The Darkness of Raven Wood – Reviewed.

Although the BBC Micro’s heyday has long since passed, a thriving community of users still exists who continue to enjoy not only playing games on the Beeb – but writing them as well. John Blythe is one such, and he released ‘The Darkness of Raven Wood’ in 2016. This is a brand new text-based adventure with a twist: it is illustrated with some of the best graphics I have ever seen produced on a BBC Micro. Where most Beeb games will typically have just a single splash screen of artwork, ‘Raven Wood’ has glorious 8-bit visuals in every room you walk into within the game. This transforms the text-based adventure into something altogether magical.

The premise of the game is that you are searching for your friend, Raynard, the local blacksmith of Raven Wood who has gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Upon arrival, you quickly begin to realise that all is not well. The barman at the local tavern warns you of wolves roaming the woods, and in a nearby house someone is crying. Not only that, but the blacksmith’s forge is deserted and there is no sign of your friend. What follows are a series of puzzles and grisly encounters that require you to locate specific items and use them – often in combination – to unlock new rooms, create new tools and defeat the various enemies who will try to stop you in your quest.

The game employs a simple text input structure: you can either specify a direction to go in (with available directions shown as part of the room description) or you can employ a verb/noun combination to carry out an action. For example, you can GET KEY in one room and then in another room USE KEY. There is no limit to your inventory, so any new item you find can be picked up without having to sacrifice anything else you are already carrying. The EXAMINE command lets you search a room – or something in the room – for hidden items or clues. You can also TALK to people you meet along the way, and what they say to you changes over time, thereby encouraging you to go back and talk to them again later.

This is no walk in the park, however: you cannot simply explore at leisure and potter around to your heart’s content. There are threats in certain rooms that require you to act quickly, or else meet with a gruesome death. Indeed, the graphics employed for the fatality scenes are among the finest in the game, drawn out in exquisite 8-bit detail that surpasses even the room illustrations. Not only that, but later in the game you will be stalked by a marauding werewolf who can show up at random in certain rooms and follow you as well. Failure to evade the werewolf by spending too long in a room or attempting to search for something while the werewolf is present will result in your instant death.

The puzzles are well constructed, pitched at the right level of solvable without being too easy. I managed to complete the game in three multi-hour sittings, and there were definitely some puzzles that had me reaching for the hint sheet kindly provided by John Blythe on his website. Admittedly there is the usual frustration of any text-based adventure in which you struggle to find the specific verb required to achieve your goal; on several occasions I knew what I needed to do but just couldn’t figure out the right words to accomplish it. This is, and has always been, a ‘feature’ of the text-based adventure genre, however, and the mercifully simple verb/noun command structure does at least limit the combinations you need to try. Certain puzzles are also particularly fiendish, employing items more than once and with multiple hidden items in a single room: more than once I thought I had found all I needed to in a given room only to discover later that there was more to be revealed!

In terms of flaws, there are very few to pick up on here. The werewolf is something of an irritation, and it is frustrating to have to run away from a room that you need to do something in because the werewolf is there. That said, he provides a roving threat and adds a level of complication that would otherwise be absent. A game needs to have its antagonist – like the infamous end of level boss in a beat ‘em up game that just won’t die – and the werewolf is certainly playing that role here. Another minor criticism I would make is that the forests cannot be mapped out and have an endless looping sequence of rooms that can have you wandering around for a very long time before you find a way out. Mazes can be fun, but they can also become quite boring if you keep going around in circles when all you want to do is get on and solve the next puzzle. It would be uncharitable to criticise the game for an absence of sound or music, as there is only so much you can do with 32k of memory, and the graphics are outstanding, no doubt occupying almost all of the bytes from one room to the next. Game music in an 8-bit environment can also quickly become irritating if it’s just the same loop over and over again, particularly in a text-based adventure which takes many hours to complete.

The final showdown with the game’s main enemy is particularly satisfying, requiring a quick-fire sequence of commands to get right, as well as multiple items, and this was a great way to end the game. Too often a text-based adventure simply takes you on a magical mystery tour and when you unlock the final door it just ends. Not so here: John Blythe offers a visual treat when you do defeat the baddie (as well as when you don’t!) and the game has a nice story twist at the end, too.

I think the best compliment I can pay to the game is that when I started out, I only intended to play the game sufficiently to be able to write a review of it. I ended up getting hooked and thus played on until the very end. Each puzzle I solved would give rise to another clue or item that made me curious about the next step in the story. When I completed the first chapter, I knew I had to play on and complete the second if I was to give the game the review it deserved.

You can download a disk image of ‘The Darkness of Raven Wood’ from John Blythe’s Rucksack Games website here: https://www.rucksackgames.co.uk/ravenwood

Review Score
  • 8/10
    Gameplay - 8/10
  • 10/10
    Graphics - 10/10
9/10

Summary

This is an exceptionally well crafted game. John Blythe clearly spent a lot of time planning it out, writing a decent storyline and constructing a game that really is very immersive, aided in no small part by the beautiful artwork. This is all the more impressive considering the resource constraints: coding games for the BBC Micro is far from easy, and keeping the memory management in check with those sumptuous graphics must have been quite a challenge. All in all, a very playable – and addictive – game, as well as a feast for the eyes. Thank you, John, for keeping the spirit of the Beeb alive and well!

CJHoad

Growing up in the household of an 80s IT teacher, I was surrounded by Acorn computers from a very early age. I have been playing games on the Beeb, physically and via emulators, for the past thirty years and despite the advent of more powerful machines, nothing gives quite the same gaming pleasure as an adventure in 8-bit.