Revisiting Götzendiener

I’ve been meaning to take another look at this 1994 PC Engine title for a while now: The first time I finished it (many years ago now) I found it as fascinating as it was utterly broken, and ever since then I’ve been clinging on to the faint hope that perhaps it was me, not Götzendiener, that needed fixing.

I was wrong.

If you’d like to bail out now I’ll just say that Götzendiener is a bit like an isometric Prince of Persia, if Prince of Persia was a colossal mess of faint glimmers of good ideas trapped within a half-baked and clearly unfinished game.

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Still here? Then let’s take a moment to hammer home how rushed this game is before we get down to the specifics. Do you remember Soul Reaver? Do you remember how that game was very carefully inching its way towards a vampire-decimating climax at the silenced cathedral, but abruptly changed to ‘Wait we meant um timey-wimey stuffs er sorry no boss fight for you please look forward to Soul Reaver 2’ with no warning? Now imagine the break point between the properly designed and HELPWEHAVENOMOREGAME segments occurring after a mere fifteen minutes and you’ve got Götzendiener.

But what makes this so jarring is that those first fifteen minutes are really well done, kicked off by a stunning introduction sequence that shows the typical brave hero-types making their way through hordes of demons to rescue the pink-clad princess… only for them all drop dead before they can free her. So what does Princess Misa do when all hope’s apparently lost? She seizes the opportunity to rescue herself!

The escape from this opening location feels almost like a sort of prototype 2D ICO  – as far as the graphical limitations of the time allowed, anyway. While Misa’s in this tower there’s a wonderful sense of being trapped in a place, not a level, and as you puzzle your way around you can catch glimpses of areas you can’t directly access, including a tantalising glimpse of what appears to be the main gate leading out of the tower to freedom. There are some one-off and common-sense-led problem solving sections here too – has the ladder come away from the wall while you’re on it? Pick the broken piece up off the floor and use it to create a bridge across a gap. Rubble blocking the way? Find a heavy mallet nearby and smash up the rocks.

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But even at this stage the game’s already coming undone, with Misa encountering what can only be described as a variety of placeholder events around the tower. Early on Misa will hear ominous deep bells tolling – and she can even find the specially-animated monsters pulling on the rope! Except… killing the monsters and silencing the bells does nothing at all. Which is kind-of OK as it was never presented as an alarm to signify Misa had escaped (monsters are incredibly slow, encountered one at a time, with perhaps twenty crossing her path all game) and if they were signalling the start of some dark ritual it’s never shown on screen. So… basically some monsters making noise, as far as anyone’s concerned. Nearby there’s an assembly of monsters on the ground floor that do send a brief shiver down your spine as you wonder if you’ve stumbled into an early version of Metal Gear Solid 2’s famous commandant speech in the tanker, only to find that this gaggle won’t just refuse to rush towards Misa when there’s only a waist-high barrier separating the two, but they won’t move at all. They’re for all intents and purposes ‘painted on’ decoration, the fragile husk of what could have been an incredible scene.

Players undeterred by this strangeness will shortly find themselves scaling a ladder that stretches all the way to the top of an enormous multi-level demon statue (another unique decorative object), and leaping on to the back of a magical bird that whisks Misa away to…

...to a nearby ladder, and the game continues as if it hadn’t handed you a visually dramatic climax topped off with the perfect means of escape. This odd sequence is later underlined by the ending cinematic (just one of three cutscenes all game, including the intro), which shows the same statue crumbling for no particular reason and Misa flying away on the same bird that appeared out of nowhere and wouldn’t fly her away before.

Once out of this area the game only gets worse, with things like multiple Misa-sized crawlspaces in the caves that cannot be interacted with but always lead to places you need to go (very much like Castlevania 64's unused whip points), a major encounter with the only speaking anything in the game represented by a unique sprite that’s not even facing her way, and an extended sequence in some crystal caverns that involves nothing more than falling through the floor lots and lots and lots of times (you may be interested to know you fall down about six or seven floors but somehow end up back on the surface after about three or so).

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The only reward for gritting your teeth and forcing your way through to the end is a battle against the penultimate boss - the only enemy in the game who doesn’t walk into your sword until it’s dead – a final boss who does walk into your sword until it’s dead, and what I would assume is the final final boss; a unique enemy wandering the area as the previously-mentioned mook that literally cannot attack but will grant you the ending cutscene when it dies (just three swings of the sword, folks!).

The ending monologue (unvoiced, as are the other two cutscenes) confirms that Götzendiener’s plot is nothing more than the typical ‘I’m good! You’re evil! No, YOU’RE THE REAL EVIL duetoeventsthatoccurredbeforeyouwereevenborn’ anime-style plot ‘twist’ that I seem to keep stumbling on while playing games from the nineties; all told in less text than you’d find on the back of a cereal box.

