The Secret of Silver Blades (SSB) is the third installment of a four-part series of D&D games by SSI based in the Forgotten Realms universe. First came the ground-breaking and legendary adventure Pool of Radiance (’88), soon followed by the excellent Curse of the Azure Bonds (’89). Secret of the Silver Blades was released in - you guessed it - 1990 and was supposedly the last Gold Box game to sell more than 100,000 copies.
Back in the day, several of these TSR-owned games were released simultaneously alongside D&D tabletop role-playing game modules as well as full-blown paperback novels. The release of the games didn’t necessarily match the same order (or plot) as the novels, however. And for whatever reason, Secret of the Silver Blades was never novelized like the other games in this Forgotten Realms series.
Out of the four original games, SSB is often derided as the weakest link from a gaming perspective. It’s possible its lack of having a book version helped to solidify this view for some. And while understandable for other reasons it’s still a bit of a shame, because the story in Secret of the Silver Blades is actually one of the few that’s actually easy to follow and is somewhat interesting and rewarding whenever you encounter it. The stories in the books are only loosely related to the games, and they do far outshine the stories found in the games. Yet reading the books at the same time as playing the games can take the experience to a whole new level even if the two don’t mimic each other very tightly. I’ve often wondered about the differences in the actual D&D modules, too, but have no personal experience with them. It’s a pity SSB was left out of the bookstores as it might have lifted it up more - at least in perception - to have had the same level of investment as its siblings.
All of the Gold Box games force players to continuously switch between playing the game on the computer and reading paper manuals that shipped in the game boxes. Sometimes it’s rather enjoyable to do this, but it also can pull you out of the gaming experience to such a degree that - at least for me - can make the actual story rather hard to follow at times. And you can’t easily go back to previous snippets to refresh your memory of what you’ve learned due to the intentionally random jumbling of the entries in the manuals. It was done as a form of copy protection; without the journals, the games would simply be no fun at all to play. But using them does require a special kind of attention (unless you don’t mind marking them up or taking notes along the way of what you’ve uncovered).
However with Secret of the Silver Blades, because the actual game itself is rather linear in nature (I’ll explain what I mean by this) it was far easier for me to keep track of the story progression this time around. It made a lot more sense to me, and as such I thought this was a nice change of pace.
The game has its faults, though, which deserve discussion. But first, a bit about the story.
Once upon a time there were two brothers - twins in fact - named Oswulf and Eldamar. One was a goody two-shoes and the other an evil hoodlum. Oswulf (the goodly) was a paladin; Eldamar (the lout) a mage. Eldamar became entirely obsessed with gaining immortality, and his extreme solution was to become a Lich.
For those unfamiliar, a Lich is a powerful undead spellcaster that can’t be turned. Usually when you encounter one in the original paper and pencil game, you know you’re about to get your ass handed to you. They are normally evil and tough and can very quickly offer horrifically memorable, and lethal, encounters.
Run, girlfriend. Just run.
But you can’t in this game! The whole point is you have to find that Lich (who is called the Dreadlord) and destroy it.
The good brother and a band of heroes called the Silver Blades encased the Dreadlord’s castle in a glacier hundreds of years previously, and it has been slowly melting thanks to some evil henchmen of the Dreadlord called the Black Circle. Something tells me the Black Circle might be doing their deeds to our world, now, but that’s a discussion for another day and another place. Regardless, for the first 25-30% of the game or so you’re dealing quite a lot with these bastards.
Bizarrely, to guard the castle (seemingly to keep the Dreadlord inside) you’re told Oswulf sacrificed himself in some way so his spirit could keep guard in perpetuity. But the melting of the glacier, the release of monsters unto the world, the rise of the Black Circle and the apparent disappearance of the Silver Blades requires a new group to end the Dreadlord and his evil minions once and for all.
I’m looking at you, bro. Right. Between. The eyes.
Oh, and for some reason Oswulf - a paladin - had a very large magical staff which you need to find and assemble to gain entry to the castle where the Dreadlord resides. You’ll never actually use the staff, but it will serve as an 8-part magical key that you must have in order to complete the game.
