The last few days I've had the chance to play the demo for Keep on the Borderlands, a TOEE (Temple of Elemental Evil) module/replacement created by the Circle of Eight
. You can download the game there
. Here is a review. Contains spoilers
. Click on a picture to enlarge it.
Right, the beginning is the standard character creation. We are advised to take someone who can search for secret doors, so I make a rogue, a fighter, a cleric (Heironeous - War and Good) and a generalist wizard. All Lawful Good.
The game starts right at the entrance to the castle. After talking to some guards wearing neat blue capes, we are admited inside. The castle's court is rather big and contains lots of buildings and NPCs. The keep's guards always ask the party to sheathe their weapons and Gurndal, the half-orc, is starting to get annoyed.
Soon it becomes clear that three places are important: the inn to the right of the marketplace, where the party can rest safely, the provisioner's building just below the inn, where we can find new missions and create new characters, and the tavern to the north of the marketplace, where we can meet lots of people and... access the keep's underground.
Yes, the tavern's basement has a passage to the sewers. Here comes my first criticism: when visiting the basement it is clear that there is a passage downwards, there's some green light coming out. However, the game treats that passage as a secret door (even though there's nothing secret about it), so until you let the rogue "Search" you won't find the passage. I note that my rogue did not automatically discover the passage even though she's an elf. Additionally, the new "Concentrated Search" function would not work in the demo, only the original "Search" will work to make that passage appear.
As for the sewers themselves, they are just amazing. The atmosphere is great. You kill some rats, they respawn (argh! can't kill them all!).
On to the missions now. You get them by left clicking on the paperboard in the provisioner's building. One mission sends you to kill spiders in a forest and another sends you to a swamp, on the track of missing adventurers. The spider mission is very good, much better than the spider mission you get in plain TOEE. There's a whole forest to visit. And then you meet the spider queen.
She's huge. My party tries to kill her - I get total player kill (TPK) four times in a row. After that I get the hint - no good for level-1 characters
Okay I found out much later that you can actually talk to that spider queen. It doesn't do much good though since the castle people want her dead.
There's also the swamp quest, but I think the best quest for starting characters is that given by the castle's Druid. That strange druid (we can see him only at night) tells the party to go kill some harpies to the north of the castle. That's another good quest, great design and not too hard. Oh, on the way to the harpies I meet a wandering madman. While chatting with him we get attacked by bandits, the bandits knock the madman out, I finish them off then I can pick the madman's magic dagger, nice! My first magic weapon! Which brings me to one of the good points of Keep on the borderlands: masterwork and magic weapons are very rare! That which is rare is precious, and it's a great joy to finally get a magic weapon even if it's just a dagger.
On to the swamp quest. This map is great, music great, nice atmosphere. Some snakes attack, they're rather annoying because they move so slowly and we can't even see them underwater. Later on a group of lizardmen attacks the party. They are on a hill so we can't melee with them directly. They shoot at the party, cast spells, etc. Great to see some new tactics.
Behind the lizardman group I discover a cave. The cave is full of lizardmen. They speak in their strange language - I don't care and just attack.
It's a butchery. I discover a chest full of stuff... can't remember what. Ok, now comes the worst part of the demo in my opinion - the great pixel hunt ! By left cliking on the drawings on the cave's wall we can learn of the next location to go to. Why not putting a map on the body of the lizardman's chief instead? Left-clicking is supposed to move the party, not examine stuff.
I continue exploring the swamps and the party discovers a strange place full of Hextor worshippers. That place is very well done graphically and the music is the best of the entire module, in my opinion. Great "Hextor" atmosphere. Right, the party pretends to be their friends and the local warlord sends them on a quest to kill a black dragon.
On we go to kill the dragon! And it's quite well done too! It blasts us with a cone of cold. The dragon's AI seems weird, though. It keeps blasting its cone of cold even when no-one is there to receive it.
Back to the Hextor followers, I get to visit the temple and the high cleric immediately spots that we are actually followers of Heironeous. Battle ensues.
Back to the keep, the bailiff sends the party to disarm a berserk elf ranger on the keep's battlements. Or was it destroy? Too late. Gurndal transforms the elf into a mangled heap. Nevermind, it's still nice to see that non-lethal damage is given a use for once.
Right, at this point I had just one thing left, to visit the tower which we learn about by clicking on the lizardman drawings. A riddle is handed to the wizard and he answers correctly. Then a huge FEDEX quest is given the party. Wow. And I thought there were no such quests in KOTB. Well, that would require me to start a new game since I've already sold all the silly stuff, such as a tiger toy, to various merchants.
To conclude, the KOTB-demo has a great atmosphere and offers nice tactical challenges. It needs more work on quests and on the Search function. The main shortcomings are those of the original TOEE engine, in particular Troika's truly horrid pathfinding (TM).