you return to town, you divide your accumulated experience and gold to your party members in portions of 0, 1, 2, or 3. This is a fantastic idea that allows you to quickly develop one or more characters at the expense of the others, particularly useful if you end up replacing someone halfway through the game. It also helps get key classes (e.g., the priest) to important milestones (e.g., acquisition of "Resurrection") more quickly.
     
Allotting shares upon return to town.
     

It probably won't take more than a few entries to cover this one, but in the meantime it's a nice contrast to Fate.

*****

I simply had to give up on Fer & Flamme. I didn't want to, and the experiences of commenter Arnaud suggested that the game could be effectively played and won. I started a brand new party, even, and tried his various hints for starting the characters at 1 strength and resting them up to 18. But the "fixed" version I downloaded wouldn't let characters rest at all, let alone eat and drink. I restarted with the old version--creating my fifth or sixth party--and tried to explore some more of the outerworld, including the castle north of Dord, but the frequent crashes and the inability to understand the combat system killed my enthusiasm quickly. This game is ripe for a guest post. In the meantime, I gave it a "best guess" GIMLET of 22.
  
The Dark Wars (1991) for the Atari ST is off the list as "NP" at least temporarily. It seems to have some interesting elements and ideas, but it crashes every time I try to save, and I can't figure out the mechanism for transferring newly-created characters into the game. I need to retry with a different emulator and/or set of game disks.