|In truth, I already knew the answer to this particular mystery.|
Alternate Reality: The Dungeon
Datasoft/IntelliCreations (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and Commodore 64
Date Started: 17 April 2017
Date Ended: 26 April 2017
Date Ended: 26 April 2017
Total Hours: 27Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Alternate Reality: The Dungeon is similar to the early Might & Magic series in that they're all excellent fantasy games wrapped in flimsy science-fiction frames. Might & Magic eventually improved its sci-fi shell, but we don't know if the Alternate Reality series would have done the same. Regardless, The Dungeon is an excellent game by itself, and would have done fine as a standalone title, unconnected with the Alternate Reality mythology.
|This is the type of thing you'd expect at the end of a Might & Magic title.|
It took me about 9 hours to win after my last session, and for most of that time, everything was exactly as I described it in my first two postings. Except for the final game hour, exploring the other dungeon levels didn't produce harder monsters or notably different gameplay. (This is not a complaint.) I never quite got a handle on how the game allocates monsters. I suspect that different areas have different probabilities of certain monster levels--a system that goes all the way back to Orthanc (1975) for the PLATO system, to which the creator was exposed. For instance, the opening areas might have a 90% probability of Level 1 monsters; a 7% probability of Level 2; and a 3% probability of Level 3 or higher; areas of Level 3 might invert these odds. Whatever the case, it's entirely possible to encounter liches and fire demons right outside the starting gate, or conversely single bats and rats on the deepest levels.
Exploration continued to reward me with artifacts. A pair of winged sandals increased my movement speed and added about 50 points to my skill. "Robin's Hood" made it more likely that I could avoid encounters. A Cloak of Levitation added even more to my speed--by the end of the game my character absolutely flew down corridors (though it still didn't improve on proper tile-based movement). A crystal breastplate proved to be the game's best armor.
On Level 2, I ran into a room with something called a "clothes horse" who offered to trade a shining shield for a leather jacket. I accepted, and the "mirrored shield" ended up being a key artifact.
|This was the only time that the game got really stupid.|
I never did find a weapon as good as "Razor Ice" again. There were some evil-aspected weapons, and the game amusingly has weapons of opposite alignment scream at you when you equip them.
Early in my explorations of Level 2, I found the Paladins' Guild and joined. Joining a guild lets you purchase the guild's selection of spells, which include (in my case), "Repair," "Light," "Shield," "Strength," "Healing," "Fireblade," "Razoredge," "Protection," and "Vigor." The last spell in that list removes weariness, which was a godsend--no more trudging back up to the inn on Level 1 to rest.
|Plus, every time you rest, you're reminded that you've been kidnapped.|
When cast, spells deplete your guild ring, which you can recharge at the guild. If the guild ring is already depleted, spells subtract from your invisible energy statistic, ultimately leading to fatigue. Thus, having a spell specifically to cure fatigue seems like cheating.
Later, I joined the Guild of Order as an associate member and got "Super Vision," which allows you to see secret doors (I had run out of Wizards' Eyes). You can possess one spell per character level, and if you're on the brink of exceeding that, the game will let you discard previously-purchased spells. The guilds also offer the ability to pay for spell-casting training, improving the chances that the castings will be successful. In general, though, the spells in the game are optional and generally duplicated by found magic items or regular equipment. "Create Food," for instance, should hardly ever be necessary when food is cheap and plentiful. I cast maybe 20 spells in the whole game.
|Joining the paladins' guild gets me some assets and enemies.|
Guilds also offer storage lockers to stash excess equipment, plus free curse removal. Both are good ideas in theory, but returning to the guild--returning to any place in such a sprawling dungeon--is a pain, and I think I was only cursed once during the entire game.
