Destiny of the Spheres
Posted 26 June 2013 - 03:05 PM Destiny of the Spheres
Author: Brett Bixler
Composite Score: Not reviewed yet.
Posted 26 June 2013 - 03:07 PM Destiny of the Spheres
“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for...”
Warning!! Spoilers for Destiny of the Spheres lie ahead!
A long review for a long scenario... Where to begin?
Most avid BOErs know Brett Bixler for his first two excellent scenarios — The Riddle of the Spheres, which was one of the first truly high quality Blades scenarios, and Quests of the Spheres, which placed 2nd in Spiderweb’s Scenario design contest. Designed as a trilogy, fans of Mr. Bixler have been waiting with baited breath for the release of the conclusion to the scenario. They’ve gotten their wish, Destiny is here.
In a certain sense, Destiny picks up where Quests left off... Your party finds itself in “The Ribbon”, the home of the D’kar, with no contacts, few resources, and a seemingly impossible mission — destroy the threat the D’kar pose to the Empire, the Spheres, and your entire Realm! Destiny is one of the largest BOE scenarios ever, Brett has said it took 9 months to complete, and it would be impossible to address it holistically in a single paragraph. Rather than futilely try, I shall break the scenario down into the segments as I perceive them.
A. The four unique features — Throughout Destiny, four interesting features surface time and again.
1. A lack of water. The entire scenario takes place in an area called “The Ribbon”, devoid of virtually all water. Your party can carry up to 10 units of water, every so often, you’ll consume one. Don’t have any — you’ll take damage. Don’t have any for some time — you’ll die. There are several permanent places where you can refill your water supply, and many one shot stops.
All said, the lack of water is, without a doubt, the BEST feature of the scenario. It adds a sense of urgency to EVERY situation, that would otherwise be lacking most of the time. While exploring the abandoned mine, normally I just would have been annoyed at the perpetual disease feature. With the water, I could hear the clock in the back of my head... Tick, tock... Tick, tock... Only 2 units left...
This feature could have been made a bit better — it would have been nice to find certain items that could have increased my water carrying capacity (I kept thinking of energy tanks in “Metroid”), but that’s just a minor quibble. It’s a great feature, one I thoroughly enjoyed.
2. Null. Null is a creature that pops up every so often, his creator taunts you, you fight it, and then it disappears. You have to kill it five times before you can go kill its creator. It’s not all that tough (fought in isolation, it’s just a decent bruiser, no match for the high level party the scenario requires), and not all that interesting. The taunts are repetitive, and could be found in thirty other scenarios. It’s not a great aspect.
3. The power of music. Every so often, you can use the power of music. It produces random positive effects, but takes awhile to recharge itself. In certain areas, it can produce specific positive effects, which can be very useful, if not vital, to surviving the situation. It’s a fair feature, but nothing extraordinary.
4. The ring of disguise. Being in enemy territory, you probably couldn’t enter many enemy areas without being attacked, right? Not so. With the ring of disguise, you can enter certain enemy locations, under the guise of a metal man, providing you find it that is. This is a decent feature, that had a lot more potential. It doesn’t work in any important dungeon, and it would have been nice to destroy one of the principal foes largely through stealth rather than strength. Still, quite a fun concept, most of the time.
B. Scenario Aesthetics — To be honest, this isn’t a pretty looking scenario. Most of the graphics have been overhauled — the entire “Ribbon” takes place on an overhauled terrain set. Unfortunately, the terrain set is very limited — it gets old fast, and is not very imaginative. It looks essentially as if you’ve just turned the tint way too far one way. It’s not too big of a problem, but it’s certainly not a boon. In the end, it comes off as being different for the sake of being different, and nothing more.
What’s worse — the scenario has a ton of random outdoor encounters. As the BOE Engine doesn’t recognize the terrain, it places the party in random cave terrain. The history file reads,
“Custom, wandering outside monsters appear a random pieces of terrain and/or monsters that randomly change as they move about. I can’t fix this; it’s a BoE bug.”
