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I recently more or less by accident got an unopened box containing the game Shannara. I had heard of this game before but never actually played it, perhaps because I had never read any of the Shannara novels by Terry Brooks (but that is about to change - I will explain why later). I was naturally a little suspicious because I've seen too many games based on stories and characters successful in other media that turned out to be complete duds. My fears were a bit assuaged when I discovered that the team that created Shannara was led by Corey and Lori Ann Cole - their best known work is probably the Quest for Glory series from Sierra (in some ways Shannara is quite similar to QFG games). But Shannara was not published by Sierra, it was created by Legend Entertainment Company, in my opinion the makers of many quality (and fun!) adventure games.
When I picked up the Shannara box, I thought it was a little heavier than most games. The box mentions that Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara novel is included. What it doesn't mention is that this is a 700+ page book, which easily accounts for the unexpected weight - and also explains why I'm not going to be unacquainted with the Shannara novels for much longer.
The game starts with an obligatory animated introduction sequence. It is a strange dream or vision showing how a sinister and malevolent spirit of the Warlock King Brona is summoned from the dead. As we learn later, he had nearly destroyed the world once in the past but was killed by a hero named Shea Ohmsford. But apparently killing some people is not enough to stop them and now Brona is back and intent on carrying on with the unfinished business.
When the vision ends, you wake up in a forest on the bank of a lovely brook and the game starts. It turns out that your name is Jak Ohmsford, son of Shea Ohmsford. What a coincidence! You have a journal where all the important events in the game will be recorded. Right now it only mentions that you had a row with your father and decided to go adventuring on your own. But soon you'll get more adventure that you perhaps wished for. When you finish exploring the first screen a are about to leave, an ugly lizard-like monster jumps out and attacks you.
The first combat starts - Shannara is not a 100% pure adventure. But the combat is turn based and no fast clicking is required. Moreover, most of the battles are not difficult to win. Except for this first one. But when it seems that the adventure is about to end at this early stage, a mysterious stranger suddenly appears and blows the monster to smithereens with powerful magic. He introduces himself as Allanon, the last druid and friend of your father's. He tells you of Brona and his monsters that are preparing to overrun Shady Vale, your home village. But then Allanon urges you to travel to the city of Leah and warn king Menion of the impending attack of Brona's monsters.
You reluctantly agree to go. Soon you happen upon a young girl trapped under a fallen tree. You free her and find out that you actually know her. She's Shella, daughter of king Menion of Leah. And Menion is one of the old adventuring buddies of your father. Besides being a very pretty girl, Shella is also rather dangerous with her bow. Which is very handy because she quickly decides to join you in your travels (by looking at the currently empty character slots it is obvious that she's not the last person to do so).
Upon arriving in Leah you discover that Shella's father Menion is suffering from a mysterious illness. As a true adventurer you quickly determine that he had been poisoned and concoct an antidote. Just as Menion is getting better, Allanon reappears (after you've done all the hard work of course). He explains the situation to Menion and tells you that the only weapon that can defeat Brona is the Sword of Shannara. Trouble is, not everyone can wield this powerful weapon. In fact there are only two people in the whole wide world who can. Guess what, you're one of them - the other is your father. You bravely (or foolishly?) decide that you will be the one to use the sword against Brona (as if the game gave you any other choice!).
The sword is on display in a vault in the city of Tyrsis - the next stop on your adventure. Getting to the sword is not very easy, especially due to monsters trying to overrun the city and obstructions from the king's Seneschal. But in the face of undead and bureaucracy you prevail and get to the Sword of Shannara. Only to find that it's broken - oops! Again appearing right after you've done all the chores (could that really be a coincidence?), Allanon explains that it is possible to reforge the Sword, but it is no easy task.
Four magical artifacts and representatives of four races - elves, trolls, dwarves and gnomes - are required in addition to Allanon's magic. Each of the races lives in one corner of the Four Lands. And guess who gets to do all the legwork! Yes, it is you of course. But hey, if you get the sword fixed, it should be easy to dispatch Brona and restore peace and be the hero of the land. And you will find friends (and some not-so-friendly people) who will help you. And if you want to find out anything more about the plot, play the game!
Now with the story out of the way we can concentrate on the technicalities. Shannara comes in two versions, DOS and Win95. I opted for the DOS version - DOS may be harder to set up but at least it's predictable. I wasn't disappointed as the DOS version worked flawlessly.
The interface is very similar to other Legend games - Companions of Xanth is one similar game I can think of. Each object has a list of appropriate actions associated with it and a sensible "default" action. You also can (and have to) have your companions do some useful work. They will also give you hints about what you should do next. I found this interface very pleasant to use. There is a textual description associated with each item and action - the descriptions are often funny and sometimes contain valuable hints and clues.
The game runs in SVGA resolution of 640x480 pixels in 256 colors. The cutscenes are computer generated but the static art is hand drawn and very pretty, similar to the art in other Legend games. Apart from the cutscenes there is not much animation but somehow I didn't see that as a problem at all.
As for sound, I have to admit that I was not paying attention to the music, probably because I was too engrossed in the game's story. There are some but not many digitized sound effects and lots of digitized speech, despite the fact that the item and action descriptions are only textual. That is actually a good thing because listening to them would take far too long. But every character in the game (and there are quite a few) talks and the sound is very clear (which is unfortunately not always the case, especially with older games).
The puzzles in Shannara are almost exclusively inventory based. Like other Legend games, Shannara is pretty linear and split into a number of relatively small areas - which makes the gameplay easier. As for the overall difficulty, the game is either really easy or I had a very lucky day when I was playing it: I finished Shannara in about 8 hours without hints, walkthroughs or any prior knowledge of the world of the Shannara novels. There is also a slight chance that after 10+ years of active service as an adventure gamer I might be finally becoming good at it, but I very much doubt that. As I mentioned earlier, thanks to the input from your companions it is usually quite clear what you should do next and there are ample hints in the dialogs and item descriptions (if you know how to read them of course). Moreover the puzzles are quite logical. For the most part, everything just clicked into place when I was playing the game.
I will briefly return to the combat in Shannara - to tell the truth, I am not sure why it was included. The difficulty cannot be adjusted. You can only select who you (and your companions) will attack, such as the weakest, strongest or the leader. You (or more accurately some of your companions) can also use magical items which is the key to winning certain battles. There is no character development and no way to select weapons. But since the combat requires strategic calculation instead of fast fingers, I suppose it is okay in an adventure game. I should also mention that it is possible to die in combat (of course, it'd be pointless otherwise) but there are not many ways to die outside battles - and if you do, there's always the possibility to undo the last thing you did.
The game story I found to be excellent. The only possible negative is that at some points the game is perhaps overcrowded with characters and it is not easy to keep track of who's who. Other than that, it is a good rendition of the age old struggle between good and evil. The world of the Four Lands is a typical fantasy environment populated by elves, dwarves, trolls and the like and filled with magic. It is usually easy to spot the villains but not in all cases. The story is not always too happy and there are some very moving scenes and surprisingly tough decisions to make. One interesting fact is that nowhere it is mentioned when and where the story takes place, but from certain hints it appears to be this very Earth in distant future.
From the above paragraphs it is probably quite clear that I liked Shannara a lot. Which I did, therefore the final grade is a sparkling clean A for compelling story, nice art, good puzzles and fun gameplay. The biggest reason why it isn't an A+ is the fact that I was able to finish the game too quickly (heck, maybe that should be a positive!).
Final Grade: A
4 MB RAM