Sunday, February 6, 2022

Adventure: Broken Sword 1: The Shadow of the Templars (2010 Director's Cut)

Thanks to everyone who took time to welcome me back!  I'm still going through a backlog of comments and sorting out the bitcoin/gambling spam from the genuinely meaningful and informative comments the system has been gathering while I've been away, but I do hope to write a new post now and then.

(As to where my time has been going these past several years, I've been doing quite a bit of acting in various projects, which I may or may not owe to becoming more comfortable on camera doing my video podcasts here.  The pandemic has forced/encouraged me to do less live theatre and more film and television work; if you want to know more, here's my IMDb page.)

Anyway, as time has gone on, I've realized this age of "Let's Play" videos makes the type of post I often write about my detailed experiences playing a specific game less relevant.  I'll still write about obscure games that aren't likely to be covered elsewhere, but there are definitely games that are very well documented at this point.

So this post will be an attempt at a lighter approach, and honestly one that gives me a little more freedom to enjoy the ride without having to take detailed notes and capture screenshots.  I've recently played through Revolution Software's classic Broken Sword 1 - The Shadow of the Templars: Director's Cut, a more seriously-styled point-and-click adventure originally released in 1992.  I played the 2010 Director's Cut edition simply because that's the version I had picked up on Steam at some point; it adds some additional story and puzzles fleshing out Nico's story, but many people prefer the 1992 version as some content was changed/cut and puzzles simplified in this version.

One historical note I'd like to make is that Revolution Software founder and Broken Sword creator Charles Cecil did his initial adventure game work on text adventures for Artic Computing and eventually became director of the company.  I haven't been able to confirm this independently, but MobyGames credits him as the designer (which in 1982 likely also meant programmer) of Artic Adventures B - Inca Curse, C - Ship of Doom, and D - Espionage Island, which I've covered here in the past.  As head of Revolution Software he pioneered the company's Virtual Theatre engine, which has hosted many notable games including the early Broken Sword titles and the classic Beneath A Steel Sky,  an excellent sci-fi adventure that is now on my shortlist to tackle sometime.

I'll also note that while I never played Broken Sword 1 on PC back in the day, I did take a run at the Game Boy Advance cartridge version a decade or two back.  I never finished it or even got very far into the story -- the game's beautiful high-resolution background art was compromised on the GBA's limited-resolution screen, and there was insufficient ROM space for the well-acted spoken dialogue to be heard.  While I was very happy to see a proper adventure game released on the GBA, in practical terms it didn't fully engage me at the time.

With this new approach I'm trying, there are likely to be *** NO MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD ***, just so you know.

Here's the obligatory title screen shot:

And here's the beginning of gameplay, a moment unseen in the 1992 version, as a prologue to the original narrative confronts Nico with the murder of a family friend.  The visual style of Broken Sword 1 is impressive and the Director's Cut release increases color depth a little, so even though the game isn't in full HD resolution the lighting and details look great in every scene.

I really enjoyed this game -- I knew it by reputation and that reputation proves well-deserved.  It definitely contains plenty of humor borne out of the many eccentric characters our hero George Stobbart encounters, but it's generally serious in tone with some dark story elements and well-plotted twists and turns.  The plot has to do with the Knights Templar, or so it seems, and a trail of obscure clues and puzzles that the player must follow to reach the story's satisfying conclusion.  The game features traditional point-and-click inventory puzzles and conversation-driven progress, but also has some visual puzzles involving decoding simple ciphers and positioning mechanical elements to unlock or engage a mechanism.  I appreciated these tactile puzzles -- they bring something new to the adventure genre beyond audiovisuals, and they break up the action while also raising the stakes a little with fresh challenges.

I won't go into detail on the plot, but will note that the story sprawls across multiple countries and continents.  Each region is well-contained and it isn't difficult to focus on what's of practical value within each sub-section.  Inventory is also nicely managed by the game design, leaving items behind once they've been used appropriately and reducing the number of "apply random object to random object" experiments a stuck adventurer has to attempt before a better idea emerges.

