Thursday, October 27, 2016

Game 232: Moonstone: A Hard Day's Knight (1991)

Moonstone: A Hard Days Knight
United Kingdom
Mindscape (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for Amiga, 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 19 October 2016
Date Ended: 22 October 2016
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Moonstone took me a long time to get up and running, but once I did I had fun with it. It's an interesting fusion of light strategy, light action, and light RPG. A session can easily take 3-6 hours, and there's no saving. There won't be many more such "single session" RPGs on the list.

I ended up vacillating between the DOS and Amiga versions. I'm on an extended road trip, and I left my controller at home (which probably wouldn't have worked anyway), so I needed some way to emulate the joystick-only requirement on the keyboard. After a lot of effort setting up the diagonal controls, the Amiga turned out to be the only platform on which I could fully emulate the joystick. However, I had trouble with video and screen captures with WinUAE. For some reason, every time I try to take video, it just makes a 0KB .avi file but doesn't actually record anything. It also puts huge thick black borders around every static screen capture and saves them as bitmaps (yes, I know I can edit both, but that's a pain). Because so much in this game is rapid and difficult to capture with my usual Amiga screenshot method (Windows 10's clipping tool), I used DOSBox for some screen shots and all video. The drawback with the DOS version was that I couldn't figure out how to emulate diagonal controls on the joystick, so I didn't have my full set of combat actions.
How most of my early combats ended.
Action-oriented combat is the most important feature of Moonstone. It's relentless, hard, confusing, and increases in difficulty throughout the game. It's the type of mechanic that I absolutely suck at, and I had to spend about 90 minutes reloading a save state at the first combat I tried before I felt I finally had the controls...well, not "mastered," but at least "learned." I soon discovered that every enemy type requires a different approach to combat, so even the lessons of that long practice session didn't carry me through the entire game.
"Character creation" is really just selecting a color.
On the surface, combat seems easy. When you aren't holding down the "fire" button, the joystick moves you around the screen. When you are holding it down, it executes various attack and defense moves--one for each of the 8 points of the joystick. Sounds easy, but the problem is that the combat options associated with each direction aren't necessarily intuitive, and they also swap sides depending on which way the character is facing. So when you're facing right, upper-left throws daggers, straight up executes a powerful overhand attack, upper-right does an upward thrust, left does a backward thrust, right does a swing, lower-left is a block, straight down is a special block that counters enemies' special attacks, and lower-right is a lunge. Turn and face left, and the top and bottom options are the same but everything else reverses.
Battling some spear-wielding jackass.
Someone with better dexterity could figure it out, but I spent most of my practice sessions just bumbling around. It didn't get easier until I decided to just focus on movement and one or two attacks (primarily swings and overhead chops) that I could rely on. Enemies rarely stay far enough away to throw daggers and upward thrusts only work in a few places anyway.

Let's back up to the story. "The Druids sent their best knights to Stonehenge," the opening scenes of Moonstone tell us, "so they may be dubbed into the Quest for the MOONSTONE." I'm trying and failing to come up with a sentence of similar length that's even more guaranteed to send historians into fits of apoplexy. "When George Washington signed up to fight Nazis in the Boer War, he called upon every strategy he learned during the Crusades" might fit the bill. But it soon turns out that the "druids" and "Stonehenge" of Moonstone aren't meant to be in Britain. The terrain doesn't even come close to matching, and the closest cities are called "Highwood" and, oddly, "Waterdeep."
Visiting "Waterdeep," some distance from the Sword Coast.
Every thousand years, the manual tells us, the warriors of the realm have a special opportunity to win a "gift of ultimate power" from the gods. The victorious warrior has to search the land four keys that give access to the Valley of the Gods. Fighting through "horrible demons of immense power and strength," the warrior must recover a Moonstone, then race to Stonehenge and present it to Danu, "the great Moon God."

The game supports up to 4 players. If playing alone, as I did, the other 3 players are computer-controlled. Each player explores the map in turn, trying to find 4 keys that will allow him to access the Valley of the Gods at the center of the map. There, if he defeats the Guardian, he'll be rewarded with a Moonstone. He takes the Moonstone back to Stonehenge to win the game.