Level 2 offered a couple of new shops, and I'm afraid these were poorly implemented, particularly a dwarven smithy that sold weapons and armor. The smith only takes jewels or gems, and even late in the game I wouldn't have had enough to buy more than an item or two. The shop on Level 1 will convert gems to gold but not back again. Between the smith who wanted gems or jewels and the enchantress who wanted crystals, regular gold really had no use after the first few hours, and I was collecting hoards of it.
|The smith was also necessary for this quest stage.|
A potion-seller on the same level was theoretically a little more useful, but with the "devourer" lurking around every corner every time my inventory got too plentiful, I was reluctant to travel around with too many extra potions.
|A good idea in an inconvenient location.|
The potion-seller, incidentally, was found at the end of a long and tedious maze of one-way doors and walls, called "Mordred's Maze." I'm not sure if the "reward" was worth it.
|A section of Level 2 that ultimately leads to the potion-seller. The "exit" in the southeast is to the non-existent Wilderness.|
So let's talk about the main quest path. Once I had finished the game and looked at walkthroughs, I saw a few things I had missed. It turns out that the Oracle walks you through 5 quest stages, but I only needed her help for three, having stumbled upon the other two during regular exploration.
|A key encounter on Level 2.|
The first stage involves slaying a "master thief" to get his silver key, then using the key to free Ozob from the palace prison, getting the first piece of Acrinimiril's staff, and returning it to his tomb after navigating the door-teleportal puzzle. I did all of this on my own by just stumbling upon the associated encounters. I had forgotten, even, that it was a master thief who had dropped the silver key.
Quest Two involved finding the two halves of the gold ring in the troll and orc lairs, bringing them to the smithy on Level 2, and having him reforge the ring. Apparently, I could have also done this by giving the troll's half to the orc or the orc's half to the troll. Either way, I brought the reforged ring back to the Oracle and threw it in to destroy it. I guess it was evil. Rings usually are.
|Why did I have to get it re-forged before then destroying it?|
Quest Three was obtaining the mirrored shield. Again, I stumbled into this one via regular exploration. I could have also traded Morgana's Tiara for it; I otherwise carried that artifact around the entire game and didn't know what it was for.
I needed help even beyond the Oracle for Quest Four. The southeastern section of Level 2 is cut off from the rest of it by the "River Stonz." You encounter a ferryman at a key point along the river, but if you approach him at any time of day other than midnight, or give him any amount of money other than 2 coppers, he just takes you downriver to a place you could have walked to.
|You're leaving something out of these instructions.|
The Oracle tells you that you need to cross at midnight, but she doesn't tell you the part where you have to pay him exactly 2 coppers. I have no idea where I was supposed to get that information. Late in the game, when I was hopelessly stuck, I consulted the official hint guide and discovered this key addition.
Crossing at the right time with the right amount takes you to the realm of the undead, with Egyptian symbology on the walls. Eventually, I reached a long corridor with 7 consecutive battles against "undead knights," all of whom yelled that they were "free" as they died and asked if I was "The One."
|"The one" who killed you? Yes, that would be me.|
The corridors ended at the palace of the Undead King. He had a long speech that indicated that he and his compatriots had been kidnapped from Earth a long time ago by the aliens. As most of his companions ""turned to thievery and murder for their daily bread" and "quarreled and fought among themselves" for the amusement of "the Keepers," the king and his knights remained true and took an oath to defeat the Keepers--one that bound them even in death. They eventually found a way to "look behind the mask of this world" and steal the aliens' own energy weapons, but their revolt ended in death. He designated me The One and gave me another piece of Acrinimiril's staff.
|His skeleton sentries are just adorable.|
I returned the staff to Acrinimiril's ghost and got a wisdom point for the trouble. Back at the Oracle, I received Quest Five, which had to do with some interrelated encounters on Level 3.
|The Oracle sends me on the final quest.|
At this point, I'll mention that I reached Level 3 long before any of this, before I looked at the hint guide to figure out what to do for Quest Four. I mapped most of it, but shortly before arriving, you go through a one-way door and can't get back to the stairs. There's a teleporter at the southern part of the level, behind a secret door that I missed, that returns you to the upper level. Thus, I spent a lot of time mapping the level and puzzling through its encounters but ended up unable to save my progress. Almost everything I'm recounting below, I did twice.
