Monday, 16 May 2016

Missed Classic 21: Seas of Blood - Introduction (1985)

Written by Joe Pranevich
Arr! Finally a pirate adventure I can believe in!

One peek at our leaderboard and the evidence is plain: we love pirate games. Sure you might argue that the Monkey Island series has fantastic art, great characters, and tons of humor, but that’s not the reason that those games top our charts. No, I can summarize the real reason in one word: pirates. We just love games about pirates. It doesn’t matter if they have red beards, black beards, or no beards, a game about pirates will always do well here at the Adventure Gamer. Even our #3 game, Conquests of the Longbow, was so beloved because it’s essentially pirates in the woods. At least, that’s my theory.

Before we can swash and buckle, I should say a few words about this game, but it is difficult to know where to begin. Seas of Blood was one of the final games released by Adventure International UK and shares a bit of pedigree with the Scott Adams adventures that we discussed during my look at the Questprobe series, plus it’s one of the first games written by a prominent adventure developer. Let’s jump right in!


Release the kraken!

Adventure International UK

The engine used by Seas of Blood was written by Brian Howarth. Brian was an early fan of Scott Adams and began creating adventure games in 1981 with his launch of the “Mysterious Adventures” series. He subsequently was one of the first developers with Adventure International UK, a publishing company initially devoted to porting and releasing the Scott Adams games in international markets, especially for platforms like the ZX Spectrum. By 1985, Adventure International UK was not only releasing their own games, but also following their US counterparts lead in seeking properties to license. While Scott Adams secured the rights to Marvel Comics and Buckaroo Banzai, AIUK produced games based on Gremlins, Masters of the Universe, Fighting Fantasy, and others. With the bankruptcy of Adventure International, the UK development house reformed itself as Adventure Soft and continued producing games (under several names) until 2002.

The actual game was written by Michael Woodroffe and Alan Cox. Mr Woodroffe should already be familiar to the readers of this blog for his work on Elvira and Elvira II, but in 1985 he was just getting his start. I am not sure if this is his first game or if that honor goes to Robin of Sherwood: The Touchstones of Rhiannon, but I am very excited to play one of the games that he cut his teeth on. We can look forward to playing a number more of his games in the future, including Simon the Sorcerer (1993) and its sequels, Waxworks (1992), and The Feeble Files (1997). He seems to have retired from games around 2005; as best I can tell, he’s working as a property surveyor these days. And we’re also gathering questions for a community interview with him!


Michael Woodroffe (undated photo)

Alan Cox is without a doubt one the greatest software engineers on the planet and I am thrilled to find that he put his skills towards games. I was fortunate enough to work with him while I was back in college, doing programming for the Linux kernel. I was a very inexperienced volunteer on the Linux for m68k Macintosh project that Alan led and I was awestruck by him. Alan worked on tons of other open source projects, but appears to have dabbled in games from 1985 to 1989. (In researching this, I am very saddened to learn of the death of his wife, Telsa Gwynne. As I pivoted from programmer to writer, doing documentation for the Linux kernel and writing for Linux magazines, she sent me words of encouragement. She called my “Wonderful World of Linux” series as “traditional as the holy penguin pee” which may be the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my writing.) I’m not sure if Alan did any of the game design or if he just ported it, but I will try to dig deeper.


A suspiciously familiar book cover

Fighting Fantasy

The original story behind Seas of Blood was written by Andrew Chapman as Fighting Fantasy #16, also published in 1985. At this point, I’m not sure how much of the original story was kept for the game-- and it may be a straight adaptation-- but I have a copy to review after I’m done playing the game. He wrote three other Fighting Fantasy books between 1985-1986, but also has a large corpus of other novels. His most recent, Renegade, was published in 2013. He posts a bit about how he both became a Fighting Fantasy writer-- and why he quit being a Fighting Fantasy writer-- on his blog.


Fighting Fantasy was a series of books in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” vein, first published in 1982. The series was created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, although this is a different Steve Jackson than the US-based developer of games like AutoDuel and Munchkin. I suspect the two Steves really did revel in the confusion because the US-based Steve Jackson actually wrote several Fighting Fantasy novels for the UK-based Steve Jackson’s series. As a kid, I had a couple of these books, but I was always more a fan of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series, primarily for the worldbuilding and the progressing character arcs over many books, rather than the one-off designs of Fighting Fantasy.