Overall, the basic mechanics of the game haven’t changed at all from the first two installments of the franchise and several thereafter. The only real difference is now you can set the difficulty level. There are 5 levels to choose from, Veteran being the default middle option (which I played). Frankly, it felt too easy. But considering the way the random (and non-random) encounters worked, it also seemed OK. So I never changed it.
Secret of the Silver Blades has no outer-world map nor any world exploration at all. Everything happens within a first-person experience - much like The Bard’s Tale games - in either towns, dungeons or tunnels. And that alone actually didn’t detract from the game in my opinion. I feel like this game was sort of paying homage to the RPGs of its recent past. What was different, though, was the sheer size of the maps you had to explore. The maps weren’t difficult or puzzle-laden. They were just fucking huge, so beyond briefly losing your bearings they began to feel a lot like factory-line work.
You start this game like a scene from Terminator, where you wake up naked and steaming in the middle of a street wondering what the heck is going on, and where your pants went. You instantly bond with more naked folk around you and begin to equip your characters after being generously handed a large bag of gold from the town’s mayor. OK.
You ultimately march from town to a magical well area (which can be paid in gems for hints), to old city ruins (which are both equally mind-numbingly boring and insanely massive and complicated), to a deep multi-leveled mine designed much like an insect - where the elevator down is the body and the various mile-long caves are the legs. Then you travel to dungeons and ice crevasses and then to another underground town, then to another set of ice crevasses and ultimately the final castle.
It would be extremely hard to get lost in this path of challenges. Each area, while vast, isn’t particularly complicated or tricky except - arguably - the city ruins. It’s as if someone decided to make a vast city out of large walk-in closets, and stitched them all together with doorways.
It takes a very long time to explore and map out.
Thankfully SSI recognized the drudgery of their maps required some sort of relief, so the magical well area is filled with teleporters that can be unlocked as you progress through the game. This helps greatly reduce insane backtracking when you need to return to town.
It’s worth pointing out that the Gold Box game engine affords very logical and tidy 16x16 grids for each area you are to explore and map out. It’s usually fairly predictable for the most part. With SSB, somehow SSI managed to stitch the grids together with a sort of invisible teleportation trick. You never really believe you’re still walking around in the same system as these maps often blow the 16x16 grid concept into pixelated confetti. It only became apparent to me that something weird was up when I noticed that many of the walls during combat didn’t match the maps I was walking around in like they used to. Regardless, it made the game feel massive even if the battle environments felt more random and wrong.
But it’s not like you won’t be rewarded for hacking and slashing for weeks in this strange environment.
In fact, by the time you’re halfway through the mines you’ll have found so much treasure and magical items you’ll just start leaving vast amounts of glittering wealth on the floor everywhere you go. In the Gold Box games the economy was always the most lop-sidedly broken part of the game. In SSB, it’s not only lop-sided, it’s ridiculous. It’s like your characters are standing under a waterfall of experience points and platinum to the point of drowning. But since you start the game so high in level at the beginning, you never really notice the changes other than the occasional new spell you might add to your repertoire (and not really need).
You do face a ton of planned and random encounters along the way. But frankly - at the normal Veteran difficulty setting - almost none of the battles pose a serious threat or challenge. In the previous games you really had to sit down and ponder your tactics in many of the key battles. In SSB, if you have a mage with Fireballs, you can pretty much just go on a mental cruise control.
The only catch to this rule is SSB is peppered with a healthy dose of 1-hit killers. In the early stages there are Fire Knives that will ambush your party in town and kill characters with a single hit. Later, there are mages that do the same thing with Disintegration spells of which there really is no defense and feels a bit cheap. But, once you target them first (their hit points are not very high) they are pretty easy to get beyond most of the time. But you will be doing some reboots like you used to in the earlier games, just for a different reason. It’s not like the game beats you. You just get hit with cheap shots. The main battles these one-hit enemies are embedded with are usually just far too easy to stress you out. As such, it can get a bit grindy.