The primary purpose of Level 3--which is only 16 x 16 (the each subsequent level is 1/4 the size of the one above it)--is to obtain the last piece of Acrinimiril's staff from a dragon. Apparently, you can do this by killing him, but it's a very tough battle. I had two "death" cards when I attempted it, and even both of them plus hundreds of hit points of physical damage didn't do the trick.
|I guess I should beware of the dragon.|
The longer way is to give the dragon what he wants--something called a "bloodstone." This, in turn, is in the hands of a basilisk on the same level, but the basilisk is immune to weapons and can only be killed with your bare hands. It also helps to have the mirrored shield to reflect its gaze.
You get the "bare hands" clue from a gargoyle on the level, who offers three riddles. The first is the toughest, although it seems simple on the surface. You just have to complete a rhyme:
|It annoys me how every line is in iambic tetrameter except the second-to-last. Was "a fate so cruel cut short its trek" so hard?|
"Neck"? "Flight deck"? "Triple sec"? The answer, which might be a bit unfair in the pre-Internet era, is referenced in a clue from the Oracle: "Remember 'Xebec's Demise.'" Xebec's Demise is the name of the city in Alternate Reality: The City, which of course we are now literally under. To understand the answer, you have to know what a "xebec" is. I quote from Dictionary.com: "a small, three-masted vessel of the Mediterranean, formerly much used by corsairs, now employed to some extent in commerce." Once you know that the riddle is talking about a ship, the rhyming answer becomes clear: "SHIPWRECK." It's still a bit of a mystery why the city is named after the wreck of a Mediterranean sailing vessel. Is it a metaphor for the fact that the alien spacecraft on which we're imprisoned has, in fact, wrecked?
The second and third riddles were much easier--if you'd uncovered particular plot points in the game. The gargoyle wanted to know where to get rid of the evil ring (ORACLE) and what the dragon wants more than gold (BLOODSTONE). Having answered all there, he imparts the information on defeating the basilisk.
I killed the basilisk accordingly, got the Bloodstone from it, and gave it to the dragon. In return, the dragon gave me the last piece of the staff, which I had to schlep all the way back up to Level 1 and return to Acrinimiril.
|I don't want to know what he's doing to that treasure pile.|
With his staff reunited, Acrinimiril's spirit "returned to his own world" (huh?) but left behind a Portal Access Card.
|I feel like there must have been more to this guy's story.|
You have to use the card at "Death's Door," an encounter on Level 3 that follows a one-way maze called "The Gauntlet," with fixed encounters against some of the game's toughest enemies, including fire demons, a horned devil, a small dragon, and a doppelganger who has your hit points and weapons. If you reach the door without the access card, you just get teleported outside the maze.
|Good idea calling it "Death's Door," though. That will keep out the riff-raff.|
Having defeated the enemies in the Gauntlet once, for no reason, when I returned the second time I was prepared. I had three "Death" cards plus several other high-damage magic weapons, and I tore through them like tissue paper. Reaching the end, I used the Portal Access Card and descended to the fourth and final level.
|Using the "Death" card is always satisfying.|
The corridors became technological rather than medieval. I soon encountered an "alien sentry," whom I killed. From his body, I retrieved his beam weapon, but it wasn't really needed.
|I love how his third arm is still manifestly a "left" arm.|
A few steps away (the level was only 8 x 8), I ran into the game's final encounter: in a room "filled with strange machinery," a three-armed alien guard fired a laser weapon at me. It bounced off my mirrored shield and vaporized the alien. After that, I got the "congratulations" message at the top of this post, but it was followed by a warning that "the alien captors do not take your intrusion lightly."
|If I had dropped the shield before the final encounter.|
Beyond this room, I had the option to return to the previous levels via an elevator or continue on to Alternate Reality: Revelation, which of course was never made. Other exits from the dungeon would have taken the player to The Arena, The Palace, and The Wilderness--though curiously not back to The City--but clearly everything was meant to funnel here, and from here to the series' final chapters.
