Amberstar (Second Review)

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

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

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.

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