Death Knights of Krynn - In-depth Written Amiga Review With Pics
Thump thump went the speakers as I made my way down the twisting roads of Crooked street. A dread wolf is the cause of nightmares, and we have a date with the Dream Merchant. Hot on the trail of a supposed enemy agent, we duck in and out of bars while voices warn of our impending death. As a stench of decay assaults the senses, we tumble down a ladder into the rotting remains of a ship. Its former officer's spirits linger in the form of wraiths, zombies are the only deck hands now. Accompanying a local priest to the town's cemetery, we haul all souls slain in carts so they may receive their final blessing. Above an outpost we walk city walls through the night sky, the thump thumping our only companion as we await the next patrol.
The sound of walking is nothing new to these games, it had always been one of their few sound effects. Yet there's an air to this title which makes it feel somehow different. The undead are everywhere, how many steps until you run into a level draining vampire? Death dragons, ghasts and ghouls, even entities from other planes such as nightmares and fire minions bring a palpable atmosphere of creepiness. There's an entire undead town with a lich as mayor, defeat him and he'll rise again, the hunt for his soul jar begins.
The first of the Gold Box titles I personally spent a large amount of time playing, I could never forget that lich. Nor could I forget perusing through the bizarre of Kalaman during the day, how I snuck into it at night, and was thrown in jail for using a sword to slash a shortcut through a merchant's stall. Out of nowhere pops that dread wolf, a jump scare stalking us from the beginning of the game until its end. Like the sound effects, these games were never known for their musical score, though a larger number of tunes were used here and produce an unsettling apprehension. Death Knights of Krynn would be second to none in this line for a Halloween thriller, and its unique style make it yet another worthy title in this legendary series.
^Friends turn into enemies, our first battle
The fifth of the overall fantasy RPG Gold Box line (6th if you count Buck Rogers), Death Knights is the second in the separate DragonLance series of games. The direct sequel to Champions of Krynn, none of the other games scream sequel quite like this one does. The ring leader of the multiple villains of this game, Lord Soth, was revealed in Champion's end sequence. The characters of Sir Karl and Maya return, albeit Sir Karl (who died in the first game) is in another form. Names such as Takhisis were whispered about in Champions, with that same treatment happening in Death Knights toward an eventual payoff in the final Krynn game. These games connect with each other in a way that is nearly absent in the main Forgotten Realms line, where there's little story based connection from one title to another.
Not that you'd be required to play Champions in order to enjoy Death Knights, as I already mentioned this had been the first of the series I dug my hands into. I believe I got through half of it just feeling around as a ten year old kid, and much of my love would have started right here. Still there's a definite satisfaction in progressing onward given that wonderful relationship with the first title. I even say this having a number of criticisms of the first DragonLance installment. However, my overall impression of Champions was positive, and Death Knights managed to fix just about all of my complaints in the first game.
Champions, along with Curse of the Azure Bonds, leaned more toward a linear gameplay experience, focusing heavily on its story. Personally I prefer the largely non-linear nature of Pool of Radiance, and Death Knights returns to those roots. I'm speaking in degrees of non-linear, as there's still a bit of pointing us in certain directions performed by various characters in-game. There are also a couple of areas which are closed off to you until you perform a certain action, but largely we are free to roam around and are rewarded for doing so. From your starting location in Gargath, will you follow the mountains to Dulcimer, only to get eaten alive by that damned lich? Well you certainly could and you'd have gotten it out of the way for later, but perhaps you'll explore the secrets of the overworld more, or just hunt for what feels easier in the mainline story. You have choices here, and I'm grateful for the ability to stumble along, to run and come back when you feel ready, to explore and not just get shoved along.
