Betrayal at Krondor. (computer game) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Scott A. May
Enjoy new levels of realism when you explore this nonlinear fantasy world full of rich characters who learn and change as you play.
One of the dangers in embracing new technology lies not in blindly forging ahead, but in losing sight of what's being left behind. In the booming business of entertainment software, where flash often rates higher than substance, it's easy to put presentation before gameplay--it's like a building the perfect beast, yet neglecting to give it a heart and soul. That's why Betrayal at Krondor is such an exciting arrival: Its captivating story line provides the game's heart; the fantastic graphics and special effects are extras. It's amazing that this game, Dynamix's first attempt at fantasy role-playing, towers above the genre.
Betrayal's quality won't surprise fans of veteran designer John Cutter, best known for his mid-1980s sports titles at Gamestar and Cinemaware. Cutter based Betrayal on the popular Riftwar fantasy series created by Raymond E. Feist. The story picks up where Feist's latest book, Darkness at Sethanon, ends. It uses many recurring characters and locations from the series, so those familiar with the series will immediately and comfortably fall into the action. Newcomers can get into the game by reading the brief synopsis of this saga, although the synopsis may not provide all the information they need to succeed in the game.
The setting for Betrayal is the Kingdom of the Isles, a vast fantasy world that's divided into several geographical and political realms and is populated not only by humans but also by elves, dwarves, trolls, and many other strange creatures. Just below a large, jagged mountain range, Seigneur Locklear and his young magician companion are escorting an elf prisoner named Gorath to the southern city of Krondor. Gorath, a half-breed traitor to the Moredhel tribe, bears an urgent message for the prince, one warning him of an assassination plot. As the three tread quietly through dangerous territory a long way from home, Locklear unshackles Gorath, realizing that in the event of an attack, the elf's fierce fighting ability far outweighs any need for security. Thus begins the story of this unlikely trio of adventures.
This complex, characterich story unfolds as a series of nine individual chapters, the plot advancing only upon completion of specific goals in each one. Thesae mini-quests vary in size, difficulty, and clarity of mission. Segmenting the story this way gives great range to the game-play--it's as if you're getting nine adventures in one.
This game differes from traditional role-playing games in that there's no creation of instant characters or an omnicsent power rolling dice to determine a character's attributes. Instead, you inherit full-bodied characters with unique personalities, rich pasts, and hopefully, prosperous futures. Rather than control every fiber of their beings, you merely make decisions--their overall strength of character determines the results of their actions. Likewise, the outcome of your decisions helps mold each character. There's subtle distinction between this and traditional character determination, but it's important enough to place Betrayal far beyond the average hack-and-slash fantasy.
There's also an important distinction between this game and run-of-the-mill graphic adventures, in whichh you merely turn the page on a set story board. Playing Betrayal is like participating in the creation of a novel. Totally nonlinear in design and unconfined by time limits or spatial boundaries, it can be enjoyed in various ways: straight through, for the less adventuresome; or in a meandering fashion, for dedicated explorers who are compelled to examine every nook and cranny. No two games are exactly alike, as each is influenced by random events and learned behavior.
There are plenty of other unusual aspects of Betrayal, including an uncommon blend of graphic modes. Wilderness areas are rendered in textured 3-D polygons, the same 3Space technology Dynamix employs in such flight simulations as Red Baron and Aces over Europe. Players are free to roam this virtual fantasy world--224 million square feet of trails, rivers, mountains, lakes, islands, and towns, not to mention convoluted sewers and abandoned mines. The three-dimensional terrain rises and falls as you move, with multi-plane background scrolling and ambient sound effects providing a remarkable illusion of real time and space.
You can view wilderness and underground travel from an adjustable top-down perspective, helpful for both quick passage through familiar territory and a bird's-eye scan of surrounding lands. In tunnels, this option doubles as an automapping device.
When speed is an important consideration, you can lock your party onto the path. Of course, by sticking strictly to the path or navigating from a high angle, you can easily miss some interesting or potentially helpful objects because they are outside your field of vision. Likewise, locking onto a path is an easy way to stumble right into a trap.
Combat transpires with yet another unusual strategic point of view. Opposing characters square off on a makeshift battle grid; each is allowed a present number of squares to move and strike. You can fight this turn-based battle by controlling individual actions (advisable when you're using magic, using special weapons, or facing especially challenging opponents) or by letting the computer play it automatically (when the outcome will clearly be in your favor).
Combat features fully developed, digitized characters, with more than 2500 frames of rotoscoped animation and crisp sampled sound effects. Using magic or modified weaponry also triggers special visual effects.
Static artwork (transitional scenes of castles, for example) features beautifully scanned 256-color paintings. The lush character interface is also thoughtfully styled, with well-designed treatment of standard role-playing mechanics such as a drag-and-drop inventory system. Four levels of graphic detail help keep wilderness movement fluid and realistic (although by their nature, polygon-based graphics animate well at even minimum system requirements). Other graphic highlights include the texture-mapped tunnels and magic temple portals, which you can use to zap your party over great distances.
Weaknesses include an overreliance on digitized, color-enhanced photos to represent every character in the game. It's unclear whether these are pictures of hired actors or merely snapshots from a Dynamix office party. It's an attempt to create atmosphere, but the glued-on beards and plastic elf ears only threaten the game's overall impression of grandeur. Also, the game suffers in some areas from the blockiness associated with 320 x 200 low-resolution VGA.
One final, minor complaint: Those who are unacquainted with Feist's complex fantasy world--face it; this is strictly a niche market--will have some trouble following the flood of characters, race names, and locations. The story's political and social history alone weaves a tapestry so rich that many will find it difficult to understand. References to obscure names and events, obviously important to the story's development, will often pass by unrecognized. The otherwise excellent manual helps, but Feist's prose is so thick with atmosphere and imagination that jumping headfirst into the fray can be quite overwhelming.
But after you understand the background, you can really appreciate this game. Fired by literary passion and uncommon intelligence, Betrayal of Krondor approaches a new level of realism and enjoyment for computer fantasy role-playing games.