Friday, December 23, 2016

Game 238: Fer & Flamme (1986)

This company will one day own the Might & Magic franchise.
    
I have an uncle who did some Peace Corps engineering work in west Africa during the mid-1980s. I can't remember what country, but he was stationed for a while in a fairly remote village of about 2,000 people.  I've heard him describe how the village only had one television set, and that television set only got one channel, and kids would flock to the guy's house and pay whatever they could save--the equivalent of nickels and dimes, I guess--to get to stand in his living room and watch whatever happened to be on. They didn't really care. It could be some politician giving a speech, or Mr. Rogers, or a badly-dubbed episode of Barney Miller, but the sheer novelty of the technology made them happy to watch whatever they could lock their eyes on.

Fer & Flamme is the RPG equivalent of that television set. So was Tyrann, for that matter. Neither game offers a core experience that dozens of American titles weren't offering 5 years earlier, but "globalism" wasn't a word yet, and this was the best you could do if you were in France. That it's the first RPG--perhaps even the first game--from Ubisoft (just look at the crudeness of that logo!) adds a nice layer of irony to the whole thing.

By 1986, France was in its brief "golden age" of RPGs, and Fer & Flamme is one of about 10 French-only titles that we see between 1984 and 1989. Le Maitre Absolu (1989) is the last RPG I can identify that only had a French release. Plenty of other games after that, of course, were given French translations, but overall France's strategy after the 1980s seems to have been to host multi-national conglomerates rather than small independent developers writing specifically for French audiences. (Of course, we can't rule out the alternative hypothesis that a lot of French-only titles simply haven't made it to English databases.) Ubisoft is preeminent among such companies, and it's fun to see their humble beginnings with Fer & Flamme, Le Anneau de Zengara (1987), Le Maître des Ames (1987), and Le Maître Absolu (1989). But the company clearly knew where the money was--distributing American titles in France and later developing titles for global releases--and 1989 is the last year that they fielded anything that requires a diacritical.

There's nothing here we haven't seen before. Even the backstory is written as if the author was trying to be as generic as possible. "Il y a de cela bien longtemps," it begins, a phrase that means the same thing as, and is just as cliched as, "once upon a time." The game is set it the Kingdom of Thulynte, formerly peaceful and ruled by King Ulrik from the capital of Dord, "City of a Thousand Fires." Ulrik was forced to flee when a wizard named Khaal worked some evil magic that turned Thulynte's brave defenders--the "Miniens"--into an army of undead. A resistance tried to oppose Khaal, but it was short-lived, because Khaal "knew everything, saw everything, guessed everything."

The game world as given in the in-game map.
 
The party is a group of mercenaries from the neighboring country of Senghar, which once enjoyed amicable relations with Thulynte, but is now worried about its own security. The party consists of 5 characters chosen from 8 classes: warriors, magicians, elves, thieves, knights, clerics, dwarves, and "tinigens," the game's version of "hobbits." Each has various minimum requirements among the game's four attributes--strength, intelligence, wisdom, and dexterity--and the game gives you 40 points to distribute among them.

I believe using elves and dwarves as separate classes rather than races goes back to original Dungeons & Dragons. Elves are basically fighter/magicians. Dwarves have some special skills related to exploring underground. Warriors and knights seem to be about the same, with warriors perhaps a little stronger and more brutal. My party consists of a knight (Bucher), a magician (Amadou), a cleric (Bruler), a thief (Lumiere), and a dwarf (Roussir).
  
Creating a characters.
  
All my characters' names are variations of "fire" themes in French. I did this because I thought that Fer & Flamme meant "fire and flame," and I was going to make fun of the game for such a redundant title. Then I realized that fer actually means "iron"; "fire" is feu. I had to delete like three paragraphs.

During character creation, you have the option to purchase weapons, armor, shields, and helms for the characters. Everyone gets 600 gold pieces, which goes a long way for magicians, who can barely wield or wear anything, but not for knights, who have a large selection. As I was purchasing weapons, I thought if you're given a choice between an epee simple ("simple sword") and an epee en fer ("sword on fire") you naturally have to go with the latter. Now, I realize it simply means "iron sword." That was a bit of a letdown.
   
I should have bought the sword that requires two men instead.
   
When the game started, I couldn't find any indication of these weapons and armor within my characters' inventories except as reflected by their armor class. Unless I'm missing a command, there doesn't seem to be any way to trade or drop these items. I can only guess that, like Tyrann, you can only have one of each type of object at a time, and when you buy a new one, it automatically replaces the old one.

Magicians also choose spells during this process. The screen showed 5 Level 1 spells but only let me select from among three of them: "Charm Persons," "Force Field," and a "Striking Spell" that I guess is equivalent to "Magic Missile." Oddly, I got the same screen for my cleric, but there don't seem to be any Level 1 cleric spells so I couldn't choose anything.
  
Choosing my first spell.
          
After a process of saving the party, the game begins with the characters north of a city (Dord) on a gridded map. The player is quickly exposed to what is perhaps the worst interface in RPG history--perhaps even game history.
   
