Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire VGA Remake review

It’s rare I don’t know how to start an article but such is the occasion here. AGD Interactive, formerly known as Tierra, have recently released their long-awaited remake of the Sierra classic Quest for Glory II. It’s not just that it was in production for seven years that unsettles me, I’m uncertain how am I to write the review. Since this is an almost 1:1 remake, should I only concentrate on the renewed aspects of the game? Or should I also the remark on the aspects of the original? I suppose I shall helplessly try to balance the two, so read on…

The first thing that makes a grand impression is that the game was in production for seven years, and it’s quite obvious that they were well invested into the project. The amount of effort put into the game is nothing but vast, and it shows on every scene of the game. Whether it’s the dirty streets of Raseir or the endless desert, the backgrounds and dialogue portraits are at least as much polished as those of any Sierra game from the early 90s, and the animations are as smooth as they can be in the charming pixels of the 320*200 resolution. Not much more can be said about the graphics of the game – pure eye candy.

The plot of the game (which remains intact from the original) plays out like the next tale from the Arabian Nights – all with sultans, viziers and genies. Of course, there’s also quite a lot of the typical Quest for Glory humour, and some hilarious references – “Of all the Djinn joints in this town, you had to walk into this one.”. A rendez-vous with the Marx brothers is also not uncommon in the game. In the end, the game never quite takes itself too seriously, and only benefits from that – it is a satisfying experience which leaves you with a smile once you’ve finished it.

The soundtrack of the game consists mainly of revised themes from the original game, and, while it is obviously professionally made, quite frankly, I find it a bit bland. Of course, the music is appropriate and well-timed, but it’s hardly memorable. The game is not voiced, but then again, nor were the remake of the first game and the third installment, so it does not really bother me.

What is most impressive about this game, however, is its technical side. The Quest for Glory games are traditionally far more complicated than the other Sierra series, mostly because of the alternate classes which you can play; hence the different solutions to the puzzles, different events etc. AGDI have managed to implement all that in AGS, and the result is a game that feels exactly like the remake of the first one. And hats off to that.

Perhaps the biggest innovation which Trials by Fire VGA offers is the combat system. Unlike that of the other Quest for Glory games (with the partial exception of the fourth one) where combat was a synonym for “click the attack button”, here we are offered a well-developed and challenging combat system with special moves, combo attacks and different strategies for each character class.

Of course, a game of such scope cannot be perfectly flawless – I myself found a few minor bugs, but they did nothing to mar my impressions. There are other flaws though – those of the original. For instance, the desert, which is endlessly vast, only has three or four places of interest, or the labyrinth-like alleyways, through which you have to find your way at least two times.

It’s hard to criticise Trial by Fire VGA, though. Not only is it easily the most ambitious AGS game ever released, but it is also immensely polished. And an aficionado of the classic adventure games can only be grateful for the finished product.

Note: I shall abstain from scoring this game, since AGDI are not responsible for all of the game’s aspects.

Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire VGA Remake

Creator: AGD Interactive

Website

Ben Jordan case 7: The Cardinal Sins review

Introduction.

Managing to produce six games of a series is a feat in itself, but Francisco Gonzalez (a.k.a. Grundislav) set out to finish the series with two more, in which all the loose threads would come together. Has he succeeded with the penultimate one? Read on.

Plot.

Recently returned from his ‘vacation’ in Greece, Ben Jordan has a fight with his family, who say he needs a better job than a paranormal investigator (the narrow-minded bigots!). Luckily, he gets a mysterious phone call from a man accused of murdering a priest, who asks for Ben’s help. Wanting to prove to his parents that investigating the abnormal is serious business and seduced by the idea of visiting the ancient city, he packs his bags and flies to Rome.

As the subtitle of the game would suggest, the plot this time revolves around catholicism. During his investigation, Ben gets to visit a few churches and learn a thing or two about certain saints and religion as a whole. While the game hardly is the next Gabriel Knight III in this aspect, the story is well-researched and rarely feels contrived. The surprisingly mature climax just shows how much Grundislav has progressed since he started the series.

Ben Jordan case 7

Ben Jordan case 7

Graphics.

If you are already familiar with the series, you won’t feel this game any different than the rest in visual terms. The backgrounds are once more rather pretty, detailed and most of all functional, while the characters are well animated and have neat character portraits. The graphics don’t add an awful lot to the experience, but they don’t subtract from it either.

Audio.

Peter Gresser is once again responsible for the music, and he has improved vastly since his soundtrack for the sixth case. The tunes are memorable and appropriate, while preserving the overall tone of the game’s atmosphere. However, I feel that an Arcade Fire song shouldn’t have been used for the closing credits – I’m sure that Gresser would have composed an equally emotional track.

The game is also fully voiced, which adds a lot to the experience. The cast is solid, if not superb, and obviously a lot of time has been spent lip-syncing all the speech. And look out for the Italian accent of Ben Jordan, it is something that will make you fall of your chair!

Gameplay.

Grundislav bets on investigative gameplay rather than far-fetched puzzles this time, and it is a winning bet indeed. The puzzles consist of mostly interrogating certain characters and putting the pieces of the crime jigsaw together. There are a few inventory-based puzzles as well, although they are nothing too zany. One may say the puzzles are logical and easy, but this is very much preferable to the contrary.

A negative aspect of the gameplay, however, remains the downright linearity. Not only aren’t there alternate paths nor solutions, but everything has to be done in a specific order. For instance, you can only pick a certain costume from a costume rack once you’ve found good use for it(and once the location has gone out of your mind, too). Call me picky, but that’s something Grundislav can do and has done better, and I hope he does not disappoint in the last game of the series.

Conclusion.

