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Added: 25 Nov 2010
Aaargh! I've just been dropped in the catacombs again (a vast underground warren with oodles of ways in and, as far as I can tell, hardly any ways out)! I seem to be ending up down here with monotonous regularity. Fall down the well and you end up in the catacombs. Nose around the dark space at the back of the pulpit - straight to the catacombs! Drain the water at the bottom of the pool, investigate the entrance there and would you know it - cata-bloody-combs, here I come! Aaargh! (Do you get the feeling I'm getting a little frustrated here, readers?)
I'm playing Castle Master, you see. Sort of against my better judgement actually. (I was going to get someone with a bit of patience like Jonathan Davies or Davey Wilson to have a go at it, but would you believe it comes in on disk? And how many YS reviewers have +3s? Not many, which is why muggins here is having a crack at it!) I suppose you want to know why I was so reluctant to have a go. Well, basically (and whisper it so no-one can hear) I was the teensiest little bit intimidated by it. Yep, I know every Incentive Freescape outing has been true Megagame material and everything, but when it comes down to it I've never actually played any of them. Not properly, anyway. (Oh, sure, I've marvelled at the graphics and spent a bit of time wandering around looking at things, but actually get involved in the gameplay? Nah, not me, mate. I don't understand it.)
Which is why I've got myself a couple of little helpers for this review. Over my right shoulder we have Rich Pelley, who's visiting ("...but not for long enough to write the review, oh no!") and who's had a go at all the Freescape games at one time or another. Then over my left shoulder it's my good friend Trenton from Amstrad Action (one of our new sister mags) who's reviewing the CPC version at a desk just around !he corner even as I speak. He keeps shouting "Have you got to the third floor yet?" or whatever all the time. (No, I blooming well haven't! Just because you're better than me...) Anyway, I'll bring my two little chums in more towards the end when we get to summing up time (though the way Rich keeps whispering the word 'Megagame' in my ear I fear it's a bit of a foregone conclusion). Ah well, on with the plot.
Like the other Freescape games it's a search-around-collecting-things, working-out-the-use-for-other-things, finding-secret-routes sort of game. Touchingly non-sexist, it features you as a prince (or princess - the first choice you have to make in the game) nosing around a spooky, seemingly deserted castle in search of your kidnapped twin. He (or she) is trapped in one of the towers by Magister, the Castle Master (hence the name), and guarded by a series of Guardian Spirits. It's your job to get him (or her) out!
It's a game strong on puzzles and high in atmosphere - if you should find yourself alone in the house, try turning the lights down low and then playing it. You'd scare yourself silly. I felt a few shivers pass up my spine, I can tell you, and I was in a packed office with my two little Spec-chums peering over my shoulder!
But anyway, less of this messing about, let's start the game. A neat portcullis device pulls up from the front of the screen and - tarra! - a castle is revealed! A Freescape castle, to be exact, so let's walk around it and see what we can see, Bum de dum de dum. Right, it appears to be surrounded by a black moat (I thought it was the shadow cast by the walls until I fell into it and 'Glug glug glug!' appeared in the message panel. Very droll.) At the back of it at one corner there's a shed (can't get in it though - no key) and what looks like a rock at another corner, but otherwise the plain is featureless. Time to go in the castle then, and there's only one way to do that - across the drawbridge. Hmm. The drawbridge is up.
A quick bit of faffing around (and reading the instruction notes) gave me a clue. Switch the centre screen cursor from Movement mode (where pushing forward moves you in the direction you've placed the cursor) to Throw mode. Place it over the suspicious-looking nobble high up on the castle wall and press fire. Bingo! Your character lobs a stone at the building, and the drawbridge drops down. Time to go exploring!
Right, now we're in a courtyard. There are four towers at the four corners, some of which have doors. As well as this though, there are a couple of extra entrances to various lean-to buildings actually built inside the courtyard. Let's have a scout around. Hmmmm There's a well. Let's take a look (but not too close a look - we don't want to fall in and end up in the catacombs, do we?). Lean over it, use the Action key (which allows you to eat, drink, read, push, move, collect, examine, open, unlock or use as appropriate) and hurrah! I've collected a key, which must have been hidden somewhere in the well, though I never saw it. (Later keys, and other collectable objects like potions, are usually perfectly visible, however).
