A page I created to talk about my favourite CRPGs (I also comment on many other CRPGs later on in this page). They are:
SSI, 1993, for PC. Click on a picture to enlarge it.
Plot: You are gladiators. Escape from your slave pens, then unite the free villages against an army sent from the city to crush them.
Review: This game features a turn-based combat system similar to that found in the old Gold Box games like Pool of Radiance and Champions of Krynn. At the same time, Dark Sun has none of the problems found in the Gold Box games, including poor inventory systems, manual mapping and frequent references to the manual ("You meet an old man and record the conversation as entry 18 page 52 of the manual"). Compared to Baldur's Gate 1, the game has a more interesting plot, faster gameplay and a much more interesting combat system. Compared to Temple of Elemental Evil, Dark Sun has faster gameplay, a bigger story and slightly less tactical battles.
How to play: It works perfectly on Windows XP using Dosbox. Just increase the Dosbox CPU cycles to a high level, like 19000 (depends on your processor's speed). Dosbox takes care of both the DOS memory issue and the Soundblaster card emulation. You can download the official cluebook here. The manual and game file are available on abandonware sites.
Recommended character(s): Two half-giant gladiators and two half-elf psionicist/druid/preservers. Let all the characters (especially the half giants) wield two weapons to get multiple attacks. As for the gladiators the best psionic discipline is telepathy as it gives them the Ego Whip spell. Ego Whip prevents a single opponent from attacking for 1 to 4 rounds. As for the druids, the Fire clerical sphere brings the Wall of fire spell, while the Earth sphere brings the Iron skin spell and the Air sphere brings the Insect Plague spell. Ironically the Water sphere seems to be the less interesting choice here.
Fun facts: You can skip several fights in Dagolar's tunnels by disintegrating Dagolar's templar as soon as you see him. You can get past the fire in Dagolar's tunnels in many different ways (see the cluebook) and you can destroy Dagolar by playing the organ while he's around. You can get the Black Mace magic weapon by destroying the King’s shadow in the Palace Ruins (where you find the genie’s bottle). Giving the genie’s bottle to the psurlons will result in around 10 psurlons appearing and attacking you. El's Drinker and the Terror Blade are the most useful weapons.
The final battle: Here are some tips to beat the final battle against Draj's army. Destroy the psurlons and recover the genie from the ruins. Ask the genie to duplicate El's Drinker and give that weapon and the copy to your two best fighters. Ask the genie to help you defeat an evil army. This means you will have to fight only two battles instead of three in a row. Keep the last wish to heal your party at the end of the first battle, if needed. When the second battle starts let your preserver cast a very long Wall of Stone between the party and the enemy soldiers. Leave only a small bottleneck passage at one end of the wall. That way you will avoid spells from enemy casters and enemy fighters won't be able to surround your fighters.
Electronic Arts, 1986, for Amiga, Apple2GS and PC. Click on a picture to enlarge it.
Plot: You are adventurers. You must collect the seven pieces of an extraordinary magic wand in order to defeat an evil archmage.
Review: Bard's Tale 2 uses a 3D first-person view while traveling, but when combat starts it switches to an interesting, abstract turn-based mode. The game is mostly hack and slash. What makes it great, in my opinion, is the great variety in the magic spells and in the enemies. Being abstract, combat allows to fight large, mixed groups, such as 8 illusionists (who can summon creatures) plus 6 red dragons plus 12 warriors. Not all encounters are battles - sometimes a monster offers to join the party. Compared to Bard's Tale 1, the great improvement is to allow saving the game anywhere, not just in the Adventurer Guild.
How to play: You can get the manual and cluebook there. There are several versions, including MS-DOS, Amiga and Apple 2gs. I've tried them all. The DOS version through Dosbox is really fast as there are no loading times, and you don't need a specific emulator. However, the Amiga and Apple 2gs versions have better graphics and a better music than the DOS version. Apple 2gs and Amiga have nearly the same graphics but their soundtrack is different. The Amiga version can be played using the Win UAE emulator but it suffers from annoying loading times, even if you boot the game from an emulated hard disk rather than floppy. The Apple 2gs version is fast and can be played using ActiveGS and you can find the game files there. This version does have some glitches with the mouse pointer and when you roll abilities for a new character.
Recommended character(s): Two paladins, one bard and three spellcasters. Paladins have a resistance to magic effects including dragon breath, unlike the other fighter classes who just focus on damage even though most enemies don't have very many Hit Points. The bard's magic is useful and spellcasters (conjurer or magician) are the most powerful characters in this game. The starting ability scores are not extremely important because at every level-up each character gains +1 to a random ability, and ability scores are limited to 18, I think.
Troika, 2003, for PC. Click on a picture to enlarge it.
