The RPG Scrollbars: A Visit To Old Albion

Albion really should be better known. It’s one of the more obscure beloved 90s RPGs, rarely brought up in conversation like the Ultimas or the Gold Box games or for the true aficionados, games like Darklands. Since release though it’s had a decent nostalgic following, and its recent re-launch on GOG produced what can only be described as a small yet dignified whoop from many a corner. So what is it about this obscure offering from the publisher of The Settlers that’s managed to stay in players’ minds for so long? Let’s take a look, shall we? Seems a good time.

The intro isn’t much help, unless the game is actually going to be about escaping from a 3D artist’s cheese-induced fever nightmare. When the actual game starts though, things improve quickly. Albion is less a conventional RPG than a melting pot, combining multiple styles and approaches to the genre in one interesting mix. Most of the game for instance has a fantasy setting, a sprawling world of plantlife. You don’t start it there though, but aboard a mining ship called the Toronto. While there you play with control panels and chat to people about sinister goings on that really aren’t any of your business at that point, before boarding a shuttle and discovering that the lifeless desert planet you were planning to go plunder is actually a verdant world full of civilisation and secrets and adventures to be had.

Unfortunately, you discover that by crash-landing on it. Luckily, the local natives at least are friendly enough, as well as endowed with one of science fiction’s most popular pairings – a lack of a nudity taboo, and boobs. Incidentally, if you’re thinking of Avatar at this point then you’re right, but also, sorry for making you remember one of the most boring uses of squillions of cashmonies since Milton Keynes. Feel free to jump mental tracks to a better product of that name.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Albion, even early on. It’s certainly not the best written RPG of its age, with a lot of clunky dialogue – early on especially the characters are firmly from the exposition side of the universe. What it does have though is an interesting warmth and texture. Your character Tom for instance is a pilot for whom space is no big deal, while your partner for the mission is a pen-pushing bureaucrat having the time of his life simply being in space – and one who wastes none of the time that you’re knocked out, getting to know the locals and even learning their language. Aboard ship, he’s got friends, he’s got a girlfriend, he’s got some sense as existing as something other than a vessel to hit people with. None of it’s exactly deep, but the effort is made. Likewise, once on the planet the script takes a lot of time for the characters to just marvel at what they’re looking at – at being around aliens, at being on an adventure, on the strange and wonderful scenery… even if to the locals it is just a toilet and him a bit weird for getting excited.

This stretches to the mechanics as well. A particularly fun little twist is that in the opening area on board the Toronto you soon get paged to come to the shuttlebay and start the game already. You don’t have to though. You can wander around for a good while first to stock up on supplies that you just ‘might’ need, as well as sneak into a prohibited part of the ship via a small dungeon to steal and pocket a pistol. Pretty much unique amongst RPGs, that starter dungeon then has no space-rats, no space-spiders, nothing. Why would it? It’s a series of service tunnels. Even the floating droid is just there to do its job rather than provide a little free XP at the start of the trip.

Oh, and exploring? That’s quite interesting too.

Albion’s biggest twist is that it shifts perspectives depending on what you’re doing. Exploring individual areas is done from a top-down view, like Ultima. Head out or into dungeons though and it shifts to a basic 3D world. It’s pretty much just a raycast level engine, making it more primitive than a stone axe even when the game came out, but still nicely done. The first town in particular has a striking look with the help of some interesting organic texture work. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the best of both worlds, but it’s a good stab at it – when you’re playing with items and talking to people and Albion wants to show off specific things, it uses the top-down graphics. For wider spaces and atmosphere, down to ground level it goes. It also resists the urge to make the 3D controls complicated, still including a point-and-click system for interacting with objects and characters and otherwise just letting you speed around.

The interface on the top-down sections arguably goes a bit too far in its simplicity. It’s already enough of an adventure that a status bar wouldn’t hurt while looking for things, and a crazy choice to put Main Menu on the interactions list means a lot of accidentally going there and back. A few of the busier areas could also benefit hugely from a map view or better guidance, since it’s often not clear exactly what you’re doing or where to go next and the scenery doesn’t typically offer many clues. Do I go along by the blobby green thing, or the green blob? Albion has an interesting look, but is definitely one of those RPGs where the conversation tree could have done with a “Yes, but how do I do that EXACTLY?” option at all times. In fairness though, that’s hardly unusual.

Part of what I liked about Albion back in the day was that it was a fusion of two great genres – honestly, it’s about as much an adventure as it is an RPG, albeit one with combat and stats and characters who get tired if you just keep running around. That makes for a bit of a trade-off, in that while it’s a very detailed and crafted experience, it’s also quite a short one. The challenge comes primarily from sudden difficulty spikes combined with a general lack of clarity about what the hell you’re supposed to do – not specifically in terms of narrative, but in terms of preparing yourself for fights and finding the next place to go. That gun example from above for instance, while cute, is countered by the fact that not taking the time to go get it and then smuggling it off the ship puts you at a big disadvantage early on, rather than having it being an advantage.

The mixing of so many styles also of course has its downsides. The top-down world is no Ultima, and the 3D bits are no… well, pick more or less any 90s 3D game from Shadowcaster to Strife. There’s a reason that the saying “Jack of all trades” ends with “master of none” and not “really awesome guy to have around.” It’s a game that bites off more than it can chew in most respects, though still does a pretty good job of masticating it all into paste. Its best asset for that is its colour and absolute dedication to both style and subject – the visible effort spent trying to make the best game possible on its budget and scale constantly shines through, even in the weaker or dodgier or less fun bits. See also the likes of Outcast or the Quest For Glory series. All games take terrific effort to make, of course, but not all of them exude passion in the way this one does.

