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The RPG Scrollbars: A Visit To Old Albion

Quest Of The Avatar

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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.

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Richard Cobbett

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