Andrew Chapman (undated photo)

Seas of Blood was actually the fourth Fighting Fantasy computer game, but the first created by Adventure International UK. It was preceded by The Forests of Doom and Citadel of Chaos, released simultaneously in 1984, either of which could end up as a Missed Classic some day. (The first Fighting Fantasy game was an arcade/action game, rather than an adventure.) Adventure Soft would follow up this release with two more in the series: Rebel Planet (1986) and Temple of Terror (1987), but a further three games were cancelled in development. After that, it would be eleven more years before the next FF game was released.

Enough about all that! Let’s play!

Seas of Blood


And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by...

The manual sets up the game fairly succinctly: you are a dread pirate, captain of the Banshee. Your base of operations is the city of Tak, at the northern end of the Inland Sea, a body of water that I suspect is exactly as it claims. (I’m imagining it as something like the Caspian Sea.) The goal of the game is to find twenty treasures and take them to the top of the mountain of Nippur, at the south end of the sea. It seems pretty straightforward! The rest of the manual is basic information for new adventurers, a description of the combat, and an explanation of “provisions”. I’ll get to all of that shortly.

The game opens on the Banshee itself, already out to sea. The ship consists of two screens, above deck and a hold, and I find (and quickly pocket) a grappling hook and rope, as well as a staff of healing, from the hold. They both sound like they will come in handy. After that, there’s nothing to do but start to explore the sea. While captaining the ship, I have to type “sail north”, “sail west”, etc. to move us in some direction but otherwise it works exactly as you expect.

I find that I have coastline to the north (even if the room description and the graphic don’t make that clear) and start off west. Pretty much immediately, I find myself in my first combat with a merchant ship.


Shiver me timbers and roll me a d6!

Combat is sudden: there was no way to leave, negotiate, or plan ahead. In fact, all I can do is press “return” over and over again to roll the result of the next round. I don’t think you can time the dice and there doesn’t appear to be anything I can to do affect the outcome.

In the example above, I am the ship on the right while the merchant ship is on the left. I have a strike of “9” which represents my combat strength while they are lower at “8”. More importantly, I have a crew strength of “20” and they have only “6”. Crew strength is essentially the number of men you still have at your command, analogous to hit points. When you run out of crew, you run out of pirates. On the bright side, there are descriptive messages each dice roll telling you what happened, whether you did damage or the other way around. A couple of turns of combat later and the merchant ship goes down and I am the proud owner of “gold coins”. Is that money? Or the first of the twenty treasures I am supposed to be looking for? I have no idea.

Calah


Shore leave!

I follow the north coast west then head south to discover my first port: the town of Calah. At first, I struggle to figure out how to get in, but it was in the manual the whole time: “go ashore”. Once in Calah, there doesn’t seem to be anything to do. There are neither shops nor townspeople, no one to talk to or interact with. All I can do is go east. At first I think that would take me to the ship, but it actually goes to a desert. Huh?

All I can say is that their geography sucks. I’m sailing around what appears to be a vaguely circular inland sea. I find a port on the west coast of the sea, and yet somehow I can walk east from there (into the water?) to find a desert? Something tells me that someone wasn’t paying enough attention when they designed the non-ship areas!


Pirates on land and sea!

Out in the desert, I discover a merchant caravan which I can ambush and get into my first non-ship combat. Except for an option to flee battle, it works exactly the same as the ship-based combat. Crew strength has been replaced with a more-traditional “stamina” and I use my personal skill stat instead of the crew skill, but it still plays out as pressing “return” a bunch of times until you win or lose. I won!

I loot the caravan, finding a piece of amber and some provisions, but this is the end of the road. The only way forward is back to the ship. The provisions are helpful: they represent something of the game’s timer. As you sail around, but not as you explore on land, you gradually consume provisions. If you run out, the game ends. I hope that they are plentiful and I won’t need to worry much, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Exploring the World


Green areas are where you can leave the ship, yellow are not.

