Zzap1st September 1987
Published in Zzap #29
Shard Of Spring
Shard Of Spring is a game of a type I would usually pour scorn upon, the computer 'fantasy roleplay game'. As a real live role-player, I'm deeply convinced that it is not possible to reproduce the experience of this sort of game on a computer. And although Shard Of Spring is a very playable piece of entertainment software it's good for reasons other than those which it intends.
The action takes place on the island of Ymros, where until recently, it was always Spring. This phenomenon was brought about by the presence on the island of the Shard of the title, and, due apparently to appalling careless security precautions, this desirable piece of crystalware has been stolen by an evil witch called Siriadne. The temptress has threatened to destroy the crystal and thus turn Ymros into an icy wasteland unless the peasants pay tributes to her. The field is clearly wide open for adventurers to do their stuff.
What we really have here is an excuse to string together a collection of dungeons, quests and wilderness encounters (to use the role-playing technical terms), based around a structure of character advancement and acquisition of wealth. The possibility of eventually winning by achieving the ultimate objective is also held out. Most of the game is spent in melee, so it's fortunate that the close combat system is extremely good.
The first thing to do is to 'roll up' a party. A party must consist of at least two, and can contain as many as five characters. There is no advantage at all in having fewer than five in your party, as they all add to the firepower and don't cost much to feed. A human chracter can either be a Warrior or a Wizard, and the other races have already had the choice made for them.
Characters are allocated statistics in the usual range of 'attributes' by random computer dice-rolls. Although it seems absurd to give a computer character a statistic for its intelligence, the 'intellect' attribute makes itself useful by governing how many skill points can be spent on skills like the ability to use a sword, or to hunt. Similarly, the 'skill' attribute itself determines the percentage chance of hitting a target, and strength adds a damage modifier. When the game lunges into melee combay, the use of all the attributes is brought immediately to the surface of the gameplay. They have no feeling of irrelevance, as happens so often in this type of game.
Warrior characters can choose from a list of skills specific to them. They need to have a weapon skill of some sort, but more unusual skills include armoured skin and persuasiveness, which lets the character negotiate a discount on items sold in shops. Wizard skills are slightly different, because choosing one of the five 'rune' skills allows the wizard to have at his command a range of six or seven spells. Finally, and essentially, the character is named. The latter half of this name has a tendency to be swallowed by the program when it feels like it, which gives an amateurish impression.
All characters are stored on a separate disk (one of yours, which the program formats for you), and once you've created as many as you want, you can arrange them into parties. There's space on the disk for 25 characters and five parties, but you can only go out adventuring with one party at a time.
Having swapped disks round once more and entered the game, the player finds his party represented by a single figure in the middle of a map. The map is pretty enormous, and I can vouch for that because I've been mapping it. What you see on the screen at any one time is a portion 9 x 9 square of the landscape surrounding your party. The basic terrain types are plain, forest, mountains and marsh, bounded by water. Special locations, such as towns, and the entrances to underground complexes, are easily identifiable. As might be expected it takes longer to cross a mountain square than a plain square, but the game is not set in 'real time'.
The hour of the day and the day of the month can be called up at any time. After a certain number of hours it begins to get dark, and at this point it's a good idea to set up camp and sleep.
You can set up camp at any time of the day, and it's often essential because it's the only way to access a wider range of options. Once encamped, the player can examine individual members of the party, try to identify potions and items found, swap round equipment and heal each other's wounds. The inadvisability of taking too literal a view of the game is illustrated in this procedure. If a character buys a weapon and a set of armour in a town, before he can put on the armour and get the weapon ready to hand he has to leave the town, go a little way out into the country, and pitch a tent!
Combat is extremely well-managed - and this is a good thing, for if it weren't one of the best aspects of the game, the whole program would be a disaster. When they party stumbles across something to wave its swords at - and you don't see them coming - the screen display changes to a blow-up of the area, with characters shown for the first time as individual figures. Combat always starts with the opposing sides a few squares apart. This is where movement points become the currency of combat; it costs two movement points to move one square, one to turn around, and three to make an attack. Each character, friend or foe, takes his turn according to speed. A character's accuracy and ability to inflict damage depends on his skill rating, his strength, the type of weapon he's using and the opponent's armour.
The landscape is interspersed with dungeons and towns. At the towns you can buy weapons, armours and foods, take your characters up levels, and meet that familiar role-playing figure... the old man in the pub who tells you what your next quest will be! The dungeons take you into the usual subterranean corridors populated with monsters and hiding treasure.
Although I'm sceptical on principal about this sort of game, there's no doubt that Shard Of Spring is an excellent design. The island is a graded exercise in adventuring, with the wilderness and dungeons on the East side containing easier monsters than those on the West. It's playable to the point of being addictive. Testimony to this is the fact that a friend and I say up to half past two playing it, when we were in the last weeks before our Finals.
What the game lacks is imaginative design, and because of that atmosphere. But I can certainly recommend it, even to those who don't think they like role-playing on a computer.
A generally lacklustre appearance, including a clumsy orders system and long and irritating pauses for disk access.
The representation of the wilderness is adequate but dull.
Clear descriptions, with tables describing some of the game's mechanics.
Although giving a sense of vastness and variety, disbelief is never suspended for very long.
Absorbing, tantalising, and satisfying.
Just short of brilliant.