[Wandrell] When Excalibur is stolen, it's clear who is behind the crime. The… Oh, wait. The Muslims? Actually, here we have a game based on Arthurian myths, which by itself is in no way is a new thing, but it manages to actually give it an original twist.
[Mr Creosote] Actually, I wouldn't really call it a twist. A twist is part of a story which in its basics is still related to the original source material. Here, we have a plot which has nothing to do with the Arthurian legend; it should just have been different knights. But it had to have some relation to the previous game (Spirit of Excalibur) in the title at least…
[Wandrell] It's not like they couldn't have done a new game. After all, Spirit of Excalibur already reuses the engine of previous games. Still, it's true that the knights feel a bit out of place, as their legends take place in the 6th century, while the game is in the 10th.
[Mr Creosote] And, as usual in Arthurian legend adaptions, the knights wear full plate armour as invented in the 14th or 15th century. Anyway, the grail has been stolen by the Shadowmaster and the knights of the round table spread across Europe to find it again. The player's group, consisting of four knights, goes to the Iberian peninsula.
[Wandrell] And they arrive at the height of the “reconquest” wars. Just three hundred years ago, the peninsula was under Muslim control, but now they have lost around the northern half of the peninsula, and keep losing more as time passes. Of course, they don't like how things are going, and expect to use Arthur's treasures to fight off the Christian armies.
[Mr Creosote] Though the English knights shouldn't expect all the local Christian lords to be friendly. They have got their own agenda, too. And this is even more true for the non-royal inhabitants of the land who are quite fed up with foreign knights casually waltzing in as they please.
[Wandrell] Most of the local knights will gladly help you to fight any enemy you find, as long as you pay their armies, of course. At first, it may look as if there was no reason to worry about hiring protection, after all the northern kingdoms are safe ground for Christians, aren't they? But your enemies have stirred things up, and you'll face armies blocking your path or just hunting you down. A bit later, though, your enemies will be only the Muslims.
[Mr Creosote] So it is your quest to find not only the grail (that's actually the last item on the list), but seven holy relics on the whole. Each of which will be retrieved in its own episode (or quest).
[Wandrell] At this point, I'll do a sidestep and comment on something. The game, at least it looks like that from reading the manual and the historical background it offers, attemps to be at least a bit historically accurate. Well, we have Arthurian knights, famous for their weird mix of ages on their world, and the game already made a jump of five hundred years from the first to the second, so don't expect a lot of history here.
Most of the history bits, at least the ones I could recognize, are references. One of the knights you can choose at the beginning is called Amadis, probably a reference to Amadís de Gaula. And at one point you get help for a knight called “Ruy Diaz”, which is the real name of the Cid. But then they keep saying “Spain”, even when the unification didn't happen until five centuries later.
[Mr Creosote] Also, in fact, you start out in southern France and today's Portugal is very much part of the available map as well. I'd say the historic events of the “Reconquista” are merely used as a rough setting, not as a history lesson. In my opinion, it works well enough, as muddled as it all might be on closer inspection.
[Wandrell] But going back to the game. All this translates so that each chapter not only sends you to search a treasure, but also makes you visit a region of the country, from real ones like Santiago de Compostela, a famous city of pilgrimage, to some like the Brass City, which seems to be taken from the Arabian Nights.
[Mr Creosote] What's more interesting is that although the game world is very much accessible right from the start, this is not really as much of an “open world” game as one would hope. The quests have to be completed in a linear fashion and their individual goals are usually close and clearly communicated.
[Wandrell] This was solved in the first game with the conquest system, which would open new sections of the map, so you didn't feel so overwhelmed as in this one. Add to this that the game manual is usually the only way to know what to do, as it explains each chapter, and, if you are not careful, all you will manage is getting lost and dying a lot.
[Mr Creosote] Actually I would have preferred it the other way around: Less guidance, more freedom to find things out for yourself through independent exploration. Which would also imply fewer time limits, of course.
[Wandrell] That's the main problem here. It would need more people around, as usally the towns feel empty, several goals spread around the map, and removing those time limits they seem to love. Again, in the first game when there was an army slowly advancing towards Camelot, you had to send three parties to cover all your objectives. Here there is no reason to create a second party ever, and the huge map is misguiding on that.
[Mr Creosote] This definitely leads me to suspect this is a bit of a quick cash-in sequel made with minimum effort. We should explain a bit more about the gameplay first, though.
[Wandrell] What you first have to know is that this is a mix of strategy, adventure and RPG, and you may even say action, if you want to manually control duels. But most of the time it's an adventure game.
[Mr Creosote] It seems like it as the main activity (time-wise) is visiting locations and talking to people. Vengeance escapes the traditional genre boundaries, though, which makes it feel still fresh, even if there are a few other games in the same vein.
