Phantasie III: The Wrath of Nikademus

Title		Phantasie III: The Wrath of Nikademus
Game Type	RPG
Company		SSI/Westwood (1987)
Author		Winston D Wood (Original)
Players		1
Compatibility	?
HD Installable	?
Submission	Steve Hammond (Celebrity Reviewer)

  Way back at the beginning of the world (1987) there didn't exist teams
of two dozen people slaving for three years to bring out a game. Graphics
could be primitive, sound could be rudimentary and - whoops, hang on; just
loading in from disk.  None of that mattered because a game was defined by
how well it played.  Nowadays, it wouldn't bear thinking about to have the
standard system menu and requesters in a game, or to only run in NTSC
mode.  But that is exactly what we have with Phantasie III: The Wrath of
Nikademeus.  I have no idea what happened in the first two instalments,
but Nikademeus must have been pretty ticked off for us to face his wrath
in the third one. Or perhaps he was just having a bad hair day.

  Phantasie III is a very different way of doing things than the games we
seem to see nowadays. The game has a plot, but one that isn't entirely
clear and isn't very intrusive. So much so that it's possible that my
story-deprived mind invented it all by itself in the same way that going
without sleep for three days forced the mind to invent all kinds of
hallucinations involving Kim Basinger.

  I probably did play three days straight at some point. Indeed I was
able to play for what seemed like months without ever having to face up to
the fact that there was a point behind all this warmongering and I that
was completely missing it. (Another thing that I was completely missing
were classes at college because of it, but I don't think that was a
deliberate design feature.)  The game, you see, is open-ended which means
that the characters can build up experience, skill and money almost
indefinitely. Being a Role Playing Game, the player must create
characters from scratch in a process known in the trade as "rolling up a
character."  What made this especially fun is that having chosen the
character species, type and so forth, he could then be given a name of
your choosing. This was no mere set of predefined nobodies, these were my
people!  And that was how I sent all my friends up against storm giants
and miscellaneous demons. (For some bizarre reason, the characters I'd
named after programming languages seemed to fare better in these battles;
loading the disk after so long I saw basic, Pascal and Cobol not dead but
merely resting. Cobol in particular was resurrected a dozen times. Must
be a sign.)

  The main map allows the party to wander around the face of the world.
Occasionally this would be interrupted by a requester declaring "An
Encounter!" at which point the party would have to fight, or were
sometimes given the chance to run. Recuperating, training and of course
shopping would be allowed whenever the party entered a village or town.

  One of those points I made about Phantasie III being a different way of
doing things is embodied in the way combat took place. Few of us could
now imagine allowing the characters to battle the monsters without taking
a direct hand in the action, yet that was how it worked here. After
setting up the layout of the battle, who stood at the front, at the back,
what spell or weapon to use this round, the go button was clicked and the
battle would proceed without further intervention, at least until the next
round. It worked superbly. Although there was not the feeling of being
in the thick of the action, it was rather like watching your home team
playing and hoping that the players would come through at the moment when
it mattered. In this respect it was like managing a team, although in
this case a team of swordfighters and magicians. It was immensely

  As befits a fantasy game on a computer, the emphasis was definitely on
the combat, perhaps to the detriment of the rest of the game. Even though
the role-playing sections were simple and contained far too many numbers
to think about, the atmosphere was somehow still kept whole.

  Let's walk through a typical game. We start off in the town of
Pendragon, which is an entire lo-res screen in size, yet manages to
contain a bank, an armoury, a training centre and a bar. Here is where we
have to begin assembling the party by making characters. The game won't
let you go to the bank or armoury until the party is assembled. Adding
members to the party can only be done if there are members in the roster
and for that to happen you have to start adding members. Once a
character's creation is started, it can't be stopped! Life will not be
denied! Option after option rolls by until he is fully formed. And no,
there aren't any females, it's always a "he".  Getting a leg eaten off by
giant rats is man's work, evidently. Choosing "new member" sets this birth
process in motion and from a choice of humans, dwarves, elves and so on,
the party starts to take shape. These heroes can be warriors or wizards
plus a few other choices that never seem to get a look in, such as thief
and priest. The devil may have all the best tunes, but warriors have
enormous battle tools. I always wondered why a thief was a specific
option; the game is about killing monsters and looting their festering
carcasses, at least when not making off with anything not nailed down, in
the process of exploding, corrosive or on fire. Thievery goes with the job!