Despite some minor flaws, the seventh installment of the Ben Jordan series carries on the tradition admirably. The Cardinal Sins is an unexpectedly mature game and the cliffhanger it ends on can only make you wait in anticipation for the closing game.

Ben Jordan case 7: The Cardinal Sins

Creator: Grundislav

Website

Overall rating: 85%

Interview with Wadjet Eye Games

Following the release of the splendid independent adventure game “Blackwell Unbound”, Dave Gilbert, Erin Robinson and Thomas Regin kindly answered the questions of the AGS Ezine regarding their work on the game and what is to come.

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Tell us more about yourselves, what you do, what you like, etc.

Dave Gilbert: I’m 31, lived in the NYC area most of my life, and design/write adventure games fulltime.

Erin Robinson: You mean outside the adventure gaming world? I like drawing comics, and I’ve been lucky enough to see my stuff in a few local publications. I guess my “real” job is finishing up my degree, and this year I’m doing an honours thesis in behavioural neuroscience. I’m also a published bead artist. They’re a lot like pixels.😉

Thomas Regin: My name is Thomas Regin and I’m from Denmark (the small dot on the map just
above Germany). I’m male, caucasian, 31 years old and I have a wonderful girlfriend and a beautiful 7 months old daughter. I’ve performed and composed music for as long as I can remember and I’m working hard to add to my “official” list of compositional merits. So far they include some demo
work for the sample library Garritan’s Personal Orchestra, a few radio station jingles and short movies and the background music for the space simulator OrbiterSim’s Sound AddOn. And now Blackwell Unbound – which I hope won’t be my last PC-game. It’s been a life long dream of mine to compose music for PC-games and adventure games in particular, ever since I was introduced to them in my early childhood (on the Commodore 64, of course). My personal favorites include the first two Police Quest games, the Monkey Island Series, Gabriel Knight and Leisure Suit Larry 1-3. And of course the Blackwell Series!

How did you get interested in creating adventure games? Which were the ones that inspired you in particular?

Dave Gilbert: Why does any guy enter the game industry? To meet girls, of course. Aside from that, I started writing games as a way to distract myself from the aftermath of September 11th. Being a New Yorker at that time was a trying experience, and writing games for fun helped me get through it. As for inspiration, there are two games that I’ve definitely put up on a pedestal. Gabriel Knight and Discworld Noir.

“Gabriel Knight”, with its research based storytelling and interesting characters, was the first time I really fell in love with the genre. It’s very difficult to give a detailed backstory while providing good gameplay (most games have you read diaries or show cut-scene flashbacks), so I admire GK for that.
“Discworld Noir” was the first detective game where I actually felt like a real detective, sorting through clues and making connections, as opposed to just solving random arbitrary puzzles. Plus the sleek noir atmosphere – with the rain and the jazz soundtrack – made me fall in love with it.
The Blackwell series is me trying to do both GK and DN at the same time.🙂

Erin: King’s Quest VII will always hold a special place in my heart. I first played it back in grade 4, and it was neat to see a game with two female player characters. Up until then all the women I’d seen in video games were either holding weapons or being rescued (or doing god-knows-what, in the case of Duke Nukem 3D). I used to draw little sketches of what Commander Keen would look like as a girl, that sort of thing. I think I always knew I’d make a game someday, and it was just a matter of finding the right people to work with.

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How did you join the team? Did you have any experience with AGS games before that?

Thomas: I’ve been a member at bigbluecup.com for around a year, but I’ve never really been very active. Whenever I post, threads seem to die instantly (heh!), so I try to post as little as possible and just lurk in the background instead. Basically I registered there hoping that I might find someone who needed music for a game, but it was pretty hard to get into the “circle of trust”. So I pretty much forgot about my membership until a good friend of mine (and fellow composer), Nikolas Sideris, asked me if I would like to write the music for a new game that he didn’t have the time to do. And that’s how I got in touch with Dave. Luckily Dave and I hit it off from the beginning.

Tell us a bit more about Unbound, some background information about the game itself, how did it strike you to write a prequel, not a sequel?

Dave Gilbert: The game takes place in the early 70s, and stars Lauren Blackwell instead of Rosa Blackwell. Lauren, you might remember from Legacy, was Rosa’s aunt and also bonded to Joey. Originally, the game was going to be a “real” sequel starring Rosa (Called “The Blackwell Convergence”), with occasional flashbacks starring Lauren. In the end, the game was too large and ambitious so I cut the flashbacks out. It seemed a shame to remove them entirely, so I decided to make it into a standalone game.

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How long did it take you to make Unbound? How much time a week did you put into its creation?

Dave Gilbert: It’s difficult to gauge this because it took me 4 months to design the larger game (Blackwell Convergence). I decided to make the flashback sections into a separate game in May, and from there it took four months to complete. It’s a fulltime gig for me, so I try to put at least 8 hours in per day. Some days I work more, some days I work less. Towards the end of production I was putting in 12 hours a day at least! There are also times when I concentrate entirely on marketing/sales and don’t work on the game at all, so it varies.

Erin: My part took about two months, total. The whole thing took four months but I was travelling for part of the summer. Weekly, I’d guess I was putting in about 20 hours.

Thomas: Good question and I wish I knew the answer. I guess I began the “serious” work around 3-4 weeks before the game was released and put in loads of time when inspiration hit.

What was it like working with Dave? Had you played his previous games? If yes, what did you think of them?

Erin: I’d played “The Shivah” when it was freeware and really enjoyed it. Dave has a real knack for storytelling, which I think accounts for a lot of the enjoyment in a game. I also bought “Legacy” when it came out and spent a fun evening in the world of Rosa and Joey. Dave also namedropped me in that game before I’d even really talked to him, which certified his status as “really cool guy.”

