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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (291)

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Doki Doki Literature Cl... 3.5/5
Quest for Infamy 2/5
Neutopia 4.5/5
Divinity: Original Sin ... 5/5
Infested 4.5/5
Battleborn 3/5
Dungeon Master II: The ... 3.5/5
Pop'n TwinBee: Rainbow ... 4.5/5
MARIO & LUIGI 2.5/5
Little Samson 3.5/5
Tales from the Borderla... 4/5
Beyond Shadowgate 3/5
RetroArch 5/5
Radical Dreamers: Le Tr... 3.5/5
Toilet Kids 3/5
Detana!! TwinBee ( Bell... 3.5/5
Titan Quest ( Titan Que... 2/5
Pop'n TwinBee 3.5/5
Mother 3 ( EarthBound 2... 4.5/5
Star Trek Timelines 3/5
Do-Re-Mi Fantasy: Milon... 3.5/5
Bahamut Lagoon 4.5/5
Dungeon Defenders II 3/5
Deus Ex: Human Revoluti... 3/5
Lara Croft and the Guar... 4.5/5

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Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep   PC 

A 22-Year Case of Blueballs    3.5/5 stars

My long, rambling history with “Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep” (“DM2”) began 22 years ago when I bought the game at launch from Babbages. I loved the original “Dungeon Master,” of which I played the SNES port, and I loved the ‘Eye of the Beholder’ trilogy, of which I played the SNES port of the first game, then replayed it and its sequels on PC after taking my old IBM to the Computer Resource Center at the local university and having the elite geek gurus there help me beat it into submission and force it to play games that it refused to play when I asked it nicely.

I loved these first-person Dungeon Crawlers for their unorthodox blend of abstract, RPG-style combat, maze exploration, and Adventure game-style point-and-click puzzles. Sometime in 1996, I was partway through “DM2” and had just bought the official strategy guide when the unthinkable happened: A friend convinced me to upgrade from DOS/Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. As a result, “DM2” never ran for me again and I was unable to finish it.

Over the years, the fact that I was unable to finish “DM2” boiled into a fermenting obsession. It was one of the lodestones that caused my hatred of ‘90s-era PC gaming to build to a breaking point, leading to a decade of near complete apostasy. Yet, at the same time, every time I heard about new software, like FreeDOS or DOSbox, that would enable the use of DOS software on current versions of Windows or via a virtual machine, I would feverishly dig out my old “DM2” box and try to make the game work again, never with significant results. The furthest I managed to go with these solutions was the title screen with a non-functional mouse cursor. Usually they’d just crash after the opening cinematic.

As frequent MeltedJoystick readers know, I have become completely enamored with the RetroArch emulation platform, which uses a plug-in-like Core system to emulate different old hardware platforms. One of these Cores happens to be DOSbox, but after those experiments with DOSbox years ago left me cold, I didn’t get my hopes up of significant improvements…

…But this is the friggin’ LIBRETRO TEAM we’re talking about here! These people make every emulator better than it was before as they transform it from stand-alone executable to Core. After trying some simple DOS games by Wiering Software in RetroArch’s DOSbox Core and discovering that they actually worked, and learning that RetroArch’s DOSbox Core has a full-blown controller mapper built right into it, I dared to dream again.

I copied the “DM2” folder off my network drive, where it had sat, taunting me with its refusal to run for over a decade after I’d ripped it off my original installer CD-ROM, into RetroArch’s DOSbox content directory. I pointed the DOSbox Core at DM2.bat and expected to be disappointed. Again. I saw the FTL logo. I watched the opening Skullkeep cutscene. I saw the title screen. Gingerly, I touched the right analog stick on my XBONE controller.

The mouse moved.

I nearly soiled myself as white-hot man-tears of joy bubbled down my cheeks. “DM2” was alive again, and this time I wasn’t going to stop until I was done. Three days, two 4AM bedtimes and one 5AM bedtime later, it was finished… but was it worth all of the waiting and anticipation and angst?

