Following up Curse of the Azure Bonds in 1989, Secret of the Silver Blades emerged from the icy wastes of the Forgotten Realms hitting shelves a year later in 1990 in what became something of a traditional schedule for SSI. Their partnership with TSR continued to pick up steam as the developers relentlessly churned out adventures delving deeply into the rich backdrop of high fantasy and adventure that the AD&D powerhouse had within its toy box. Not only that, but it wasn’t unusual for SSI to release multiple CRPGs in one year which is something more than a little unheard of today.
One of the secrets to that rapid development schedule was in recycling the same engine across multiple titles turning it into a signature look. Ever since SSI had gotten its feet wet with Pool of Radiance in 1988, the engine they used underwent a progression of tweaks and enhancements depending on the project. In games such as Champions of Krynn, also in 1990, the engine was expanded to include rules specific to the Dragonlance series such as the effect the waning and waxing of Krynn’s moons would have on magic. Or, in a more extreme sense, sci-fi themes as Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday would also demonstrate in the same year with space exploration and ranged pew pew combat.
And the fans didn’t mind. Despite recycling the basic engine and GUI, the familiarity only helped to focus on the challenges and adventure each title presented to players. It was a formula that worked well back in the day against expectations that weren’t seemingly driven so much by high-end production values as they were with content, and SSI continued to churn out plenty of content.
As for the quality of that content, it varied, and it could also assume that players hopping into the latest title were at least familiar with the ones before it. Not to the level that Wizardry’s early titles demanded, but one could tell that they were in deep dungeon murk if they weren’t ready for the challenges ahead. Silver Blades was one of those titles.
Things start off in a pretty unique way. The villagers of New Verdigris are in dire need of heroes having uncovered something horrible in the frozen grounds around their land. Feeding what treasures they have to the Well of Knowledge and praying for deliverance through its power, the party they hope to be their saviors is magically dumped right into their laps…unconscious, but still very much alive. So it begins.
Not only does it begin, but it also throws players into the proverbial firepit. For starters, they’ll need to clear the area around the Well that brought them there in the first place, pitting them not against puny kobolds or goblins but a mix of monsters consisting of dragons of the middling variety to the ancient kind found in the end conflict of Champions of Krynn as the first ‘boss’. After that, things only get worse with basilisks, cockatrices, giants, and dragons jamming together throughout the twisting depths of Blades’ dungeons. However, like Champions of Krynn, a difficulty selector has also been added to the game adjusting the hit points (which also effects how much experience characters will get) to make things a bit more manageable — or as challenging — as players want.
The good news is that like Azure Bonds, players can also import their party of seasoned veterans into this adventure. The problem, however, is that this is a pretty unforgiving adventure — high levels are recommended all around to survive the savage beating that the title’s high end monsters will be delivering. Certain classes, especially heavily multi-classed characters that had spread their experience in three or so ways, could be in for a hard slog. The game does provide a ready party of high-level adventurers, however, or players can roll their own high powered party. The message is pretty clear, though — it’s hack ‘n slash time. This is like one of those AD&D modules meant for high level characters and experienced players, heavy on the combat and light on everything else.
Like the ones before it, all of the traditional trappings of AD&D have made the transition over from the classes to the Vancian magic system of loading up spells in a caster’s head like a clip of ammo and having to re-memorize them all over again once they’re spent. Loads of statistics are layered on every invisible dice roll that SSI’s digital dungeonmaster renders as the final verdict in every battle and gobs of gear lie in wait for adventurers to pluck free from their resting places.
SSI didn’t skimp on the documentation, either, with an included manual covering the basics of the GUI and an Adventurer’s Journal detailing everything else including the paragraph entries referenced in the game — and by its copy protection. Players were free to copies those floppies for backup purposes leaving it up to things like word-checks to curb any kind of creative sharing.
Just as its predecessors have done, players explored the world through first-person which switched over to an isometric, tactical view displaying all of your enemies and party members lined up like miniatures on a rather plain-looking diorama. Knowing where your party members were, who had enough movement to scoot across the room in how many steps, how to avoid friendly fire from that fireball you want to cast, and how best to protect your squishy casters, were all things to consider and more inside this space and was something that the Gold Box series did really well.
Secret of the Silver Blades was also a far more linear game than its predecessors were based as it was around a ‘hub’ design. There was no overworld map here, just a series of dungeons set up around a ‘base’. At New Verdigris, players could call on free heals and gear up by spending their treasures, train up if they had enough experience, and feed the Well of Knowledge precious gems for answers that it might have in solving the riddles facing them. Teleporters linked the area to various dungeons as long as players located the other end of those allowing for easy access back and forth, though players can still camp out in the midst of all of that danger if they needed to rest up and recover on the fly.
The game ends with a traditional bad guy battle, or as CGW’s Scorpia has often referred to it as, a Foozle fight. The game doesn’t end when players defeat the evil at the heart of this monster mash, though there’s not a lot else to do at that point when the party have become walking juggernauts.
From what a number of reviewers have noted such as Scorpia, Secret of the Silver Blades is heavy on the combat from top to bottom with very little role-playing involved. It comes with a basic story and not much else making this probably the most ‘dungeon crawly’ of the Gold Box series which may draw some comparisons to Black Isle’s Icewind Dale ten years later in 2000, or to classic crawlers of the past such as the original Bard’s Tale from Interplay in ’85. For players seeking something a bit ‘simpler’ after the high adventure found in Azure Bonds or Champions, though, Secret of the Silver Blades falls into scratching that itch for heavy hack ‘n slash love.
It was released on a dwindling slate of platforms which omitted the Apple II entirely as its glory days in gaming rapidly diminished coming into the 1990s. Instead, it found itself ported across to the Amiga, IBM-PC compatibles running MS-DOS, and the Amiga. Instead of the Apple II, it was the Macintosh that would get a version of the game. Japan would also get a copy for their 16-bit microcomputer, the PC-98. Unlike Pool of Radiance, it wouldn’t get a console port. Many of the Gold Box games never would, though that didn’t keep SSI from trying with a few other titles.
Today, Secret of the Silver Blades is still floating around out there as abandonware having never found the kind of resurrection that a few of its peers had in the digital download space on services like Good Old Games. As one of the dungeon hacking classics of yesteryear, it’s the basic breakfast of old school sensibilities when all you needed was a good set of armor, a party, and dungeons to raid. On that count, Secret of the Silver Blades hearkens back to the earliest days of the classics.