Since this is my first post, a bit of an introduction. My name is Kevin Jackson-Mead, and you can see my lovely face in Gameshelf Episode 1 (playing Shadows over Camelot) and Gameshelf Episode 3 (playing Gnostica). My current favorite game is usually one that I have recently learned, but right now it's Strange Synergy, an old favorite (anyone want to play?). By day, I am an editor at a book publisher where I am responsible for, among other things, books on computer game development.
Some of the books may be interesting to this audience, but I don't want want to come on here and plug my books all the time. However, a book that just came out is, I think, particularly relevant, so I'll get the plugging out of the way with my first post.
I would imagine that the genre of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) is known to most people reading this, but the basic idea is tabletop role playing (like Dungeons & Dragons) brought to the computer desktop (or console). My introduction to this genre was via my uncle, who played the Ultima games. I only watched him play a little bit, and I never ended up playing the Ultima games, but I do remember that one of the games came with a cloth map and a metal ankh. I now know that this was Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, which is widely considered to be the best in the series and even one of the best computer games ever.
The first CRPG that I played on my own computer (Commodore 64) was Phantasie. I was completely thrilled with all of the stats, figuring out what spells my wizards and priests could get at what level, the Tolkienesque theme, the little noises during combat—pretty much everything about the game. I ended up playing all three games in the series. I later played Pool of Radiance, the first of SSI's "Gold Box" games. I made lots of maps on graph paper for that game, and it was also a magical experience for me. Perhaps my favorite part of the game was the combat, which was a turn-based combat that had the feel of combat played out on a tabletop with miniatures. I played at least six of these "Gold Box" games, perhaps the favorite of which was the second one, Curse of the Azure Bonds (yes, I realize now that starting a story with the main charcater(s) having amnesia is hackneyed, but it enthralled my thirteen-year-old self).
Over the years, I dabbled with a few other CRPGs, but I never got into any as much as I did these first ones. Fast forward to Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games (I'll spare you the story of how this book came to be, but I will point out that the cover art is by Clyde Caldwell, renowned fantasy artists whose art graced some of the "Gold Box" games). In working on this book, I was introduced to my old friends Phantasie and Pool of Radiance, and I was introduced to many new friends. The book tells the history of the genre, starting with the earliest games and going right through to the present day. It talks about what was good and not so good about these games, what design decisions were made and how these affected gameplay, and how these games influenced later games.
It got me excited about the genre again. And so when I saw a mini review of a shareware computer role-playing game recently, I decided to give it a whirl. The game is Excelsior Phase One: Lysandia, originally published in 1993. You play a fixer, a member of a group whose aim is to keep time in order, or something. You're sent to this land where there has been some kind of problem detected. That frame story doesn't matter much once the game gets started, however; you're basically in a standard swords-and-sorcery game.
It is very much in the style of the Ultima games, and it is an homage to them. I found it challenging while still being doable, although I admit to checking out the walkthrough for a few things here or there—although only once for something other than as an alternative to taking notes. Because you're going to have to take a lot of notes in this game. There are many different quests, and you get little bits of information from talking to people scattered throughout the land. A piece of information, however, doesn't make sense until you have gotten to a certain point in a particular quest, so you either need to have a good memory or take many notes (or cheat). The nice thing about all of these quests is that they are not linear, so that if you get stuck on one quest, you can switch to working on another quest. There's lots of running around the map for some of the quests, but I found that, after a while, the monsters you encounter are no longer a problem, so it's simply a matter of the time it takes.
I made a tank of a character (a giant warrior), and after suffering through a few levels of barely scraping together enough money to get healed and eat, I became powerful enough to survive for a while, and then I discovered a few key spells (mostly the healing spells) that a warrior can cast. After that, it became pretty easy to survive just about anything (I did occasionally get killed when I would get hit by a sleep spell and then get pounded to death while I blissfully snoozed).
I've never really reviewed a computer game before like this, so I'm sure I'm botching this somewhat. Let me just say that this is an extremely enjoyable game, and I highly recommend it if you're at all a fan of old-school CRPGs, especially the Ultima series. There's a sequel, too, called Excelsior Phase Two: Errondor, although I haven't played that one yet.