Albion’s certainly not the greatest game of its era or anything, but it’s a game that’s held up surprisingly well and still has no trouble justifying its devoted following. The mid-90s were a great time for this kind of RPG – before the rules were quite as codified as they tend to be these days, but with technology capable of not just creating this kind of world but making them feel like magical places at the same time. Time is rarely kind to the magic, but the games that did something different and haven’t really been copied since tend to hang on to more of it than most.

Albion is very much in that position. It wasn’t the only game to combine top-down and 3D – the earlier Ultima games did, just for starters – but it was one of the last to keep the faith and do something cool. It’s cool to see it back, and hopefully it’ll get a bit better known as a result.

14 Comments

  1. plugav says:

    Ooh, I recall playing the crap out of the demo back in the 90s. I remember it as being immeasurably more user friendly than any other RPG I’d tried at the time (I must’ve been around 12 and only spoke a little English, so it was not hard to overwhelm me), but that might be because I’d found a guide in my native language. Either way, the alien world really made an impression. I’m not much of a retro gamer, but I might buy this one.

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    Bluerps says:

    I played this when it was new, but I remember that it was too hard for me. I think I gave up before I even left the region around the city the game starts in.

    I still wanted to see the rest of the game, so I simply made it easier by editing a savegame with a hex editor. I think I just gave my characters much better stats, and a bunch of money. I remember that after that, I played through the entire game and enjoyed it a lot.

  3. Boronian says:

    I love Albion! When I was a boy (around 12) I played the demo over and over again. You could only visit the first island so I grinded there like crazy. Which wasn’t that bad because the game isn’t so easy.
    It is a great game with a really good interesting story about racism, environment, different cultures and religion. It combined fantasy with scifi and I really liked that. It is really like Richard said it combines a lot of different things and settings and it is not always perfect but all in all really good.
    And money weighs something! Running around with a lot of gold coins was pretty impractical because it weighed tons.

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    Godwhacker says:

    Still one of my favourite games, though you’re right about how easy it is to miss things that make the difficulty curve tolerable. I’d recommend playing the first island with a FAQ then handling the rest on your own.

  5. The First Door says:

    Wow, I remember loving this when I was younger, and I’m not really a fan of RPGs. I really enjoyed the sense of exploring an alien world and trying to figure out what was going on. Having said that, though, my most abiding memory of the game is getting to the second island massively under leveled, before my entire team got poisoned and died horribly. Also, I remember being terrified by those 3D dungeons for some reason.

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    Risingson says:

    It is one of the very few RPGs I finished back then. It is long, it is large, it is a bit clunky, but the think that kept me hooked is that I liked the characters: for once, they felt like human beings. You mention the overexposition, which of course happens, but how much I love Tom or his mate (cannot remember the name either) for just their lack of pretense, for how humbly they approach everything. They are good people with previous boring lives that somehow can do some more and they do, because it is what they should do.

    I remember it being not too hard, but maybe I had internet back then and I had a lot of help from walkthroughs. Heh, something similar happened to me with the NES Contra: when I replayed it I thought “but God! I was able to go really far in this game, what has happened to me?” and then, months later, I remembered that I always used the Konami code. Cheaty me.

    My sisters hated Albion for how noisy it was.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I really like the guy’s jokey acknowledgement that he’s a bureaucratic pencil-pusher, coupled with his enthusiasm for going into space, versus Tom’s “eh, whatever, it’s just space.”

  7. EhexT says:

    It should also be mention that the aliens have an actual language, and the player (that means you) learning it (as in, actually learning the language out of game) can be a significant advantage (because of the way the dialogues work).

  8. jrodman says:

    Thanks for this article. Albion bumped up several spots. Maybe I’ll give it a whirl after Might and Magic has had its fill.

  9. RuySan says:

    “Albion’s certainly not the greatest game of its era or anything,”

    Wrong. It’s the RPG’s that i finished most times, and it’s certainly my favourite game of the 90’s.

    In fact, I think sometimes it pays to be the “jack of all trades” (e.g. Elder Scrolls, Quest for Glory). Or in case of Dark Souls, the “Jack of all trades, Master of All”.

  10. geldonyetich says:

    I knew I had found a gem when I fired up Albion. Although I nevet finished it, despite multiple attempts, because the grind gets way too protracted and samey; it’s never too easy, and that’s good, but it has too much busywork to plow through.

  11. Ysellian says:

    Fond memories of this game. I remember not knowing what the hell I was doing at first, but given that I didn’t own many games back then I probably had more patience that the normal kid would have had.

  12. ansionnach says:

    In my brief encounter with it I ran into a spot where I had no idea where to go or what I was to do. Wandered around a lot in the first-person mode before focusing on something else entirely. Might be interesting to get some views on the precursors of this one (Amberstar and Ambermoon).

  13. Rutulian says:

    Albion, my first RPG. The one I was going to suggest in July for a ‘Have you played?’, but found this when I got around to writing. The one that made me finally register to comment.

    Many things were confusing about Albion. The completely original fantasy setting, the reams of stilted text unveiling a deep and weird world, and perhaps most of all those sodding 3D wilderness maps. The dungeons were navigable, but those occasional outside areas in 3D rather than top-down probably did more to shape my orientation abilities than many weekends shambling around Wales in a scout pack. I take back the bit about the dungeons, I’ve just remembered some big mouths you fell through preparatory to massive confusion about how to get back upstairs.

    Most of all, I remember Albion telling me the story of a world. Yes, there was a Space Accountant and his Space Chauffeur at the core of things, and a pre-emptive comment on fracking, but what has remained for me is not the personalities or the plot but the cultures and history of that world.

    Alas, poor Albion, a game of excellent fancy.