Lets get the bad news out of the way first. Helherron is a game with merit, but it has some serious flaws. It's not particularly attractive graphically; indeed it's downright homely (it's worth noting that the dev at one point completely overhauled the graphics and they're now a higher resolution than they used to be). This is forgivable, though that won't hold true for every7one. The game does do a good job letting the player know all of the things he or she needs to know when he or she needs to know it, with only occasional need to consult the in-game help. The in-game help is extensive, which is good. It's not paritcularly well layed out, and that's all there is in terms of manual. It's not ideal, but it's less of an issue than the graphics.
The interface is what will probably kill most people's attempts to stay the course. It's not good. No mouse, for one. Some things aren't particularly problematic. Some are very unintuitive (like trading items between party members). And there are a myriad of key-commands to learn, which is nothing iv not vintage (the Ultimas were famous for using an ever-expanding # of keys for basic in game commands, through Ultima V anyway).
It's really too bad that the game isn't that attractive, and that the interface is not particularly forgiving. Because people who do fight their way through the warts and gawkiness are going to find some of the most rewarding turn based combat around in any CRPG anywhere.
The vast majority of it's mechanisms were inspired by a couple of games by a fellow named Tom Proudfoot (those games, Nahlakh and Natuk, are going to be covered here in the new year). But it adapts them admirably, adds in a couple of interesting mechanics for good measure (class matters, but race often more so), and it remains the pinnacle of deep turn based combat in RPGs.
Consider the first time you come across ogres. The garden variety ogre is a largish, brutish thug of a creature that's tough as nails. Helherron's Ogres are no different. An entire rank closes into melee range, and a number of them decide your dwarf fighter looks funny and attack. At first he takes significant damage but he;s bleeding (you'll need to do something about that at some point if you want to keep him upright), the second attacker stuns him (ok that's not good, but he'll come around in a few rounds, tops). Ogres are fantastically strong, and the third blow sends your fighter flying backwards and crashing into your poor fairy mage. That will hurt, and more than a few fairy mages have dropped in battle just because they were lightly protected (even for fairies) and had a gargantuan golem or Ogre or something similar come smashing into them, courtesy of some sort of arch demon who thought the party looked delicious.
But let's change that scenario up a little bit. Oh, maybe the dwarf is better equipped and more skilled. But instead one of the priests – nimble and able to move before everyone else – lays down a field of ice between the monsters and the front line. The ogres charge, and have a pretty bad go of it. Most of them fail to advance to melee, so they can't really do anything. One or two close, but they don't do too much damage. A second cleric clears that up, and then the mages and melee guys go to town. The first few rounds go like that, and suddenly there's just a manageable number left and they are on the run. You charge, and pretty soon it;s ogre-skin outfits for the whole family.
But what if there are orc mages and archers mixed in with them? Suddenly your own spell casters will find themselves locked into duels. Those kobold mages and shamans were sissies; moderately powered fire darts (tis the simplest of spells) dropped them with ease. Not orcs, they're tough. So maybe you opt to disable them instead of going for kills (which will tie up several casters in one round, where you might get multiple disables). Take your pick: water, webbing, confusion, sleep, stunning, hell you might even be powerful enough to charm one. So off you go, zapping and bamboozling and just throwing everything at the bad guys. But they've got more casters, who might be less powerful than your mighty PCs, but who can do enough to hinder and outright harm your poor party. And they won't settle for you putting their guys to sleep – they'll be counter spelling in some cases. And that damn archer is much more dangerous than you first thought, and he's really damaging your calm. Desperately, you have a mage summon some elementals to the battlefield – casting the spell at 3x power (with only a 60% chance to succeed), you roll a hit and suddenly you've got 3 considerably capable friends to help keep some heat off your characters.
That's combat in Helherron. It's not all like that, of course. There's lots of combat. Lots and lots and lots – there's very little else to the game (oh sure, quests, and more quests, and yes the king will eventually send you to the demon world, and no the demon world is not some sissy dungeon with some demons in it. It's a freaking demon world, in the fine tradition of Nahlakh). There's more: a myriad of status effects, lots and lots of spells in all shapes, sizes, and elemental types, monsters that do or don't bleed, or succumb to this or that status effect (easily, even), that can swim (field of water is still your friend!) and that have all sorts of surprises in store for you the player.
I think that's what has drawn Helherron's blink-and-you-will-miss-it following. It drew Ken and I, which has to count for something, even if that something is a vague sense of disquiet. Here, the allure of the next bend/corner/doorway is that you just don't know what will be waiting to kill you behind it, and what combination of elemental spells and buffs/debuffs will help you kill it. The loot is decent, and times really cool (and how you outfit your would-be band of walking death is important), but it's ancillary.
There's a wonderful player-written guide out there which serves as manual, hint source, and spoiler source as needed. And the game is free. Version 2.04 is available at the link that leads off the article, but there are other versions floating around out there. To the developer's credit, he worked hard to refine the game and overhauled the graphics. Given that it was barely selling, it was much appreciated by the players.
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