A secondary goal during the player's exploration is to amass an inventory of magic items, experience, and gold, the latter of which he may use in the two towns to purchase equipment upgrades.
I and the other knights explore the map as a dragon swoops around menacingly.
Most of the exploration is done at a series of about 20 "lairs" that dot the map. Each has one or more monsters defending a chest, which may contain a combination of gold, magic items, and keys. As the knights acquire these items, the other knights might attack them hoping to acquire their spoils. Each knight starts with 5 lives and loses 1 life for each lost combat. Lives can be restored by paying healers in cities and by sacrificing magic items to Danu at Stonehenge. If you fall below 3 lives, you can get a couple more by returning to your "home village" (your starting location), but you can only do this three times.
After conquering one of the "lairs," I find one of the keys to the Valley of the Gods.
Playing with other human players would be an entirely different experience than playing with computer-controlled knights. The AI in the computer-controlled characters is pretty stupid. They basically just swarm the human player until you defeat them in enough combats that they lose their lives and die permanently, leaving little graves on the game map. They never return home to heal, nor visit towns to spend their money.

The role-playing elements of Moonstone are light but reasonably satisfying. You get 1 experience point for clearing a lair, 3 experience points for killing the dragon (below), and 3 for defeating the Guardian in the Valley of the Gods. Every time you amass 3 points, you can spend them on 1 point of strength (increases combat damage), endurance (increases movement per round), and constitution (increases hit points). Each of these attributes starts at 1 and might end the game at 3 or 4. Apparently, if you have 4 human players in the game, it only takes 1 experience point to increase an attribute, which again creates a very different game, with some players ending with minimal strength but a huge hit point reservoir and others favoring the opposite.
Raising my constitution with some of my experience. I've collected a few inventory items, including a claymore, a suit of chainmail, a healing potion, a Talisman of the Wyrm, and a key.
About half the ruins contain gold, which can be spent on healing and equipment upgrades, although the only one that you'd want to buy in a single-player game is "battle armor," since you can loot daggers from slain knights and you ultimately find a sword--the Sword of Sharpness--better than anything the shops sell. Other magic items include a Gem of Seeing, which lets you look in lairs and see what treasures they have, a Ring of Protection, and Talismans of the Wyrm, each of which halves the damage done to the character by the dragon.

There are a handful of delightfully devious items that, again, would only make sense in a game against other human players. Scrolls of Protection, for instance, allow you to avoid other players' attacks against you. A Scroll of Acquisition allows you to steal one item from any other player anywhere on the map. Scrolls of the Wyrm direct the dragon to attack another knight. Adding a twist, each of these items can be cursed. Thus, a player who accidentally reads a cursed Scroll of Protection will find that all the battle controls are backwards, and a cursed Scroll of the Wyrm naturally has the dragon attack the player who uses it.
In Waterdeep, you can supposedly donate your gold to Mythral the Mystic for a "chance" to increase your attributes. There's also a chance that visiting him will lower your attributes. I don't know what was going on with my game, but every time I visited Mythral, no matter how much I donated, my stats went down.   
This cost me 100 gold pieces.
The game has a few other twists. After about half a dozen turns, a dragon appears and starts circling the map. If he passes over any knight, there's a chance he'll attack. In a game with other players, I'm not sure if I'd want the dragon attack or not. Chances of victory are low, but you do get 3 experience points and several magic items. The dragon breathes fire in combat, and it took me a long time to realize that the key to defeating him is to get under his head, so his fire goes over yours, and swipe at his neck from a close position.
There's also a mage's tower in the upper-right quadrant where the wizard Math might give you a magic item, or some gold, or an attribute increase, or might turn you into a toad for a few rounds.
One of the few special locations in the game.
But back to combat. The computer-controlled knights are pretty pathetic, so for a single player, the biggest challenge is figuring out how to defeat the other monsters in the game. Each has a different approach to regular attacks and special attacks. As a general strategy, darting north or south on the combat map, then executing an attack just in time for your opponent to walk into it, then darting away, works against almost everyone but takes a lot of patience.

Most lairs generally have more than one enemy. Towards the end, you might face upwards of a dozen. About mid-way through the game, they start attacking you 2 or 3 at a time, too. I don't know if the increased difficulty and numbers are based on how many lairs you've already cleared or on increases in your attributes, but either way the endgame combats are much, much harder.