  A set of stats will be generated for them such as strength and so forth
and all that's left to do is give the bits of fodder a name. Actually
that's slightly unfair. Although they have no real personality to speak
of, except for a few words of randomly generated background, it's
surprisingly easy to get attached to them, especially by the time they
have become veterans.

  The roster, separate from the party, is a kind of repository of
characters which can seemingly get filled up with new people indefinitely.
The player may go mad with the process of creating people and the game
will take it all in its stride. When adding to the party for the first
time, it is obvious that you have a little extra help already, in the form
of three elementals, air, mist and... mud. Didn't you always want a mud
elemental?  An actual party which gets to slay, thieve, slay again then
thieve and slay, slay, slay holds six characters plus any elementals at
which point it is "fully assembled."

  You can even add dead characters to the party, although when there, they
don't tend to do much...

  Starting a game from scratch is always frustrating, especially in the
beginning, and mistakes are easy to make. Phantasie III is very
unforgiving of error. Starting a game for the first time we have no idea
what everything means. Oh sure, Mindflash sounds like something you'd
rather be on the casting end of, but do you really want to send your newly
minted character up against a Storm Giant with Mindflash I as his weapon?
Will that do?  Does it take Mindflash III?  Or IV?  Initial frustrations
were quite high, I imagine, spending a considerable amount of time rolling
up the characters only to have them toasted in the very first encounter.
Lesson one is that the weak monsters are nearby the starting position in
the map. Encounters with monsters are generated randomly and moving
across the map is done by the cursor keys a block at a time. So if the
random number generator is feeling a bit sadistic, the party will find
itself halfway across the world by the time anything happens (and this
will take about a dozen key presses and ten seconds of realtime!) at which
point the beginning characters first action is against some of the most
powerful monsters in the game. We can cast a spell to discover the
monster level, but don't generally think of that to begin with. My first
such encounter wiped out an entire two thirds of my warriors!

  Then I named one after my least favourite CEO in the world and sent him
in to battle while all the others held back. This IS fun!

  It doesn't take long to get the hang of it and after the amount of
restoring saved game from disk has dropped to a normal level, the true
appeal of Phantasie III becomes clear. After a few successful battles it
is possible to return to Pendragon, or indeed any of the cities dotted
around the map, and spend experience to become stronger, more powerful and
to increase all those skills that sorely need exercising. There is no set
limit to this; you will get stronger and you will not stop!  (Especially
when changing a single value of the game code on disk gives you more gold
than you can fill an oil tanker with. Arnold Rimmer would call this
thinking around the problem. I saw it as myself merely saving a few weeks
of sleep while I got there.)

  Characters do not remain static but grow through experience, which is to
say that the numbers that make up their abilities grow larger. Experience
gained doesn't take immediately but must first be "cashed in" at a
training facility which only exist in cities. The party starts with some
gold in the bank which can be used for equipment and weapons. In fact we
even have to start by buying clothes!  Having spent quite some time
getting ready, it is only then time to go out in the wild. The Game - as
you've guessed - doesn't happen in real time.

  Phantasie III has its flaws of course. A big one is that the party can
be caught asleep. It is very easy to be cavalier and to be wiped out.
Options for fighting are quite numerous. Characters can cast spells,
adjust their positions, thrust, parry, lunge and indeed run away, though
that doesn't always work. It is quite wise to only tackle monsters that
you know you have a chance of beating. Attacking sleeping monsters and
running away before they wake up isn't very sporting, but it is definitely
effective!  In lieu of advanced graphics whilst fighting, there are
descriptions of what is happening as it takes place. This can be quite
gruesome as it tells you what bit of your enemy, for example, you just
broke!  Wild dogs just bit Sean's leg off!  It especially doesn't pay to
attack without thinking things through because some monsters have the same
graphics as other, weaker, monsters... told you some elements were

  But the gameplay... So is this objective?  Memories get better with
time. In those days, games were still finding their feet as entertainment
and playability flaws a mile wide weren't even noticed as such. Phantasie
III was a product born very much of its time and was wonderful for that
time. Today it would feel amateurish, but that's really irrelevant. What
mattered was that it was fun. When in college there were a number of us
had the game and for weeks at a time the first thing we would say to each
other in the morning was just how many gold pieces our lead characters had.
I chose to review Phantasie III mainly because it used up so much of my
time - and that has got to be the ultimate indicator of worth.

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