Saturday, September 23, 2017

Inquisitor: Shade of Swords: Won? (with Summary and Rating)


The winning screen offers an explanation of "the mystery."
      
Inquisitor: Shade of Swords
France
Dan Sureau (developer); Chip (publisher)
Released in 1987 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started:  17 September 2017
Date Ended: 20 September 2017
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Having reached something of the end of Shade of Swords, my best guess is that it was programmed by a younger developer who wanted to tell an epic story through interactive gameplay but lacked the experience and wisdom to both write a good story and program an adequate game to tell it. The ambitions of the title far exceed its execution, and even at the end, I'm baffled by much of what I experienced.
     
My first party fails to kill the gladiator.
      
After the first session, I started the game over and made a new party in which every character favored physical attributes. If I lowered everything else to 5, I could devote 35 combined points to dexterity, intelligence, and constitution (giving two a score of 12 and one a score of 11). This had no effect on the characters' starting equipment.

I paid more attention to the scores this time to see what caused them to change. "M," representing mental ability or morale, never went anywhere. I can only assume that its uses were never actually programmed into the game. "P" seems to be the traditional hit point total. The top line, "E," seems to be some kind of prediction of how many combat rounds the character will last if he takes the average amount of damage per round. 

I also figured out how healing worked. It had nothing to do with the urns and bones and other weird things in some of the rooms; I guess they served no purpose at all. Instead, health just seems to regenerate as you walk around, but the screen doesn't refresh to reflect the healing until you enter an encounter again. It doesn't take long for health to regenerate--one point every few steps.

With my newly-maxed party, I swept through the dungeon, clearing out the same encounters I'd defeated last time, picking up their equipment and keys. Enemies with keys are always named, it seems. I also discovered that if you choose the "barter" option with friendly NPCs early in the game, they offer health potions.
     
I took this for a ring at first.
    
I defeated the gladiator without too much trouble. I had to drink a couple of health potions during combat, but that was it. If I'd had those potions with the last party, they might have been able to defeat him, too. He had a trident, which I assumed was better than my swords and thus gave to a character.

His key unlocked an area on the second floor that ultimately led me to Crassus himself. I thought Crassus was supposed to be the "bad guy" of the game, but he greeted me with a hearty "salut!" and sold me a key.
      
When asked where he is, Crassus himself says "here or there."
     
At this point, I reached a dead end again. Crassus's key opened a door on the third level, but there was another keyed door just beyond it for which I never found a key.
     
Va au diable!
    
Reading the instructions more carefully, I saw a note that if you choose to end the game with the last icon on the main screen, the game will give you a kind of "epilogue" of your adventures. I didn't notice it last time because you have to rewind the tape and let it cycle to the right track to generate the text.

Ending the game in the middle of the dungeon just produces a note that "four adventurers entered the Tomb of the Gods; none returned." But if you end the game at the same square that you entered the dungeon on Level 1, the game assumes you made it out. When I tried it at this point, I got a screen that said four entered, four made it out, and I had a score of 1/5. "Less than half the elements of this adventure have been discovered."
     
Not quite a winning screen, but at least an ending.
     
Looking over my maps, I figured I must have missed something in the dungeon level. The level otherwise has no reason to exist; the only key I found on the level opened another door on the same level and led to a dead end. Returning, I forced myself to test every wall and found a secret door--the only place in the game where this occurs.
     
This just screams "secret door," doesn't it?
     
It led to a stairway down to a bizarre level where the wall textures indicated futuristic technology. We were immediately greeted by a robot who said to "choose the right path."

I didn't know what that meant, so I saved the game and began exploring. It was a good thing I saved. Many of the doors were labeled with colors: black, gold, and red. I didn't find any pattern to what I found beyond the doors, but a lot of the pathways in the level led to dead ends with bones on the floor and no way to turn around. 
      
Yeah? So?
      
There were otherwise no combats or encounters on the level, but there were a ton of one-way doors and a bunch of rooms that, like Level 1, had objects in them that looked maddeningly like they should be interactable. They included a book, several swords stuck in the floor, something that might have been people hibernating in pods, orbs, a rocket ship, and even a house! None of the commands produced any results in these areas, though.
        