He messaged me about “Unbound” at the start of May, and I was instantly sold on the idea. At the start, the game was only going to be about five backgrounds, but Dave realized it’d be better to sell a medium-length game. I told him I was cool with the changes, then coughed and held out my hand.😉

While I was working, Dave and I would chat over MSN like he was just another coworker in the next cubicle. We’re both slightly neurotic people with coffee habits, so we could get a lot done once the caffeine kicked in. It was a great way to work, and the best summer job I’ve had to date. Getting paid to sit in a Starbucks and do sketches? Hells yeah.

Thomas: Yes, I played Legacy which I absolutely loved. Brilliant story, graphics and gameplay! And I especially enjoyed Peter Gresser’s soundtrack, so I knew what I was up against from the beginning. But Dave’s a really cool guy to work with. He has the grand overview at all times (it seems) and he knows what he wants and was quick to let me know if my demos didn’t live up to his expectations. And that’s how I like to work: Keep writing until I hit something that suits the scene best.


How did you choose the musical direction for the Unbound soundtrack? Was Angelo Badalamenti a conscious influence? What synthesizers, instruments and software did you use? Do you have any released solo or collaborative works?

Thomas: Choosing the musical direction came quite naturally. Nikolas Sideris had already told me that Dave wanted something jazzy which initially scared me half to death, because I don’t consider jazz one of my primary strenghts. However, after watching a couple of early works in progress of the game, I began to hear, in my head, what kind of music that would work. So I sent Dave a little quick demo of how I imagined the opening scene. And he loved it! And although extended slightly, it’s that same demo that’s used for the opening scene in the game. After homing in on what Dave wanted, the rest of the tunes pretty much wrote themselves, although I had to force myself not
to write too catchy and too “dominant” tracks. It did happen a few times as the observant players probably have noticed in the bonus section.
Angelo Badalamenti was not a initially an influence. His style was not something I deliberately aimed for, but after it was brought to my attention that the opening cue was somewhat reminiscent of Badalamenti, I kept this in mind as I wrote the “late night jazz”-cues for the game. The rest is all me, I hope. I also wanted to be a little controversial, which is why I wrote a track with vocals for the end credits theme. I found that after playing the game, it was like watching a good movie, and movies often end with some kind of song as the credits roll over. So I thought about Joey’s “secret” love for Lauren and pretty much wrote a tune about it.
All the tracks were composed, arranged and mixed in Sonar 6 PE using my trusty Yamaha Motif ES7 synthesizer, EWQLSO Gold XP for the big orchestra samples, the amazing pianos from Pianoteq2.0, Session Drummer 2, EWQL Stormdrum and Garritan’s Jazz & BigBand Library for the drum sounds and finally my own vocals.
As for solo releases I don’t have any official ones yet, but it’s my goal (and dream) that one day I’ll be able to publish something entirely of my own!

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How are your solo projects going? Is there a chance that we might see Spooks 2 soon? Will it be somehow influenced by your work for Dave?

Erin: Heh…those. Yes. My priorities at the moment are my thesis and my comics, but I think I should be able to finish up “Nanobots” over Christmas break. As for the Spooks sequel “Skyward,” I’ve actually been working away at the design document in the last few weeks. I can’t get the story out of my head, so I know it’ll get done someday. I probably won’t be able to even start before next summer, unfortunately. Cross your fingers and maybe I’ll have something done in time for Mittens.

As for the “Unbound” influence, I now have a pretty good idea how long it takes me to finish a Photoshop background from scratch. Ideally, this should let me budget my time for the next game. We’ll see how that goes.😛


What might we expect from the next installment of the Blackwell series, Blackwell Convergence – length, plot outline, price, release date? Will neo noir continue to be a major influence?

Dave Gilbert: I really liked Thomas’s noirish jazz soundtrack for Unbound, and it’s something I’d like to see continue in the future installments (especially since they will get much darker). In terms of length, Convergence is looking to a have more characters, backgrounds, and animation than anything I’ve done before, so that’s an exciting challenge. The price will be $14.99 like Legacy.
As for release date, I’ve learned the hard way not to announce an “official” release date until I know I can meet it, so I’ll hold off announcing that.🙂 I will say that since the design document was already complete when Unbound was released and several assets had already been created, you won’t have to wait as long this time around.

What have you gained on a personal level from your work on Unbound? Will the team stay together? If not, what are your plans for the future?

Dave Gilbert: Unbound was one of those “happy accidents.” It wasn’t the game I originally intended to make, but it became a game that was great fun to work on. Erin and Thomas were so awesome it made production a “zero stress” affair. Thomas is definitely on board for the next game, although Erin is not. If Erin didn’t have that “busy college life” thing getting in the way, I’d snap her up again in a heartbeat.

Erin: I don’t think we’ll be seeing a reunion project or anything, but I’ll definitely be watching the future Wadjeteye projects closely. While wearing my team Wadjeteye trucker hat. :D

Thomas: Since this was my first experience with a PC-game I guess I have learned a lot! To begin with, I was unsure about the whole process, but Dave made everything very easy for me. So I hope I’ll feel a bit more confident next time. Apart from this, it was all great fun and I’d do it again any day! And I love the positive feedback I’ve received for this soundtrack! Except for when my baby arrived, this has absolutely made my year!!

Dave and I are continuing where we left off a few weeks ago, so I’ve already started composing for his next installment, Convergence, which will come out somewhere in the beginning of next year. This time featuring even better music from a more confident composer (or complete crap because I’ve become too confident)! We’ll have to wait and see!😉

Thanks for your time.

Dave Gilbert: No problem!

Erin: Thanks for making me feel famous.😉

Thomas: Thanks to everyone who liked the game and the music and thanks to you, Vel, for setting up this interview!

