Thursday, December 15, 2022

Castle Master (1990)

Name:Castle Master
Publisher:Domark AKA Eidos Interactive
Developer:Incentive Software
Time:4 hours 00 minutes
Won:Lost (55W/54L)

And we return to the Freescape engine for the second-to-last official game. You know I didn't find this thought to thrilling at first, but there's a strange amount of comfort to be found in a game that's mediocre but predictable. There aren't going to be too many curveballs in the playing of this game, and that's something I appreciate at the moment.

The story is told through a bizarre poem I can only assume no one before me read. The Magistar, Lord of the Old Time, created all manners of beast, but one, something that wore cloth instead of skin and could count to 10, I.E., man, left. Man grew and grew, and Magistar laughed as man's "schemes" were botched, before hiding himself under a hill and sleeping for a long time. Then we get what is essentially a bizarre history of Britain, ending with the Normans building a castle on top of the Magistar's hill, dubbed Castle Eternity. Eventually, they found themselves in the caverns the Magistar slept and awoke him.

Once awoken, he found his godly powers drained...because they soaked into every stone of the castle. He flees the castle to regain his strength, all the while being mocked by the now intelligent humans. Eventually, the king randomly declares a feast, and that everyone should come, except that wizard. This great party goes well, and a giant ox is brought in. The king cleaves it "from crotch to chin" and out spills 12 sheep which in turn spill out 12 piglets which in turn have rabbits, then ducks and ending in mice. In a flash of lightning the Magistar arrives.
But their fate isn't to be killed, no, they were to be turned into his animal servants and he would be the Castle Master. The player is one of two royal twins, either a boy or a girl, who now has to deal with the Magistar.

To summarize, you are either a prince or princess who has to save their twin and everyone else. Your opponent is God. You are weak and can only throw stones.

Good luck. Yeah, this is another game with an awkward description online, because its said that its your beloved you're trying to save. Apparently people didn't see a scroll near the beginning or things just straight up changed between platforms. I swear to, wait. I swear I should link to ELP's rendition of Jerusalem, a song about Jesus coming to England during his youth. This just comes off as absurd to me. When Freaks had a vaguely similar introduction, that tracked. It was a weird game from a time around Doom and Wolfenstein, when the whole violence and Satanism things were exploding onto the computer world. This is the kind of thing you would expect someone to hold up as a family friendly alternative.

The game starts up with a creepy cool title and intro theme, and of course the option to select your character. You know, the people in this aren't drawn the best. They're still pretty good, but its sort of something I expect any decent pixel artist today could manage. Which isn't a compliment for an Amiga game. After selecting the prince, the princess is carted off by that black thing in the background and the game begins.

You know, I think this actually looks worse than proceeding games. First, let's go over the GUI here. As shocking as it might seem right now, you get several movement options via this GUI. The left controls how fast you move, run at the top, walk in the middle and crawl at the bottom. The ball on the right moves, the eye next to it looks up and down. The door on the right shows your score. The center vial thing is how many spirits you've killed. The barbell is health, while below it are how many keys you've collected. Clicking the title opens the menu. This is one of the worst GUIs I've seen, if not the worst. I guess Galactic Empire's is worse from a usability standpoint, but I could figure it out without the manual. This seems to be designed to screw over anyone without the manual.
The wizard having a Star of David makes sense, because at the time it was used as an occult symbol. Dunno why the developers would do that though

You can now use objects. Move the cursor over the object you want to interact with and press A. I have some problems with this. The first is that this choice feels awkward. Obviously regular mouse aim works like this, for instance Half-Life has you aim over something and press E. But Freescape doesn't work like that. In case you've forgotten, Freescape functions more like a simulation game in which you press random buttons and movement is separate from aiming. Turning and aiming are two entirely different things. It feels like there's a disconnect. Not helped by how close the game expected you to get to objects you need to interact with. It feels like my character's hands are shorter than they should be.

Its actually weird when you start thinking about it. One never thinks about the reach in Doom or Wolfenstein, but its short in those games. But its not a problem because everything (in the base game) is straight ahead. And in games where you're expected to look around for something, that feels natural too, because you just move the mouse down and then press E. Here though, to look down you have to move your mouse away from the window to a GUI button, or move your right hand to the L key and then press A. Its not very intuitive, and thus considerably slower per each action.

Which kind of hurts the game's level design. Because you have go around looking for things in nooks and crannies. That's what these games do. It feels like you have to fight the controls every step of the way. I really like how they've managed to get decent at this stuff, but trying to look at it is a chore. You have to search rooms from top to bottom and every single object. This isn't something you want to be anything but smooth. It feels like a cruel version of pixel hunting. Make no mistake, you need to do this, this is a game where you have to check the tops of chairs and examine every wall for a tiny gap you can squeeze through.

Normally I'd criticize a game like this for requiring the player to do this, but the fondness for secrets this game has is basically its only saving grace. Actually playing this game is just a side point to the early virtual world. Because that's not really an appeal outside of nostalgia and people interested in early 3D, it has to do something clever. It kind of does, even if its fought off by every other aspect of the game.

