Free Fall Associates was a third-party developer for a then-fledgling Electronic Arts who published their well-known and remembered classic, Archon, in 1983. Founded by husband and wife team, John Freeman and Anne Westfall (the name of the company is a portmanteau of their last names), Free Fall also came up with a murder mystery game, Murder on the Zinderneuf, which also came out in 1983. And they also came out with a sequel to Archon in 1984.
But they also worked for three years on their own RPG called Swords of Twilight released solely on the Amiga in 1989. As noted by CGW’s November ’89 issue as a Christmas gift pick, both developers felt that the current trends for fantasy RPGs at the time seemed “clunky” and with the Amiga’s horsepower, could cross that divide between feeling as if the game were rolling dice versus delivering a more “lifelike” experience for the players.
My feeling is that “clunky” was their way of saying “crunchy with statistics” riveting together most every CRPG then as now. This is an important distinction because, as one of several ways to distinguish itself from its peers, Swords of Twilight doesn’t have any.
You don’t even get to create your own characters. Players instead pick from a stable of pre-mades classified under one of three different categories — knight, champion, or mage. Mages themselves also follow one of three different schools of magic defining their arsenal: Goety, Witchcraft, Wizardry, Enchantment, and Sorcery…each with its own unique focus such as Enchantment’s role as supportive (buffs and debuffs) magic. And each character out of the 31 total have their own pre-determined starting levels and AI quirks described not in numbers or percentages, but as descriptions.
The manual is thick on detail but anemic when it comes to explaining just why you and your team are heading out into the world. Swords is one of those games that slowly develops its story in-game along with the main goal with as little background as possible. Most of the text in the manual is devoted on describing the mechanics of how to play the game as opposed to providing any flavor for the environment the game actually takes place in, a stark difference from other CRPGs that spent a welcome part of their packaging immersing players such as the Ultima series’ approach with cloth maps and booklets.
Eventually players discover that the “Swords” in the title are powerful weapons that were used to protect worlds along the “Rainbow Road” linking them together. Evil Shadowlords have crept up the Rainbow Road, taking over other worlds and spreading their darkness, but it is these swords that are also their greatest weakness with each proving to be the bane of a specific baddie. You start on Albion, a medieval world suddenly without magic, and whose queen puts you on the path to solving one or two simple quests before our heroes discover the threat of the Shadowlords.
Levels aren’t earned by grinding through combat. In fact, there’s hardly any of it in the game unless you initiate it by changing your disposition to “hostile” (which also affects how you talk to other NPCs), holding down the trigger button, and then start whaling on another character. By hitting CAPS LOCK, mages can go into a “trance” to cast spells whose names are typed out.
Most combat in the game involves not getting NPCs too angry at you while talking, though it’s apparently impossible to avoid entirely as the Shadowlords have to be dealt with in a more direct fashion. Instead, players are rewarded for succeeding in their quests (the “great deeds” the manual talks about) and may go up in rank in their respective professions. For mages, this means being able to cast higher level spells and more of the same as long as they don’t tire themselves out.
Fatigue and getting hungry are also part of the experience. Exploring without rest, or eating, can tire characters slowing them down while exploring. Sleeping out in the open can also subject them to unexpected dangers, though if they’re nice enough, they might be offered to stay indoors at a nearby building by the inhabitants guaranteeing both a meal and a peaceful sleep.
One of the game’s biggest boasts was that it was a multiplayer game allowing three players to control the three characters making up your party. If you didn’t have enough people, you could assign control to the computer for whoever was missing.
The manual described the attitudes of each character and, depending on what you do in the game, each character has their own distinct ‘personality’ reflected in their disposition towards NPCs, in it’s simplistic combat, or how well they follow behind you. Players hoping for a more diplomatic game might not do well with AI controlled characters that don’t say a whole lot because of who they are.
While Douglas Seacat writing for CGW’s review of the game praised Swords as his GOTY pick because of its unique approach to the role-playing experience, other critics were a lot less impressed such as Tony Dillon writing for CU Amiga-64 in November of ’89 and archived over at the Amiga Magazine Rack who was decidedly bored by both the game’s visuals and design along with the technical shortcomings long load times brought to it.
Unlike Archon, Swords of Twilight disappeared into obscurity. The reasons for why can only be speculated, but its exclusivity to the Amiga alone without ports to other, more prolific platforms, probably hurt its chances to be seen by a wider crowd.
It’s also not a traditional CRPG and while its approach is creative, it’s not perfect. It eschews grinding up experience via combat which is an interesting approach. But it also does away with huge dungeon levels, loot, stores, and a party of personalized characters for a story-intensive approach that slowly reveals itself through engaging NPCs to piece together what is going on. Even the cluebook for Swords of Twilight delivers its walkthrough as a series of stories seen from the perspective of its characters. It can feel extremely limited without things like stores or merchants to buy food and upgrade gear with — things that many CRPG players have gotten used to and have come to expect. In a way, it was only a few degrees away from being a more traditional adventure game like another buried gem, Infocom’s Journey, which also came out in the same year (1989).
For the time, though, it did a few things that other games years later would also explore. Multiple solutions to certain tasks (the cluebook presented one way to get a quest item in the beginning of the game, but you could also ‘steal’ it from a chest in the castle instead), affecting dialogue and NPC behavior towards you based on your attitude, making quests matter more in terms of character advancement than combat, and AI led characters with their own quirks and behaviors to distinguish them apart from each other (an old mage isn’t going to keep up with a faster knight, and a fighter might be more prone to be belligerent in conversation than someone with a more patient outlook). An interesting gem from the Amiga’s past, Swords of Twilight might not be remembered today, but the ideas it tried to explore have become staples in more than a few iconic titles that came after it.