The manual lists 5 monster types--troggs, ratmen, mudmen, baloks, and trolls--but I swear I faced more than that, and I can't quite reconcile any of the creatures on the screen with the descriptions in the manual. "Mudmen" are the most obvious--they're tall bastards who swing tree branches at you and have a much greater reach than you do, making it hard to hit them first.
Is this a trogg, a balok, or a troll? No idea.
But there are some undead-looking things that I can't match with any of the descriptions. As you kill one, a new one immediately comes erupting from the ground and kills you in one hit if you don't dart out of the way.
Does this look like anything in that list of foes?
In the upper-left quadrant, there are some boar-like creatures that gallop back and forth across the combat screen. You have to make a quick attack the moment you see them at the edge of the screen, or they'll bowl you over before your strike finishes executing. Then there are these spearmen, who might make my "most annoying enemies" list in a more consequential game. Their reach is far longer than yours, but they dart too quickly to catch them with daggers. If you face one on either side, they can catch you in a neverending succession of rapid thrusts, and you have no choice but to watch and die.
Two spear dudes skewer me.
One highlight of combat, particularly for the 1991 player, is the "gore" setting, which ensures that every character death is accompanied by copious on-screen blood loss, dismemberment, and decapitation. Knights in combat always execute a decapitating coup de grĂ¢ce on their defeated challengers. Almost every review or summary of the game mentions this aspect, but honestly it's pretty tame compared to what we're accustomed to in 2016.
My character is beheaded by another knight.
A few other notes:

  • The game mentions wandering "Black Knights" that you have to watch for, but I never encountered any, or didn't know what they were when I did.
  • This is the first game I can remember to offer hints on loading screens.
  • There's a gambling game in cities, but I lost every time I played.
It's well-animated, anyway.
  • Each knight can visit each "lair" only once, after which it disappears form the map. Sometimes, you fight an exhausting battle at a lair only to find that another knight has already been there and claimed the treasure.
  • The game features nice animation in the opening and closing screens. But if you can perceive a difference between the Amiga and DOS versions of these screens, I think you're making it up.
  • DOSBox either had problems emulating the sound, or the sound for the DOS version was just awful. But I didn't really experience the Amiga sound because I was mostly playing the game during a time when I had people around me and I was supposed to be working, so I had the sound off.
  • Technically, I guess there are multiple "Moonstones" that you can obtain in the Valley of the Gods, and you need to wait until yours corresponds with the right phase of the moon (shown between turns) before you enter Stonehenge to win the game. In a multi-player game, this would give other players a chance to defeat your characters while you wait. In a single-player game, everything else on the map is probably dead by then, so you just end up passing a few turns until the moon aligns.
If I have the "new moon" Moonstone, I have a lot of waiting to do.
It took me about 5 false starts to finally win the game, even against the pathetic computer AI. Once I had the four keys, I went to the Valley of the Gods, where the Guardian--a whirling genie-like creature, was probably the easiest enemy in the game. (At that point, I had been used to fighting 3 creatures at once and 15 creatures total.)
It killed me here, but only because I stopped to take a screenshot.
After defeating the Guardian, I returned to Stonehenge with the Moonstone and got the endgame. "You have completed the quest," the end titles informed me, before taking me to the "ceremony of the Moonstone." In said ceremony, my warrior stood triumphant on a platform in the middle of Stonehenge while scantily-clad girls danced around him.
Then a portal opened up in the heavens...
...and my knight was sucked up into the night sky to become a constellation. I'm not sure how much of a "reward" that is. But the game deserves credit for a series of victory screens more interesting and complex than the typical RPG that takes dozens of hours.
I suspect this would actually kind of suck.
As I said, I had fun with the game once I got the hang of combat. The process of exploring the ruins and finding items is satisfying and relatively quick, and character improvements from both equipment and attributes is immediately noticeable in combat. (Without the extra enemies towards the end, the game would be far too easy.) Let's see how it does on a GIMLET:
  • 2 points for a fairly minimal game world.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Creation is nothing special--you just select a name and a color--but as above, development is swift and satisfying.
  • 2 points for a couple of NPCs who help you out, but there's no interaction.
This guy just barely qualifies as an NPC.
  • 3 points for foes that act differently depending on type, forcing you to adapt. Alas, no role-playing encounters, but it's not that sort of game.
  • 3 points for an action-oriented combat that nonetheless makes you think and plan.
A "mudman" waits for me to recover.
  • 3 points for a decent set of equipment.
Purchasing items in town.
  • 4 points for an economy that never loses value (you always need to heal, if nothing else)
  • 2 points for a main quest.
The game's final screen.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are fun, and what I heard of the sound in the Amiga version was serviceable, but I have no patience for joystick-only interfaces.
  • 6 points for gameplay. The game is meant to be replayed, and offers a slightly different game depending on what knight you choose (each knight has a different starting area). It's brisk and fun, and offers a satisfying challenge in its difficulty.