SSB does a nice job (in my opinion) of offering several 2/3 screen graphics throughout the game to push the story forward and make you feel like all of the effort is worth it. Some of the pieces use color in such creative ways, they almost look like black-light posters glowing in the dark. The graphics in this game do seem to have improved ever so slightly.
The encounters are also nicely detailed in the small picture window and even the enemy avatars in the combat mode look quite nice for as few colors as are on-screen.
However, some of the character art was simply reused and recycled from the earlier games. For example the Margoyle art in Curse finds its way back into to Silver Blades - the only difference being SSI changed the background color from gray to green.
More interestingly, the main character from Curse - Alias - can be found in Silver Blades, too, but not as Alias. She’s been repurposed as the shopkeeper in town (see a side-by-side comparison in the Screenshots section below).
She’s a tiny bit rounder (everywhere) and her art was flipped across a vertical axis. But that character art is almost exactly the same. I’m not sure if it was done as some sort of inside joke or what - or if she's supposedly one of Alias' many clones as mentioned in the novel (not joking). But if you’re playing SSB and you’ve previously played Curse, that’s a pretty stunning thing to run across. It would be like watching an episode of Superman on TV, and you notice the waiter at a restaurant in the show is the exact same actor as Clark Kent, except the show never acknowledges it. When I first saw Alias in SSB I did a total double-take.
The actual environments are extremely homogenous and repetitive, but that’s more the nature of the engine at hand. At least in SSB when you go from area to area you can quickly recognize which is which (the mines look different than the ice crevasses, for example). But there are only a small number of wall tiles used for each area. It’s really more about the map than the visual aesthetics.
All in all, SSB isn’t a bad game. But it’s also not a breathlessly great game. It is almost entirely focused on combat, but the progression in the game is very logical if a bit lacking in surprises and mental challenges. It’s not trying to fool you or trick you and is trying to generously give you everything it can think of you’ll need to win. The question is if you’ve got the steadfastness to not give up. Some of the enormous maps and repetitive and unchallenging battles can wear some folks down. If you decide to stick with it, though, you’ll eventually beat it. And that always feels good.
Technical Notes and Downloads
Secret of the Silver Blades for Amiga comes on two floppy disks. The ADFs for this game can be found elsewhere on this page for download.
Thankfully, unlike Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, SSB does not require a Digital Code Wheel to play. It does, however, require both the Adventurer’s Journal as well as the Rule Book. To launch the game you’ll be required to enter a random word pulled from the Journal (e.g. you’re told to find Word 4, Entry 53 on Page 39 and you’d type “PLAN”). It is lightly tedious but code wheels are sometimes even more maddening.
Also, while playing this game over the past month a friend of mine at the Seattle Commodore Computer Club gave me a stack of floppies he assumed contained useless data. Before formatting them, I popped a few in to see what I was about to erase. As it turns out, many of the disks were filled with Text Files created and collected by pirating groups and digital archivists. I actually found Text Files for Amiga for the entire Adventurer’s Journal and Rule Book for SSB! I’ve included those files in the Download area of this page if you’d like to see or use them with your own Amiga.
This game was played and completed on an Amiga 2000 running WB 1.3 and plenty of RAM via a hard drive installation.
Spoiler (Only One)
You are told you need to find the eight parts of Oswulf’s staff in the mines. There is one piece on each level, so you know you shouldn’t go to the next level until you find a part of it. I found all 8 parts and continued on my journey for a very long time.
It wasn’t until I got to the doors of the final castle that I really knew something was wrong. I couldn’t get in! But I had the staff. What did I miss, I asked myself.
I went back to the Well to throw gems at it and glean advice, but it didn’t tell me anything. Exasperated I actually contemplated quitting. Instead, I retraced my steps and went back to the temple to talk to the dwarf who sent me on the journey to find the staff in the first place. I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
Once I entered his chamber, he assembled the staff (which looked assembled) and told me I was good to go! All I had to do was go all the way back to the castle doors again. Luckily, a teleporter got me close enough to not make it too painful. That was really the only part of the game where I struggled. Everything else was very logical and narrowly focused for the most part.