That little success under my belt, I think it's time to actually venture inside the castle. Which doorway shall we choose? I know, this one! It seems to lead into a sort of spooky chapel. Hmm. Wonder what we can find in here? What about behind this pulpit? (Don't do it! Reader's Voice) Too late! I've tumbled into the catacombs! AGAIN!
Now this may not necessarily be a bad thing. The catacombs are basically long stretches of empty, featureless corridors, with plenty of turn-offs into other long featureless corridors and occasional doorways into... ah, but you guessed it. I've not found anything of interest down here, but that's not to say there aren't things lurking away in the corners, and I've only come across one way out so far, which I'm damned if I can find again. Basically I'm stuck down here, and very tempted to quit the game and start again. In fact, I think I will. (Quit.)
Right, here we are standing outside the castle again. Let's throw a rock at the button, open the doorbridge, walk into the courtyard, blah, blah, blab. Hmm? Wonder which entrance to take this time...
And so it goes.
The genius of these Incentive things seems to be to wind you up as much as possible, really get you hacked off with the whole business, then drop a little titbit your way - finding a key, unearthing a secret doorway, or running into another spooky spirit. These'll kill you if you let them, as well as make the room go a strange flashing red colour, but a well-aimed rock will normally settle their hash. If ever there was a fine balance between total addiction and total frustration this seems to be it.
The only problem with this review so far (What do you mean the only problem? Reader's voice) is that it could apply to any Freescape game at all, more or less. In what ways is this one different? Well, let's consult my two little Freescape experts and see what they have to say. Excuse me for a second - talk amongst yourselves.)
Right, I'm back. Basically, we reckon the much-vaunted new Freescape+ system (seen here for the first time), which is meant to offer a 10% increase in game movement speed over normal Freescape (as well as draw things in smaller blocks, so they're more recognisable), is a significant improvement over the previous system. The game certainly runs faster than previous Freescape games. But it's also a lot slower. (Eh? Reader's voice)
Let me explain. It's not physically slower (like I said, it's quicker), but the game design seems tailored to a different pace of gameplay, something a bit more precise and thought-out. For instance, whereas in, say, Total Eclipse, any key would open any door, here you need a specific key for each one, or so it seems. There seems to be a lot more searching around involved here, looking for the correct pieces then figuring out how to use them, though of course these first impressions could be deceiving, and the games always did seem to lean in that direction anyway. It's certainly not your rushing-around-shooting-everything sort of game.
So we come to the conclusion. Those who are already familiar with the Freescape system are probably out queuing up to buy the thing even as we speak, so let's talk to those who are left (the unconverted) for a moment. Right, you lot. I really think you should consider buying this - unless you're a real die-hard action game freak. This is a game that stretches the capabilities of your Speccy to breaking point, is guaranteed to provide weeks of gameplay and has an incredibly professional, thought-out (and spooky) feel to it. Even the instructions and in-game puzzles devised by 'Europe's Funniest Man' (Mel Croucher) aren't too bad.
All in all then, Incentive seems to have another winner (and another Megagame) on its hands. Yep, just like Pelley kept telling me all along. (Smug git.)
Added: 1 Mar 2017
The title couldn't be any more obvious in telegraphing that the final standalone Freescape title takes indeed place in a castle. But it is not any old castle - the place is possessed by an ancient force called Magister, who has a habit of turning anyone who lives in the castle into spirits, cursed to haunt its halls for eternity. The whole backstory is told by Magister himself, in form of a long form poem. It stretches over a dozen pages, frequently traversing from mystical, to threatening, to silly:
My name? Not now! it starts with M
Not Merlin , Mel or Male or Fem
Not Micky, Mao, select another
Not Mantovani, Mud or Mother
My title flashes into view
Before I've tolled my tail to you
I'm thirteen thousand years today
You are my birthday present, play!
