|The compass in the upper-left corner turns out to be somewhat ironic.|
Between 1978 and 1983, computer RPGs slowly defined themselves. We saw a host of proto-RPGs plus a few landmark games like Ultima, Wizardry, and Ultima III that stood so much taller than other titles that they established the standards for the rest of the decade.
As we come to the end of 1984, it feels like a year that has keenly felt the influence of these giants but that doesn't yet understand what made them good. It is a year full of disastrous experiments that, at best, dumbed down the mechanics of the source games and that, at worst, made them almost completely unplayable. You can almost hear the developers' enthusiasm as they say, "Hey, why don't we make a game like Wizardry, but with ___________!" But whether they filled in that blank with "text commands!" (Shadowkeep), "cute portraits and the ability to remove helmets!" (The Black Onyx), "a big quiz at the end!" (The Standing Stones), or "and endgame that changes all the rules!" (Tyrann), the results were far worse than the original game. Questron is an almost-exception, making a mess of Ultima's mechanics but ultimately producing a better story. With the exception of the brief and unwelcome branch of gamebook adaptations, almost every game in 1984 has an obvious pre-1984 source game and, in all cases, under-performed those sources.
Xyphus's obvious inspiration is Exodus: Ultima III, one of the first top-down RPGs to feature multiple characters and a tactical combat system in which characters move and act independently. (It may have been the first, but Galactic Adventures and Expedition Amazon came out the same year and had some of the same elements; it's hard to determine exact release order today.) As is the norm during the period, Xyphus simplifies many of its source's mechanics: three races instead of five; two classes instead of eleven; a simpler inventory system; no separate first-person dungeon system; no dialogue system; menu towns instead of explorable towns; and the combat system integrated into the same window as exploration.
But the developers had to fill in that blank somehow, and what they came up with was "hexagonal movement!" No simple NESW or arrow-key navigation for this game; instead, you get to master the venerable YHBVFT cluster, corresponding with the ability to move northeast, east, southeast, southwest, west, and northwest, but not north and south.
|The party gets a hint. Crossing that bridge was a lot of messing about with individual characters.|
Hex maps had been used for years in wargames and strategy board games and must have seemed like a good idea at the idea at the time. But five minutes with Xyphus demonstrates the superiority of the square for tile-based computer games. Hexes--and they aren't real hexes anyway, but offset rectangles--add absolutely nothing to the gameplay but to force the player to pause and think before doing something as simple as moving one square. I normally like to play a game with the same interface that the original players had, but the key cluster used for movement in this game is so non-intuitive that the camel's back broke and I installed AutoHotkey. I plan to learn it in time for my next session.
Xyphus's manual aspires to Ultima III's complexity when it comes to the backstory and the vivid descriptions of monsters and spells. Aspires but does not achieve, I should say; Penguin had nothing on Origin when it came to production values. But as a footnote that we'll explore in more detail next time, one of the co-authors of Xyphus, Dave Albert, would soon leave Penguin for Origin Systems, where among other things he would end up writing the Book of Mystic Wisdom for Ultima IV.
|Decent illustrations accompany monster descriptions in the game manual.|
Xyphus is Greek for "sword," and the game's backstory has echoes of Greek mythology. Ten thousand years ago, a demon lord named Xyphus was defeated when an archmage named Szhaalin ripped out his heart. Droplets of the demon's blood formed into various breeds of goblins and hellhounds, and pieces of his ruptured heart formed sword-shaped amulets "from whence all magic springs." The demon retreated to the caverns beneath the continent of Arroya to "languish in eternal pain." The continent became overwhelmed with beasts, poisonous creatures, and undead, and men learned to stay away.
Fast forward to the present day, and most of the world has been conquered by a warlord named Das, who has brought order and justice, "albeit with the edge of the sword and the purification of the torch." He has been unable to conquer Arroya, but prophecy holds that a band of humans, elves, and dwarves can conquer the continent and defeat the demon lord once and for all. Das has promised a kingdom to those who succeed.
You adventure with up to four characters from elf, dwarf, and human races and fighter or spellcaster classes. There are no attributes and no other options in character creation except the name. Apparently, you can go with fewer than four, but the game warns you during creation that you need at least one elf and one dwarf, so two is the minimum.
|The totality of character creation.|
Gameplay is organized into 6 "scenarios," each with an objective that you must complete before moving to the next one. The game warns you that it can take between 3 and 12 hours to complete each scenario, which I mentally halve based on improved loading speeds alone. Scenario One's goal is simply to reach a fortress on the far side of a multi-screen map.
|A title card begins each scenario.|
Characters move independently across the game map. Already difficult because of the hexagons, movement is further complicated by variable movement speeds between different races and classes, by the tendency of characters to run into each other, and by terrain (e.g., one-square bridges over water) that forces you to micromanage your characters into a particular formation. The game's one concession to ease is to allow you to move all characters in one direction at the same time by holding down the CTRL key (TAB in the VICE emulator).
