Gaming, Geekery

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.

Last 5 posts by Grandy



  1. Ken  •  Dec 20, 2007 @10:31 am

    Thanks for the writeup, Grandy. I think Helherron is a quality sleeper among indie CRPGs. Here's what I like about it:

    1. My favorite combat system in a rpg, hands down. No other crpg has the tactical depth of this one. Like you said, the tactics you use make a HUGE difference in success. You can try a combat once and have your party wiped out, try it again with a new tactic and emerge with barely a scratch.

    2. Lots of character choices and character development choices. I love a game where every time you wish you had enough room in your party for another character X or Y. There are tough choices in Helherron – do I bring the bard for songs, losing a slot for another quality mage? Do I use a Shaman, or would a priest be better? Plus, the character improvement system is deeply satisfying to me. The levels come slowly enough that they arrive with a real feeling of accomplishment.

    3. Awesome randomized loot. No two games play the same. With the exception of a few unique placed items, you never know when you are going to get lucky and get that perfect-for-your-character item. The wide array of weapon and armor enhancements, the wide array of wands and potions, etc. all make loot interesting and worthwhile. Plus, the loot backs up the rich tactical combat — something that may seem boring (a wand of ice) can actually make or break tough combats.

    4. Excellent spell system. Really, it has everything I want. There's the excitement of finding new spells in loot or at the stores, particularly if it's one you've been waiting for. There's the powering spells up and watching the effects. There's the creative ways you can use spells to impact combat tactics.

    Like you said, the graphics are bad, though make me nostalgic for Ultima III. And there's not much more than exploring, killing, looting, and repeat. But no other indie crpg has given me the immersion and fun feeling that got me into crpgs in the first place.

  2. Grandy  •  Dec 20, 2007 @11:32 am

    Mmmmm, Natuk's combat is a better overall system, I think. Nahlakh probably wins the "bizzare, insanely challenging, yet fun encounters" award (I'd put Helherron #2, but Natuk's #3 is not indicative of anything but a great field of finalists). But the lead wouldn't be that large, and maybe even a photo finish. Nahlakh's combat is mostly natuks, of course. But there are differences here and there as I recall. . . Natuk really had a wonderful way with it's various spells and how this or that ability score was your primary method to resist them (adn thus charming might not work well on gnoms, but will work better on cyclopi).

    Natuk had a level of refinement that Helherron lacks. What Natuk never did quite as much was give you the terrain options Helherron did, where you often find yourself desperately searching about for a cooridor, *any* coorirdor, to help manage the large group of monsters chasing you (and of course, it deliciously added another tradeoff to that decision, as spell casters have a habit of spawning outside of your LoS, and still being pains in the ass). Most combat arenas were open, and IMO Helherron offers an advantage here, especially since the choice to fight in more easily defensible environs often has repercussions (e.g. spell casters spawning around a corner where you can't see them and yet doing things like summoning hordes to come after you anyway).

    Natuk lacks the overall class/race choices that Helherron has, but Helherron;s remain a mixed bag. It's partly due to the really blah character development system (where Natuk's is elegant); some of the dev's attempts to balance things probably rewarded some classes with some ridiculous powers to compensate for their blandness. But it was a noble attempt, and IMO the dev is onto something in so far as he wound up with a series of classes with somewhat distinctly to very distinctly differences once the lights go out and combat begins. I think some simple refinements would go a long way, but that's a conversation for another time.

    As for loot – I don;'t like Helherron's loot system for the sole reason that it produces too many absurd and useless items. Cursed diamond orc breeches with an overall ac modifier of -1. But that too, with small refinement, would be really good (and more like Natuk's slightly superior system). It's a good concept, though, with materials offering set bonuses on top of item type, and then "elite" matterials sometimes offering wicked cool abilities (like extra damage to demons from Holy items), and then having "power" prefixes and suffixes. Wonderful stuff for the most part, and while I criticize Helherron's I still enjoy it, flaws aside.

    Consider that ToEE for a moment: wonderful combat (with the rest of the game being a mixed bag). But in many ways it doesn't come close to the depth we can see in this unofficial trilogy of games. Oh, it's got tactical depth, but you simply don't have the sheer wealth of options and considerations. Helherron's (as well as Nahlakh's and Natuk's) secret "mass" statistic for characters (which I don't think it really has, but the overlapping of certain mechanics produce something that feels like a hidden mass statistic) is just wonderful. the fact that you're more confident that your golem is going to toss that kobold fighter 4 rows backwards into the priest once you put your 2H hammer (as opposed to the dwarf and his axe) to good use is just delicious. Part of me pines for a game where the character attributes better reflect this stuff, so that part of what you do when create characters is create them physically capable of doing/avoiding feats like this in combat, and you're not just thinking about them in terms of things like "tank, uses lots of weapon and armor". When you combine that with decisions like "hmm, should I chance poison gas, ice, or water?" for your defensive field laying, and it's a game that seems to better model a small, elite group versus hordes of lesser yet still capable baddies than D&D ever did (allgedly 4e will be trying to capture some of this). Imagine a SPECIAL like system in conjunction with a game that offers up combat like this. The body positively tingles at the possibilities.

    I believe in my heart there's a market for a game like this, on consoles *and* PCs. It'd need a sharp interface regardless of how pretty you made it. And where I think Helherron's character development system is mediocre at best but not really a hinderance, you want something better in place to go along with the combat. I think the example I would use to explain the potential here is Crackdown (which I have not played but read plenty about). People play games like Crackdown (tself a GTA-like game in many respects) in part to see what kind of absurd chains of explosions they can pull off by lining up cars and objects and then setting the whole thing off. Don't you think there's a little boy out there wondering how much mana it would take for his Force-Mage to send the golem warrior barrelling into a horde of tomb-wights, and wondering just how they'd scatter too and fro (and will any of them impale themselves on those stalagmites in the process?, and will the necromancer find this distrupts his battle plan?). Of course, that scattering makes the other wizard's fireball kind of academic, but maybe he'll go for something a little more "wide spread" in stead. Or change tactics all together – maybe he'll drop a few elementals in next to the golem and see what's going down next round.

    Ok, so that little boy is really me and I'm neither little nor a boy (at least, in terms of age), but dammit there's something to this.

    As an aside, the Avernum 5's beta just started. Those games have always offered quality tactical experiences, but not on the level of the Nahlakh family tree games (more along the lines of the gold box games, albeit more complex). One thing Vogel has claimed he wants to do is reduce the amount of combat this time out, and instead focus on fewer, more interesting and difficult, encounters. We'll see how that pans out, and of course I'll have a report when it's appropriate to post one. But I like where his mind is, because it's a step in the direction of games like Helherron, if a small one.