|I kinda love the weird blacklight aesthetic
of the Dnjonquest manuals.
Late last year I played through The Temple of Apshai, the first game in the Dunjonquest series. Aside from being the beginning of the first CRPG series, The Temple of Apshai is also the first CRPG on home computers that's come close to feeling like it belongs to the genre as it would develop. It's not quite there yet - there are an awful lot of shortcuts and odd kludges that it makes to achieve its goals - but Temple of Apshai was a more complete RPG experience than pretty much any home computer game of its era.
Datestones of Ryn - still developed by the trio of Jon Freeman, Jeffrey Johnson and Jim Connelley - is the second game in the series, and uses the same engine. A lot of the clumsier elements of the original game have been stripped out. There are no room descriptions or treasure values to be looked up in the manual, and no need for the player to record their own stats and experience. Instead, those elements have been stripped out for a slightly more arcade-like experience, as the player must race the clock while searching the dungeon for the titular datestones.
|The title screen of the TRS-80 version.
There's no character creation either, as the player controls the mercenary Brian Hammerhand, who was the protagonist of the short story that featured in Temple of Apshai's manual. A robber band led by the notorious Rex the Reaver has stolen into the capitol of the Duchy of Ryn, and made off with the treasured datestones. The robbers fled to their caves in the Haunted Mountains, pursued by the Duke's Cavalry. With nightfall approaching, it looked as though the robbers might escape under the cover of darkness. Time was of the essence, but a frontal assault was deemed too dangerous. Instead, it was decided that one soldier would be sent in, to try to retrieve the datestones by stealth. That soldier, having drawn the short straw, is Brian Hammerhand.
|Brian Hammerhand's stats and equipment, which are
the same in every game.
The player has 20 minutes to get in, find as many of the datestones as possible, and get out before the time limit expires. Points are given for monsters defeated, as well as datestones retrieved, but the points for the datestones only count if you manage to get them back to the entrance. Points are also given for the head of Rex the Reaver, though I'm not sure if you need to take that back to the entrance to score.
In terms of graphics and controls, this is exactly the same as Temple of Apshai. Movement is done by turning (L)eft or (R)ight, and pressing a number for the distance to be moved. Fatigue is a big factor. The faster you move the more tired you get, and this can be vital when it comes time to fight. In combat, you can (A)ttack, (T)hrust or (P)arry. Thrusting uses more stamina and does more damage, while parrying uses less stamina and does less damage. Getting low on stamina is a death sentence, and managing it is the most important part of the game.
|Firing missiles at... something. The game doesn't always
tell you what type of monster you're fighting.
You can also fire arrows, although you only have 20, plus 2 magic arrows. They're handy when enemies are far away, but more often than not I found that they spawn so close that there's no chance to use them. You can also talk to enemies, which might decide to let you pass safely, but I never had any success with that in this game.
As you'd expect in a game with such a small time limit, the dungeon in Datestones of Ryn is pretty compact (a mere nine rooms in total). Every room contains some sort of monster, as do the corridors, although some of them vary from game to game. While playing this game I encountered swamp rats, centipedes, spiders, skeletons, and robbers, as well as Rex the Reaver himself. None of them are particularly tough - most will die in one or two hits - but there are enough that attrition will eventually wear you down unless you're very lucky. You begin with one healing elixir, which heals around 20-40% of your wounds, but that doesn't go far.
In my first game, I got really lucky, and carved my way through the caves while barely taking a scratch. I found a magic sword in one of the northernmost rooms, and managed to retrieve around 20 of the datestones before my timer ran out. I hadn't read the manual at that point, so I didn't know how long I had. Subsequent games did not go so well, as I found myself dying a lot, but after about a half-dozen games I had mapped the whole complex and figured out that there were 36 datestones in total. I also found a secret door in the same room as the magic sword, which made it much easier to hit all of the rooms within the time limit. On my 7th or 8th attempt I was able to find all of the datestones (fleeing from some rooms before killing everything, to save time), kill Rex the Reaver, and escape the caves within the time limit. This got me a score of 4,626.
|You can leave and re-enter the dungeon, but given the
tight time limit, and the fact that it gives you no healing,
it's hard to see the benefit.
Datestones of Ryn is certainly more user-friendly than its predecessor: there's no fiddling around with manuals, no need to keep a record of your statistics and treasure, and no switching to a different program for character creation. Still, those are the things that allowed Temple of Apshai to approximate a proper CRPG. The room descriptions in the manual gave the dungeons a flavour that went beyond the stark black and white walls that the TRS-80 was capable of rendering. Writing your stats down at least gave you some ability to develop a character, even if the system could be horribly abused. Datestones might be more immediately playable, but its a much slighter experience.
PORTS OF CALL:
I tried to find the Apple II, Atari 8-bit and Commodore PET versions of this game, but I couldn't get any of them to work. I doubt they are much different, although the Apple and Atari versions certainly look a lot better.
Story & Setting: The caves that the game takes place in aren't up to much, but the backstory in the manual is decently written. If nothing else, they give the sense that the creators would have run a pretty good D&D campaign. Rating: 2 out of 7.
Characters & Monsters: Datestones has a solid collection of monsters for such a small game, but none of them really seem all that different from each other. I'm sure that under the hood they all have different attack and defense values, but on the surface fighting a robber, a wolf or a spider pretty much amount to the same thing. Rating: 2 out of 7.
Aesthetics: I'm going to drop a hard truth on you TRS-80 lovers out there: the games on this platform are ugly as hell. Rating: 1 out of 7.
Combat: This game retains the solid, rudimentary combat system of The Temple of Apshai. It's simple, but the need to track your fatigue gives it an extra element, as does the ability to flee and use missile weapons. Rating: 2 out of 7.
Mechanics: I gave The Temple of Apshai a 4 in this category, which might have been pushing things. I think I was impressed by what it allowed, while downplaying its faults. I also played it with the speed cranked up, which mitigates the engine's worst feature: the incredibly slow drawing speed of each room. Mechanically, Datestones of Ryn is much the same, but without the need to consult the manual the gameplay runs a little smoother. Still, it's not enough to put it over a game I probably overrated in the first place. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Challenge: Given that I beat this game in a little more than half a dozen tries, it definitely fall into the "too easy" category. On top of that, the challenge it provides is very random; I'd be more likely to die in combat due to bad luck than to succeed, regardless of any tactics employed. Rating: 2 out of 7.
Fun: I didn't get a lot out of this one. The things that it strips out are the things I enjoy about CRPGs, and I'm certainly not looking for a more arcade-like experience from the genre. Rating: 1 out of 7.
Bonus Points: 0. I considered giving this a point for being the first CRPG sequel, but I decided against it. It might be the first sequel, but it's also the first dashed off, uninspired sequel, and I'm not giving it points for that.
The above scores total 14, which doubled gives a RADNESS Index of 28. That puts it equal 33rd overall, and equal 13th out of 22 adventure games. It's level with Akalabeth, which would have better gameplay if it wasn't so fundamentally broken. At best, it's a distraction if you're looking to fill in an hour or so, but on that level it's hardly worth the time it takes to get it running in an emulator,
NEXT: It's back to my priority list, for one of the all time classics of the era: Ultima!