“Blackwell Unbound” Review

Introduction. Dave Gilbert, the first full-time AGS game developer, has recently released the long-awaited prequel to “The Blackwell Legacy”, “Blackwell Unbound”. But as the standards are set high by his previous games, does his latest creation meet them?
Plot. You play Lauren Blackwell, a bitter medium in New York in her quest to relieve lost souls in the city, and her sidekick, Joey. The ghosts the duo has to set free in this game are two and seemingly disconnected – a lonely saxophone player and a middle-aged social outcast. During the game you get to meet a wide variety of characters – from a journalist to a Jamaican music producer, all of which have their own agenda, as well as secrets. Characterisation has always been a trait of Dave’s games, and he follows his principles again this time. The story is wonderfully told, and at the end you really feel like you’ve experienced something special. Thumbs up, Dave.
Graphics. This time, Erin “The Ivy” Robinson (creator of “Spooks”) is fully responsible for the graphics, and her work is truly remarkable. All the backgrounds are immensely detailed, as are the characters. The animations seem smooth and fluent. On the whole, the visuals of the game not only help to convey the story to the player, but add a great deal of atmosphere themselves.
Music and sound. The aspect of the game which absolutely made my day though was the music, created by Thomas Regin. The slow saxophone which prevails over the title theme just IS the game itself, and each and every track on the game’s soundtrack just screams atmosphere. The style of the music is mostly late night jazz, although it occasionally varies. I don’t know if the composer responsible for the soundtrack has any releases, but I’m sure I’ll look for his name in the future. The sound effects in the game are also on par. The cast voicing the game is also good, with the two leads being particularly on form. There were some slight volume problems with some characters, although these are few and far between.
Gameplay. Dave sticks to his tendency not to emphasise on inventory-based puzzles, and it is once again all for the better. Instead of thinking how to use the chewing gum with the dog leash, you make logical connections between clues and facts, and spend time interrogating characters. As you control two characters in this game, a considerable amount of the puzzles involve co-operation between them. Also, each of them has their own methods and traits, and this is well-integrated into the gameplay. You can also solve the two cases separately, which Dave claims is non-linearity, although your actions don’t actually affect the story. The playing time varies, although a good guess would be about four hours. “Blackwell unbound” is a game which is both challenging and fun to play.
Although the version I played was the first released to the public, there were no major bugs and just a few very minor technical flaws of no importance. Once you finish the game, there is a ton of bonus features. DVD-style commentary, additional music, interview with Erin Robinson and bloopers, to name a few. For the inexperienced players, there is also an in-game tutorial. The game is available either as a download for ten dollars, or on CD for twice as much. The CD version also includes a separate cd with the soundtrack. I personally consider the price to be more than fair, for what Dave’s offering.
Conclusion. Dave Gilbert loves what he’s doing, and this is quite obvious in his latest game. A masterfully woven story, pretty graphics and a soundtrack which could have been composed by Angelo Badalamenti make it a must have for all fans of the adventure genre. One can only eagerly anticipate what Dave is going to do next.

Overall score:
95%

“Ben Jordan: Paranormal Investigator Case 6 – Scourge of the Sea People” Review

Introduction. The Ben Jordan games are arguably the most famous AGS game series. There is hype around each one, sometimes even before the actual development of the game began. Recently, Grundislav has released the sixth game of the series. Does it live up to the expectations, though?
Plot. After their last case, the paranormal investigation trio, led by Ben Jordan himself, decide to take a break and go on vacation. The chosen spot is Athens, Greece. Not before long, however, their way is diverted and they find themselves into another paranormal mystery. This time the dreaded monster are the sea people – humanoid creatures who live under the sea and drag people to the ocean at night. The story is also loosely connected to some legends from the Greek mythology, which is a nice touch. It never goes too deep in that direction though, and most of the time, it is pretty straightforward. Anyone who enjoyed the plots of the previous Ben Jordan games is very likely to enjoy this one too.
Graphics. While the game may not rival “A tale of two kingdoms” in graphical terms, the backgrounds are detailed and nicely animated, and so are the characters. There is not much else to say, really – visually, the sixth Ben Jordan game is much like the other ones.
Music and sound. A significant change has been made to the development team – Ghormak, who was well known for his work on the previous Ben Jordan games, has been replaced with Dark Stalkey. While the music of the latter is as professional and catches the mood of the game just as well, the change in style is significant. Ghormak wrote catchy music, which could be listened to and fully enjoyed even without the game itself. Dark Stalkey relies more on the blend between in-game atmosphere and soundtrack. Needless to say, the necessary sound effects are also present.
Gameplay. The puzzles you have to solve in order to progress in the game are mostly inventory-based, and none are too tricky or mind-bending. However, some of them feel like they’ve been thrown in just to prevent the player from going further too quickly. Such niceties as optional puzzles and alternate paths are also omitted, this time. Don’t get the impression that the game isn’t fun to play though – quite the contrary. It’s just that previous games have set the standard higher.
Conclusion. Grundislav plays it safe with the sixth Ben Jordan game. Fans of the series will surely not be disappointed, but it feels more like an intermezzo between the previous games and the final and most decisive two parts which are to come.

Interview with Crystal Shard, creators of “A Tale of Two Kingdoms”

Lately, a game named “A Tale of Two Kingdoms” has drawn the attention of the general public. The Project leader, Radiant and three other team members kindly took the time to answer the questions of the AGS Ezine.

   Ezine: Tell us a bit more about yourselves – what you do, what you like etc.  

 

Pieter: I’m a software engineer from The Netherlands, with a full-time job, although I’ve been into game design since I was a student. I like travelling, reading books, and gaming, although by the latter I tend to mean boardgames and tabletop roleplaying, rather than computer games. Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t play computer games all that much. I am said to have a quirky sense of humor, and enjoy meeting new people, such as at the Mittens meet.