Seriously, what is going on with this? And why does that particular house icon look so familiar?
       
Eventually, I made my way back to the entrance with (I thought) nothing to show for it. But when I checked my party's chest, it turns out they did have a book that they picked up somewhere.

I returned to the starting square at Level 1 and ended the game to see if it would say anything different. Hoo boy. I was presented with several text-heavy screens that presumed to fill in the larger story. Most of it was textual narration of my party's progress through the dungeon itself, starting with some dialogue from the characters:
       
Had Alton led them to the citadel by pure luck, or did he act according to a deliberate design which he had been careful not to unmask?

Alton contemplated with satisfaction the line of attributes on the screen of the computer. "I knew that I was intelligent!" he said.
               
Not in the version of you that I created, Alton.
                            
Elisabeth: "Does God exist? Are we, the poor adventurers of the planet Astul, created by a transcendent and omnipresent entity?"

Jofil: "Since the beginning of this adventure, I've felt that someone is watching us!"

"Anyway, we're going to spend the treasure we've found!" said Eddy.
       
There was no text related to the first level, but the next screen recounted the party's discovery of the secret door in the dungeon:
            
The adventurers arrived in a very dark and empty room. There was no other door except the one they came in. Damn. Where is this famous crypt--the remains of the tomb of the gods? It cannot be found! But one of the party members who had mapped the cellars looked at it and said nonchalantly, "Look there: there is a room and we have not found any door leading to it!"

All that remained was to push the walls of the room in question to find the secret door. They entered a new room. A staircase descended again. They took it and reached a strange room with metal walls. The Crypt of the Ancients!
          
The next screen tried to make sense of that bottom level:
        
The adventurers then meet a robot who saluted them as if he had seen his creators yesterday. Then, according to his program established centuries before, he said in a metallic voice: "Choose the right path." They understood that they had to study all the clues left by the elders to avoid the traps of the crypt. 

In the third room, two doors leading to antechambers offered inscriptions: red, black. "Since we are in the graveyard of the gods, let us prefer black, the symbol of religion, to the red symbol of war." At the back of each room there were two doors that opened onto two antechambers, and they continued to interpret the writings, as they seemed to them to be the path traced by the gods.

The doors of paradise are narrow and in addition you have to choose the right one! They crossed at once a strange room made of alcoves. In each of them was a perfectly preserved body in a glass cage. Are these the gods? The temple of the symbols said we had to await their return from the stars!
          
I think this is what the text is talking about.
            
The last room contains strange machines and incomprehensible documents that they take with them. This room leads directly to the first room of the crypt. They had at last the solution of the mystery of the gods!
          
Finally, the last screen elucidated the so-called "mystery":
      
The "gods" came from an Earth civilization (Earth is not a legend!), the second to travel into space in the 21st century. They built several bases on the planet Astul, the crypt being one of them, on which a city and temple were later built.

Then the planet was cut off from the rest of the galaxy. The inhabitants of the bases took off in an interstellar ship. The ship crashed back onto the planet--goodbye to Earth! Some of the survivors chose to place themselves in a state of hibernation until contact was restored; these are the ones that the adventurers found in the crypt. The others were the ancestors of the inhabitants of Astul.

The last of these originator, when the days of barbarism came, placed in the crypts the traps that you discovered, and a robot to prevent encroachment. And it became the Tomb of the Gods.
     
After all that, the screen then gave me a score of 3/5, suggesting that there was still more to find. Presumably it was behind that locked door on the third level for which I never found a key. 
       
It's as if the author wrote a book first, then decided to make a game.
      
Looking through the game files, I did find two screens that I didn't get at the end. One was titled "LES BRIGANDS" and it depicts the party executing the bandit chief. The second is titled "CRASSUS" and depicts the party killing the character. Perhaps I could have achieved this one if I'd attacked Crassus instead of returning his friendly greeting. I tried returning to his chamber, but it didn't give me the encounter again.

