Thursday, 31 October 2019

NGOTM: l'Abbaye des Morts (Locomalito, 2010)

Written by Locomalito, with music, sounds and promo art by Gryzor87. Originally released as freeware for Windows PC's in 2010.

Port for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k:
Programming by Yuri "Jerri" Potapov. In-game graphics and music by Paolo "Dark Horace" Arus. Loading screen by Einar Saukas. Published as digital freeware in 2014, and also a physical release by RetroWorks.

Port for the Sega Megadrive/Genesis:
Programming by Mun/MoonwatcherMD. Graphics by Gerardo Herce, Felipe Monge Corbala, Daniel Nevado and Igor Errazkin. Sounds by Paolo Arus and Manuel Gómez. Cover by Felibe Monge Corbala, Masterklown and Ozar Midrashim. Published digitally at itch.io and as a physical cartridge by PlayOnRetro and Mega Cat Studios in 2017.

Port for the Commodore 64:
Programming by Antonio Savona. Graphics by Saul Cross. Music by Gryzor and Saul Cross. Package design by Jason MacKenzie. Published by Double Sided Games and Psytronik Software in 2019.

Also released for Linux, MacOS, OUYA, Pandora, Nintendo Wii, GCW0 and Sony PlayStation Portable. The game is also reported to be in the making for at least MSX, ColecoVision, Commodore Amiga (AGA) and Sega Dreamcast.

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INTRODUCTION & GAME REVIEW


Due to the imminent arrival of yet another Halloween, and despite my previous lack of planning ahead, I decided to rush out a comparison of a few select versions of one of the most celebrated retro-styled horror-platforming games of the last decade: l'Abbaye des Morts. The reasons for only doing a comparison of a select few versions are simply, that most of the versions are basically carbon copies of the original, that it would be stupid going through all of them and finding nothing of importance, and secondly, I personally don't have access to most of the required hardware. So we only focus on the most retroest conversions currently available, in addition to the original.

Loading screen from the Commodore 64 version.
L'Abbaye des Morts is arguably one of the most notable by-products of retro-styled platforming adventure game boom that exploded with Studio Pixel's Cave Story (Doukutsu Monogatari) from 2004, which has already reached the status of a classic. While that particular game is one of the most perfect examples of the subgenre known as "Metroidvania", "l'Abbaye" takes its main influence from various flip-screen arcade/platforming adventures, such as the Dizzy series, Underwurlde, Wanted: Monty Mole and Dynamite Dan; and rather obviously, from a purely stylistic point of view, this was all about the Speccy, even though the game was originally made for modern PC's.

So, obviously, the game had to be converted to the source of inspiration at some point, which in turn made others work on other ports for various machines, some of which got finished, and some didn't. The most interesting and, as such, perhaps the most awaited ports were done for the 16-bit Sega console and the Commodore 64, and we're still waiting for more to appear. Since earlier this year, the three versions published for retro machines are the only ones that are actually sold in certain online stores on tape and cartridge. That said, Locomalito's website still considers them unofficial ports.

Loading screen from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version.

Putting that aside, though, l'Abbaye des Morts continues to fascinate and enthrall gamers every time a new version pops up. It's probably the history-based setting of a Cathar cleric getting himself hunted by Catholic crusaders in 13th century France. This cleric, Jean Raymond, finds himself locked inside an abandoned church and gradually finds out the horrific fate of twelve brothers who descended into the depths of the Abbey of Death. The game is almost purely explorational, aside from picking up flashing crosses and reading some letters for clues, but with the stylistic decisions, the unhappy winding of the tale, and the ever darkening atmosphere, l'Abbaye des Morts keeps a grip on you long after you have managed to finish it. However you feel about retro-styled games for modern platforms, this one deserves its cult classic status, and should be rated still higher than it is.

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PLAYABILITY


Moving around in l'Abbaye is fairly simplistic. You just have to walk left and right, jump and crouch. In the original PC version, you only need the Space Bar for jumping, and the arrow keys do the rest. The SPECTRUM port allows you to configure keys to your own liking, as well as use a Kempston joystick, in which case the fire button acts as the jump igniter. The C64 port only utilises a joystick in port 2, with the fire button again doing the job for jumping. In the SEGA version, all the basic fire buttons (A, B and C) are used as the jump button. In the PC version, pressing ESC will quit to desktop.