Plot: You are adventurers. You must sack this ancient, evil temple.
Review: One the very few 2D, turn-based, party-based PC RPG to be created by a large company since the beginning of this century. A great game, but I would have preferred that Troika give up 50% of its features in exchange for a bug-free game. For example they could have given up on item crafting and on the less fundamental character classes like the druid. The great graphics also came at the expense of fast gameplay. What made the game great was the turn-based application of the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 rule set and the complete feedback given to the player for all rolls. Special thanks to the Circle of Eight for releasing patches and even an entirely new game based on the same engine: the Keep on the Borderlands.
A Human Cleric of Heironeous with the Good and War domains. Skills: Concentration, Diplomacy. Use him for dialogues, turning undead, healing, crafting holy weapons, and as secondary fighter. If you want to craft axiomatic weapons take the good and law domains instead. He needs a high wisdom, a good charisma and good strength.
A Half-Orc Fighter (or barbarian/fighter, or paladin/fighter). Skills: Tumble. The party's main melee combatant. He needs a high strength and a good constitution.
An Elf Druid. Animal companion: Jackal - At level 1 and 2, a jackal animal companion is a huge help to the party. Skills: Concentration, Survival, Tumble. Take the Weapon Finesse feat if Strength is low, otherwise let him wield a longsword (elf proficiency). The druid is used for summoning, healing, crafting, the barkskin and lightning spells, and as secondary fighter. He needs a high wisdom and good dexterity.
An Elf Wizard. Skills: Appraise, Concentration, Spellcraft, Search, Open Lock and Tumble. Familiar: Toad, for the hit points, or Raven, for the appraise bonus. Specialisation: none, or Conjuration, Enchantment or Evocation. The wizard is used for offensive area of effect magic, crafting, reducing shop prices and opening locks (with the skill or with the Knock spell). He needs a high intelligence and good dexterity.
For all spellcasters, the best feats are the crafting feats (scribe scroll, craft wondrous item and craft magic weapon). Spell focus in conjuration, enchantment and evocation and metamagic heighten and empower are also good but only for the wizard. Point Blank Shot and Precise Shot are good, but if you're like me, you won't like ranged combat as the ranged attack animation is annoyingly slow.
You could have more than four party members but I don't recommend it. More party members slow the game down and they decrease the experience awards. As a result you will level up more slowly and the game will end up being harder than if you had stuck with just three or four characters.
Blue Sky Productions, 1992, for PC. Click on a picture to enlarge it.
Plot: You, the Avatar, are wrongly accused of kidnapping the local baron's daughter, then escorted to a complex of caves called the Stygian Abyss to prove your innocence by bringing the lady back.
Review: This game is the proof that a 3D, first-person, single-character, real-time game can still be a good RPG! What makes the game great in my opinion is, first and foremost, the auto-map. It is the best I have ever seen in games, past and present. The automap is clear and precise, does not take 10 seconds to open as in Wizardry 8, and allows you to write your own notes directly on it. Secondly, most of the locations are "hand-crafted". By this I mean that each location has received attention from the designers, whether it's a change in the wall texture, a mysterious message left in the corner of the room, or a giant spider ready to defend her territory. Compare this to the dungeons in Bethesda's Daggerfall. I've heard that they were randomly generated by a computer, and it shows. They are a long-winded, convoluted and absolutely dreadful affair.
Recommended character(s): a Druid with very high strength (at least 25), low dexterity and high intelligence, and focus on the Lore skill. Druids are good melee fighters and good spellcasters as well. Strength matters most as your carrying capacity is equal to two times your strength, and you have to carry a whole lot of things in this game. Additionally, it affects your melee combat performance, and there are no spells to replace melee combat. Focus on lore as with a high lore skill you can identify magic items, including potions, rings and weapons. Equip with a longsword or dagger, and a shield.
Thomas Biskup, 1994, for PC. Click on a picture to enlarge it.
Plot: Brave warrior, you must stop the spread of evil in the Drakalor chain by closing the great Chaos Gate deep below the mountains.
Review: A very interesting roguelike RPG set in a fantasy world similar to that of Dungeons & Dragons. Following the roguelike tradition, everything is represented with ASCII characters, the hero is represented by an '@', and your save file is destroyed when the character dies (a type of gameplay called ironman). Most, but not all, dungeons are randomly generated in similar fashion to Diablo, making the experience different each time you restart. What makes the game great is the number of things a player can do that would not be allowed in most other games: eating the corpse of your dead enemies, cooking said corpses, smithing your weapons to improve them, mining the walls to open new passages or discover gems, sacrificing things and creatures to gain the favour of a deity, play a musical instrument to tame an animal, use necromancy to create skeleton slaves, and so on.
