Friday, 12 June 2015

Wanderers: Chained in the Dark (ZX Spectrum)

No, thankfully this isn't a sombre simulation of the miserable existence of a long-suffering Wolverhampton Wanderers fan. In contrast, Wanderers: Chained in the Dark is a swords and sorcery mini-epic in 128KB, featuring trolls, demons and fantastical creatures that are all frankly a little on the cute side to disturb this seasoned adventurer.

There is a distinct lack of this type of game on our beloved Speccy. It's a rather excellent RPG adventure in the Japanese style, by which I mean: when you encounter a baddie you are whisked into a combat mode and obliged to take turns thrashing each other. I always found the game mechanic rather bizarre but perhaps it was a natural progression from pen and paper RPGs to this. I don't recall this style of game gaining popularity in the UK until the advent of Final Fantasy VII in the 90s, and by then the Spectrum was commercially dead and in any case unable to handle the size of contemporary RPGs.

Wanderers certainly demonstrates that the genre is suited to the Spectrum. The flick-screen playing area, stationary character sprites, and menu-based controls do not tax the computer's processor and allow for some beautifully detailed monochrome graphics, excellent 128k music, and a pleasingly animated hero. Add to that varied locations and a large game map, plenty of characters to interact with, and quality game design, and you have a very impressive and engrossing title.

I should point out that this isn't the type of RPG that throws you into random encounters every thirty seconds, and also that chance is not a factor in battles. You may build up your health and magic points by winning fights, but other than that your combat strength is dictated by the weapon, shield, armour and amulet you equip yourself with, and by the spells and potions you have at your disposal. Winning a battle is a case of ensuring you are sufficiently experienced, correctly equipped to deal with the enemy, and that you cast the right spells at the right time.

I generally prefer a random factor and the excitement of uncertainty in combat situations, but this hard-wired system has its appeal as well. Each fight can be treated as a puzzle; get it right, and you win, otherwise...

And that brings me on to another feature of the game. You can't really die. Well, you can, but if the worse happens you simply go back to the previous screen with all your items and statistics intact. Modern gaming is allegedly full of such softy nonsense - I wouldn't know being a die-hard retro gamer (TM) - and I expect the debate has been done to death elsewhere. But in this particular game it works quite well: who wants to play through the whole thing again just because of one mistake? I just can't help thinking there should be some kind of penalty for dying to punish the careless.

The adventuring elements in Wanderers are quite prominent; there is quite a focus on collecting items, talking to characters, and offering them objects. The upshot of this is that there is a certain amount of traipsing back and forth. This only really becomes tedious if you get stuck. On the whole the pace of the game is fairly brisk and the map is compact enough to avoid too much boredom when backtracking.

Are there any major negatives? Well, not really. But I do have some minor gripes. The main one is the text, which is riddled with poor grammar to the point where at times I struggled to make sense of it. To be fair, the writing does exhibit some flair and attempts at characterisation so it isn't a disaster. But surely, the author could reach out, via the wonders of the Internet, to find a native speaker to proof-read his text? I am sure that many with an interest in retro games would be happy to help.

There's no spoiler here, but I became irretrievably stuck about three-quarters through the game and had to resort to watching a play-through on You Tube to discover what I was missing. The solution was frustrating, as it involved interacting with certain pieces of scenery to find items. The problem was, there was no hint and only a very subtle visual cue indicating what you had to find, and virtually all of the rest of the scenery in the game is quite inert. (Indeed, I was planning to mention here that it would add depth to the game if you could interact with more of your surroundings.) This problem could have been avoided by having a character give a simple instruction, or by providing a better graphical clue.

More visual confusion lurks around the screen boundaries. Pretty though the graphics are, they don't always clearly show whether the edge of a screen represents a barrier or not. It does give a sense of space and hints that you are exploring part of a larger world, but I would rather be able to see clearly whether or not I can leave the screen in a given direction.

Enough grumbling: this is still a great game. The graphics are superb, including a nice masking effect to create a pseudo-3D view, and a shadowing effect in underground locations. The graphical variety in locations is very good, and I especially like the huge dragon statue in the village. The story draws you in and it unfolds as you progress in a satisfying way. The battles are dramatic (in spite of the cute monsters) and there is some rather excellent fight music. The soundtrack is in fact a masterclass in composing a background tune that neither irritates nor takes over. The number of weapons, equipment, amulets, spells and potions gives the game depth worthy of an RPG. The characters and locations are well realised, with impressive creativity on display. Your hero has a funky manga hairstyle and a big sword. There's a big demon to battle. What's not to like?

Download the game in TAP format here (from the forum thread).
Download the game in SCL format here (from the forum thread).
Run it using Spectaculator (shareware) or FUSE (freeware).
4 out of 5