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The Adventures of Robin Hood

This post was made possible by my backers on Patreon. Thank you! Backers currently get access to all funded posts one week early. This is a first for me, so please bear with me while I figure out how it’s all going to work. You can back me here.


Still less wooden than Costner.

“Explain why Robin Hood is one of the most enduring European legends, yet most of the Western world is vehemently opposed to communism.”

Thus asked a friend of me in school, and I reply: “Because Robin Hood was a bumbling cretin who robbed a minstrel, drank nine pints of ale, then accidentally shot Maid Marian and got built into a wall.”

Your confusion indicates that you have not played Millennium Interactive’s adventure game, The Adventures of Robin Hood.


Exposition Jim had a problem, and everybody knew it.

Released in 1991 on the PC and Amiga (identical, but the latter version, as usual, has better sound. Less usually, the difference here isn’t vast), it was, like almost all games I played on the Amiga, pirated, and thus there was no manual. I’ve no idea to this day whether the manual gave much away. I hope it didn’t, because figuring out all the hidden secrets of this game was half the fun. The other half is, quite simply, playing with it, in the traditional, much-neglected sense of simply mucking around. It’s a non-linear adventure with RPG elements and AI teammates. That’s a hell of a lot of design to cram onto a single floppy disk.

You are Robin of Loxley castle, and you begin by cavorting with your happy people in a merry courtyard dance. No, really. It’s a nice little tune. Then the sheriff pops up, accompanied by armed guards, and introduces himself. He claims he’s the rightful owner of the castle, and demands that you leave. You refuse, of course, and in a genuinely funny moment, all your people abandon you. They just plain walk away. No conniving uprising while you’re away on a crusade here. No defiant, roaring Brian Blessed nor Alan Rickman drawling a sinister ultimatum. The great folk hero loses everything when some dude just strolls in and tells him to piss off. And he does.


True companions.

“Norman swine!”, shouts Robin, once the guards are safely out of earshot, “You’ve not seen the last of me!”. Then he walks out of the castle and sits on the grass. And that’s his plan. To sit there, in plain sight of his usurpers, moping.

This sets the tone, and reveals a defining feature of the game: its sense of humour. It’s a great aversion of the usual pattern, of the mewling, useless peasants waiting and begging for the Heroic Hero to save them. Here, Robin is a dumbass and the people are cowardly, venal, needlessly sarcastic gits. The only thing they do faster than fleeing or betraying you is slagging you off, shouting abuse at the very sight of you. It’s hard not to root for the Sheriff a little.

You control Robin directly by clicking on arrows (or keyboard shortcuts, which make it more natural and comfortable than you’d think) or directly on the map, and less directly via a string of icons, in typical adventure game fashion. Rather than a string of static screens, the world is cut up into more granular isometric squares that scroll relative to you, giving a stronger feeling of control. There are secret items too, which open up extra abilities ranging from convenient to game-altering, and you’d be ruining the fun if you used the internet to find them.


There’s room for 7 graves. It should be enough, but, well.

It’s pleasant on the senses, despite the jerky animations, with limited but satisfactory sound effects, and occasional event music, such as for the druid who tends a shrine to Herne the Hunter (which doubles as the place for NPCs to enter the world, replacing the dead) and gives out cryptic advice to a curiously disturbing tune. Character models are tiny but distinctive, and go about their routines in a way that puts many later games to shame. Even Robin himself might get into a micro-adventure all on his own if you sit back and relax.

Villagers hunt and forage, guards patrol and chase criminals. The sheriff will occasionally pop out to outlaw something, unless you’ve murdered the guards, at which point he’ll complain about how unreliable they are. The monks will gradually build an entire monastery, stopping only to collect and bury bodies, complete with a funeral service and hymn (“Ashes to ashes, mumble to mumble”). Once or twice, I’ve been captured by a Norman after a prolonged chase, only for him to lie down and die of exhaustion. Better still are the beggars (ordinary villagers with no money – possibly because you robbed them) who gladly accept your charity, then walk around in a circle, sit down, and continue begging. In another game I’d call this a bug.


Our hero.

So why should you help these jerks? Well, fine. Don’t, then. Become a villain instead, robbing and killing and harassing the villagers, guards, and clergy alike. There’s no reason you can’t suck up to the guards, or the sheriff – do it while he’s trying to issue a proclamation for maximum passive-aggressiveness. Or you could wander into the inn for a lovely pint, or try to befriend a deer and watch as Robin runs after them like an eejit, eager to be within earshot for any sign of a response. It could easily be retitled “Robin makes a complete div of himself”, and it pulls this off without raising ire – the people are too funny and Robin too lovably gormless. If he’s not being bullied by the Norman guards or shouting “There is a smell of burning in the air” while staring directly at a bonfire, he’s being threatened by his own merry men, or having robberies thwarted when a victim simply runs away.