Well, I'm going to call that at least a partial win. It took longer to translate the endgame text than to play the game. As I said, the developer clearly had a story he wanted to tell, and he was going to shoehorn it into the interface, sense or no sense. I guess the question is whether it's an original story. Certainly, it feels derivative of something, but Googling the proper names doesn't produce anything.

As an RPG, it's pretty miserable. The entire dungeon is as big as maybe three levels of Wizardry, and there are only about 10 combats with hardly any tactics. What looks to be a magic system was never finished. There is no character development or leveling despite a "level" statistic, and no use that I can see of most of the character attributes. There are only a couple of equipment upgrades, and for all the thousands of gold pieces you find (in a single batch), nothing to spend it on except a couple of potions and keys.

The graphics and sound are minimal and the interface is inexcusable--the computer you're designing for has a keyboard, people! Pretty much the only thing I can admire is the character portraits; adjusting these to reflect currently-equipped items is rare for the 1980s. I can only think of two other games--The Black Onyx (1984) and Galdregon's Domain (1989)--that do it.

On a GIMLET, I give it a 16, earning the best scores in story and quest (3s). As weird as the whole thing is, this might be the first RPG that offers different text in the endgame depending on what the party accomplished during the game. Everything else gets a 1 or 2.
     
Actual production values were afforded to this weird half-game.
      
From everything I've described, you'd think this was a shareware effort, but in fact Inquisitor (who, by the way, is the "inquisitor" of the title?) got what looks like a reasonably thorough production from its publisher. I don't know much about "Chip" except that it was headquartered in Paris and published a handful of games between 1987 and 1990, including an adventure game based on Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1988) and three strategy games with interesting settings: Joan of Arc: Siege & the Sword (1989), Day of the Pharaoh (1989), and Khalaan (1990). Inquisitor seems to be their only attempt at an RPG, but they thought enough of it to give a name (CLONETRON) to the interface.

Dan Sureau is even more of a mystery. I've found several possible candidates online, including one who died in 2015, but none for sure. I can't find that name attached to any other video games. If any of my French readers have Facebook accounts and want to message the several other candidates on that platform to see if they'll take credit for the game, I would really love to hear from the author. I feel like he owes us some answers.

In case you hadn't had enough of the inscrutable French, Karma, the sequel to Tera, is coming up next. Before then, we'll see if I can make progress in another fantasy/sci-fi hybrid.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Might and Magic III: Moo and Moose Juice

Yuck?
     
No additional outdoor explorations this time. This entire session was spent cleaning various dungeons and special encounters in the areas I already mapped.

I started with the dungeon below Baywatch. Gnoman was right that the unavoidable pools in the dungeon aren't poison; they're acid. By this point, I had the "Protection from Elements" spell and was able to neutralize the threat. The enemies weren't too hard, mostly the very "bubblemen" that I faced in the first town. A boss-level creature called a "phantom" capped the small area.

I freed a couple of NPCs, including a knight named Sir Galant (did you work hard on that one, JVC?) and a cleric named Darlana. I wasn't interested in taking either since my existing archer and druid already complement my party.
    
You were sold to phantoms by skeletons? What did they do with the money?
    
Up in the town proper, Brother Alpha had told me that I should endeavor to find magic seashells for the nymph Althea. He told me to seek out his brother, Beta, for more information. Beta was in the dungeon and filled in a bit more information--the seashells are on an island--before sending me on to Brother Gamma in Wildabar. Each time one of the brothers passes me along to the next, it's accompanied by a vignette of the brother summoning a small creature to deliver a message to the next brother that I'll be coming. Each one also gave me a "quatloo coin." Although I didn't meet the other brothers until much later, I'll cover the rest of the story now. Gamma said that the name of the island is Rainbow Island; Delta said that one shell is released onto the island on a particular day of the year; and Zeta said that the day is #99.
    
Getting the last hint in the Arachnoid Caverns.
      
