Exploring the depths of space has long been a favourite theme in science-fiction storytelling, and games have taken up this trope pretty much since its inception. In 1993, a trade-heavy RPG from the little known German developer 'neo Software Produktions' continues this tradition. Despite its age, can Whale's Voyage bring some new and interesting ideas to the table? Read on to find out...
The game begins with what has become a mainstay mechanic in RPGs; the character creation. You have to create four crew-members for the spaceship called the Whale (hence the name) who will stay with you until the end - whether dead or alive. Instead of choosing the sex, style and stats that's now become the norm, you are here required to force a male and female to go at it and produce an offspring. The choice of deadbeat parents doesn't inspire much confidence but at least they're willing to put you through college. Maybe. How your stats are determined aren't through random dice rolls, but a choice in primary and high schools. These range from a General Primary School, to Military Training Academy, a weird Japanese school or a life on the streets. Ya know, for street smarts. Nothing like being a bum to prepare you for the big wide universe.
The choices made here don't affect the in-game story. Your team could include half-brothers, sisters, siblings or cross-breeds with a Cthluhu-like alien creature, yet no inter-personal relationships are brought up. More than likely, this is due to technical or time contraints but there is an interesting mechanic that replaces it. You can assign one of eight different character traits to each member of your team. These include Leader, Scout, Targeter and Closer. The developers didn't go as far as I would've liked with this idea as most are simply a way to get past control or display limitations. For example, the Targeter automatically talks to people and opens doors while the closer closes doors behind you (great for when you're being chased). It saves you a lot of time wrangling with the controls that were clearly designed with a joystick in mind. The Leader will be the first targeted by enemies and traps so it's best to assign this to the member with the best defence. Failing that, the Scout will warn you of any nearby dangers. There's also the under-developed Joker class which will give one of your crew the gift of the gab. This could've been a great wise-cracking class but he comedy must be lost in translation. All that comes on-screen is the line "Joker is joking... har, har, har...". Maybe that's really funny in the original German.
The Joker class does have an important role in the game. He keeps the party's morale up so they're less intimidated in battle. There are two types of battles. On a planet's surface you can engage in combat with other humanoids using an attack command, though the opponent has to be hostile. The fighting itself is done automatically and is usually over before you realise what's happened. There's no real strategy and it all comes down to who has the most stats.
By contrast the randomly occurring space battles are far more strategic (and enjoyable), even if they ultimately have no bearing on the plot. A large grid is displayed in front of you, with the Whale placed dead centre. Surrounding your ship several squares away are a number of space pirates intent on looting your cargo. What follows is a turn-based battle of wits that can have one of four outcomes.
1: You win. You attack the pirates, killing them all. You need weapons and ammo for this.
2: You die. Start the game from the beginning (or your last save).
3: You escape. Get to the green arrows on the edge of the grid before the pirates reach you.
4: Surrender. You can forego your death by giving up your entire cargo and savings,
leaving you with nothing. This is just as devastating as death.
Cargo is a vital mechanic in the game, which is why you should chant 'NEVER SURRENDER!' during battle. It's so important that it's the first option in the Whale's menu screen. Each planet has a vendor of which you can buy and trade random stuff ranging from T-Shirts, Hi-Fi's and other hyphenated paraphernalia. Some vendors even sell prophylactics which would've come in handy for those horny parents of yours. The only thing you can do with most of these items is sell them on. Prices do vary on other planets, so pay attention, you're a scalper now. Buy cheap and sell big! Here's a hint: pay attention to water, gold and dated stereo systems.
You can also equip the Whale, head off to another planet, 'glide' down to the current planet's surface or give someone a call. Throughout the adventure, several key players will give you their phone number. No it's not in the hope of hanky panky, but for future deals on key items. For example, after saving a guy from some other guys, this guy gives you money and a number so you can trade something you got from another guy (that you got for finding his gal) all in the name of shrinking another guy into a CD so you can take him off-planet so he can unbeknownst to you assassinate another guy. This is about as deep as the story goes. The elements of the plot are out there in an entertaining way but it's presented so perfunctory. You never get to know any of the characters with their dialogue limited only to what needs to be said to progress the plot. If it weren't for the bizarre events that take place it would be a dull slog to get through.
The graphics are nice enough for 1993 but it doesn't really excel. The engine used to design the planet locations are very samey. If it weren't for the map in the top left corner I'd be going round in circles. It also suffers from a short draw distance that lot of similar games had at the time. Despite it being static screens, if a corridor goes on too long, the back wall disappears and is replaced by a generic landscape for that planet. If you are unfamiliar with the limitations for the time, you could easily be mistaken for thinking that the building would lead outside, yet few of them do. It's not like each screen is individually drawn like Terminator 2029 or even Zombi which would lead to a more coherent and detailed world. Being an RPG, the game world is far too large to have made this feasible for such a small studio.
The control scheme is rather outside of the norm. Unusually, the mouse is not required once with the joystick being the developer's recommended control method. Thankfully they were also nice enough to program keyboard controls, with the arrows and enter keys replacing the stick and fire button. Navigating the worlds takes a while to get used to, especially when accessing the more complicated icon-filled lower section (you hold fire, then down), but I came to find that I prefer it to other games. The small number of keys used means you're never scrambling to find a specific key to cast magic or something similar mid-battle. I do however recommend you give the manual a glance first so you can get a heads up on the little quirks.
So, back to my original question. Can Whale's Voyage offer something new and interesting for us retro gamers? The answer is a bit of both. Overall, Whale's Voyage is a very solid RPG, with fun trading mechanics and item management that could've easily become stale. The extremely dated graphics and a complete lack of detail in the story department may put you off though, especially when you consider what SSI was putting out at around the same time with their D&D games. I somewhat enjoyed my time with it, but it didn't engage me enough to free up the many hours needed to make it to the end.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox to bring the game to modern systems. Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.
Whale's Voyage is © neo Software Produktions
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me