Virgin’s Vengeance of Excalibur – PC Review

Many have tackled the tales of Arthur and his knights, with
varying degrees of success. Rather than tread such wellworn
ground, Virgin Games took a unique tack with
Spirit of Excalibur by setting it in the period following Arthur’s
death, during the reign of his little-known heir, Constantine. Now,
the saga continues.
Though he took great pains to prove himself in Spirit, Vengeance
leaves the new king out of the running. In fact, the opening
sequence places Constantine in a magical stupor, while the Arthurian
relics (Excalibur among them) are whisked off into the
night by a Demon Lord. The wicked, though perhaps capricious,
deed sends the noble roundtablers scurrying across
Europe to locate the treasures. The player, after selecting four
worthy knights (some of whom may be chosen from Spirit)
shortly docks in Iberia (the Spanish Peninsula for post-industrial
types) where, amidst warring armies, agitated Moors
and masochistic monks, the desperate search begins.
It is not an open-ended search, however. Vengeance, like its
predecessor, is structured as a series of “episodes,” each of
which must be completed in order. As a result, there aren’t a
lot of surprises. One has only to read the TV Guide-style
episode summaries in the rule book to know where the story
is headed.

The advantages to such a system are more subtle. In a standard
open-ended setup, plot progression is tied to geography
(i.e., one must complete Castle A to get Key B to open Castle
B, etc.). Episodes bear a closer resemblance to story chapters.
They also permit the entire game world to change from
episode to episode. Hence, different “chapters” can have different
subplots, characters, and, potentially, stronger plot
progressions.

Sadly, on this level, Vengeance does not compare well with
its predecessor. In Spirit, Constantine’s efforts to prove himself
in the shadow of Arthur had a dramatic “oomph” and the
episodes involved a refreshing variety of mini-plots that gave
the game something of the feel of the original Grail stories.
Here, however, the episodes aren’t very interesting at all and
the overall plot is a “Foozle hunt” for the stolen relics, leaving
the story, in many ways, in the shadow of the shadow of Arthur.
There is also a rather ambiguous morality to the proceed ings. After reading a somber description of the “Roles of Faith
and Nobility” in the rules, this reviewer was surprised to find his
Faithful, noble knights merrily slaughtering innocent dwarves in
order to obtain their treasure. Lancelot also had no qualms about
rifling dead bodies to search for extra gold. One might presume
his affair with Guinevere loosened his integrity.
Like the game, the manual has a nice historical feel, but lacks
certain details. The background info is nice, but more on the individual
knights, the relics and the mythos, would have been appreciated. In addition, while some players may enjoy discovering
what spells do, this reviewer prefers having basic playing info
“spelled” out.

The game engine in Vengeance is identical to Spirit’s. Play is
controlled through a set of on-screen icons. This interface is so
extremely well-designed that the highest compliment it can be
given is that it doesn’t get in the way of game play at all.
As for the graphics — in EGA, they look, well… red. In VGA
they look red, too, but it is a prettier red and there are a lot
more shades of it. The EGA text boxes have an ornate typeface
that is difficult to read until one gets used to it. The soundtrack,
on the other hand, is a pure delight. Many of the themes work
well with desperate key clicking and this reviewer often found
himself pressing the joystick button right in tune.
Action takes place on three levels: the map, for moving from
town to town; the scene, where individual encounters take place
and army combat, for the obvious.
At the scene level, knights appear on the left side of a local
background. Occasionally, one knight will get crowded half off
the left border, creating an amusing “cropped” family portrait
feel. There’s an appropriately “flat” look to these graphics, giving
them a subtle resemblance to the tapestries and woodcuts of the
period. NPCs, friend or foe, appear screen right. If friend, the
NPC will repeat his little animation sequence while talking in text
boxes. This reviewer was particularly amused by several monks
who periodically beat themselves in the face with wooden boards.
If a foe, the figures automatically meet center screen for unavoidable individual combat. Though the manual claims there is
some strategy involved, this reviewer could not find it. The player
can control the lead knight’s sword strokes (two types of attack,
swipe and jab), but a rapid, random succession of button presses
seemed the most effective. Although various commands can be
issued to different characters, including the use of spells and objects,
combat was often over before any such commands could
be issued. (Game hint: Brandeleis, while he has a lot of cash, is
a lousy fighter with a low sense of self-preservation. Keep him in
the back.)
The scene level also provides an occasional “maze” to wander
through, represented by a series of backgrounds with varying
exits and entrances.
The map level, as one might guess, provides a map of the immediate
area. It is here, in this elegant overview, that Vengeance
achieves its greatest success. While the player moves about, all
across Iberia, armies and NPCs also move about, independently
warring, conquering and killing. This is a world constantly in motion,
a situation continually degenerating. The player’s attempts
to avoid stronger forces, reach certain locations before certain
NPCs do, and complete specific tasks in time, provides a sense
of immediate, impending doom which, alone, makes the game
worth playing. The ease of failure in such instances requires
saving early and saving often.
When armies collide, an army combat screen is provided. The
player has a few options for his forces, but superior forces beat
inferior forces, often with or without player participation. Vengeance,
it seems, only creates the illusion of combat strategy.
There is, however, strategy on other levels. As in life, it’s crucial
who one picks to be his friends (or in this case, who one pays to
be his mercenaries).
In the end, the final battle is disappointing. Once the appropriate
objects have been obtained, the main villain goes down
like a house of cards, while the closing sequence is an uneventful
series of text screens and still pictures that rattle off how nice
it is to save the world.

So, it is a mixed bag, but even where it fails, Vengeance of Excalibur
does so in intriguing ways. If you are looking for some
tense real-time running about, with a potentially interesting
gaming structure, give Vengeance of Excalibur a shot. If plot,
character development or combat strategy are your pleasure, a
heartier mead might be provided elsewhere.

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