Ishar: Second Impressions

OK, now that I got the first impressions out of my system...  Ishar is a very free-form and imaginative role-playing game that does its best to alienate the modern player.
 
I LIKE it when saving can't be used as a crutch, but in a game this unforgiving it would be nice if saving was easier. Saving costs money (1000 gold) which you can afford to do all of once before exploring or getting into some combat.
 
Combat comes quickly, and because it's realtime, you can be ambushed from behind because you have to turn at 90 degrees, and while you're wheeling around you can be attacked. Attacking itself involves you clicking repeatedly on attack buttons for characters or hitting even-numbered function keys.  Spells are cast by actually going into the spell menu, which means your other people can't be told to attack (I mean, just attack, why do I need to tell you to do it?).
 
There's no resurrection, which I don't mind, but it means that the margin for error is slight.  When you get wounded, you get one chance to apply first aid (which I like) but without the ability to heal easily otherwise, you will be carrying wounds a long time.  Sleeping in an inn is potentially more expensive than saving, costing a fair bit per party member you have, and the bitch of it is that the health you heal while sleeping is minuscule. What you really regain are psy points (mana) and I guess some form of endurance (it's not exactly a transparent system) which might be used to make you more effective in combat. I haven't experimented with food, maybe food helps you heal better.
 
All these things sound kind of neat to me as an amateur designer, but when you combine them with unforgiving difficulty and saves that cost dearly, it makes for a...  well, read my first impressions. 
 
Not so neat: Guy with a burro who has a bunch of potions but won't tell you how much they cost. I spent thousands of coins before I realized he was actually taking my bids, and when I tried to murder him to get my hard-won coin back (so I could save my game, and eat, and sleep), he wouldn't die.  He just sat there and ignored me.  RELOAD.
 
AND WHAT IS IT WITH OLDER RPGs AND SPREADING GOLD OUT AMONG PARTY MEMBERS?  It adds an unnecessary step for something which seems to have little impact. Granted the party system in this one actually allows party members to betray you and take stuff, so it makes a bit more sense here, but especially in games where there are no traitors, spreading out gold is plainly a waste of time.
 
It's painful to see what is seems like a fun game, with a lot of effort put into it, shackled by these strange obstacles that serve only to alienate the new player.  
 
BUT, I absolutely love the design philosophy of the late, lamented Silmarils.  They never held back, and I can immediately tell this was made by them: the visual style is great, especially for an ostensibly 2D engine; the forests and the graphics of trees in those forests are nice and varied (a welcome relief from the cardboard-cutout forests of Might and Magic); the ambient sounds are much more interesting than an incessant music track; the tone is NOT your standard pseudo-medieval fare even if a lot of the old tropes are in evidence; the party system is really cool, with recruits not being immediately obvious apart from the people you find in inns (you can hire quite a few of the people you run into). The prequel game Crystals of Arborea is actually heavily referenced in this one, which is really neat, even if the prior game's blicky controls made it too frustrating for me to play.
 
An interesting side-effect of paying to save is that I actually go back to my old saves if I feel I've spent too much or not played well enough.  I've rarely felt the need to do this in a free-save RPG unless there was a bug or other serious problem, so it's at least different, if a pain in the ass.  If the cost was lower for this, and for sleeping at an inn (why can't you let me camp, game?), and for stuff in general, maybe it wouldn't be such a bear to play, and I'd actually enjoy this part more.  I wonder if I should hex-edit it to try a game with lower costs to start.  Not even sure that's possible, though.
 
 And yet, for all that, I'm probably going to play it some more quite soon.    There's a lot of cool stuff out there-- I'm near a tough dungeon in the middle of a forest, and I want to go back and buy a few spells, assuming I can afford them, to make my monk guy more useful (now that I finally understand how to use spells).  The game itself is a bit of an adventure to play, if by using the term adventure you mean to include the bad stuff with the good.

8 Comments
9 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

OK, now that I got the first impressions out of my system...  Ishar is a very free-form and imaginative role-playing game that does its best to alienate the modern player.
 
I LIKE it when saving can't be used as a crutch, but in a game this unforgiving it would be nice if saving was easier. Saving costs money (1000 gold) which you can afford to do all of once before exploring or getting into some combat.
 
