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Journey to the Centre of the Earth - GMX Media
Quandary Review
Menzoberranzan
Developer/Publisher:  SSI
Year Released:  1994

Reviewed by Ian Cole (February, 1995)

menzo.jpgDark elves, driders, ropers, carrion crawlers, centaurs, thieves and mages, are but a few of the beasts and other characters you will meet and either dispatch or befriend on your journey to the depths of the earth to rescue the folk kidnapped from your village by the Drow.

Set in a magical, mythical, medieval world, Menzoberranzan is an underground city populated by the Drow, the darker brothers of the Elf, and ruled over by Lolth their scheming spider queen. One of their kind, Drizzt, has rebelled against their evil ways and become a surface dweller. The Drow seek retribution and as bait they kidnap people from your village to rouse Drizzt's moral duty and entice him return to their underworld.

This latest fantasy role playing game from TSR, SSI, is a beginner to intermediate level game based on the rules of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. The transition from the paper game to the pixilated one has made it possible for the solo player to get the full enjoyment out of this institution. Although, it is still handy to have someone along on your journey to give you a different perspective on the more troublesome puzzles.

Deja vu
If you have played Ravenloft, SSI's last RPG, then you will be quite at home with this, their newest effort. Menzo uses the same game engine with very few changes even down to having many of the same character portraits ... and those voices of the characters you meet with on your travels ... you'll know what I mean when you hear them.

The game screen is the same as Ravenloft with around seventy percent devoted to a 3-D gaming window, which is in the first person perspective. It is here that all the action takes place. Split horizontally below this screen are your character portraits and various other controls that allow you to cast spells, access the auto map and perform other functions such as a quick save before battle or a quick restore afterwards. Click on the portraits and the inventory screen appears where you can manipulate and identify everything you are carrying or swap items between your party members. Another click will display the statistics of each character and give information on their state of health and the weight of the load they are carrying.

Setting out
The manual that comes with this game is as good a place as any to begin. Read it before you do anything. It provides a wealth of information about the game including important notes on the various races of the characters you will take on your adventure, on their special abilities, and their drawbacks, as well as indicating their best suited class or occupation. It also contains spell lists with a description of each spell available to your clerics and mages, a bestiary, and lots, lots more facts and figures that will help you survive your gruelling journey.

Like Ravenloft, at the start of this game there is an option of using predetermined characters on your quest but, for sheer enjoyment, I recommend that you create two of your own using the character generation sequence. You are given a choice of gender, which is still only two. I look forward to an hermaphrodite or an androgynous character with their own special abilities. Next you are given a choice of race and alignment before you get to select your adventurer's face and name. At this point each character is allotted six ability scores, ranging from strength to wisdom, and a number of hit points. These scores are determined by the computer rolling a set of virtual dice, but you have the option of modifying them to their maximum, to give you a better chance of completing the adventure. Another two characters can join your party as you progress through the game and you have the option of dispensing with their services at any time in favour of another character who might have skills more useful to your party.

Crawl before you can walk
The story opens in the local tavern where you learn from the inn keeper that the village is burning. Your first task is a trifling one, to put out the fire. Once you have done this your true adventure begins.

There are fourteen multi-levelled areas as well as the evil subterranean city of Menzoberranzan to be explored in this game so there are plenty of places to discover. For the first four or five areas, however, even though they are quite large, the combat and puzzles may be rated very easy for the experienced adventurer. But anyone new to role playing should not be too put off by this, because it is here your characters gain experience points to increase their levels. As you descend further into the labyrinth all your game playing skills will be matched by stronger monsters, intelligent magicians and riddles that have to be translated before they can be nutted out.

The fighting element in the game is the easiest skill to master. In fact your opponents aren't too difficult to dispatch even when they get tougher. For this reason Menzo certainly won't suit the hack and slash fans. Also, even though there is a good deal of fighting, an equal amount of game play involves searching for and manipulating objects, keeping track of your character's statistics and puzzle solving.

Empty spaces
After playing Ravenloft and thoroughly enjoying it, Menzoberranzan wasn't quite as I expected. It's major problem was that it took too long before anything really 'happened' and when it did the ensuing action and intrigue didn't manage to compensate for the long hours it took getting up to that point. It is great that there is just so much to explore in the game, so many twisty dungeon tunnels, but Menzo didn't reward the adventurer enough for their efforts. Too many places were empty - just nothing - and, for me at least, it is good to occasionally find something crucial to the game to entice me to get down to some more serious exploring.

It's unfortunate that Menzo was too slow in starting and that there were so many empty tunnels and fruitless searches because these two annoyances have hindered an otherwise very good game. Still the game engine is all point and click and very easy to use and it does have a few extra features that Ravenloft doesn't. For example, you are able to fly if you have the right spell and there is a new sliding lever to control this skill. Another new feature is the ability to print out conversations with characters you meet, which is a very good idea especially for novice role players, because some of the things you hear may seem irrelevant at the time, but they may contain clues for future puzzles. The sound effects, too, have been pepped up a bit in Menzo with the marauding roars of attackers and the plaintive cries of your dying foes having that extra urgency about them.

Take a look at Menzo by all means, but for hardened role playing fans don't expect it to be too tough. If you are new to the role playing genre, however, it is a perfect game to begin with as your chances of surviving for long enough to get the hang of it are very good, and there are not so many mini-quests that you will get lost in the story.

Copyright © Ian Cole 1995. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
386/40 (486/33 recommended), 4MB RAM, DOS 5.0, 13MB hard drive space.

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