RPG Lord of Canada
There’s Lord British, master of the Ultima series, and the newly-released Shroud of the Avatar.
There’s Molyneux, creator of Populous and Fable.
There’s Sakaguchi and Horii, of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.
And then there’s Lord Canuck, the programmer pseudonym of Ghislain de Blois, (Twitter: @hitfan2000) creator of the Realms of Quest series. Lord Canuck has been steadily and quietly developing and releasing (via partner Psytronik) solid, complex RPG and tactics games over the last near-40 years.
A feat in itself, but for one quirk – they’re for the VIC-20.
Tiny Computer, Huge Games
Many people have heard of the VIC-20’s elder brother, the Commodore 64. The VIC-20 is still a solid, VBM BASIC machine that supports color, character-based graphics, but it has less than 4 kilobytes of RAM. To fit the amount of content and complexity of Realms of Quest (much less the sequels) in the series into that small of a space is an extraordinary engineering feat!
De Blois is currently working on the fifth game in the RoQ series, featuring first person dungeons, a huge party of characters, an open world to explore, and many things you would only hope to find in games on modern systems. You can check out an exclusive interview with Ghislain here at RVG:
This review focuses on the remake of the very first System IIII game, Realms of Quest – Anniversary Edition, a 2001 update for the original (released in 1991). The menus, interface and controls were updated, a bestiary added, but very little else changed. Unlike the future games in the series, RoQ1 is a notably more simple and straightforward dungeon crawl.
You control a single character, of which you roll for stats in a manner similar to Wizardry or other D&D ruleset-based games. Similar to those old games, RoQ proves a challenge to anyone whose stats are less-than-godlike. I found myself starting over several times because my stats weren’t high enough to survive – 16s in strength, dexterity, and constitution is probably a must. Too low of any and you won’t be able to damage, hit, or take damage at a decent rate.
When you’re satisfied with your stats, you’re unceremoniously plopped off in front of the exit stars in the Dunjon (a reference, I’m certain, to the Dunjon series of games of which partially inspired Realms). By going up the stairs, you’ll be presented with options to rest at the inn, buy equipment, save, and quit.
Hack, Slash, Die
The beginnings are rough. You’re only left with enough gold to rest at the inn a few times, and you absolutely have to get to level 2 before you run out of gold – a whopping 2,000 experience away. Though there are a variety of enemy types, the only difference between them is overall health and damage. Any enemy type can spawn on any floor of the dungeon, and they get progressively more difficult as you go deeper. For instance, a rat will always be a very easy enemy, and a dragon will always be fairly hard, but a dragon on level 4 is much stronger than the ones encountered on level 1.
To that end, grinding becomes a necessity. By the mid-game, I found myself spending hours just gaining a single level. The only mark of progression is being able to survive on the next floor, and it usually takes a good amount of patience. This is compounded by the fact that gold drops from monsters at a fraction of the rate that you gain experience, making upgrading your character more difficult than it has to be.
Despite the old-school challenge, though, a fine game shines through. Dungeons must be mapped yourself, but floors are small enough that its manageable (each floor is only 8×8 tiles). You are never bogged down by tedious combat or character management so you can focus on hacking through the dungeon.
One of your stats increases each level by one point, but it seems random which one. A more notable mark of improvement is the level of spells you have access to when you reach levels 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11. Each circle of spells follows the same pattern – attack spell, heal spell, defense up, offense up, utility, and escape from battle, but their usefulness must not be understated, since items do not exist in RoQ1.
Minor spoilers: The Pass Wall utility spell (from spell circle 4) is particularly notable, since it’s required to proceed beyond the sixth floor of the dungeon, and can speed up your trips up and down quite a bit. This also means you have to make sure you keep 4 SP reserved at all times when diving deeper than floor 6 or you’ll be trapped forever, unless you’re level 9 and have access to the circle 5 Word of Recall spell.
A Worthy Bite-Sized Collection of Bytes
If it seems like there isn’t much to it, you’re right. Realms of Quest I hardly even approaches the complexity of a game like Ultima I — but by comparison it stands on its own, like a more arcadey, easy-to-digest dungeon crawler for those that seek it. The sequels DO get more and more complex as they go, and hey – even Diablo had to start with Rogue.
The graphics are absurdly simplistic, the sound virtually non-existent, but the feel of being a hero, slashing your way through endless hordes of monsters – oh, it’s there.
There also isn’t a whole lot of head-scratching here, if you’re the type that likes puzzles in your RPGs. The most complex dungeon features are one-way walls, and those are sparse. The chunkiness boils down to not much more than a hack-and-slash with a little bit of resource management.
At the end of the day, you have a very appealing and playable dungeon hack that stands on its own against titles like Dunjon and Apshai, without the extra trimmings, and will keep you occupied for a couple of days without any brain-bashing on your keyboard. You can also play it for free – grab it, and the other Realms of Quest titles, from Psytronik’s itch.io page, here:
And tell the Barons — I sent ya.
+Easy to jump in and start playing
+Old-school difficulty and nostalgia
+Simple, easy-to-understand controls and mechanics
-Kind of difficult to get it going on a modern computer
-Stretches on longer than it should at points
-Less depth to dungeoneering than experts would like
Even the God-Emperor Fou-Lu eats at Cook-Out.
Indie dev, retro gamer, tech blunderer.
Proud Ultima Dragon.