Combat comes quickly, and because it's realtime, you can be ambushed from behind because you have to turn at 90 degrees, and while you're wheeling around you can be attacked. Attacking itself involves you clicking repeatedly on attack buttons for characters or hitting even-numbered function keys.  Spells are cast by actually going into the spell menu, which means your other people can't be told to attack (I mean, just attack, why do I need to tell you to do it?).
 
There's no resurrection, which I don't mind, but it means that the margin for error is slight.  When you get wounded, you get one chance to apply first aid (which I like) but without the ability to heal easily otherwise, you will be carrying wounds a long time.  Sleeping in an inn is potentially more expensive than saving, costing a fair bit per party member you have, and the bitch of it is that the health you heal while sleeping is minuscule. What you really regain are psy points (mana) and I guess some form of endurance (it's not exactly a transparent system) which might be used to make you more effective in combat. I haven't experimented with food, maybe food helps you heal better.
 
All these things sound kind of neat to me as an amateur designer, but when you combine them with unforgiving difficulty and saves that cost dearly, it makes for a...  well, read my first impressions. 
 
Not so neat: Guy with a burro who has a bunch of potions but won't tell you how much they cost. I spent thousands of coins before I realized he was actually taking my bids, and when I tried to murder him to get my hard-won coin back (so I could save my game, and eat, and sleep), he wouldn't die.  He just sat there and ignored me.  RELOAD.
 
AND WHAT IS IT WITH OLDER RPGs AND SPREADING GOLD OUT AMONG PARTY MEMBERS?  It adds an unnecessary step for something which seems to have little impact. Granted the party system in this one actually allows party members to betray you and take stuff, so it makes a bit more sense here, but especially in games where there are no traitors, spreading out gold is plainly a waste of time.
 
It's painful to see what is seems like a fun game, with a lot of effort put into it, shackled by these strange obstacles that serve only to alienate the new player.  
 
BUT, I absolutely love the design philosophy of the late, lamented Silmarils.  They never held back, and I can immediately tell this was made by them: the visual style is great, especially for an ostensibly 2D engine; the forests and the graphics of trees in those forests are nice and varied (a welcome relief from the cardboard-cutout forests of Might and Magic); the ambient sounds are much more interesting than an incessant music track; the tone is NOT your standard pseudo-medieval fare even if a lot of the old tropes are in evidence; the party system is really cool, with recruits not being immediately obvious apart from the people you find in inns (you can hire quite a few of the people you run into). The prequel game Crystals of Arborea is actually heavily referenced in this one, which is really neat, even if the prior game's blicky controls made it too frustrating for me to play.
 
An interesting side-effect of paying to save is that I actually go back to my old saves if I feel I've spent too much or not played well enough.  I've rarely felt the need to do this in a free-save RPG unless there was a bug or other serious problem, so it's at least different, if a pain in the ass.  If the cost was lower for this, and for sleeping at an inn (why can't you let me camp, game?), and for stuff in general, maybe it wouldn't be such a bear to play, and I'd actually enjoy this part more.  I wonder if I should hex-edit it to try a game with lower costs to start.  Not even sure that's possible, though.
 
 And yet, for all that, I'm probably going to play it some more quite soon.    There's a lot of cool stuff out there-- I'm near a tough dungeon in the middle of a forest, and I want to go back and buy a few spells, assuming I can afford them, to make my monk guy more useful (now that I finally understand how to use spells).  The game itself is a bit of an adventure to play, if by using the term adventure you mean to include the bad stuff with the good.

Posted by Tordah

This game is so obscure (to me, at least) that this is the first time I hear it by name. I don't pretend to know everything about games or even have a vast experience from playing them, but usually I'm at least familiar with them by name. I guess not with Ishar.
 
Anyway, personally I think it sounds way too frustrating to be any fun from your description. Who takes all that gold go when you save? Does the save game god demand sacrifices in this universe? Where does it go? It doesn't make any sense. I need to know!

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Tordah:  I'm not sure it's anything more than a gaming convention :)  Really, it's not in the least bit natural for anyone to save, so sacrificing the gold to the gaming gods is probably as close as we'll ever get to an explanation.  
 
