Thursday, July 15, 2021
Softwave Games/Motelsoft (developer); published as shareware, in Germany by PD Pool
Released in 1993 for Atari ST
Date Started: 13 July 2021
Again, we run into Motelsoft (of which "Softwave" seems to have been alias), perhaps one of the most appropriately-named companies in the industry. Motels can be dodgy, but the best of them offer clean, comfortable rooms with few frills at a budget cost. Such adjectives describe Motelsoft's line of games, including the previously-covered Seven Horror's (1988), Sandor (1989), and Magic Tower I: Dark Stone Ritual (1992). Most of them were released as shareware.
Motelsoft's developers specialized in analyzing successful American RPGs and replicating their mechanics, at least on the surface. Sandor seemed to have been inspired by SSI's Demon's Winter (1988), and Magic Tower I was a clear adaptation of Might and Magic III. Arcan is another first-person game, and while it re-uses some of Magic Tower I's assets, it plays like a clone of Dungeon Master, with lots of buttons, levers, and pits, and a near-identical combat and character development system.
Arcan is the first of two very similar games released the same year. The other is Walls of Illusion. I originally assumed that Walls was an English adaptation of Arcan, but Motelsoft's web site insists that it's a sequel. I checked out Walls briefly. It has the same characters starting at Level 1, but the dungeon configuration is different. I suspect Walls is just a re-use of the same engine with new maps, but I'll give it a more thorough vetting later in the year. The games are credited to Motelsoft's founders, Harald Breitmaier and Heinz Munter. They would re-use the name for their final game, Arcan: Der Schatz des Hexenmeisters (2006), a game whose graphics suggest an Elder Scrolls influence.
As with many Motelsoft games, there's no character creation. As the game begins, you have a party of four: Menthor, Thar-zik, Ratakresch and Ellie. Their only intrinsic attribute is strength, but there are also values for health, magic power, encumbrance, armor class, and hunger level. Like Dungeon Master, the characters don't seem to have defined classes (although Ratakresch and Ellie start much stronger in magic); instead, any character can achieve any combination of levels in the game's five classes. Three of them are easy to translate: Warrior, gladiator, and healer. The other two are zauberer and hexer, both different magic classes, much like an English game might make a distinction between "sorcerer" and "magician" even though they're the same thing in the vernacular. I assume they have different spells or something. Everyone starts as a grünschnabel (literally, "green beak," or rookie) in all classes. Oddly, the game also has standard experience points and levels, too.
A little colored panel in the lower-left seems to indicate how the characters are arrayed in formation. The right side of the screen has controls, including a GTFO cluster, magical and physical attacks for each character, a compass, and an automap. The two-column, six-row grid in the upper right shows you active spells.
There is virtually no keyboard support. You can bring up each character's sheet with the appropriate F1-F4 key, but once it's open you can't use the same keys to switch among them, and you have to use the mouse to return to the main screen. Movement is mapped to the key cluster except that the right and left arrows strafe instead of turning in those directions. No key seems to turn you, making movement with the keyboard impossible. This is basically a mouse-only game, which as usual I find utterly unforgivable. [Ed. My apologies. As commenters pointed out, on the Atari ST keyboard, INSERT and HOME are part of the arrow cluster and are used to turn. I remapped them, and the arrows, to the numberpad, and everything works fine. The game still needs some more work on its keyboard inputs, but it isn't as bad as I originally thought.]
The game begins in a 3 x 2 area with a plaque on the wall. Touching it produces the following:
Welcome to Arcan's labyrinth! So you are the brave adventurers I have been waiting for for a long time. It was clear to me that it could only be a matter of time before the "legend" of my fabulous riches would attract creatures from all corners of the earth. But I am ready to take on you. Remember . . . I always keep an eye on you.
Nearby are alcoves with a gold coin and a knife. The opening area is relatively linear, introducing the player slowly to the game's conventions. A hallway has two buttoned doors that won't open; there are slots next to each of them. The hallway ends with a single square on either side, but each one has a lever that opens another small area. Between them are leather pants, leather boots, a silver coin, and a gold coin.
Inserting the coins in the slots opens the two hallway doors, one of which leads to a single room with a dagger, leather armor, a helmet, and an apple. The other opens to a large area with the game's first combat, against two robed men with swords and shields. These turn out to be the only enemies the game supports, at least for the first four hours. Some of them are harder than others.
Combat is mostly identical to Dungeon Master. You click on the row of hands to make a physical attack, after which there is a brief cool down period. Rear characters are limited to missile weapons and spells, of which there is a short supply in the early game.
