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August 2, 2012

Ishar 2 - Review



Game reviewed: Ishar 2 - Messengers of Doom
Producer: Silmarils
Released: 1993
Formats: Pc, Amiga (AGA), Atari ST
Version reviewed: Pc
Difficulty: 7/10
Est. Playing time: 25 hours

Ishar 2 was actually much shorter than I anticipated when hearing that the game boasted some 100.000 different screens on Abandonia.com. I don´t know where that figure comes from but I certainly know that the game did not make that impression on me.


Gameworld & Story
The story of the game is so simple that it is hard to find. It is not mentioned in the manual at all. In the short intro something is said that you are Zubaran and you must get back to claim your rule of Ishar.Why I should do that I don´t know. And you start out without money or equipment without no one ever acknowledging you anyway.

While in the game, you never meet any person or read anything about your mission either. Everything you do is for pure exploration and curiosity. No one tells you where to go or why. Actually I find this part to be very lacking. It wouldn´t take much for the developers to add more background or texts. They had put much efforts into the graphics department but could not fill in some texts here and there.
The gameworld spans over six different islands, each with its own unique graphics. The first island and the city is the largest of them. The gameworld do change much between the parts and adds a refreshing change of introducing new environments and they are of different sizes with different inhabitants. The good thing about that is that you never really know the boundaries of the game. The maps could be large or small, you never know in advance. I like that.

Overall, with a story as thin and as unelaborating as in this game I cannot give it anything other than a low score. It is among the most lacking I´ve ever seen.
Rating: 1.5

Economy
You have a limited number of miscellaneous items, weapons and armours in the game but the stock is unlimited as long as you can afford them. Money is a first priority in the beginning until the middle of the game and is quite balanced up until after half the game. In the end I had perhaps 80.000 gold after having bought pretty much everything I wanted. Money was not an issue in the last third of the game.
One neat thing is that you can put your money in a bank in the city and get interests rate out of it depending on how many days you have them there. I would recommend to put half your money in the middle game when you could spare them.
You will find much money in the tombs that will quickly give you the opportunity to buy better armour and weapons but to be strong enough to reach those parts you have to grind several levels in the city fighting bandits and getting their money.

Resting and easting costs a lot of money and I did try to avoid it as long as I could. In the beginning it will be the most single expensive post.
Rating: 3

NPC & Interactions
This is a very weak part of the game. There are very few NPC:s in the game and you can not interact with them in any way. For example you have the village leader in the starting island who reward you when finding a necklace or the city mayor who misses his daughter. Apart from that the NPC:s might respond to actions you make like reviving a stoned priest or a sleeping ent. But I would not go as far as calling those fully fledged NPCs.

If you are lucky you can get more than one line of information from them. So sparse is the interaction and information. While interactions with NPC:s are almost nonexistent, the interactions with the environment is a little bit better developed. At certain places you should use items like parrots, eagles, keys, birds, relics and potions with the environment in order to get an effect. Most of those places are pure problem solving places which menas they are mandatory for the story to continue. Or rather, the story will never unfold it will only give you more parts to explore. Two of the islands you discover is by pure coincidence. One is discovered with the release of an eagle and one is an old map a tavern guest is wearing. Neither of them has any reason storywise for you to visit.

The interactions with the environement to solve problems reminds me more of the approach employed by adventure games.
Rating: 2

Monsters, Tactics & Combat System
The combat system in the game is very simple but easy to grasp. When you are within a few hexes most adversaries advance to get into melee combat. Combat is conducted by clicking on your weapons without any possibility to select your foe (except for ranged weapons). Heavier weapons are slower than lighter ones. You see the damage you inflict but have no way to determine how injured your foe is. Strength seems to determine which kind of armour you could wear.

Monsters never retreats and most of them respawn if you come back, sometimes even when you are advanced only a short distance away.  Monsters never drop any loot except the bandits in town that drops gold. Monsters are generally good looking but employes very similar tactics. I have yet to determine if certain monsters are more vulnerable to certain types of magic or weapons than others. Some monsters - like mages - are able to cast different spells at you, from pure direct attack spells to blindness, dizzyness, darkness and god know what. You could use ranged weapons like a bow or throwing dagger but they do less damage and most foes close in for melee attacks anyway so I never found it worthwhile, except the fight in the first island in which you must have a ranger with you.

You can also select which partymember will be in front and which ones you would like to keep in the back. Mages etc are best kept as far back as possible and the rest in the front. The tactical use of that system is very limited though. Overall, combat is really not this series strongest part. Even Bard´s tale excels in comparison.

Rating: 2

Magic System
There are three different spellcasters in the game: magicians, priests and scholars. Paladins have also the ability to heal and protect. While many spells are shared between them there are a few that are unique for each class. Spells come in three groups: attack spells, protective spells and other spells. The other spells are very powerful like teleporting (I never used it!), resurrection and some of the direct attack spells like fireballs. In my opinion I wouldn´t have lasted long without a magician.