Well, as much as I appreciate the attempted Jedi Mind trick, actually you can fix this. It’s not easy, granted, but it’s still quite an eyesore. Even beyond that, I’d expect a scenario of high quality to at least try to minimize this flaw, but rather than limit the number of outdoor encounters, I was swamped with them! To add insult to injury, half the time the random terrain set called up a nice little lake or pool of water! I’m dying of thirst here, and the game is taunting me!
The visual downside doesn’t end there. Many cave walls are left unformatted, not a big problem in isolated incidents, but repeated exposure can certainly dim my playing experience. There are quite a few custom monsters, as well. Some, like the Void Dragon, are visual treats. Unfortunately, there are too many Lyeenas, Metal Men, and Squiggles — their novelty wears off too fast. Constant text formatting errors (the result of Mac/PC character transfers) only add another layer to the cake.
C. The Plot — I would have expected this to be the strong point of the scenario, unfortunately it turns out to be one of its biggest weaknesses. Destroy the D’Kar. Destroy the Squiggles. Destroy the Ribbon. Woohoo! You do learn a fair amount about the history of all of the above, but it never really goes beyond “They’re pure evil! They’re trying to become Gods! They’re insane!”
What’s worse, is that you’re plunged into the middle of all of this without any real clue of what’s going on. I played the first two Spheres scenarios, so I knew in a vague sense the plot. Still, I didn’t live and die by them, a reminder at the beginning would have been nice.
I suppose, to be fair, that one could argue the bulk of the plot is laid out in the first two Spheres scenarios. And to be fair, there is a good deal of setup, I just don’t think this scenario takes it anywhere. In essence, it could be adequately described as one really long final mission sequence at the end of Quests.
There are VERY few personalities in Destiny. The rebel cave houses about a dozen people, only three or four of which have anything interesting to say, and even then it’s sparse. Random metal men who dispatch wands, potions, and magic arrows aren’t much of an improvement.
The help file reads, “This adventure is fairly open-ended. There is no sequence of quests or missions you must go on. Half the fun of this adventure is figuring out just what you must do!”
I’m not sure I agree with that in principal, but even if I did, it’s way overreaching here. Figuring out what to do in Destiny amounts to wandering into each town/cave you stumble across, killing every hostile creature at the site, busting down all the doors, and piecing together what you can from the rubble.
In addition, there’s just way too many coincidences here. As a scenario designer myself, I’m sympathetic to the need to have certain required items ‘happen’ to be at the end of some dungeon, and there are no red flags anywhere in this scenario. The problem is that virtually everything is a yellow flag — you need to break into X1 hut to get Super Acid, so you can break into X2 cave to get the super healing potion. Later you need to break into X3 castle to get the violin, to give to such and such a person, so he’ll play a medley, and allow you to break into Dungeon #4. Of course, you need to get three other random items from three other random dungeons to move around in Dungeon #4. None of the explanations are anything more than a minor glitch, but taken in the aggregate, they pose problems.
The gameplay itself is up and down. I encountered a couple of serious bugs, but spread over the whole course of the scenario, nothing I consider very detrimental to the scenario quality. Some of the areas don’t come off very well — destroying the library is a very tedious dungeon, and there are a couple of just plain silly word puzzles.
Most of the time, thankfully, the scenario is far above par. To name but three, the Womb is a very good early dungeon, the Fist of Wrath is excellent, and Hydro’s Fount is quite possible the single best dungeon level I’ve ever seen. It’s somewhat ironic that the two best feature of this scenario are the general lack of water, and a level where you’re constantly faced with drowning. It’s these levels that prove to be the foundation for the upside of the scenario. With them, you’ll find a great deal of up and down play, loving the scenario one moment, bored beyond tears the next. Without them, it’s not worth downloading.
