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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Xeen Review

This is the addendum to my Xeen review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Xeen yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: Xeen

These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Given enough, uh, time. Heh. In any event, here's all the news about Xeen that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site:

Personal Reactions

Clouds of Xeen was one of those games that blew me out of the water when I first played it, back in the early 90's. It hit that sweet spot between "too dry" and "too campy" and knocked it right out of the park. The graphics were very good for their day, particularly the details on the monster animations. The character advancement was eminently satisfying, all the more so because so much of it was mysterious at the time (the effects of spells, for example, had to be learned in the guilds themselves; the difference between a "coral" mace and a "lapis" mace was a secret that had to be learned from a blacksmith.) It was simply a really cool game. Darkside of Xeen drifted further towards the "campy" end of the spectrum, with lots of gratuitous Star Trek jokes and so on, but it generally held up well, pushing the engine to produce some new and interesting challenges and culminating in a very climactic animated cutscene between Corak and Sheltem, effectively resolving the entire series to date.

Coming back to the World of Xeen games ten years later, it's a lot easier to see their flaws. There's none of the magical immersiveness of Ultima VII, for example. They didn't have much of a plot. 90% of the quests were basically just delivering various quest items from one part of the world to another. Your party might as well have been assigned a brown delivery van in Vertigo. Despite all this, though--and despite technical errors that robbed me of the full audio experience--I still enjoyed playing these games again. Perhaps more importantly, my children, age 6 and 4, were enchanted by them. If a game can last ten years and still be capturing the imagination of a new generation of kids who have seen modern 3D graphics, then it's doing something really right.

Open Questions

One benefit of not having much of a plot is that you can't have too many holes in it, and that's the case with Xeen. However, there were several minor things that never did get resolved as far as I could tell:

1) The treasure map given to you by Jethro the Mapmaker makes no sense at all. If you follow it to the correct coordinates, there is no treasure buried there; instead there is a guy named Slibo who will buy the map from you and run off to the Desert of Doom with it to look for treasure. I assume this was just a munged quest; as far as I know there's no way to re-encounter Slibo in the Desert of Doom, nor to find the treasure for yourself.

2) There's another tent in Darkside Quadrant D1 (right next door to Xanthus and Slibo) that seems to be empty no matter what I do. Have I missed something there?

3) Was the "Vulture Repellent" a red herring, or a quest item that slipped through the cracks? It didn't seem to either increase or decrease the frequency of roc attacks, and as far as I could tell it was never used again in the game.

4) The Dungeon of Death seems like it was slapped together in a real hurry, especially compared to the carefully crafted dungeons elsewhere in this game. There were "stuck" levers all over the place that were never used--red herrings? cheap decor? unimplemented puzzles? There are numeric dials at the end of long passageways on level 2, most of which seem to have no effect at all no matter how you turn them. Two dials, on the other hand, will open secret passageways regardless of what number you turn them to. There's a fountain in this dungeon that has no apparent effect, and a throne called the "master's throne" that does nothing when you sit on it. And the elemental buildings on the bottommost level seem to be useless--the computer screens say only "Earth Core Active," "Fire Core Active," etcetera, and can't be changed or affected in any way.

5) In the Southern Sphinx near the very end of the game, there is one throne, the "Throne of Legends," which seems to have no effect regardless of who sits in it.

6) There also seem to be several small unreachable areas on the third floor of the Southern Sphinx--Teleport and Etherealize do not work, and there does not seem to be any puzzles that could be solved in order to open them.

If anyone can shed any light on any of these issues, please let me know about it!

Xeen Game Advances

Things I wish more contemporary games would learn from their elders:

1) There's a sense of accomplishment about playing these games--one that was lost in later Might and Magic games, oddly enough. Help a ranger rescue his fiancee on Xeen, and later you'll find they've settled down in a hut far away from where you first met them. Build yourself a castle, and you'll find that merchants set up shop inside it. Cure a woman of vampirism, and she'll lose her pointy teeth. They're small things, but seriously, in Might and Magic IX you can stop a curse of eternal winter in one city and it will still continue to snow there endlessly. It's nice to get the impression that you're having a tangible effect on the gameworld you're playing in--in some ways, that's even more satisfying a reward than an XP bonus.

