Thursday, 10 December 2015

Chapter XXIX: Legend (aka The Four Crystals of Trazere)

Having a sister six years older than me meant that my musical tastes were quite sophisticated for such a young boy. By the time I was in third grade, Appetite for Destruction was not only my album of choice but it was also the only music that mattered. After I went to fifth grade, Guns n’ Roses have gotten huge, and so every kid in school was humming Knockin' On Heaven’s Door all the time. That really bothered me. How come these dumb philistines have the guts to smear the best rock band in the world? And so it was that the hateful seeds of hipsterism were planted in the mind of young Ricky Skegg.

This whole process of feeling betrayed and then annoyed when all the dumb kids in school started to like my favourite bands was repeated over and over again through the years. Metallica, Iron Maiden, Faith No More, Nirvana, they all made me cry a little inside. The funny thing was that these bands weren’t that underground to begin with. Seriously how would a kid in eighth grade find The Offspring before the hit album Smash? So it was, The Offspring and Green Day were dead to me. After that I started to listen to other “underground” punk bands like Pennywise, NOFX, Bad Religion, Lagwagon and No Use for a Name.

These were my bands through later high school years. They were also cool bands that matched my bodyboarding activities. They accompanied me through moments of loss, heartbreaks and terrible hangovers. I even had my own Punk Rock band in the late nineties. We were awful.

It all started to change one day. I used to watch late night rock/metal shows on tv in hope to see some obscure punk rock video that I had never seen before. One of these shows was Total Metal on the French tv channel MCM. Usually I had to endure loads of heavy metal stuff that meant absolutely nothing to me. But one of those videos really made an impression on me. The music was excessive, cheesy and the true definition of uncool. That music was S.O.S. from Finnish metal band Stratovarius.

For a short period I felt that my music life was always a lie. I had tried so hard to like things that were cool while I was really a closeted nerd. I played RPG’s and read Dragonlance and Lord of The Rings. Who I was trying to fool by being a bodyboarder and liking Punk Rock? For a while, Blind Guardian was my band. I listened to them all the time and bought all their CD’s in a hurry. I even went to a music festival, to watch Bad Religion, and came home with a Blind Guardian t-shirt I bought. It was incredibly tacky, it had the cover of Nightfall of Middle Earth on it. Needless to say that I never wore it. Even though I started to listening to this kind of music, I still had my fashion standards.

By this time, in the early oughties, I was binge playing every kind of computer RPG on earth, so it only made sense to revisit some games that I never got too far on the Amiga. One of them was Legend. I tried it with emulators but I never got to make it run properly, so I gave up and played the PC version. It had the same looks, but an horrible sound. Seriously, how could I feel the atmosphere of some far away medieval land in that situation? Obviously by listening to Blind Guardian’s Somewhere Far Beyond all the time while playing. That album even has songs about Blade Runner and Lord of The Rings. How cool was that? Well, “cool” probably isn’t the best word to describe it, but it was awesome either way. I still remember that game when I occasionally play the album. I never got to finish it though. At the time there were always new good games around the corner, like Baldur’s Gate 2, Arcanum and Planescape: Torment, so I eventually dropped it.

I had totally forgotten this game intro, but not its music. The medieval feeling of it is spot on and given this context, it's a nice Blind Guardian replacement.

Just like in Heimdall, the party selection screen is quite idiosyncratic, but not quite on the same level of weirdness. It's impossible to change the classes of the default party, leaving customization restricted to name and gender of each character. It's also possible to adjust each stat (the usual suspects like strength, dexterity and intelligence, among others) through choosing among the icons of the four classic elements.

I was enjoying the game right of the bat. Its graphics and presentation are very pleasant but the interface, while not being made of nightmares like Heimdall, gets too much in the way of enjoyment, and it’s not something we can blame on the age of the game. Many other RPG classics such as Might and Magic III or the Bards Tale trilogy don’t suffer from these interface problems, which makes think Amiga programmers of the time saw the keyboard as a thing of the past and were obsessed with mouse-centric interfaces. At least there are some keyboard shortcuts and auto-mapping, even if they’re a bit unwieldy, but on the other hand the mouse icon cycles when reaching the edge of the screen, as if our monitor was a planet.

The isometric graphics are great, and I’m sure that I wrote over and over again of how much I love this kind of visuals. The music is as good as I remembered it, and saves me the trouble of reaching the shelf of power metal albums. The in-game music is actually the songs that the bard is playing, and each one has a different effect on party members. Since we only get one at the start, it should be a priority to learn new songs (by paying the minstrel at the tavern), so we don’t get fed up by them and eventually go grab some Manowar album to play instead.

The combat isn’t really the strong point of this game. It’s entirely in real time and it’s incredibly frantic. For some reason, the characters movement while fighting reminds me of my aquarium fish when it’s time to eat. It’s possible to issue some orders and cast spells, but trying to do so without hurting your own party is like balance an egg on a spoon held by your mouth, while two rabid dogs are biting your legs. Yes, I know it sounds the worst thing ever, but since the other aspects of this game are so good, it gets a pass, also because it doesn’t take much time.

One of the most unique aspects of the game is how spells work. Runes and ingredients should be mixed and combined to create them. For instance, just casting the healing spell ups the hit points of the caster, but if combined with the missile rune, it can heal other characters. These combinations can be made with damage and area runes as well, and may create spells capable of destroying whole armies. I kid you not.

This novel spell system is also used throughout most of the puzzles of the game. When I first played the game, I was young and dumb, and my gaming sessions were confined to the first room of the guild cellar, since I didn’t know what I had to do to open the doors. It’s quite fitting, since it’s the sequel to Bloodwych, probably the first RPG I’ve played (on the ZX Spectrum), and also in that case my brain cells weren’t sufficiently evolved yet to solve any puzzle.

These first puzzles are very simple, and are just about casting the correct rune over the symbols, but even though they get a bit tougher, the logic stays mostly the same. But they’re usually pleasing to solve, and serve as a nice stopgap between exploring and combat. It’s unfortunate that this is an aspect that is completely neglected from today’s role-playing games, and even when puzzles are present, they’re so easy and serve more as an excuse to put a checkbox on the back of the game box or on its Steam page.

In the end, while Legend can’t measure up to some of those timeless RPG’s (some which were released on the Amiga such as Ultima VI, Might & Magic III and Dungeon Master), it’s still among the top of second tiers, like the Ishar trilogy. I suspect this game was a surprise hit, since a similar sequel, called Worlds of Legend, was released shortly after. Unfortunately, even if it was quite popular at the time, this was a subgenre of RPG that got lost in time, and we never got to see the natural evolution of it. Since we got a resurgence of real time puzzle blobbers (yes, that counts as a sub-sub-genre) with Legend of Grimrock, fingers crossed that some talented game designer, somewhere in the world, has this game as his favourite.

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