[Wandrell] The RPG part comes in second place. Your characters have a series of attributes, things like combat, defense, faith or nobility. They are raised through use, but not all of them are clear. How was I supposed to know you raise faith leaving a knight on a church without reading a guide? At least I know this skill serves to call the power of religious relics and symbols, because I am still in the dark about what nobility is used for.
[Mr Creosote] There is a chapter called “Faith & Nobility” in the manual, but that does not help much as it only explains that these stats exist rather than what they are for. It's all part of the experiments you will have to conduct to learn things for yourself. On the strategy/tactics side of things, there are simplistic battles between armies and sword duels in which you can take limited influence.
[Wandrell] I always skip the battles. Maybe there is a way to improve the outcome manually, but I have never lost a battle, and I can't care about how the mercenary forces end up, as you always find another group to hire when you need them.
[Mr Creosote] There are two relevant points in the battles: Making sure none of your core knights dies and through careful manual control of your troops, you can make sure than the enemy army cannot escape from the battlefield in order to regroup.
[Wandrell] On the other hand, duels require your attention, as even the weakest enemy can get lucky and beat your knight into a messy pulp. Later there are fights where three of your knights face three enemies, three duels at once. And in those, you will actually need to pay attention, taking turns, withdrawing and healing your knights.
[Mr Creosote] I found it a nice element that you don't have your own army, but just those four knights. So for any large-scale fight, you are dependent on mercenaries which you will have to pay with treasures you find.
[Wandrell] Sadly, that ends being “hire here, use at the end of the street, discard the army”.
[Mr Creosote] Although this is not completely wrong, it does bring the element of rivalry between the local lords into play: Your hired mercenaries might have their own idea of who their enemy is and act upon it. Sure, they usually flat out tell you about it, but it nevertheless makes some planning necessary.
[Wandrell] This is where I notice the lack of another feature of the first game. The first marked the different kingdoms on the map, I think one of them tells you the others are from a different kingdom, but you are not even shown where the Muslim empire ends and where the Christian kingdoms begin.
[Mr Creosote] Well, each city has got a clear allegiance which is shown on the map. Obviously, the country being devastated by a war which makes the situation very fluid, there are no clear borders between the factions.
[Wandrell] Actually, there are around five kingdoms in the north. Much later you even talk with one of the kings and receive his army. But it looks like it's all a big no man's land. Well, at least it's nice that there is an actual no man's land around the middle section of the map, where there are constant battles for the cities.
[Mr Creosote] Graphically, the game is perfectly adequate. Nice to look at, but not especially impressive.
[Wandrell] Sometimes even repetitive, the backgrounds are reused all the time, and the characters you meet may as well be always the same people.
[Mr Creosote] Well, they always belong to the same few types of people: knight, monk, messenger etc. What bothered me more was the choppy animation of the characters. On the whole, the looks did not disturb me much, though. It was aestetically pleasing.
[Wandrell] The music is always the same or it was just me? I didn't have any problem with that, it was nice, and avoiding the silence that other games of that time offered.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, it was always the same tune. Which was good enough, though. The controls worked as well: The icons were clear and there are never too many of them.
[Wandrell] I liked the controls. Quite intuitive, you could just click on a person or object to interact with it, or use the menu to choose the action and objective, in case it was no clear.
[Mr Creosote] Indeed, the manual is hardly ever needed. However, I do have one major technical complaint. One which is so severe that I see no choice but to have it reflect on the rating: The game is not hard disk installable (not even with a fan-made patch these days) and disk swapping gets out of hand immediately. Even with four floppy disk drives (which will prevent disk swapping at least, but who has four drives?), the loading times are horrible!
[Wandrell] I know this happened in other versions, and apparently the Amiga one was a port. So I suspect there is something else behind. Lazy programming for a quick sequel?
[Mr Creosote] Indeed it looks like it. Four disks was not an uncommon size for a game. Usually, the data would be intelligently spread across them, though, so that you wouldn't need to swap every 30 seconds. Even Monkey Island 2 with its 11 disks was somewhat playable with only two drives as for each island, there were basically just two disks to use. This game just has its data dumped seemingly randomly on the media. This has a major impact on the fun…
[Wandrell] For the rest, I would say that I like the engine. Sadly, also I think it would work better on an open ended game such as Darklands. The way the different elements of the game mix is seamless, for example you may be moving on the map and then being told about other parties encounters, or asked if you want to watch a battle, but they never feel out of place. To me that's a signal of good design that may be missing in other parts of the game.
[Mr Creosote] I can basically agree with this conclusion. The game is well balanced, can be played intuitively and the setting, as ahistorical it might be, is interesting. This would be a good game if it could be played as intended. However, the technical incompetence of this version drags it down quite a bit. This sloppy programming destroys the flow of the game, unfortunately. So I cannot recommend this version.
[Wandrell] It could have been a good game, but it's world feels too empty, and lacking any real decision. It's fun to try and play, but don't expect this to be the same thing as the first game.