Thursday, 13 May 2021

Missed Classic: The Palace of Deceit: The Dragon’s Plight – WON! and Final Rating

Written by Will Moczarski
To my enormous relief, the second Palace of Deceit game turned out to be winnable. It took a lot of pixel hunting to get there but finally we were able to save the day. A short recap is probably in order: We play a blue dragon called Nightshade who was imprisoned by the evil wizard Garth who hates dragons and wants to kill all of them. Why we are still alive, I don’t know, and game logic is not strong with this one but it was still a rewarding experience.The prison cell is literally in the deepest dungeon as it’s even below the mines adjacent to the castle. Exploration is separated in chapters always ending with the ascent to another level until we finally meet garth at the top of the battlement. With most chapters, there is no going back once you’ve ascended. This is not so bad, though, as the game doesn’t have any dead ends. The gatekeeping is pretty strict and you keep all of your inventory items throughout.

That said, you can die in Palace of Deceit, and there are a couple of unfair traps. Be sure to save frequently because you may have trundled through harmless environments for quite a while but all of a sudden you wake up a sleeping girl and it all goes downhill very quickly.

Last time I was stuck after having escaped from my prison cell, solved the first puzzle – which was astonishingly easy – and explored the mines. When I returned, Nightshade still refused to push any of the buttons or pull any of the levers in the control room, so there was no progress to be made through trial and error which is actually good game design. With most parts, brute-forcing it is made impossible, and I respect that. If only there wasn’t so much pixel hunting involved...

Another thing I noticed is that some of the dead-ends are actually dead-ends. You cannot cross either of the rickety bridges at all which is interesting because they clearly reference Shadowgate and in that game the rickety bridge was a solvable puzzle. Being familiar with Shadowgate from my childhood days it took me some time to finally accept that. Still, as my inventory is not completely full at the end of the game, I may have missed something, so please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

The only way out of the mines was intense pixel hunting. I finally found a switch in the red mine as well as in the diamond mine, and they both led to rooms with a rat in them. The brown rat in the red mine was cooperative but forgetful and just didn’t remember whether I had to push the green button or pull the green lever. At least that gave me a colour to work with. You still can’t brute-force the puzzle at this point, as Nightshade still refuses to touch both the levers and the buttons. (As soon as you’ve got all of the necessary information, you can use a trial-and-error approach if for some reason you were too lazy to process it – the game will let you die mercilessly which seems kind of fair, too.) If you locate the white mouse in the diamond mine, he will be less cooperative because he is terrified of Garth – however, he tells you about his brother who may be able to tell you which lever to pull. If you put two and two together, this is a no-brainer at this point, and pulling the green lever gets you to the next part of the game.
I have this terrible feeling of Deja Vu
This is where I spent quite some time. The storage area consists of a winery, a brewery, a room for grain storage, and one for seafood storage, another winery, and a generic central storage area. Millions of pixels to be hunted! As always in this game, it pays to talk to all of the helpful animals because it is necessary (some pixels will only be discovered as hotspots after the right conversation) and they usually have good hints for you. You always have four dialogue options, and they actually change once if you choose to talk to the animals again. This is more than I expected for a 1992 high-school game, and it is very well executed, too. In the seafood storage area, I happen upon a talkative lobster who tells me about a snail I should talk to. Also he informs me of a hidden switch in one of the wineries. It takes me a long time to find it but finally I am able to proceed into a narrow hall beyond which there’s a stairwell guarded by a wraith.

Now wraiths don’t like fire, do they? And there’s a torch in the narrow hall that I can pick up (finally, my first inventory item!). Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. I backtrack to the storage area and search everywhere once again. Finally, there’s some progress in the east wing of the central storage area, previously a dead-end with no purpose. The hidden switch lets me access a clay tunnel that “almost looks like a huge beast’s throat”. Some roots have grown through the ceiling, and I can interact with them. When I set them on fire, another secret door opens up, and I encounter the talking snail who’s hiding away in an ancient alcove.

The snail also tells me about a hotspot in the winery, and I’m stumped for a while before I realize that he could mean the other winery. Yes, that’s correct, both wineries have hotspots, and both only appear after you have conversed with the right animal. (Later edit: To be fair, he says that it’s in the first winery or something like that; in spite of that, it threw me off track.) It still takes me a while to find the right pixel but the reward is impressive: a sword is stuck in a stone, Excalibur style. Now wait, is this the same sword as in the previous game? So far, the maps have been quite different and the second palace of deceit hasn’t felt like the first one at all. Luckily, my dinosaur, er, dragon hands don’t present an obstacle to picking up the sword, and the wraith will run for its un-life once I swing it above its airy head.

Climbing the adjacent stairwell triggers a cutscene in which Garth laments that I have come this far already and proceeds to order his champion, a knight in green armour, to hinder my progress. It’s nice to have this narrative element here, and it sort of heightens the tension for the next part of the game.

