Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep
was the long-awaited sequel to the ground-shaking CRPG dungeon crawler masterpiece Dungeon Master
. The original blew gamers away in 1987 ('88 for Amiga) and was a massive success after having been developed for two solid years. But Skullkeep didn’t hit store shelves in Japan until six years later in 1993. And it didn’t hit the US market including the Amiga until 1995
. It’s a miracle it even made it to the Amiga to be honest, as Commodore had swirled the toilet in 1994. So at that level Amigans are lucky to have it. Atari STers didn’t fare as well. Ironic, as the original Dungeon Master was one of their “killer apps” that helped sell more STs than any other game for the system.
One of the fascinating things about FTL Games, the company that created the Dungeon Master games, is that they made almost all of the ports for the game in-house. Being such a small company this is likely the key reason new games were so slow to come to market. And had Skullkeep made it to the Amiga in ’93 instead of '95 (or, frankly, 1990 or 1991) the reception would have likely been better. But by the time the game was released it was perceived by some to be dated. By 1995, many gamers were spoiled by the free-movement graphics already seen with Doom and Doom II.
So while Skullkeep introduced a ton of very cool enhancements over the original, it still employed the original graphics engine invented in the 1980s. For so many years to have passed a lot of Skullkeep seemed stuck in time.
First, the good stuff.
Skullkeep does a lot of very cool things and does them well.
It has awesome background music. And on the Amiga the synths are very atmospheric and moody. Love it. (You can find the MODs online here
In addition, the first half of the game introduces a mostly outdoor environment rather than typical dungeon corridors. This is a pretty novel approach for a “dungeon crawler”. That being said it wasn't entirely unique as Eye of the Beholder II
introduced the concept a few years earlier, albeit on a much smaller scale. Skullkeep tried to turn it up a notch by introducing rainy weather, but it actually created real problems for most gamers (more on that later).
Skullkeep also introduces a very interesting shop system for buying and selling gear. There are two villages where you can buy virtually every single weapon, piece of armor or magical item you previously would have had to find in the dungeon. If you have the wealth, you can pretty much buy anything. But this also introduces massive balance issues (as do many old school RPG shop systems). The Skullkeep shop experience is very unique, however, and pretty cool once you get over some of its quirks.
For example, to sell items you have to “trick” shop keepers from taking items you put on the Selling table until you’re ready. If you don’t, your transactions will unnecessarily take forever one single item at a time. The workaround is to stand in-between the Buy and Sell tables, quickly place an item down to Sell then run back to the middle to find the next item you want to sell. This makes the shopkeeper run between his two tables as he follows your movements. This annoying oversight in the gameplay should have been streamlined before going to market in my opinion. You can learn to deal with it, but the player shouldn’t have to dance to sell a few axes.
In keeping up with the times, Skullkeep offers ten save slots. The original only offered one. One! I actually created two separate save floppies when I played the original just to give me a tiny bit of breathing room. So no more re-booting the machine every time you freaking die (so many times)! With Skullkeep we can totally save as many stages along the way as we need. What a gigantic breath of fresh air.
Also, and somewhat related, Skullkeep can be installed to a hard drive. More accurately, it can only
be played off a hard drive. The game shipped for Amiga on six floppy disks
. But there is no option to play off the floppies. This was done entirely to help game performance.
It’s worth noting that the DOS version shipped on a CD-ROM. As a result, FTL packed a lot more intro and end-game animation for DOS gamers (sigh!). It’s also worth noting that FTL decided to not create Skullkeep for the Atari ST at all as they believed that user base simply didn’t have enough hard drive support.
However - and this is really interesting - FTL created two different graphical styles for the game.
For the DOS version the enemies are cartoonish; for the Amiga (and Sega CD) the enemies look more “serious” and are a lot more like the original game’s style. Frankly, I’m so glad the Amiga got the look it did and not the DOS version’s. The DOS styling isn’t bad - it honestly reminds me of the look found in the 1981 animated movie Heavy Metal
- but it does seem to look and feel more childish. For what it’s worth, the enemies on DOS match perfectly with the extra animated sequences that platform was afforded.
Some things haven’t changed.
For veterans of the original, the very cool and unique spell-casting system has returned. This is the incredible process where you, the player, must actually memorize a series of symbols for each spell rather than simply select a named spell from a menu and fire away. It feels more real, if a bit inconvenient during long arcade-level action sequences. For the uninitiated it surely must have felt overwhelming. But for those that played the first game, it's a cozy and nostalgic thrill. Mon Ful Ir [fireball]!
We also reencounter the same weird steam-punk tech where you select your party’s characters in a cave filled with cryo-chambers. That tech concept is taken to a whole new level in Skullkeep, for better or worse. In fact, it becomes a major component of most of the castle’s puzzles.
The graphics, which employ more colors than before, feel mostly the same. Everything seems a little bit deeper and richer but very familiar.
The same maddening system of hiding item info from gamers, unfortunately, is still here, too. Found a new sword? Good luck understanding (without searching 3rd-party documentation) if it’s better than that flail you found earlier.
And Skullkeep is still a real-time game. Torches can burn out and turn to charred sticks and your characters can get hungry and thirsty. Thankfully you can simply go buy a cheese wheel now at a shop or eat one of the bazillion worm rounds you'll create from worm carcasses. I love how it takes 4 gigantic wheels of cheese to fill up one character completely - the gluttonous bastards! Can you imagine watching someone do that in front of you? It ought to kill the appetite of the remaining party members. Maybe even sicken them slightly like they've been mildly poisoned. But unlike the original DM, your chance of dying of thirst or hunger is slim to nil here. (Yes!)