2) Except for the financial issue (see Advice, below), the character development trajectory on these games was outstanding. Taken together, these two games contain significantly more hours of gameplay than usual, yet they suffer from neither the long, boring early game in which you can't do anything interesting yet nor the slogging, interminable late game where you feel like you've been doing the same thing for hours on end. There's always something new around the corner, a new item or a monster you haven't seen before or another way to improve your characters' abilities. And there's rarely a "bottleneck" battle that's too tough for your party so that you have to bash your head against it repeatedly before you can move on.

3) The dungeons are rich environments, full of tricks and traps, secret doors and special features. Cool dungeons are sort of a Might and Magic signature-- even the fairly boring MM9 had good dungeons--and I wish more modern CRPGs would take a closer look at what they did right. Even high-quality games like Gothic II and Morrowind have dungeons that are basically just map areas that happen to be underground. Might and Magic dungeons have themes, they have puzzles, they have unexpected elements, a few of the better ones even have ambience.

4) The interface is intrusive and rather ugly (it takes up far too much of the play screen, leaving you with the feeling of peering out at the world through a helmet visor.) In the functionality department, though, Xeen's interface puts many modern games to shame. You can shift easily back and forth between characters any time except during combat turns--even while shopping in a store or selecting spells. You can highlight a piece of armor and then equip it, or you can press "equip" and then choose the piece of armor. Both work equally well. You almost never need to memorize arcane command sequences, because the interface has been playtested until any logical sequence of keystrokes does what you'd like it to.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Xeen a 5.5 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, these are older games, so asking for graphical interfaces that didn't even exist until after their release would be pretty lame; I'm going to stick to suggestions that were either entirely possible at the time, or those that could be easily implemented in retrospect. In that vein, the first, most serious error was the disastrous balance between gold and experience points. The party spends about two-thirds of this game walking around having earned the right to new levels, yet being unable to afford training for them. You have the unappealing choice of either making peace with the fact that your characters will never achieve their full potential because it's too damned expensive, or else pathetically wasting hours and hours and hours of your own time buying things, enchanting them, and selling them back to merchants in order to raise money. This is a very bad situation to put your players in, and it should have been caught in beta.

A little more variety in gameplay would have been greatly appreciated, too. There are only so many times you can go fetch an X for person Y or go deliver a P to person Q. The Newcastle quest was a terrific exception to this problem. More exploration, interaction, or completion of marginally more complex tasks would have improved the game a lot. So would more flexibility in how to complete them. And the gameworld--well, compared to the Ultima games or even to Wizardry 7, it's flatly generic. There are no races or countries or factions among the NPCs that make any difference to any element of this plot. Monsters on the game map all attack mindlessly and have no interactions with each other. The six members of your party are the only active inhabitants of the planet, the only ones who actually DO anything. Without them, not only would the world of Xeen be destroyed by Sheltem, but no one would ever be able to communicate with anyone else or kill a menacing monster or acquire herbs for their potion business, either. The entire population of the planet depends on you for everything. Compare that with Ultima 7, where NPCs actually visibly went about their daily lives.

In the final analysis, though, I was pleasantly surprised to see how little those flaws cripple the Xeen games even after the passage of more than a decade. They're oldies but goodies, and any CRPG enthusiast should have a copy in their games library.

Best Quest: Building Newcastle. That was absolutely engrossing the first time I played this game. Your own castle! And you can build a keep in it! With your very own temple!
Lamest Quest: Probably ferrying those stupid snowflakes and flowers back and forth between all the incompetent druids so that the seasons would keep changing. Do they need my heroes to keep gravity functioning, too?
Best Puzzle: I liked the talking boulders in the Desert of Doom. Not only was their layout interesting, but their clues only narrowed each letter down to two or three options, so you still had to use your brain to figure the answer out.
Lamest Puzzle: The ones in the Golem Dungeon, which seem at first glance like they might have clever solutions but actually do not (you just had to close the doors and teleport back out in one case, and pull the levers till you have the right number of rocks in another.)
High Point: Probably the cutscene between Corak and Sheltem, which I still remembered vividly more than a decade later. Stepping out of the bottom of the Volcano Cave dungeon onto... the unexpectedly grassy plain of Shangri-La... was quite an experience as well.
Low Point: Sitting there clicking the "enchant" spell over and over again God only knows how many times to scare up the money for training. I can't believe there was a time in my life when it actually did not occur to me to go online and figure out how to hex edit a save file rather than waste a week of my life on something like that, but I was young and dumb, I guess... ;-)

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