 

Nikolas: I’m Nikolas Sideris and I’m a composer and sound designer. At the moment I’m at my third year of PhD in composition and I’m also working on several computer games.

 

Fizzii: I’m an engineering/science student from Australia, and have been creating graphics since around 2002. I play the violin and enjoy reading and playing the occasional computer game. I generally like games with a storyline, although I do play The Sims a fair bit as well. 

 

Meerbat: I am a biologist who just completed his Diploma thesis in Munich, Germany, in the field of evolutionary biology and ecology. I am originally from Bulgaria, but have moved a lot in the past few years. I enjoy travelling, though it is mostly work-related in my case. I also like reading books, drawing, playing card and board games, and snorkeling.

 

Ezine: How did the idea for “A Tale of Two Kingdoms” originate?  

 

Pieter: It was inspired by a number of things, most notably a fondness for mythology and fairy tales, as well as certain classic adventure games. Having several cubic yards of fantasy novels in my house also helps.

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Ezine: How was the team assembled?  

 

Pieter: A variety of ways. For several months, I kept an eye on the thread on the AGS forum for people who offer to help, and contacted several of those for ATOTK. Several other team members approached me, asking if they could help out. And yet others were friends of existing team members, and were drawn in by them. We ended up with a very large team, by indie standards, not including nearly fifty people who offered their help at some point but turned out to be short on time, or having a style that was too different from ours.   

 

Nikolas: Radiant was constantly on the look out for members who would potentially help the creation of ATOTK. When I first joined the AGS forums, I places a sort of ad and pretty soon I was contacted by Radiant about the game. We stuck together since then (around 2 years ago).

 

Fizzii: Pieter happened to see a CoC background paintover I had posted in a forum in late 2004 and asked if I would like to join. At the time I had no idea as to the amount of work required in making a game from scratch.

 

Ezine: How did you keep in touch?  

Pieter: Mainly through our forum, although we used e-mail a lot to e.g. exchange resources. Also, we’ve planned semi-regular chat sessions, where everybody would turn up on ICQ or MSN at the same time. This proved somewhat tricky because of the time zones involved – we have team members in Europe and America as well as Australia.

 

 

Nikolas: E-mails, monthly chats, MSN. As a matter of fact, whenever one member of the team (at least the core members) travel to some place where another member is, we to strive to meet. That said, when Radiant was in London, we did meet and chat. Hope to see him again rather soon over here, and of course I would hope to see all the team here.🙂

 

Fizzii: Chat sessions meant I had to get up at 6am since nearly everyone else lives on the other side of the world, though fortunately, I’m a bit more of a morning person (grin). I also chatted on MSN regularly with Meerbat, the portrait artist, and we worked on some art together, notably the cutscene art (and Meerbat also created some cute animal sprite art while we were discussing possible creatures to put in the ATOTK world).

 

Meerbat: Besides from the forums and the scheduled team chats, we used instant messenging a lot. It was especially helpful for sharing and showing the latest graphics, getting feedback and making the appropriate retouches.

 

 Ezine: What would you advise ambitious game developers who take up large-scale projects with big teams?  

 

Pieter: Generally I would advise them to tackle a smaller project first, because it’s hard to envision the amount of work involved otherwise, and it’s easy to run out of steam. Also, it would seem that smaller teams work more effectively than big teams.  Other than that, communication is vital. The team needs a central person who keeps in touch with everybody and roughly knows what they’re up to. Other than keeping in touch, communication includes being honest about what you can and cannot do, and encouraging feedback from everybody. If a musician doesn’t like a particular sprite, or a background artist has an idea for the story, they should tell the rest of us. All involved should be willing to consider changing and improving their work based on feedback, because if they don’t, chances are that when the games come out, players will make the same comments or complain about them.  From my experience, indie teams tend not to work well with manager-types that contribute no other skills (such as art or coding) to the collaboration, nor with people that have no clear role or task on the team and simply seem to hang around, nor with having overly many storywriters. It’s fine to get ideas and feedback from everybody, it’s not fine to have five writers and one artist.

 

Nikolas: Hmmmmm…. That IS indeed difficult. From my experience, the main thing is that the team members need to respect each other and the work they do. A project leader is a must, and Radiant has been perfect all through the past 2 1/2 years. Also, what is vital, for me at least, is to know in advance how much work is needed, deadlines, and most details for the project. It is one thing to have a deadline six months ahead and need to compose 20 minutes of music, or having a deadline, whenever and having to write however much music for a game.

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Ezine: Why a fantasy game? Don’t you think that there are quite many of those?  

 

Pieter: While there are quite many games in a fantasy setting, in the past few years there haven’t been many adventure games in that setting. Also, fantasy is a very broad genre; we’ve tried to put in things that are uncommon to fantasy, like the goblins’ code of honor, the otherwordly fairies, or the tattoo-based sorcerers with their Pact. Actually the short answer is simply that I like fantasy. I read a lot of fantasy books (Hobb, Zelazny and Erikson being my favorites, as of late) and the “oldschool” games that I like best are the fantasy games like Quest for Glory and LOOM.

 

Nikolas: Well fantasy games are out there pretty much, but I have to say that ATOTK is very much researched and well thought. Furthermore we have to agree that fantasy comes close with imagination (actually in Greek it is the same word :D) so you can never have enough imagination.

 

Ezine: How much time did it take you to finish the game, from scratch to the release of v.1.0?  

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Pieter: About two and a half years, although I should note we took a break occasionally to do something else, such as creating the adventure games META and Warthogs.

 

Ezine: How much time a week did each of you put into creating the game?  