The only villainous thing the Sheriff actually does.

Disappointingly, swordfights aren’t much use. The villains are at least as strong as you, so your health will usually give out first unless they’re already exhausted from other fights. That only happens if they’ve just killed one of your merry men, so your main option is to assassinate people with the bow and peg it. Your men can’t do that, so their excursions – you can order them to rob and kill and donate – will often end in either death or capture, which means swift execution unless you happen to be nearby. It means there’s not much use to the ‘attack’ icon, but it does, on balance, contribute to the sense that Robin is less a dashing hero than a bungling, faintly Clouseau-esque figure of fun.


Each season brings new graphics and minute changes to AI.

Naturally, your goal is to kill the sheriff and retake the castle, which it’s possible to do in about 5 minutes by shooting him and sprinting inside before the guards realise what’s happened (there’s often a deadpan pause for a moment when you do something unexpected. Considering how little is scripted, it has remarkable comic timing). Some might complain that they can “beat” the game (urgh, how have we allowed that dreadful phrase to take over?) so soon, but more fool them for trying to win at Lego.

Besides, there’s another step first, unless you want the bad ending, of which there are several. Or more precisely, multiple small variations on two endings, decided based on what friends you’ve made, and where you stand on one of three character scales the game tracks. The other two are mostly for flavour, such as Optimism v Pessimism determining whether an idling Robin will wander off for some target practice, or sit around wailing “Oh woe is me!”. NPCs also have stats, which determine how they treat you (near universal contempt to start with).


Aelfstan the druid is metal. He scared me as a child.

This isn’t a game for winning, it’s a game to be poked around with. It’s a sandbox, really, from long before the concept had a name. And a roguelike too, thanks to the PC version’s save system. It’s playable today via dosbox, although apparently not on sale. If there’s an obstacle it’s the simple animation and sometimes slow pace, and a lack of scripted events after the first few seasons, but those are petty complaints. The Adventures of Robin Hood is a small, simple game brimming with detail and lively, imaginative humour that’s aged far better than its humble production values suggest.


Smooth like brick.

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I Fought the Door and the Door Won – E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy

Let’s face it, E.Y.E:Divine Cybermancy is a terrible name. That the developers were not native English speakers doesn’t really explain it, unless there’s some kind of EU subsidy involved; I’m quite sure that the French also have a phrase for “What the hell did I just play?”.

For this is the question I am still asking. My pad is scrawled with over four thousand words written while playing, and I’ve recorded more videos than my hard drive will ever forgive me for. And still my brain is overflowing with things to say.

I’ve completed it. Except I haven’t. I finished the story, except that I didn’t, and if I tell you what that means, it’ll spoil the ending. Except it isn’t the ending, and aaaaaaaaargh.


“We don’t know any more than you, frankly.”

EYE is an indie FPS with a heavy dose of stat-side RPG, casting you in the role of an amnesiac warrior-monk-alien-human-hybrid-samurai-assassin with psychic powers and cybernetic implants. And yes, that does sound like something a 7-year old would breathlessly exclaim while playing in the garden, but it actually works in context. It is an inbred, bastard descendant of Deus Ex, Half-Life, Warhammer, Painkiller, and Doom. It grew up with The Matrix, Blade Runner, and Syndicate, and had intrepid sex with Aliens, Groundhog Day, Flashback, Total Recall, and The Dark Tower, and you now fully understand it, so I can knock off for the day.

Oh, fine. But we’ll have to separate the game’s structure and story parts first, or we’ll be here all night.


My, what a relevant screenshot.

Structure

You’re given objective-based missions stretched across a variety of very large and open levels. They’ll mostly involve shooting things, hacking them, or talking to them. You start with several stats that govern skill at shooting, running, hacking, using psi powers et cetera, which manually increase when you level.

In addition to stats, you can upgrade your robotic body parts, which grant bonuses to stats, protect you, help you run faster or hide better or refill energy, and so forth. On top of this, there are optional cybernetic implants that give you the power to cloak or use echolocation or resist gunfire. These function very much like Deus Ex‘s augmentations. As well as implants, you’re offered psionic powers that act as spells, allowing you to create clones of yourself or teleport into an enemy, bursting them messily open. In yet another feature, the player can collect briefcases of data from fallen enemies and research them in a sort of X-COM/System Shock 2 crossover, which will further augment your powers, or unlock more spells, abilities, and implants.