The Virtual Theatre engine Revolution Software developed and used in many of its 2-D games is a little different technically from the Sierra AGI/SCI engine and Lucasarts' SCUMM, in that it doesn't seem to support a fully "3-D" layering effect in the same way.  There is often a foreground mask element that scrolls in parallax with the background in wider scenes and covers up the background and characters if they're behind it, but within a scene, the background is generally structured so the "floor" is completely open and there's never a need to place characters behind a part of the background.  It's an interesting tradeoff -- it's more memory-efficient than Sierra's approach, avoiding the need to keep a background mask in unseen memory, and likely frees up CPU cycles for sprite scaling and managing multiple characters onscreen at once.  I don't know the technical underpinnings in any detail, but there are definitely glitchy moments when George's character sprite covers part of the background that should be in front of him, and when animated characters overlap the one that is smaller/farther back sometimes appears on top of the one in the foreground.  There are also no maneuvering puzzles -- all pathing is automatic, and the game saves time by going straight to the fadeout when an exit is selected.  Honestly, I don't miss those particular engine features -- the Virtual Theatre approach forces cleaner visual design and makes gameplay a little bit more efficient, especially when the player is stuck and trying everything possible in a given area.

What else?  The game took me about 18 hours to finish, and I did have to look up a playthrough to get myself unstuck at one point; as often happens in these games, I had the right idea but I hadn't quite followed the intended sequence of actions.  And I very much enjoyed the journey and the genuinely exciting climax, even though player choices are a bit limited toward the very end and, as this is a player-death-free adventure game, the only available actions are the game-winning ones at a few key points.  The animation is fluid and the characters' visuals and voices are full of personality.  

Bottom line, I definitely have Broken Sword 2 - The Smoking Mirror: Remastered on my to-play list now, though I'll likely tackle something else in the meanwhile.  Please feel free to comment about this type of post -- I'm hoping I can cover games that are still in circulation like this one in a way that isn't redundant with the rest of the online universe, but still brings some readable observations to the table.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Adventure: 4 Mile Island Adventure (1983)

It's been a while... quite a while... nearly two years!

But I had a little free time this week to dive into a nostalgic rabbit hole, and I discovered a few adventure games for the TRS-80 Color Computer that I had seen advertised but never played back in the days when I was an avid CoCo user.  Thanks to The Color Computer Archive for keeping these vintage titles accessible!

In this post I'm going to explore 4 Mile Island Adventure, a 1983 release by Owl's Nest Software written in Extended BASIC for Color Computers with at least 16K of RAM.  The game operates entirely in memory and was originally available on tape and disk formats.  It performs pretty well for a BASIC game, in part because after some initial variable population it handles almost everything with branching logic rather than implementing a "proper" text adventure engine.  The presentation mimics the classic Scott Adams style, though it doesn't implement a real location/item "window" at the top of the screen -- text printed below will scroll it off the display like any other output text, with a new room or a LOOK restoring the top section.  Another quirk is that I is not treated as INVENTORY, we have to type at least three characters -- all single-character inputs are interpreted as directional commands.

The startup screen confirms the title's implications - our goal is to stop an impending nuclear meltdown:

Can we stop it?  Maybe, but there are certain to be...


We start out at a locked security gate, whose only purpose seems to be to suggest that we've got no way out but to deal with the problem at hand.  The map is tightly designed, consisting primarily of two long criss-crossing corridors and a few smaller sub-areas, and I didn't feel the need to draw a map to cope with this pleasantly maze-free experience.

Time is of the essence, measured in turns and temperature -- as we muddle about trying to find a solution, the reactor continues to heat up, and the game ends with a massive meltdown if we are not successful at cooling it down before it hits 750 degrees.  It took me a number of unsuccessful tries before I started to find the most efficient path, but in the classic adventure game tradition it is possible to pare  out some informational steps on subsequent attempts, and on my final run I had no problem finishing the game well before the meltdown threshold.

Exploring the office area south and east of the security gate, we find a secretary's desk, though it's called a TABLE for the sake of the parser's inability to distinguish this one from another desk to the south.  If we LOOK TABLE, we're informed THERE IS A SHEET OF PAPERREAD PAPER yields "ENJOY THE ADVENTURE," so this is an unnecessary task and feels somehow snarky in context.

South of the secretary's desk table we find a BIG DESK (for the big boss?), and LOOK DESK reveals a drawer.  We can UNLOCK DRAWER with the key we have in our starting inventory, whether or not we know we have it, so that's not really a factor in the puzzle.  OPEN DRAWER produces a useful BADGE, gaining us access to CLASS 'B' CLEARANCE.

