Thursday, July 22, 2010

Horrible Delight: Legacy, the Realm of Terror

Horror is a genre that shines on the format of video games. Nothing will immerse you in the awful goings-on of a story more than being in control of whether your character lives or dies. It works so well that you can find horror elements in many of the major franchises. Games like Halo, Bioshock, Left 4 Dead and Half-Life are a major force in the video game world and I'd argue that that's due, in part, to how well the designer evokes the feeling of fear. Fear is just easier to create within the interactive nature of games; it's fun, it's safe, and the fear is personal.

The game that turned me onto the horror potential of games, before Gabriel Knight, 7th Guest or Resident Evil, was Microprose's 1993 diamond in the rough: Legacy, the Realm of Terror. The action/rpg game's initial premise is a classic haunted house set-up. Your character mysteriously inherits a Lovecraftian mansion from an unknown relative and after a brief but important character creation menu, you find yourself in the foreboding lobby of the 17th century Prentiss house with nothing but a few rumors and a book of magic spells (if you rolled a magician). The door is locked behind you and, with little prompting from the game, all you can do is explore and see what's going on with your house.

Legacy's non-linear nature is the game itself; you can go almost anywhere in the house from the start and most problems have several different solutions, usually tailored to your character's build. A locked door can be picked, forced open with brawny might, mystically overcome with certain spells, or you can go around and hunt for the key, like a coward. The game's world is presented mostly through notes and journals discovered as you fight (or more likely, flee) through the house. Legacy freaked me out on such a primal level, when I was young, that I find myself drifting back to the game every few years like a favorite novel; the twists and turns are now routine but it's still pleasant nostalgia to see them all played out.

Before I run away with what I love about the game, it's only fair to discuss the game's flaws. The thing that struck me most in my most recent play through is how little sense the mansion makes as an actual house. There are hundreds of rooms but no kitchen, the only bathrooms are on the east side of the second floor (maybe an issue with the 17th century plumbing, I will grant), and a fair portion of the rooms have literally nothing inside them. The game has some pretty laughable puzzles, which is the most unforgivable element for me. You encounter a room where you're so filled with dread, you can't walk another step forward. What do you do? Walk backwards! The game is filled to the brim with shit like this. When they're not silly or easy, they're often oblique offenders of trial and error. The inventory system is atrocious, as well. You receive so many clues, weapons, and puzzle-busting items that the only real solution is to find convenient safe rooms throughout the house to put your stuff (the screenshot below is my weapons pile, next door to my food and health pile). It's actually kind of fun to play hoarder at first, but it quickly becomes tedious as you travel from item cache to item cache, searching for the one weapon or doodad you need. Just don't put your rifle down to pick up the astrolabe, horned skull, or whatever. Sure, you promise you'll come back for it later but, trust me, you'll never see that rifle again.

The flaws are enough that I can't give the game a glowing recommendation. Along with aforementioned problems, the game is punishingly difficult in a way only an old school PC game knows how to be. There is only a finite amount of health, ammo, and magical energy to be found and it's common to find that you saved your game in a horrible situation with dubious chance for escape. The graphics, while decent enough for its time, don't hold up to even the most forgiving modern standards. While the theme changes from floor to floor to keep things interesting, each individual floor can feel barren of detail; for every room with interesting art, there are forty rooms that features that same bookcase model with that same bookcase description you've already seen a thousand times. It's a limitation of the floppy diskette generation of games, but it really hurts the playability of Legacy today.

Still, for its time, even its flaws kind of work for the game in their own weird way—they hamper playability but not tone. The bizarre layout heightens the tension as you wander around, hoping to find a clue (or even better, a M16) to help you deal with the poisonous monsters in the basement. The item management makes every choice you make important—sure the baseball bat isn't as strong as the pistol but a baseball bat takes up less slots than all that ammo and won't jam up midway through the zombie battle. The puzzles? Well, I guess the Dark Lord that Hungers is too busy devouring adorable bunnies to think up clever brain-teasers.

Despite it's flaws, the game is quite well made. The RPG system is well balanced and every stat is worthy of use, though I haven't had the balls to try out my bare knuckles against the Demonic 1st Battalion. Every build has a shot at survival, though I'd say the game rewards a rounded character with a few strengths and enough magic to shore up your weaknesses. The background draws much of it's inspiration from Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos and the works of Edgar Allan Poe, though they work hard to bring their own version of things with unique touches and twists on common horror elements. My favorite bit in the game is the fight against the shotgun wielding zombie. I just love the idea that this one zombie, tired of seeing his brothers and sisters blown away time and time again, decided to pick up a shotgun, put on some shades, and beat the living at their own game.

Most importantly, this game is scary. The soundtrack is an oppressive series of alien beeps and boops, tailored to the particular floor you're on. The monsters in the game definitely look imposing and often require some thinking to tackle without grievous harm, in fact, much of the game is better spent in flight—only using that precious health and ammo when you're cornered or if the monsters guard a key area. Legacy is well-paced, too, the moment you've got a grasp on one floor, the game will raise the stakes and demand more from you as you climb up or down those stairs to the next area. To the game's credit, there are very few instant death moments such as you'd find in older PC games of its ilk (and those are at the very end and shouldn't be a surprise if you've been exploring), so even if you're on the brink of death, there's still a chance you can crawl your way to a health kit, a magical healing spell, or some ammo. That kind of hope is important in a game as unforgiving as this one. It's the kind of game you could beat in a few hours but took me months on my first time through (before the days of easy internet hints) and it kept me fully engrossed the whole time.

Ultimately, I think the success of Legacy's horror comes from how they present its role-playing elements. Often times, in a horrorish game such as Resident Evil 5, they try to stuff so much in there that it loses its luster. Sure, it's fun to demolish mutant dogs but it isn't as scary to over explain the atmosphere. In Legacy, the story is only in what you discover, what you do, and how you deal with obstacles in your way. The story is as personal as your fears and exists in your imagination, no small feat for a video game.

Unfortunately, the game is out of print, but copies can be tracked down by the intrepid game hunter, just make sure they include the instruction booklet (for the copy protection). If you do choose to engage in Legacy, make an effort to avoid internet walk throughs for as long as you can. The game is better without them. I will give you this tip, though, don't go into the basement until you've stocked up on munitions, there are bad things in the basement.

They really don't make them like this any more.

Truly, the greatest nightmare.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post for this game - you appreciate a great deal of what's available to appreciate! As for the entirely legitimate and numerous user complaints, they just don't bother me as much as they should - certainly not enough to keep me from playing. I think what may be most satisfying for me as a player is, as you noted, the game's pacing. You're right about the same decor models being overused to death - but then why doesn't the game bore me? Because of how well-balanced it actually is - provided you play on the game's terms, and there's a significant learning curve. If you agree to play along with that curve, though, you're rewarded with a dense, elaborate narrative which (as you saliently pointed out) is as wide as your own imagination. The breadth of that flagrantly Lovecraftian narrative makes it a very fun playthrough. It is always particularly satisfying to reach that third basement dungeon (and characteristically depressing to reach the bare Astral Plane. If only the game was like so many other RPGs which gives you handfuls of side-quests to complete before moving to tackle the game boss).