Review: Damocles

Damocles

ST Format Review

My Review PART ONE

For this review I’m running Steem with a 1MB STE, running TOS 1.62. I’ve picked Automation 294B, which has a pretty simple intro. Scrolly text, music, a nice picture, simple enough.

Before I go any further it’s worth giving a bit of back-story to this game. So Damocles is the sequel to Mercenary, an old 8-bit classic. Both games were written by one man, Paul Woakes, an absolute legend. Damocles was notable at the time for taking 4 years to make, bearing in mind the rate of development at that time made such a lengthy development process a truly bad idea. He pulled it off though.

The long wait for the game is even worked into the story, which goes thus. The planet Eris is going to be hit by a comet. This was figured out ages ago but nobody did anything other than talk and form committees. Eventually everyone evacuated and the President (Margaret – this was during the time of Margaret Thatcher and this is a British game) called for your assistance. You were unexpectedly delayed, and now have 3 hours to save the solar system. You are free to explore that entire solar system, but beware of time dilation when flying very very fast in space. Before you know it, time will run out and you’ll see Eris get splatted by a comet. Unusually for the time, if you screw up the game carries on and you are still free to explore what’s left of the solar system.

Your computer assistant, Benson, is wonderfully sarcastic in that very 90s way, and the whole game can be said to be very Hitchhiker’s Guide in its sense of humour. If you’re not dead inside you’ll have a few good laughs here.

Once the game has loaded it throws you straight into the action – we arrive on autopilot into the Gamma system and head for Eris (straight ahead) diving straight into the atmosphere.

We make our way down to the surface. In shot are Capital City (green), Bare Island (brown) and Snow Island (white – at the planet’s pole). Key West and Velos aren’t in shot.

Coming in to land at the spaceport.

So we’ve landed, time to go and get the key for my car in that building. The car is the brown shape on the right. A quick note on performance. In flight frame rates are pretty good, around 20-30 fps I’d say. Walking around outside near complex shapes it slows down a bit, to something closer to 5 fps, but inside buildings it tends to speed back up again as it’s not rendering quite so much distance. Controls are sane. Joystick to turn left or right or walk forwards or backwards, with R toggling run mode. Sound is sparse, some burbles for Benson talking to you, and some samples for the automatic doors, plus the occasional explosion sound when someone’s shooting at you.

Objects in the game are presented as oversized objects like this. I can pick it up by pressing the up arrow, cycle my inventory with the side arrows (some will turn the ‘Damocles’ in the middle into a control panel of some sort) and drop the current selected item with a press of the down arrow. So far so easy.

With key in hand, this is my car. A little more on the control panel – the box saying Eris tells you the nearest planet, and to the right of that is your current speed. Below that are two co-ordinates – the planet co-ordinate and the local island co-ordinate, with the altitude next to that. The central panel becomes an interactive panel if you have a suitable object selected (you’ll see that soon) and on the right we have the inventory. The red bar on the left deals with temperature, while the right deals with air pressure. The bar in the inventory tells you how full the inventory is. We have 3 lights below the inventory – the one lit up is run mode, the others tell you if you’re getting too close to the ground in a plane or spaceship and whether you’re under attack.

I’ll (B)oard the car with the B button and (L)eave it with L, and set its speed with the keys 1-9, with space used to stop and the joystick controlling direction. My first task is to go to the president’s occice at the end of the road.

I’m on the road, let’s find this house. By the way – you can see the sun there – there is a complete (accelerated) day night cycle with all the planets orbiting the sun and moons orbiting the planets in the way you’d expect, and some of them are visible in the night sky, depending on which planet you’re on.

This looks like it. Like most buildings in the game it features multiple rooms over multiple floors (we have entire tower blocks) and while the interiors are sparse it’s still pretty cool. All of this is held in memory with no disk access whatsoever.

The president messages through Benson complaining that I’m here finally but was meant to be here months ago, that Eris will be destroyed in a few hours, and advising me to read the Damocles file.

Before I do that I’m going to nick the air conditioner so I have something to sell at a trading post and get some money.

The Damocles file. I pick it up, enter to open it, * to read, + and – for next and previous items. Simple. In it, I am informed that Eris is due to be hit by a comet – a parliamentary committee has been sitting for 30 years considering the problem, publishing many reports but not actually doing anything useful. There are 5 ways to solve the problem*, and we are told that Professor Hantzen has developed a bomb powerful enough to blow up the comet. The problem however is that Margaret and the prof had a falling out after a game of chess and aren’t on speaking terms. Hantzen has since disappeared. The green party on Dion have put a preservation order on Damocles and may be quite pissed off if we blow it up – there are of course options to avoid such a thing. There’s a large reward for saving Eris (well I am a mercenary) without destroying the comet – the reasoning being that a comet might be a useful tourist attraction. It then tells me to go to the lift at the end of the 2nd floor.

