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From the Database of Home of the Underdogs

GAME DESIGNER:Al Escudero & David Wong

GAME DEVELOPER:Electronic Arts

GAME PUBLISHER:Electronic Arts

Copyright 1987, Al Escudero & David Wong

One of the best, largest, and most underrated RPGs ever made, Deathlord is an epic RPG from Electronic Arts that offers a unique gameworld inspired by Japanese myths, plenty of traditional exploration-based fun, and the largest map ever made for an Apple II and Commodore 64 game. Too bad the game never came out for the PC, but thanks to emulators you can now play this underdog :) Andrew Schutz’s superbly written review at says it all about why this game is a must-have for every die-hard RPG fan:

“I suppose it was a foregone conclusion that Deathlord would get squeezed by the Ultima franchise’s combination of quality and name recognition. After initial frustration building characters, it was easy to dismiss as an Ultima clone, but the further I looked into Deathlord, the more I realized it had much that Ultima didn’t. Okay, Ultima came in a box with a cloth map, a coin and an ankh, and Deathlord came in one of those minimalist disk folders. But Comparing the games is like comparing novels Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas; they have obvious similar hooks, but you are missing something if you only look at one of the works. Either is a unique, rollicking good time with tons of things to see, where you can overlook something that’s been done before. There’s enough that hasn’t. Although Deathlord probably wouldn’t shave much if it were a person and has the feel of being made by people who wear baseball hats for bad professional sports teams and say ”yo” too much, it’s intricate and challenging. It even has a cool story.

The Deathlord has begun to move south and destroy villages and threaten the safety of the world of Lorn. He’s even left you a hint: seven words, six items, and your incompetence stand in the way of your defeating him, foreshadowing the further sardonic humor you’ll find. You start off on Kodan, the largest continent, where you can explore ruins, and an introductory dungeon where you learn about secret walls and traps. They go nicely with the assorted villages and towns and the big castle in the center. It features the emperor, who unfortunately let a huge eight-level dungeon build up under his own seat of power and now wants you to destroy the evil wizard, a pawn of the Deathlord, in charge. After that you are given a free ship (otherwise they cost 10,000 gold, the most a character may hold at one time) and must explore a surprisingly huge world. It’s a 16×16 grid of mostly uninhabited 56×56 disk sectors, but there are some rather large continents you will find if you map it. The game also has 144 dungeon levels (32×32 each) and 32 towns (64×64.) Counting total squares, it dwarfs Ultima V, the publicly-acclaimed standard bearer after Deathlord appeared, and with fewer player disks–two versus SEVEN. The simple ingenious compression scheme sacrifices occasional detail for size. Technically Deathlord has over a million different squares, but even cutting discounting the huge sea sectors that serve only as a mapping headache, it is the biggest Apple game by far I have encountered. But it’s also fun.

Deathlord‘s intrigue starts when you create your characters. It’s a game with a Japanese flavor, and the races and classes are considerably different from normal. You have humans and gnomes and trolls, but there are also kobito (dwarves,) toshi (elves,) nintoshi (half-elves,) ogre (half-troll) and obake (dark elf). Then the character classes, which sound beautiful enough that I’ll indulge in a partial laundry-list: mahotsukai and genkai (offensive/defensive spell casters,) kosaku (peasants,) ryoshi and ronin (spell-casting fighters,) and shukenja (spell-casting thieves.) You even get cool icons for each class–spellcasters hold their staffs in different ways, and fighters flash a variety of different weapons, with ninjas looking especially sleek. All black and white, all cool except for the kosaku who is so useless he should probably look dumpy anyway, and the ansatsusha, a remarkably annoying NPC enemy with poison attacks. The standard items, of course, have similarly exotic names (yoroi, katana) along with the spells, and the towns and continents I know do as well.

The controls and gameplay take some getting used to, and you’ll often waste turns by hitting an invalid key if you try to play things by ear. Single-key commands are based on odd synonyms, and when you start you’ll probably first notice how you can’t walk onto Kawa using the IJKM keys–you have to (E)nter it from a direction, an oddity. However a theme I find with Deathlord is that something that initially seems awkward allows great creativity; a town surrounded by water where you navigate mazy canals would not be possible in other games with different controls, but in Deathlord, you can visit such a fascinating place. (O)rate is used to talk, (F)ind is used to search, and (R)ob seems like a stretch. What’s particularly annoying is that monsters don’t suffer the same malaise. They can move diagonally when you can’t and even attack through kitty-corner walls, are coming at you. Even worse is the command to get out of the pit; I turned the game off once because I had a hard time finding ^ even in the manual and found, twelve years later on a mailing list, I wasn’t not the only one. But most wicked of all is something that you can’t classify as a bug; when a character dies, or you’re caught committing a crime in a town (guards there have long memories,) THE GAME SAVES IMMEDIATELY. No leeway, buster. You better keep track of everyone’s hit points. Coupled with the party-killing nuisance below, you can wind up with dead adventurers quickly. There are also three nuisances that are not unveiled until later; the first is that if a character with 10,000 gold (the maximum–this ceiling prevents easy stockpiling of wealth after suicide missions in dungeons) gets more gold, it is not added to your total. So you have to pause to loot, and it isn’t easy to transfer the stuff, especially if several characters are maxed out. Looting is also inhibited when you find any one player can hold only one of each type of item at a time, so taking a new, nice-sounding item is a leap of faith. Finally the game looks first on player disk one to see where a saved game is and then to the second disk. If you reset a game(which is otherwise handy when you’re lost) while on the second disk, your characters are restored as they were when you swapped disks. Awkward. But all this seemed back-burner once I figured out how to use macros–command strings of up to fourteen letters accessible by one of four keys. Being able to rise above such details(you can also use ? as a wild-card spell search) yet having the ability to name your group makes you feel like you’re really managing the party, and I found that having to use exacting but ultimately logical instructions made me feel as if I were overcoming even greater odds.