In the end, I’m left wondering about a great deal. Why the Spheres are even mentioned in the title is beyond me, they’re little more than an afterthought. The ending was a bit strange, and quite frankly left me frowning, especially give that these three epic length scenarios had built to it.
But mostly I’m left wondering how I feel, and how I should feel about this scenario. On one hand, it has high points rivaled by few, and is the culmination of two great scenarios, and a ton of hard work. On the other hand, I can’t quite make myself overlook the flaws, and the large amount of time I found myself not enjoying the experience of playing. In my opinion, it is clearly the weakest of the three Spheres scenarios.
It is therefore with mixed emotions that I give this scenario as GOOD (7.5), on one hand dismayed that I couldn’t rate such an effort higher, on the other hand feeling that I had been overly generous with the end appraisal. In any event, don’t take my word for it. Play the scenario, and judge for yourself.
Posted 26 June 2013 - 03:09 PM Destiny of the Spheres
This scenario, it must be said, is EXTREMELY hard. Several times I found myself returning to a previous save as my six-PC party fell to the combined might of Dkar, Void Drakes, etc. etc. The outdoors used a stark, reddish terrain set which really gave it the feel of an alternate dimension. This was further reinforced by the fact that there was only one truly friendly town in the whole game, and this had the worst facilities ever! The real innovation in the scenario came from the Water Counter. This thing was truly EVIL. Getting lost in the desert is NOT advisable in this scenario, believe me you will soon be dead. The Random battles were my only real gripe. It really irritated me to have to wade through 3 sets of Sand Crabs, a set of Lyeena’s and a Dkar War Machine detachment en route to the Adamantium Fortress.
The storyline was excellant, really dark and reflective of the Dkar’s nature. Dialogue was well-written with few mistakes and combat, although very tough, was enjoyable enough. However, the size of the outdoors could have been reduced, as usually it was just a case of wandering around for half an hour, fighting a few random battles, until you happened upon the place you were looking for. I really, really, liked the ending. It was dark and far from happy, although it made you proud to have defeated the Dkar at last. High point for me was the Library and the recurring monster Null (i liked the graphic); Low Point was the $%£@ing random battles.
I rate this scenario BEST (9.2 out of 10)
Posted 26 June 2013 - 03:12 PM Destiny of the Spheres
I would lower this rating a little, but it stays to balance out the 3. What was he thinking?
(Nikki's note - this review would've made more sense when the CSRs operated with a numerical system. It is only included here for completeness.)
Posted 26 June 2013 - 03:14 PM Destiny of the Spheres
EDIT: I'm a bit irritated with myself right now- why, after placing such a low score, would I not make comments? I'm fairly sure that Brett has moved on from this effort, but nevertheless, I feel that I should probably provide some sort of warning to potential players.
My first problem was the graphic selection. The metal men were okay, dialogue pics were tolerably different, and the Drake was awesome (I myself using the formermost and lattermost in my own works). The problem is, however, that most of the other graphics were outright horrible. The Ribbon inspired a desolate mood, but only in the sense that I was torn between quitting and searching for the potential good in this scenario, what with Brett being a renowned designer and all. The monsters (Beakers and crazy L-things stick in my mind as ones whose names I can remember) were nothing short of awful.
My second problem was the ribbon itself. Terrain formatting problems aside (and there were a few), the design was pretty boring. This is, of course, compounded by my next point (wait for it)...
My third problem was the engine used by the game for progressing the plot. I don't like open-ended scenarios in general (and this one is hardly an exception), but what really made this experience awful was its open-endedness and its linearity. Al's review articulated my frustrations fairly well, but for the painfully uninformed, it goes like this: Boom! You're in a desert smothered in a sickening abundance of red paint. Go to dungeon A to get item A to get into dungeon B to get item B to get into dungeon C to get item C to give to person A to get into dungeon D. Keep in mind also that you don't really have much of a clue what to do at any one point. I was constantly referring to the walkthrough to figure out what to do, which was irritating. I won't penalize a scenario for requiring me to use its walkthrough a few times, but much of this scenario was so "exploration-based" that My left hand was affixiated on the Command and Tab keys (the application-switching command, for non-Mac users). If there was any initial atmosphere, it was ruined by the bubbly-blue interface of Internet Explorer, which I needed to read Brett's FAQs.