Phew, eh?


Options include a cyber-thyroid. I’d settle for a functioning one, myself.

You’re sent off to a series of maps, on which you’re given several tasks to complete as you see fit. There are usually sub-missions from NPCs. Once you’ve finished a map, you can go back there for randomised missions to grind for cash and XP, or if you just want to mess around and kill things for a while. We’ve all been there.

Though it’s up to you how to achieve objectives, you absolutely will be in a lot of gunfights. Cloaking your way through trouble is sometimes an option (though more to change position and choose when to open fire), and you can also attempt to hack your enemies via a fast-paced and often tricky mini-game that sees you balancing three power levels against your opponent’s, be it another cyberbrain or a simple door. Most hostiles themselves can be directly hacked, wirelessly, allowing you to take remote control of enemy agents and make them gun down their friends. It’s worth noting that when you attack something thus, it will hack you back, with the result ranging from harmless through annoying right up to they will make your fucking head explode. Even the ATMs and doors fight back.

Interaction with NPCs is very basic, sadly. The outcome of conversation can vary a lot – most will pay you for a favour or help you out if you sweet-talk them, but may turn hostile if you annoy them. Calling it “conversation” is generous, really – you’re given a list of badly written, poorly translated responses, and picking the right one too often feels like pot luck. Occasionally you’ll be asked to make a big decision, but this is where I have to step across to the story section. Back in a bit. Enjoy some clips while you wait.


This is what your base has instead of corridors. Because why not?

Story

Oh, God help me.

You’re part of E.Y.E, an organisation ostensibly trying to investigate and stop a mysterious force of monsters that’s popping up all over the galaxy, but secretly trying to overthrow the Federation, a government spread over hundreds of planets. Meanwhile, E.Y.E. itself is split into two factions, with your leader ordering you to wipe out the other faction, but your mentor urging you to work with them. It’s a fanatic holy order, so this isn’t the kind of rivalry that will be settled with a cup of tea and lengthy chat. You’ll have to decide what to do about the other faction, how to deal with your conflicting loyalties, and, perhaps overthrow a galactic empire. Easy, right? Oh, you’re also an amnesiac troubled by a recurring dream in which you’ve just killed your Mentor. Or not. Or it’s a premonition. Or a warning. Or not. Um.

Let’s go back to structure, shall we?


Screw you, Phil. Our dystopian future has a pool.

Structure

So, there’s a Big Decision there, and it’ll come sooner than you expect. I can’t tell you how much the plot diverges because I’ve only seen one path. I’ve only seen one path because this game has the worst save system I’ve ever seen. You can’t save the game. Ever. It autosaves whenever you change your character, complete an objective, or die (death lasts a few seconds, after which you resurrect on the spot – which often will mean you die three or four times in a row. Every time you die, there’s a chance your stats will suffer. Yeah). Quit the game before leaving a map and you’ll have to do it all over again, but you’ll keep your stats and gear. Essentially, it saves whenever you don’t want it to.

This system is AWFUL AND OBJECTIVELY BAD AND WHAT THE HELL HOW CAN THIS HAPPEN OH MY G-


Interceptors are a nightmare, but an open invitation to a hacker.

Story

Once I’d made that Big Decision and seen the result play out, I realised why the game does this. It helps that before this, I ran out of “resurrections”, but instead of getting a game over, my resurrections topped up, and my recurring dream now featured a strange man who told me everything was just a premonition of how I might fuck up. Then I was sent back to where I’d just left, with a slight stat loss and hopefully some cool scars.

So yes, that save system. And that “resurrection” thing. It’s not explicitly stated, but by the end of the plot thread I saw, I realised that it’s tied to the story. You can’t save because you’re not supposed to see ahead via the magic of saving. It’s a choose your own adventure that forces you to actually choose, and not just eschew the dice altogether because seriously, screw dice. You’re supposed to live with your mistakes. To understand what it’s all about, you’re meant to keep trying until you reach an ending and get another chance to do it again the right way. All with the same character, getting stronger and better the whole time.


Some objectives must be searched for manually. Good luck with that.

This is structure stuff, but I’m writing it under story because it was the story that (eventually) explained the absolutely insane save system. This is arguably a spoiler too, but it’s worth it because, well, there’s a point to it. EYE Cap’n Sah isn’t well written or anywhere near as fleshed out as it deserves to be, so instead of spelling things out for you, it’s the way it plays that gives it meaning. And that isn’t clear until the end, and even then, all you know is that you’ve found the wrong way, bringing you closer to the right one. It’s all rather Zen (or Samsara, or Moksha, or … look, I was raised Catholic, okay? You’re lucky I even know Zen is a thing).