Theoretically, I like the idea of allowing your party to split up and visit different corners of the map. Practically, you really need to keep the party together, at least in the first map. Combat is too hard to attempt independent exploration, and some enemies are immune to normal weapons, so you need a character with a magic weapon or spell handy.
Various artifact items, including weapons, spells, and "Xiphoid amulets," are scattered about the map, and it appears that you can always see them as long as they're on the same screen--that is, you don't have to walk over every tile. Monsters, on the other hand, are hidden until you approach their squares. There might be a bunch of them hidden within the same group of tiles, so you have to be careful about blundering about too quickly. Best to explore slowly and lure them to the party one-by-one.
|The four characters surround and defeat a centaur. On a peninsula to the south, another enemy awaits next to a treasure.|
Combat proceeds in turns, but characters don't have many options except to attack or flee. Spells are expensive and costly to endurance, so casting them is a pretty rare thing, at least in the first scenario. My attacks seem to hit about 50% of the time and do predictable damage depending on the type of weapon and type of enemy. For instance, maces always do 2 points of damage to most enemies and Xiphoid amulets (with both enable spellcasting and can be wielded like a dagger) do 1 to most enemies but 3 to hawkmen.
Characters start with 12 hit points each. Resting restores hit points quickly and costs you nothing, so it's easy to rest up between battles. Resting during battles is possible, but it takes the character out of commission for a few rounds and leaves him vulnerable to attacks. Characters have a fatigue meter in addition to hit points, and it depletes as you attack and cast spells but replenishes when you rest or walk. Death appears to be permanent, but you can save and reload the game on any square.
|Time to reload!|
Monsters are a mix of D&D standards (ghouls, hobgoblins, mimics) and original or semi-original creations (ice dragons, sand asps, toothpaws), including several different breeds of goblins and orcs. Many are immune to normal weapons. Since the first map doesn't have much in the way of magical weapons (Xiphoid amulets only do 1 hit point of damage at a time), you have to take care of some with spells. In particular, a pack of werewolves took my party apart until I found a city selling "Bendicca" spells, which kill them specifically. It appears that enemies don't re-spawn, meaning there's a fixed amount of experience and gold across all the scenarios. Successful parties probably explore each map exhaustively.
|A party member finds an important artifact.|
I do like the game's approach to distributing gold and experience after battles. Where most games either give them to the character who struck the killing blow (Ultima IV) or distribute them evenly among party members (the default), Xyphus adopts a hybrid: the character who actually killed the enemy gets twice what everyone else gets. Despite having amassed more than 1,200 experience points per character, I haven't leveled up yet, and I'm not even sure what leveling up does for you.
|In the midst of battling a bunch of "toothpaws," Kranos kills one and gets more of the resulting experience.|
The landscape is dotted with towns that sell weapons, armor, and spells. Armor progresses in a linear manner from shields to magic "veils" (each new item is supposed to augment, rather than supplant, the previous item). For weapons, you can have multiple in your inventory at a time and switch among them. There seems to be no way to trade items or gold among party members, so you have to be extra careful how you spend it.
|A character looks over the armor selection in a shop.|
I've barely scratched the spell system. The manual offers 6 attack spells, 3 hindrance spells, and 2 healing spells but says there might be more. Most of the spell names are simply their effects in (sometimes slightly modified) Spanish: Ciega blinds foes; piedra petrifies them; abeja ("bee") produces welts; matamosca ("fly swatter") is an attack spell.
In the first scenario, I fully explored the map, died and reloaded a lot, and killed a couple dozen pumas, centaurs, bandits, toothpaws, werefalcons, stone golems, and giant slugs. I found three Xiphoid amulets, a handful of spells not mentioned in the manual, and a long sword +2.
|Reaching the end of the scenario.|
Once I reached the outpost on the far side of the map, the scenario ended and I was taken to the second scenario, where I received a mission to travel to a second fort and warn them about goblin raids. I haven't explored it very far yet. The first scenario took about 3 hours, so if that's average we're looking at an 18 hour game. I don't much want to do it, but it's tolerable if I have a TV show going in the background.
|And on to scenario 2!|
Xyphus isn't a bad game. It probably would have been a joy on my C64 when it was new and I only bought 3 or 4 games a year. It just doesn't stand up well in the modern era, when we have access to the entire historical catalog of RPGs and can choose from a host of titles from the same era that either are one of the best titles of the time or that, if they're clones of such games, at least clone them better.