Sunday 9 October 2016

Sword of Vermilion for the MegaDrive/Genesis

When you're a teenager at home and you're blessed enough not to have any responsibilities, time is a stretch of emptiness reaching toward the horizon, and is begging to get filled. In my case, at least in the early 90s, my beloved MegaDrive and collection of games were one time sink of choice. Unfortunately, most of my games were arcade-style fodder that, at most, would take a couple of hours to get through. For more cerebral or easy-going experiences, there were strategy titles like Populous and Mega-lo-Mania, and my trusty copy of Phantasy Star III - the only role-playing game I owned. And yes, it was a proper time thief. An interesting story, diverging plot lines, and four different endings, the first run through kept me occupied for a month or so. And so, quite unexpectedly, when I gave Sword of Vermilion a whirl, I wasn't prepared for a touch of the nostalgics. Despite their development by two separate programming teams with, as far as I can tell, no cross over, the art style of the in-town moments are very similar, as are the buying/selling and conversational mechanics. Even the font and text field are the same colours. It was like going back 25 years ...

Sword of Vermilion was a very early MegaDrive RPG, released more or less at the same time as Phantasy Star II to enthusiastic reviews. What marked it out, however, was its dispensing with the traditional RPG combat system. Whereas encounters with monsters and assorted bad 'uns were usually determined via random number generation heavily modified by character (and non-player character) attribute scores, Sword took a different path. You're endowed with certain scores which, as per normal, can be upgraded via the accumulation of experience points as one advances a level. But encounter a baddy and you're whisked to a combat screen. You walk over to the enemy (or they will bounce/fly/slither/float/walk toward you) and tap button C to smack them with your sword while trying to avoid physical contact. It's quite simple. Easy to pick up and understand, but it can get button mashy as you advance through the game and you're assailed from multiple sides. Luckily, your experience level makes you tougher and gives your sword strikes more heft. So them horrible Gorgon things that enjoy swarming you are instantly dispatched once XP bulks you up.

That is but one of three game modes. The combat and town/castle wandering runs off one engine. Another is a very ropey-looking outdoor/dungeon crawling 3D stages which, truth be told, look worse than the original Phantasy Star on the Master System. And the third comes when you're encountering a boss. Screenshots of these sequences back in the day looked very impressive and, if you have an eye for 16-bit graphical style and its limitations, they do look good. Assuming the form of a one-on-one scrap, Streetfighter stylee, you square off against a mean-looking boss but, ugh, the controls are stiff and your character is painfully slow. Thankfully, the baddies tend to be just as limited and follow a few basic patterns. Still, it is satisfying when you finally skewer something that large.

What's this all in aid of, then? The plot is pretty standard fare. An evil King invaded your daddy's domain, you're whisked away and brought up by a trusty servant, and when you learn the truth it's up to you to avenge your kingdom and reclaim your birthright. Practically, the game is a sequence of marching across the wilderness, finding a town, entering a nearby dungeon, retrieving whatever, heading back to town and then moving to the next one over for pretty much the same. Sounds dull, doesn't it? Put like that, it is, and such was the standard RPG experience back then. Yet in its defence, there was something soothing and relaxing about it, despite the frequent appearance of random enemies. Going back and forth on pointless fetch quests, it's almost therapeutic. There are no major plot points, nothing stands out - it's just a linear path from start to finish. The only twist, if it can be called that, is when a shopkeeper mid-game steals your weapons and money and you have to start from scratch again. But that later turns out to be necessary to the plot.

As mechanics go, despite being an action RPG there isn't much that stands out. Heal up by forking out for a night at the inn. Head to churches for save points (which us where you're resurrected should things go very badly wrong). Its most peculiar feature, I suppose, is Sword is a solitary affair throughout. There aren't many 16-bit RPGs that don't task the player with the acquisition of characters of varying abilities.

Is there a point to writing about this? Yes, it comes back to our previous video game outing and how the two aspects of the game, plot and play (or, narratology and ludology) work together to produce an experience. Modern games integrate dialogue, cut scenes, and gameplay to varying success. In Sword it's a bit more disjointed. The main vehicle of plot delivery is conversation with townsfolk and, typically, the resident royal therein. Once you depart and journey to the nearby dungeon to retrieve whatever, the residents will helpfully inform you about what to do next. It therefore gives you an incentive to seek out absolutely everybody in the hope the game, which is really just an endless grindfest to earn money and experience, imbues your repetitive activities with a little more meaning. There is a clearer separation of story and game, underlined by the different modes - dialogue is only possible in NPC scenes, not in one-on-one fights or the 3D wilderness/dungeon sections. You return to town not only to top up your health, but also on the story. I suppose it couldn't be done any other way when Sword got its Japanese release in 1989.

Retro game-wise, is Sword of Vermilion worth playing today? It depends whether you like 16-bit RPGs, I guess. Confession time: I hadn't properly played a RPG between the mid 90s and last year's outing on Phantasy Star for the blog, so haven't had my expectations modified by your Skyrims and Dragon Ages. Because my preconceptions and gaming habits are stuck in the past, I got plenty of enjoyment out of it. But Sword probably constitutes something of a specialist interest.

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