In this review, we enter the world of VARN in the 16-Bit DOS game Might and Magic: Book One – Secret of the Inner Sanctum. We find out how well this RPG game plays.
This game was released in 1987. It is a port from the Apple ][ system.
We actually have a fair bit of knowledge of this series. We first played Might and Magic 6 – Mandate of Heaven. That game wound up being an excellent game. Excited for this series, we then tried Might and Magic VII – For Blood and Honor. That game got an OK score. From there, we tried Might and Magic VIII – Day of the Destroyer. That game got a pretty solid score. Finally, we played Might and Magic IX. That game also got a pretty solid score. Now, after a considerable period of time, we were excited to see where this series began and played the first one.
The story is basically that you are quested to find the secret for the inner sanctum. Beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be much for a storyline otherwise within the game.
A lot of more modern gamer’s may balk when they open up this game for the first time. No mouse control and many DOS based commands. Of course, one might remember that this game is, after all, and 80’s PC game. So, it’s not entirely unexpected either.
The game starts you off with some pre-generated characters. Each character represents a character from each class. In all, there are six classes players can assign characters to.
The knight class is your standard fighter class. There is a lot of emphasis on might and higher hit points. Unfortunately, this class features no magic capabilities whatsoever.
A second class is the paladin. Initially, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of differences between the character and the knight other than the character might be a bit weaker. Late in the game, however, players are in for a pleasant surprise as the paladin will start to gain magic points and the ability to cast lower level healing spells. So, there is something to look forward to late in the game if you stick it out with this character.
Archer is a third class characters can be assigned to. These characters specialize in missile attacks. As such, they have access to a full array of ranged weapons. Another nice bonus is late in the game when they also begin to gain access to lower level offensive magic. So, a reason to keep that character around thanks to that nice added bonus.
A fourth character is the robber class. This character has access to a few different kinds of weapons, but specialize in disarming traps and unlocking locked doors. Useful for getting into much-needed locations.
Cleric is a fifth class. While not known for weapons or the world highest HP (Hit Point) totals, they do specialize in healing spells. Generally useful for bumping up the parties overall health and removing unwanted conditions such as poison and blindness. Many consider it essential to have at least one in the party.
The final character class is the sorcerer. This class is much like the cleric class, only they specialize in offensive magic instead. Great for cutting enemies down to size. It is also worth noting that it is impossible to complete the game without a high level sorcerer, so although it only sounds like an interesting idea to have one at first, it is actually a requirement if you intend on completing the game.
Generally speaking, the default starting characters are actually quite good. In fact, it’s very possible to beat the game with these default characters. So, if you don’t want to think about roll strategies or creating new characters, just bring those characters along and you won’t really go wrong as far as character selection is concerned.
Still, if you intend on creating characters anyway, then there is a certain science to rolling good characters. When you initially create a character, you may only see a class or two available with that character. The game actually rolls the stats first. If the character qualifies for certain classes with those stats, then that class is available. If you don’t see, for instance, sorcerer, then just re-roll until that class is available. One piece of known advice is to try and keep constitution above 15 for a character which will definitely require a lot of re-rolling.
In general, stats are fairly straight forward. Might helps with a characters ability to cause more damage in a melee attack. Speed helps a character win initiative in combat (great for magic-users). Personality increases a cleric’s magic points. Intellect increases a sorcerer’s magic points. Endurance increases the odds of higher hit points for a level game. Luck helps with other things.
In all, players will be able to generate a 6 character party in total. So, having a character from every class is a possibility in this game. Naturally, you can also be creative and double up on a class while dropping another, so there is a lot of leeway here.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you can introduce new characters to a party and ditch other characters at any time. So, you are not necessarily stuck with those specific characters.
In addition to this, you are also faced with the odd peculiarity of being able to pick your starting city. If you were wondering what the “#” is for, you can actually type in any number from 1-5 to pick a starting city. So, there are 5 cities total in this game. Of course, you’ll probably want to start with city 1 because the monsters can be fierce in other locations.
If you start in city 1, you’ll start in the city of Sorpigal. You’ll probably notice that it’s less of a city and more of a dungeon with small rooms occupied by people (and by people, I mean lines of dialogue).
You start at the Inn. The Inn is where you can adjust the characters in your party. More importantly, checking in also saves your game. There is no other way to save your game. So, inns become absolutely crucial to the success of your game.
When you leave the Sorpigal inn, you’ll have a room to your left and to your right. The room in the left is the blacksmith. Blacksmith’s function as an all-purpose general store. You can buy weapons, armour, and other items. At the same time, you can sell what you find for additional gold.