Speaking of which, beyond the storage area, there’s a crypt area which seems like a rather weird bit of architectural design. Also, I enter the crypt through a door that looks like it should be outside of something, whereas the game insists that I’m still inside the palace. Yeah, I get it, decei(p)t and all, but it still kind of breaks the illusion. Some pixel hunting rewards me with a tiny key, and I can enter the main hall of the crypt. To the right, there’s an unfinished crypt and the narrator tells me that I should see to this becoming Garth’s crypt – I’m working on it! Also, there’s a “west tomb” with one flame to each side, the one of the left being an “eternal flame”. The one on the right, well, even the narrator admits that it doesn’t look so eternal.
Say my name, sunshine through the rain...
I assume that I have to light the second flame but the torch is not strong enough to start an eternal fire. In the northeast end of the crypt, there’s another burial area, though, where I can light the two candles with my torch and find a scroll. Reading the scroll enables me to light the flame, although, somewhat confusingly, I need to use it on the burning flame, and the tomb reveals a very valuable crown. The narrator remarks that it must have belonged to one of Garth’s ancestors and that it’s so incredibly valuable that I must really want to keep it. Now this is a wrong track as I will need to let go of the crown very soon. Beyond a dark-ish room with a burnt out torch I need to pull to proceed – another reference to Shadowgate, I assume –, I find the forgotten part of the crypt which was buried in the great quake of 384. They must have been big on technology back then, as there’s a booby trapped chest in its east area, and if I try to interact with it, I am blown to pieces by the explosion of a bomb.

Following a blue tunnel with lots of stalagmites and stalagtites, I find a room with a hole below and some boards on the ceiling. The smell tells me that I must be above the seafood storage area but that information serves only to add to the atmosphere. Also, it’s the first mention of the olfactory whereas the first Palace of Deceit game was absolutely obsessed with scents, smells and stenches.

Now a Sierra game would have dead-ended me right here by letting me drop everything and the kitchen sink into the hole. This game is much more player-friendly, and I soon figure out that I need to let go of that wonderful crown to proceed. Offering the crown lets a mysterious rope drop from the ceiling, and I am able to enter the next part of the game, a library-cum-bloody-kitchen section.
You never wash up after yourself
The library is divided into six parts. Some exploring reveals a book, and when I try to read the book, a key falls out. Apart from that, there are lots of books about slaying dragons as well as illustrations about the act of dragicide. Not very subtle, Garth. North of the library, there’s a singularly bloody kitchen; the cook must be a real pig. Also, there’s a huge arachnide guarding a stairwell which must lead to the next part of the palace. He only laughs at my sword, too.

There’s also what must be the most iconic NPC of the game, hidden away on a table in the north part of a great hall. You need to talk to Cliff Bleszinki’s severed head to proceed, as he has some important information for you: “look all over.” Er... thanks, Cliff, I assume. After talking to Cliff, I can use the key from the book to enter a kitchen cabinet. Behind the cabinet, there’s a secret passage leading to Garth’s torture chamber which is, tellingly, less bloodspattered than the kitchen. Now Cliff told me that I might need a bigger boat, er, weapon to get past the arachnide, so it’s handy that there’s a battle axe just leaned against the wall here. I pick it up and beat the overblown spider to a nasty green pulp. Beyond lies the second floor of the castle. Prepare to die, Garth. Here there be dragons.
Psycho Killer...qu’est-ce que c’est?
The hallway on the second floor leads to two guest bedrooms. In one of them there’s a girl sleeping soundly, and if I try to use the talk icon on her, she kills me right away. Wow! Taken together with my experiences from the previous game, Cliff must really have had an annoying little sister (called Laura?). Don’t wake the monster, indeed. The other guest bedroom contains a hotspot below the bed which is pretty well hidden because the bed is a (useless!) hotspot as well. Quite nasty but it didn’t take me too long to figure that out. The hidden switch opens the doors to the balcony where there’s only one support that’s not cracked like the others. I might need a rope or something here but the only one I’ve seen so far was not an interactive item.

North of the guest bedrooms, there’s an armoury with a battering ram I can pick up. Also, there’s a room with a crystal ball recently left behind by Garth. It shows the picture of a vase which must therefore, the narrator says, be very important to him. I recognize it right away as a vase located in the library, and seeing as I can backtrack to the previous floor this time, I go back and investigate. Inside, there’s a locket that must be of great value to Garth, whatever that means. I pocket it and go back to the second floor. To the right, there’s the strangest maze I’ve ever seen. It’s quite possibly a bug but going north, east or south gets me nowhere (in any combination) but if I leave and re-enter the maze, there’s suddenly a wooden wall to the east that wasn’t there previously. I save the game and try again to figure out the mechanism behind it but this time the wall doesn’t appear until my seventh time re-entering the maze, so it might be randomized. In that case, I got extremely lucky and this is a really, really nasty “puzzle”. I can easily break down the wooden wall by putting the battering ram to good use, and behind it there’s a room with a rope in it!