Spells costs psychical energy which can only be regained while sleeping or if you cast the spell change of timescale. Higher level spellcasters get more spellpoints. Spells are awarded automatically when gaining a level but not for all characters in the game. It is impossible to know who does not benefit from a levelupgrade.

I think the variations of spells are pretty nice. There is a spell called inversion that I discovered I had at the last level that makes your enemies fight each other. A pretty neat spell. Overall the magic systems works well and there are enough varied spells to keep the spellcasters interesting. It makes them important to have in your party.

Rating: 3

Character generation & development
The short answer is that you don´t generate any characters and don´t make any choices while you level up in this game.

You start with Zubaran which is a pre-generated character with a fixed value in the seven standard skills which are lock-picking, perception, first aid, arms 1 handed, arms 2 handed, throwing weapons and shooting. The five starting attributes are also fixed and they are strength, constitution, agility, intelligence and wisdom.

During your travels you must recruit more characters to increase your fighting power (both melee and magic wise). All the pre-generated characters have fixed attributes and skill sets. If they die they don´t come back so be careful if you early on looses one of the best mages. Anyway, you gain XP from killing enemies and at fixed values (not mentioned in the manual) you are promoted to a new level but don´t get any notification about it. You get more vitality points and - I think - mana but your attributes and skill set remains the same for the entire game. You cannot train or enhance them in any way and no items can affect them.

Actually some skills are pretty worthless. You have lock-picking but I have only found one lock in the game and it required a bird to fetch a key. Perception is working though and several times I have found secret doors because of it. First aid heals so small amounts of injury that I never used it. Besides, the teamembers have their own perception of each other and could very well refuse to heal another partymember. It is just not worth fiddling with in my opinion. The other combat related skills seems to work as announced.

The only development of characters is that you select can select the party composition. You can not switch characters to work with. If you dismiss a character he is gone forever. This side of the game is very lacking and so will yield a below average score.

So to summarise. You have very little control of development of the characters and as the system is implemented it is almost at the bottom score.

Rating: 1.5

Map design
Here I think Ishar 2 succeeds in conveying the feeling of unrestricted maps and levels of varying sizes. You never really know how large the maps are and they varies greatly from island to island. Some of them have several levels but they could also vary in size. The map design in itself is very irregular. Levers are clearly seen and hidden buttons could be seen if you look for them. It´s not a pixelhunting game in that respect.

There is not much logic behind the underground levels. Rooms comes and goes by random even though there are symmetrical places here and there. The overland maps are better. The city tries to look like a city with a lot of cul-de-sac alleys and backyards spawning from the mainstreets. The first island is very large and you can roam around for awhile until you get the bearings.

The so called automap of the game is only doing its job in the city. For all other islands you only see where you are relative to the island. You don´t see the corridors or rooms of the level itself which forces you to draw your own maps anyway.

Rating: 3

Manual
The manual of the game is nothing to write home about. It contains hand-drawn illustrations instead of screenshots and the texts just go on and on without structure. Potions are listed with their names and required ingredients but not what they do. You have to find out ingame. Spells are also described but they forgot to include the matching spell symbols so this part is useless unless you can find the Ishar 3 manual which contains the same spells with the symbols. The manual talks about how important team spirit are but does not actually explain in any way how it works or why I should bother. I have not cared for it much and it went well anyway. The same goes for your skills like lock-picking. This manual is without a doubt clearly below standard for a game such as this.

Rating: 2

Graphics, Sound and Interface
Ishar 2:s greatest strength lies in its graphics. The environment, landscape and adversaries are well drawn and the terrain is marvelous for its time. You also have day-and-night cycles implemented which affects opening hours for the shops. The sound effects are nothing special, a few environmental effects could be heard from time to time but other than that sound are mostly heard from combat. Even though the music is better than the sound effects, the music does not sound as well on the PC version as on the Amiga version but the tunes are very good indeed. I am still listening to them while working from time to time.

For example, this remix  is from the main theme of the game and one of my favourites:




The interface is both good and bad. It is easy to fight, you have the icons for all you members grouped together and just have to click on them to attack (or use F6 - F10 as I do). Managing yoru inventory works pretty well. You have a fixed number of inventory slots and it will be enough during the game. The interface for using gold is cumbersome and transfering several stacked items must be done one at a time. You could pretty easy navigate through spells and the inventory but at the same time each character could have four different tabs showing, instead of the portraits and I found this system cumbersome and disorienting. Overall the inventory works ok. Other than that the game moves along quite well when boosting CPU cycles to over 10.000 in Dosbox.

