Friday 6 October 2023

Missed Classic 123 - Dismal Passages (1992) - Introduction

Written by Morpheus Kitami

A thousand moons ago, the CRPG Addict played a game called Shapeshifter, an unremarkable game by all means. A RPG centered around one character changing form. But the author of the game was one I knew. Jeff Kintz, a longtime shareware developer. Mr. Kintz is an interesting figure from a certain point of view. Having just plucked away at making shareware titles throughout the '90s to little success. His big title, in as much as anything of his can be called a big title, is a Hugo-clone by the name of Darkest Convergence, released in 1993. I don't think I can cover that yet, while Joe covered a 1993 game, he's been around the longest or almost longest, and he can do that. If I do that, Ilmari is probably going to break into my house and complain loudly about my decor. My ninjitsu is not strong enough to stop him.

As I'm rapidly becoming that guy who plays games rejected from the Addict's blog and games masquerading as adventure games, its only natural that I should desire to play one that fits in both categories, Dismal Passages. To be clear this is the Dismal Passages credited as being Dismal Passages on Mobygames. As opposed to the one credited as being Dismal Passages 1. (which is unambiguously an adventure game) There is no Dismal Passages 2 in either case. Mr. Kintz apparently never made them. We know this because multiple people have asked for his games and he's sent them to them. (including an unreleased game) This didn't stop him from advertising a part 2. And something called Beyond 2. Do they really exist, and they were just lost? The world will never know.

This is Kintz's first game, according to his own words on the subject in a now gone (but archived) personal website. (the existence of a game advertised as a sequel to an already existing game throws doubt on even this) Released in 1991 (or possibly 1992) only on local BBSes in the Chicago and Indianapolis area, it could be said that this game didn't set the world on fire. Since nobody really knew about it until after Kintz's other titles obtained a bit of mystic. Shapeshifter, the other title, was released after Kintz got an EGA card. Which I guess is interesting if you wanted to know the process in which amateur developers advanced graphically in the olden days. Spoiler alert, it's not very well.

I feel like this guy should have been a horror writer instead...

An opening tune that reminds me of Nine Lives of Secret Agent Katt, must not be a lot of ways to do horror music on PC speaker. The story is you, your sister and your parents, are awakened by a sense of uneasiness. Something hideous is happening. Your house's windows explode, caused by three contorted beasts, wraiths. You and your father try to fight, but are quickly cast aside. Your father is horrifically ripped apart, then your mother, then your sister. But before they do the same to you a magnificent gray wolf rips apart one of the wraiths, before the other two kill it. The wraiths retreat, wounded, but the wolf says to you as it's dying that you should kill the wraith, Vaargerold must die.

An intro story worthy of a RPG or a text adventure. Unfortunately, this is a strange graphical adventure. This is a weird-looking game, I'm not sure how to describe it. Its like someone took King's Quest, and made it very much like Ultima. The controls and interface remind heavily of Ultima, or at least Ultima-clones I've played, having never really beaten any of the original titles. You have a tile-based view screen. The interface is very RPG-like, and the controls share Ultima's letter system. I.E., o for open and so forth. Though here we have E, S, U, I, enter, search, use, inventory. 1 and 2 load and save. Which are not the best choices, but whatever. What's unique is a sort of magnifying glass in the middle of the interface, showing what I'm in front of. I don't understand the purpose, I guess showing what's hidden by the player? It's never really needed.

I now have a weapon.

The actions do specific things in specific context and nothing outside of them. Searching as described in the instruction sheet only opens chests, but I find that questionable. Enter requires precision. Inventory is confusing until you realize that you have to press space to advance through it. Doesn't help you don't start with much. The first weapon is a dagger, mentioned in the intro, in a chest in your house. I can't seem to equip it though. No sign of the corpses, but there is an unexplained object in the background. What is it? The world will never know.

 Does that even mean anything in a familial sense?

In the second house is my step-cousin. Why a step-cousin? Well, I have a theory that the author is partially basing characters on his own experiences. Write what you know, as that bit of advice goes. I wouldn't be surprised if he had a sister and I guess a step-aunt or uncle with an unrelated child. Talking works anywhere in a room with someone to talk to. With this fellow, I have 8 options, mostly useless. I do know I need to find a "Book of Nhurgle"...Hmm..Nhurgle...Nurgle...come to think of it, Nergal.

