Stop me if you've heard this
tale before... When the fate of the world is threatened by a malevolent
being of untold magical powers, it is up to a reluctant, ragtag band of
elves, dwarves, and humans to begin an epic journey into the very heart of
danger to vanquish the evil. Along the way, these unlikely heroes face
trials of poisoned wounds, suspicious kings, and broken swords, while
fending off vicious trolls, giant monster spiders, and the walking dead.
What am I saying?? Of COURSE you've heard of it. You may even have read
one or more of the author's novels. Even if you're not a fan of fantasy,
surely everyone knows all about ... ... Shannara, by Terry Brooks.
No?? You thought perhaps I was referring to a different story? Well,
that's certainly understandable. But while that Tolkien fella's hobbit
books get all the press, you may be missing out on one of the best fantasy
adventure games this side of Middle Earth.
Released in 1995 by Legend Entertainment, Shannara is technically
rock-solid. The game installed smoothly directly from Windows 98, and ran
without a hiccup. No muss, no fuss, no tweaks, no glitches – I'd like more
games like this, please.
The first-person, point and click gameplay in Shannara (pronounced Shaw-ner-aw)
is presented in a combination of hand drawn graphics and verb text
options. The images are relatively static, but well done – particularly
the character models. However, you'll quickly find yourself reading more
than looking at the graphics, as each action triggers a written
description of the results, rather than a visual depiction. While I'd have
loved to "see" more of the story unfold, I quickly became accustomed to
Shannara also has a great deal of dialogue. There is full speech to go
with the subtitles, and I found the voice acting to be excellent. I'm sure
the midi music was fine in its day, but the best that can be said for it
now is that... well... it can be turned down or off.
There's little more to be said about the basic plot outline. The opening
shows the evil warlock Brona being brought back to life through the
magical powers of an ancient book. You begin the game as young Jak
Ohmsford, son of the man who previously defeated Brona with the Sword of
Shannara. In order to stop Brona again, Jak needs to retrieve the sword,
now broken, and re-forge it through the use of magic artifacts belonging
to elves, dwarves, trolls, and gnomes (none of whom get along, of course).
You're not alone for long. Early on, you are joined by the lovely Shella,
and the two of you set out together. As the game proceeds, you are
accompanied by several other characters, represented by icons at the
bottom of the screen. Each has his or her own ideas and inventories, and
interacting with them becomes vital to solving many of the puzzles. I very
much liked the "party" aspect of the adventure. My only minor gripe is
that on a couple rare occasions, a solution required a non-intuitive
balance of character and gameworld interaction.
The supporting cast is also vital when it comes to the... shall we say...
pacifism-challenged segments. All right, I'll say it plain: COMBAT. Yes,
there's fighting in this game – you didn't really think evil incarnate
would just leave if we asked politely, did you? But relaaaaax. Shannara's
battles require no quick reflexes or even much courage. In fact, you're
advised to run away as often as possible (which is most of the time). When
you're finally forced to stand your ground, a turn-based (untimed) combat
mode begins, in which you issue commands from a separate menu. The menu
hints at complex strategies, but the fighting is very basic stuff, and
you'll quickly get the hang of it. Should you happen to "die", you're
given the option to retry from the beginning of the fight. I didn't mind
the combat sequences at all, but the menu system was needlessly
cumbersome, which sucked out some of the excitement.
There are some "timed" sequences which may result in dying, too. Rather
than being dependent on the clock, however, you are permitted a certain
number of actions to get out of trouble. Personally, I find this somewhat
annoying, but again, the game is very forgiving if you fail and returns to
the beginning of the timed sequence.
Navigation comes in two forms. When in a specific location, a compass
highlights the directions you can move. When moving between locations, you
control your party on an overland map, dodging Brona's minions and picking
your path. This latter method offered a change of pace, but fell
completely flat in the "fun" department. Fortunately, very little time is
spent on this unnecessary diversion.
The puzzles are logical and so well integrated that they really just feel
like part of the story – obstacles and challenges to be overcome as a
matter of course. That's exactly how I like them.
While all these factors contribute to making Shannara a solid experience,
the best feature of the game is the writing. This is easily one of the
best written adventures I've ever played, which should come as no
surprise. In addition to whatever input Brooks had in making the game, the
game was designed by Lori and Corey Cole of Quest for Glory fame.
Shannara is a game with a conscience. I genuinely found myself
CARING about each of the party members, which became all the more
important as the game wore on, because I was required to make choices that
affected them personally. Not only that, but my decisions were called into
question – this is no click and forget game. I was accountable; as the
leader, I NEEDED to make the best choices for the greater good, and to
take care of my friends as best I could. There are subtle branching paths
depending on the most important decisions, should you want to replay the
latter part of the game for alternate experiences. Ultimately, though,
you'll discover that your motives are what is truly important. This level
of character development gave Shannara a depth that few other games can
Do you need to be a fan of fantasy fiction to appreciate this game? Not at
all, as beneath the surface, Shannara is an altogether human drama, and a
quality adventure to boot. The only things preventing me from giving this
game my highest endorsement are the sparse use of graphics (even given its
release date) and the awkward execution of the combat and timed sequences.
You may have difficulty finding a copy these days, unfortunately, but if
you get the chance, don't pass it up. If it's sitting on your shelf
getting bypassed again and again, time to treat yourself to this little
gem from yesteryear.
Final score: 76%
486/33 or better
4 MB RAM
VESA compatible Super VGA graphics card
Sound Blaster or compatible
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