My fourth problem was that this scenario didn't make much sense to me- using the words "rape in the void" is all well and good (and makes me remember ep23 of Eva fondly- Mindrape! ), but I'm not sure that I could ever relate to the D'kar as anything but ~100 HP with annoying spells to knock over. Perhaps it was slogging through the Red Paintstore outdoors and bashing up the annoying wandering monsters? That aside, if the D'kar are supposed to be living in torture, then why didn't they just kill themselves? The plot may be good or bad- I wouldn't know, I never had the chance for it to rub off on me. I'd include my next point here, but I'm irritated enough with it to give it its own section...
Elementals as bosses and the key to escaping the Ribbon? Good god. And the air elemental as being "righteous"? Good god. Not only is this portion of the scenario not explained at ALL, it also makes no sense whatsoever- search the tunnels that I made in order to connect outdoor sections, beat up randomly-placed elemental big-bosses, and then magically poof-disappear! The Crystal King in Quint was one thing- maybe a red flag, but not the kind that rend all experiences with the scenario before that point in half. I'm not sure how fond I was of this scenario beforehand, but that drove me to an active disliking. I don't mean to offend, but it seems like the ending of this scenario was rushed, and it suffers greatly for it.
Whew! That's it for the negatives (I think). That said, there are some truly redeeming features- There's plenty of opportunity for "subtle branching". Brett always provides multiple ways to go about doing things. There were no nitro-burning-state-of-the-art-SFX-laden sequences, but nodes were used with competence: Something we should expect of a designer with this much experience. Brett deserves credit for being the first author to make a complete overhaul of the Blades terrain set (before Masks, Old MacDonald's Farm or Pyramids or anything), even if he chose a poor set of graphics to replace the defaults. The water-carrying system was awesome, although it could have been enacted in a way in which the gist of it wasn't "wander around for a while and return to Jared's whenever you run out of water". There was a wandering monster who "taunts" you regularly, which also could have been neat- Outdoor special spells, anybody? Nevertheless, it was nothing but a big heap of antimagic-radiating HP, something all parties of the appropriate level should be able to beat. Finally, it was decent and somewhat enjoyable in parts. A designer with as much experience as Brett can't completely botch up a scenario- even I can't completely mess up a scenario, unless I actively try (ie. tehGRICH!!!). I recommend you play this scenario, but don't expect something as elegantly written as Hut of Baba Yaga. There are good ideas here, and perhaps a potential author of a better scenario could find inspiration. It's far from meritless, although the flaws outweighed the positive aspects enough for me to no longer be able to call it "fun". Sorry Brett, it looks like I disliked your scenarios again.
(I try not to establish a bias against an author by default, but your style- like the styles of many- are in a set-in-stone sort of way. Many like it, I don't.)
Posted 26 June 2013 - 03:16 PM Destiny of the Spheres
TM's review sums it up pretty well, except I hated the water feature. I hate BoE's food feature, and this is like the food feature only with water.
The Spheres trilogy is like a rollercoaster made up of three sections. The first section of the ride is great, with lots of hills and sharp turns. The second section is the same, only with loops and bigger hills. In the final section, the car suddenly accelerates so quickly that your neck snaps, launching you at 200 mph into a wall.
Okay, that was harsh. I'll admit, it had some interesting graphics. I especially liked Null. But it's still not very fun.
Posted 26 June 2013 - 03:16 PM Destiny of the Spheres
Completely unconnected, extremely frustrating, nonexistant story, terrible graphics, sloppy design, no fun to play at all. The water feature is its only redeeming feature.
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