Next up were the Halls of Insanity in A3, probably the hardest dungeon of this session, although of course I didn't know it going in. Buffed as I was with the fountains, the creatures weren't so much difficult as thoroughly annoying. Some small dragons were easy to neutralize with "Protection from Elements" set to "Fire," but some creature called "Mystic Clouds" blanks a character's spell points when they hit, and they have ranged attacks. Spells are particularly necessary in this dungeon because many of the chests have teleporter traps in front of them, and you have to cross with "Jump."

Even worse, the dungeon introduces "Evil Eyes" for the first time. They remain one of my most hated enemies from Might and Magic VI. They're already in proper form here, turning the entire party insane with a single blast--a condition that I still have no spell to cure. I had to keep leaving and returning.
      
One day, I shall slaughter hundreds of you with blaster rifles.
     
There were three easy riddles here, all opening the way to areas of the dungeon, all with a common theme:

  • "This river of mine always flows down, never the same as its course. Laden with salt, it outlines a frown. The Great Sea is not its source." (TEARS)
  • "Automatically it's done; I don't have time to think. It darkens my world for a bit; it comes and it passes quick as a wink, with a two-fold, cleansing flit." (BLINK)
  • "A window they seem, that leads to no corridor. Their color lucid like a gem, reflections they cast, tho' not a mirror. Beauty resides within them." (EYES)

In the end, the dungeon was worth it. First, I found a statue that conferred all 18 skills in the game to any character for a 100,000 gold piece payment. That sounds like a lot, but I was walking around with almost a million and had another million back in the Fountain Head vault, earning interest. I bought the skills for all six of my "real" party members (i.e., not the NPCs).
      
My insane knight can't even use all of these skills, but it still seemed like a good deal.
      
I made that back easily when I followed clues to a set of coordinates not connected to the rest of the dungeon (I had to "Teleport" there) and found a chest with 1 million gold. Other chests in the dungeon held an "Ancient Artifact of Evil" (worth a lot of experience when I find the evil castle) and a "Hologram Sequencing Card." Later dungeons would deliver more of those mysterious cards. 

Finally, the dungeon produced my first two Ultimate Power Orbs, which I returned to King Zealot (the "good" king) for 1 million experience each. I later found two more and gave them to the neutral king. Does trying to keep the balance mean that I'm naturally favoring the neutral king? Wouldn't giving him all the orbs damage the concept of neutrality?
      
At least it's hard to miss these.
     
Next up was Dark Warrior Keep in B3, where Corak's notes promised that someone called the "Top Jouster" guarded two more Ultimate Power Orbs. The dungeon was swarming with dark dwarves and lesser jousters. Neither was terribly hard, although the jousters tended to do a ton of damage to one character at a time.
     
Keeping horses inside a dungeon seems cruel.
  
Annoying chests kept exploding and killing my ninja no matter how many hit points she had. I don't think it had anything to do with skill; the chests just inevitably explode when you try to open them. Naturally, I still had to try to open every one, lest I miss a quest item. Fortunately, I had a wand that cast "Raise Dead." Traps that you can't avoid or even protect against are an obnoxious game mechanic.
    
          
There was a math puzzle here involving identifying a "secret number" hidden in the walls . . .
     
    
. . . and then adding, subtracting, and multiplying various amounts written as stories on Pegasus statues.

For some reason, hanging skeletons conferred some attribute upgrades. Ultimately, I killed the Top Jouster and got his orbs.

The Arachnoid Caverns followed, and they were incredibly easy. I should have been here first. An outer ring of caverns was swarming with spiders and "Dino Beetles," and I could summon more with gongs placed throughout the area. I mostly killed them with arrows before they even reached me.
     
These were a lot harder in the last game.
     
A set of secret doors opened the way to inner caverns where a variety of crystals conferred one-time 10-point upgrades to luck, accuracy, personality, and intelligence. It took me a little trial and error before I figured out how the descriptions matched the benefit; crystals that increase luck are described as vibrating, for instance, and those that increase accuracy have a mysterious liquid flowing from them.
     
These increase intelligence.
      
