When a company's been around for a while, like Compass Software has, churning out reliable adventures from Project X through Demon From The Darkside to Intruder Alert, it's easy to take them for granted and forget just how damn good their games are. I was a bit disappointed with The Hobble Hunter, but that for me was a rare failure - and even that wasn't too bad! The company's right back on form now, however, with Shadows Of The Past, a game you're well advised to buy.
In fact, you can get it even if you've got the earlier game that inspired it, Demon From The Darkside, as this new one is a total rewrite of that golden oldie, managing to make it even more golden in the process. The packaging's excellent, with a colourful cassette inlay and several pages of notes, an example other indies would do well to follow.
You will need to read those notes too, as they contain some information you will definitely require if you're to get anywhere at all in the game. The story casts you as Morrack, the apprentice wizard, and your adversary is Drakon, the dread evil lord. You may have thought that you'd seen him off when you finished the Demon trilogy (which also included The Golden Mask and The Devil's Hand), but through a time rip in space he evaded death and you're right back where you started from, except this time Drakon is forewarned and ten times nastier than he was the first time. Lawks-a-mussy!
To give you a bit of a chance, you do have a magical staff (oh, all right then - oo-er), which can cast seven different spells, including LIFE (brings people back to life), LIGHT (guess what), FIRE, STORM and EARTHQUAKE. That is, you will have the staff if you make the first few moves correctly, as it ain't in your possession when you begin. Each spell drains the staff of some of its power, and at the top of the screen is a status line showing STAFF POWER, which starts at 251, DAYS (so much to do, so little time) and ZAP, which relates to certain spells that last for a while, like LIGHT, and enables you to check how long they've got left. Also ZAP must equal 0 in order to use any of these countdown spells.
Right, are you still with me after all these complications? Good, though in fact it's much easier to play than try to explain. When you begin you're standing in the wasteland of Vral, with dozens of dead orc bodies all around you. In their midst, torn and bloody and barely able to move, is a small dwarf. A shadowy cave is the only exit, to the south. (Good, innit?) As you explore the first few locations, anyone who's played Demon will feel like they're meeting a long-lost friend... the ruby, the statue, the walls that close in on you. But don't think your knowledge of the previous game will always help you! And not only are some of the problems different, the game has been well enhanced by programmer Jon Lemmon's latest discoveries about just what you can do with PAWS, and in particular its ability to incorporate external commands. We've got used to sound effects in his games, and there are plenty of those here, but some new and nifty visual effects have been added too. There's a great little routine that shakes the screen when you utter the magic word in the cave and cause the statue and cave to shake and move about.
One thing I like about this and other Compass Games is that it's easy to progress, although you don't always know whether you've done everything right and are in fact progressing in the right direction. There are very few barriers that frustrate you because you just can't figure out how to get past. When you do come up against what seems like a dead end, you know you need to go back and check you've done everything you could I had to do just that when I thought I was making terrific progress, only to have to restart the game and find an extra object in the very first location, which I'd swiftly departed from as some orcs were being decidedly orc-ward. It's the sign of a good adventure that when that happens you don't say "Damn, I've got to go back", but mutter "Well, the crafty little... programmer" instead.
I don't want to give too much of the game away as it's full of little delights and surprises, and the effects are certainly best discovered for yourself. It's got the usual handy PAWS commands, like GET ALL, RAMSAVE, graphics on or off, multiple inputs and so on. The piccies were a touch disappointing, apart from the usual atmospheric loading screen, and there was the odd mistake like examining the arrow or owl only to be told "It's just a (sic) arrow/owl".
Normally I don't like it when people re-hash old ideas, it makes me suspect they can't come up with new ones, but just as we all got more enjoyment from Level 9's earlier games when they bunged them onto their new adventure system, this Compass title is also well worth another look. And three cheers for the price being kept at the £1.99 level, which makes it a terrific bargain. In fact, I'll go even further - four cheers!
Mmm, GET RUBY... Yup, definitely a wise decision. (Let's hope she's all dolled up in some skimpy hog's-fur bathing cozzie, eh, Spec-chums! Ahem.)