There's a securely-locked steel cabinet in an area down an adjoining corridor to the east, but for now we'll focus on the are north of the offices, where having the badge in our possession allows us to travel north of the 'B' SECURITY ROOM to access the REACTOR CONTROL ROOM, core of this adventure.

READ SCREEN here indicates THERE IS NOTHING WRITTEN ON IT, but that's just a parser quirk - LOOK SCREEN gives us critical status information on the state of the reactor, though at this point we don't yet know what the maximum tolerable temperature is.

Here's where I got stuck for a bit -- I explored the facility as well as I could, learning I could reset the power breakers in the area east of the control room and observing that the generator to the west started turning after I PULLed the red SWITCH.  But I couldn't operate the yellow lever to turn on the pumps, as suggested by READ LEVER:  IT SAYS - COOLING PUMPS.

I explored the non-functional Security Station near the offices and tried various unsuccessful commands to open the steel cabinet.  Fortunately, this is a BASIC language game, and in examining the code I discovered that, while it is not mentioned onscreen or in the game's single-page manual, we are allowed to LOOK WALL, LOOK FLOOR and LOOK CEILING.  (I also discovered that the game is aware of potential player frustration and will chide the player for employing three-letter versions of several popular four-letter words!)

Armed with this new ability, I found a slot in the wall of the control room, and INSERT BADGE opened up a staircase to the lower level.  Here I found a crowbar, wrench and rod, although only the crowbar serves a useful purpose -- honestly, I like these kinds of red herrings, because they make the world seem a little more fully realized, as if another character in a different situation would have some options I just didn't need.

LOOK FLOOR in another room reveals a loose tile -- it's too heavy to pick up, but MOVE TILE produces an ID that grants CLASS 'A' CLEARANCE.  This allows us to enter the actual nuclear reactor, and while there's some spooky buzzing and a lethal-looking green glow about, the game doesn't track any game-ending cumulative radiation metrics.  So we're free to go down to the actual vat area and GET the SPANNER inconveniently stored there.  (Incidentally, I'm accustomed to seeing American text adventures with wrenches, and UK games with spanners -- this is a rare occasion where both items exist in the same story, perhaps as a means of humoring the parser.)

We've seen a few valves along the way -- three to be precise -- and armed with these tools, specifically both the crowbar and spanner, we can open the valve to the right of Security 'B' to... dump all the cooling water outside of the plant and end the game with a huge meltdown.  So that's not what we want to do.

A valve west of the control room is open and can't be closed.  But the third, east of Control, can be, and this opens the cooling valve, though not to any immediate effect.

Returning to the control room, we can PULL SWITCH once to get generator output up to 1 megawatt.  A second PULL SWITCH gets to 2 megawatts, and a third sets off an alarm and trips the breakers, which we then have to go reset.

I should pause here to note that it's possible to figure all this out by trial and error, but if we take the crowbar back to the aforementioned steel cabinet, we can PRY CABINET to reveal an OPERATIONS MANUAL, which we can OPEN and READ to learn a few technical details.  But it's not strictly necessary, as it contains no passwords or other critical puzzle-solving content.  I was fairly successful just messing around with the highly sensitive and dangerous nuclear reactor equipment, so that's a good life lesson to take away from this game.  Along with any cancer stimulus we may have picked up inside the highly insecure reactor.

Anyway, with the generator back at 1 megawatt of output (not 2, mind!) we can PULL LEVER to activate the cooling system.  A display shows the reactor temperature gradually coming down, line by line, and it's actually a pretty effective suspense technique, counting down as we cross our fingers and hope we didn't miss a puzzle somewhere along the way.  Fortunately if we have gotten to this point, victory is ours!

I enjoyed 4 Mile Island Adventure -- it only took two or three hours to complete, and it was a well-constructed little adventure game that managed to get good mileage out of a small map and a few puzzles that seemed fairly obvious but interlocked in interesting, mechanically satisfying ways.

Here's my walkthrough, should anyone want a speedy trip through the game (note that my solution here ignores a lot of discovery details, I was trying to find the most efficient route under the mistaken impression that time was a lot tighter than it really is):

S, E, E, S, S





N, N, N, N



D, W



E, U, S, E




W, N, E, N, N




S, W, N, N



U, S, S, E





(And that's the end!)