That gives us a final score of 32, which isn't too bad, particularly given that it's not really a classic RPG. Morever, it's the first British game to break the "weirdness" barrier that I talked about in my entry on Heavy on the Magick--although we have to note that the Brits still don't show any signs of understanding classic RPG conventions.
At least the tagline is accurate.
I had a feeling that our friends at the perpetually annoying Amiga Power would love this one. After all, it has virtually no RPG elements and spends nearly its entire wad on graphics and sound. So I was surprised to see reviewer Neil West rating it only a 73/100, basically saying that its not quite enough of an action game and not quite enough of an RPG. Overall, Moonstone was pretty controversial among reviewers, with ratings from a low of 48 (Power Play) to a high of 100 (Top Secret). American magazines tended to overlook this one.
An interview on a fan site credits Todd Prescott with the game's concept. He indicates he was inspired by "a combination of D&D and the board games Talisman and The Dark Tower." He approached a colleague, Rob Anderson, and Anderson handled most of the programming. For combat, the pair was heavily influenced by the action game Barbarian (1987). Prescott indicates that the game never had a U.S. release because Toys R Us thought it was too violent. The limited release unfortunately sank plans for a Moonstone 2. This was Prescott's only game; Anderson went on to a longer career at Mindscape, Electronic Arts, and Sega (among others), and currently lists himself as an independent video game developer. None are RPGs, so we won't be encountering him again.

Moonstone seems to have a lot of retro-fan love these days, and I understand why. It's not going to be part of my soul or anything, but it was a fun way to kill a couple of days in a hotel room. Let's see if the same can be said of another Mindscape title, Knightmare.


Alas, Fer & Flamme continues to give me trouble. A kind commenter sent along the French manual, which allowed me to advance through character creation. The problem is, when I get to the end of the creation process, the game insists on saving the party to disk. I inert a blank disk, give the party a name, and hit the "$" key as prompted, and then get this:
Unless there's an obvious workaround I'm missing, this game might not be playable after all.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Fate: Exploring the Catacombs