Rating: 3.5

Gameplay
From the start of the game I had quite fun with Ishar 2. Silmarils choosed to make an RPG in their own way, choosing their own implementation of an RPG. Ishar is not like the traditional CRPGS released prior to its arrival. They should have credit for daring to be different in their approach. Combat is simplified, there are a limited number of items, puzzles are challenging but you are fairly free of when and where to go even if you have to unlock the islands in a special order. I had hoped for better story, interesting NPC:s, more engrossing story driven elements, but still it is quite easy to get into and play. The feeling of gather gold, killing bandits and slowly aquire better equipment and see the noticeable effects of this is very rewarding. 

I liked the graphics and the varied areas. It is just not new textures on the walls it is really new areas, from the starting island's fog and swamp to Jon´s Islands snowy regions where you have to wear fur coats to survive. Since each area was not very large the game never became tedious. Even though you had to run back and forth to solve different puzzles, it took not much time so it could be done within minutes.

Because of the difficult challenges, the reward for solving them is greater, for your own feeling of accomplishment. The game hides much of the game mechanics but you will notice clearly that upgrading weapons and armours really do have an immediate effects of combats. It makes the pursuit of more money all the more joyful. The economy is well balanced and gold will be your top priority during the first two thirds of the game. I have not discovered any more advantages to raise in levels except that you get more vitality points and more spells for the spellcasters.

That being said, the game also have some major drawbacks. It feels much like a combination between an traditional adventure game and an RPG. What comes to mind is the game Elvira - Misstress of the Dark. Even tough that was more heavy on the adventure side it still had attributes and RPG elements. The manual is so poor as to explain the game mechanics that I am not sure your attributes counts for much.

There where much talk about the team spirit in this game when it was released. That the group would vote if you wished to recruit or dismiss a character but I have to say that this was never a problem for me. I find this system overrated even though it was a new aspect built into an CRPG of the time. The team members never speak or interacts with eachother anyway.

The game is hard in the beginning. You will die many times unless you understand that you must first recruit a full group before you could begin to take on anything. Gold is scarce in the beginning and the fight for survival is strong.

My greatest problem with the game is the unbalanced puzzles. For most of them there doesn´t seem to be any logical way in which you could solve them. At best, the solutions are far-reached. For example, you have the lock-pick skill in the game and there is only one locked door but you cannot use the skill because the manual doesn´t say how to do it. Instead you are supposed to buy a thieving magpie to get the key for you. If you don´t bring that bird with you at the time you are stuck forever and have to revert to a previous save game. Or you might discover a door with an ear inscribed on it and the only way to open it is by using a parrot on it. I can understand people got frustrated in 1992 and just waited for the game to get a walkthrough in any game magazine at the time. Or what about a shady figure wanting you to meet him at night in the cul-de-sac for the four towers in the city. Where the hell lies that when every part of town looks the same ?

Even though combat is an important part of the game I don´t think it is too much combat and they are quick and seldom tedious. What I am really disappointed with is the lack of NPCs, storytellers, texts, found parchements or anything that will shed some light on things. You are never told what is happening or why you are supposed to do something. You have to figure out everything yourself. That is a bad mistake. The game should welcome you better and drag you into the story to let you feel immersed. My major motivation was to gather more gold so I could buy better equipment, I didn´t understand much of anything that was around me. If I was attacked I defended myself. I gathered a lot of relics but never understood why or how to use them. Fortunately you could solve the game anyway. The so called auto-map in the game is very, very rough and you have to draw your own maps. The game has more similaritis with an adventure game than I would have hoped for.

I did enjoy it most of the time though. Otherwhise I wouldn´t have finished it. No area was big enough as to make me tire of the game. You will not see spinners, random encounters (every encounter is fixed!) or darkness when you walk in the dungeons. Could I recommend it ? As a different approach to traditional RPGs the answer is yes but with reservation for its weak sides.

Rating: 3.5

Ratings summary:


Section
Rating
Gameworld & Story
1,5
Economy
3
NPC & Interactions
2
Monsters, tactics & combat system
2
Magic system
3
Character generation & development
1,5
Map design
3
Manual
2
Graphics, Sound and Interface
3,5
Summary CRPG value
21,5


Gameplay
3,5 (21,5)




Helpful links:
  • DJ Oldgames: Ishar 2 resources like manual, walkthrough and other stuff
  • Another good walkthrough
  • To complement errors in written walkthroughs you might look at this let´s play

3 comments:

  1. Thanx

    for this very detailed review,
    hope to see this kind of evaluation at the end of thy Faerghail adventures.

    bye.
    elodman

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good review. I like Ishar 2 and came back to playing it after years in between. I do remember those infuriating puzzles though. I suppose there was a sense of achievement if you guessed right, but they are a bit much. The graphics back then were also amazing. Nowadays not so great!

    ReplyDelete