Presentation
I was generally quite isolated from PC game reviews during the ‘90s. I had a Nintendo Power subscription and later replaced it with a subscription to Electronic Gaming Monthly once Nintendo abandoned the SNES for the abominable N64. Therefore, I didn’t see any official reviews of “DM2,” which I have discovered in hindsight, and they generally aren’t very flattering, especially regarding the game’s presentation. These contemporary reviews typically bag on “DM2” for being ‘slow,’ ‘cumbersome,’ and ‘not technologically advanced.’ I actually find these to be excellent qualities for a sequel like “DM2,” as the innuendo behind these contemporary reviews is that the reviewers wanted or expected “DM2” to be less like “Dungeon Master” and more like other contemporary first-person no-longer-quite-RPGs, like “Ultima Underworld” or “Elder Scrolls: Arena,” which misguidedly adopted aspects from the virulently common early First-Person Shooters.

As a result of its presentational ‘deficiencies,’ “DM2” is very identifiable as a sequel to “Dungeon Master” and the inspiration for the revival series, ‘Legend of Grimrock.’ Everything in the world is built on a grid made of squares. Every grid is surrounded by sprite-based walls, floors, and sometimes ceilings. Interestingly, whereas the original “Dungeon Master” and its lesser-known spinoffs take place entirely inside brown-and-gray dungeon corridors, “DM2” starts off with the player’s team of intrepid heroes exploring a huge outdoor hedge maze instead. A dark, stormy sky looms overhead, with random downpours which feature both animated rain and accumulating puddles on the ground.

Enemy designs in “DM2” are a significant step-up from earlier ‘Dungeon Master’ titles, and look stylistically very similar to the cartoon stylings of “Dragon’s Lair.” The only truly unfortunate thing about “DM2’s” visual presentation is the lack of enemy animation frames. When enemies die, they do have a rather nice collapsing animation, but when they move or attack, they are limited to something like 2-4 frames of motion, which does indeed look choppy and sluggish.

The audio in “DM2” is a mix of digitized sound effects for enemies (each enemy type has a distinctive ‘moving around’ noise, to cue the player in as to what types of foes are nearby), spells, attacks, etc., with synthesized MIDI for the background music. The soundtrack is fairly minimal, but is quite pleasant, as each area can be either completely silent or suddenly flare to life with music. The fact that the soundtrack is still MIDI in a game that was distributed on CD-ROM seems pointless (the entire game weighs in at less than 30MB). Certain sound effects really stand out in a game of this age. The way the merchants in “DM2” wordlessly mumble ‘Mmm hmm’ or ‘Uh uh,’ when haggling and the way the dwarven thieves shout, “MINE!” as they pillage the party’s held items are incredibly distinctive, and went a long way in cementing this game in my memory.

Technically… well. Yeah. If you read the introduction, you’ll know that “DM2” is a massive pain in the ass to run. But ultimately, the RetroArch DOSbox Core did the trick quite well, even providing easily adjustable clock-speeds and mappable controller inputs. One major downside to playing any typing-centric games in RetroArch’s DOSbox Core is the fact that RetroArch nonsensically assigns a lot of functionality hotkeys to keyboard keys, without requiring any sort of extra function key to he held down in order to trigger them. As a result, I ended up fast forwarding, slow motioning, recording, and all manner of other weirdness while simply trying to run the setup.exe application in order to assign SoundBlaster Pro for the game’s audio.

Story
These Dungeon Crawlers are typically fairly light on the story in favor of pushing lots of puzzles and other distractions in the player’s face. “DM2” at first glance seems to have no story at all…

…But there is a fairly fat manual that comes in the box…

Pages 4-14 of the game’s manual detail the backstory and premise. It seems that one Torham Zed, of the House of Zed, has been assigned by his Uncle, a presiding wizard on the World Council, to patrol the area around a remote, abandoned fortress called Skullkeep. Having been demoted for the purpose of leading a group of ragtag warriors to this godforsaken region during the Season of Storms, when most of the locals have migrated to drier, sunnier residences, Torham is obviously resentful.

