When I wrote about Eschalon, I mentioned that I have never finished Betrayal At Krondor. I would imagine this is strange, since pretty much all my life I have stated that it is the best game ever (until Space Rangers rolled in). So when I finally played through Bastion (not much to say there. Good use of narration, great music) I needed another game to play through. And that’s when I decided to finally finish Betrayal At Krondor, my favourite Role Playing Game, and also provide some analysis.
Until I found myself in tvtropes reading Krondor’s entry, I had believed that Raymond E. Feist had written the story and the text in the game. Well, apparently this is a myth. Still, it does not invalidate the fact that Betrayal At Krondor is well-written. Almost everything in the game is represented in prosaic text. There is a screenful of text before a fight, after a fight, when you click a house, when you use an item in the inventory… The game world and characters feel very alive, and there are many details that would have been impossible to present otherwise. And the events can be quite humorous.
The game’s story starts when Owyn, a young noble’s son and a magician patches up an injured Seigneur Locklear, who we learn is escorting a Moredhel prisoner named Gorath (an evil elf) to the kingdom’s Capital, Krondor. After an assassin is killed by Gorath, Locklear unchains him and takes Owyn with them, as the boy might reveal their destination. And then the player is set free, with one objective: Get to Krondor. Despite the story being very linear, the game world is quite open, and the player can potentially explore the whole map. The game does not keep track of sidequests, so the player must pay attention to the things people say in order to actually find quests. Most of them are simple ones: A ruby was stolen, a jeweller might know something about it, he says he sold the ruby to a noble, and the noble gives up the ruby if you fix his sword. But they feel very rewarding, since there is not a great arrow pointing at your destination.
Combat in Krondor is turn-based, and pretty standard. You can do two melee attacks, block, pass turn and regenerate health, use inventory and attempt to escape. There are few interesting things, though. All characters have Health and Stamina. Whenever they take damage or do a heavy attack, they take Stamina damage. When it runs out, they start taking Health damage. All of the characters’ stats lower by the percentage of their health, meaning that if they have 75 % health remaining, everything they do is at 75 % efficiency. This makes combat quite unpredictable: If you can get the first solid hits, the opponents won’t be able to push back. And if you take a beating first, getting back on top will require some hefty maneuvers, or health potions, which are semi-rare. Blocking an opponents hit leaves him open for a counterattack, something that is only explained in the manual, like a lot of game concepts and mechanics. No tutorials here.
Mages use Stamina to fuel their spells, which can only be cast when the enemy is not adjacent. One solid fireball can potentially incinerate one enemy and injure others, assuming it hits, but it will drain about three quarters of the mage’s Stamina. It’s an interesting tradeoff. Most of the offensive spells are quite situational; Fireballs do area damage, which makes it difficult to use in close quarters, lightning attacks work only outside and require the opponent to be carrying metal. And other spells I haven’t stumbled in yet.
Combat is also brutal, especially against monsters. It takes only a couple of solid hits to take away your Stamina, which turns the difficulty way up. Krondor features the now-standard unconsciousness mechanic. When a character runs out of Health, he goes unconscious and revives after the combat. But in Krondor “revive” is a very gracious way to describe it. After combat, an unconscious character has 1 health, and a status Near-Death. Near Death cures extremely slowly, and the character does not heal when he is Near-Death. It might take as much as two weeks of in-game time, more if you do not have healing herbs. Another annoying status is Poison, which either requires expensive and rare detoxins, or constant medication. If not medicated, the character will constantly lose hit points, even while resting. Which leads to Near-Death. Both statuses can be cured in a temple, but it is expensive. Very expensive.
Speaking of money, while it is easy to become filthy rich, the player still has constant expenses. Armor and weapons degrade and must be repaired with whetstones, Aventurine and armorers’ hammers. The characters eat. Sleeping outside only cures you to about 80 %, so sleeping in an Inn is a good idea from time to time. And it costs money. True, most of the enemies carry some rations, and whetstones are quite common. But one will have to buy food from time to time. A week’s rations for one person costs about 4 sovereigns. A week goes surprisingly fast if you need to rest for a night or two after every fight. A sword you might want to buy costs about 500 sovereigns. Dragon Mail (the best in the game) costs 1000 sovereigns. Spells are from 150 to 400 per piece. A better staff for your mage? 1400 sovereigns.The most money I have hoarded was about 2000 sovereigns. Things are expensive. And I like it.
Exploration is pretty fun, since there are lots of hidden stuff-filled holes and Moredhel word chests lying around. The latter are unpickable, and can only be accessed by answering the riddle on them. But I must admit that those were a lot more fun back in the day before Internet. I remember having one game magazine with most of the answers in it, and I treasured that magazine.
Betrayal at Krondor is old, but good. Many of the mechanics and ideas it wields are working. They are light enough to not make the experience dreary, and engaging enough to make the game more than just hacking and slashing.
Also, I just realized something. Both in Bastion and in Betrayal at Krondor, there is an instance of the game justifying the player’s choice. In Bastion, the narrator has a comment for almost anything the player does. In Krondor, at one point I was supposed to go to east, to Romney. I found myself in high north. One person asked where we were going, and the leader of the party at that point, James, answered “We’ll see. We figure if we don’t know where we’re going, then the enemy won’t”. That was a pretty nifty justification for my wandering.