Orthanc was developed by Paul Resch, Larry Kemp and Eric Hagstrom for the PLATO system, supposedly at some point in 1975. It plays quite similarly to The Game of Dungeons (aka pedit5), and it was in fact inspired by the deletion of that very game. It's much more involved and expanded, however, with a larger dungeon, more monsters, more spells, and just generally more of everything.
The title screen can best be described as utilitarian, but I can't say that I have a lot of expectations for these PLATO games in the graphics department. The documentation, on the other hand, is something that I have come to expect great things of, and Orthanc does not disappoint. It's incredibly thorough, right down to a complete list of monsters and their statistics. On the one hand I applaud the work that's gone into it, but I'm also slightly let down by the sheer levels of transparency on display. For me, part of the fun of an RPG is figuring out how best to fight the monsters through trial and error, and having it all at my fingertips before the game even begins is a bit of a downer.
The one place where it is a bit vague is just how you win the game. You play as a knight (of course) whose goal is to retire and go live in luxury with the king. Unfortunately the king only wants to live with proven fighters, so you have to venture into the Orthanc Labyrinth and amass enough experience points to retire. It's all a bit nebulous, and there's no indication of just how many points you need to achieve your goal. With a bit of trial and error I found the Hall of Fame, and discovered the option to retire in there. As it turns out my current character already has enough points to retire; it seems that all you need to do is beat the person who is last on the list. (Funnily enough, that person is Chester, of The CRPG Addict, the very blog that inspired my own efforts here.)
I'm not going to complete the game just yet, however. Orthanc Dungeon is ten levels deep, and I plan on mapping them all. The documentation says that the dungeon is periodically redesigned, but I get the feeling that such maintenance has probably fallen by the wayside. I hope so, because I don't want the dungeon to change before I've mapped it all out.
Like the other PLATO games, character creation is dead simple. You have scores in Strength, Intelligence, Constitution and Dexterity, all rolled between 3 and 18, and all working very much as they do in other RPGs. Though you are said to play as a knight, you also have access to a wide array of spells. You have the ability to cast any spell when you begin the game, but higher level spells use up more spell units. Naturally, you gain more spell units as you amass experience points and gain levels.
|For some reason, my character's icon isn't displayed properly. It happens sometimes.|
Gaining experience is the main goal of the game, and it's achieved in the most obvious ways: killing monsters and taking treasure out of the dungeon. Like the previous two PLATO games I've played, most of the time is spent exploring the dungeon, getting into a few fights and high-tailing it to the exit when resources run low. Also like those games, death is permanent, so there's always that little bit of tension and danger.
That said, the danger is sporadic. I've gone for a good half-hour in the dungeon without a single combat. I've also had periods where it seems like there's a battle every step. It's hard to gauge just how difficult this game is, because the difficulty varies with no obvious rhyme or reason. Right now, it feels like the easiest game I've played on the blog so far, but that could change as I delve into lower levels of the dungeon.
Currently I'm exploring level two of the dungeon, and have advanced to experience level five. The monsters I'm encountering aren't all that difficult to handle. In most encounters I act first, because my character has a high dexterity, and if I can fire off a sleep spell or a magic missile then I've probably won already. The occasional tougher-than-usual monsters pop up, but even then I haven't had much trouble dispatching them.
Orthanc does have a very similar vibe to pedit5, but there are a few features that stand out. The most obvious is the automap, which displays in the bottom right of the screen if you want it to. It seems to have been added in a recent update, but it's impressive nonetheless. You can also apparently encounter other players in the dungeon. This hasn't happened to me yet, and given the amount of people likely to be playing it in 2014 it probably won't, but again it's an impressive feature. I will undoubtedly flip out if I ever get to experience it.
I'm having fun with Orthanc so far, though it lacks the addictive, frenetic quality that The Dungeon had. I'm hoping that it gets a little more interesting and original as I explore further.