Level 9, £9.95
Mainstream adventuring has variously been described as going from strength to strength, with many new converts joining the flock every month; or going through a rough patch marked by declining releases at a time when arcade and arcade-adventure titles are selling in much greater numbers. I’ll have to lay my cards on the table and line up with those who think the adventure scene has been quiet for some time which makes a Level 9 release all the more interesting.
Each successive Level 9 game receives tremendous accolades, and it would be only reasonable for journalists to look for a new angle and come to each new release with a more critical eye so as not to just rubber stamp the game and let it pass through as yet another sure-fire winner. But the truth is, Level 9 would seem destined to always produce top quality products, and now that much of each month’s releases are composed of cheap, highly unoriginal games, a Level 9 game stands out a mile as offering a real challenge, a deeper, more intricate and interesting storyline, and a programming competence which makes the purchaser feel that he or she is actually getting something for the money asked.
It’s not just the game itself which is in a different league, the backup to the consumer in the way of the excellent hint sheets puts many a competitor to shame. Anyone who takes adventuring seriously should check out the company who takes adventuring seriously. Level 9 concentrate solely on the activity of adventuring, and if you haven’t played a Level 9 game before then The Price of Magik is every bit as good as their previous releases and will show what adventuring as an entertainment medium has to offer.
But the most important aspect of Level 9 is their continuing improvements on their own superb adventuring system, improvements which give adventuring some pride in the race to get the very most out of the Spectrum.
Price of Magik is the follow up to Red Moon and so parts of the background storyline will have a familiar ring to them. Long ago the moon was red and shone magic onto the Earth, but the sun steadily bleached it of all power. While some magic still remained, the surviving Magicians created the red moon crystal of Baskalos as a new source of magical power and appointed the best of their number to watch over it. Under the care of a succession of wise guardians, the red moon crystal gained greatly in power, so that magic worked for miles around. Then Myglar struck.
Myglar was a noble sorcerer when he was appointed guardian of the crystal, and he cared for it faithfully. But, as life passed him by, Myglar began to ponder on his own mortality. Driven by a crazed desperation Myglar channelled the magic of the crystal into keeping himself alive. And so it is that the red moon fades and with it the last magic in the world. This is why you have been summoned to defeat Myglar and take his place as guardian, before all is lost.
As you might guess from the title, this game has you thrown deep into the misty world of magic, an area of interest covered very well in the microgames world, possibly because most people who’ve had a go at programming consider what software houses achieve with a Spectrum is magic! At the start of the game you know nothing of magic, how to wield it, or even what use it might be to you, but as the game progresses you become aware of increasing competence with your new found craft as new items and situations are encountered. There is a surprisingly high number of spells to become familiar with, eighteen we are told, and to win the game you’ve got to know them all.
As games players familiar with Level 9 might expect, this adventure really goes to town on helpful advice, prompts and playability. The vocabulary is nearly so expansive in its attempts to be as helpful as possible that it becomes bewildering — sometimes the responses to your attempts are almost too clever as the program does its level best to keep you informed. Things start off simply enough with the commonplace TAKE SHIELD, and WEAR ARMOUR, but you are soon wondering at the ingenuity of the programming with the likes of EXAMINE ALL BUT THE CROSS, MANDRAKE AND CANDLE AND GO EAST, and, WEREWOLF GO EAST, ATTACK ALL, TAKE ALL GO WEST AND DROP ALL — an insight into how the game develops character interaction more than hitherto seen in Level 9 games.
Other very useful commands include GET and EXAMINE EVERYTHING and the ever useful AGAIN which repeats the previous command. If I understand the instructions correctly it is only on the 128 Spectrum where the OOPS command can be used to step back a long way through the game you’ve played, perhaps to alter for the better some of your actions.
On all Spectrums there is a graphic version of the game with fairly concise text and on the other side of the tape — an expanded-text account of the adventure. For example, the herb garden, a couple of locations to the west of the start location, has the following description on the text-only version, ‘You are in a herb garden on an insect-infested mound which rises through the marsh mist. A few stunted plants survive. An exit leads east to a woodshed. You can see an elder cross, a mandrake and some eyebright flowers.’, but coalesces down to objects and exits only on the picture version. Because of this, many people are likely to want to play the text-only version by choice, especially as the pictures are simple and not particularly awe-inspiring.
The Price of Magik is a nigh on perfect game when compared to its competitors and, as new Level 9 releases tend to, represents a further improvement on their own adventure system, featuring the superb type-ahead that allows the player to input constantly and at all times. In both story background and style of play it has many similarities with Red Moon where the player can wander for a long time without having much clue as to where the solution of the game might be. The number of locations which the player can explore without having to solve intractable problems further distances this game from the old adventures where linear solution paths made for dull, string-of-problems style adventuring. The game really begins in earnest when you begin to learn how to use the magic when some aspects of D&D may appear familiar.
The unexciting loading screen made up of text instructions deviates from overall excellence (I think it might be time to offer the player a colourful intro screen, as Level 9 are now the only major company not to offer one), as does a scrolling list of text which, if not exactly untidy, is difficult to read. Simply separating your input from the computer’s screen output with a blank line would have helped enormously. The unaltered Spectrum character set is a little disappointing too, although I must immediately qualify any implied criticism by pointing out that yellow on black looks so good that it would be sufficiently removed from the Spectrum black on white to satisfy most people.
The strong points to the game are not hard even for the most casual of adventurers to find. Apart from its astonishing length and intelligent plot, the incredible friendliness of the program’s responses is a particular liking of mine, as easy communication with an adventure quickly involves the player and draws the adventurer into the plot. Adventuring once more becomes a pleasure and not a chore.
Input facility: complex sentences
Special features: type-ahead
General rating: excellent adventuring