Upon arrival Margaret contacts me to let me know that while she’s not there in person (having evacuated) she is there in spirit. She then gives me some co-ordinates for Hantzen’s lab on Bare Island (06-05 – btw you will want a notepad handy when playing this game). She then informs me my spacecraft key is in the basement. Said spacecraft is waiting at the Moorby School Of Flying and tells me to use the road opposite this building to reach it.

* those 5 methods are basically different ways to blow up Damocles, or avoid blowing it up by blowing up Icarus before Damocles passes it. Icarus is this solar system’s Mercury – essentially hot and useless.

This is my spacecraft. Now while I’m being asked to go to Hantzen’s lab, I have a bit of prior knowledge from playing previously and will thus instead first go to 12-14 on Capital City to pick up something useful at the post office. It’s a GPS device.

Here’s the device – I’m being informed here that they’ve moved to a new office at 00-10 on Birmingham Island on Dion, which means there’s probably something there worth knowing about. So, my shopping list for places to check out is:

Eris – Bare Island – 06-05 – Hantzen’s Office
Dion – Birmingham Island – 00-10 – Eris Post Office Temporary HQ

Ahead is Bare Island, and you can see my A-Z computer in action telling me so. As I move around the island it will tell me what each building is.

Here you can see the road network for Bare Island. Typically a building is at each intersection and at even spacings along each road. This is how the game manages to achieve its rendering speed, because it never has to render more than one building at a time.

Now this is an accident but I appear to have found a building that might be useful. I’ll pop along to his lab in due course but let’s look at his admin building.

This is the lift in this office block and that’s my spaceship outside. I can press B for the basement, G for ground and 1-9 for numbered floors. If the floor doesn’t exist the lift simply won’t move.

Here I am on the top floor of the building, I’ve found a Geiger Counter. Not terribly useful but on the other hand it makes for an interesting screenshot with the road outside in the background.

Getting lost, going the wrong direction, I end up at Hantzen Sales which seems like a worthwhile building to visit. Turns out it’s very worthwhile as this is a teleporter. It can teleport me to 9 locations around the solar system.

Testing the teleporter I go to location 2 which turns out to be Verdant Party (green party) HQ. I’ll come back here in a bit, I suspect it’ll be useful, and it’s faster than flying the spaceship to Dion if I want to get to the post office. I’ll have to keep a note of where I leave my spaceship if I do though. Luckily it looks like there’s a car outside and no doubt there’ll be a key available somewhere in the building so I can steal the car. Back to Bare Island however, I need to get to Hantzen’s Office.

Back at Hantzen sales I have a quick look for things to loot – a timed detonator in the basement seems like something that might be useful if I’m blowing up a comet. A happy accident of course but the whole point of the game is to explore and find interesting things. There are a huge number of interesting things to find scattered around the solar system. Some useful, some not.

I eventually make it to Hantzen’s lab, finding Door Key B in the basement. Useful.

So here’s some explosive just lying around. This seems like a bad idea.

His office – I need to drop the explosives for now as I don’t have room in my inventory and need to pick up the notepad to read it. So this is a memo pad.
‘Thu 12th: Monique – last night I fixed your word processor’
‘Fri 13th: Monique – Letter to Novagen as follows: Paul – I know there’s every reason to be late but I must have the four detonators complete and ready for me to prime by the 18th latest. Paragraph. Damocles is due in 2 weeks! – Regards – Ralph’
‘Tue 17th: Monique – Letter to State President as follows: My dear Margaret – thank you for your letter. Paragraph. I do know that there are only 10 days to go on the project for the destruction of Damocles. Paragraph. The bomb is complete and although Novagen is behind schedule, the detonators will be posted to you and three other trustees in good time. Paragraph. I do look forward to our chess game next week. Yours affectionately – Ralph.’
‘Wed 18th: Monique – Despatch detonators to trustees today’
‘Fri 20th: Monique – None of the detonators have arrived! Please check urgently with Eris Post Office. I’m off to the country house for the weekend.’
‘Tue 24th: Monique – It just will not do to know that all four parcels have been temporarily lost by the post office sorting office on Snow Island. There is no time to make any more detonators. I want positive results by tomorrow – Ralph! PS I’m with the state president this evening.’
‘Wed 25th: Monique – If that */-#! phones – tell her I have gone on holiday – and not to Eris either – Ralph’

Looks like I’ve got work to do. Need to get to the sorting office on Snow Island to find out what’s going on. First however I need to read the top secret file sat open on another desk in the same room. This is the Novabomb file. The penalty for leaking its contents is 15 years at Pan Hades labour camp. It tells of the Novabomb which is immensely powerful and can destroy even large planets. Its location is known only to the prof for delivery on the day. It should be placed on the surface of the comet for remote detonation. The bomb is safe for one hour of exposure due to radiation. It tells of the need for 4 detonators, which are disguised as everyday items.

