Currently playing: Icewind Dale 2, Demonicum

January 24, 2012

Dark heart of Uukrul - Review

It is time to review Dark Heart of Uukrul while it is still fresh in my memory. I have not the patience to complete the game but think that my 25 hours or so ploughed into the game is well enough to give it a fair rating. I do not like to leave it unfinished but I am realistic enough to realize that I must play for real enjoyment and that my limited time does not allow me to put limitless amounts of hours into a game just for the feeling of completing it.  

How did I came across the game in the first place ? Well, since I am an avid follower of CRPGAddicts blog, I checked his master game list to get hints of RPGs I´ve not played and that looked interesting. This was such an anonymous game that I just had to check it out. It turned out it sucked dozens of hours from game time otherwise set for Skyrim.

I must say that I appreciate these turn-based RPGs tremendously. When playing you don´t need to focus your whole attention to the game. You could take steps in your own time and be interrupted without spoiling anyting. If playing a modern first-person RPG like Skyrim or Oblivion you must have one hand on the mouse and the other on the keyboard and can´t let yourself be disturbed. That´s what I like about these old gems.

Gameworld and Story
The positive thing is that the game confines itself to a town and a specific scenario. The city is ruled by an evil being and you have got to get rid of him somehow. There is no mention of the world outside of this town because that is totally irrelevant for the game at hand. At the start you don´t know much about the story that will be unfolded later on. I personally like to discover those things piece by piece. The story is quite elaborate. There are a reason for how the state are in the town and piece by piece you are fed with it. While this part is not very elaborated it is in par with Bards Tale or Dragon Wars. Simplicity has its strongpoints but also leaves a lot of thoughts about the things outside the specific scenario

Quite often you get descriptions for rooms you enter or other atmosphere inspiring information. Compared to the Bard´s Tale series, this game is much better in that respect. It is more like Dragon Wars which also had some places with elaborate story texts.
Rating: 2.5


Economy
Economy in the game works very well. With that I mean that you always are on the hunt for more gold because even still in the middle levels you need all the gold you can get. Items are expensive, weapons get broken and armour rusted by enemies. You also need constant food rations which costs money. The balance is very good. I´ve not been totally without gold but never have I had enough to buy what I want. I always have to prioritize which person would get his armour or weapon upgraded. You have quite a lot of items to buy but there are only one shop that I have discovered and you never find items you don´t see in the shops inventory which means there are few surprises out there.
Rating: 3.5

NPC and Interactions
NPC:s are not this games' strong point. There are very few NPC:s and most of them don´t offer any dialogue options although you might get hints of the story or your quest. What does outweight the low options of interactions in NPC meetings, are the action related interactions you are given. You could come upon a lever, pit or closed door and be given at least four different ways of using it. That is unusual for this kind of game at this period in time and gives it credit. The only other people you meet which are not hostile (and therefore called monsters below) are the shopkeepers, temple priests, mages etc.

If you love the colorful NPC:s from SSI Goldbox games in Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance this game is not for you. Interactions with the environment however is not too uncommon.
Rating: 2


Monsters and Tactics
The first time I entered combat I thought this must be a clone of Demon´s Winter. Everything is almost identical. But the graphics here is better. You are met with a close-up view of the monster before the actual combat begin and the tactical map is actually better here. There are more details in the monsters shown and the tactical layout is more representative of the actual hex in which the combat occurred. You also have several exits points if there where several doors around you, not only one exit. You could move diagonally but not attack diagonally.

Monsters comes of several different types. They are humans, humanoids, undeads, animals and pure monsters and they have different types of attacks. Some of the can stun or paralyse you. Some can rust your armour or drain your experience. Some even steals your items and flee!

Your human and humanoid enemies could flee combat which is quite seldom seen in RPGs at all. After combat you have the chance to gain gold and items. Experience is given according of who did the most damage and if you have met this kind of opponent before, for instance, if it´s the first time you encounter skeletons you will receive more experience. That system is quite advanced for its time as well.

There is however no ranged weapons at all in the game. It would easily have been useful in this kind of tactical combat.

Although the combat is far from as good as in the SSI goldbox games, it is good enough to score above average here. There are only two things that detain from higher score and that is the lack of ranged combat, backstab or other flanking bonuses and poor enemy A.I. You could often outmanouvre the enemy to easily use your movement and attack phase to a much better degree than the A.I is capable of. He does not go for the weakest character but for the first he can hit.