 

Pieter: This varies wildly, because to me, inspiration comes in waves. At the lowest points, I would do nothing at all related to ATOTK for up to a month. At the highest points, I would stay up until 3 AM several nights in a row to get the work done, or spend a full weekend coding, nearly as if it were a full-time job.

 

Nikolas: Oh, that depends. I’m always working on many projects at a time. So when dedicating to the ATOTK game, I would spend more than 20 hours a week. But this would go on for 1-2 weeks time, and then I would go on to a different project, to come back to ATOTK later on.

 

Fizzii: On average, I worked a few hours a week on the graphics. Motivation wasn’t a big problem for me, though when the whole team gets tired, it becomes hard to do work as well.

 

Meerbat: The time I could set aside for working on ATOTK was highly irregular. It depended on the course load I had during the semesters, but I could actually work the least during vacations, because I didn’t have access to the right software and hardware to keep working. Of course after the original to-do list was complete at some point, work became less intensive, though in the graphics department, we spent the time going back and retouching previous work or sometimes coming up with new ideas for close-ups, cutscenes, or critters.  

 

Ezine: How long did it take to beta test the game? Were there any notable obstacles during that period?  

 

Pieter: There have been tests on various builds of the game for at least a year, although several of these are technically alpha tests. In notable obstacles, I remember a build or two that I made late at night that turned out to crash in the second room or so, forcing me to make a new build the next day, and there were a few obscure bugs that were hard to track down because we weren’t sure which room was causing them. What helped was the presence of some good debug options. Other than the standard “get all items” and “teleport” functions, this includes e.g. night mode toggle, cycling through all portraits, or playing any piece of music anywhere.

 

Nikolas: Our strive for perfection got in the way a little bit, as we were beta testing constantly the game, and were nitpicking the game for around 8-9 months now, if not more. So while the game was almost there (let’s say 97% done) we would always touch up things, thus create new bugs to be beta tested. And the game was a rather lengthy one, so beta testing it was a tedious process.

 

Fizzii: Testing a non-linear game of this scope took up a lot of free time. This was notably due to the multiple paths that could be taken, and so it was easy to miss trying out several things which players subsequently tried once the game was released. The logging function was especially useful however, since bugs could be written down in the game without having to switch windows, and a .txt file was made so that bug reports could simply be copied and pasted.

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Ezine: How was the music created? What software and synths did you Ezine: use?

 

Nikolas: Speaking for myself, because there were other composers on the game as well, I only did additional music on the game, I composed as I compose for anything else. I was give descriptions and much info about the game and scene, and I was composing to what Radiant needed. The intro music, was synced to the original intro scene, not still on the game, and was treated like writing music for film, with sync points, tempo changes etc. Software wise, I used my studio equipment. Cubase SL3, EastWest Quantum Leap symphonic orchestra Gold, and Symphonic Choirs, and my beloved sennheiser HD 600 headphones.  

 

Ezine: What about graphics? How did you manage to create such a vast amount of sprites, backgrounds and portraits with such consistency?  

 

Pieter: The vast amount is a result of perseverance through a lot of hard work. The consistency is the result of diligent touch-ups. For instance, all the room art was completed over a year ago; but during that year, most rooms were touched up several times, and some of them redone entirely. A useful way is to have two artists touch up each other’s work; this makes the end result more consistent with both sides.

 

Fizzii: I recall touching up some of my backgrounds five or so times, which was not very efficient, but necessary since my art had improved over the course of time spent working on the game.  There were not many completed sprites when I began working on them, hence, it was easier to manage consistency. A couple of friends from Infamous Adventures (KQIII remake) also helped with sprites for a while, and they created sprites with a similar ‘Sierra’ style.

 

Meerbat: Though different people did several different portraits, all portraits were animated by me. Of course there are still some style inconsistencies in the game, but we tried to make these as imperceptible to the player as possible, by having characters who interacted often (for example all the characters in the dinner scene at the beginning) made by the same artist.

 

Ezine: It’s not often that adventure games have alternate solutions to the puzzles or optional ones. What prompted you to take such a gameplay decision?  

 

Pieter: In my opinion, a game should not be a story that you follow from start to finish, but rather a world that you can explore and play around with. This implies giving the player a choice of where to go. It also implies that if a player thinks of a logical way to pass a puzzle, this shouldn’t be denied simply because the designer had another way in mind. Such alternatives are found through lots of testing, as well as not giving the testers the answers in advance. The result is that two people playing the game can have a very different experience, and this encourages them to replay the game to see the parts they’ve missed.   

 

Fizzii: At one time, Pieter went overboard with the multiple solutions, allowing for a bottle of cider to be used to extinguish a fire. As a chemistry student, I was horrified at the idea of throwing alcohol onto a flame.

 

Ezine: Do you think that non-linearity is the way forward for adventure games?  

 

Pieter: I would hope so. I’ve seen that the gaming industry tends to go the other way (for instance, compare the freedom of the original Legend of Zelda with the strict linearity of the Zelda Oracle series), but the indie market can cover for this by going the other way. However, I should note that a non-linear game is significantly harder to design, because there is so much more to account for and it’s easy to have the player end up in a dead end without knowing it.   

 

Nikolas: I would definately say so. Computer games and adventure games, should be games, not books! Of course you need to have some kind of core going on, but other than that an open world, is a must in my books. I always get bugged when I’m encoutered with a simple “You can’t do that yet”, or “you don’t know that”, although it is apparent that it is there and so on.

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Ezine: What are your plans for the future? Will the team stay together? Do you have any future projects in mind? If not, what will each of you do, game-wise?  

 

Pieter: We don’t have any concrete plans as of yet, although there are several ideas that I think are worth developing further. Given that I’ve worked with other genres than adventure games in the past, it may be a nice idea to take a look at yet another genre.