But I have to talk about the movement. One only moves left or right when not entering things. One moves about 2 or so pixels, depending on where in the animation cycle you are, per button press. You can hold it down to move faster, which goes pretty smoothly, though there is an annoying sound on each press, which turns into a sort of drone if you hold it down.

As I advance through each house, the conversation topics reveal more about the game than the characters do. There's a plague running around, and everyone seems to know how to enter a place called NetherRealm. There's also the implication from characters that you really are just running through a dialog list. First asking them who they are, then about the Wraith, the plague, runes, weapons, items and then the NetherRealm.

The NetherRealm isn't mentioned in the intro, but it seems to be the place where the Wraith lives. I need to find a shroud and get a staff to get there. The staff needs a compass and five runes. This is the main quest of the game, or the only quest, really.

This guy looks more like he should be in a western

So, let's talk about combat. You have four options, flee, which is as it sounds; Fight, which is as it sounds; Talk, which results in your enemy insulting you; Weapon, which allows you to select your weapon. You can't change your weapon outside of combat, which is an extremely bad thing for reasons I shouldn't have to explain. Each action (except flee, which seems to always work or never work on the enemy) by you is met by the enemy attacking you. Using my dagger, I fought and killed the bandit, earning me some amount of gold. That's the symbol to the right of my heart, or health. If you don't understand it, don't worry, I didn't understand it either.

Oh, no, not more riddles!

I head right. For a while. Lot of screens with nothing but random encounters on them. Some kind of jelly monster, I don't know. Then a temple, and a priest asks me this. I try the only two names I know, and neither work. But soon enough I reach a town.

I can also get a blunderbuss, which is a refreshing choice

Here it really feels like a RPG...I've got a bunch of shops, and an unknown choice of items I need to spend money on. My only actual recourse in this is to grind for gold. There's a herbalist, who sells the usual herbs, garlic, oregano, yyasben, torrig, and no description of anyone. Health, at least, is recovered by staying in an inn, which tells me nothing about how it heals or how much it costs, just that I can select 0-40. Which seems weird considering the plot implies this takes place in some fairly pressing circumstances.

Conversation with the inhabitants of the town doesn't tell me much. I already know more about the Wraith than anyone else, and the plague being both mystical and related to the Wraith is something I sort of figured before this. Nobody knows about runes, which I guess I have to figure out, and I don't need help in figuring out the best weapons and armor. A few object related hints, and the name of a local god, Lozor. That answers the priest's riddle and gives me a Rune of Winter. what?

This guy is hazardous to my health!

In-between this I do a lot of walking around. A lot. Guess I found the first walking sim. I don't really need to worry about grinding for gold persay, since just by trying to walk between towns I seem to be getting enough for both a good axe and rest, but a couple of new problems arise. This ugly thing won't let me flee, and it hurts to fight. I suspect enemies are going to get worse as I rest. Suspect, not confirmed, which if true brings up an interesting issue. The encounter rate is all over the place. Sometimes I get nothing for a dozen screens, others I get so many encounters I have to head back to town just to survive.

He also gives me the plague, which slowly drains my health as I walk around. Per step, in practice if I get it I'm dead. What's worse is that the game has a glitch regarding this. If I get it, I get it across all saves until I restart the game.

I head east, to a town I hope will have armor. It's not a high hope and it's a long way. Along the way I use the search function on anything that looks interesting. Alas, it never seems to get me something. It'll work someday. In the meantime I seem to be killing people who are plague ridden and just trying to survive. They're valid enemies, showcasing what a terrible place this has become.

Past a forest, I find the ruined remains of a town. The only inhabitant left is a witch who says, well, that. I'm not so sure I'll survive with this particular run, but even without the stack of gold I got, I know this is going to be of some value later.

Still, somehow I managed to find my way into another temple, with another priest asking a riddle. This time, what's the seventh planet from Eltorm. I guess that's the sun, and I foresee this getting me a rune.

Something tells me swimming is hazardous to my health.

I find a ship and a lake a little while afterwards. Uh, crap. I was envisioning this as a quick jaunt to get some armor, not an epic journey from which I might not be able to return. Well, I have saves from earlier. It's still some distance afterwards before I find another person. Only he's a madman who speaks in riddles.

But not from from him is a town. Finally! Huzzah! People with more helpful things to say. A mountain climber tells me I need mountain climbing gear to climb a mountain. Which as simple as it sounds, is very helpful. A prophet tells me about the holy words of Elgram, which is also good.

