It’s a whole new year and I made a New Year’s resolution: I decided to try finishing any past games I left unfinished before trying any new game and that includes today’s subject, Eye of the Beholder!
Eye of the Beholder is a dungeon-crawling RPG developed by Westwood Studios and published by SSI. It was originally released in 1991 for the Amiga and DOS. It was ported in 1992 for the PC-98 and in 1994 for the SNES/Super Nintendo and the Sega Mega-CD. An Atari Lynx port was also being developed by NuFX but it was never released.
But as always, let’s first look at the covers:
This cover art made by Jeff Easley is considered one of the most iconic covers of all times and it’s just gorgeous and action-packed. It simply features a skeleton warrior busting through a door but the level of detail in it is simply stunning. You can almost hear the door break just by looking at it.
Most of the covers are either like this one or variations thereof, but the American SNES cover is a bit different:
While this cover isn’t as detailed as the original cover, it’s still not a bad one. As one can see, it depicts a warrior and a sorceress fighting a beholder (yes, that floating ball full of eyestalks is a beholder, one of the toughest monsters in D&D lore, which spoils the game’s story a bit).
But alas, it’s time to boot this dungeon hacker:
The game starts with some good music score for the time and then it shows a quite impressive cinematic intro. The intro features a secret council of robed individuals that decide to hire a group of adventurers to go to the sewers below the city of Waterdeep and investigate whatever is going down there, but they’re being spied on by an unseen being through a crystal ball. Then we see our group of adventurers arriving at Waterdeep and entering the sewers, which then collapses, blocking the exit.
Then we go to the character creation screen where we have to create up to four characters. We do this by choosing their race, class (or classes, if you’re multiclassing), alignment, then we reroll or modify their stats to our liking and finally we choose our characters’ appearance by a series of portraits. Although there isn’t a lot of variety of portraits to choose from, the ones that there are, aren’t bad. If you’re not familiarized with this process, then I recommend reading the manual beforehand or even the cluebook to get an idea how to form a good party. I also recommend rolling a cleric, because you’ll definitely need one.
Fighting kobolds in the first level.
And while you start the game up to four characters, you have the option to add two more NPCs to your party. You’ll find them throughout your adventure (or what’s left of some of them). You have to remember that your party is formed by two columns and who’s ever in the front of the party are the ones that’ll fight the enemies in close quarters combat and the ones behind can only attack using projectiles or magic (but be careful because if you’re attacked from behind or the sides, then the enemies can target your back characters).
The main screen during gameplay is composed of the main view on the left featuring a first-person perspective; the characters on the right (where you can use any items or click their individual portraits to access their inventory, equipment and stats); the directional buttons for movement and a compass, both just below the main view; a message screen on the bottom and a Camp button on the right-bottom corner. By clicking the Camp button, you have access to an in-game menu, where your party can rest and recover health; any clerics and mages can memorise spells (which should be the first thing you do when starting a new game); scribe any scrolls for your mage to access new spells and other game options (like save and load, although the game only has one savestate).
The dungeon is divided in 12 levels and each level is increasingly harder than the former with one or two monster types per level along with traps and puzzles. Throughout your adventure, you’ll find all types of new items, like new weapons, armor, scrolls, keys, etc. Apart from weapons, armor and food; most of the items are usually used to solve puzzles. The game encourages exploration because you’ll never know what you’ll find behind illusionary walls, traps or locked doors. Just be mindful of any cursed item (luckily there aren’t many of).
The combat is in real-time (like in every dungeon crawler RPG) and you simply click on your weapon to attack (right-click if you’re using a mouse), although to throw spells you need to first click the spellbook or a cleric’s holy symbol, then go through the pages and finally click the desired spell, which can take a while and therefore not ideal when facing a tough opponent on the heat of the battle.
The plot also gets increasingly more complex (although in general, it’s a simple plot) as your adventure progresses and don’t be surprised if you need to backtrack levels for any reason (luckily there are ways which will ease the backtracking, if you know where to look). The game also has lots of secrets to find and even some easter eggs here and there, which might encourage future replays (and also trying out different parties).
Casting a spell.
Now for the technical aspects: like I mentioned before, the game features some good music during the intro, but throughout the gameplay there isn’t any music whatsoever, which would make a good addition. But even without music, the game provides a terrifying atmosphere in how it uses its simple sound effects; while exploring the dungeon, you can hear the monsters’ footsteps (or other sounds) which will get louder and louder as your party gets closer to the monsters (and then softer after killing said monsters).
Graphically wise, the game has a good color palette and all the monsters have a great design but the animation is very limited due to the fact that all the characters only have a few frames of animation. The control scheme is also pretty good and I highly recommend the use of a mouse because the gameplay was definitely built around it.
But it’s time to refer to the elephant in the room. And by that, I mean Eye of the Beholder‘s biggest controversy (only for the DOS version though). But for that I need to issue this:
If you’re played all the way to the end (or watched my playthrough video above), you’ll see that the end is a bit on the small side (just a text message, really). Anyone that was expecting a cinematic ending in the same vein of the intro, was extremely disappointed. But the truth is, that during development, a proper ending was actually planned but because it would take another floppy disk to fit the ending, SSI decided to just cut the ending to a text message in order to save space (and money). Luckily this was only for the DOS version. All the other versions have a proper cinematic ending (which is why I recommend either playing those versions or look it up on YouTube).
OK, spoilers over!
In conclusion, it’s easy to see why Eye of the Beholder is one of the titles that popularised the first-person dungeon-crawler subgenre (which begun with Dungeon Master) and had a great success among players and critics. With a great intro, monster design, easy character creation, good control scheme (although the spell casting could be better), solid gameplay (with some hiccups here and there) and a great atmosphere, Eye of the Beholder is a true RPG classic and although it might be a bit hard for beginners (especially the final boss), it’s still an essential title to play. Needless to say that I recommend it.
“But hey, no pressure.”
If you’re interested on trying it out, you can buy it here at GOG.com along with its two sequels. And I also recommend download the All-Seeing Eye, an automap app, which I used for my playthrough (along with the official cluebook).
As far as other versions go, the Amiga version looks and plays just like the DOS version. The SNES/Super Nintendo is also very similar but since the game was designed for a mouse control scheme, it feels weird playing with a gamepad. But the Sega Mega-CD version might just be the ultimate version with new cutscenes, voice-over, an automap feature and a new soundtrack composed by Yuzo Koshiro (also responsible for the soundtracks of the Streets of Rage and Shenmue series).
In 2002, Pronto Games and Infogrames released a remake called Dungeons & Dragons: Eye of the Beholder for the Game Boy Advance. It changed the gameplay significantly by reducing the number of classes to four (but adding an extra race) and although the game still has a first-person exploration, the combat was changed to third-person perspective, similar to the D&D Gold Box series. Personally I haven’t played this title, but it wasn’t well received by players and critics alike.
But this didn’t stop for fan remakes to be made:
Whew! Talking about starting the new year with a bang! I hope you’ve enjoyed the review and I promise that 2019 will be full of great reviews like this one. Until then, keep on hacking and playing!