"Hang myself with it" is alas not an option.
Last time I blogged about Fate: Gates of Dawn, I had pledged not to write again until I solved the Cavetrain quest. (This is the first quest, mind you. I'm over 40 hours and 6 postings into the game, and I haven't solved the first quest.) Little did I know how long it would take. I've reached a point where if I don't offer an intermediate posting, I'll forget what's happening by the time I finish the whole Cavetrain business. If I ever do.
Fate postings are going to be dispersed enough that I should probably start every one with a recap, so here goes. Inspired by the truncated Alternate Reality series, the developers of Fate deliberately set out to create an enormous living world with numerous logistical challenges for the characters, like hunger, fatigue, thirst, disease, and morale. The main character is Winwood, a 20th-century record store owner who finds himself sucked into a fantasy realm via some kind of dark magic. He escapes the grasp of an evil wizard named Thardan and goes about exploring his world and collecting NPC companions from the various random encounters in the wilderness and towns.
Just a fun message.
The opening wilderness area occupies around 10,000 squares. It is cut off from the rest of the game map, which promises to be much larger, by mountains and water. The major city in the opening area, Larvin, is over 3000 squares of shops, temples, taverns, inns, and numerous random encounters. As you explore Larvin, you can pick up NPCs of a variety of classes as well as get other NPCs to help you and give you hints. Hints stack upon each other in various threads, with particular NPC classes always having the next hint in the thread.
Several sections of one of the catacomb levels.
As I explored Larvin, I heard that the city is isolated from the rest of the world, with access only by something called a Cavetrain. It's broken, and King Garloth is offering a reward to anyone who can reactivate it. The Cavetrain is powered by the "Shade Ghosts," who in turn have been corrupted either by a wizard named Miras Athran or some creatures called Mongtards. To solve the mystery, I'm going to have to descend into the Catacombs, which has multiple entrances and exits. One of the exits apparently leads to a hidden area in the southeast of the city, otherwise inaccessible, where a druid named Mulradin might have some more secrets.
Any chance I can just sit back and let this guy solve the quest?
In exploring the town and wilderness, I managed to get most of my characters up to Levels 10-12 and I assembled a good collection of starting gear. My full party of 7 characters contains Winwood, a fighter, a witch, a priestess, a banshee, an assassin, and a warlock. I know I'll have to give at least one up for a particular NPC at some point, but I'm not sure when that will happen. When characters level up, they get points to spend on skills or spells in the various guilds, but I've been advised not to spend any until the rest of the world opens up and I can make sure I go to the most valuable guilds.
The Catacombs are a perfect example of how obnoxiously huge Fate is. So far, I've mapped parts of 8 levels, and each level has multiple stairways up and down, multiple independent sections, maybe 2000 squares already. All levels are swarming with spellcasters and fighters--some hostile, some willing to talk--and they get harder and more numerous the further you descend.
Anyone can be friendly.
The developers show awareness of other dungeon crawlers like Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, or Might & Magic in the various encounters that pepper the dungeons, including fountains that sometimes heal, sometimes poison, cryptic messages scrawled on the walls, teleporters, treasures, and traps. Traps are only occasionally avoidable--I think dependent on the lead character's dexterity.
The developers pay homage to Might & Magic or Ultima IV.
Anyone want to take a crack at this?
When I last blogged, I hadn't explored very far, and I was stymied by a boulder that was clearly important but I couldn't do anything productive with. It turns out I needed to be testing every wall for secret doors because there were a huge number in the area. Most of them led to switches on the walls, and one of the switches caused the boulder to move, revealing more stairs going down.
Well, moved because I pulled a switch.
These stairs led to a very large Level 3, which in turn led to stairs back up to new areas of Levels 2 and 1, finally depositing me on the secret island in the southeast area of Larvin. That sentence represents about 5 hours of gameplay.
For some reason, I had expected to find Mulradin in a house, so I was surprised when the small area contained nothing more than a guild, an inn, a tavern, a chapel, and more stairs down to the Catacombs. Eventually, I realized Mulradin must be a wandering NPC, so I explored around--dismissing other NPCs--until he spawned.
Mulradin had more to say than any other NPC in the game so far. His speech went:
Athran is an evil mage who's been on the evil side since his earliest days. He used his force to absorb all of the peaceful Shade Ghosts into his mind. Now his spiritual power is greater than ever! In this way Athran caused the malfunction of  the Cave Train to imprison the mysterious World Wanderer here in Larvin. All of our hopes are with you now. Find Miras Athran and free the Shade Ghosts. But beware of him; you can't destroy him in fight. Athran has surrounded himself with an aura of evil, and each attack will only strengthen his force. There's only one way to break this aura. Only an innocent being without any hate in mind and heart is able to annihilate the dark sphere of Athran. The contact of this being with Athran's aura will kill him, but the Shade Ghosts will share his demise. To prevent this you have to carry the magical Staff of Gathalak. Gathalak will snatch the Shade Ghosts at the moment of Athran's death. I hope you are now able to accomplish your task. Good luck.
He said this, too, but I forget where.
Okay, then. It turns out I'm the reason for the Cavetrain's disrepair; Thardan wants to keep me in a confined area. I have to somehow find a being "without hate in mind and heart" and this Staff of Gathalak as sub-steps on the way to finishing this Cavetrain quest. At that point, I'll have completed a small fraction of the game!
My characters aren't able to survive many combats on the lower levels, which suggests I may have to do some grinding in addition to all this exploring. Fortunately--if you want to look at it from that perspective--I have lots of areas left to explore, including at least 4 staircases I haven't taken, several teleporters, and a hint that an entirely different stairway can be found in a tavern called the Lich's Inn.
A typical encounter at lower levels of the dungeon.
One of the unexplored areas seems to be called the Alarian Vaults. A message said I should visit them and "bee enlightened." Another suggested that the "Alarian Altair" (whatever that is) will reward my deeds, but still another said I should get "royal permission" before I go there. I suspect I have to get that from King Garloth, who I haven't met yet because his castle is on an island in the middle of the map. Perhaps some other exit from the Catacombs will lead me there.
A few miscellaneous notes:
  • Lamps last about an hour of game time, or around 10-12 minutes real time. They start to get dim a few minutes before that. I learned the hard way to load up on a lot of lamps before going exploring.
  • Magic jewels, which map the surrounding area (an homage to the Ultima series?), are useful but don't reveal areas behind secret doors.
  • I had a hint that magic diamonds, of which I've found a few, strip mages of spells. I haven't really figured out how to use them yet. 
  • Enemy archmages have spells that make you lose your equipment permanently. I can't remember any other game doing this, but it sucks.
  • Something drove my characters mad, leading to these portraits, but I can't remember what it was. I played a few weeks ago.
  • It occurred to me at some point that almost all the enemies in the game have been people. Aside from some rats and snakes in the wilderness, it's rare to encounter an enemy who couldn't also be an NPC on a better day.
  • If you bargain too hard in shops, you get kicked out for a day or so.
A lot of hours went in the scant material that I assembled for this posting. I don't expect this to change.

