Every once in a while a game appears that is just so dazzling, it makes the rest of the industry sit up and pay attention. Times Of Lore is such a game. Origin has taken a huge step away from the selective tastes of the Ultima series into the mass appeal market - and by golly have they hit the mark.
Times Of Lore casts you in the role of a solitary character, thrown into an upturned kingdom, recently abandoned by its ruler due to feuds between his people and a race of barbarians in the south. The High King's son was left in command, but, as he is a useless so-and-so, the empire has fallen into complete disarray. Your job is to get the kingdom back into shape.
Before you are sent out into the world, you have to put a character together. The entire process of selecting a character is done by reading the pages of an on-screen book. After the story you are shown three characters at a bar. A Barbarian, who uses only his thick skin as armour, a Knight valiant and brave, though less resilient to damage than the Barbarian and a Valkyrie, fast and skillful - her life force is her most attractive feature.
Select your character by moving a pointer over its head, and you are presented with a faaaaaaab portrait of them, with a description of how they got into it all in the first place.
The game is viewed as an overhead four-way scroller, and, yes I have to make the comparison: much like Gauntlet, except a lot larger. In fact, the first thing to really hit you is the size of the game. The basic map, without going up or down any stairs, is 100 x 50 screens in size. That's 5,000 screens on the basic playing area. The entire game has 13,000 screens, which you mightn't think is pushing the limits, but you will when I tell you that it's a single load game. That's right, not a single bit of drive access at all!
When you begin (as seems to be the case with all Origin products) you don't have a clue as to what to do. This is rectified pretty quickly. You begin the game in the top floor of a tavern, beside the bed you've just slept in. When you come downstairs, you meet a cleric who instantly gives you your first sub-quest.
One thing you may be wondering is, if the game is an RPG, how do you do all the RPG stuff? The game revolves around a set of icons at the bottom of the screen. These icons enable you to pick up, drop, use, examine and give items that you may find. It also enables the conversation aspect. Conversation is a vital aspect of the game if you want to get anywhere. To start a conversation with someone, face them and then press space to get into the menu mode. Move a pointer at the bottom of the screen to the icon of the open mouth, and then press fire. You are then asked if you want to start a chit-chat, or ask the person you're talking to a question. If you choose chit-chat, the computer randomly chooses a phrase for you to say, and an appropriate answer from the person you're speaking to. For example, you select chit-chat with a serf. The computer displays: You ask the serf "How's life treating you?" The serf replied: "Not too bad". The 'Ask Question' system works in a different way. As you talk to people, some will give you important items of information. As they say it, it is acknowledged by a going. When you select Ask Question, a keyword of what that person has just said, along with any other keywords you might have collected, appear in a list.
You then select one of the keywords, and the person you're talking to will give you any information they may know on that particular subject. For example, I approached a serf, and asked him about any rumours that were circulating. He replied that Barton had seen someone sneaking around at night. The gong sounded and the word Sneaking was added to my list. I then asked the serf about Sneaking, and he said go and see Barton. I went to see Barton, questioned him, and sure enough, he knew about Sneaking.
Once he had told me, the word Sneaking was removed from my list, indicating that I had gathered all the information necessary on that topic.
Combat in TOL is the main arcade element of the game. As in Gauntlet, you are armed with a basic axe, sword, or whatever, depending on which character you have selected. This is only a held weapon unfortunately, which means you have to get up close to the nasties and hack them to bits, rather than take them at a distance. You can find other weapons, though.
Graphics and sound are amazing. Possibly some of the best I've ever seen on the C64, and I hear the Spectrum graphics are even better. Very high-res sprites and a very clever use of colour make the still graphics look good, but it's the animation that's really hot. The top down view works really well, as does the roof disappearing from the houses when you enter them.
The sound is highly atmospheric. Martin Galway has really surpassed himself both on the tunes to the intro sequence, and on the realistic effects.
As you're playing, you're going to get attacked quite a lot, and as you're attacked, you take damage, registered as a candle slowly burning down to the right of the screen. There are a couple of ways to replenish your supply. You can have a good night's sleep at an inn, at which point you are given the option of saving the game or taking a potion. Potions are dropped by some monsters when killed, along with gold and food. Food is necessary, but doesn't actually replenish anything.
The game plays like a dream, finish one quest then you're given another. I've been playing it solidly for a week and a half, and I'm only on the sixth quest.
Ultima V is being praised as Origin's best ever product, but only if you're into RPG's. Times Of Lore is Origin proving to the world that RPGs can have a mass appeal and can be obtainable, even by cassette users. One of the hottest products this year. Take my advice, steer clear games of games like Afterburner and Thunderblade this Christmas and get this one in your stocking. It'll have you playing long after the turkey's gone to the cat.