Meanwhile, the room to the right is the market. This is used to purchase food. You have a maximum capacity of 40 food. In this game, you can only heal by resting. Weirdly, you can’t just rest at an inn and restore your health. So, you need to rest via the “r” button. When you do rest, some status ailments such as paralyze, sleep, unconscious, and blindness will go away. All of your health and spell points are also restored. However, it costs you 1 food for each character still alive. If you run out of food, nothing is replenished. Make sure every character has a little gold on them so they can all purchase food.
Another location of note is the guild or training ground. This area allows you to level up assuming you have enough gold and collected enough experience points.
Additionally, there is the tavern. Here, you can drink and hear gossip.
Finally, there is the healers location. On the first half of the game, you’ll probably use this area to cure things like poison, dead, stone, and even eradicated. Unfortunately, these services do not come free, so if you get yourself into a real problem, you better hope you have enough gold or else you may have to just reload your game. You can also donate for some special protections.
One of the first things most advise new players is to make use of the numbers 1-6 to access a characters menu’s. This is critical because some characters come with basic forms of equipment. You actually need to ‘e’quip your initial equipment to make use of it. So, doing this will save a lot of grief.
As you wander around, you’ll likely run into monsters sooner or later. If you do happen to get a random encounter, you can either choose to approach or not assuming you have surprised the enemy. Choosing not to approach cancels the fight. If the monster saw you, you can do a host of different things prior to combat. This includes simply attacking, retreating, or even attempting to bride your way out of the situation. If you flee, you may find yourself back at the inn assuming you are successful.
Battle screens are somewhat straight forward depending on what you intend on doing. The screen even features instructions on your commands such as ‘A’ttack and ‘C’ast. Whoever goes first depends on the speed attribute.
You’ll also likely notice that your party is configured in a 3 row formation. Whoever is in the number 1 and number 2 position is likely to get a “+” next to their name. This means that they are engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Monsters who have a “+” are also engaged in hand-to-hand combat. So, the ones with “+”s will likely take most of the physical abuse. Better hope you have your fighters in the first two positions or else you may need to make an additional trip back to the inn.
The characters in the other four spots may or may not be in the hand-to-hand combat status. While this does mean they are more protected, it also means they have fewer options. The characters in the third and fourth position sometimes find themselves in hand-to-hand combat, but not that often. Generally, the third and fourth position are best reserved for your archer and robber who both can afford a little bit of punishment as well. Additionally, the archer can ‘s’hoot enemies with their crossbows, slings, etc.
The final two positions are most protected. So, your magic users are ideally found in these positions so they can cast their magic at a safe distance whether they are healing or blasting the enemy. It’s possible that these positions can also find themselves in hand-to-hand-combat, but not that often.
If your first two characters go down in battle, beware of a monsters ability to infiltrate the ranks. This means everyone in the party engages in hand-to-hand combat and can more readily strike your weaker spellcasters.
While attacking and shooting ranged weapons are very straight forward, spellcasting requires a bit more effort and documentation. Over and above the problem of potentially running out of mana, spells are presented in numerical fashion with absolutely no documentation on what any of the spells do. This requires documentation. A recommended resource is Oldgames.sk which features spell lists, monster lists, and some basic mapping documentation.
A quick explanation for spells is that spells have different levels. This accounts for the first number. The second number is the spell itself. So, if a cleric chooses to case the level 1, number 4 spell, that spell will cast first aid to heal characters. After a while, players will likely memorize some of the spells, but the initial learning curve can be daunting. Also know that you probably will only make use of a small handful of spells like leather skin.
While that, in and of itself, can prove to be an annoyance, another thing to keep in mind is your magic users overall level. At level 1, you have access to your level 1 spells. Once a spellcaster reaches level 3, then that character has access to level 2 spells. Highest spell level is 7, so you stop learning new spells at character level 13.
If you find yourself victorious in your battle, you’ll be awarded experience points for your trouble. While returning to the dungeon view may suggest you are done with the fight, you actually aren’t yet. Once you finish battle, it is crucial that you ‘S’earch. Some initial monsters won’t drop anything at all, but some drop bags that can contain a few critical pieces of gold. There are even chests at different levels available later on that can offer not only gold, but items as well.
One thing players may find themselves getting are gems. Gems are used as a component of some spells. If you cast certain spells, you may also spend gems. Keep an eye on your gem supply as you get better at casting spells because you don’t want to run out at an inconvenient time. Also note that you probably don’t want to transfer more than 100 gems at a time. A bug in the game may not fully transfer a ‘t’rade of, say, 200 gems, causing you to lose those gems in the process.
As you venture around, you’ll likely notice that monsters do show up at very specific locations at times. This can very easily be used as predictable methods of training while you explore the area. Just keep in mind that there are definitely monsters that will kill you quickly, even in the early stages. Avoid sprites at the beginning and minor demons if you dare go into the basement or outside.