 

Nikolas: I sure hope that the team sticks together. We had great time together and the output was great, as well as the feedback for ATOTK. Other games I’m working on at the moment, including: http://www.atropos-studios.com http://www.theforgottenelement.com  

 

Fizzii: Personally, I prefer adventure games, but if the idea is original or interesting, I’m in! At the moment I am working with IA on their games, but working on multiple projects allows for more creativity and means less monotony, at least for me.

 

Meerbat: It has been an enjoyable experience to do portraits for ags games and I would like to continue that, though it sometimes becomes difficult to find the time to do it. I also like to keep an open mind and maybe experiment with other genre, besides adventures.

 

Ezine: Anything else you’d like to add?  

 

Pieter: With respect to future projects, I would like to point people to our past projects, including SubTerra the puzzle game and Leylines the turn-based strategy, both available on the crystalshard.net site. And thank you for the interview!

 

Nikolas: I huge thank you to the rest of the team, and to Radiant for contacting me in the first place, as well as keeping us together the whole time.

Mittens 2007: Melting the Limit, by Erin Robinson

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Part One: A funny thing happened on the way from the forums

On the first day of Mittens, I was nervous. Friends had teased me about spending a week in the woods with internet strangers. My parents thought I was at a “game convention.” And perhaps most troubling, I was about to bring my boyfriend into my strange little world. Four days later, as I watched him stumble headfirst into a jacuzzi wearing a makeshift powdered wig, I knew my fears had been for nothing.

Quite simply, this was the most enjoyable vacation I’d ever had in my life. If Chris Jones were to say, “Next year we’ll be having Mittens: Antarctica,” I’d be like, “I’ll pack my snowshoes.”

Part Two: The Sunny Beaches of Canada

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I’ve lived in Canada for most of my life, but even I was surprised at how beautiful our location was. The cabin was spacious and full of delightful new-age kitsch (Snowflakes have emotions? Thanks, Dr. Emoto!). The nearby woods sheltered friendly animals and illegal fireworks alike. And, I was surprised to discover, we were a short drive away from a gorgeous sandy beach that harboured an honest-to-god shipwreck.

It was like what summer camp should have been: no supervision and freely flowing alcohol. Over the course of the week we did all sorts of things that made my inner child pee her pants: we made sandcastles, tin can phones, s’mores, forts, and bonfires. We played with bubble pipes, frisbees, horseshoes, swingsets, blocks (okay, pixels), and sparklers. Scummbuddy even organized an arts and crafts event where we turned road pylons into DOTT tentacles. I can’t say I wasn’t impressed.

After the sun went down, our primary activities were making fires, previewing adventure games, and testing the limits of the hot tub. According to cabin regulations, any more than six in the jacuzzi was too dangerous to attempt, a rule we respected for about two days. However, once one person had “melted the limit” it got easier for others to hop in. After that…well, there are pictures.

Part Three: On the Road with Tom Hanks

Anyone familiar with Canadian culture understands our loyalty to Tim Horton’s, the coffee and donut chain that spans the entire country. Maybe this is why it was especially amusing that our European guests were unable to grasp the name. Tom Thornton’s? Timmy Ho’s? Horny Tim’s? I’ll forever treasure the memory of CJ saying, “We’re going to Tom Hanks then, are we?”

Our primary means of transport was a 12-seater van, also known as the Mittenmobile, the AGS Bus, or Take Us to WalMart. BaRoN drove us everywhere without complaint, a considerable feat since we were like kids on a field trip (but with no hot chaperones). Besides the party bus, JetXL shared a rental car with a few others, and Grundislav drove the group that would soon be known as “Team Foxhump.” Without getting into the details, the name came from Kevfop’s discovery of a questionable image in a children’s colouring book. By the way, for the sake of the easily offended, do not ask what happened to a certain Bible Colouring Book we found at the cabin.

Although we spent most of our time at the cabin, we took a day trip to Niagra Falls and beautiful, shiny Toronto. Niagra Falls contains what could be the world’s only Frankenstein-themed Burger King, as well as various haunted houses, offensive t-shirt retailers, and a bit of a waterfall. Toronto time was spent at the Ontario Science Centre (or as I like to call it, “Interact with Object: The Museum”) and the CN tower. Our European friends took the $20 journey to the top of the tower, while us locals were content to watch Disco launder his shirt in a fountain.

Part Four: The Mittens are Off

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Not even a week after we said our goodbyes, it’s not enough to say that I miss everyone already. Without expecting anything but a shared love of adventure games, I was pleasantly surprised to meet a group of smart, creative and uncommonly witty people. Kevfop has proudly displayed his “Clumsy Fop” video on his Facebook page, and everywhere we go things remind us of Mittens. Now if only I could get him to stop wearing the wig…

‘Till next year,

~The Ivy~

Blackwell Unbound Preview

Dave Gilbert needs no introduction – he has made some of the most enjoyable AGS games, in which he emphasised on captivating plots and profound characterisation. Lately, he has started work as a full-time game developer, and has already released two independent adventure titles – a mature rabbi mystery entitled “The Shivah” (Deluxe version), and the first installment of a modern ghost story called “The Blackwell Legacy”. Both of the titles have thus far had vast success and impressive critical acclaim. Now Dave is working on a game which is loosely connected to “The Blackwell Legacy”, although not a direct sequel.

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In “Blackwell Unbound” you play ‘aunt Lauren’, who is occasionally referred to in Legacy, and her ghost friend, Joey in their quest to relieve lost souls in the big city. And here comes the first significant difference with Dave’s previous game – you can control both characters freely, and there will be puzzles in which they will need to co-operate with each other. Dave believes the role of Joey should be more central in this game, and certain areas will be accessible only to him. Mr. Gilbert also promises that the game will be very non-linear, which will certainly add to its replay value. He will continue to concentrate on puzzles involving logical connections, rather than obscure and now obsolete inventory based obstacles. “Blackwell Unbound” is likely to be not only an enjoyable title, but an innovative one.