Time so far: 45 hours

Friday, October 21, 2016

Game 231: Heavy on the Magick (1986)

The game has no title screen; instead, it starts with these instructions.
Heavy on the Magick
United Kingdom
Gargoyle Games (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 16 October 2016
Date Ended: 18 October 2016
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

One of my best friends is British. We met in a training course on September 10, 2001. The next day, we watched the planes hit the towers together and spent the rest of the week getting drunk and watching CNN. I've visited him in London a few times; he's visited me in the States a few times. There have been some minor points of confusion over the years. I once brought him to a Waffle House and had to explain that "well done" is not an acceptable answer when asked how you want your eggs. He had to explain the whole City of London/city of London thing to me, and he laughs at my confusion when he gives his weight in "stone." But on the whole, we understand each other fine, and he's never struck me as coming from a culture so alien that he would have taken naturally to these 1980s British games we're seeing, particularly Swords & Sorcery and Heavy on the Magick.
I'm tempted to show him some of these games the next time I see him. Because he seems like a normal person, I expect bafflement. But I could be wrong. Maybe he'll take a look and say, "Ah, the old Speccy! My, wasn't she fine? Ah, you see, Apex the Ogre--he's a popular children's cartoon character in the U.K. Like your Rocky the Flying Squirrel, really. He shows up and offers advice at trying times. Opening doors, you say? Ah, yes, it's a common cliche in British literature that if you need to open a door, you ask the inanimate pillars nearby for a hint. We call them 'guards.' What about using a key? Oh, I understand the confusion! English doors don't have locks on the door: they put the locks on nearby tables! Say, that game doesn't let you delete letters after you type them, does it? Oh, thank god. The Accurate Typing Act of 1984 requires all software to force users to re-type the entire sentence if they make a single spelling mistake. It's supposed to make us more precise, what? My, what a grand game!"
In the thick of the dungeon. I'm casting the BLAST spell on a troll while the corpses of several previous foes lie on the ground. When he's dead, I'll collect that key.
Heavy on the Magick is an adventure-RPG hybrid that, like a lot of hybrids, doesn't do either of its parts very well. There are very few classic adventure puzzles--most involve shuffling inventory around and using the right items to open doors--and the RPG elements are limited to gaining experience for killing wandering monsters, which you can then convert to stamina.

The game casts you in the role of an obnoxious wizard named Axil the Able. (The game missed an option to make "Axel F" its theme song.) Axil likes to stir trouble by telling fake ribald stories about other wizards. One night in a crowded tavern, Axil has just finished a lewd tale about a wizard named Therion when Therion himself strides up and magically banishes Axil to the dungeons beneath "a dreary castle called Collodon's Pile." The object of the game is simply to get out. Supposedly, there are at least three exits, but I only found one.
This salamander charm will later get me past some fire. I don't know why.
Exploration occurs in a multi-leveled dungeon with dozens of rooms. Each room can have up to 8 exits (each of the cardinal directions), some of which might take you up or down, so you have to watch the descriptions carefully to make sure you haven't crossed levels, which will screw up your maps. I didn't take any video or animated GIFs, but the outline of Axil (as well as the monsters) does move around the screen. You can use LEFT and RIGHT to move him on the screen without leaving it, which allows you to interact with specific objects.