Each character can literally only attack the enemy directly in front of him. The same is true of enemies. In an early combat, Thar-zi killed his foe in the right column, but the foe in the left column killed Menthor and Ratakresch behind him. This put the entire game in a stalemate where no one could hit each other (and the enemy refused to move into the other column) until I rearranged the party. I reloaded, though, as I don't know of any way to resurrect dead characters.
I discovered early on that you have to use the combat waltz to survive. (That is, let the enemy come to you, attack, side-step, and turn before he can respond, wait for him to enter your old space, repeat.) Fighting face-on is a recipe for quick death. The waltz a bit of pain with the all-mouse interface, but it works.
A mistake I made early in the game was putting the weapons in the wrong hands. For the first two or three hours, I was thus attacking with fists alone, doing one-third of the damage that I could have been doing. (Fixing this by switching to real weapons does not change the need for the waltz, alas.) Even worse, you don't get any experience points or level development for fist attacks. I was wondering why my characters were gaining nothing for all the fighting. This changed when I finally switched to actual weapons, and my two lead characters started gaining both experience and levels in "warrior." As I found more knives and daggers and began to throw them, my rear characters gained levels in "gladiator."
Another area of the opening level was full of pit traps and levers that teleported us around them. Ultimately, after I'd only mapped a small area, I had to choose between two up staircases and one down staircase to find new territory. The game thus for a while seemed like it was going to be more like Chaos Strikes Back, where you explore bits and pieces of levels rather than an entire level at a time. This did change.
One area in Main +1 (one level above the main level) looked safe, but walking into it caused pits to open beneath the party if they stood idle for more than a second. There was a door on the other side, but I didn't have enough time to activate it before dropping to the lower level. There, in an alcove, I found the first spell scroll: "Open Door." It looks like the spell system is going to be based on finding scrolls. You give them to a particular character, and the associated spell appears in their spell list. To cast, you activate the spell in the spell list and then hit the "target" button for the appropriate character (above the hands). This is going to make it difficult to switch between spells on the fly.
"Open Door" doesn't work at a range, but it did turn out to be the solution to the problem. I had to race across the floor before the pits could open, cast it right in front of the door, fall, and then return to the level and run through the now-open door. It went into a small area with a chest (which allows the party member to carry a lot more items), a dagger, a knife, and food. This wasn't a horribly complex puzzle, but it was more complex than the rote mechanics that some Dungeon Master clones offer, giving me some hope for the game.
When I'd exhaustively mapped the three small levels and their interconnected staircases, the only way to move forward was to drop into a pit on the main level. I don't like when the only way forward is one way. This led me to an area of Main -1 with another message:
Only the bravest, boldest, and most intelligent will manage to get to me. And if someone succeeds in this, immeasurable wealth awaits him. But those who find the dead in my labyrinth pay me the price for their search. And this price is nothing less than your soul. Which is mine forever hahaha.
The only way out of this area was yet another pit. It dropped me down to Main -2, which turned out to be an enormous level, at least 40 x 40 (Main was around 20 x 20).
The large level had the same sorts of puzzles as the earlier ones--buttons that open doors, keyholes that take keys or coins, secret doors that you find by walking into walls (walking into walls without secret doors causes a point of damage). Spinners appeared for the first time, and a curious button that has four settings, each of which opens a different passage out of its room. I found the second spell--"Magic Eye"--which seems to show secret doors as open passages.
A little more than four hours into the game, I got stuck. I could identify only three ways forward: a buttoned door that was locked, a keyed door for which none of my keys worked, and a square that pushes you back into the previous square every time you try to enter. There are two levers and a button on the level for which I never found their uses. I can't find any way back up to the previous level.
Just as this was happening, my characters started starving to death. I had apparently taken too much time in exploration, and I'd used up all the food I found. With no clear way forward, I had to start over with a new party. I rushed through the parts that I had already mapped, took save states, and then carefully re-visited everything, trying every button and lever, testing every wall for secret doors, and reloaded when I didn't find anything. This solved the food problem, but I reached the same stopping point that I did with the previous party. I can see a key beyond the force field that keeps pushing me back, and I'm sure that's the key to the keyed door elsewhere on the level, but I can't figure out how to get to it. Meanwhile, I have two keys in my inventory for which I've found no locks. If I could find a way back up, maybe they open doors on the earlier levels. Maybe there's some mechanic, explained in the instructions, that I'm not seeing. Unless someone turns up the manual or maps and hints to the game, this is probably as far as I go. That I've only found two spells and the spell effect grid has spaces for 12 buffing spells alone makes me think there's probably a lot more dungeon to explore.
So far, Arcan seems like an acceptable Dungeon Master clone for a bargain price, but its amateur nature shows in its control scheme, its lack of character creation, and the limited enemies. In some ways, it might be a blessing if I'm stuck.
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