The idea is to collect 20 crosses from the catacombs, and beat the final boss enemy, which, being a game based on a religious theme, might not come as a surprise, is Satan himself. Having no weapons at all, the final battle might sound rather strange, but the reason for collecting all the crosses (or at least, most of them) will become clear only once you enter the final room. Collecting the crosses requires turning a switch occasionally, which can be found only in a certain room within the map, so this obviously necessitates a lot of going back and forth, making the game rather longer than its number of rooms would normally do. Regardless of the relatively small number of rooms in the game, the map has plenty of checkpoints to activate for respawning, which makes the game quite a lot more pleasurable to play, than without.

For the lack of weapons, you are also given a fair amount of extra lives to pick up, which will, I assure you, not be nearly enough on your first attempt, but with plenty of practice, the game is fairly completeable. The thing is, there are a few tricky puzzles you need to solve, for which you get some help in form of a storyline as pages you pick up. Additionally, some of the rooms have devilishly hard jumping segments to pass through, which could easily consume a few extra lives in a few seconds.

The default number of given lives at the beginning of the game is nine (9). The only version that gives you a different number of lives is the SEGA version, but only in the native Sega mode. See, there are 7 different modes in the game, which usually do nothing more than alter the graphics - which we will obviously get into in the next section. All the alternate modes give you the full 9 lives to start with, but the normal Sega native mode gives you only five, and then you also get a hard mode, which gives you just one life to start with, which seems to be the only actual difference between the normal and hard modes.

Apart from that, there aren't too many notable gameplay differences between the retro remake/demake versions, but there are plenty of subtle ones. One of the most notable subtle differences is the walking speed of Jean Raymond, which can be checked most easily in the screen above the entrance of the Abandoned Church (namely, Tower of the Bell): in the SPECTRUM and native SEGA versions, your character walks slower than default. The walking speed in the SPECTRUM version is the exact same to the two rats in the room, and in the SEGA version, you do go slightly faster than the rats, but still not quite as quickly as in the original version. The C64 version has Jean Raymond walk the original speed, but the effect is slightly skewed by the wider screen size.

Coincidentally, the "Tower of the Bell" screen is also good for checking the jumping ability of Jean Raymond. The C64 version has him jump slightly higher than in any other version, managing to reach the second-lowest platform (leading to the bell) from the floor. Then again, the platform placings might not be exactly like in the other versions, so it's hard to say, really. The C64 version also has some of the enemy sprite bumping into each other, such as the two rats in the aforementioned screen, whereas in every other version, they just pass each other and continue their predefined paths. Since we are speaking of the C64 version, some of the other enemies also act a bit differently, sometimes just to accomodate the altered screen size, but some enemies' movement patterns have been altered disregarding the screen size alteration. It affects the full experience very little, but in a few screens, you're going to need a different strategy than in the original game. Quite uniquely, the C64 version has a hidden area in the game, which is called "the Hacker room", which is a fast side-scrolling avoid'em-up. You can't access it, though, without a bit of hacking, or more probably and likely, downloading a cracked version from CSDb, which has a setting that will allow you to start the game in the said room.

The SEGA version is similarly affected, although not nearly as notably so. Only the two rightmost green bees in the "Plagued ruins" room annoyed me a bit, because they move at the same speed, rather than at slightly different speeds. Also, in the "Hidden garden" screen, the poisonous drops that the plants spit actually flow through ground here, and continue to pose as threat as long as they remain on screen, instead of just vanish as they touch ground, as they do in all the other versions of the game. A nice touch, to be sure, and makes the screen more challenging, which is a welcome surprise. However, the most annoying thing about the SEGA version is, that every time you activate a checkpoint or do something other that's even mildly consequential (ring the bell or get inside the abbey), the game makes a brief dramatic pause. Even if it's small, it still ruins the flow of the game, particularly since it happens a lot - even in the DOS graphics mode, although it's otherwise the closest to the original in gameplay. Similarly to the C64 version, although the SEGA version did it first, perhaps to make up for all the slight annoyances, the developers have included a couple of hidden rooms into the game as a bonus.