You control Axil through a text parser. (The game presents this as a language called "Merphish.")  In most cases, you strike a single letter for the first word and then type the second: for instance, P(ick up) KEY or X(amine) DOOR. You can speak to NPCs (and, for some reason, inanimate objects) by putting a single quotation mark, then the name of the NPC, then the subject you want to ask about; for instance " GUARD, DOOR.
Getting hints on opening a door. Note Apex's hint to me "WHO GUARDS KNOWS." Is that even English?
I had issues throughout the game getting the emulator to recognize all my keystrokes, meaning I either had to play really slowly or I ended up typing the same commands over and over again.

Character creation is very odd. In a system clearly influenced by the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, your attributes are stamina, skill, and luck. Stamina serves as a combined action point/hit point/spell point pool, and it decreases as you perform certain actions, cast spells, and get hit by enemies. (You also lose 1 stamina point every time you save, which is an interesting idea that more games should adopt.) As you start, the game generates three numbers for these statistics, and they're always very high, moderate, and very low, like 38-9-2 or 35-7-1. You can assign these stats to the attributes in any order you want.
Starting a new game. I can shuffle the points but not re-roll them.
At first, I thought it would make sense to assign the high number to stamina, but later it became clear that it's much more important for skill. I only had success in the game when I gave the moderate number to stamina and the lowest to luck.
The opening screen.
In the first room of the game, you find a couple of books. One of them (on the left) contains a poison that damages and eventually kills you. You have to figure that out through trial and error. The other is a magical grimoire that gives you your first spells: BLAST, FREEZE, and INVOKE. BLAST is an all-purpose combat spell and really the only combat option in the game. (There are no weapons.) FREEZE performs as expected, freezing monsters, but that doesn't do you much good because you generally need to kill them to get through a room. Later, you find some additional spells, including TRANSFUSION, which swaps experience for stamina, and CALL, which allows you to summon an annoying NPC (below).
BLASTing a wyvern.
The game's monsters include ghosts, vampires, wyverns, werewolves, and trolls. Their primary statistic is "cunning," and as long as it's lower than your skill, your BLASTS do a reasonable amount of damage. Eventually, you find some garlic which allows you to instantly kill vampires, as well as a "nugget" that allows you to instantly kill werewolves, and for all I know the other monsters have instant-kill options, too. I didn't find them if they did.
Killing a werewolf immediately with a nugget. I assume it's a silver nugget.
As you kill monsters, you gain experience, which can then be traded for stamina with the TRANSFUSION spell. There's also a "leveling" system in the game that I didn't quite understand and seemed more dependent on wandering into certain rooms than gaining experience through combat. I only "leveled" this way once in the game, from "neophyte" to "zelator," and I was allowed to keep my level even after I died.
Going up a level just for entering a room.
Much of the game involves picking up a variety of items to use in other locations, a process rendered difficult by the fact that you have only 5 item slots. At first, I tried bringing everything to a central location, but later I just marked the location of items so I could go get them if I needed them later. Most of the "puzzles" involve passing through doors. Some doors are passed by dropping keys on nearby tables, others by dropping bags of gold on nearby tables, and still others by giving a password to the door. There were a handful of doors I never found any way to open.
Picking up a key in a multi-exit chamber.
The password puzzles are the only really challenging ones in the game, and it took me a while to figure out how the hints worked. You can get password hints from the "guards" (really just inanimate pillars) that flank some doors, or from an NPC named Apex (more below). The hints are pretty cryptic, and I had to look up one before I understood what the game was doing. That one was "CRY AND ENTER DOOR." The answer to it is WOLF. As in "cry wolf." Another was "TO ENTER IS MADNESS." I tried a bunch of synonyms--INSANITY, CRAZINESS, PSYCHOSIS--before I got it with LUNACY.