Now it may be too corny to point out that you have to look beneath the surface to get the most of the game, as that is where you find the dungeons, the crowning jewel of the game, but each one is a mind-bender. You may be caught up in the outside world, with its different climates and neat towns frequently tucked away and the people with valuable information tucked away in those towns(sights to see: a wonderful garden maze, a temple with a water maze, and there are treasure chambers in a town and castle,) or you may even be slightly confused as to how to progress. You may even stumble on one of the items you need. Fortunately the novelty of improving my characters(also interesting as they only gain experience when they themselves get a kill!) and seeing the world didn’t grow old before I got down to mapping, which is really a necessity. Once you are able to tackle the dungeons, you’ll find some good ones.

Each dungeon teases you in a different way; entering one, you read that a word is on level seven. There’s a maze through levels one and two, with nothing on the next two, so if you try to teleport, you need TWO spells to force your way to level seven–I’ve never seen a lack of spaces toughen a dungeon so elegantly. Then there’s the Linear Dungeon which looks straightforward, but the monsters at the end are tough. Of course, you don’t know if some dungeons hold a word unless you talk to people in towns, which adds another hazard to the hack-and-slash approach. But it’s still fun to crash through the sixteen-level sunken temple or Telegrond dungeons, which are loaded with treasure, even if your characters get killed and you have to use the Character Utilities option to bring them back dead to the main continent, with an auxiliary character to go to a temple and resurrect them. In another dungeon it is easy to get to the bottom, but chutes get in the way of your return, another has several levels of rooms full of stairs that force you to climb, and another has swamps that drain your party. Of course there’s also a three-dimensional labyrinth that seems much bigger than its four levels.

Perhaps the only thing that’s truly nasty about the dungeons is how, though you aren’t killed for teleporting into rock, you are for teleporting outside the dungeon bounds–above or below. Going two levels up from level two kills you, and even in Shumi’s Tower you may suspect a trick on the game’s part, teleport up to get to level four and–OOPS! Still, there is usually a chance you can stumble on a solution through guesswork or even brute force or getting a general hold on the map; I remember walking on water to find something, then finding a secret door on the island and feeling sheepish. I also teleported extensively to find a word (the process of elimination was its own puzzle, and I saw it through an unbreakable portcullis in the process) but walking backwards I was able to see how cleverly it was hidden. The final puzzle is a bit of a letdown for hard-core abstract puzzle fans, as you must bash your way through a sixteen-level dungeon and unique tough monsters to fight the Deathlord, but it’s still as impressive and draining as you’d expect.

Yet tough puzzles might make the game too dry; there’s always laconic humor in Deathlord. In the towns, people don’t waste words(it also helps save memory.) Open a door and talk to someone before they attack you; ‘DIE!’ Verbose types may say ‘DIE SCUM!’ or ‘HOLY WAR!’ The best people to talk to say ‘PAY UP!’ although some shills just thank you for the gold afterwards. And guards don’t talk at all, not even if you chat(seven canned responses there.) Signs spread about also contribute to the humor; in one dungeon, after opening twenty or so doors, you reach a plaque hoping to find a word, but you get two: ‘DOOR STORAGE.’ Skeletons defend a graveyard labeled NURSERY. In a huge pit of fire you read a list of sauna rules, and on the other end of the thermometer, a set of FROZEN STORAGE rooms pushes tasteless. Hidden pits guard urns in a temple; cross over to find they’re empty and you read a plaque saying ‘GREED IS A SIN. REPENT!’ There’s a cruel joke (‘See you on level 21′) in the sunken temple a few levels below a congregation of rabid vegetables, and there’s even an unbreakable gate that bars stairs down on the bottom level of a dungeon. You’ll get suddenly teleported in sight of your goal if you try to take the easy way out. There’s also irony; often you’ll stumble through, unable to find a secret door, and a monster will pass through it. You’ll run into a lot of reverse logic and seeing how you could have gotten through a dungeon more easily and bang your head a bit. Even when you solve a puzzle, Deathlord can leave you feeling outsmarted.

Overall, Deathlord is a challenging, teasing game. From learning the ropes to my first time looting a town to discovering dungeons to finding items and then words, the game had many levels of discovery and more shelf life than I thought it would. I was playing it eagerly long after Ultima IV, where I was stuck on the final part of the Stygian Abyss, became a neat map on my cork-board and a cool coin in my disk. I am disappointed that a sequel never came about. Hearing that Deathlord was originally planned with a Norse theme makes me wonder about a future game that could have been, and it’s too bad that this game never really caught on.”

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