Sunday, May 25, 2014

Computer games - Battlemaster (the Atari ST game)

Game cover.
Battlemaster was a great RPG/strategy game which I discovered via a demo on an ST Format cover disc.  It was very ahead of its time in many ways for a game in 1990.  It is nothing to do with the MMORPG of the same name.

There's more backstory than the standard 'explore a dungeon and kill the sorcerer' plot of most RPGs.  You live in a world where Orcs, Elves, Humans and Dwarves are in a constant war with each other.  However, there is a legend that if the crowns of each race could be bought to the Tower of the Watcher, then the war will end.

Sometimes you get a helpful message in the bar below the
screen.  Sometimes you don't.   
However, each race jealously guards its crown in heavily fortified castles which you have to fight your way through in order to get them.  Before you do that, however, you have to survive the hostile wilds and assault the other settlements of your enemy races.

At the beginning of the game, you choose a character from one of the four races and you also choose a profession from warrior, mage, thief and merchant.

You can organise your soldiers into a file in order to
get them across bridges and retreat faster.  
You control this character with a top down display and you can either use a ranged weapon or a hand to hand weapon to slay your opponents who mill around firing arrows or swinging swords.  You can also pick up new weapons, gold and food which restores your health.

An innovative aspect of Battlemaster's gameplay is your ability to hire and command a squad of underlings.  You can give them formations and orders to suit the combat situation that you are in.  It takes a lot of practice since it is a real time game and you cannot pause it and give actions in advance like in Neverwinter Nights.

The levels that you fight through and the options available to you gave me lots to think about in terms of gameplay and strategy.  Each level had something different in terms of monsters or how to solve a particular problem.  It provided me with a lot of entertainment.

You can read another
review of Battlemaster
However, the innovation does not stop there.  If you do manage to retrieve the four crowns and get them to the Watcher's Tower, then you get rewarded with the ending where the Watcher brutally kills you and takes the crowns to use for his own dark ends.  It's a downer ending, but the game puts a positive spin on this by saying that as you die, you realise that the world goes round in cycles and you are happy knowing that you will be born again in a more peaceful time or something like that.  I guess the game doesn't want you to focus on the apocalypse that you have brought upon everyone.

However, massive kudos to the Watcher for propagating a lying legend that if he got all of the crowns then he would solve the world's problems.  This means that he has tricked lots of others to do all of his dirty work and then bring him the crowns.  That shows real long term thinking and he would get a good mark for diabolical genius.

The orc could have hired soldiers so he
wouldn't have got into a situation like this.  
There weren't many games at the time which had plot twists, and especially ones where you snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

There is one bug in the game which you can exploit.  If you are not hostile towards other races, you are giving the option of parleying with them.  This allows you to sell your items and buy any items that you could find on the level, including the crowns of each race.  And they don't even cost all that much.  So you can complete the game quite quickly with very little bloodshed.

Battlemaster showed me that you can take games further - just because certain aspects are repeated in games does not mean that they are essential.  You don't need a completely happy ending (such as in Heart of Ice) or do the game solo or fight a lot (although I think the ability to purchase the crowns is more of a bug).

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