By the end of this game, I was surprised to find myself lamenting what could have been. When I finished my coverage of Alternate Reality: The City, I was convinced that the entire series was an overblown promise that became a "cult classic" based on intentions rather than execution. Now that I've seen what's possible beyond The City hub, I realize why players remember the titles so fondly.
On the other hand, perhaps we should be grateful that the series never got a chance to be too stupid. From the opening screens, we know that the entire experience is an alien simulation--although until the end, I assumed it was virtual (a la The Matrix) rather than some kind of giant Truman Show. What "revelations" would have waited beyond that? How would they have reconciled the science fiction setting with dragons and spells and ghosts? How does the attribute-generation process make sense if the character is a real person? (Yes, a Google search will provide conceptual ideas for the answers to these questions, some from the creator, but until they're actually written into a game, they're not canon.) It's possible they would have done a great job, but the appearance of the aliens--three-armed green men with pulsing blue brains--doesn't fill me with a lot of confidence.
Those concerns are only hypothetical, though. What we have in front of us is a fun standalone title, and I expect it to GIMLET well.
- 5 points for the game world. While I might be lukewarm on the alien plot, I love the sprawling megadungeon and the way it responds to your actions, and even if it turned out a little silly, at least the backstory was more than just a frame.
|I also appreciated that each room had a name or description, but someone really needs to work on this one.|
- 4 points for character creation and development. I'm not in love with the creation process, but the development process is satisfying and rewarding. Leveling slows quickly (I gained 6 in the first 8 hours, 2 in the second 8, and only 1 in the final 11), but guilds offer other mechanisms of development. There's a basic alignment system where the actions you take and people you fight affect what guilds you can join. Apparently, if I'd continued to do good works, I could have been invited into the chapel's inner sanctum and given a powerful magic weapon.
|A guild is unhappy with my alignment.|
- 3 points for NPC interaction. NPCs and enemies are basically the same thing here; whether you can talk to them depends largely on alignment. There are some minor role-playing options, like giving gold to paupers, but no real dialogue system. The "hints" that NPCs give you aren't even very good; the game could have done a better job having them occasionally offer useful information about the dungeon.
- 5 points for encounters and foes. The creatures are mostly adopted from the D&D menagerie, but their special attacks and defenses are well-implemented, and I liked the randomness of encounter difficulty. More important, there are a variety of non-combat encounters with real role-playing options.
- 3 points for magic and combat. I got sick of combat by the end, frankly. There aren't enough tactics beyond the use of special items. Even at high levels with great equipment, I found that my attacks missed 50% of the time or more, making even simple combats long and drawn-out. Nothing is more frustrating, when trying to get from one place to another to solve a quest, than whiffing 6 attacks in a row against a simple orc. I do appreciate the variety of things that can happen during combat, like enemies calling for reinforcement, fleeing, knocking you weapon out of your hands, getting stunned or knocked down, or chugging healing potions.
- 5 points for equipment, one of the strongest parts of the game. There are plenty of items to find and buy, including numerous artifact items plus a host of magic items that can make a difference in tough combats. Different weapons do different kinds of damage, which is a consideration when facing monsters with fire, cold, magic, or other resistances. Then there was that whole "enchantment" business that I never really explored because I never had enough crystals. I admire the game for offering item customization, but I have to ding it in the next section.
|I never found out what these were about, but I think we'll see them again in Baldur's Gate.|
- 3 points for the economy. It's best at the beginning of the game, when you're starving and trying to scrape together a handful of silver pieces to eat and sleep. Later, you learn that there are really three economies in the game: gold, gems/jewels, and crystals. By the mid-game, you have plenty of the first one, but you never have enough of the latter two--at least, not without lots of grinding--to avail yourself of the services that they can purchase.