After exploring Calah, I continued to travel the world and map it out. Rather than give you the turn-by-turn, let me jump ahead a bit and tell you what I found. The world of the Inland Sea is a fairly simple grid of sea squares with coastline to the north, west, and east. (I haven’t finished exploring south yet.) The sea contains a number of settlements and other points of interest on the coasts, but some of them cannot be entered (yet?). The sea is also dotted with occasional islands. These are trickier to find and I had to grid search to ensure that I found them all.

The biggest issue in mapping the world turned out to be provisions: I can’t find enough of them. Given the sheer number of sea squares-- I mapped 217 so far-- I had to save and restore many times to visit them all without running out of food. I also found random combats frequently and while none of them are difficult, I do not yet see a way to replenish our crew. This builds a certain tension which is fun, but I have a feeling that to actually “win”, I will need to make an optimal route both in terms of the food that I eat and the combat that I fight. We’ll see soon. Since this is an open world game, I think the best approach is to describe what I have discovered by region.

Assur


How very Aztec of you

Assur is a town on the west coast, south of Calah. North of the city is a small text-adventure maze of jungle which I have no problems mapping my way through, leading to a Aztec-style temple. Exploring the shrine, I find an “awkmute” and some acolytes that I have to kill. The former seems to be some sort of bird-person, but I’m not sure if it was made up for the book or from some mythology. Either way, he drops a staff which might come in handy later.

Exploring deeper, I find a ruby in a statue that I cannot take because it cuts my hand. I also find a shaft on the roof of the temple that takes me down into a secret room. Unfortunately, there’s a zombie in there who kills me immediately as none of my weapons work on him. I also find a healing room which replenishes hit points. Not finding a solution to the puzzles, I keep exploring.

Kirkuk


So many trees, so little to do

A bit further down the west coast is Kirkuk. On entering the town, we are ambushed by Kishian soldiers. Beating them isn’t difficult, but that only opens up a passage to a nondescript forest. I can’t seem to find anything to do here so I resolve to come back later if I am missing any treasure.

Kish & the Kish Delta


Fun in the sun?

Even further south, I finally arrive at the land of Kish. Going ashore, I am surprised to end up at a remote beach under some cliffs rather than another port town. I use my grappling hook and rope to climb the cliffs. From there, I head south to find a Kishan town and some very unhappy guards that I quickly dispatch. Unlike the other towns, this one has a building I can enter: the “Main Hall”. When I do, I am attacked by something called a “Sith Orb” that delivers quite a beating! But it too is defeated and I find an opal to collect.

The countryside around the town has another area to explore, but it only contains a living-tree called a “bark biter”. At this point, I’m quite weak from all of the combat and it manages to defeat me several times before I can permanently plant it in the ground, albeit for no obvious reward. I head back to the ship.


Anyone else with “Duel of the Fates” stuck in their heads?

A few screens further south is the Kish Delta, a river in front of the port of Kish. You can’t actually sail into the city because of a chain across the harbor-- this is a real-life tactic used by river-towns to prevent invasion going back many hundreds of years. To make it worse, the city walls have cannons mounted on them. I hang around the city too long and the cannons make short work of the Banshee. We are sunk.

Even after restoring, I can’t find a way through. My guess is that I was expected to discover the well-fortified town first, then find a way to sneak in the back by using the cliffs. Since I solved that puzzle early, there is nothing more to see here.

Lagash


You really shouldn’t be sailing undefended barges around a place like this

After dying so many times at Kish, I decide to explore the east coast of the sea instead. The first town that I come across is Lagash, although it is unfriendly and we cannot go in. Fortunately, we don’t need to: there is a stately barge parked just outside. I attack it and win. Instead of plundering it automatically like the merchant ships, I have to cross over to the burning barge and search the bodies myself to find a key. I haven’t found any locked doors yet, but keys are always important.

Rivers of the Dead


Time for some Indiana Jones?