The opening area.
     
As we see with so many titles of the era--although rarely to such an extreme--despite knowing that the platform on which the game is to be played has a full keyboard--you need it for characters' names, for instance--the developers assumed that players wouldn't want to be bothered with anything more complex than a joystick. Along the bottom of the screen is a series of 28 icons. They include Roman numerals from I to V, corresponding to each of the characters, 4 arrows for movement plus "up" and "down" options, and symbols that correspond with actions like enter, leave, check character sheets, check inventory, check health, look at the map, search, take, drop, steal, give, haggle, pay, and cast a spell.

The player maneuvers through the game by pushing left or right on the joystick (corresponding to the left and right arrows in the emulator) and hitting "fire" on the appropriate button. There is no redundant keyboard input. When the game asks which of your characters should complete an action, you can't just hit "3" on the keyboard; you have to scroll the icons to "III" and select it. To even move, you have to swap around the various arrow icons. This kind of gameplay is torturous. I can't believe it didn't occur to anyone to allow hitting the number keys in addition to selecting them from the icon strip, not to mention keyboard backups for all of the other options.
   
This just makes me want to go to New Orleans.
    
Moving into the city of Dord prompts you to exchange disks and then changes the interface to a first-person adventure-game style where you walk from screen to screen with the various arrows. The city consists of a number of street scenes, houses, and shops.
   
Let's see...I can buy chicken for 54 or 44. This is going to be a tough choice.
     
Occasionally, you meet NPCs who greet you with a hearty "bonjour!" You select a character to speak and then select from among options to "flatter," "threaten," "insult," or "wait." In my experimentation so far, anything other than "flatter" just makes the NPC leave. "Flatter" takes you to other simple keyword options, like "hello," "action," "me," "you," and "nothing," and each of these can continue into more options. For instance, choosing "me" leads you to a series of options where you explain to the NPC just who you are. So far, I haven't gotten anything from NPCs except pleasantries.
   
I get only a "hello" when telling an NPC that we're "friends."
      
Throughout the city, you run into doors that you can try to "enter." Usually, the game tells me that they're closed and invites me to break in. I haven't had a particular reason to do that yet.
     
       
Out in the countryside, I've run into a few parties of monsters, but I confess I'm confused as to how the combat system works. I do have the manual, but it's not a lot of help on this issue or I'm mis-translating the passages. It seems to start with a phase in which you position your characters against the monsters on a 5 x 5 grid. For some reason, the "up" action moves from character to character during this phase, which took me a long time to figure out. The monsters themselves don't move during this phase, but they might change positions entirely between phases.
   
The party faces a group of skeletons.
    
If you want to fight anyone that round, I guess the monster needs to be in the square directly in front of the character; otherwise, the game ignores that character.   
After the movement phase, the game enters the combat phase, where each character has options to attack, cast a spell and then attack, or flee. Once you choose the option, combat begins for that character. You see your character's strength, hit points, and experience, as well as the monster's, and you watch the rounds go by as hit points deplete and experience increases. At the end, one of you is dead.
    
Combat options.
    
That's the way it works theoretically. In practice, my characters are unable to strike even a single blow against any of the monsters I've encountered. I just have to watch as their hit points go down and the monsters' experience goes up, and then I get a message that the character is dead. I suspect I have to be doing something wrong, but I'm not sure what it is.
   
Things are not looking good for Amadou.
     
That's where I am with Fer & Flamme. I've hardly penetrated the game and am confused about a lot of its conventions, but I thought I'd post this and see if anyone who's played the game might pop along with some advice. In my first year, I abandoned a couple of French games too quickly because I found them confusing and bizarre, and I don't want to make the same mistake again. But barring some miracle I'm not anticipating--"Addict, you just have to hold down CTRL, and then there's a keyboard option for every game command!"--I feel like we're in for the same experience we've had with most French games: high weirdness, high frustration, low GIMLET.

****

OrbQuest, an early Mac game, is coming up, but I can't seem to find a viable copy anywhere. As usual, help is appreciated.



25 comments:

  1. I remember a few things…

    • The weapons and armor you buy at first are only modifications to your armor class, you're not actually armed: you have to buy weapons in the city or fight bare-handed ( a lot of my parties perished before I realized that ).

    • "Tinigens" was what they called "halflings" in the French translation of the Moldvay D&D box.

    • Speaking of D&D, Clerics don't have spell at level 1 - one of the differences with AD&D. Nostalgia.

    • You don't address the problem so I guess it was the disk I bought at the time that was bugged: of the magic (non-cleric) spells, some are for elves&wizards, some for wizards only. But as it turned out only the elves could use those for elves&wizards…

    • l'Anneau de Zengara is a follow-up on Fer&Flamme with only 1 character, you can import him from Fer&Flamme or create him but iirc if you create him he has to be a warrior. You wander in a tower labyrinth and fight monsters when occasion arises. When I was 15 I thought it was pretty cool.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. "The weapons and armor you buy at first are only modifications to your armor class, you're not actually armed: you have to buy weapons in the city or fight bare-handed". Well, that clears up two of my issues, so thanks! But that's also pretty weird.