Some of the rooms had thrones. Lord Might occupied one and gave me a puzzle that involved running around, speaking to the others in a particular order, and doing some math with their clues. My reward was 1 million experience points. Plus, I could give Lord Might 5,000 gems and reset the roughly 12 crystals in the dungeon, allowing them to impart their benefits again. I checked my gem total (13,000) and decided I could afford enough for one more round. I could see myself returning to the caves later in the game if I have a gem surplus.
      
This game is more puzzle-heavy than the other titles in the series.
      
Wildabar's dungeon followed, full of phantoms and ogres guarding casks of witches' brew. Two of the casks nonsensically held an imprisoned ninja named Wartowsan and a ranger named Lone Wolf, both available as an NPCs after I released them.
     
A cute reference.
     
The other casks were sometimes acid, but sometimes increased a random attribute. Unlike the crystals, there was no consistency in their descriptions, so I couldn't target the increases to particular characters.
    
I love how only one character can drink from a barrel large enough to accommodate a man.
    
In the Arachnoid Caverns, I had found keys to the last two dungeons in the opening areas. The first I tried was the Cathedral of Carnage in B3, headquarters of the Moo Cult, swarming with gargoyles and Clerics of Moo. The gargoyles weren't hard to kill, but they have an attack that sometimes paralyzes characters. Fortunately, this wears off after a few rounds. Priests and clerics of Moo used a weak electrical attack that "Protection from Elements" mostly rendered . . . wait for it . . . "moot."
      
Corak's notes paint the cult as evil but spectacularly ineffective.
      
Things went sour in the first room when a magic mouth cursed all my characters (I have no reversal spell) and got worse when I was unable to figure out a solution to a puzzle involving rotating heads. I had to mark it for a later return, but I need to solve it to get two Ultimate Power Orbs.
     
I have no idea what this was about.
      
I don't know about this Moo. This isn't the last time Van Caneghem will plague us with this kind of sillineess: the Temple of Baa figures heavily in Might and Magic VI and VII. The symbology there relates to sheep and rams, so you would assume that the priests of "Moo" worship some kind of cow god. But the head that cursed me said that "only the disciples of the Mighty Moose shall walk through these halls in peace," and there were some other references to moose in a cypher puzzle and the "moose juice" chalices, so I guess Moo is a moose. I suppose moose make about as much of a "moo" sound as cows do. Although it doesn't come up anywhere that I can see, the reference is probably to Bullwinkle specifically, as in Might and Magic II, the developer showed a fondness for other characters from the series.
  
Bold talk.

Lame walk.
   
The puzzle I couldn't solve had three parts. The first had to do with those heads. Five of them are lined up in alcoves and can be turned to face any cardinal direction. The heads are named Positro, Penetro, Dynatra, Barytro, and Proto. I couldn't figure out anything obvious from their names or anything. The second part involved an easy cypher puzzle that netted me some treasure. The third apparently involved drinking one or all of a series of "moose juice" chalices, but every sip either killed, eradicated, or stoned a character. I can solve these conditions now, but they have associated magical aging effects, and I figured there was no reason to solve that part of the puzzle when I couldn't solve the first.

Regardless, the trip was worth it. Scattered throughout the dungeon were most of the game's highest-level spells. I got "Town Portal," which frees up "Lloyd's Beacon" to be used in dungeons I want to return to instead of towns. "Raise Dead," "Resurrect," and "Holy Word" were all here, as well as some powerful offensive spells like "Moonray" and "Mass Distortion."
      
My cleric's spellbook now has most of the most powerful spells.
       
My final stop was at the Fortress of Fear in B2. An enemy called a "Plasmoid" seemed like a pushover before I realized that his attacks broke my armor and my attacks against him broke my weapons.

More difficult were a series of mummies, all of whom pathologically went after my druid every single round and caused disease. (Thankfully, that's one condition I do have a spell to cure.) An annoying and tedious lever puzzle (I had to run around the dungeon pulling levers then checking their results in the central room) led to a confrontation with the Mummy King, who had some nice treasure.
     
It looks like the mummies are begging me not to cast the "Fireball."
      