Autocombat works quite ok but is recommended only if you are certain of the outcome and you know there are no dangerous opponents. Since you don´t get any report after the combat if - for example - a weapon was broken or an armour rusted, you could be very unlucky to let the A.I fight for you. It could cost a lot of money so it is not always worth it.
Rating: 4


Map design
The maps are of irregular sizes and formations which is good since it adds to variety. But it also makes them very hard to map out for hand. Fortunately you have built in automap. It works but when you have to travel up and down through several levels or teleport yourself it is very difficult to get a good overview of the areas or how they are connected to each other. It does however add to the immersion that you don´t know how big this game really is. In other games of the time, maps are often drawn from fixed cubic sizes of 32*32 or 16*16 hexes. Not here.

In the beginning the maps looks very irregular but then they are also supposed to symbolise caves. Later on in the game they are more intelligently built. It is impossible to get a feeling for how the maps are drawn if you take into accordance the few descriptions of the environment here and there. For example, the text could speak of an orcish area, a throne room or whatever. But when you look on the map you can in no way see the rooms are where they are in a logical or intelligent way. That is not uncommon for other games at the time so it will not weigh down DhoU either.
Rating: 3


Graphics, sound and interface
The dungeon graphics in this game cannot be simpler. The same color and lines depicts everything you see. From town squares to caves. It is functional but even Commodore 64 had better graphics in Bard´s Tale released several years earlier. However, the still images of the NPC and monsters you meet are well drawn and add to the atmophere. The interface is totally keyboard driven and it doesn´t take long to learn. You move quick through the dungeons and combat. Inventory and its interfaces is also quite self-explanatory with clear pictures of items and weapons.

Compared to Demon´s Winter, this game has better interface.

Sound is unfortunately non-existent in the game (or at least in my DosBox setup).
Rating: 2


Manual
The manual consists of 75 pages and is well written. The only thing I don´t like is the description of the spells and particularly the priest spells which are described as rhymes. It adds nothing to the immersion, only frustration.


Gameplay
I was immediately hooked by this game. It was easy to get into and presented a very balanced start. The combats are varied and sometimes you do need to use certain spells or tactics to win, although your paladin and warrior are the one who totally own the battlefield. It is not until the mid-game that you have spells that become quite useful in combat as well as healing the group. In the beginning you have few uses of the mage and almost none for the priest.

The game quickly becomes a challenge. You need rations to survive and that costs money. Money often is only attainable by slaying monsters. You also need to constant buy better armours and weapons to keep up with the stiffening opposition after every new Sanctuary found. The game lets you save everywhere but it also save automatically in the beginning of each combat so if you are unlucky of being trapped in a too difficult fight you have few chances of surviving it since a reload puts you back into the same fight. You could only hope to flee or to reload to a backup game which you have stored in a Sanctuary. That is hardcore. I took backup saves of the directory all the time so I wouldn´t loose too much by making my mistakes.

Besides, you always have to get back to a Sanctuary or markeplace to heal, gain levels, sell/buy items or rations etc. The problem is the long trek through random encounters on the way back and on the way to the point you where. Sure, that is the same as in all the other games of the time but it won´t make it less frustrating at times. If only the mage could have some freely laid teleport location.

This game is hard. You really have to slowly progress in the dungeons and build up your characters before you can venture further on. Up until level 4 it is very tough. Between level 5 to 6 you realise there might be a chance for you after all and after level 7 combats are beginning to become the second hardest part, the puzzles appearing begin to be the tough part. There are no way I have found out through spells or otherwise that lets you teleport back to a specific location. You have to use the fixed teleporters for that.

There are fights that poisons or cripples you and it takes a lot of valuable money to repair broken items. But perseverance pays itself because somewhere in the middle-game when you pass level 6 things are gradually becoming easier, the fights begin to lessen. Instead the puzzle solving part of the game begins to appear.

One more thing that irritated me a lot is the lack of per-spelled spellnames (got it ?). You have to manually write the cryptic name of each spell or prayer cast and I find it difficult to remember more than a few of them at the same time which means I have to look them up every time I need to use a more uncommon spell. The result is that I am too lazy to do that and miss out on things.

For me personally I came to the conclusion at this point that this game will take a lot of more efforts to break. I had already spent 25 hours of my holiday on it. Now work where about to start again and I was not looking forward to be locked into this puzzle solving thing during January. My patience is not large when I have limited time and so I decided to stop this game for now. I have done enough deep-diving into it to properly assess it I believe. If I had the time I would surely play it to the end but that is more to satisfy my desire to complete things started rather than fully enjoying it all the way.

Regardless of my decision to move on into the CRPG djungle, this game comes highly recommended for hardcore gamers who wants a challenge of the old school and could spare a minimum of 50 hours.
Rating: 4


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