This is another adventure game trapped in an action game's body. Find keys and treasure in addition to doing your main job...whatever that is. They are clever about some of these, but sometimes I wonder if they're being so clever that nobody ever won this without a walkthrough. One of the big puzzles of the game involves a key on top of the church. There are no stairs and there isn't a way to jump down. How do you enter it? Well, you walk to the edge of the drawbridge outside the castle, and then close it. This catapaults you to the top. There's no real indication of cartoon logic like that, so while it is logical, at least cartoon logic, I doubt many could have figured it out without a walkthrough.
Also, there are these things on walls throughout the game, each giving its own cryptic message. I think they were supposed to be helpful, but what help they're supposed to give I got by just wandering around. Not really sure where or when they connected up to things you could interact with. Doesn't help that I already expended my desire to solve this kind of thing with the game's weird poem. This one in particular is either talking about the secret door in the same room as it or the area in the secret room.

The castle follows Total Eclipse's format, big central area, small side area and a secret outside. Except in this case they all lead to the central area. I'm kind of surprised it too so long for the engine to do something as mundane as this. Its not great, but navigation feels easier now that I recognize what it is I'm looking at rather than being intentionally confusing or geometric shapes. There are three floors and a basement, and each area tends to have some kind of puzzle or challenge to overcome once you deal with whatever baddies are there. Ranging from the aforementioned drawbridge toss to more mundane and sometimes clever ideas.

I do have a problem with the way the game is laid out, however. The castle is not the most easy place to enter, as I didn't notice there were doors on the side of the drawbridge to the inside until later. Most of the other entrances are hidden or not something you would necessarily think of as a door straight away. There are also only two stairways to the higher floors and one to the caverns. The latter I can forgive because that's supposed to be obnoxious and annoying. The former isn't, as in some cases you have to walk down the stairs, go over to the other staircase, then walk back up. Its more tedium in a game already in danger of it.

Guess where the enemy is!

I've tried to avoid talking about the enemies, because this is one of the least enjoyable aspects of the game. Past games either had a soft timer you could delay or a hard time limit. Castle Master tries to be clever. Instead, as time goes on, enemies get stronger. At least in theory. Oh, and these enemies? They hit constantly, hitscan through walls. Your only defense are rocks, which now that the game allows you to interact with things, feels worse than before even if there's no real change.

A particularly annoying aspect of this is that throughout the game there are several crawlspaces. For nearly all of these, I had the same trick pulled on me, the game implied I fell some distance, got considerably hurt, then had to fight one of the monsters. It takes me away from appreciating what this game does well with a reminder that Incentive Software put in a lot of tedium to puff up playing time. It doesn't feel needed here, for once. This feels like a game of reasonable length that didn't need this to pad it out.
Unfortunately, its the games strengths that hurt it the most in the end. I at some point found myself unable to advance on the higher floors. There were doors or obstacles I could not yet pass. Yet I had searched everything I could on the lower floors. The thought of another thorough search on these speeds and the supposed growing danger of the ghosts and things the game had me fight sapped what little motivation I had left.

The same old, same old. 1/10

Try to hit some enemy running around in a figure eight or throw stones at a stationary enemy until it dies. There is zero strategy to anything. 1/10


Kind of clever, but marred by numerous bad decisions that ensure whatever joy you get out of it is sucked out by the end. 3/10

Player Agency:
I felt frustrated by trying to accomplish the simplest tasks. This just felt like more of a chore to control despite not being that different from proceeding games. 1/10

While not well done for what the game can actually accomplish reasonably, what they tried to do was pretty clever. 3/10

A properly creepy castle, feels as it should, like I'm arriving there after a tragedy. Maybe a little longer than the game implies though. 3/10

Yeah, its got them. 1/10

We shall have a poem for our backstory and reference nearly none of it in-game! 1/10

Pretty nice, the music track has a nice mystical feel to it and when that's done, the sound effects are effective. Enemy sounds are annoying, but that tracks. 4/10

A perfectly respectable 18.

Despite being better, I can't say I really felt any different towards this game than previous games. I didn't really care to see it come up, it was a chore to play, and I wasn't glad I played it, merely happy it was in the past. And this seems to be a reoccurring theme. Checking through old reviews there's a noticeable sense that its just okay. Even back then they were getting tired of the slowness of the engine.

Only one more commercial title before the engine gets thrown to the masses. None of which I'm feeling particularly eager to play anytime soon. As to 1990, only one of the remaining 6 looks appealing, but at least a couple look like they're going to be easy to play through.

1 comment:

  1. I have fond memories of this game from back in the day. The atmosphere and 3D-ness were quite unique and effective. Real shame it was so painfully slow that it sucked all the fun of exploring the castle in the end.

    I legitimately found the drawbridge fling key. I observed that you could close the drawbridge and it didn't take me long to wonder what would happen if I closed the drawbridge while I was still on it. Was not disappointed, that fling is one of the more fun things you can do in the game.

    Also, that vial with the bubble in the middle of the interface is of course a spirit level. It's a ridiculous pun :P