At this point, I had conquered everything in the opening 8 maps except for the two castles and the pyramid, all of which I had reasons for leaving until later. Before moving on, I returned to Slithercult Stronghold to spend some of the "quatloo coins" that were taking up precious inventory slots. Magic mouths in this dungeon give you strength, accuracy, and constitution boosts for each coin. I hope they're not needed elsewhere.

I wrapped up the session by heading to a new map. Rather than cast "Water Walk" to move to Column C or cast "Town Portal" to take us to the two locations I hadn't explored, I decided to do it organically and go see the ferryman at the tip of land in B3. He promised travel to Swamp Town.
       
This rather reminds me of that map in Might and Magic II where you find a ferryman on a river long after any sensible player would have acquired "Water Walk."
      
I'm glad I did it this way. My guide stopped several times to note islands or land features and something of their histories and lore. His first few tips were about areas I'd already explored, such as the Land of the Gargoyles. But soon we passed the ruins of Castles Greywind and Blackwind, and then the Isle of Fire, which holds many "fiery fiends" and a magically-protected town.
     
It's like being on the introductory tour in Pool of Radiance again.
     
I ended up in Swamp Town, way over in area E2, which I'll explore and write about next time--unless I decide to revert to a more systematic exploration back in C1. My guide did warn me that only "experienced adventurers" should venture outside of Swamp Town. The good news is that with "Town Portal," I can zip just about anywhere quickly. I wonder if "Fly" exists in this edition.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • I did try one visit to the arena. I killed a handful of easy enemies and got 1,000 experience points. I assume every time I go back, I'll get harder foes and more experience.
       
Arenas go back to the first title, but this game begins a tradition of making them inaccessible through normal exploration.
      
  • As is his wont, in the Cathedral of Carnage, the developer wrote his initials in the walls. 
     
I assume the "III" refers to the game number, as I've never seen Van Caneghem credited as a III.
     
  • I really haven't been using magic much in combat. The highest-level spells cost a lot of spell points. Weak and mid-range spells rarely outperform a physical attack. I have to start experimenting more now that I just got a bunch of new, powerful spells all at once.
  • Most of my party is Level 19 or 20. The training facility in Wildabar stops training at Level 20, so visiting new towns is a good idea.
  • The inventories of my first two characters are now completely full with keys, keycards, and other quest items that won't become useful until much later. That could be a problem if it continues. 
      
It's a good thing my medieval party recognizes this as something to keep.
      
My party feels awfully powerful for having only explored 1/3 of the outdoor area. I don't think there are very many spells more powerful than we have. Is it possible that the dungeons are frontloaded on the first set of islands? I guess we'll see.

Reflecting on the encounters in this session, I have to call up a couple of paragraphs that I wrote more than six years ago, in the midst of Might and Magic II

I just wish the game took itself more seriously. I don't have any problem with humor, but there's a difference between humor and goofiness, and Might & Magic II leans a bit too far towards the latter. I increase my endurance by listening to a singing ogre. We have NPCs named Thund R., Harry Kari, Sir Kill, Jed I, and Spaz Twit. A zombie, for no apparent reason, gives me an admission ticket to Corak's Cave. I fight armies of cripples. The tavern leaves the "h" out of "roasted pheasant" (ho, ho). A statue references wizards named Ybmug and Yekop (read them backwards). Add this to the nonsensical existence of clues written randomly on dungeon walls, and you have a game that makes it hard to suspend disbelief and just enjoy it. It's always stopping to say, "Hey! This is just a game! And look how clever we are!"

That doesn't make it not fun--it's still probably the best game I've played so far in this blog--it's just not quite as fun as if it took the world it created seriously and populated it with more realistic and interesting NPCs.

I have the same feeling as I go through this third edition. The Temple of Moo, random lords sitting on thrones in the midst of a cavern full of spiders, silly signs in the middle of nowhere, and a dozen other encounters all Jar-Jar-Binks their way through the plot, undermining the otherwise-serious world-building the developers have accomplished. At least the VI-VIII series mostly cut out this nonsense, but never entirely.
   
