Review - Death Gate (DOS, 1994)

The Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman has gathered sufficient fans to put its books on the New York Times bestseller's list time and again. It was only a matter of time before these tales of a world divided, literally, were adapted in some form. That form turned out to be a Legend computer game, the first CD-ROM only product from that company.

The story revolves around an ancient political struggle between two magic wielding races, the Sartan and the Patryns. These "superpowers" waged a tug of war over control of their home world and the subordinate "mensch" races that also lived there, dwarves, elves and humans. Finally, the Sartan felt that the risk of the mensch falling under Patryn power was too great. Imagine the commie-phobia of the last few decades and you'll get some idea of the emotions involved here. The most powerful of the Sartan decided that the only way to save the world was to split it into five parts: Four for the four elements, air, fire, stone and water, plus a prison world for those godless Patryns. This planetary jail was called the Labyrinth, and it not only confined the Patryns, but tormented and killed many of them, as well.

The game begins centuries later, after a very determined and powerful Patryn, Lord Xar, has managed to break free of the dangerous Labyrinth, bringing his student with him, a promising young player character named Haplo. Lord Xar explains that he plans to reunite the sundered world, and needs your (Haplo's) help to do it. You must travel through the Death Gate to each of the worlds and find a fragment of the World Seal that was broken to cast the divisive spell. The catch is that the only way to do this travel is to learn the destination world's rune symbol, and Xar only knows one of them at first, the symbol of Arianus, the world of air. From there, Haplo is on his own to learn whatever magic he can and to find a rune from one of the other worlds somewhere.

Death Gate is a major technological step up for Legend. While it still uses the Companions of Xanth engine, which has been used in several previous games, the graphics are extremely crisp and attractive in SVGA. My only complaint about the visuals is that they are too static, overall. There are some nicely rendered 3-D cut scenes, but most of the game is presented in still pictures, attractive though they are.

While there is a lot of ground to cover in this game, the presentation is very linear. There is really only one way to get through, with a few minor deviations here and there. This is not neccessarily a bad thing, it's just a bit basic.

In fact, basic seems to be what Legend was going for in every area except presentation. The game is designed not just for hard-core adventure players, but also for fans of the novels who have never used a mouse in their lives. Death Gate includes a very good on-line tutorial explaining the basics of the adventure game genre. It makes a lot of sense, and should be included in a lot more games. On the flip side, for those adventure players who have never picked up a Death Gate novel, the package also includes a new short story by Weis and Hickman called Forever Falling.

One of the game's strongest features is its magic system. Instead of just being a list of spells to choose from, each spell is made up of a group of connected runes, and these runes can be experimented with to form new patterns and, possibly, more potent spells. This layout gives the player something much more concrete to deal with than your typical spell system.

The sound is also quite good, but not quite what I was expecting. The box describes the score as "symphonic." I thought I knew what that meant, but I guess I was wrong. I was hoping that an actual symphony orchestra was involved, or that the music was in the structure of a symphony. In fact, this game may sound like a symphony orchestra was involved IF you have a sound card that supports general MIDI. On the SoundBlaster, however, it's the same old electronic stuff, pretty though it may be.

Still, there is no doubting that Death Gate is a huge technical improvement for Legend. It is a great story, it's fun to play, and it bodes very well for future releases. You don't have to be a fan of the books to have a really good time with this game.

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