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    2. I had misread your post, it proves the spell bug is part of the program: the spells that should have been used by BOTH elves and wizards can be used by elves ONLY. The 'sort frappeur' is actually the D&D - AD&D 'Knock' to open closed doors.
      It's one of the things that stopped me playing it…

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  2. Although I am going to be merely conjecturing, I'd like to comment about the reasons of the 1984-1989 France-only RPGs trend, and its disappearance.

    To me, this is heavily tied to the main computing platform that was dominating the Frecnh market: the CPC series from Amstrad. As you may probably be aware of, the CPC was absolutely devoid of about any RPG - probably because of its lack of ties with America. I think the Ubisoft attempt thus might have been to fill that gap.

    Incidently, 1989 is arguably the last great year for the CPC - while it tried put a battle against 16 bits computer, it definitely lost by then to the 16-bits console flooding.

    My only memory of Fer&Flamme is that it was the first game I encountered bugs with. That experience was like the shroud of reality being teared down in front of this kid's eyes! ...This comment isn't probably going to act as an incentive to play the game further :/

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    1. Clearly, the two trends coincide temporally, but I'm not sure I understand why that had to be the case. Why couldn't French developers offer French-only titles on new platforms?

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    2. By the way, this is the CPC version, right? The graphics look CPC-like (using its high resolution, 4-color mode), and according to Wikipedia that's the only version this game had. Oddly enough, this game doesn't seem to be on Mobygames at all.

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    3. Yes, it's the CPC version. I forgot to mention that in the post.

      Delete
  3. "1989 is the last year that they fielded anything that requires a diacritical"

    Just wanted to say I found this particularly funny. Plus the "fire and flame" mistranslation. Don't feel bad. I spent years mixed up and thinking "sturm und drang" was "blood and iron" rather than its actual "storm and stress". (Blood and iron being another well-known quoted phrase, but different words.) Language barriers always make things fun.

    As for that chicken for 44 instead of 54? I would be very worried that it's not really "chicken." The French are known for being flexible with their meats, and any language that can't tell their apples from their potatoes is a risky one if you ask me.

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    Replies
    1. I also thought the title translates to fire and flame. My excuse is, that "Feuer und Flamme" is a common phrase in German. It means that you're excited/enthusiastic about something.

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    2. I'm just glad Chet cleared up the confusion ferrous.

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    3. That way of saying exists in French as well: "être tout feu tout flamme" holds the exact same meaning, even figuratively.

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    4. The irony of this thread is just leaden on my soul!

      (If I could work Iron Maiden into this comment it would really be one for the heavy metal humor annals... just let it sink in by osmium-osis...)

      Happy Holidays to all! Loving the columns Chet!

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    5. Yep have a great Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa rpglovers!

      If you start a game of ADoM on Christmas Eve you'll get the message "A lone star leads you to this remote valley." and start with the Fate Smiles intrinsic, which is bonzer!

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  4. http://amstrad.eu/modules/publisher/item.php?itemid=202
    According to the terrible Google translate of the interview, Ubisoft requested the maker to change the keyboard interface to a joystick interface like in their earlier 1986 game Zombi so maybe Ubisoft was just demanding consistency between the games they published regardless of whether it made any sense at all.

    "I met Chip then Ubi Soft. The first one told me to come back when my game was finished and the second one was ready to edit it if I changed my keyboard interface for controllable icons to the joystick, as in Zombi. I followed Ubi Soft in 1986."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's an interesting bit of insight. It doesn't excuse the interface, of course--just shifts the blame--but it's still interesting to read.

      At some point in the mid-1990s, the convention seemed to shift from "exactly one way to do things" to "as many ways as possible to do things to suit each user's preference." I wonder if games influenced this shift in thinking or if they were just beneficiaries.

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    2. I think the 90s and early 2000s were the peak of this, with games limiting key remapping more and more these days.

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  5. Your willingness to attempt games with language and interface barriers is noble sir. I can't provide any real help, but I wish you luck in any case!

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    1. By the way, I noticed my posts no longer say they will show up after administrator approves them... I feel special now, happy holidays!

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    2. Agreed! I can read basic French, but actually playing a game in that language would cross the line from fun into work, especially with the specialized vocabulary.

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    3. The language is really the least of the problems. The weird conventions are more significant.

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  6. Happy Holidays Chet and everyone else. Hope you figure out this game, it is always interesting to see games outside the American RPG tradition.

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  7. Replies
    1. My dear fellow german poster from the same part of the country, please don't post in german on foreign websites. It's considered as rude behavior. NFU & Merry Christmas.

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    2. For the record, I don't consider it rude. I'm happy to receive a "Merry Christmas" in whatever language someone cares to offer it.

      Delete
  8. Nice to see you start Fer&Flammes. I never was able to finish it but i'm really interested to read the full adventure.

    I just remember one thing, in order to find hidden quest objects you have to press several time the button "search" (eyeglasses icon)


    SPOIL :

    The first object quest in the town is in the church and you have to search it.

    ReplyDelete

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