It's the year 999 AD, and Asgard is in a heap of trouble. As if reeling over Balder's death wasn't bad enough, the armaments of the gods are distressingly not at hand. It's been long since Freyr traded his sword Mimming in exchange for a bride, in an act charitably described as "ill-advised"...but now even Gungir has gone missing, and Loki has stolen Mjollnir and hidden it deep underground. Further, even Heimdall's horn is gone, transformed by evil magic into a serpent and fallen to earth, and without its call the forces of good will be outnumbered at the last battle. For this is the eve of Ragnarok, and the prophets foretell of the gods' demise and the inevitable scourging of the world.
Funny how prophecies always ignore the small actors, isn't it?
Nothing you've heard has convinced you that a human can't change fate. After all, the tools of the gods are lost in Midgard, your world. Freyr's sword, Odin's spear, Thor's hammer, Heimdall's horn...hell, maybe you can even help Tyr; he's been depressed ever since losing his arm. And why stop there? It's a short jaunt to Niflheim to bargain for Balder's soul...if you survive that long.
The gods are praying for mortal intervention. It's time to oblige.
Ragnarok (also called Valhalla, for its European release) is a DOS game made by the now-defunct Norsehelm Productions, in 1992. So yeah, we're going old school this time. But enough of that, let's get started.
Ragnarok is a single-player roguelike RPG (named for the early ASCII dungeon crawler, Rogue). Players pick a name, gender, and character class, and send their character exploring a medieval world, slaying monsters, finding treasure, and growing strong enough to aid the gods and save the world. Or, alternately, finding items that screw you over, getting killed by monsters, and leaving behind your corpse to serve as inspiration and warning to the hapless fools who come after you.
"Stay away from those goddamn bears!"
The in-game world consists almost entirely of randomly generated maps (one of the defining features of a roguelike game), and Ragnarok does indeed take "randomly generated" very much to heart.
On a micro level, while locations themselves don't change - you'll always find the village, the Crypt, Jotunheim, etc. in the same areas of the world - the contents and configuration of each screen are only generated when you first find them. This is subtly influenced by the Luck stat, which increases the chance of finding better and more helpful items, though it leaves the monsters and traps that can kill you. On a macro level, each game starts with a different lineup of descriptions for unindentified items. A vellum scroll might be a scroll of summoning in one playthrough and a scroll of pure evil in another, and zapping yourself with that maple wand because it was a wand of healing last game is inadvisable, because it might now be a wand of flaying and subsequently melt you with acid.
...are we sensing a theme here? This is because you will die in this game...and die. And die.
And die some more.
Did I mention that you'll die? I must have, by now. Suggesting that Ragnarok rewards anything other than trial and error, luck and cold, hard experience would be misleading in the extreme.
A fairly tame list, all told.
Naturally, this can get rather frustrating at times, especially when you die late in the game. Mitigating this partially is the fact that there's a save system, and the fact that the later releases of the game stopped erasing your save files if your character dies (if you're wondering why there are so many "gave ups" in that list...force of habit and save scumming). Not all that much of a mitigating factor, though. No, the real mitigating factor is just what it is that keeps killing you.
Some games seem to like killing the player out of a sense of simple sadism. Many notoriously difficult games are so due to rather cheap factors, like broken controls or cheating AI. But no, Ragnarok kills the player instead with staggeringly insane depth.
Just as a cross section of that depth, there are 28 potion types in the game, with effects ranging from healing, armoring, strength recovery, poison, lyncanthropy, alcohol...not counting the 10 alchemical potions (mixing specific types together), six possible effects from totally random mixes, and even different effects if a given potion is blessed or cursed. This sheer variety is matched not only by the other item types (weapons, wands, rings, scrolls, food, armor, and tools), but by the creatures inhabiting the game world, many of whom have unique powers and properties...some of which you can take advantage of by eating them.
By contrast, character development can get a little disappointingly straightforward in later levels; acquiring skills, powers, and abilities is almost a no-brainer and not so much a "customization" tool per se, and once you master a class by gaining ten levels in it, there's no reason not to take the option to switch classes. All of which is pointless nitpicking unless you're an absolute Ragnarok master, as seeking the (needless to say, various) abilities is still an adventure in itself. And that's not even taking into account that you can transform into almost any creature in the game.
Still got a ways to go...
This is simultaneously Ragnarok's cause of death and biggest draw. Exploring not simply the in-game world but the physics and mechanics that govern that world, along with the random generation, place this game near the pinnacle of nonlinear RPG gameplay. It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that I was still discovering things after years of playing.
Storywise, on the other hand, there's not much. Essentially, you simply set out into the world with those six specific goals in mind, to find Freyr's, Odin's, and Thor's weapons, Heimdall's horn, and some way to replace Tyr's arm, while also bargaining for Balder's soul (taking some liberties with actual Norse mythology in the process). And even these are more along the lines of suggestions than imperative objectives...though if you want to save the world, you really need to do at least most of them, or else the demons and evil gods will win. Ultimately, though, this fits very well with the trial-and-error sort of nonlinearity Ragnarok espouses in its game design.
While talking about technical details of an 18 year-old game might seem kind of off, Ragnarok isn't that bad for a game of its time. Hell, even compared to other roguelikes, this game apparently broke the mold by having not simply a true graphical interface, but unique sprites for every monster type and terrain feature in the game (something the far more well-known and appreciated game Nethack has since adopted). On the other hand, there's no music, and sound effects (included specifically in the Valhalla release) are small and unessential. The control interface itself is also nothing terribly complicated and barely worth note (other than F2 turning off automatic pickup of items).
There's not much to say beyond what's been said...unless I were to start listing off random facts and advice about the game (starting as a Conjurer is pointless, writing is an essential skill, eating dead wraiths gives experience, finding Heimdall's horn is the hardest and thankfully least essential quest, there's only one way to steal from the Bazaar, a Magician's power of changing the items in your pack can be turned to your advantage, being female is slightly more advantageous...), which would certainly reinforce what I've been trying to get across, but would rather miss the point of a review.
Ultimately, I do recommend Ragnarok if the idea of nonlinear RPG gameplay sounds appealing. While the game is old and requires a program like DOS Box to run on most modern machines, it's also freeware, and can be found on several abandonware sites (notably Home of the Underdogs).
Besides, I can't help but appreciate a game that includes a literal "panic" button, that you can use when someone is approaching...
"No boss, I'm just...running diskcheck!"
This review was my entry for Review Wars III, where it somehow did respectably (taking second overall). Congratulations again to Miracle Of Sound and Heart Of Darkness, for their winning reviews of Ico and Rhythm Heaven!
For more from me, stay tuned pretty soon for reviews of Melty Blood and Kana: Little Sister...