I recently ran across a copy of EA's 1988 science fiction RPG title Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic in a thrift store. The 3 1/2" IBM PC diskette is beyond repair -- the casing has split and the magnetic disc inside is creased -- but the box and documentation are in decent shape, and I managed to track down a copy of the game itself online.
The thirty-six page manual is crucial, as the design by Karl Buiter is an old school RPG all the way -- there's no mouse support, and precious little in-game help is provided for the myriad keyboard commands required to navigate the game world and perform basic bookkeeping. Most of the in-game menus are self-explanatory, but finding them can be a challenge, especially because the design is broken down into small and inconsistent modules -- we visit the armory to obtain equipment, but have to go to the crew menu to actually equip it, while any armor we pick up is automatically worn by the team member to whom we give it.
There's also a secondary "Paragraphs" booklet, which contains 88 bits of text referenced in-game by number, requiring the player to look up and read the accompanying story material. It's not copy-protection, per se -- there just wasn't room in the software to include all of this detail at a time when a game's commercial viability depended partly on aging 8-bit platforms like the Commodore 64.
The title screen has 1988 written all over it -- it's in 16-color EGA graphics, with an ambitious musical theme doing its best to be heard through the tinny IBM PC speaker. And the imagery contains certain echoes of movies like Terminator and the Star Wars trilogy:
The player's party consists of five members, with pre-rolled characters available for a quick start. The player acts as a manager more than as a particular character -- but at least one member of this original set must survive as the game progresses, or the story comes to an end.
This is an open-world RPG in the Western tradition -- the game starts off by dropping the FSS Orion into a convoy under attack, and it's up to the player to survive the space battle and find somewhere interesting to go. The story isn't necessarily developed in a linear fashion -- in fact, the player is free to wander around the galaxy, shooting at raider ships and landing on planets to harass the native fauna and search for plot points. There are some action elements involved, as the player must steer and throttle the ship to navigate local space, though auto-targeting (an attribute of the ship's computer that can be leveled up) keeps the focus on strategy. There's even a limited conversation interface that can be used to converse briefly with other characters on specific topics:
Eventually the party finds its way planetside and starts exploring the environment in an ATV (which breaks down on occasion, requiring repair.) Both in space and on the ground, fuel is limited, and it's entirely possible for the heroes to end up lost or adrift with no means of rescue. The planet can be freely explored and random monsters battled, but in practice it's best to focus on the populated areas denoted on the orbital map or mentioned in conversation.
The building interiors are not visually detailed at all, but exploration is nicely handled -- there's an overhead radar perspective in the center, depicting the party leader as a green dot, party members in yellow, and non-player characters in blue or turquoise (for more significant interactions). The background provides an animated wireframe 3-D rendering of the environment that's nicely handled, though we can't see doors or other objects and have to rely on the overhead map and display updates in the lower half of the screen to understand what's going on. The 3-D perspective is ultimately just eye candy that doesn't really give the player much information, and the need to turn corners slows down the gameplay quite a bit.
Exploring often yields chests filled with ammunition and other goodies:
There are also stores with goods for sale, and agencies like the Space Miners' Guild and Science Foundation that offer credit-generating missions. And there's lots and lots of territory to explore -- maybe too much, as there's a lot of time spent wandering around nondescript areas without any clear destination. For example, many locations in the docking bay areas on Caldorre simply read You are in the wrong dock port, office descriptions are often limited to Charts listed on the wall, and woe to the player who hasn't kept his or her bearings while trying to find the Orion again amid the identical docking bays.
The maps are visually clear and easy to navigate, but finding significant areas requires walking through specific "squares" a la Phantasie -- the interface displays details about the party leader's current location, but there are few visual or text hints as to what's nearby. For example, it took me several minutes of wandering around to find an elevator I had been told was nearby -- modern 3-D games tend to handle this kind of thing more intuitively. Fortunately, as the party members' Recon skills improve, the map becomes more useful as important locations are displayed.
The civilized Caldorre Tower environment provides training opportunities for skill enhancement -- there's a Tennis Club, for example, that can be used to enhance Dexterity ratings if the party has the 1000 credits required for entry. Aerobics class similarly increases Stamina stats, and Plastic Surgery is available for enhanced Charisma. Players also level up by earning experience points -- each new level grants skill points that can be applied to any of the available traits.
It took me several hours of play before I picked up a quest related to the thread of the story -- I may have missed some displays that whizzed by early in the game while I was poking random keys trying to figure out the interface (and had DOSBox running unnecessarily quickly.) Eventually I found myself speaking with a tribal leader on Caldorre who instructed me to read paragraph 49 of the documentation, then paragraph 62, and I was at last on my way into a proper dungeon.
The combat system is very simple -- players can be equipped with weapons, some of which require ammunition, and engaging an enemy consists of targeting with the space bar, and firing with the ENTER key. There are no spells or other special effects to deal with, and only the leader is controlled directly, with the other party members firing at their own discretion as enemies are encountered. The medic tends to earn a lot of experience healing the other party members early on, while the other characters must contend with 0% skill levels on many weapons until they can earn enough experience to level up.
As clunky as the interface sometimes seems, with schematic graphics at best, I found myself drawn in once again to the RPG experience, grinding for levels, acquiring new equipment, and slowly getting my party into fighting trim. Dead characters cannot be resurrected, so it's fortunate that the game can be saved mid-dungeon; I found myself restoring frequently after unsuccessful battles, but that classic sense of statistical drama remains as addictive as ever. The game does become repetitive after a while -- the story is well-presented but routine (there's a Great Evil underground), and the lack of graphic and audio variety becomes tiresome after a while. I put about six hours into it before feeling like I had seen most of what the game has to offer.
Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic, as evidenced by its name, was intended as a franchise foundation, but no Sentinel Worlds II ever saw release. The RPG market of the time was crowded and dominated by fantasy-themed games, and videogame consoles were introducing American players to the more story-driven, action-oriented Japanese RPG style. Future Magic may not have met with commercial success, but the engine is solid, the story is reasonably well-developed, and it's an impressive old-school title that's worth taking a look at.