I hurry back to the balcony, and it works! I can now descend into the courtyard where I bump into Garth’s champion who only laughs about each and every one of my inventory items. There’s just no killing (or even touching) this guy. Frustrated, I explore everything again, pixel hunting my way through both floors available to me. When I talk to Cliff’s head again, at least I get a hint. I can ask him how to vanquish the knight, and he tells me that I will need a flame more potent than a torch. At first I think that I may have hit a dead end but hope dies last, right? Maybe my second conversation with the head has triggered something, somewhere. The solution is downright evil. In one of the many quite unassuming hallways, which so far have served as nothing but hallways in the game, I find a magic staff hidden inside the wall. (If you want to know where, just check my Trizbort map.) This was when I was very close to restarting the game because I thought I had missed something. I don’t know if I want to say “good job, game” for succeeding in making me trust it, or if the option of starting all over again was just too unattractive to consider.

Be that as it may, the knight is no match for my magical weapon, and the road to Garth’s tower is clear. I enter the tower, climb up to the landing where there are some poor souls chained to the wall. They must have been tortured to death, and Garth has written “give up” in blood on one of the walls. There’s a penultimate room (described as such) before I enter the top of the battlement, and the rest is history. Sort of. I was primed by the snail (and the previous game) that I would need to use the sword to kill Garth, so naturally that is what I attempt first. Let’s say that doesn’t work out the way I hoped it would. The solution is to fling the locket at him and thus distract him but see for yourself in my first attempt at creating a gameplay GIF:


And that’s it. A lot of pixel hunting, charming characters, well-written conversations and descriptions and an overall more mature experience than The Secret of Castle Lockemoer. How will the PISSED system reward this?

Also, here are my Trizbort maps for both Palace of Deceit game if you’re interested. I’ve marked every instance of tedious pixel hunting with “pixhunt.” I’d like to say that I’m including both maps here because I wanted you to be able to compare both game environments and judge for yourself if parts of the internet are right in calling this a “remake,” but in reality I just forgot about it last time. Sorry.
Session time: 4 hours
Total time: 4.5 hours

PISSED Rating

Puzzles & Solvability: Puzzles is a big word, although the game tries out some different options: you need to investigate your inventory items, use them on enemies and objects, talk to some fairly interesting NPCs but mostly you have to pixel-hunt. The game is solvable which, at this point, comes as a surprise, and it’s not too difficult, either, only needlessly time-consuming. If pixel hunting is FUN to you, this is your game! Score: 2 points.

Interface & Inventory: Although it first seems like a simplistic rip-off of the contemporary Sierra interface, the interface turns out to be quite charming. The interactive cursor works very well and the click vs. double-click system prevents you from doing anything you don’t mean to do. The whole Windows 3.1 look naturally feels dated but it achieves what it apparently wants to achieve: to upgrade and improve upon the ICOM interface of the 1980’s. Similarly, the inventory is functional but works like a charm. Score: 6 points.

Story & Setting: More of the same, and not in a good way. The classic escape plot may have been innovative in adventure games of the early 1980’s but in 1992 this was a haury old trope. Everything good about this comes to fruition in the E category where I will be more generous accordingly. Story and setting are really basic and not interesting at all. The fact that you play a dragon seems like a nice touch in the beginning, and some descriptions pick up on it, but it does not play a major role after all and ultimately feels like a tacked-on novelty. Score: 1 point.

Sound & Graphics: Dated but nice. The Windows 3.1 look tickles my nostalgia bone but even apart from that the images are clear, and although they certainly look homemade, they don’t look amateurish or embarrassing. Like in the previous game, they feel like a labour of love, and reward the player with each new room s/he enters. My relatively high rating proved controversial for the previous game but I’ll go down the same road again, and with good conscience. Also, there’s no sound at all. Score: 4 points.

Environment & Atmosphere: This is a game where it really makes sense to differentiate between story/setting and environment/atmosphere. While the story can be summed up completely in one sentence and the setting is nothing but a cliche, the palace itself is designed around some very atmospheric sections. However, it’s also a bit of a hodgepodge. It doesn’t make much sense as a believable piece of architecture and the crass juxtaposition of the well-organised library and the dirty, bloodstained kitchen is an aesthetic shock that didn’t work so well for me. I like that you ascend from level to level to finally confront Garth at the top of the battlement (resembling Uninvited a bit in that regard where the final confrontation took place in the attic if I’m not misremembering) but to be honest, the previous game was better at invoking a haunted place despite all of the environmental contradictions and the wild mixture of popcultural references. Score: 2 points.

