‘Ancients: Death Watch’ was originally a shareware title for DOS in 1991 that served as an extended demo and proof of concept for its paid sequel, ‘Ancients II: Approaching Evil’ in 1994. Developed by Farr-Ware, a three-man team consisting of programmer Mark Lewis, and graphic art duo Jason Struck and Matthew McEwan, both were published by Epic MegaGames.
As both games were developed back to back and use the same engine with few changes, and because of the shareware to paid model employed, MBU will be reviewing them as one single package. This is particularly apt as a party from Death Watch can be imported into Approaching Evil seamlessly. It’s worth mentioning that Death Watch can also be played in-browser for free HERE and is easily available on a variety of abandonware sites. Both games have made multiple appearances as shovel ware on compilation CD-roms given their exceedingly low file size.
Graphically, the games run using a first-person perspective that splits the playing screen into four distinct sections. The top left is a display of what’s actively happening in the game world in 2D made using sprite art and this is a relatively dated but charming pixel world in a high fantasy style. The immediate right half of the screen from this is a text box that narrates events and details everything that is going on. A strip across the middle of the screen displays the games menu at all times with some friendly/chunky icons, and the bottom of the screen details the player party. It’s visually similar in layout to the early ‘Wizardry’ titles, though the game never becomes anywhere near as tough or unforgiving. Visually they have become quite dated, with an overall cartoony aesthetic in place behind the pixel art. Approaching Evil does feature some marginally more refined graphics over its predecessor, but largely follows the same style.
As you can probably tell from the lack of a musician on the three-man team listed above, the sound and music of this title are not of a particularly high standard and some versions have even stripped that out entirely from the games, possibly to save on space for compilation purposes. Shrill in tone and lacking in variety, it’s highly advised to play this game on mute after the first few minutes of play. These will be more than enough to get a feel for the overall tone that the designers were looking for whilst not wearing out their welcome.
The narrative of Death Watch is oddly vague at the games outset, providing a back story for a single character but prompting the player to create or use a pre-built party of 4. This nameless protagonist character was exploring the hills around his home of Locklaven as a younger man when he encountered a beautiful fairy playing a harp. Lulled to sleep by her tune he awakens later in his own bed with no idea of how he was returned home. The incident inspires him to become an adventurer and he leaves home soon after, returning years later to Locklaven to find the city gripped in an atmosphere of fear and tension. Believing that this stems from the disappearance or capture of the fairy he encountered as a child, he sets about rescuing her. From here the party starts in town and needs to be equipped, search out information and set about working out how to achieve this goal with a minimum of hand holding. Whilst not directly connected narratively, the sequel sees the same group of adventurers descending into subterranean catacombs to defeat a rising evil. There’s a large body of grammatical errors spread throughout both games that speak of a rushed development time, and may spoil the experience for some. Dialogue is badly worded, at times vague and fails to build a convincing sense of world.
Gameplay is clearly modelled on Wizardry, with some elements of a Bard’s Tale shaken into the mix for good measure. The interface is mouse driven (despite the fact that quick-keys are often displayed on screen, many of these fail to work) and this functions smoothly when used. Classes are available for Warrior, Healer, Mage and Thief, with the balance being largely in favour of the Mage and Healer classes due to a complete lack of thieving to be done and a problem with accuracy for physical attacks that can lead to a seemingly comical level of misses, especially in the late game. In fairness however, the levelling system is robust, making each step forward for the party feel like a genuinely felt improvement on their performance and upgrading skills in meaningful ways. The game only has one bottle-neck moment when a very specific spell is required, otherwise the player can choose to use or ignore these to their whim. Turn based combat sees the front row made up of the central two characters of the 4-character display, which are pushed up slightly on the combat screen to denote this. The far left and right make up the back row and these spaces should be assigned to your spell casters, with meat shields to take damage for them in traditional fashion. There’s not a massive amount of interactivity to the world, with the first game featuring a single town (with some encounters within its borders) and multiple levels of dungeon below, and the second game following a similar model but fleshing out the locations of its dungeons slightly to include settings such as a tower. One puzzle at the very end of the first title sees you clicking switches on a screen in order to activate a portal to reach the final boss. This is notable as the only time the player ever has to do this, and acts as a rare jump-point back to town to level up (which is otherwise a trek) as well as an access point to the second game for fluid interplay as one larger experience if both are installed. There are some clear balancing issues on display in the amount of experience required to level against the average early game drops, and the difficulty of enemy parties varies hugely to the point of it being possible to be wiped out in the starting town before you’ve really impacted the game. Some interesting moments and set pieces are used to good effect, such as melting ice with fire to access a key or trading an item dropped from a boss for another one, but this isn’t a game built on narrative design or NPC interaction in any meaningful way and this makes the combat stand out even more because of it.
The Ancients games haven’t held up particularly well when placed next to their contemporary counterparts. Ancients I shows a lot of promise but the sequel shows considerable lack of ambition for an RPG in 1994, where other games were beginning to show considerable polish and graphical interfaces were becoming far more commonplace. Both games are easy to find, free and worth a play through, but don’t expect them to be shining examples of the DOS era. Whatever you do, don’t be suckered in by some of the fake packaging produced online around these titles and attempting to sell them on for around the £5-10 price mark per installment.