It is a dark night. It had rained - as evidenced by the slow drip of water from the eaves of a house into a puddle on the muddy street below - and would rain more yet, predicted by the lighting flash nearby and the low grumble of accompanying thunder. You imagine yourself trudging through the dim streets, called by a trusted friend, flicking water off of your cloak as you are invited to enter the tower by a cordial servant.
The spiral of stairs is almost hypnotic, snapping suddenly into the stunning image of a man leaning over a fireplace, the light leaping against his deep blue robes. He speaks to you of troubling matters, and suddenly - alarmingly - you see the fire dramatically reflected in his eyes. He asks you for help, gives you a coin, and then says he’ll teleport you to the problem - raises his arms, his hands flash with arcane power -
TITLE CARD. Eye of the Beholder II.
A hell of an opening for a game. It’s right up there in my top favorites, and even decades later it doesn’t disappoint. The pixel art of the opening is as lush and beautiful as the best of its era, and has a care to it that absolutely stands out. I had a thrill watching it at age 11, and even thirty years later, it still rose goosebumps on my arms. It promises an awful lot, which for me at that age, it delivered.
The game was unusual, a prized acquisition. We’d been traveling cross-country to go to the family cottage, from Arizona to Michigan, and had a stopover in Missouri so my brother could stay overnight with a dear friend who’d moved a couple years before. He returned the next day with tales of the amazing game they’d spent most of the night playing, with a precious copy on a fragile floppy disk. Knowing that game had to make it all the way from Missouri to Michigan and back to Arizona over the course of weeks meant that my brother had to have treated it with an unusual reverence rare for your typical rowdy 13 year old boy, which made its eventual instillation on the family computer all the sweeter. My brother remembered a few things about the opening - explore the forest, look for hidden passageways, don’t trust the clerics and prepare properly to attack them - but soon after that we were on our own, and delving carefully into the catacombs under Temple Darkmoon.
I discovered very recently that my thoughts of getting far in the game were totally untrue, as proved by my reading of a couple walkthroughs. And honestly, knowing how intently I played games at that age, I’m not sure why I didn’t get farther in the game. Maybe I got stymied by the game’s copy protect, which is entirely possible given how effective it was against us; possibly my brother lost interest and I followed suit, a difficult thing for two siblings at our particular ages (13 and 11) to find much in common anymore; or maybe a puzzle just had us stuck, stymied by our own reluctance to make maps of areas in our desire to constantly push forward. Possibly - something made very clear by the fact that the walkthroughs mentioned the need to strafe and move constantly or death in combat was all but certain - it was just too hard to be enjoyable any more, which I regret might be the single greatest challenge to the resurrection of games in the modern era. (Purists might argue that games were meant to be that hard, and winning was a badge of honor; I am in the camp that disagrees and says that games that prioritize being hard over being fun and satisfying are missing something important, and the whole “Fear-Of-Missing-Out as an attractant” is kind of repulsive to me, but that’s a rant for another time.)
Difficulty or copy protect or not, Eye of the Beholder II is still a very fun game, and also devilishly hard - unfortunately more “relies on twitch reflexes” hard than “requires sensible strategy” hard, and having more in common with Doom than The Bard’s Tale might be less a tale of crossover gameplay success and more one of caution. It remains addictive, at least for the first few levels of the dungeon and of the temple. It had an incredibly interesting mechanic of a resurrection shrine with limited uses - “Death I shall reverse for thee, but I shall only grant three” (or similar doggerel) - and the fact that you could actu
ally use that on bones you found in order to gain new party members was nothing short of freaking awesome. It also kind of peeled away a bit of murder mystery that made you remember you were operating in a fantasy universe: oh no, I found the bones of what’s probably the person we were supposed to find… oh well, boop, Resurrection spell, welcome back!
It also had something I had not seen in a game before, and have only seen sporadically since, likely because it isn’t an easy thing to pull off: a character who ditches you and steals stuff! Spoilers - early on you find a halfling in a cell, wounded and near starving, who says they have access to secrets and knowledge about the place, and asks to join your party, and then for food and weapons. He’s the first possible new party member you can have, but also a reminder to not be too careful with people you just met: the first time you rest -
(...And you do that a lot, especially because this is a game based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and while you get your spells back at a long rest, you don’t get your HEALTH back, so unless you dig into your potions, you’re in a cycle of heal-rest-heal-rest until everyone’s better, putting you down for actual days at a time… you think someone would notice that there’s an adventuring party who’s been camping in the foyer for at least a week, but evidently nope)
-you wake up to find a some rations and whatever weapons and armor you gave him missing, and in its place, a pile of whatever you might have dumped on him and a “thoughtful” little note that gives a half-assed apology, mentions a treasure, and finally mentions a secret door near where his cell was. I was astonished that this had happened the first time, loading saves and seeing if there was something I could do to keep him around, but nope - he’s fated to leave you, and take your rations when he does. Shoo him away and you keep your stuff, but he keeps his mouth shut about the passage… which I suppose is just as well, being that you can find it as easily as any other hidden thing. But the fact of the theft - and this feeling you probably could have seen that coming - is something that really stuck with me, and has brought up the debate of how you can deal with shady NPCs and “stealing” from the player, the risks and expectations. He doesn’t take from you if you tell him he can’t join you, so you do have a choice in the matter - you take a chance, and in subsequent playthroughs the food is worth more than his old information, so you tell him to take a hike… but the experience stays with you, like a memory from a past life.
Though Eye of the Beholder II is part of a trilogy (and follows my weird pattern with getting into the second entry in a series before the first, like Shining Force II and Fallout II), I only ever really engaged in that entry, checking out the previous and subsequent games only when the “Silver Edition” of Interplay games came out after I graduated college. They were neat, but didn’t occupy my time for long - and while I am happy the trilogy is available on GOG.com now, I can’t help but cast my eyes to more modern titles like Legend of Grimrock, who carry on the mechanics into a more modern setting. If that strikes your fancy, maybe then look backwards, but knowing the flaws as well as gems in what you find. I think I’ve learned most of the lessons that it can teach me (and I’m not wild about the idea of backing up rapidly to take frenzied swings at a beholder who can bulk-kill my whole party with a single spell), but I’m grateful for all the lessons, and all the fun.
(And holy crap that opening is seriously aspirational, you better believe it.)