^Combat adds spell animations, laying the fallen to rest
Champions felt limited in its enemy assortment, with a particular focus on draconians. From beginning until end you'd face a handful of different types of these creatures, some of which were more annoying than challenging. Various dragons also populated that game, though many were smaller varieties with laughably small hit points. The overworld was the only place rich with different types of creatures, but the random encounters felt rare. Death Knights chooses to focus in one area as well, this time on the undead. But through its diversity in that one area, the undead never felt stale. In this case the focus added to the games scary atmosphere in a positive manner.
I always love seeing skeletons treated as more than one of the easiest encounters in an RPG, and the skeletal warriors featured in Death Knights are a true challenge. Completely immune to magical attacks and heavily resistant to physical, these skellys are a serious threat throughout the game, though at times they bordered on annoying. Draconians do make the odd appearance, but they're rare enough to be a nice change of pace. Likewise dragons will pop up but are of the large and powerful variety with which to be feared.
The challenge of Pool of Radiance was given a triumphant return for Death Knights, with Curse and Champions feeling a tad too easy to me. Some of that is because I took it upon myself to increase the game's difficulty settings to "adept" from its default of "veteran", but even at lower difficulties I believe Death Knights was intending to bring up the heat. There are several things the difficulty settings alter, in my case I noticed the hit points for enemies increased along with their chances to hit, and I was even rewarded with extra experience by torturing myself more than others. Perhaps resistances and other more complicated aspects are altered as well, but I can't speak definitively there. Some may prefer an easier time, so don't be afraid to mess with those settings in order to hit your particular sweet spot.^Exploring the overworld, my hand maps
The overworld in Death Knights consists of a geographic map with your location represented as a square. While various gold box games had different representations of the overworld, the slight majority possessed a map similar to this. While not a fan of this method in Curse and Champions, I found it much more enjoyable here. With Curse you had no direct control of your position, instead selecting a general destination via menus. Champions allowed for full control of your position, but due to its more linear nature it all felt pointless. The names of the towns were printed directly onto the map, and there wasn't anything hidden to reward your exploration.
This is a map that's worth exploring! Numerous towns dot the landscape, some are essential to the main story line, and some are primarily there for side questing. Those essential to the plot are scattered about so it's likely your travels will bring you through these optional areas. In addition to what can be seen on the map, there's several hidden areas to reward those who bother hand mapping. Exploring the outdoors was an essential part of Pool of Radiance, but it meant almost nothing in Curse and Champions, here it's kind of a compromise. You could listen to those pointing you along and just go where you need to go, you could explore what can be seen and experience many of the optional locations, or you could get out that graph paper and be rewarded with extra goodies. It's a decent compromise.
I felt the battles in the overworld were not as well done as in other games. While there was little point to the Champions overworld in terms of exploring, most of that game's enemy variety was outdoors. It ended up giving me the smallest of satisfactions with mapping when encountering these unique creatures. With Death Knights it depends upon your general location, but encounters are often fire lizards, skeletal warriors, or dragons, with the lizards being the only creature you won't find elsewhere. So while I did enjoy my explorations of the map, I feel more could have been done with this games combat encounters.
Of course combat in general is the Gold Box lines crowning achievement. I think of these games as hybrids of different genres; Adventures in their story telling, role playing in their leveling system, and strategy in their combat. What primarily separated role playing games from adventures was this addition of combat, but these were often simplistic systems involving text menus and hotkeys on the keyboard to attack or cast a spell. While even those early systems offered elements of strategy, I feel no turn based RPGs would ever compete with the Gold Box line. It's a role playing chess match, and I suppose you either get it and love it, or it's lost upon you. Considering combat is essential in separating the genre from adventures, I'd be quite weary in all who downplay the significance of this system (and sadly they exist).
Not that it's perfect by any means. It's rare that I'll ever bring out the bows considering their use involves tediously entering a menu to unequip your current weapon, equip the bow, and then doing the same when you need your melee weapon back. Bows, especially when enchanted themselves and/or with magic arrows are a great weapon, I just can't stand equipping them. Considering you use the aim menu to attack with a bow VS your number pad in melee, there's no reason why both a melee weapon and a bow can't be equipped at the same time. It's hard to fathom how this was never addressed, other than I'd imagine it was a part of the actual D&D system. For better and worse, these games tried to be as faithful as possible to the first edition rules. The positives far outweigh the negatives in terms of the combat, and no role playing system has ever been more enjoyable for me.
