For December’s Dos Game Club playthrough, we played Albion, a 1995 CD-ROM RPG from German studio Blue Byte you might know better from the superb Settlers series. As a fan of PC RPGs, I’ve long known about the existence of the game but never tried it out until now.
Albion is quite a unique game—which also is one of its strongest selling points. In the mid-nineties, after the glory years of the Gold Box games, the demand of RPGs took a deep dive in favor of DOOM and Quake-esque dopamine action. Albion was pretty much the only thing RPG fans could get their hands on. Needless to say, it gathered a fanbase, albeit a small one: only the hardcore gamer that faced the ridiculous difficulty and design choices head-on would be able to finish it.
But before we delve into that, let’s first take a look at a few screenshots:
Are these two screenshots coming from the same game? Really? Really? Yup, and it doesn’t stop there:
- Exploring interior locations: a zoomed-in Ultima VII-style design;
- Exploring dungeons: a classic dizzying and rather crude FPS RPG design;
- Fighting battles: the planning phase on a 2D grid;
- Fighting battles: animations in a FPS design;
- Exploring the world outside cities: a zoomed-out Final Fantasy design.
That’s five different viewpoints the game has to offer! And you know what they say about the jack of all trades… In viewpoint #1, you can’t interact with anything longer than two grid elements beyond your party leader. Clicking on something a bit further away is (frustratingly) impossible. But there’s a shop stealing glitch if you quickly run up to stuff—which I gladly made use of, even though it ultimately didn’t really help. There’s also no map. In viewpoint #2, the crude graphics don’t do the year 1995 justice. Don’t try to turn too quickly or you’ll get seasick. But hey, there’s a map! I hope you bought that expensive compass! In viewpoint #3, every action requires rightclicks that get cancelled out if the target dies, turning even simple fights into a battle with the UI. In viewpoint #4, animations like mass freezes play out slowly again and again with no way to skip them. In viewpoint #5, you move very slow, every exotic tree looks the same, and the map disappears.
The initial wonder and excitement for all that freshness wears of pretty quickly once you realize that none of the mechanics have been implemented well enough. I got lost constantly and didn’t even find the first dungeon without the help of another Dos Game Club member. The FPS sections make me want to replay Might & Magic VI–VIII, where item and skill stats were at least consistent, and where I could clearly see why visiting trainers was needed. I realize I’m doing the game a disservice by mentioning the crude FPS look, and of course in a good RPG that doesn’t matter, provided the RPG mechanics are sound and draw you in. They’re not.
After stumbling around in Albion for a few hours, a few more oddities added to the frustration. Item stats are extremely obtuse—come to think of it, most in this game is. The manual isn’t clear, and after consulting three different guides, I wasn’t given a clear answer, until I found a great Albion fansite. While the raw damage output of axes is higher than swords, they also apparently reduce close combat points, making swings miss more often. Item info sheets are barebones and in contrast to DND games, during battle, you have no idea what causes a miss.
Even worse, optional elements in the game seem to be of paramount importance to make your life a bit easier when battling these strange beasts. I missed out on a pistol I could grab in the first section of the game. I didn’t grind long enough before moving on to the third part of the game and missed out on another important spell: Frost Avalanche, a multi-target freeze spell that reduces battles to more or less manageable affairs. From the Club forums:
[…] Frost Avalanche is Angel Summoner—it makes battles that would be dangerous into very easy encounters, and ones that would be impossible into just medium difficulty. And the trouble is that I can’t imagine the game being playable without it—on the third island, you start getting gigantic hordes of 10+ enemies at once which would quickly overwhelm you without being able to freeze them all and pick them off without them retaliating. I can’t make a guess at how much grinding it would take to make the game feasible otherwise.
That might explain my frustration. Not too worry though, Tom got diseased after a poisonous attack from wasps (version III, I might add). It turns out that this permanently reduces certain stat/skill points. I found this information on the forums somewhere, I was blissfully unaware of this! Seven hours in, after getting tired of having to run back and forth to a healer, I simply gave up. Potions cost
10gp a pop, I was running dangerously low on funds, and then my big axe broke, which required another
150gp to repair (and a long hike back to the smithy)—that’s a fortune!
Drirr, one of the Iskai warriors, pretty much carried the whole party together with Tom’s fancy decorated sword. Rainer, a scientist that crashed with me on this strange land, is very much a useless meatshield that gets himself incapacitated every odd battle. Then you have your mages that require seeds to cast stuff which are powerful if you’ve leveled them up and keep them hydrated using expensive red potions that restore mind points. I love the tech/magic mixup that lends the game its unique atmosphere, but in Wizardry or Arcanum, at least the tech-oriented party members were useful.
Combat isn’t fun. Dungeon crawling can be but the maddening difficulty and the hit and run tactics needlessly slow down the pace of the game. All things considered, that’s too bad, since what Albion is trying to bring is quite cool: unique races, a struggle VS humans, Celtic influences, lush greenery, and a focus on storytelling (that’s dry and long-winded). To me, none of these things really matter if the core gameplay isn’t up to snuff. I wish Blue Byte stuck to one or two mechanics and really perfected those, like in either Ultima or Might & Magic, instead of frantically trying to reinvent the genre by throwing everything together into a hodgepodge that ultimately turns into uninteresting brown drab.
I wish I liked the game as much as some enthusiastic co-players that have fond memories of Albion from their youth. I didn’t, and perhaps that’s part of my problem. In 2022, the game is still quite playable, but the monotony and steadfastness it demands from its players—being a
35h long game—is just too much for me.