- 4 points for quests. There's a main quest, with only one real end (unless you just stay in the dungeon), but several of the stages along the way have more than one outcome, including a few authentic role-playing choices.
|I don't think I would have figured this out without the hint.|
- 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. In the Apple II version, I admire the detail of some of the graphics, but the composition (limited as it was) is pretty poor, and the sound effects are negligible. The monster portraits are particularly ugly. I hated the pseudo-continuous movement, but the interface was otherwise reasonably intuitive.
- 8 points for gameplay. The game hardly made a wrong turn here. The Oracle is mostly a guide--you could do the quests themselves in almost any order, and without her associated clues. Moreover, since the difficulty only adjusts slightly between levels, the game is almost completely non-linear until the end. The alignment system makes it somewhat replayable, and I found the difficulty and length absolutely perfect.
That gives us a subtotal of 43, to which I'm going to add 2 bonus points for a well-done "survival" angle, for a final score of 45. (I gave The City a 30.) I went into the game dreading it and hoping I could cover it in one posting, and I finished by rating it in the top 15% of my list. That doesn't happen often.
Scorpia reviewed the game in the February 1988 issue of Computer Gaming World. She brought in her City character rather than creating a new Dungeon character, which she thought was "almost impossible." I agree for the first couple of hours, but it wasn't too bad after that. She has extensive advice for the dwarven smithy and enchantress, though, so is it possible that crystals and jewelry/gems were part of The City, too, and I just forgot?
She hated the "devourer," calling it "asinine," "juvenile," and "plain poor design." I didn't rage quite as much at the monster because reloading is trivial in the days of emulators, but I get her point. In the end, she thought that The Dungeon, while "a big improvement over The City," was still "ultimately unsatisfying." But part of her angst has to do with the intentions of the creators to release at least three other titles centered around Xebec's Demise. "Until the last [scenario] is reached," she says, "you're really just marking time." I wonder how she would have felt had she known that The Dungeon would be the only Alternate Reality title with any kind of resolution. Other contemporary reviews were mostly negative--even Dragon only gave it 3 out of 5 stars, which is their equivalent of setting the game on fire and urinating on the ashes. These formal reviews contrast sharply with fan recollections of the series, of course.
|The back of the box says that there's "1/3 more territory to explore" than The City. They exaggerate. I get 32.8%.|
The Alternate Reality series was conceived by Philip Price and abandoned when the first game didn't make him any money. (See my The City entry for more on Price.) The Dungeon wasn't originally going to be a separate game--just the sewers of The City--but development delays led Datasoft to decide to release the titles in two halves. (By the time The Dungeon was published, Datasoft was bankrupt but briefly reorganized as "IntelliCreations," which used "Datasoft" as a trademark.) Ken Jordan and Dan Pinal took the lead on programming The Dungeon based on Price's notes, and various mechanical and technological obstacles (e.g., incompatible attributes; no encumbrance system in The City) kept them from allowing a character to move freely between The City and The Dungeon. [For the summary in this paragraph, I am indebted to Ken Jordan's own recollections, from a 1996 e-mail to an Alternate Reality fan page.]
The Dungeon was the first credited title for both Jordan and Pinal, and both would go on to long careers in the gaming industry, but neither ever worked on another RPG that I can find (although both have minor credits on Faery Tale Adventure from the same year). Neither, for that matter, would Datasoft, which would be out of business within a year, dooming the rest of the Alternate Reality series. In more positive news, graphic artist Bonita Long-Hemsath would later work on the Might and Magic and Heroes of Might and Magic series.
Frequent CRPG Addict commenter Acrin1 has been working on a Windows remake of the combined City and Dungeon for almost a decade. (He posted an update just a week ago.) The graphics look crisp and attractive--particularly the monster portraits--but it otherwise seems faithful to the original mechanics. I'll let Acrin1 comment if he wants to elaborate more. To my mind, without The Palace, The Arena, and The Wilderness to support the hub, the enormous City will always be pointless. I certainly didn't miss it when playing this game.
It's time now to move on to another French game: L'anneau de Zengara, which uses the same interface as the reviled Fer & Flamme (1986). Will it be any more sensible? Let's find out.