For the most part the individual games of the line don't alter the combat much, though Death Knights was the first in the series to add combat animations in the form of spells such as fireball and others exploding. The DragonLance line does add to the strategic value of combat with its alternate spell casting system, which Death Knights follows. Clerics form an allegiance to a particular god, who offers them certain benefits. Those who follow Majere can turn undead at a higher level and get an extra silence '15 radius spell. Followers of Reorx receive a +1 to THAC0 but can only be worshiped by dwarfs. Considering these various choices of gods certainly adds to the overall strategy of the system.
^Side questing, the lightning bolt
Mage types are based on their moral alignment, with good mages being white robes, neutral being red, and evil mages black. The three moons, which are displayed at the top of the screen, effect a mage's abilities depending on its lunar phase. A new moon hurts the mage by decreasing their saving throw chance, and having them operate at a level below their actual abilities. A waning moon gives the mage their normal ability, while a waxing moon gives an additional spell which can be memorized. A full moon increases their saving throw, adds two additional spells, and has them operate at a level higher than normal.
I found the system wasn't as important as it had been in Champions, where you needed every spell you could get due to your lower levels. It's also rather simple to get around the system if desired. If you wait until a full moon to memorize your spells, the game will remember your previously chosen spells and will automatically re-memorize any spells you had used when you next rest, regardless of the moons current phase. So as long as you're happy with your spells or you have no need to memorize different ones, by simply doing nothing you're bypassing the system. Eventually in Death Knights you'll have enough spells that you might not even care about the moons bonuses anyway.
The most concerning area regarding mages is how only certain ones can cast certain spells.You'll certainly want at least one white and one red robed mage (player characters cannot be evil and thus the black robed mages have no obvious effects on you). While numerous spells are the same regardless of which class a mage belong to, the increased levels in Death Knights means many of the more powerful spells will get split between the two groups. Spells like haste, invisibility, dimension door, and fire touch can only be cast by red robes. Hold monster, globe of invulnerability, cloudkill, and delayed blast fireball are examples of spells that only a white robed mage can cast. Those are all quality spells that you're likely to want in your arsenal, and this is what makes the DragonLance magic system deeper with its strategy. Still we're basically limiting who can cast the spells which had already been available in the Forgoten Realms, which could understandably be thought of as cheap. For me it all ends up being a wash, and while I find the alterations interesting on a strategic level, in the end I have no preference for either system.
^Sir Durfey, Lord Soth, portrait animations
Races are also treated differently in the DragonLance line, but by Death Knights you'll be running out of reasons to have most of them in your party. The first edition rules featured profound race limitations, so by the end only humans and qualinesti elves can reach the maximum in-game levels. I had transferred all of my characters over from Champions, but ended up dropping and recreating many of them in anticipation of reaching those limits. I had dwarfs, kenders, multiple elf types, all removed in favor of humans and qualinesti elves. Most of my party were multiclassed three times so I could have as diverse a group as possible while giving them strong melee and spell casting skills. I still benefited from transferring my characters, as for the first time in the series most of your weapons from the previous game come to this one. So I'd shift their weapons to someone else, re-create the player, then send back their weapons.
Champions had been littered with NPCs, many of whom were cameos that readers of the DragonLance novels would have been familiar with. Death Knights has examples of that, such as Lord Soth and Kitiara, but there were certainly less here. On the positive side we get the the pleasure of having one of the best NPCs in any of these games join us to fight, Sir Durfey. He is not in any of the novels as far as I'm aware, but he turns out to be a wonderful companion. He joins somewhere in the middle of the game and stays till near the end, so you'll have him for a nice chunk of time. As a knight he's a fantastic addition to the front line and since you're able to control him you won't have to worry about curious decisions made by the computer.
