Here’s a little known CRPG from EA from ’87.
It was tile-based and top down just like the early Ultimas but that’s where the similarities ended. It billed itself as an oriental adventure, but it felt as if it were a Western CRPG slathered over with Far Eastern gloss. It explained little and started you out with permadeath for characters right out of the gate. If you went into this game thinking it would be another Bard’s Tale, you might end up setting the floppy on fire.
Deathlord was a pain in the ass to play, mostly thanks to the technical limitations that it didn’t work around as well as its peers had. I also mentioned permadeath, something that your characters may encounter often in the game if they fail to stock up on food. Or just run into something that might kill them in seconds anyway.
If a member of your party died, that status was immediately written to disk. Unlike in the Bard’s Tale where you could easily get back up and running with a backup list of your favorite characters, Deathlord made things difficult by forcing you to copy the entire disk your party lived on and then shelving it until you really needed it. How I missed the Adventurer’s Guild.
Resurrections were exorbitant and death came fast early in the game. This was a game that didn’t take things lightly on players. Other games could be as tough, but at least they made it easy to get back into the action without having to copy part of the entire game to backup and then doing the same thing again when you need to use it.
And more often than not, this level of difficulty was usually presented as an option so as not to quickly frustrate newcomers just dipping their mailed toes into the game. Wizardry didn’t force Iron Man on everyone, but it kept the light on in the morgue for players that dared to take up that test.
The manual had also lacked the kind of details that the Bard’s Tale series included along with the interface. Bringing up the stats on your characters gave you some useful information except that none of it included how much experience anyone earned. A plus would appear next to their name onscreen to let you know when they were ready to be trained (which required cash and a trainer). It seemed to depend on a number of monsters being killed to get the required experience, though with no way to gauge the worth of certain encounters, it could be a crapshoot.
This also tended to cripple mages as, in the beginning, they’re typically weak. Fighters who took the brunt of the battle and did most of the killing were easiest to grow making mages lag behind. I also lost count of how many times I needed to rebuild my party from scratch until I got used to manually backing up everything all the time. A small collection of floppies dedicated only to keeping my characters alive grinned at me every time I wiped.
Alignment also didn’t seem to matter a whole lot. Scorpia, in her review for CGW, noted that her “good” aligned characters got into an accidental tussle in a village with guards and had managed to kill them all. Yet her party were still shining paragons and did business with the locals regardless of the massacre that preceded them only minutes before.
But it wasn’t all crap. The game had incredible box art, for one, and it also did a few things that added additional flavor to its world. It had day and night cycles and it was a huge place to explore and die in. Oceans needed to be crossed over and mysterious lands beckoned travelers to come ashore and see what dangers they hide behind their mysterious wilds.
You could save anywhere, but you probably had to use utilities to religiously make copies of that disk in order to avoid having to repeat everything all over again when your party died far from any healer because your mages aren’t experienced enough to keep them alive.
The hint guide was also notable for trying the kind of story format found in the one for the Bard’s Tale II, though it took the vantage of someone from our world getting pulled into its world of Lorn. It wasn’t quite as entertaining, nor quite as useful, but it did have a nice collection of maps.
I thought that it was going to be just like the Bard’s Tale, or at least follow in its spirit when I saw it on the shelf with the familiar EA logo stamped on the folding album cover. The description of its features made it out to seem like it would bring the same kind of bare-stats adventure that the Bard sang on his way to the next tavern. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite make the grade even though it had a number of nice ideas.
However, there is actually a bit more to this story than I knew before thanks to CGW’s reporting on Origin’s acquisition in 1992. According to them, Deathlord was also partly responsible for Origin and EA parting ways in 1987 as it bore a much closer resemblance to another popular series – Ultima. Richard “Lord British” Garriott was not amused. Origin was part of EA’s affiliate label program at that time and he threatened to take Origin out of it if Deathlord was published. Trip Hawkins, EA’s uber boss as CEO and President, basically told him to pound salt. After all, this was EA. Who was Origin? Deathlord came out and was quickly lambasted while Garriott followed through with his threat. Origin did its own thing for awhile until it was bought out by EA in 1992 to the tune of $35 million in change.
So the sphere, cube, and tetrahedron in Ultima VII? Elizabeth and Abraham (EA)? The mausoleum of Pirt Snikwah in Ultima V? They could very well be bits and pieces of Garriott’s subtle revenge – not over EA’s buyout of Origin – but over what happened with Deathlord instead with Trip Hawkins.
You can check out the fantastic box art below in the ad which also lays out all of the nitty gritty details of what the game had to offer. It also wouldn’t be the only oriental-themed game to come out from the West as other studios had taken a stab at the same stuff such as BioWare with Jade Empire and the Diablo-like Throne of Darkness published by Sierra with the same varying degrees of success.
Deathlord was packed with dungeons, monsters, and plenty of spells, though the gameplay glue holding it together wasn’t nearly as strong as some of the material it had to work with. It’s still a Western CRPG beneath all of those oriental trappings which isn’t so much of a bad thing, though it sells its own material short at the same time.
To do battle against the Deathlord and save the emperor! It was the kind of stuff CRPG legends are made of, especially on the surface as it tantalized you with thoughts of a stylized world borrowing the kind of legends and myths from the Far East that could have made it stand out even more instead of being a disappointment. And as Scorpia had also noted in her review, that for all of the trouble it made you go through, the ending wasn’t even worth it.