Long, long ago a proud Lord of the Isles of the Western Sea gave succour to groups of Northerners blown to his land by gales CI and violent winter storms. When the peace of spring came to the Isles, he bid the visitors leave, even offering them stout ships to replace their damaged own ones. Having seen the land's wealth, the Northerners laughed, drew their swords and elected to stay.
With few fighting men in the Lord's domain, he had no choice but to accept the situation and give the unwelcome visitors rich farmlands_ Fearing future treachery, he then secretly planned their doom. He called on the finest smiths of the land to create a magical sceptre of great power. Five years later the dreadful weapon was ready.
The Lord called together all the Northerners and once again asked them to leave his lands. Again they refused. The Lord raised the sceptre above his head and called upon its powers. Darkness gathered and lightning leapt from the sceptre. The flesh of the Northerners began to smoulder and burn.
One, more maddened with pain than the rest, managed to get to the Lord and wrest the sceptre from his grasp. With one fearful blow, the sceptre fell on the Lord's head and his body became a whirlwind of white hot sparks.
The burning Northerner now called on the Powers of Death to save him and his comrades. The darkness around the sceptre reached out to them with soothing fingers, but as the wounds were eased, their flesh was changed and shadowy became their form. The Dark Sceptre controlled their lives, and evil ruled the Isles.
This is the setting for Firebird's adventure/strategy game Dark Sceptre. Written by Mark Singleton of Lord's of Midnight fame it has a highly interactive plot. You control the destinies of a band of warriors whose task is to find and destroy the evil Dark Sceptre.
Your party is not the only one on the island seeking the sceptre. Other bands may be neutral, friendly or downright antagonistic. Each has a thane as commander and the groups are made up of reapers, assassins, fools, thralls, mystics, savages and heralds.
You start by giving each warrior his orders and then sit back to await results. Orders that may be given, actions, cover from a wide "kill any range enemy" or "stalk umbrarg's herald" to "protect your thane" or "guard the shining sword". Just going out to kill the 100-odd other warriors on the island will lead to disaster.
Five of the other bands may perhaps be won over to your side. The sixth consists of the original Shadow Lords, and will always be ready to attack any non-evil character. One of the orders that you may give your stalwart band is BEFRIEND. It is wise to use this to the full.
Using your mystic, it is also possible to BEWITCH one of the opposition into being an unwitting spy on your behalf. The range of possible orders is large - almost too great to use fully until you get a good feel for how the game is to progress.
The graphics consist of a simplistic background of that location, with the character you have chosen to look at in the foreground. Beneath the graphics window is a command menu, a map of the character's immediate surroundings, a description of the location and finally a graphic representation of the time of day.
The warrior shown is a large animated sprite, either strolling past the background scenery or fighting a member of another party. No random element is applied during a fight - a character's attributes are weighed up against the opponent's to determine the outcome. If they are evenly matched the attacker wins.The command menu allows you to graphically SCAN the position of your party members, to issue orders (PLAN) and to CHECK on each of your characters in turn. If a battle is engaged, you will hear the clash of steel and WATCH will switch the current display to the character presently engaged in a life and death struggle. QUIT additionally offers the options of saving or loading a game position.
Control is by keyboard or joystick. Either way, I found controlling 20 characters a cumbersome operation, with neither method giving a crisp, positive reaction. Working out the interaction of over 100 characters is a mammoth task and presumably the joystick/keyboard is scanned at a somewhat slower rate than I would have liked.
Once orders have been issued, you must wait to see the results of your planning. This can take some time, with unexpected deaths complicating the achievement of your objectives. I use an expanded CPC 464, and the review copy seemed to have some inhibitions about loading a saved game position. On one or two occasions it would not load any game data. Days then passed with great rapidity as no one appeared to be inhabiting the island at all.
Available for all CPCs on both cassette and disc, Dark Sceptre is a fascinating game but it is slow to understand and a great deal of patience will be required to determine the right approach for any sort of success.