Is this Zen? This doesn’t look like Jesus. It might be Zen.

I’ve never played a game like this. Not the “play it over” thing – God no – I’ve played and resented many games that expected me to play 300 times before I can do anything fun (hi Japan!). By contrast, EYE: Bovine Hyperdancey lets you have tonnes of fun right away, however your real potential will never be reached if you don’t try again. And of course I’ve played games that tried to be about something, or had a twist, or a moral, or some face-punchingly awful fourth-wall breaking twattery (hi Kojima!), but this really caught me off guard. It’s nothing spectacular, and the plot remains rather simple and poorly told, the characters barely there, the world an untapped mystery, but the fact that I’m now defending the save system that I’ve just spent two weeks constantly swearing a blood oath to destroy is remarkable. It’s absolutely about the bizarre and sometimes thrilling experience above all else, and the older I get, the more appreciation I feel for that.

I’d still like a save option, mind. I could have reviewed this in half the time with that.


Miniguns, blimps, cyberbrains, amoral sinister agents. Bliss.

EYE, Invisible Killer Robot Priest With a Minigun has many other flaws. You’ll get used to the UI, but it’s still bad. The hacking minigame is neat but imperfect – it’s sometimes far too tedious to hack multiple targets when a bullet ballet would sort them out in seconds. The possession script is wonky. The AI is rather simple. The difficulty forms less of a curve and more of a strip-mined mountain range. There are long stretches (and the entire “special missions” bit, as far as I can tell) that are not possible to complete without being Robocop’s less subtle cousin, and you get no indication when this is about to happen. Character generation is an esoteric mess. There are bugs, most notably one that switches around weapon hotkeys; you’ll frequently draw the wrong weapon because the keys have changed again. The translation really is awful, and the writing can’t have been much better in the original French. There are no interesting or memorable characters at all.


Hacking is easily understood once you try it, but can be laborious.

All this plus the ballsed up save system that only makes sense if you’ve played the game for dozens of hours should add up to a game I loathe. But I just can’t. This game pisses me off, but I love it. It’s ambitious. It’s original. It’s insane. It evokes countless games and films and books without being a clone or rip-off of any (although the Aliens-inspired level cuts it close. It’s a homage, really). The game is awash with references to other works, both explicit and thematic, but remains independent.

The gunplay is enormously exciting, and combat dances you back and forth wonderfully over a fine line between being a total badass cutting a path through dozens of mooks, and being a desperate man with his back against the wall, fighting for his life. Mooks go down with a shot or two, but armoured toughies are a bloody nightmare. You start the game with free access to shotguns, sniper rifles, dual swords and miniguns. The levels are intricate and frickin’ huge.


<PERSUADE> … GOING … <PERSUADE>

The levels! Some of them are wonderfully realised. There’s a whole map that is more Syndicate than anything we’ve seen for 15 years. It oozes atmosphere. You can hack into a man’s mind. Bite off more than you can chew and the trauma can leave you paranoid and hallucinating. You can wield a pistol and sword at once. You set people on fire with your mind. You can counter an ambush by leaping thirty feet in the air and attacking it from above with a rifle. You can hack into a gunship and watch it strafe rockets all over your enemies. Have a look at this:

See what happened there?


Leap.


Twist.


Shoot.


Land. Jason Bourne can eat my hole.

Trapped on a staircase with the feds coming, I suddenly remembered I’d invested in cybernetic legs. So, I leapt off the stairs, and spun around 180 degrees in the air and shot a man in the head before landing and killing another. Because I could.

I still haven’t finished EYE: Sublime Fillerpantsy. I’ll be back to write about it again. It is rough, weird, confusing, needlessly fiddly, and at times infuriating. There’s a lot that will put people off, and frankly, they’re right to be. I wouldn’t blame you if you thoroughly hated this game. I’m honestly surprised that I like it so much, and there’s still a chance I’m completely wrong about the “keep doing it” thing.

But it’s so utterly unique, and the combat is such a damn joy. If you’re at all interested in games that are odd or ambitious, and you’re not troubled by some major flaws or mechanics and a plot that keep you in the dark, you might enjoy it too. Go into this one with gritted teeth and both eyes open, and you’ll find something that reminds you what games are all about, and what incredible potential they have in the hands of people with a little imagination, and the lunatic force of will to do something with it.


EYE summarised in one image: Lofty heights with broken stairs.

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