He also injects story elements along the way, chiming in with dialogue at numerous points and helping your party feel more involved. That may be my biggest criticism of Death Knights, where Curse and Champions had more characters referring directly to your party, I felt largely left out of this games story. There were a few examples of our involvement, such as a priest asking if Amiga Bill would help heal the wounded, when I got stared at by different characters, and a message being left for Esper Dreams, but it largely felt as if we were being talked at instead of talked to. Thankfully Durfey helps make up for this, we feel more involved because he gets to talk, and he's one of us.
^They're always looking at me, a whole lot of dragons
Our involvement aside, the story of Death Knights is an enjoyable one in-game, though there is a feeling of it having been worked on less than the others. This was especially noted in the games introduction from the manual and its journal entries. There's less than half a page in the manual setting up this game, and that's just a retelling of the events in Champions. There were pages upon pages of lore for most of the other Gold Box games. Some of that gets mitigated through a longer in-game introduction, but it doesn't quite make up for the lack of writing in the manual. Likewise the journal entries are fewer and shorter, with most making up one or two paragraphs, and maybe a handful going longer than a half page. You'll enjoy what you're reading, but there's less there to read.
A year after the events in Champions, we and others gather to celebrate and mourn those lost. One of the fallen, Sir Karl, interrupts the festivities in his new undead form, a death knight. From friend to foe, the story follows our attempts to catch up with him, the one who reanimated him, Lord Soth, and a rather troublesome dread wolf. Three main villains who all receive a good chunk of story, and two of them we actually fight more than once, which I enjoyed. I rank them combined right up with Tyranthraxus as among the best and most memorable bad guys in the Gold Box line. There's even a couple supposed good guys (girls really) who reveal themselves in plot twists to be working for Soth. The main storyline is told in bursts here and there due to the games non-linear style, and it's an enjoyable one. I further loved the return of quality side questing stories. The little tales about the towns and people you encounter which have nothing to do with the larger events, but nonetheless help to make you feel a part of this world.
The graphics have been improved in Death Knights, as every title in the line provided just that little bit more. It may be subtle to those who aren't paying attention, but I find them quite profound given the perceived opinion of these games not lifting a finger throughout most of their run. While traveling in first person, the new wood of an outpost appears clean with nails holding the boards together. The wood of a beached ship looks to have aged, so you can almost hear the planks creak. The stone buildings of Kalaman show polish, and the bizarre stalls seem textured. I'm pretty sure the final games in the Gold Box line, which had upgraded VGA graphics, were adding color to many of the structures which had first appeared in this game. As mentioned earlier, combat adds explosion animations, the birds eye view is small but detailed, though largely unchanged in its overall design.
^Two down, one to go, meeting some sprites
I felt let down in terms of the close up portraits as well as the larger landscapes, especially when compared with Champions. What's there is detailed, and I would say more so than the games which came before, but much like the manual it's obvious less time had been spent on this game. While there's still quite a few original still portraits, I came across a number of "stick figures" such as Sir Bertil. He appears in the first person viewscreen as a generic fighter from head to toe because they never bothered drawing a close up image of him. There's substantially less animated portraits in this game, and maybe three large landscape pics which denote major events in the story, all a marked decrease compared to previous titles.
But what is there, especially in this Amiga version, looks great. I believe the Amiga version of Death Knights is the basic look that the VGA versions of the final games were aiming for. The game had originally been developed and published by SSI for the Commodore 64 and MS-DOS, releasing around the same time in early 1991 (guessing March based on a sales chart). The Amiga port was handled in-house by SSI in America, releasing in the summer of 1991 (guess of July based on reviews and sales charts). They handled the Amiga version in a decent fashion, though it wasn't as obviously above and beyond like Pool of Radiance had been on the Amiga, still there's clearly extra polish here. While sound effects and music are never highlights for these games, what's there certainly sounds best in this version.