A conversation with an elderly local and the appearance of numerous Attack Minions (floating, spiky balls that shoot lightning and are EXTREMELY ANNOYING) convinces Torham that maybe his Uncle’s visions of an ancient evil trying to reestablish a long-dead link to other worlds using abandoned TechMagickal machinery inside Skullkeep might not all be the delusions of an elderly mind. Choosing three of his companions, Torham sets out to find a way into Skullkeep to stop the doom from his Uncle’s visions.

This doom is none other than one Dragoth, a large, blue, orcish-looking individual in the service of Lord Chaos, the omnipresent evil mastermind behind the dungeons in the ‘Dungeon Master’ series. Unfortunately for the sake of the narrative, Dragoth and Chaos aren’t really established in-game, nor in-narrative via the instruction manual’s story bits, but are merely presented matter-of-factly as being the player’s main opponents on the page after the introductory story.

There is, rather unfortunately, no cutscene intro for “DM2,” other than an image of a castle sitting on a cliff with the word ‘SKULLKEEP’ erupting from the stone below it (which provides no narrative value). There is, however and quite fortunately, a nice outro cutscene that plays after defeating the final boss, which is high quality and mildly amusing.

Gameplay
If you have played a grid-based point-and-click Dungeon Crawler, you’ll know what’s up with “DM2,” as it is fairly by-the-books in regard to its genre. The player has a party of up to four characters who march in a close box formation (2 in front, 2 in back). The player can click on items and environmental objects to interact with them or pick them up, while the party of characters can carry a limited number of items in their inventories, while also equipping gear in the standard allotment of equipment slots (head, necklace, chest, legs, feet, mainhand, offhand). The player is tasked with solving puzzles and defeating enemies as the party stumbles across them.

When I played “DM2” in 1995/96, I thought I was about 1/3 of the way through it before I lost the ability to play it anymore. Unfortunately, I was actually closer to 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through the game, which was something of a letdown. See, “DM2” doesn’t have nearly the density or complexity of puzzles as other ‘Dungeon Master’ titles. Hell, the original “Dungeon Master” is all just one big string of puzzles, occasionally broken-up by some easy combat with a couple of near-impossible boss battles at the end. “DM2,” on the other hand, is fairly light on puzzles, most of them fairly uninteresting sequences of ‘find the key.’ Still, the game does last somewhere between 20-30 hours… which can be influenced heavily by how much time the player spends grinding.

Roughly the first half of “DM2” consists of exploring a large hedge maze outside of the ruined castle Skullkeep (playing ‘find the key’). Upon exploring four different areas, the player will have assembled the key crest that allows them to enter Skullkeep proper. At this point, the player must first reach the ancient machinery that will summon a thing called the Zo-Link (a dimensional portal), then figure out how to turn it on in order to enter a nebulous limbo between worlds where Dragoth is martialing his forces.

Likewise in an inversion of its predecessor, “DM2” features TONS of enemies, and these enemies respawn infinitely and far too quickly for their own good. The number of respawning enemies got to the point where I’d clear an area of foes only to have more appear immediately as I tried to explore the locale un-harried. I quickly came to the conclusion that killing enemies was pointless, and it was better to just avoid them most of the time (especially while wearing crappy starter gear). The constant enemy spam becomes even more intolerable toward the end of the game when the green Attack Minions that appear in the manual’s introductory story begin to pour out of Skullkeep in a seemingly-endless stream, making it difficult to even stop and think about any of the game’s few thought-provoking puzzles without having to interrupt one’s reverie in order to do ‘the dance’ (the traditional side-stepping, pot-shot-taking movement employed against difficult/dangerous enemies in a grid-based first-person RPG) with a Minion. Or two. Or THREE. The Minion spam ultimately comes to a head during the final battle with Dragoth… who SUMMONS the damned things to the point where half a dozen of them are buzzing around, shooting lightning everywhere, and becoming completely unavoidable.