And if you want to call me, cur
'Tis best you call me softly "Sir"
The hero only walks into this mess because their sibling has been spirited away into the castle by a giant monster bird. The previous games had alway remained ambiguous about the protagonist's gender, but here the player gets to choose whether to take the role of the Prince or the Princess. It doesn't make much of a difference, because the game is still played in first person, and there is only one obstacle where the prince can crouch underneath, but the princess has to carefully balance along the ledge around it.
All the player has to do is infiltrate the castle and find the room where the lost sibling is held captive. Of course this is not as simple as it sounds, as many of the doors in the castle are locked. Magister obviously didn't bother to employ a caretaker, and thus all the keys are scattered around the premises. There are ten keys to find, but also valuable treasures. (Why does the royal heir to a kingdom resort to looting an abandoned castle? State finances seem to be dire indeed...) Munching some centuries-old cheese surprisingly doesn't make the adventurer sick, but increases health and strength. There's also a bottle of strength potion, which cannot be picked up but allows seemingly infinite draws from it to heal up. Getting stamina up to Herculean strength even allows to do some heavy lifting at a few obstacles in the castle. The Rock Travel potion finally allows to teleport to any doorway you can throw a rock at - literally, once again.
For the first time in Freescape, Castle Master has a separate "action" button, raising the complexity a tiny bit, as some mechanisms have to be "shot" at - officially, the protagonist is throwing rocks - while most objects require to be interacted with at close range. Accidentally shooting a potion also destroy's the bottle, so all too trigger-happy players will get stuck eventually. The rocks are also used to deal with the spirits in the castle, which come in the form of bats, bedsheet ghosts and mice. The mice are especially vicious, as they often cannot be seen from any position, and the spirits start draining health as soon as the player enters their room. Killing ghosts is also essential in getting the Spirit Level up, which tips the odds in the player's favor for the final battle against the dragon.
Castle Master is quite a bit frindlier than the games that preceded it. Stupid mistakes like shooting the potion bottles notwithstanding, there are fewer ways to get stuck irredeemably, the strength potion makes players effectively invincible as long as they mind to return to it regularly, and the puzzles never get too far out there. (The way to get up on a roof is really fun, though.) Some hiding locations for the keys are crazy, like the one that is literally taped under the belly of a horse, but many others are lying in plain sight or hidden in typical places like wells or mouseholes. The building also seems much more intuitively structured than the confusing pyramid or the planetoid surfaces from the earlier games. There even can be found notice signs in some areas, which offer additional hints, in rhyme like the manual backstory.
The 16-bit versions of Castle Master are not simply ports, but completely remix the quest for a new challenge. The basic layout is the same, but areas connect differently, and there are quite a few new/replaced rooms. Many of the locations for the keys and locked doors are changed, and these versions actually introduce new ways to get stuck, including some pitfalls into the oubliette (a fancy way of saying "dungeon"), which equals an instant Game Over. Getting around in general has been made more difficult, as there are many blockades in the passages linked to switch puzzles, and a few doors that are bolted and can only be openend from one side. There's also an additional part to the quest that requires to find violet pentacle shapes.
The graphics have been improved quite a bit. After choosing the main character, the game shows an animation of the other sibling being grabbed by giant bird legs and flown to the castle. In the game, some rooms have added objects and are much more detailed than anything seen on the 8-bit computers, but they also tend to bring the engine down on its knees. The castle moat is populated by sharks(!) circling around the castle, and as usual the enemies gain the ability to float around in their rooms. The annoying houses have been replaced by flying birds, and you can find an ugly goblin named Xgor, who is much stronger than the regular spirits.
The IBM PC version this time got promoted to the same rank as the other 16-bit platforms, with mouse interface and all. It still doesn't support VGA graphics and only has PC Speaker sound, so it looks and sounds still inferior to the Amiga and Atari ST versions, but the opportunity to significantly speed up the gameplay (about 3000 CPU cycles in DOSBox are optimal) in combination with the mouse interface makes it the most playable version of them all. Since the original quest is more beginner friendly, patient players may want to try the Amstrad CPC version first. Only the Commodore 64 and Amiga get music this time, which is activated by default on both platforms because the visual cues when spirits attack are obvious enough to render the sound effects unnecessary.
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