Silmarils was a French development house that had some really unique and interesting concepts. Two of my favorites were the puzzle-action-platformer Metal Mutant (with the perfect, weird, whimsical tone that I always hope to find again in a science fiction game), and Arctic Baron, which had you controlling a post-apocalyptic train that could get artillery cars, and haulers for mammoths.  You could travel between towns, but would have to worry about bandits, wolves, and trains from raiders who would pull up along side you and blast the hell out of you.  :)
Posted by Claude

Maybe the past is the future. In a few years, you will be able to buy the ability to save through DLC packs. The gaming gods demand to be payed if you want to save.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Claude:  Heh.  Changes the dimensions slightly when it's real money instead of in-game money. :)
 
Come to think of it, all those DLC packs and micropayment advantages are blithely accepted by many players, even though that's actual money that could be used to buy anything, as opposed to weighing saving a game versus buying some leather armor.
 
DUDE THE WORLD IS SURREAL NOW.  I feel like I just emerged from a time capsule.
Posted by ArbitraryWater

Bought it on sale, just like me, eh? From the frustration I have endured so far, I can tell you with absolute certainty that I will probably never play any of the games in that pack ever again. They are a little too far past the line for me in terms of old school bullshit that I am willing to endure for the gameplay, perhaps even more than Realms of Arkania. I also bought Betrayal at Krondor at the same time, and despite that game's hilariously dated visuals, it at least seems like something an actual human being could play. Albeit, a fairly bored human being who likes Raymond E. Feist (me? I find his books a little pulpy.)

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@ArbitraryWater:  It was hard for me not to buy it, since I'm a bit of a Silmarils fan and had been wondering how it was possible to have a BAD role-playing game from these guys.  Well, I won't say it's bad, but I will say it's got so many design missteps that I'm sort of in awe. There's a full game map, by the way, if you're tired of trying to play it on its own terms. Linked in the GOG forums somewhere.
 
You never did get around to trying the third Realms of Arkania game, did you?
 
Betrayal at Krondor...  you say that about the visuals because it has live actors against mismatched backgrounds?  I tried to get that to work a long time ago (it's freeware now, I think, released by the creators) but it never quite ran properly for me.  I'm not in the least bit familiar with Raymond E. Feist's stuff, but then again I'm pretty much not familiar with any popular fantasy writing outside of Howard and Tolkien.  I tried to read the Sword of Shanara and was seeing too many parallels to Lord of the Rings, and I tried to read Wheel of Time but felt it was trying too hard too early to establish the depth of the setting. 
Posted by ArbitraryWater
@ahoodedfigure: Never did try that 3rd Realms game. Because it's sold seperately and I don't really feel like putting down $6 for something I know I don't have time for, with me currently in the process of playing Icewind Dale as well as having recently obtained Call of Duty Black Ops and Fallout New Vegas. And yeah, my reference to BAK was to the great digitized photographs of actors against random backgrounds. The thought that someone, somewhere had to put on some of those costumes fills me with glee.
 
As for fantasy novellia, the Shanara books kind of suck and not just because the first one is basically Lord of the Rings, but because the later stories and story arcs kind of just repeat the same thing over and over. However, (I mean this in an entirely good way) the Wheel of Time is totally batshit crazy. Sure, its long, bloated, and a lot of the characters are fairly unlikeable (basically, the female characters are all uptight self-assured shrews), but it's pretty amazing in terms of scope and plot.  And apparently Brandon Sanderson (another fairly good fantasy author) is doing a good job finishing the series.
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@ArbitraryWater:  I've read that Canadian writer Steven Erikson has managed to break away from the Tolkien Trap (where everyone just follows slavishly in the footsteps of probably the most famous of fantasy authors). I dunno.  I talk about fantasy a lot but I feel sort of irritated by the idea of testing out someone else's world to see whether or not it meets my definition of interesting.  Seems unfair to the writer and a waste of my time, but I have books like The Name of the Wind sitting on one of our many bookshelves, taunting me to read them.
 
I've heard some good things about Wheel of Time, but when you say Shanara repeats itself, I've heard the same thing about Wheel of Time, and that this cyclic nature is actually central to the design of the series.  Right now I'm reading one of Tolkien's resurrected prequel books and actually enjoying it when I can keep all the major players straight (my brain seems to be good at creating some incredible imagery when a story gets all mythical). 
 
I don't blame you about not getting the third Arkania given that you'd have to buy it separately, but I remember enjoying it as far as I got, even though they tend to use a lot of celebrity photos for NPCs :) and some of the game can be pretty brutal.