A bit further south are the “Rivers of the Dead”. Coming ashore, we are given two options to explore: the valleys or the hills. Heading to the valley leads to an attack by goblins, followed by being swept away while fording a stream. Heading to the hills leads to an ancient crypt with a trapdoor leading to the same stream. Both paths end up at the same place: the entrance to a different crypt.

The entrance is blocked by a heavy door, but there’s a statue on rollers out front and it’s clear we need to push it. Once inside, we find ourselves in a room with a number of alcoves and a “grey ovid stone” in the middle. Somehow the stone is made of acid so you can’t pick it up and end up losing hit points every time we try. One of the alcoves contains a skeleton with a silver ring, but taking the ring results in immediate death. Something to come back to.


He’s been waiting for a while.

The next room in the temple features a sarcophagus and a ring in the ceiling. The sarcophagus contains a diamond and a helmet. I can wear the helmet, but it doesn’t seem to change my status in any way. I can pull the ring after climbing the sarcophagus and that opens up a secret staircase back to the beach.

Shipwreck


I much prefer Sea 7-Up.

A bit further south along the coast and we come across a shipwreck with two holes: one in the bow and one in the stern. We can swim out to the hole in the stern to find a group of Sea Sprites guarding a magic potion in the former captain’s cabin. No matter what I do, I can’t find a way to pick up the potion. It may require an item I haven’t picked up yet. Swimming to the bow results in immediate death by a giant (misspelled) Sea Anemone. Ouch!

Nothing more to do here right now, I keep exploring.

Shallows of Goth, Shurrapak, and Marad



A bit further south along the east coast are the “Shallows of Goth”. When I arrive, I am immediately attacked by two warships, one each from Shurrapak and Marad. Unlike in other areas, they do not attack immediately but appear to be blockading the northern and southern exits. By moving north or south, you can attack either or both of the warships. The encounters are more difficult than regular ships and I am defeated a number of times before I get lucky enough to defeat both warships. Unfortunately, they do not drop any treasure and I am not sure what benefit I take from defeating them.

Sailing a bit further north or south, I find the ports of Shurrapak and Marad but cannot enter either of them because it is too dangerous. For a pirate? I doubt it. But at least I know what the ships were supposedly blockading. I think that the idea is that the two city states are at war and blockading each other in a stalemate, but nothing I do changes that balance of power. Time to keep moving.

Three Sisters


Oh look, pirates!

A bit further to the south, the next island isn’t an island at all, but rather three: Palm Island, Volcanic Island, and Neat Island. I have to explore them all individually.

I hit Palm Island first and discover a hidden lagoon filled with pirates. I had hoped that they might be willing to join my crew, but instead they are burying something and pay me no heed. Well, we can’t have that! I attack them, kill them, and take their treasure chest. It contains a piece of ivory, probably another treasure. I also board their pirate ship and find a silver statue and some provisions. 

Provisions! These are the first that I have found since the oasis at the beginning of the game and they are needed. I’m not even sure I could get here if I didn’t bee-line while exploring, so there are probably some more I missed elsewhere. Exploring the island, I discover a giant crayfish that I can kill and eat for more provisions. With a well-fed crew, I think I’ll start calling this “Provisions Island” instead.

On Volcanic Island, I wander up the beach and am attacked by some slimy creature the game doesn’t bother to name. A bit further up the coast is a shipwreck containing a gold chalice. Elsewhere on the island, I get attacked by a creature known as “The Horror”. He is tremendously strong, probably the strongest attacker I’ve seen up to this point. I save scum like mad, fighting him over and over, but while I get close I am not able to defeat him. If he is hiding a treasure, I hope I figure out a winning strategy later.


I don’t know what it is, but it kills me. A lot.

On Neat Island, I discover a village filled with friendly people who offer me food. It’s not take-out, so they want us to eat it right then and there. Sounds suspicious? It is! The food is drugged and we awake in prison. Fortunately, I discover a loose plank in the stockade, escape, kill all the villagers, and pick up some pieces of eight. Oh, piracy.

The Roc


How many times has this happened in an adventure game?

