Title Amberstar (Second Review) Game type RPG Publisher Thalion Players 1 Compatibility All (OCS/ECS 1meg) Installer/game need caches off on 020+ HD Installable Yes Submission Matthew Richard Xavier Xander Xanthias Dentith (firstname.lastname@example.org) Review Amberstar is a delightful CRPG produced by Thalion in 1992. The first part of a planned (but never completed) Amber trilogy, it is very much part of the old guard of CRPGs. Amberstar is a large, epic story centred around a mystical artefact, called the Amberstar, which has been split into thirteen pieces and needs to be reassembled to stop the return of a great evil. The story, and the game mechanics, compared to the CRPGs of today, seems very old school. A lot of fighting, a bit of 'find the key' puzzle-solving and a very rigid combat mechanic coupled with a minimalist approach to characters and towns. It all sounds a little dull, really. There's no 'novel-like' text that you find in something like Planescape: Torment nor is there a dynamic set of relationships like those between your NPCs in Baldur's Gate II. Compared to the lush, interactive world of the middle Ultimas there is very little you can actually do outside of the plot. Amberstar is simply a wander through a fantasy world, providing you with the rules and skills you need but with little in the way of trivial, but world-filling details. Is this actually a bad thing? Jeff Vogel (author of the Exile series of CRPGs) recently wrote that the level of detail in CRPGs is beginning to hinder, rather than help, immersion. With Baldur's Gate II you can find yourself, in the middle of a quest, having to deal with the personal problems of character A, while characters B and C are fighting over who is going to romance you. Level upon level of complexity is heaped upon you, the game world and your NPCs, who end up developing more character than you ideally want them to. In a game where you are definitely cast as the hero, with player characters given to you during the game rather than generated by you at the start, it can be irksome to find the computer getting in the way of your story. Amberstar, though, is different. There is no complex series of relationships going on; when you meet a character in the game (whether they join you or not) you learn everything about them; what you decide to do with them after that is entirely your own issue. Case in point. One of my characters, Gryban, was a Paladine, an honourable warrior who had, with training, a smidgen of magical competency in White Magic. Having forgone a White Wizard (a cleric proper), Gryban was the de facto magical healer of the party (I had another character carry around potions and poultices), and I felt that as a Paladine, Gryban would be more likely to heal those around him before tending to his own wounds. A simple mental decision, but it defined him for me. It wasn't a decision forced upon me by any game mechanic, and it certainly caused me trouble from time to time; Gryban was a better warrior than healer, but was often hit in the heat of battle, yet it felt so much better to have him acting in this certain and unique way. Which leads me to the combat mechanic. I won't argue that the combat has any real redeeming feature; in essence you start a combat round, sit through the actions you gave your characters, and then do it over again until something dies. It was turn-based, so at least you could wander out of the room as it played out, but it could get quite boring, since the game had a restriction of two different types of monster per level and you often had to fight a lot of them. Functional, yes. Fun; not really. But all things can be forgiven if the game can draw you into its world and story. In this respect Amberstar competes with the nearest competitor of its time, Ultimas IV and V. Graphically the Ultimas are the losers, but storywise I would have to say U5 beats Amberstar by a mile (the Amiga version of Ultima 5, with its haunting, yet single, theme, is still my favourite CRPG of all time). Yet the game world does seem a little more interesting that Britannia. Amberstar has three visual perspectives; a step-by-step 3D for towns and dungeons (with a neat transition effect between dawn, day, dusk and night); the dungeons look okay, but the towns tend to be composed of stone walls with occasional doors. Yet, despite the overall graphical blandness of the town maps (the dungeon maps, not needing so much variety, don't look bad at all) the actual design of the towns suggests structures. In Crystal you can find signs pointing to a market square and, indeed, there is an area that looks like a marketplace complete with barrows. It takes imagination; these barrows are stone walls, but if you let your mind's eye stretch it suddenly becomes so much more real. There's also an overhead view for special rooms that looks very nice, and another overhead view for the map. And what a map; Lyramion, the world of the game, is huge. The sheer scale makes it seem much more alive than most games, because you just feel that somewhere on the map something must be hidden, and even if there isn't, there's room to believe that it might be. This is where the game becomes epic; in a land with everything but wintry tundra, you visit the grave of a Pharaoh, fight a dragon, clean out a sewer, investigate the towers of mages and solve impossible riddles (and indeed, some do seem impossible, since at least one has been mistranslated from the German). I have to say something about the music. Jochen Hippel produced a wonderful soundtrack to this game (at one part of the game you actually get a harp that allows you to play any of the ingame tunes; unfortunately you are somewhat forced by the plot to return the harp to its rightful owner) that goes from high hope and joy in the city of Illien to despair and uncertainty in the Fortress of Godsbane. Truly beautiful. I think what I like about Amberstar is the sheer understatement of the game. It belongs to an era where CRPGs were a lot about rules and using those rules to create a story that you could play through, a story that had your imagination to shape it fully. The engine couldn't support a 3D city map with a different graphic for each tile, so the game gave you just enough information to tell you where you were and let you work out the rest of it. I've played other CRPGs of recent note and I've enjoyed them but Amberstar has a certain something to it that the others do not; you are in control of not only your character, but those who travel with you; by this you help shape your vision of the world and your party's reaction to it. I like that. I like that a lot.