Time so far: 28 hours
Reload count: 11

*****

Quick list note: Enchantasy: Quest for the Eternal Grimoire was coming up, but I found enough evidence that (despite its copyright date) it wasn't released until 1993, so I moved it to that year.

If anyone has any documentation or experience with Chaos in Andromeda: Eyes of the Eagle, I would appreciate an e-mail. I haven't been able to find a game manual, and I'm having trouble with combat in-game.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Game 262: Inquisitor: Shade of Swords (1987)

I could be wrong, but that just looks like the regular shade of trees.
        
Inquisitor: Shade of Swords is another title from the "Golden Age" of French RPGs, which tends to mean that it offers a plagiarized story, an interface made by someone who once saw an American CRPG but never played it, and a few random weird elements that the genre never saw before or after. I suppose the weirdness starts with the fact that the title is for some reason in English while everything else in the game is in French. The in-game title also lacks the Inquisitor part, although it's found on the manual and game box.

I say "plagiarized story" because every time I recount the backstory of a French RPG, commenters come along to tell me that the same story appeared in Conan, or some obscure British sci-fi novel, or The Adventures of Tintin. Perhaps that isn't the case here, and if so I owe the developer an apology for even suggesting it. But the backstory seems a little too elaborate to have been developed for an RPG of such limited mechanics.

The setting is the planet Astul, a formerly high-tech world on which civilization has collapsed and people have entered a dark age, isolated for centuries from the rest of the galaxy, ignorant of even their own history. Men fell into warlike tribes (called "Hellus Angelus"), modeled after ancient Sparta, and nearly wiped each other out.
      
The manual cover suggests a depth of story and gameplay that isn't quite present in the game.
     
Then suddenly came a warlord in electronic armor named Crassus Laurantus who brought an end to anarchy and united everyone under his tyrannical rule. He has taken over a citadel in the city of New-Cythere (which he renamed as New-Sparta). The citadal used to be a temple to the old gods (beings of great technological achievement), whose departure from Astul caused or was coincidental to the collapse. Great secrets are rumored to reside in a room at the bottom of the temple, and of course Crassus's wealth is scattered throughout. Four adventurers arrive at the temple's door, seeking wealth and answers. 
       
I would appreciate if any native French speakers could help me with nuances I might have missed. I have no idea what the bits about "Ephore" or the whole phrase "ze zouis vautre lit d'air" means.
        
The game starts you with pre-created characters named Alton, Elisabeth, Jofil, and Eddy. Each has statistics in intelligence, observation, constitution, agility, dexterity, mysticism, ego, sensitivity, "aura," and mental ability. They are all set to 7 by default. You can increase some by lowering others; the maximum range is 5 to 15. I tried to make each character good in 3 statistics, but I suspecct I should have invested in agility, dexterity, and constitution for everyone.
     
Trading agility for intelligence.
      
After you set these attributes, you begin in a 3D textured dungeon. The goal seems to be to reach the last room of the temple's crypt and then return to the entrance. Four character portraits reflect current weapons and armor. The interface is meant to be played with a joystick, just as we saw with Fer & Flamme (1986) and L'Anneau de Zengara (1987). While the compass is selected, the joystick moves the party. Pressing the button releases the compass and allows selection of one of the other on-screen commands: search the area, check the compass, mark the current position, have a character attempt to determine in which direction the "mark" lies, manage inventory (with subcommands for picking up , trading, using, and dropping items), check character statistics, and save/quit the game.

The first level was 13 x 24. It had staircases going both up and down. There were a handful of one-way doors but no secret doors.
       
The game's first level.
      
A lot of the rooms have objects in them that look like they should be interactable but are not. They include a statue, urns, totem poles, and skeletons. For some reason, you can't turn right or left in the rooms that hold these objects, only progress forward (if there's a door on the other side), or back out the door you came in. There otherwise haven't been any special encounters or text within the game.
      
If there's anything special to do here, I'm missing it.
       