After exploring the coasts a good way, my next step was to search the waterway for islands. Some of them were ports that I could not enter, but a few had interesting encounters. The first of these is an island that, when I arrive, I immediately get snatched up by a roc and deposited in her nest. (How many games has this happened in? It has to be a trope by now.) In the roc’s nest was a sapphire to pick up, as well as a tunnel. Crawling down, I emerge into a room with troglodytes holding a chest. I defeat them as usual, pocket some silver ingots as treasure, then head on my way.

Ice Mountain


We’ll… stay… forever this way!

Further to the south is an ice mountain. Exploring it is straight-forward and we quickly find a galley somehow trapped and guarded by an ice beast. I defeat them and at first the ship seems to be completely empty, but when we “search galley” we find a set of pearls. I hope I haven’t had to type “search” in every location because I may have missed a great deal along the way.

Kazallu


Oh, this doesn’t seem suspicious at all.

A bit further south is the island of Kazallu. Immediately after landing, the crew goes out into the island to forage for food. Suspicious… I can’t leave until I get my crew back? Heading inland, I find a farmhouse offering food and a beautiful woman. It hasn’t been all that long since I was tricked by natives bearing food, so I don’t immediately go for it. Unfortunately, my crew is less intelligent and they all eat the food and turn into animals. The woman flees and the only place I can go is into the house.

Very strangely, I am greeted by a creature called “Salamander” and he has a riddle for me: “Where in Albion would you find that which lies between above and below?”


Time? A river? A man?

Now, I recognize Albion as an alternate name for Great Britain, used in some old King Arthur stories, but I’m not sure that makes much sense here. I bet if they had this in the book, there would be a few choices to pick from. I first try the obvious and think that it’s the name of our goal: Nippur. But he doesn’t like that and attacks. I also try “mountain”, but no dice. I guess I’ll just have to fight and find the answer later.

Defeating the Salamander is difficult, but I manage to do it in a couple of restores. On the other side is a witch that casts a spell on you. You can’t attack the witch, but you can attack her cat. I do so and she runs away. The spell is broken, my crew is back to normal, and we can sail on. What could the answer be to the riddle? Am I missing a treasure here?

Nippur


I can see my house from here!

At long last, after more than 200 ocean squares and 12 distinct areas mapped and explored, I find the goal of the game: Nippur. There may still be additional islands or other areas, but this is where I am calling it quits for this week. Getting to the top of the mountain is difficult because of two challenging combats, a lizard man and a cyclops. It takes a number more restores, but I beat them and collect an emerald before climbing the mountain and dropping my treasures… which amount to an emerald and some gold coins. Since I’ve restored so frequently on my trip here, I didn’t actually collect many treasures at all on the trip. I will need to replay from the start and explore each section in one go. That should be fun.

As of right now, I have located thirteen treasures. Since the treasures are not marked (as they were in the many Scott Adams games), I do not know if these are the right ones. I believe the treasures so far are: emerald, doubloons, gold coins, pieces of eight, gold chalice, silver statue, silver ingots, sapphire, amber, ruby (which I have not figured out how to take from the statue), opal, diamond, and pearls.


“X” marks the spot… but plenty more treasure to go...

Although it seems like I am most of the way through, I’m think some big challenges are still ahead. I have to find at least seven more treasures, plus figure out how to get the ones I found already in one go. I may have to plan my route carefully and avoid unnecessary combat to get there in one piece. I can’t wait!

Time played: 4 hr 40 min
Total time: 4 hr 40 min

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one.

As this is an introduction post, it's your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw. The winner(s) will receive CAPs!




Mike Woodroffe Interview

Just a friendly reminder that we are soliciting questions for an upcoming interview with Mike Woodroffe, the co-developer on this game. If you would like to ask him any questions about Seas of Blood or any of his other games, comment here or on the interview post.

25 comments:

  1. Don't forget that you can vote for some fast-turnaround CAPs! The final rating will be in the next post, next week.

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  2. I might have missed it, but are the stats of the PC fixed?

    So far this doesn't seem very enticing - treasure hunt with ocean instead of caves. I'll guess 33.

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    1. Yeah. It seems that way. The book has you randomly pick your stats, but the game does not.