Yeah, I'm gonna be sticking a shaft of light in some people later, it's gonna get sexy. ;)

There's a gypsy prophetess who continues to elucidate what I have to do to reach the NetherRealm, get all 5 runes, a bunch of stuff which, while I didn't know, could roughly figure. It actually takes another few screens to get to the city proper, in which I almost bought it.

But this tells me everything I needed to know. An astronomer tells me what planet I needed to know, Elam Dirge, and that's about it. This town doesn't have an inn, either. It does have a brothel, where if you try to use it, you get robbed. And the author of the game in one house, who conveniently is murdered before he can tell you anything. Sigh...

That is in fact, as far as I can tell, the graphic for a stairs down.

I discover you can climb stairs with the C key. This gets me an orb of flight. Or it would if I could leave the room. The game doesn't stop me from stealing anything, it just stops me from leaving period. Oh, I just have to press D. I actually figure this out after I've already resolved to go back and reloaded, so no orb yet. Got an evil book, AKA The Book of Nhurgle though, from the nutter's house. I'm getting some bad feelings.

Back at the church, I get the Rune of 9 Hells. You know, this is starting to make me think of Dread Delusion. Pure coincidence, because that game's just taking the general concept of Morrowind's weird RPG world, applying a console coat of paint to it, and then ramping up the weird and creepy factor by ten. Basically, it takes place in a world where everything is dying, and you're on a floating island, trying not to get killed by dying old gods. Or dying new god.

On my way back to the first town, I notice another figure in the destroyed town, he just tells me use the gate after He is destroyed. He being the Wraith.

Finally, when I return, I buy myself the best sword with my fat stack of gold, rest up, and then head west. Unfortunately, the climbing thing doesn't net me anything new in this town.

Just past where I started the game, I find a tower with a man selling mountain gear. For a price I can afford. One problem down, many more to go. A new problem is that I'm not so sure if the game is working properly with the use option. Each time you hit use, you get all your items and the number of those items, preselected numbers. I type in the number for the mountain gear, and it says nothing happens and no object selected.

And another town. Mostly the same old, same old, the plague and the Wraith have ruined my crops. So I pass without incident until I find another church out in the middle of nowhere. He asks me about the god of seas. Oh, the barkeeper mentioned that, and I didn't write it down. How clever. Salmaria, whose name sounds like a kind of disease that chickens give you. This gets me the Rune of Oblivion.

 I like the way this game looks, it has a subtle creepiness to it.

At the far west there's a tower over a lake, possibly the ocean. No crossing over this body of water. Instead I climb up the tower to talk to an old sailor, and he gives me his astral compass. I vaguely remember hearing something about using this to reach the NetherRealm, but it's just another bit in a long, possibly contradictory series of statements.

Back at the inn, I discover that you have no practical limit to how high your health can go. I assumed it could only reach 99, but I was wrong. This...complicates things. Since there's no limit, does the game anticipate this with the final boss? Enemies haven't gotten any stronger, unlike my prediction, but what's the high end here? What should I have to survive safely? With the best armor even the deadliest enemies just tickle me, but I don't know if there's going to be worse. I find the answer after returning again, 130.

The sun, combined with the clouds, made everything look like night, so this area looks a bit weird.

Now, further east, to mountains and another temple. This guy asks me for the holy words of Elgram, which I know, and this gets me the Rune of Pain. Then some more plains and then a desert. This place takes one point of health away from me for every screen I go through. So risky, but not incredibly dangerous. There's another temple here, this time a guy speaking gibberish. I know to respond with what the witch said, and now I have the Rune of the Abyss, the last rune. And this is about as far as I can go, before the damage to my health starts increasing expontentially, 5, then 50, and I'm dead. Which means I missed something earlier, or something is broken. I do try one thing before trekking back, the Rune of Winter. I feel a chill each time I use it, but alas, that does nothing.

I double check on everyone I passed earlier, so I don't miss something important. An object enchanter who couldn't enchant anything for me before offers to build the staff for me. Aha, that's why the Rune of Winter does nothing. It costs me 650 gold, which I can afford, but does diminish my 800+ gold stack. I don't know where to use the staff yet though.

