Dynamix’ eclectic catalog of games wanted to conquer nearly everything out there — flight sims, action games, adventure, sub sims, sports, tactics, and a slew of others. Although they are probably not as well known as an Activision or EA, they were one of the giants among PC gamers in the late eighties and early nineties thanks to the avalanche of ideas that they produced from their studio.
One of the things they had also dabbled in was CRPGs and, under Sierra, their creativity would become Betrayal at Krondor. Published by Sierra On-Line in 1993, the game is based on author Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar universe but not on any of the stories. It’s an original tale written by designers at Dynamix that eventually became a part of Feist’s universe when it was followed up by its own novelization and sequel books. Though Feist didn’t write the story or create the characters in it, however, he did have the final word in making sure that it didn’t do anything too far off the beaten path.
The game takes place ten years after the last Riftwar book, A Darkness at Sethanon, and before Prince of the Blood featuring a number of characters from the books along with a host of locations allowing players to explore them from a much closer perspective. The Riftwar series took place in the fantasy world of Midkemia, a medieval place ruled over by both sorcery and steel. Connected to Midkemia is another world, Kelewan, through magical rifts. On Midkemia during the Riftwar, an orphan rose up to become a Master Magician as he and his friends eventually saved the world from catastrophe. But in Betrayal, a new threat endangers the fragile peace earned in the years afterward, and it’s going to be up to the player and a party of hardy adventurers to save the day.
Betrayal at Krondor did a number of things that made it stand out from the typical, grid-based CRPG at the time from its mechanics to the way players would see its world from the user interface that resembled something straight out of fantasy to the world outside of it.
The use of 3D was on the rise as the technology began pulling more detail out of the crude, flat polys and wireframes that used to define it on earlier PC games. Players would see Midkemia from first-person and a combination of digitized likenesses from actors’ faces to costumed, full-body scans added details where it was needed in the text-filled dialogues, cuts, all the way down to the character status screens for each one. Though the graphics could be pixeliciously rough, they still added a considerable degree of detail to the wide, open world of Betrayal’s section-by-section sandbox as players cleared each major chapter in the main story.
Drakkhen, a CRPG which came out in Japan in 1989, did relatively the same thing mechanically sans the digitized actors. Its world was also seen in first person, though with far less detail than what Dynamix put into Midkemia’s forests and open roads. Another similarity is that both games also slipped into a third-person view. In Betrayal, that would be used for setting up party members and ordering them about the field in a sort of advanced take on what SSI’s Gold Box series did in their isometric combat engines. Battles also took place in the same area where the encounter began adding a nice bit of continuity to things.
Story-wise, the game gushed with text printed in script-like fonts against a parchment backdrop to give the entire presentation the medieval fantasy feel of pulling you through the CRT into another world. It lavished lines of dialogue, characterization, and local flavor describing key places from the books tying it directly to the novels that inspired Dynamix’s designers to faithfully translate as much of it into PCs as possible.
The game would also beat Elder Scrolls to the punch in the next year with its skill-based system, abilities improving the more a character uses them. Dynamix also took creative liberties with Midkemian magic which didn’t get much of a mechanical description in Feist’s universe, breaking it down into a series of geometric shapes to pick from and in deciding just how much “health” the player wants the caster to invest into a spell. Weapons, and even character abilities, could also be affected due to combat wear and tear. Weapons and armor would have to be sharpened and polished to keep them in working order and staying healthy was important to being in top form so that your attacks do more than scratch the enemy’s head.
Krondor was a remarkable effort from Dynamix with design decisions and aesthetic visuals that did a fantastic job in bringing Feist’s world to virtual reality. It was a game filled with everything great about a book and then brought to life onscreen in game which even certain CRPGs today have trouble doing.
Yet, as good as it was, it had a few bugs that changed how weapon wear was represented in the game, a few criticisms over the scarce amount of materials to keep your gear in working order, characters leaving the party without warning, and the rough look of some of the visuals and rotoscoped animations in 256-VGA.
Still, it’s one of the best examples of a collaborative effort between authors and game designers with the end result being a CRPG that successfully took a number of bold ideas and ran with them. Unfortunately, it would be the only game that Dynamix would do in Feist’s Riftwar universe. Afterwards, Sierra On-Line attempted to do another CRPG using the same engine but without Dynamix or the Riftwar license with Betrayal in Antara which wasn’t as warmly received by fans or critics in 1997. After that debacle, Sierra On-Line came back with an official sequel, Return to Krondor, in 1998, featuring a new ‘official’ story that was better received.
Unlike a few other CRPGs that did find a way over to consoles, Betrayal at Krondor didn’t. It also didn’t find its way out of DOS or Windows. Players today can still snag a copy of the game on Good Old Games bundled in, strangely enough, with Betrayal in Antara so if you’re in the mood for a heavy dose of fantasy reading along with a taste of CRPG adventure and role-playing (as long as you don’t mind playing as one of the main characters instead of one that you’ve rolled up yourself), you’ll still be getting the better half of that deal as you head into the world of Midkemia.