On the Amiga the graphics range from being nearly identical to DOS, through slightly better using a wider variety of color choices, all the way to "Wow, why on Earth does anybody ever play these games on DOS!?" It really depends upon the individual screens and pictures, whether they thought it looked good in the first place or needed improvement. EGA DOS couldn't do natural skin tones to save its life, and here on the Amiga the game increases its color count to 32 from 16 on DOS, with those 32 chosen from a 4,096 color pallet. Most of the Amiga versions of the Gold Box games are the VGA versions from the start, and Death Knights is no exception. While backgrounds in other games featured some basic dithering, for the first time gradients are used to nice effect on the Amiga, but are often black on DOS. The Amiga also has a quality selection of combat icons to choose from, which had first been put in the Amiga version of Champions, but is still nowhere to be seen on DOS. A comparison can be found at this point in my video review.
^More creepy atmosphere, cloudkill
There's not a great deal to discuss in terms of the economy, overall it sucks per usual with the Gold Box games. It's done a little better because the treasure you collect is often in gems or jewelry, which will not weigh down your characters. So we don't have to throw away masses of gold in Death Knights, which is a minor improvement. There's still nothing good to buy, and the only real use for money is to identify new items, you don't even pay for training in the DragonLance line. All of the good stuff is found in scripted battles at precise locations, so if I have anything better than someone else it's because I explored more or got it from the first game. We do collect a lot of nice items, especially when exploring some of those unbeaten side questing paths. It's a nice sprinkling of upgraded weapons and armor as you progress in Death Knights, where it felt like an eternity getting anything good in Champions.
Puzzles are rare and where they exist would better be described as riddles, but I loved seeing what was there. Gargath featured a nice system of picking your current assignment which I enjoyed, helping with the role playing aspects. There's a geographic connection with Champions, with Death Knights taking place to the Northwest of that area, with Throtl and Gargath appearing in both games, and Throtl even has the same map. I find mapping to be a joy and essential to the games pacing, it was clearly designed thinking that's what the player would be doing, and thus I would hope others might consider trying it.
Your spellbooks finally open up to some useful spells besides fireball, and I was particularly a fan of fire touch. Adding additional damage to any melee attack, it's a great buff for any tough battle, but especially against skeletal warriors. Hold Monster can bring some of the mightiest dragons out of a fight. Blink is an example of a spell which had been around in the first game, but due to us wanting as many fireballs and lightning bolts as possible was largely ignored. With more room to experiment, blink proves useful for multiclassed fighter/mages because once they act in a round they can no longer be attacked. Another goodie for the multiclassed is dimension door, to sneak someone in from behind, or to get normal mages out of the way. There's a lot of nice defensive spells in general, though many higher level offensive spells such as disintegrate disappoint you more often than not.
^Farewell Sir Durfey, the final battle part1
The story culminates with a number of emotional turns. Sir Karl, our former boss and now enemy death knight, confronts his girlfriend Maya. We don't actually fight him, with both dying off screen and the dragonlance he stole plummeting to the ground for our use. A nice monument is laid for them, and it's especially rewarding to those who played the first game, where that love story was the biggest side quest. We "pet" the doggie that's been stalking us throughout the game, and it's quite the worthy foe. Our wonderful companion Sir Durfey, either through his valiant knightly soul or his raging hormones decides to escort a woman home only to pop up as an undead. "... his clawed fingers uncurl. In this final death you recognize the Durfey you knew and befriended."
Facing Soth for the second time, here he brings quite a few friends. Defensive spells prove key, as most are immune or resistant to magic, though I finally got a good roll on a disintegrate. Once defeated he again stands up but the magical rod of omniscience we collected is used to suck him into another dimension, along with the deceitful Kitiara. To this point the end sequence has been pretty epic, but then it goes into stick figure land with your final congratulations and that part felt like a downer. You're free to continue on if you had unfinished business, and there's actually a special challenge area with goodies that opens up at this point if desired. I pretty much did everything I wanted before reaching the end, so I just saved everything to await the next adventure.