While the bulk of the traditional Dungeon Crawler gameplay is a step-down from the original “Dungeon Master,” a lot of it remains the same. Characters each have four character classes to earn ranks in, and they rank-up simply by doing things associated with those classes. Swinging melee weapons helps Fighters, using projectiles or fighting bare-fisted helps Ninjas, casting buffs and brewing potions helps Priests, and throwing offensive magic around helps Wizards. Each of the 15 possible party members has different stats and aptitudes, but unlike the original “Dungeon Master,” can’t be reincarnated to start from scratch, but only come as-is. Characters also have to deal with hunger and thirst meters. Oddly, even though I had Torham carry around 5 friggin’ waterskins for 95% of the game, nobody ever once used them, as there are plenty of fountains scattered around from which characters can drink directly. Running out of food is a constant threat up until the point where the party is able to take down Thorn Demons (which I call ‘Steak Beasts’), which, like every other enemy, respawn infinitely and produce tons of delicious food upon death. The convoluted symbol-based magic system from the original “Dungeon Master” is back, and the game seems extra cryptic about handing out spell recipes, making a guide (or just copying spells off of nonsensical potion names at the magic shop) necessary for magical success.

One major, and rather interesting, improvement found in “DM2” that was never in the previous ‘Dungeon Master’ games is a map. No! Not a nice, modern, user-friendly auto-map! “DM2” contains a number of Magic Map items that show the player their immediate vicinity and offer a variety of extra functionality, provided the character reading the map has the mana for it. The first Magic Map is just a basic map that shows a 7x7 grid around the player’s location. The next Magic Map features four obfuscated functions accessed via runic buttons (one shows enemy locations, one shows SECRETS(!), one shows projectiles, and the last shows… I think the small magic rocks created by a specific spell). The third (and most useful) Magic Map has all the functionality of the first two, but adds the ability to summon an eyeball minion to scout ahead. The fourth and final Magic Map is situational and used to solve exactly one puzzle… so yeah. Magic Map 3.0 is a wonderful addition to traditional dungeon crawling without ‘ruining’ the ‘challenge’ for that particular breed of hard-headed gamer who hates auto-maps.

The most significant improvement, and the single most memorable thing about “DM2” that no other Dungeon Crawler seems to have done yet, is the inclusion of merchants. These pointy-eared giants stand behind tables in stores scattered around the Skullkeep environs and peddle various wares. There are merchants specializing in weapons, armor, clothing (read: light armor), magic items, and basic tools. Each merchant will only buy items in their wheelhouse, and they sell a rather wide selection of things in their wheelhouse. Merchants can be paid in gems/coins that the player either finds scattered around or obtains by selling items to merchants, however, they can also barter, allowing the player to directly swap a piece of equipment they no longer need for a new piece of equipment, and possibly getting a better deal out of it. These merchants can also be bargained with, as placing an amount of payment less than required on their table will cause them to utter a “humph” as they consider the offer. I loved the merchant system in “DM2” when I played it back in 1995, and it still stands out as one of the most well-done and unique aspects of the game.

Unfortunately, as much fun as it is to swap cool-looking gear with grumpy-looking merchants, the gear system is just as opaque and annoying as the magic system. Instead of showing what stats an item has before buying it, the player needs to have an item in-hand and have a character look at it in order to see its strength… and this isn’t a nice, straight-forward numerical strength stat, but is instead presented as a bar that is filled more as items go from ‘weak’ to ‘strong.’ I was infinitely happy to have my old “Dungeon Master II Official Adventurer’s Guide” by John Withers next to me, as it saved me hours of tedium while gearing up my party by simply providing comparable stats for items. Sometimes I think old games made themselves opaque expressly for the sake of selling strategy guides as a kind of Dead Tree DLC…

Overall
After more than two decades of waiting, I finally experienced the sweet release of playing all the way through “Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep.” While removing the haunting specter of this uncompleted game is a great personal relief to me, finally experiencing the entire thing and seeing how many flaws crept in toward the end of the game left me ultimately disappointed. “DM2” is still a good game, and far better than contemporary reviewers gave it credit for being, but it is still riddled with annoyances that prevent it from being the definitive ‘Dungeon Master’ experience, let alone the definitive Dungeon Crawler.

Presentation: 4/5
Story: 2.5/5
Gameplay: 3.5/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5

 

 


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