Having got all this off my chest said all this… I still don’t feel it’s fair to call Götzendiener a bad game. There’s clearly some ambition and inventiveness lurking behind its half-arsed shell, and for those brief moments near the beginning when the game’s design and ideas are singing in harmony there’s a real feeling that this could be something really special. Best to file this one away with the likes of Phantasy Star III – plenty of great ideas on paper, but terrible execution.

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A little look at… Shining in the Darkness

As someone who’s been absolutely ga-ga over Shining Force II since 1994 it’s more than a little embarrassing to admit that I hadn’t played through series starting point Shining in the Darkness until just last month, but here we are.  I’d like to pretend that this was just down to a fear of running into another Dinosaur, Carmine, or something slightly more interesting than the plain old truth but the fact is there are simply an awful lot of games out there and only so much Kimimi to go around.

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I want to start this blog post by talking about something that doesn’t normally get (nor deserve) praise in a 1991 console dungeon crawler – the excellent script as well as the fantastic localisation work that brought it to life for overseas players. Now at this point I could mention the wonderful plot twist that sees the delicate rescued princess cheerily join the party to dish out a demonic butt-kicking, or how the terrifying Big Bad admits he’s actually been a little bored since discovering he’s so powerful nobody (but you) can stop him, but as good as those points are it’s all the little details that really make a difference: There’s the beautiful variable-width English font with proper dangly bits for letters like ‘y’ ‘j’ and ‘p’. Battles concluding with ‘[Hero]’s party stands victorious!’ rather than the standard ‘[Monster] was defeated’. Magical herb water is sprinkled, spells are weaved, and powerful attacks land as awesome blows. It may not sound like much but small flourishes like these add that special little sparkle to a oft neglected part of the dungeon crawler experience and the game’s all the better for it.

It’s not flawless though, and a few problems typical of the era still raise their head from time to time: Japan’s nefarious Mephisto became Dark Sol in English, presumably to avoid the most enduring of all localisation sticking points, religion; and there’s a range of more minor details such as the kingdom of ‘Storm’ became ‘Thornwood’ and ‘King Storm’ being renamed ‘King Drake’ – probably because the poor soul deserved a name all of his own. But bar Dark Sol accidentally ending up with the same name as his own father everything else can be brushed aside as either a good editor’s personal preference or a mild case of the nineties, and there’s really no reason for most people to fuss over the authenticity of the official translated script when it reads as well as it does.

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Of course there’s no point writing about Shining in the Darkness without taking a look at the great labyrinth itself, and it’s my pleasure to report that while I was busy bracing myself for a maze of Psy-O-Blade proportions the game instead offers a relatively compact and hassle-free experience that’s skewed in the player’s favour with no invisible walls, disorientating teleports or teeny-tiny grey buttons hidden in grey walls (sorry, Dungeon Master) in sight. Even a total wipeout sees your party’s souls whisked off by valkyries to the town church shrine with your XP and gold unmolested, and as the first floor of the labyrinth acts as a hub area to all the other parts it never takes more than a minute or two to get back into the action.

Other user-friendly help comes in the form of an automapping spell that costs just 1MP to cast and shows everywhere you’ve walked as well as your exact coordinates and direction, a quick bit of pop-up text informing you where you are when you enter or clear a trial, and saving the best bit for last – the designers were kind enough to make all four trials their own entirely self-contained mini-dungeons to be started, puzzled through, and completed as a standalone experience – something that really doesn’t happen as often as it should and spares the player an awful lot of backtracking.

The game’s exceptional graphics help enormously with dungeon navigation too, with decorative touches such as elaborate statues and torches used to break up the twisting cobblestone corridors into bite-sized memorable chunks. Even puddles of water are carefully considered features in Shining in the Darkness, with your party either making a small harmless splash or on random occasions disturbing one of a selection of unique water-based enemies as they pass through them.

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Bar a bit of unpleasant but unsurprising grinding here and there I had a lot of fun with the game – proper fun fun too; the sort where I was looking forward to my next session with the game again rather than taking the ‘Well I can appreciate what they were trying to do’ approach I sometimes need to wheel out for older titles I didn’t catch the first time around.

Twenty six years after its initial release Shining in the Darkness can still stand proud as an excellent example of console dungeon crawling done right; it’s a well-designed and beautiful game with enough optional story content and missable equipment to make it worth playing through more than just the once. It’s not an especially cheap purchase in English if you want a cartridge all of your own (although it’s far from the insanity of Vampire Killer, to name just one of many through-the-roof Mega Drive titles) but the good news is Sega have it available digitally on Steam for the grand sum of £1.99. Two pounds for a fantastic game that kickstarted a much-loved series? Brilliant!