I suppose it's only to be expected, if not obvious, that the SPECTRUM version gets the screen size and the enemy movement patterns the closest to the original PC version, but that doesn't mean the other versions don't work as well. In fact, I would hazard a guess you wouldn't notice unless you made a point of comparing all the versions. That said, I think it's a good thing that there are these small differences between the four principal versions - if not for any other reason, then just to give this comparison something worth mentioning.

In short, I would say that the SEGA version is the most difficult version, although also the most rewarding one due to the "hidden" bonus screens, while the C64 version is perhaps the easiest one for the most part. The SPECTRUM version is just slightly slower to play than the original PC version, but otherwise they're both the optimal standards to which the others are compared. Due to this odd balance, I refrain from giving scores until the very end of this entry.

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GRAPHICS


This is, for the most part, going to be a difficult one to ponder on. Not because the obvious principal choice should be the PC version, as it's the most purely executed one in the intended style (minus the attribute clash), but because all the versions are really well made in their own respective styles, that it's hard to make any decisions upon anything other than the sheer amount of graphics, as is given in the SEGA version.


Graphics modes in the Sega Megadrive/Genesis version.


As I mentioned previously, there are 7 different graphic modes in the SEGA version. You get these kinds of faux-versions of CGA, Game Boy, C64, MSX and PCW graphics, of which the C64 one is the least like how it looks like on the real thing.

More screenshots from the Sega Megadrive/Genesis version.
Additionally, you get the very much 16-bit SEGA native graphics, as well as the Speccy-style as displayed in the original PC version of the game. The amount of graphic style options alone would be enough to give the SEGA version the highest spot on this list, but it just so happens, that apart from the faux-C64 look, the alternative graphics are all rather splendidly made, as are all their respective animations. Still, the SEGA native mode graphics are the main reason for playing the said version, for there are no other true 16-bit versions out there. Not yet, at least.

Screenshots from the original PC/Windows version.
This might be a good time to give a small reminder: there exists a cross-platform SDL-version of l'Abbaye des Morts, which has been so far done for GNU/Linux (32/64-bits), FreeBSD, OpenPandora, CGW Zero, Nintendo Wii, PlayStation Portable, XBox and Nintendo 3DS, and a version for Nintendo Switch is in the works. In addition to the original graphics, the SDL-version has a 16-bit graphics mode, which differs notably from the Sega graphics. But since we're only touching upon the versions released for retro platforms, let's get back to them.

Screenshots from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version.
Like the original PC game, the SPECTRUM version lacks some of the animations featured in the later versions, such as ringing the bell in the tower (it just turns darker yellow) and the opening of the trapdoor to the catacombs. You also get the one thing that the original PC version forgot to add to make it feel more authentic in its speccyness: colour clash. It's a bit diverting, but happily, doesn't affect the gameplay one jot.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.
Oddly enough, it seems as if the C64 version has the most effort put into animations - particularly the lightning strikes in the title screen and Jean Raymond's walking. I'm also very happy to report, that the true C64 version looks almost nothing like the faux-C64 mode in the SEGA version: the overt blockiness is replaced by more colourful hi-res graphics, arguably more inviting than the PC original and SPECTRUM versions. Whether that's a good thing or not is perhaps a personal matter, but it's definitely more inspiring to look at than the decidedly monochromatic original style. Although the SEGA version is easily the more colourful one, and has more details for obvious reasons, the true C64 graphics aren't far behind.

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SOUNDS


Despite being originally stylized like a ZX Spectrum game, l'Abbaye des Morts' original version doesn't actually sound exactly like a Spectrum game. Sure, the basic style of sounds is very Speccy'ish with all the beepy music and odd blurpy noises, but there's just too much low frequencies, too much dynamics and too many polyphonic sounds in the mix to be considered properly Spectrum-like. That said, the soundtrack is profoundly atmospheric and suits the dark feel of the subject matter perfectly, even in its relatively minimalistic approach. The composer, who goes by the pseudonym "Gryzor87", has done an amazing job in emphasizing the feel of the game with strange 40's/50's black-and-white horror movie music in simple beeps, and the soundtrack consists of six distinctly different tunes, as well as one quiet room that only has a short effect as you enter the room (Hangman tree), and the short opening fanfare. Additionally, you get at least five different rather nice sound effects to play on top of all the music.