Combats occurred at mostly-fixed locations, with enemies like decurions, pretoriens, bandits, and in one case a lion. Combat uses a basic Wizardry template: specify an action for each character and watch them execute in turn, along with the enemies' attacks. Actions in combat are parry, thrust, swing, flee, use a potion, and something that translates as "try to influence the person" and has an image of a brain. Maybe this is some kind of Jedi mind-trick? It hasn't worked once. There otherwise appears to be no "magic" in the game.
      
Watching the combat actions scroll by.
     
I found combat relatively hard in the opening stages, at least until I got better equipment. Some of the fixed enemies are harder than others. A couple of my characters, with low dexterity and strength, hardly ever seem to do any damage. I do find that some enemies concentrate attacks on a single character, and if I just have that character parry every round, he hardly ever takes damage and the other characters can kill the enemies.
          
My characters hit a lot, but enemies are just "scratched."
       
Post-combat, you have the option to loot the enemy corpses for equipment, including weapons, armor, shields, helms, and (rare) potions. I don't know if there's a way to tell what items are better than others except by assuming those with the cooler icon are better. For instance, I assume the helmets with horns sticking out from the sides outperform simple caps. Characters are limited in what they can carry by strength. Once I got everyone with blades (some started with sticks) and what looks like studded leather armor, combat on the first level became much easier.
      
Looting a helm after combat.
      
I haven't been able to figure out how to interpret the grid of numbers under the character portraits. Each column is clearly a character, but I don't know what the three letters ("E," "P," and "M") stand for. The numbers seem to be a combination of armor class and hit points but don't respond in predictable ways. All I can say is that when they get down to 0, characters tend to die.

I'm also a bit confused about how health regenerates. It always seems to happen when I'm not looking, and it may have something to do with those urns, totem poles, and so on.

Occasionally, you encounter enemies who greet you with a "salut!" instead of attacking. For these encounters, you have a separate set of menu options to greet them back (which just makes them go away), attack them, barter with them, or question them. That last option always produces the same question: "Where can we find Crassus?" To that question, I always get the same answer: "I don't know."
        
Based on the backstory, I wasn't even aware that I was looking for Crassus.
        
Several of the combat encounters on Level 1 were with named enemies, and these generally produced a key at the end of combat. These keys opened a succession of locked doors, culminating in a treasure room in which I found 7,899 gold pieces. I have no idea what gold does for you except make you more susceptible to bandit attacks. There was one encounter on the level with a "gladiator" that I couldn't defeat. 
       
I suppose part of our mission is complete.
       
I went one level up from the starting area and found a small level that ended in a keyed door for which I didn't have the key. There was another stairway up, which led to an even smaller area with another keyed door. Each level has a different color tint.
      
Finding all that gold made me a bandit target. This one has a name.
    
There were no combats on the upper levels, but there were friendly encounters with some figures that looked like they might have been enemies before. I began to wonder if finding the treasure was causing former enemies to treat me fondly. (The manual suggests something like this.) I tried hitting "barter" a few times and discovered that I could buy keys from a couple of NPCs who I probably would have had to kill before the treasure haul. Unfortunately, the purchased keys didn't allow me to progress much more on the upper levels.
      
Apparently, finding the emperor's treasure elevated me to a new caste.
     
I turned around and went into the basement but also hit a dead end. A keyed door opened into a prison area with some cells and skeletons, but I didn't find anything there.
The summary on MobyGames suggests that there's five total levels, but I don't know where that comes from.

Speaking of levels, my characters don't seem to be going anywhere. There is a "level" variable in the character statistics, but Alton started at 1 and the others started at 0, and none have budged. Two different web sites covering the game say explicitly that there is no character leveling at all, and the manual doesn't mention anything about it, so perhaps this is just a placeholder statistic.
      
Despite all the battles, Elisabeth remains at Level 0.
     
At this point, I'm a bit stuck. The only encounter I haven't completed is with the gladiator on Level 1, but I can't even hit him. I don't expect to find much help online or via any commenters who have played this game, but perhaps I'm wrong. I'll take hints while enjoying another session of Might and Magic III.

Time so far: 5 hours
Reload count: 3