Arena wasn't the only first-person computer role-playing game to see store shelves in 1994. Menzoberranzan sure looks similar, but how does it compare to the first of the Elder Scrolls?
Mezoberranzan was one of the many games released by SSI and set in the Forgotten Realms universe of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. They were, in fact, a company notorious for churning out classic after classic based on the infamous pen and paper game. This game was not their first by quite some time, but it continued a trend of Ultima Underworld and Eye of the Beholder clones that would see the genre become stale until Interplay stepped in with their own take on the franchise.
I had first heard about this game around 2000 while traipsing around an old abandonware site called The Home of the Underdogs. I didn't know why it had escaped my radar in the mid-nineties as I was aware of most of SSI's catalogue. Even the developers, DreamForge Intertainment, had created some of my all-time favourites such as Chronomaster, Sanitarium and Veil of Darkness. Maybe it was difficult to pronounce - and spell - title.
Was I glad to have played it? Well, much like Arena I have mixed feelings. I found the story and presentation to be far superior, the game-play much easier and focused with a fighting mechanic that didn't play havoc with you wrist. Its 3D graphics are just as bad though, even worse when wandering outside at night.
You begin the game as a hero - two in fact. After a lengthy character creation process (they go unnecessarily overboard here but at least it looks pretty), your invited to the local tavern to celebrate your latest heroics. The evil Drow only go and spoil the festivities by running amok, burning things and stealing the helpless townsfolk. Throughout the course of your adventure, you have to travel to the underground city of Menzoberranzen to save your kin and rid the world of this menace once and for all. But first, you have to put out the fires...
As soon as you exit the tavern, you'll be hit with the game's biggest flaw - it's graphics. In order to simulate nighttime, the developers decided upon the terrible decision to plonk an ugly black sheet about three feet from you. You cannot see anything until it is right on top of you, which is particularly dangerous now as there are many remaining Druk wandering the village. Fighting them is only marginally better than Arena; you click frantically to attack instead of simulating a seizure but there's still little strategy or variety involved, even if you're able to use spells.
There is a day and night cycle, which was pretty unique for the time. The draw distance during the day proves that the engine can handle more than the runt of a mole litter so I have no idea why the night looks so terrible - it truly makes this time of day a pain to get through. I remember it took me at least two in-game days to kill all of the enemies and figure out how to put out the fire (of course the other lazy villagers are nowhere to be seen). You can pick up the many buckets strewn around and your cursor will change to represent this. Being an adventure-gamer at heart, I then thought I would just need to click on the fire. Nope. Maybe you need to fill it up first by visiting the tiniest well in the ever. Nope. You first need to put the bucket in your inventory, then equip the bucket as if it were a weapon. Then you need to go to the well if you can find it (seriously, it's about a pixel wide), interact with it to fill it up then do the same thing with the fire. You need to do this every time for each individual blaze.
Once you've got the hang of how counter-intuitive it all is (which is basically the design philosophy for all old-school CRPGs), it won't bother you so much. A large amount of game-play is given to puzzles such as these and in all honesty, I found them to be one of the better elements. They're a welcome mental challenge to the otherwise thoughtless fighting system. Another high point is the large amount of people who can join you on your quest if you're persuasive enough. Every character bar yourself is voice acted in the CD version, and the performance is pretty good with a decent script to match. Trying to persuade them onto your team is also fun and rewarding, even if controlling them in combat is a nightmare. Almost every NPC can be added to your roster (up to a maximum of four - you have to say bye-bye to one if you're full), and even famous characters from the universe such as Drizzt Do'Urden can join you.
I preferred Menzoberranzan to The Elder Scrolls: Arena. It's not perfect by any means, but there's a lot more to enjoy here. The story may be simple, but it gives you a basic drive to succeed that doesn't leave you grasping at what to do next. If I had any idea that it existed when it came out, I'm sure it would've wowed me, but as it is the nostalgia goggles are off and I find it to be simply average.
As of 20th July 2015, Menzoberranzan is now available to buy DRM free on Good Old Games.
Buy from GOG
Menzoberranzan is © Strategic Simulations Inc (SSI)
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me