Another thing to note is that this game definitely encourages players to take things slow. It personally took a few days before I could be confident enough to check out the basement or outside. Many sources recommend level 3 as the bare minimum before going outside, but I found level 5 to be a bit more of a comfortable level.
Also, if you choose to wander outside, avoid ambush zones because you enter combat with your hitpoints cut in half before single move is made.
As players further explore the area and other caves, they will likely notice a number of interesting things about different areas. This includes locked doors and various traps on the floor. While the robber is ideal character to have for doors, keep in mind that doors can also be trapped. So, keep an eye on damage after you unlock the door or you may find yourself entering combat weaker then expected.
Floor traps can have a number of different effects on players. They can cause damage or status ailments. For this, the levitation spell can be most useful. There are even psychic blast zones where protection from mind spells is very useful. Of course, the most common hazard is darkness itself. So, a way to light your way is definitely a much needed thing. Either a low level spell or an item to light your way should do the trick.
It can be extremely difficult to tell what you are doing and where you need to go outside of training your characters to simply survive. As such, finding a nice guide is definitely a recommendation. In fact, without a guide, the game pretty much offers little to nothing in the way of what you need to do next.
For me, this is one of those games that starts off pretty badly. You have next to no clue what you are doing and you have a rather convoluted interface to work with. Over time, the gameplay does feel like it gets better, but only after you find yourself mastering the game somewhat. The spell list and understanding the different quirks of the game are excellent examples on why this is.
Compounding the problem is the fact that levelling up requires a good deal of training. In fact, level 2 requires 2,000 experience points. That doesn’t sound like much until you take into account the fact that simple fights can only net you a hundred or so experience points each. Some might argue that this would force the players to get used to the interface first, but these kinds of steep requirements don’t really go away. As such, you’ll find yourself grinding for large portions of the game depending on how you play.
A positive to this is the fact that this game is huge. There is a lot of open world and even a small number of dungeons and caves to explore. The pitfall is the fact that you have no auto-mapping feature. So, you are left with two choices: bust out the pencil and graphing paper or “cheat” and look up maps online. Even following along with maps, the game can be a bit challenging to navigate.
Of course, chances are, you’ll just be doing loops around Sorpigal for a while when you start. After a while, you just familiarize yourself with the area. I personally thought of Sorpigal as a giant upside-down “Q” where the prong on the inside leads to the inn, blacksmith, and market. Once this dawned on me, navigating and training in the area became much easier.
Another bizarre aspect of the game is the inability to exit the game. Assuming you are using DOSBox, Alt+Q is pretty much your easiest way of quitting. Otherwise, it’s not exactly the most convenient game to quit when you are done for the day.
On a positive side, I thought some of the side quests various kings gave the players interesting. Unfortunately, the experience you get makes most of them less than worth it. Probably the only quest worth it is the scroll delivery quest you get in the Sorpigal dungeon. What makes it worth it is partly the experience and gold you get for completion, but also the fact that you can repeat the quest over and over again to rack up gold and experience. Assuming you don’t take up a quest, it’s an interesting cheap way of building up your characters somewhat early in the game (make sure you have the fly spell before attempting).
Generally speaking, I actually like where the game is headed, but I don’t feel this one is necessarily fully developed yet. The quests are interesting and it’s interesting how big this game winds up being. Unfortunately, the requirements for advancement can be a bit excessive at times, the initial learning curve is quite steep, and there’s no real convenient way to even quit. If you played games later in this series, it can be interesting to see where the series began, but it is a bit underdeveloped still.
Graphically, what is impressive is the fact that it’s a first person perspective game. Yes, it’s tile based, but considering the time it was released, the settings are surprisingly well developed once you get out of the first city. I wouldn’t say the graphics are incredible, but it isn’t that bad for a game of its time.
There’s no real music necessarily, but there are jingles throughout the game. You get them through winning battles and meeting kings. The sound effects are largely just beeps and a series of beeps. So, I’d say it’s OK, but nothing amazing.
Overall, for a game of its time, it’s not terrible, but there are certainly some shortcomings in this game. A lot of the core concepts are actually quite compelling such as the large open world, balancing parties, and various side quests. Unfortunately, this game winds up being underdeveloped as the near lack of clues on what to do next pretty much forces you to rely heavily on guides and documentation. the initial learning curve is also quite steep and the requirements to level up can be a bit excessive. Graphics are decent, though the audio is only OK. So, an passable game, but definitely recommended mostly for people already familiar with the series.
Furthest point in game: Beat the game right at level 13.
Performance score: 419,374
General gameplay: 13/25
Replay value: 6/10
Overall rating: 58%