Dungeons in 3D wasn’t a new thing by the time Dungeon Master made its mark in 1987 — a lot of games were doing it from the wireframe halls of Wizardry and Ultima in the early 80s to the Bard’s Tales series’ textured walls from 1985 onward.
But what FTL’s Dungeon Master did very differently was take out the turn-based factor and make it action based and allow the player to pick up and directly manipulate items in the world. It was as if a wall was suddenly broken down allowing the player to drag ‘n drop loot, throw weapons, flip switches, and aim at foes in real time.
The late 80s also saw a gamut of creative CRPGs from the likes of SSI thanks to their license with TSR, opening a floodgate of AD&D inspired work ranging from the hardcore Gold Box series of CRPGs to innovative titles such as the dragon flying sim, DragonStrike.
Westwood Associates (who would go on to become Westwood Studios) had actually worked on that making them no strangers to 3D voodoo. They had also dabbled it into building the city in the cyberpunk title, Circuit’s Edge, in 1990, based around a grid-based first-person design with streets, businesses, and other locales that the player needed to explore and interact with.
All of that experience would shine through with their work on Eye of the Beholder when SSI released it in 1991 for IBM PC MS-DOS platforms supporting a laundry list of graphics modes from CGA all the way up to VGA. It would also arrive on the Amiga in the same year — albeit with much simpler requirements.
On the surface, Eye of the Beholder was a lot like Dungeon Master four years earlier. It used a grid-based movement system (90° turns, single-square movement) and with the mouse cursor, allowed players to pick up loot seen onscreen, push buttons, open doors, and attack enemies with a few clicks. The differences were in that this was a game based on AD&D and allowed the use of the new VGA standard if a PC had it.
The game was the first in SSI’s “Legend Series” and took place beneath the Forgotten Realms’ greatest city – Waterdeep. Evil forces were stirring and the manual started things off with a piece of fiction to get players ready for the quest ahead. Summoned by the Piergeiron, the leading lord of the city, who officially gives them leave to delve into the tunnels and pry the darkness out, the player must take their party down through the sewers and uncover the conspiracy around a mysterious figure named Xanathar.
Copy protection was ye olde word check method and a pre-built party was ready to go for players that didn’t want to waste any time rolling their own. If they did, a slate of AD&D stats, classes, and races awaited them from Half Elves to Paladins. Six races and six classes were available, and all of them were broken down into six basic attributes and nine different alignments to determine where they stood as goody two shoes or black hearted oath breakers which could affect who can be a part of your party. Paladins won’t hang with evil Clerics, for example. Multi-classed characters were also possible.
Stats were randomly rolled with clicks making it possible to twink your ‘toon into whatever uber character you wanted with enough patience. It might be cheesy, but the game didn’t pull any punches once you hit the depths, either. Once you’re in the sewers, it’s a one way trip down to the end. That means if anyone dies along the way, you’d better hope you have a way of raising them from the dead yourself.
That also goes for NPCs, Once you have all four characters, the last two slots on the list are reserved for NPCs that you may find. Some are just a pile of bones waiting to be resurrected leaving some question of what kind of class they might be.
The spell system is based on the Vancian one used in AD&D where casters, both clerics and mages, need to spend time in camp mode re-memorizing the ones they’ve used. Think of their heads as clips of ammo and once spent, they need to fill it back up again with the spells you pick. As they gain in levels, more become available at each level for them to memorize along with new spells to expand their choices.
Gameplay-wise, it was a blobber like many other crawlers were. It was so-named because despite having four characters, they were treated as one “blob” when it came to attacking enemies onscreen in front of the player. They even moved like one, inching forward one square after another, fighting monsters in real time by clicking on the weapon icons on the right where the party was listed.
Those in the front row were in the two top slots, the next row were those behind them, and the NPCs were all the way in the back. You could also click on the arrow keys onscreen or just used the number pad to move around with the keyboard handling everything else from using items to casting spells.
At the end, Xanathar turned out to be a Beholder — a many eyed, floating ball of magically powerful death that could slay even an experienced party if they weren’t careful — and there were a number of strategies that players could use to destroy him including pushing him into a pit of spikes. Or, if they felt cheeky enough (or failed to accomplish one of the quests in the upper levels missing out on an important and helpful wand), went toe to toe with death itself.
After that, the game ended with a wall of text explaining what happened next and how proud the Lord of Waterdeep is for your victory as you are whisked from the dungeons. At least on the IBM PC version, right before the player was dumped to DOS in an arguably weak ending, even for the time. Amiga players, on the other hand, received an extended, cinematic ending right after the text as they met with the shadowy Lords of Waterdeep and presented proof of their victory.
The game was ported to a number of other platforms over the next few years such as the SNES (published by Capcom), the PC-98 in Japan, and the Sega CD. All of them used elements from the Amiga’s cinematic ending with a number of embellishments or changes depending on the system. The Sega CD version, for example, featured a full score by Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage series, ActRaiser, Beyond Oasis) with added scenes. It was later ported over to the Game Boy Advance and released in 2002.
Aside from a few compilation sets that brought this and its sequels together in the 90s, Eye of the Beholder largely exists today as abandonware as do much of the SSI/TSR catalog of games although die-hard fans have kept the flame alive by remaking the campaign with more modern titles such as Neverwinter Nights.
At the time, however, It was still one of the better AD&D ARPGs to emerge from teh SSI/TSR partnership and came with a number of polished concepts — body part slots for equipment, drag and drop inventory (though some functions could be a bit clunky in the GUI, such as having to click on each character or cast spells during combat), complex puzzles, and tough combat. And all of that would give Westwood the experience it would need to launch its own legends set within Lands of Lore.