Heroes Chronicles: Masters of the Elements

So, on into Tarnum’s third adventure. The story so far: In Warlords of the Wasteland, Tarnum was a Barbarian in a land conquered and enslaved by evil wizards. He led a successful rebellion, then became a conquerer and enslaver himself, slaughtering his own people when he considered them counterrevolutionary, murdering his advisers when they told him he was going too far. Episode 1 ended with his star still in the ascendant, but when you’re the best gunslinger in town, everyone starts gunning for you, and it’s only a matter of time before one of them gets lucky. And so somewhere between episodes 1 and 2, Tarnum went and got himself killed.

But instead of just going to Hell like you’d expect, he somehow wound up staying in the mortal world as a servant of the “Ancestors”, apparently working off his bad karma. At least, until Episode 2, Conquest of the Underworld, which had him actually invading Hell, but not to take up permanent residence. He was there on a mission to rescue the abducted soul of one Rion Gryphonheart, the former king of the Knights who took over after Tarnum’s Barbarian empire fell — and the person who killed Tarnum in battle. Tarnum didn’t much like the idea of helping his mortal enemies, and considered the possibility that it was all some kind of immense joke at his expense on the part of the Ancestors, but it turned out that they chose him for the task to teach him a lesson, that the Knights and the Barbarians aren’t so different, that in fact he should be calling them family.

Masters of the Elements takes this a step further. One of the defining properties of the Heroes Chronicles series is that each episode focuses on a different subset of the various playable sides from Heroes of Might and Magic, giving Tarnum himself a different character class from episode to episode. This time around, he’s a Wizard. The one thing he despises the most. The thing he led a continent-spanning crusade to wipe out during his mortal life. I’m only a little way into the story, but he’s already made plenty of disparaging comments (via triggered text pop-ups) about the people he’s forced to work with here. I think he’s already gradually coming to appreciate their point of view, though. The entire mission here would be impossible without magic.

The essential idea is that a ten-thousand-year truce between the Ancestors and the Elemental Lords is ending, and rather than wait for them to attack the prime material plane, Tarnum is heading to their home turf to forcibly convince them that renewing the truce is in their best interests. The whole idea of visiting the Elemental Planes, similar to the Underworld back in episode 2, is essentially just a coat of paint on standard HOMM3-engine dungeons, but those dungeons are themselves essentially just a texture swap on the above-ground bits, so I suppose it all evens out.

The differences between Barbarian, Knight, and Wizard, on the other hand, have distinct gameplay effects. It’s been a while since I played any of the other classes, but nonetheless, I’m getting a very strong sense that using spells in combat is a more viable and indeed essential option than previously. Also, playing with the types of creatures generated by wizard towers gives you access to some very powerful ranged attacks. Every type of town has some kind of low-level unit, like gobins or imps or skeletons, that can be produced very cheaply or picked up for free from outbuildings, and that you can wind up with hundreds of in a stack. The low-level unit for Towers is the gremlin, which can be upgraded (still pretty cheaply) into the master gremlin, which is, I think, unique among the cheapo creatures for having a ranged attack. They die by the dozens if the enemy can close with them, but the ranged attacks are pretty good at preventing this from happening. It’s the “glass cannon” approach, traditional role of wizard-types since D&D.

Heroes Chronicles: Conquest of the Underworld

One of the big buzzwords in the game industry lately is “episodic”. It seems to be an idea born partly from the fact that nearly all gamers, even console gamers, have internet access now, and partly from the success of MMORPGs at getting people to pay monthly fees. Why spend months or even years developing a new engine for an uncertain response, when you can make it easy for people to download new content for the same system? It’s essentially the same logic that drives sequels, although there the concern is more with building a brand than building an engine.

But episodic content doesn’t really require the internet, as New World Computing showed in 2000 when they released the Heroes Chronicles series, four narratively-linked sets of scenarios using the Heroes of Might and Magic 3 turn-based strategy engine, published on CD-ROMs and sold in stores like any other budget title of the time. This was clearly something of an experiment, and apparently not an especially successful one, as they obviously didn’t repeat it.

I personally only heard of the series after all the episodes were remaindered, at which point I picked them all up. I didn’t have Heroes of Might and Magic 3, but the Chronicles discs don’t require it. I may be missing out on some details by not having the manual, but there’s a good tutorial, and the user interface provides loads of help: nearly everything, be it a button in the control panel or a monster on the map, has both a brief description that appears in the game’s status bar when you point the mouse at it, and more detailed information available by right-clicking.

Each episode of the series seems to focus on one of the alignments/teams/whatever in the game. The first episode, Warriors of the Wasteland, tells how the series protagonist, an immortal hero named Tarnum, came to power during his mortal life, and it’s basically the story of Conan the Barbarian: your team is the high-strength/low-magic types (which is a good choice for episode 1, because that’s usually the easiest sort of thing to play), and your chief foes are the evil wizards who have conquered and enslaved your people. The most memorable part of that episode is the part where Tarnum finally reaches his homeland, intending to liberate his folk and raise them into an army to storm the final castle, only to find that they’re not in chains but happily going about their lives as if nothing were wrong. Tarnum immediately decides that anyone who has accepted the wizards’ rule is a traitor, and there follow several “battles” in which you send your assembled monster hordes to slaughter increasing numbers of hapless peasants armed with hoes. It’s one of those narrative-revealed-through-gameplay moments, and it’s in a game where the story was largely just tacked on.

That was clearly the first episode of the series, but since I bought them all at once, It was unclear to me at the time which came next. Mobygames tells me that episode 2 is Conquest of the Underworld, so I’ve started on that. The theme this time is demons. It’s a little bizarre how it works out: you start off with what I can best describe as a Lawful Good settlement, capable of producing knights and whatnot, and the first significant enemy is a rival warlord on Team Evil who’s using minor demons in combat. But once you take over his castle, you can take advantage of the structures there to raise imps and hellhounds of your own. This seems like a major part of how HOMM mechanics work: you use the resources you conquer. But when it’s presented in such a clear good-vs.-evil trappings, it smacks of Nietzche’s warnings about becoming the thing that you fight.

But then, as we know from episode 1, Tarnum is no model citizen to begin with. I’m not yet clear on how he got from where he was at the end of that scenario, Supreme Barbarian Tyrant of the World, to where he is now, undying errand-boy to the gods, but apparently there are going to be some flashbacks. Flashbacks presented in text boxes that spontaneously appear as I hit key points on the map.