You also still need to micro-manage the inventory of each character (boo!). You must constantly stress over how much each item you pick up weighs because if you carry too much, your entire party’s movements will slow down like the game is drowning. Frankly when I see my son play Breath of the Wild
and Link has 20 suits of armor to choose from, I have to grit my teeth and torque my jaw. Realism be damned I am so jealous of that impossible fakeness! I’d give anything for a bag of holding
Also like the original DM, there is zero story built into this game. There's a bit in the manual, and a tiny bit at the very end if you ever see the final screen (although the Amiga version's animation is really short and not very obvious as to what's going on). This is pretty par for the course for a lot of dungeon crawlers, but the Eye of the Beholder games seem to have improved on this more by introducing snippets from time to time.
This game has serious performance issues. Full fucking stop.
To try and compete against the graphical advancements of Doom and the like, FTL introduced an unusual “half-step” animation. When you tell your party to move forward you get a sort of 2-frame animation as you move to the next square rather than just visually snapping to the next square. This was to simulate the feeling of motion other games of the time were sporting (better and with greater ease). Unfortunately, as a result, it makes the game feel less responsive and sluggish, which it already has real issues with and doesn't need more help. You tap the up key then wait for the game to get to the next square in two beats rather than one.
While inside shops, caves or Skullkeep, the effect is actually not that bad. Some might argue it’s almost cool.
But when you’re outdoors in the “thicket”? Holy shit it sucks. It sucks even worse when it starts raining heavily, as the animated rain on the screen really starts to crush the CPU. The weight of the game's demands literally start to press down on you emotionally, so that when you duck into a shop and get out the rain you can almost feel the pressure lift off of you as the game starts to perform better.
And when you have to battle an enemy in real-time? The 2-step animation and environment affects can make you start to think one of your characters is weighted down slowing down the party. If only that were true…
To experience this at its worst, there is a section of the thicket filled with an enemy called Axemen. These are very large axe-wielding giants. If you get more than two on-screen at the same time (and sometimes you can get 3 to 4) the game slows down to a pitiful crawl. Add rain effects to the mix and it’s borderline laughable.
For most of the game you can get through this, but for a game that requires real-time keyboard and mouse response from the player it's pretty bad. When the game is delaying big time you can easily lose track of your keystrokes with what’s being displayed on-screen. So if you’re trying to run away from enemies, for example, you’re guaranteed to bounce off the walls of your surroundings (which causes damage) over and over. It can get really annoying. The fact that they kept that feature - to damage your party if you keystroke into a wall - is beyond baffling, too. And dumb.
I’ve heard and read that this reality was not exclusive to the Amiga, either. In fact one gamer stated that he could never finish the game back in the day because his PC was just too unresponsive. He didn’t complete it until he played on DOSBox (an x86 emulator with DOS) decades later, and had his in-game tech specs completely maxed out well beyond anything most mortals could have afforded back in 1995. And even then he barely beat it by the skin of his teeth.
To be honest, when I heard that I relaxed inside a bit. I’ve personally managed to get all the way to the final boss. But the sluggishness of the controls during high-stakes crucial moments make it - and the completely insane and unfair strength of the final boss - almost impossible. It’s not 100% impossible, as I know people have beaten it (and I’ve not given up. Yet.). But it’s almost impossible under these conditions.
And that leads me to the other main problem with Skullkeep. The game balance is just completely out of whack.
At the very beginning all of the items in the shops seem insanely expensive. But after a few hours of playing, that completely see-saws in the other direction. It quickly gets to a point where you have more money than you know what to do with (an issue found with the Gold Box RPGs as well). By the end of the game I can’t spend all of my money even if I wanted to. I have every single high-end weapon, suit of armor (an entirely complete suit from head to toe) and magical item. And I have a money box (a nice feature) that has so many gems and coins I can’t even count how many there are in there.
While grinding to increase your character’s stats can be tedious, I’m not entirely against that. But even after grinding for hours and becoming 2nd and 3rd level Master Classes for Magic Users, Priests and Fighters, my characters still seem impotent against the challenge at the end of the game. While each of my characters may have close to 300 hit points each, the final boss Dragoth literally has 1,500. And the way the cards are stacked against you (especially when you include the sluggishness of the controls) it’s a sour pill to swallow to have to slog through to try and find some cheap way to end the game. (“E.g. drink 20 strength potions, throw 8 ful
bombs, and cast as many attack minions as you can. Then do the moonwalk and pray you make it.”)
At the end of the day most of Skullkeep is a lot of fun and the atmosphere is really great. But the game balance and tech specs required leave me thankful it was made but wanting more.
The original box for the Amiga says the following:
Requires Amiga 1200, 2000, 2500, 3000, 4000
3meg total memory
Hard disk required
What a fascinating list! No 500? No 600?
When you open the box there is a paper insert inside. It claims the game is an AGA game made for the Amiga 1200!
The machine I played on is a classic Amiga 2000. It has an 030 processor running at 40 Mhz. It also has over 16 MB of RAM. And as explained above, during certain crucial moments it still chugged.
I also installed the game on my A1200. It has an 020 @ 16Mhz with 8MB of RAM and a hard drive. Skullkeep didn’t look any different at first blush (I didn’t do detailed side-by-side comparisons) but it did feel as fast as my 2000 in the dungeons. I ran out into the thicket and ran the ultimate test: The Axemen during rain.
Same damned thing: sluggish!
The game is absolutely playable and you can max your characters out, solve puzzles and have fun. But certain battles will feel like you’re under water and can definitely throw off your timing during tense battles.