As was tradition with the Gold Box titles, the reviews for Death Knights were all over the place. Amazing Computing, covering the Amiga release, said the engine was getting rather long in the tooth and wishing for some improvements to the system. They noticed the increase in graphics for the Amiga along with its nice combat icons, and called it one of the better sequels he's played in some time. Quest Busters loved how weapons could be brought over, and begged that the reader not let the splash of Eye of the Beholder take away their lust for Death Knights. Saying that the old war horse was not ready for pasture. Dragon called it wonderful to return to the DragonLance saga, that it was packed with excitement and a top notch fantasy adventure, giving it five out of five stars. Video Games and Computer Entertainment, playing the Amiga version, called it a good system that tells an excellent story. Scorpia, through Computer Gaming World was her usual cheerful self... Labeling the story as "get Foozle the evil wizard", and managing to turn the wonderful positive of weapons transferring to this game into a negative because "the good stuff" won't come with them. She says it's not a bad game, though she mentions nothing about it that she likes, and that there's an overall humdrum feeling to the game.
In Europe Amiga Action called it yet another superb role playing game from SSI, going as far as saying the graphics were the best ever experienced in this type of RPG (stretching it a bit I'd say), and giving it a score of 86%. CU Amiga called it a massive game with a series of enjoyable and deep quests, giving it 88%. The Australian Commodore and Amiga Review spent most of their review complaining about the "damned repetitive thing" but said they loved it anyway, another 88%. Amiga Power, admitting they knew nothing about the genre yet claiming even a fan wouldn't think it was a 90%, gave it 60%. Saying Eye of the Beholder "makes it redundant in every meaningful way". I would guess graphics are the only meaningful thing to him, because I can tell you in terms of story and combat, which are pretty meaningful to me, Eye of the Beholder does not make Death Knights redundant.
I can't help but get the feeling that much of the lethargy bestowed upon these games has to do with their graphics. We're supposed to know that those are secondary to gameplay and features, but it feels complaints can often be traced back to how it all looks. We may not be looking for something to wow, but we're looking for something better, or something improved. We don't dig into why something is the way it is, or even open our eyes to see all the tiny improvements. The game engine was built for the Commodore 64, they're fundamentally 8-bit games with a 16-bit makeover. Why is half of the screen dedicated to showing the names of your party members? Because the engine was built for the 64, and while you can make improvements with better hardware, you're also limited by the original engine. A comparison with 64 can be found at this point in my video review.
Death Knights proved to be my second favorite of the Gold Box games I have already covered. It felt like a return to all that I had loved from Pool of Radiance, yet had its own feeling through its horror elements. Bring on its freedom, the rewards from exploring, the fun in side questing, and the challenge of difficulty. It's undoubtedly the best direct sequel to this point through all of its connections with Champions. While nobody is writing home about the graphics, on an artistic level the portraits have always been beautiful, and they are especially so on the Amiga. Sir Durfey is one of these games finest companions. While it has its flaws and is certainly not for everyone, this series is legendary and Death Knights is a favorite of mine, the first that I had fell in love with so many years ago, and I surely recommend it.
Hope you'll check out my video review for Death Knights of Krynn, where I review the reviewers mentioned above among other things. Readers of this article may also enjoy my looks at other Gold Box titles like Pool of Radiance (Amiga), Hillsfar (Amiga), Curse of the Azure Bonds (Amiga), Champions of Krynn (Amiga), or Eye of the Beholder (Amiga). I've also covered Might and Magic IV (DOS), Hero's Quest/Quest for Glory (Amiga), and Battletech (Amiga) among others. I always like throwing some of the people I love watching or reading into my party, perhaps you can check them out. Amiga Bill, Intric8, Jikyuu Gamer, Esper Dreams, and Stygian Phoenix.