      It is a traditional open world "treasure hunt" game in a lot of respects, with a very large ocean area serving as a "hub" for various mini-puzzles and adventures. I don't know if that's a bad thing and it's a variation on a formula that many adventure games have used.

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  3. Funny to see how the blue mountain is simply a re-tinting of the iceberg, put to service elsewhere. Reminiscent of how Super Mario Bros.' puffy white clouds do double duty dyed green as bushes along the ground.

    "Pirate" doesn't really strike the intended tone for this book. Maybe something like "corsair" would come closer. It's a Sinbad pastiche with a touch of Odysseus, which has some elements in common with pirate tales (ships, the sea) and much totally at odds from it.

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    Replies
    1. Have you read the book? I've done a bit of it and I think it seems more "pirate" than this game does.

      One key element from the book that is missing in the game is that you can impress slaves at a number of the cities and when you capture ships. They count towards your crew strength stat so you have to keep finding and winning slaves/recruits to keep your fighting strength up.

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    2. Wow, nice catch on the recolored iceberg -> mountain, I did not notice that.

      Looks pretty similar to the Questprobe games, so I'll guess 33 for the rating.

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    3. I missed that part of the book. This is what I was talking about in my review. Why in the world would you REMOVE content in transitioning to a computer game, especially stuff the computer does well, like keep track of a crew total?

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  4. The dice say... 9. Sorry Joe, your high score pirate theory seems to be sunk.

    Also, Sea of Blood? A ship named Banshee? You know, together with the cover of the game (and book) I can't stop see similarities with the animated TV-series Pirates of Dark Water. Of course the ship on the show was named Wraith and the sea was full of some sentient dark matter that devoured ships and islands, but still. Wonder if the shows creator read the book or played the game for some... inspiration.

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  5. I'll go 30, if only because I think that what appears to be a randomized 'combat' system might let it down (so you either wear the lost combat and die, or.. go.. and reload and win it anyway?)

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  6. "Anyone else with “Duel of the Fates” stuck in their heads?"
    Well I do now.

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  7. 35!

    I used to like the Fighting Fantasy books back in the day but rarely finished them due to making wrong decisions and/or losing battles.

    I swear it's not my fault, these books are full of decisions that are only wrong in hindsight.

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  8. I neglected to mention that while the title image is taken from the ZX Spectrum release (the only one I could find that wasn't tagged by a crack group), the gameplay is the Commodore 64 version.

    Unlike the Questprobe games, the graphics between the two versions are identical. The Scott Adams games imported to the UK all, as it turns out, had their art redone by AIUK's artist in residence, Teoman Irmak.

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  9. 32.

    Is it me, or is the recent comments widget not working?

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    Replies
    1. Not just you. I had a quick look but I don't know how it works so I'll wait until someone more knowledgeable (Ilmari?) has a look

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    2. It's working for me. Did you fix it?

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    3. It was a third-party widget and I don't really know why it stopped working. I've added another one, which is not so nice-looking, but appears to work.

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    4. The new one is so ugly :-( All apostrophes show up as code garbage.

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  10. The Horror looks like it's visiting from Dunwich.

    This game has me intrigued enough to try it myself. Haven't gotten very far yet but it at least appears that SEARCHing something and LOOKing at it are synonyms. I also noticed that the staff of healing in the Banshee's hold doesn't appear in your inventory once taken. Not sure yet what's up with that.

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    1. It looks to me like the "Staff of Healing" acts more like a one-off health item. When you pick it up, all of your hit points are regenerated and then it disappears. Would have been lovely for it to say so however...

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    2. Huh. I mentioned in my review that I could never get it to work. I must have picked it up early, when I didn't need it, and didn't realize you could never use it again.

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  11. How many times has this happened in an adventure game?

    I can only think of two, but fully expect there to be others that I don't know. I remember King's Quest V. Are there more?

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    Replies
    1. Does Space Quest IV qualify?

      http://advgamer.blogspot.com/2015/05/space-quest-iv-time-travelers-ex.html

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    2. The earliest example I can think of was Dungeon Adventure: http://advgamer.blogspot.fi/2015/12/missed-classic-dungeon-adventure-won.html

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