Dialogue & Acting: The conversations were a nice touch, and almost all of the NPCs are quite interesting, and a lot of their particular character comes through considering that they’re only represented by static images. Don’t expect Infocom or Magnetic Scrolls standards of writing, however. It’s all good but not the main emphasis of the game. Score: 2 points.

Let us do the math. 17 divided by 0.6 equals...28 points. Laukku’s guess – which was the lowest – was exactly right, while most of the others were a bit more optimistic. If not for the pixel hunting, the game would be quite short, though, and while the interface makes it quite enjoyable, it’s not exactly a masterpiece.
Did I enjoy the game? Well, yes, I did. However, it contained way too much pixel hunting for my taste. I never really had to use my head, only my index finger. A longer game may have resulted in acute carpal tunnel syndrome. I can, however, appreciate what Cliff Bleszinski and his team tried to achieve here, and from what I’ve heard, that idea may have come to fruition with the upcoming game which will finally be my first main game. I’m as excited about it as this marketing plug from The Palace of Deceit: The Dragon’s Plight. Are you, too?

8 comments:

  1. this might be the first time I've seen Dare to Dream discussed anywhere, by anyone, since I first played it on a shareware disc back in the mid 90s. Found it hugely atmospheric as a bairn, although this is the game with which I associate the words 'pixel hunting' to this day I'm afraid..

    If I recall it also had two difficulty levels, which actually changed items and puzzles in the game, something I don't think I've seen another adventure game do (although I haven't played all that many).

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    1. I've seen a few people discuss it a little over the years, to generally positive but vague in opinion. One thing I remember said about it, because the guy who wrote it was trying really hard to not mention the name of it, was negative in an interesting way. He was complaining about one of the puzzles, which was the one the readme mentioned as a way of describing how the game's logic works.

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    2. Yes, apparently it does have two difficulty levels. "Monkey Island 2" famously had a "lite" mode for more casual gamers, so it's not something that "Dare to Dream" pioneered, I'm afraid. It's still a bit rare in the early 90s, though.

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    3. @Morpheus: I've made the experience that example puzzles often stump me before I check the manual or the readme file. For this blog, I've made it a habit to read the manual or the readme file first - I think I forgot about that once and was duly stumped by one of the puzzles that was mentioned therein. It's almost as if it was some kind of primitive copy protection although I tend to think that the manual was created after the game and playtesting (or the author's conscience) made them reconsider one of the hardest puzzles of the game, putting the solution in the manual as a compromise.

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  2. Curiously, this isn't the first time a game has had an undead girl who kills you if you disturb her. Last Half of Darkness had its arguably most famous death by the same manner. I wonder if Cliff played that game, or if they both did they independently.
    If she is called Laura that puts it at the third piece of media in the late '80s very early '90s that has it in a creepy context. Twin Peaks, a song from Fields of the Nephilim and this. Twin Peaks was a shoutout to the Alfred Hitchcock film Laura, so I wonder if that's the connection.

    I gave up during the maze. I was trying to figure out the pattern, since D2D had one too, and eventually the game said there was something on the eastern wall, but I never saw anything and assumed it was broken in some way. It really is like D2D except worse in every way. There was some pixel hunting in that, but it was in no way as bad as this.

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    1. I THINK that I remember that kind of trap from one of the ICOM games, either "Uninvited" or "Shadowgate". I can't put my finger on it, though, maybe I'm misremembering.

      "Laura" was a film by Otto Preminger but it's likely you confused it with Hitchcock's "Rebecca" as they share quite some similarities, most obviously a (presumed, in Laura's case) dead woman looming large over the lives of those left behind. "Twin Peaks" references both Preminger and Hitchcock, too, although the twin sisters Laura/Madeleine refer to "Vertigo" (whose female doppelganger was called Madeleine, too).

      Apart from the strong cultural bonds between the 50s ("Laura" was released in 1944, but "Vertigo" is a 1958 film) and the 80s, there may be a very highbrow connection between all of these examples - for Petrarch, Laura was the ideal woman who determined his whole outlook on the world, just like all of the plots are related to Laura Hunt and Laura Palmer somehow in the more recent media. That still doesn't explain the creepiness, however.

      The maze must be bugged, although I played through version 2.1 (which would imply that such a major bug should have been fixed?). I started playing "Dare to Dream" a few days ago, and it's a lot more polished than this one, although I can also see the similarities, especially when looking at the interface.

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  3. I know it's probably a coincidence but the snail and lobster look remarkably like Gary and mr Crabs. Maybe a long forgotten subconscious influence?

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    1. A long forgotten subconscious influence on the creators of Spongebob Squarepants? Interesting! I'd love to ask them if they played obscure shareware adventure games in the early 90s. Stephen Hillenburg, if you ever happen to come by here, please do enlighten us!

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