Review - Menzoberranzan (DOS, 1994)

Menzoberranzan. It sounds like one of the ingredients in some really preservative-laden food like "Slim Jims." Not the case, however. Menzoberranzan is the newest RPG release from the game wizards at Strategic Simulations Inc . . . the same game wizards who introduced brand new interfaces in each of their last couple RPGs (Ravenloft and Jorune: Alien Logic), thereby frustrating gamers like myself who would rather not have to learn a new system every time they buy a new game. The good news is that Menzoberranzan utilizes the same interface (more or less) as Ravenloft. The bad news is that, in the humble opinion of this writer, surviving Ravenloft's interface requires the player to possess either the patience of a saint or a good chemical substitute. Since most people have neither, well, you get the idea.

This is not to say that Menzoberranzan is an entirely bad game. While the interface really should've been revamped, a truly challenging and enjoyable adventure lies beneath it. Right from the get-go, you'll be witness to some pretty excellent graphic designing, both still and animated. The character creation system (your first step in beginning the game) features beautiful animated scenes and digitized speech of superior quality. Actually, digitized speech is featured throughout the entire game, and the voice accents and vernacular have a definite "medieval" tone to provide a dose of realism. For some reason, most of the dialogue in today's RPGs is completely devoid of medieval flavor . . . the NPCs could just as easily be your present-day next-door neighbor. Oh well. It's nice to see that someone ELSE finally recognized this.

Moving in the game's main adventure mode is an adventure in itself. Two methods are provided. One requires the use of the familiar arrow icons . . . click and hold on a direction to move in that direction. For the DOOMish sort, though, Menzoberranzan also lets you move freely using only the mouse. Pressing the spacebar in adventure mode toggles between these two options, so an unintentional brush against the keyboard might result in an unwanted toggle. There's nothing I hate more than an unwanted toggle. I have nightmares. Anyway, the landscape is pixelated pretty heavily, and bumping into trees is a common occurrence. In order to find your way around the larger areas, you'll need to refer to the automap often. I've always praised game publishers who put automaps in their games, and SSI shouldn't go unnoticed in this regard . . . they've put 'em in most of their RPGs for years. However, the map system used in Menzoberranzan (and in Ravenloft before it) is not without its share of annoying quirks. A few key features are either missing or integrated poorly. There's no way to move your party automatically to a location you've already visited (a very handy feature that exists in other RPGs such as the Realms of Arkania series), and annotating your map is almost a hassle. Sure, you can click anywhere and type a little memo to yourself, but don't even think about editing or deleting afterwards. Also, everything (and I mean everything) is represented by a dot of some color on the map, and since some of the colors look a bit alike, things can get kind of confusing. Usually, I just looked for a cluster of dots and headed toward it hoping to find something of value. That's not the best strategy to use in a roleplaying game.

Speaking of bad strategies, combat in Menzoberranzan is completely lacking in strategy. It's REAL TIME. Yes, I feel your pain . . . I was equally horrified. This system just doesn't work, as it's too easy to become surrounded by creatures and spellcasting is difficult in the middle of a fight. Looks like SSI spent too much time in development trying to cater to the Doom fan . . .

Oh well. You can't ALWAYS make a good game. SSI has a great reputation and definitely won't lose it on account of this game alone. Menzoberranzan really isn't worth your money, though, and, as a loyal SSI fan, it pains me to say that. Play the Dark Sun series instead . . . it's more RPG and less BFG.