Recommended character(s): a hurthling wizard with high learning. Hurthlings find more corpses and they can cook the corpses they find, making food more nutritious. They also gain levels a bit quicker. Wizards find more spell books than any other class, and some of the spells found in ADOM make the game much easier.
Mattel, 1982, for the Intellivision games console. Click on a picture to enlarge it.
Plot: You are a great archer. Retrieve the crown of the kings from Cloudy Mountain. Not an easy task, for it is said that the crown is guarded by a pair of winged dragons.
Review: Not an RPG in my book, because it requires a good hand-eye coordination, but I decided to include it anyway since so few people know about it. You must explore a series of mountain caves in the hope of finding the two halves of a legendary crown. Each cave contains some monsters (rat, spider, bear, snake or dragon), arrows for your bow, and possibly one more useful item (axe, boat or key). The axe lets you cross forests while the boat lets you cross rivers and the key lets you pass fortifications. The last mountain is Cloudy Moutain, where the crown lies. All cave complexes are randomly generated at the start, so this is the ancestor of Diablo. What makes the game great even after all these years is the atmosphere and tension created by the game. The game uses sound effects masterfully. You will hear a dragon well before you can see it. You will hear hissing well before the snake strikes at you. You can see a video on youtube, there.
How to play: use the Nostalgia Intellivision emulator.
In this section I briefly describe why I'm not putting these other games in the list of favourites. This is just an opinion.
Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale: real-time party-based combat is too confusing for my taste. To its credit, I did complete Baldur's Gate 1. Here is a review of Icewind Dale 2 and Baldur's Gate 2.
Planescape Torment: too verbose for its own good, and plays more like an adventure game (find item A and use it in spot B).
Fallout 1: Good, but I didn't like the time-limited, succeed-or-you-lose-the-game initial quest to retrieve the water chip. Clunky inventory and impossible to control team mates in combat. I did finish the game.
Wizardry 8: Good, but the computer takes much too long to move enemies during combat, even with a patch to accelerate combat. I finished the game but the single issue of speed makes the game a bit tedious.
Silent Storm: A turn-based tactical game set during World War II. Very good, but not exactly a RPG in my book.
Heroes of Might and Magic 3: An outstanding turn-based strategy game. The best in its category, in my opinion.
Might & Magic 6: Combat is rather un-tactical and you must find a different person in the game world for each skill you want to improve. Talk about tedious.
Daggerfall: The game suffers from a poor dungeon design and rather unconvincing dialogues.
Oblivion: Level-up makes you weaker, a cardinal sin in my opinion.
Albion: awkward mix of 2D and 3D. Combat rather uninteresting. To its credit, the storyline and dialogue is very good.
Bard's Tale 1: You can save only at the guild, and there is less variety in the encounters compared to the 2. Otherwise a very good game. You can transfer characters to the 2.
Bard's Tale 3: Graphics not as good as the 2, and overall difficulty sharply increased.
Legend of Faerghail and Dragon Wars: Good but somehow seem inferior to Bard's Tale 2.
Dark Sun 2: Rather buggy, graphics not as good as the 1, and the storyline offers less freedom.
Ultima Underworld 2: Too verbose at the beginning, otherwise it's just as good as the first.
Realms of Arkania: The combat interface seemed rather clunky.
Eschalon 1: The game suffers from a slow walk speed and a lack of in-game information on how skills work in association to how many points you invest in each. I also thought that the experience awards for killing monsters were very low.
Aveyond: Plays more like an adventure game.
Avernum and Geneforge: Very good games. See my review of Avernum.
Ultima 7: Plays more like an adventure game. The story seems very interesting, though.
Divine Divinity and Diablo: Rather good games, but combat is repetitive and thus gets boring.
Gold Box games like Pool of Radiance and Champions of Krynn: Talk about a clunky interface. They also all have annoying copy-protection schemes.
Neverwinter Nights 1: Never managed to finish the campaign due to boredom. Awkward hybrid between a pen and paper game that is turn-based party-based (Dungeons & Dragons) and a 3D engine that is real-time single-character-based.
Neverwinter Nights 2: Here is a review of that game.
Pool of Radiance Ruins of Myth Drannor: This game does not follow the Dungeons & Dragons rules nearly as well as Temple and Elemental Evil and the computer takes much too long to move the enemies. Also, very low experience awards.
Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, Bloodwych and Captive: Okay games but combat is close to that found in Diablo, a click-fest.
Dungeons & Dragons Warriors of the Eternal Sun: A quite good RPG for the Genesis console but, like Albion, it features an awkward blend of 2D and 3D gameplays.
Miracle Warriors: A rather nice Sega Master System game but nowhere near as complex as PC games.
Incursion: A roguelike RPG that uses the OGL 3.5. The interface seems rather clunky and many of the rules do not originate from the OGL.
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