In the midst of all these dungeon rooms roams a "helpful" NPC named Apex the Ogre. You can ask him for hints about the various monsters, objects, and doors, although he rarely gave me anything that really helped. You can CALL him once you get the spell scroll, but most of the time, he just showed up unbidden and generally stood in my way until I said "APEX, THANKS to banish him. Although he's not hostile, if you happen to be standing where Apex appears in the room, you'll take continual damage and die.
When Apex gets in your space.
A major part of the manual is given to a dynamic that I never really experienced in-game and didn't understand: summoning demons with the INVOKE spell. The manual lists four demons--Asmodee, Astarot, Belezbar, and Magot--each of which is supposed to help in a different way. For instance, Magot knows of "hidden treasures" and Belezbar "reveals all deceit." When you INVOKE them, you have to be holding their particular talisman--found within the dungeon--or they send you to a furnace room with no exits. If there's any way to escape from there, I never found it.
Invoking Magot turned out to be a bad idea.
A fiery room with no escape.
I guess the demons might be solutions to particular puzzles, but I never figured out what they were, and I managed to win the game without needing to invoke them, so I'll appreciate if another player can fill in the blanks there.

The demons are some of the nods the game makes to the "real" world of the occult. "Therion" was one of the drug-fueled names used by the occultist lunatic Aleister Crowley, and the manual encourages the reader to check out several titles from the "Western Occult Tradition," but honestly there isn't enough game content to really develop this theme. Probably some of the symbols on the walls have an occult angle that went over my head.
Does the SATOR square have some kind of occult meaning?
I'm not sure my description so far has conveyed just how confusingly weird the game feels. The text is presented without punctuation and is often awkward. Color is used like a weapon, with each screen saturated in some garish bright shade. The mechanisms for interacting with objects often don't make any sense. You can't delete or backspace after entering text, so if you make a typo (which happens frequently), you have to abort the entire line and try again. Skill and luck fluctuate for reasons I don't understand. Some of the messages make no sense. I don't know what "2° = 9°" meant for the entire game, but it was right there under my current rank.
One of the map levels I made.
I did my best to map as thoroughly as possible, and in the process of blundering around I found a door. It was past a cyclops with a high "cunning" score, and I wasn't able to defeat him until I put the highest statistic in "skill" and jacked up my stamina with multiple TRANSFUSION spells.
Fighting the "final battle," at least of my game.
The guardians at the door said "TO ENTER SAY A NUMBER OF MAGICK WORDS." Like everything else, it's an awkwardly-worded clue, but I figured it out. The manual says "the number of Magick is 11," and the door opened when I gave it that password.
The room beyond indicated that I was in "the Pile Collodon" (not "Collodon's Pile") and a punctuation-free message indicated that I had made it to an exit while my character did a little dance on screen. I could re-enter the dungeon if I wanted, but screw that. This dude's YouTube video shows him reaching all three exits in a 75-minute game, if you care that much.
I "won."
The game gets a 15 in the GIMLET, scoring 1s and 2s in almost every category (economy gets a 0). It's boring and weird, and I'm afraid I got to the end without ever really "getting" it.
Contemporary reviewers liked it a lot more--it got "best adventure of the year" in Crash! magazine and Computer Gamer gave it the equivalent of 95/100, but between what they produced and how they rated real RPGs (cf. the Amiga magazine reviews of Gold Box titles), I'm pretty well convinced that the Brits of the era simply had no idea what they were talking about.
From the manual, a significant waste of effort.
Heavy on the Magick was roughly the 6th game from British developer Gargoyle Games, which specialized in ZX Spectrum titles, including the action game Ad Astra (1984) and the adventure games Tir Na Nog (1984) and Marsport (1985). Magick uses an updated version of the adventure games' engines. The creators had greater ambitions for Magick: the manual maps a large game world (called Graumerphy) of multiple islands despite the game taking place completely underground, and it promises future titles called Collodon's Pile, The Tombs of Taro, Paradise Reglossed, and The Trials of Therlon as well as a book. To this end, the game allows the saving of Axil as a character independent of the game. Of course, none of this extra material ever happened. Gargoyle closed shop in the early 1990s, and as far as I can tell, developers Roy Carter and Greg Follis left the gaming industry at that point.

Honestly, at some point the Brits must start producing RPGs that make some modicum of sense, communicate in actual English, and don't feel five years behind modern technology. I just don't know when that's going to be. We've got three more in 1986--Mindstone, The Wizard of Tallyron, and Tallyron II. Maybe one of those will finally feel like something recognizable to a fellow westerner.