The graphics for the game this time are being made by Erin Robinson (known as ‘The Ivy’ on the AGS boards, creator of the splendid game “Spooks”), and hence are slightly different in style to those of Legacy. Although Dave claims that it is more simplistic, from what I’ve seen they are as pretty – but of course, it’s a matter of artistic taste. Possibly due to time restraints, there will be no character portraits this time.

This time, a musician named Thomas Regin is working on the game’s soundtrack. From what I’ve heard, it is incredibly atmospheric late-night jazz, which could have easily been composed by Angelo Badalamenti himself. Those who delight in the soft sax sounds of the “Twin Peaks – Fire Walk with Me” title theme will certainly find themselves on loved and familiar ground. The cast who will be voicing the game has already been announced, and judging from the few lines of dialogue I’ve heard, they are both talented actors and appropriate for the roles they shall give their voices to.

“Blackwell Unbound” will be released somewhere around the end of August, and Dave is someone who keeps his deadlines. The game will be available for download for as little as ten dollars, and for twice as much you’ll be able to buy the jewel case edition along with the soundtrack CD. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope Dave will once again weave an enchanting story before us.

Check out Dave’s Website:http://www.wadjeteyegames.com/

A Tale of Two Kingdoms Review

Introduction. It is not so often that a full-length AGS game gets finished and released. Even more scarcely a full-length game that does not compromise with any of its technical aspects sees the light of day. And one of these rare occasions, doubtless, is the wonderful “A tale of two kingdoms”.

Plot. The game is set in a more or less typical fantasy world, in which you play a mercenary commander called to come to aid to a human kingdom against the goblins. However, things quickly go out of hand when the king is murdered and the protagonist is convicted(falsely, of course) of his murder. While the plot itself is nothing grand or particularly impressive, it is splendidly told and keeps the player going till the end of the game. Another positive thing about is that it is  carefully planned – I mean that there are many subplots, which the player may, or may not follow. Each character in the game has their own way and this is also well reflected in the often witty dialogues.

Gameplay. The complex plot is told using a complex gameplay structure, which to a great extent resembles the one used in Gabriel Knight III – certain compulsory actions you have to perform in order to progress further and lots of optional ones for you to explore. “A tale of two kingdoms” also borrows the timeblock structure from Gabriel Knight III, and much to its benefit. Each of the characters performs their own actions and duties, instead of dully standing in one place waiting for you to interact with them. The optional side quests add a lot to the replay value of the game – there are five of them, each consisting of at least a few puzzles. Moreover, there often are alternate solutions to many of the puzzles, and getting a full score is more than a challenging task indeed. The puzzles are logical, for the most part. Even though there has been an obvious effort to avoid pixel hunting, it’s not a complete success – I, for instance, found it particularly hard to find a certain hole in the ground, which was crucial for further progress into the game. The game offers several alternate endings, although there is no non-linearity per se to speak of – at its core, the plot remains the same whatever you do. The endings more or less depend on how many of the side quests you  finished successfully. Last but not least, this is a lengthy game – you’ll most probably need 15-20 hours to finish it, and if you want to complete it with full score, you could easily double that time.

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Graphics. However, the aspect in which “A tale of two kingdoms” truly shines is the art. The backgrounds are all excellent, drawn in a style similar to the sierra titles of the early nineties. They are smoothly animated, and appropriate effects are also present – for instance in an autumn forest background leaves are softly falling to the ground. Many unnecessary animations have also been put effort into – entering a lake screen you may see an otter swim in it, then get out and leave the background; birds often fly by, sometimes they are also sitting on a branch. All those and many more add to the splendid atmosphere of the game, and I take my hat off to all the artists and animators who have obviously done their best. The character animations are also smooth, and their respective portraits are gorgeous.

Music and sound. A number of musicians worked on the game’s soundtrack, and, frankly, it shows in both its strong points and drawbacks. Most of the music fits the game’s atmosphere quite well. There are some immensely beautiful pieces as well. There were also some which, in my opinion, suffered from unfulfilled potential. And there was the mercenary camp piece, which I found extremely annoying – to the point of skipping the text just to get out of that screen as fast as possible. Appropriate sound effects are also present, although they do not really excel. The game features no voice acting, which is quite understandable, considering the amount of spoken lines there would have been. All in all, the music and sound of  “A tale of two kingdoms” add to the atmosphere, and they occasionally stand out.

Conclusion. “A tale of two kingdoms” is easily one of the best AGS games ever, up there with King’s Quest II VGA and Apprentice. It is more than likely to appeal to anyone who liked the King’s Quest or Quest for Glory series, as it captures the best of their atmosphere. It should also be stated that this is the first large-team game I know of that has been released, and all the team members should be congratulated for that. Cheers.

 

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

 

Overall Score:

95%

The AGS Ezine is back!

Believe it or not, the AGS Ezine is back. Well, sort of. Here you can find most of the articles from all the thirteen issues, sorted under their respective categories on the right. I have omitted the introductory and conclusive articles, the MAGS games reviews and the scripting tutorials, since they are now more or less obsolete. Should you wish to read those, however, feel free to download the pdf files.

            The futures of the AGS Ezine? Since I haven’t the time to write a whole issue a month anymore, I shall post an article or two every week or fortnight. I shall try to entertain, to pick the most interesting AGS games for review, to interview people who have something to say.

            I do hope you enjoy your stay here, and find many points of interest here.

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