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A History of RPGs – Event Horizon Software
Information - posted by JarlFrank on Thu 23 December 2010, 01:42:44
In the long history of RPGs there have been some very successful and influential companies, such as Origin with their Ultima series, or SirTech with the Wizardry games. Yet other companies that developed some good RPGs were forgotten over time, and their influence on the genre was minimal. One of those companies was Event Horizon Software – better known under their later name, DreamForge Intertainment.
After the name-change, they mostly developed Eye of the Beholder clones, with tile-based first person movement similar to M&M and Wizardry and clickfesty real time combat. Some of them were rather good (Anvil of Dawn, 1995) and some rather bad (Menzoberranzan, 1994), but none of them managed to reach the popularity of EotB or other, more popular clones (the Elvira games or Lands of Lore, for example). Their most interesting games, however, were made when the company was still called Event Horizon.
The first of those was called DarkSpyre (1990), an action RPG with a top-down view, real time combat and an emphasis on puzzle solving. While it was nothing special, the gameplay and interface introduced in this game would become characteristic of Event Horizon's later games. The character screen, including inventory, wasn't accessed by opening a new window, but could be expanded by pulling up the command bar at the bottom of the screen, effectively keeping all relevant information and commands on a single screen, without the need to click through menus. The gameplay consisted of navigating a single character through a maze-like dungeon, avoiding traps and killing enemies in clickfesty real time combat that could very well be compared to Diablo. I would even go so far to say that DarkSpyre, as well as Dusk of the Gods and The Summoning after it, were the world's first "Diablo-clones".
Where DarkSpyre was just a rather simple game with a generic story and setting (you are thrown into the Dark Spyre, have to fight your way through and defeat the big bad evil guy at the end; that about covers the game's story), Event Horizon's next game, Dusk of the Gods (1991), used a much more interesting setting: Norse mythology.
Dusk of the Gods (1991)
While most games in mythological settings make anyone who knows anything about said setting cringe with inaccuracies, Dusk of the Gods is quite well-researched and mythologically correct. You play the role of an einherjer, chosen to help the gods in changing fate by making them win the battle of Ragnarök. Your tasks include things like finding the lost head of Thor's hammer, finding things needed to forge a chain to bind Fenrir, and other McGuffin hunts. Dialogues were conducted via keywords that could be clicked directly in the dialogue window (similar to Morrowind's "wikipedia" dialogue) or typed in manually. The gods would give you quests and tell you about their background if you asked them to, giving the game some nice mythological background information. Dusk of the Gods reminds even more strongly of Diablo than DarkSpyre did – it is played from an isometric perspective and you can dual-wield weapons, clicking wildly to kill your enemies. The game has colorful graphics that have aged rather well and the atmosphere feels very much like a Norse saga.
The most interesting aspect of the game was, to me, its character creation. You would pick a portrait (male or female) and then spend some time on a world map, sending your character to temples, schools or raids in order to train his/her skills. After a while, you would die – either of old age or in battle – and go to Valhalla, where the actual game starts. The interesting thing about the character creation system is the element of randomness: raids pop up randomly on the map, and everything you do will pass time. If there's a long way to walk between your destinations, you will have wasted a lot of your lifetime by traveling. You also cannot train your character exclusively in combat skills, since there are times when there are no raids on the map where you could train those skills. Another interesting aspect of the game was that upon character death, you wouldn't lose the game but return to Valhalla, except if you were in a place that the Valkyries cannot reach, where it would mean game over. It was also possible to end the game by telling Heimdall to blow his horn, starting Ragnarök, at any time – even if you hadn't completed all of your tasks yet, which would have an effect on the ending.
Overall, I would say that this is one of Event Horizon's strongest games, with an interesting setting, good graphics and fun gameplay.
The Summoning (1992)
Their third game, The Summoning (1992), could in many ways be described as the spiritual successor to DarkSpyre. The story involved an evil power attacking a council of wizards, which managed to send the player's character into a dungeon with the quest to find a way to defeat this evil. The combat is identical to Dusk of the Gods, but the gameplay is more puzzle-based and the difficulty more unforgiving, with resources being scarce and enemies plenty. While the premise is very similar to DarkSpyre, The Summoning has well-designed dungeons with many puzzles and traps instead of DarkSpyre's randomly generated labyrinths, and it has many peaceful NPCs and the same dialogue system as Dusk of the Gods, where in DarkSpyre, talking was not an option. The magic system used runes which could be used and combined to cast a variety of spells, and the game featured an interesting weapon that started out as a rusty blade and would grow ever more powerful the more blood it shed. The game's multi-leveled dungeon was rather large and each level had its own theme. One level was filled with undead, while another housed a couple of knights who were plotting against each other and tried to recruit the player to kill the others.
So, a game about a single hero crawling through a multi-level dungeon with steel and magic at his disposal in order to defeat a great evil in real time twitch combat? Yep, this is Diablo, only four years earlier.
Veil of Darkness (1993)
Their fourth and last game created in this style – and under the name Event Horizon – was Veil of Darkness (1993), a horror-themed RPG-Adventure hybrid set in Transylvania in the early 20th century. You play an American cargo pilot whose plane crashes somewhere in Transylvania during a storm that doesn't seem natural. You crash in a remote valley surrounded by mountains that is ruled by an evil vampire lord who shrouds the valley into darkness and prevents anyone from entering or leaving. And, guess what – you seem to be the prophesized hero who is supposed to slay him. The combat system is the same as in the previous games (clicky clicky action combat), but this time, combat is not the focus of the game. Instead, you'll spend most of your time talking to people, gathering clues and solving item-combination puzzles typical of Adventure games. This genre-crossover works surprisingly well, even though the combat difficulty is a bit too harsh at times.
The graphics are good and the atmosphere is superb: many places feel eerie and dangerous (the harsh difficulty helps a lot there, too) and the keyword dialogue system works extremely well for this game. One NPC is a werewolf, and you have to find out who he is – when you mention the word werewolf to him, he will transform and attack you. Since there are no dialogue trees, you'll have to figure out who he is by yourself – there are no automatic journal updates, no dialogue tree that unlocks once you finish a quest. Overall, I would say that this is the best of Event Horizon's RPGs, a great genre-mix that manages to deliver in all aspects.
Veil of Darkness was the last game developed before the company changed its name to DreamForge. There were no more games using the engine that powered Dusk of the Gods, The Summoning and Veil of Darkness, nor did they ever return to making this type of RPG. Instead, they made several Eye of the Beholder clones, some of them pretty decent, but most of them criticized for being mediocre and buggy. Those games were Dungeon Hack (1993), Menzoberranzan (1994), Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession (1994), Ravenloft 2: The Stone Prophet (1995) and Anvil of Dawn (1996). They also worked on a few adventures and RTS games, but Anvil of Dawn was to be their last RPG before they went bankrupt in 1999, in the middle of developing a game in the Werewolf World of Darkness setting which never got finished.
While their earlier works were much more obscure than the EoB-style games they made later on, they were very interesting and, at the time, unique experiences that can be put into the same sub-genre as Diablo, but with much more depth than either Diablo or any of its clones would ever achieve. If they had continued to develop games in the style of Dusk, Summoning and VoD, maybe the sub-genre of the Action-RPG would look vastly different today, with more dialogues, non-linear stories and puzzles than Diablo's simple kill-and-loot gameplay.