The actual SPECTRUM version can be loaded in 48k mode, which will feature a rather limited set of beeper sound effects, and no music at all, while the 128k mode features as perfect a conversion of the entire original soundtrack in AY-form, along with the sound effects, as possible. Still, as expected, the soundtrack isn't quite as dynamic as the original PC version, and it lacks the oomph of the low frequencies very much present in the PC original, and it even plays a bit faster than the original soundtrack, but despite all that, it's as close to the proposed ideal as you could ever want. That is, if a strict Spectrum-style is your ideal... which, of course, in the case of this particular case, is nothing
less than the proposed standard.

Saul Cross' soundtrack for the C64 version kicks off a bit differently, with a tune that's used already elsewhere in the game - specifically, the one that starts playing as you enter the catacombs. It's fitting, to be sure, as it's the tune that plays for the majority of time as you play, but that counts as one less tune for the C64 soundtrack, unless you count the exclusive loading tune as one. Of course, you would need to have a tape version to hear it, but it's there. Another anomaly here is, that the "Hangman tree" screen features the same music as the rest of the church's ground-level screens. Aside from the few omissions, though, the soundtrack has been made to take full advantage of the SID-chip, and it sounds like it was made by one of the great classic SID composers, like Tim Follin or Jonathan Dunn, perhaps, but as a perfectly fitting tribute to the source material, and to my ears at least, it easily wins over the original beeping soundtrack. The library of sound effects isn't quite as plentiful as in the PC and 128k SPECTRUM versions, but it's adequate, and the nice surprise in the ending makes up for anything missing.

Finally, the SEGA version features a couple of different takes of the entire soundtrack. If you consider the usual Segaesque plasticity of sound, you will be happy to notice it's not quite as plastic as you would expect, although you cannot escape having some of it. Also, the C64 mode gives a surprisingly good estimation of how an actual C64 version would sound, before the actual version was made - although the estimation only concerns the music, not sound effects. But that's the only mode that has a different soundtrack from the others. It would have been nice to have the original beepy PC/Spectrumesque soundtrack also included, but still, that's one complete extra soundtrack for a game that could have easily done with just one. And of course, you get a bunch of fitting sound effects, too.

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VIDEO (EVENTUALLY) & OVERALL


Before getting into the final results, I wanted to give you a video presentation of what I've been talking about so far. The video doesn't show everything there is to know regarding all the versions' differences and specific points of interest, but rather a general view of the graphics, sounds and gameplay, roughly within the first half of the game.



Giving scores to a game that's rather new, and more specifically, made for a modern platform with the specific design choice of making the game look, sound and feel very close to games on the ZX Spectrum, had to be approached differently from my earlier comparisons. Also, due to the differences between all the versions, it seemed unfathomable to put all the versions against each other. After all, they all have their own gameplay quirks, their own specific graphical approaches and even soundtracks - all to create the best possible experience of the same game using each machine's own specific strengths. So, this is how I score each version, based on their own values:



And there you have it. The scores above are, of course, mostly my personal opinion, but you should try them all out for yourselves and find your own favourites. But despite my opinions, the SEGA version gives the most replay value (Rep) with its many graphic modes and different soundtracks, as well as the two difficulty levels to choose from. The original PC and SPECTRUM versions are, the way I see it, only as good as they are supposed to be, and the C64 version tries to act as an upgrade from those in some ways.

As noted in the credits section at the top, the game is currently being ported to many other retro platforms, of which the closest to being finished one is for the ColecoVision. The graphics are very much the same you find featured in the SEGA version as MSX graphics, but the gameplay, at least according to the latest development video, looks a bit different. Perhaps I shall update this entry whenever I have the chance to test the finished product thoroughly. Meanwhile, you can see the suggested cover art for the ColecoVision version next to the other three retro remake covers here:


Cover art, left to right:
Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Sega Megadrive/Genesis, ColecoVision (suggested)

Thanks for reading, and happy Halloween!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another great review and comparison. Somehow I missed news of this game's releases and didn't know about it until now. Thankfully it is still available.

    ReplyDelete