The guy on the outskirts of the first town turns out to have some interesting info. I need to find a key in a tower. The problem is, how do I get in the tower? There are various tall towers with no entrances around. The mountain gear and the orb of flight do turns out I just enter the same way as every building, by pressing E. This gets me a key, and in a building containing the only guy who can cure me of the plague, I take a box of mystic sand. Then a conjurer tells me to get further into the desert by using the orb of flight. Well, when I eventually reach there, it gets me a shaft of light.

I didn't realize this guy was going to be so helpful...

The real bit of help turns out to be the herbalist. I skipped over him because he just sold herbs and I didn't know what I would need. Every answer he gives leads to this, telling me where I can use the staff. After I find the shroud, in a mausoleum, funnily enough, I begin searching for it.


I find it west of the first town. Using the mountain gear to climb on top, I do the ritual described, taking me to the NetherRealm. No turning back. I use the shroud, since that was a recommendation. And it's a peaceful journey to some guy's castle. Not a single random encounter. Is that the shroud or the place? I enter the building. It's a long journey inside, through a few screens and up three times.


At the top I find nothing. Figuring this must be where I use the shaft of light, I use it. My foe is dead, without a single fight. Victory. I escape through a gate...

So are the skies I've seen the whole game night or day?

And the world is fine. What happens if I don't go through the gate? A text crawl saying I eventually go mad and kill myself there. Neither of these things seem to be much affected by the shroud, as I checked a few times without it. It's nice that the game ended well, but these endings all feel...unsatisfactory. The sequel, if we can ever find it, would start off twenty years later.

Puzzles and Solvability

More of a RPG-style thing, but I liked how it all played out. Every puzzle requires careful examination of what the NPCs say, from explicit hints to things randomly said. I liked the riddles, despite my initial distaste for them, as you really had to look through what people said to figure them out.


Interface and Inventory

While the interface is on the surface, fine, I dislike how the game doesn't explain all the keys. I only found out about climbing up and down stairs by accident, it's not in the instructions. It is annoying how long walking around can take, while the sound that walking makes is a different issue, not being able to turn it off is an issue here. The inventory interface is also a bit too simplistic and annoying to deal with. A numbered list is no fun.

I also dislike how I can only change weapons while fighting.


Story and Setting

This game nails a dark fantasy setting in a way I simply haven't seen in an adventure game. That combination of seemingly hopeless evil with the world just in it's grasp as humans do as they are wont to do. Finally freeing that world. And of course that journey, wandering through a world of ruined cities of twisted trees. Finding some nearly forgotten lighthouse on the edge of the world. And then the weirdness of the end.


Sound and Graphics

Credit must be given to Kintz, it takes effort to make CGA look good in a distinctly CGA way. If Kintz could draw a face that looks like a face as opposed to a circle, that would make this perfect. The PC speaker sucks though, simple bloops and beeps that play whenever you step or stab someone. That happens a lot.


Environment and Atmosphere

Suitably spooky and melancholic. This game, while it never follows up on the earliest creepiness, does feel like a world in decay. Alas, thanks to eventually getting better weapons and armor, it loses that to a sea of endless fighting. In a sense the RPG aspect of the game damages it very much so.

The environment is basically static. I think that's a shame, and it would have been nice to get a description of a tree here and there or finding something hidden in a tree's hole.


Dialogue and Acting

Characters don't have a lot to say, but each character, or group of characters feels like they have their own personality. These are people who feel like they've lived lives, even if they have about 8 sentences to say to me.


3+4+4+3+3+3=20/0.6=33.3 or 33.

Kintz's next game is The Darkest Convergence, a 1993 game, which, like The Last Half of Darkness 3, will be left until we reach 1994. Which I guess means expect another double feature on October 2026 at the likely earliest. In the meantime, it's time to return to the land of the worst adventure game ever and hope I don't get something bad. To quote the world's least loved orange cat, what could possibly go wrong?


  1. "must not be a lot of ways to do horror music on PC speaker"
    some might say any music on a pc speaker is horror

    1. And surprisingly, even worse when emulated sometimes. Back in the day, different PCs had their internal speakers mounted in random places inside the beige case, so it was a crapshoot of how good or bad the sound would be.

      One of mine had the speaker all the way in the back, which actually worked well, because it echoed off the wall behind my desk and made it easier to hear, in a way.

    2. Speaking from my own remembrance of PC speaker sounds, I'd say I had bad luck with the real deal.


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