Dungeon Master Review
- Vintage: 1987
- Developer: FTL Games
- Publisher: FTL Games
- Genre: RPG
FTL did not release a great number of games, but those they did release were all well recieved by the press and public alike – Non more so than Dungeon Master. Original and trailblazing in both technical and gameplay aspects, the game would bring RPG to the masses, and inspire countless clones as well as legitimate sequels.
Mt. Anais is the home of the Grey Lord and the resting place of the legendary power gem that is responsible for all sentient life. The Grey Lord and Theron – his apprentice – worked tirelessly to find the gem so that they could use it to create a peaceful world where all the races could live in harmony.
On discovering the power gem, the Grey Lord began his incantation, but, making a vital error resulting in cataclysmic explosion, teared both the fabric of the universe and the Grey Lord himself. Now the Grey Lord’s good side (Lord Librasulus) is stuck in limbo and his evil side (Lord Chaos) is free to wreak havoc on mankind.
In order to defeat Chaos, you must once again enter the dungeons under Mt. Anais, find the firestaff and return it to Librasulus. To do this your newly ethereal self must enter the Hall of Champions (Chaos’ trophy room of defeated heroes) resurrect those four whom you deem most worthy, and direct their movements and actions so that they might fare better in their second attempt to defeat the sinister Chaos.
This is where the game begins. In the hall are twenty-four mirrors, each one containing a character you can add to your party. You can choose from many different races: Men, Hobbits, Dwarves, Bika (dog-like humanoids), Elves, Lizard-men and more. Each character has a set of stats governing abilities like their strength, vitality and available mana and classes. The available classes and their abilities are: Fighters, inflicting damage using melee weapons; Ninjas, using ranged weapons such as bow and arrow, darts and slingshots; Wizards, using elemental magic to inflict damage on foes, or effect the environment to benefit the party; and Priests, who use their spells to heal, cure poisons, and protect the party with magical shields.
Once you have made your choice, it is time to enter the dungeon. You control your party directly by either clicking on the direction arrows with the mouse, or by using the arrow keys. You can interact with objects in the viewing window by clicking on them. Using this method, you can push buttons, pick up objects and fill up flasks using fountains. A right click on your champions’ portraits will take you to there inventory screen. This screen gives you access to the character’s backpack, and enables you to equip armor, weapons and clothing. Here, you can also read any scrolls you have found, give your heroes food, water, or potions and see their current stats and status.
Your characters’ levels and skills improve as you use them (DM was first to introduce this style of leveling) and progress from Neophytes through Novices to Apprentices, Journeymen and beyond. Fighters improve by hitting and being hit in melee combat, Ninjas level up by throwing or shooting ranged weapons, and Wizards and Priests progress by casting their corresponding spells. Levelling up is vital if your heroes are going to survive in the tougher lower levels of the dungeon.
Combat is straightforward: click on the weapon at the right hand side of the screen and choose an option. Some options will execute a quick attack, while others will execute slower, more powerful attacks and later in the game, magical weapons will give you the option to cast a spell. As your character’s fighter skill increases, more melee attacks will become available.
Spells can also be cast to either damage your foe or strengthen your party. This is done by clicking on a sequence of runes which your Wizard or Priest will incant. But which runes do you choose? Well, by combining knowledge obtained from handy scrolls strewn around the dungeon by hapless adventurers and the runelist in the manual (or the excellent DM encyclopedia, see ‘links’) you will soon have an arsenal of incantations at your disposal. Helpful early spells include light spells (to see in those dank, dark corners of chaos’ lair) and a heal wounds potion (which will help when you find yourself in a spot of bother – and you most certainly will).
The menagerie of creatures that call Mt. Anaias their home vary in toughness as well as ugliness. Screamers, mummies and trolls will not pose too much of a problem earlier on, but later they come thick and fast and in greater numbers. Other beasts baying your blood are less forgiving: skeletons, beholders, giant rats and more. Also, you should watch out for thieves stealing your equipment and then legging it, often causing you to run into trouble best tackled more ponderously.
The monsters aren’t the only problem you will encounter on this quest. The dungeon itself is a bit of a bast, too. It’s all too easy to get lost in the dungeon, so you may have to either break out the graph-paper or find a map on the web (unfortunately, this may spoil the challenge somewhat). Too much unnecessary backtracking will see your party run out of food and starve. Your orienteering skills aren’t helped any by the devious puzzles laying in wait. Some just involve tripping switched in the right sequence or finding hidden keys or buttons, while others morph the walls around you, bend the spacial reality of the dungeon, or just send you zipping of in random directions, all in order to disorientate you or send you walking into a trap.
As is the case with many ST games of this period, the sound is pretty sparse. Limited to a smattering of spot effects, samples punctuate events such as doors opening, pressed switches, monster’s heads getting caved in and so on. More atmospheric and ambient sound would not have gone amiss.
Though similar games would go on to produce more polished visuals (Knightmare, Captive) Dungeon Master was the first to render a 3D world in real time. Each character, enemy, item, weapon etc. is nicely drawn in vibrant colours, making everything easy to differentiate and quite charming to look at. Not all graphics need to feature expert anti-aliasing, you know!
In the interests of detailed analysis and feigned objectivity, I must dig deep and attempt to find critisisms of this game. Aside from the sound issues already mentioned, the interface can be a little sluggish at times, especially when it comes to moving your party around. The lack of an auto-map can result in unnecessary frustration, and your party are so dumb, so dependent on your guidance, so enslaved to your every whim, that they will be quite prepared to walk into walls every time you have a slip of the mouse, resulting in your front two heroes losing energy and quite possibly (in the case of Halk the Barbarian) their last few brain cells.
And that’s it. A few petty quibbles contrived out of a need to seem balanced in this review. This game is simply excellent. It’s like a history lesson in the development of the RPG, yet it has aged incredibly well. It is very immersive, the short story in the manual setting the scene superbly, feeding your imagination and spurring you on in this timeless adventure and before you know it you are hooked. You are gutted when a champion falls, and are quite prepared to trudge through three levels of dungeon – carrying their skeletal remains – all the way back to that Altar of Rebirth you swore you saw an hour ago.
Quite simply, you won’t want to leave this one alone until you have stared Chaos in the eyes and lived to tell the tale.
Review written by: StickHead
NB: Dungeon Master achieved first place in The Great Atari ST Game Survey of 2008.