Onwards, to Snow Island.

So, a quick recap. I’ve landed on Eris, there’s a comet coming to smash the planet. I’m in the office of the guy who has designed and built the bomb to blow the comet up, and I’ve found a teleporter which will take me to key locations. There’s a novabomb which only the absent professor knows the location of, but it’s likely he sent it and it got lost by the post service. Similarly, there are 4 detonators disguised as everyday items. We continue the hunt at the post office on Snow Island. The challenge of course will be finding it, but with my trusty A-Z computer I’ll hunt for it, and stop off at other interesting places while I’m there no doubt.

Turns out there’s not much on Snow Island. Just a lot of igloos. Anyway, I found the sorting office fairly quickly. Time to go and have a look inside.

This may look like a humble cupboard, but it’s actually Nova Trigger 2. In another room there’s also a clipboard full of complaints.
1. From Eris Post Office HQ 12-14 Capital City: You’ve lost 4 parcels, please send loss report forms.
– Reply: to Eris Post Office temp HQ (00-10 Birmingham Island Dion) here are the forms
– Lost 1: Addressed to state president at Vesta Parliament. Refused delivery and ordered return to sender. Sent to prof’s new lab address. This address is not specified.
– Lost 2: Sent to Eris Commissioner of Police on Eris Capital – returned marked gone away and held here (presumably the cupboard I picked up).
– Lost 3: Sent to Wilberforce K Dodd, Governor of Bank Of Gaea. Will write to local postman for report.
– Lost 4: Sent to Lord Chief Justice Pickles on Metis. Will write to local postman for report.

Ok so we’ve found 1, but the other 3 are a mystery. I’ll need to do local investigations on Gaea and Metis to find out what happened there, and will need to find out where Hantzen’s new lab is (I presume not on Eris). Given there is reference to attachments, I also wonder if there’s any information to be had at the temporary post office HQ – this might indicate the location of the prof’s new lab address. It’s worth a shot.

Before that though I’m going to fly around Capital City to see if I stumble upon anything fun. In this game exploration pays. Also, you generally won’t solve things on your first play. Instead, you use each play, with each explosion of Eris, to find out more about the solar system so that you eventually have enough information to ace it in one final push.

Like an idiot I spotted a building – exchequer district A. The taxman then promptly took all of my money. Let’s go back to an earlier save…

At the GUM store I find a massive spanner. I am a massive spanner. Right, enough dicking about, time to go to the temporary post office HQ on Dion. There’s a teleporter which will get me there faster than my spaceship, I found it in Hantzen Sales on Bare Island. To Bare Island we go.

Entering the teleporter, just for shits and giggles I go to the Down arrow (I’m at teleporter 1, 2 is on Dion at Verdant Party HQ). 0 is apparently at Hantzen’s new house on Gaea. It’s tastefully decorated. This seems worth investigating.

I find a sideboard, which it turns out is Nova Trigger 1. That leaves only the ones on Gaea and Metis to find, I’d say. A useful accident. May as well poke around to see if there’s anything else useful here.

I come across a fax machine (young people won’t know what that is.. it’s 90s email – you put paper in and it would scan the paper and send that picture over the phone to someone else and their fax machine would print it out).
– Shippers have put his effects in storage at 09-02, this includes a piano which is very valuable.
– The novabomb is equivalent in power to 8 explosives at maximum power. Presumably then I could get 8 lots of explosives at full power and use that to blow up Damocles.

Key B which I picked up earlier in the basement of Hantzen Sales allows me to open the front door. There’s a car outside but I lack a key for it. Back to the transporter.

Going down to teleporter 9 and 8 take me to worlds too cold or airless (Mentor and Bacchus) – with 10 seconds of survival time I manage to run around them and get to the next destinations, and 7 is DHSS House on Logos. The DHSS used to be the department that paid unemployment benefit in the UK if anyone’s wondering. I wonder what I might find in such a place. Not much, it turns out, and the outside is too cold to survive at night. Onwards.

Transporter 6 finds me at the Trade Commission on Gaea, and there’s a key for a car, which is handily parked outside. This should give me a decent shot at exploring this island on Gaea. For now I’ll leave the key here and continue on to Dion, checking out the other teleporter locations. 5 is a nondescript basement on Eris. 4 takes me to Vesta Parliament. This seems like somewhere where I might find something fun. I find a scroll on a desk. This scroll is a series of proposed laws including a proposal for a Poll Tax. This is of course topical as Margaret in the real world was proposing such a tax and.. well it led to pretty widespread rioting. Amusingly it also includes a proposal for equal rights for green haired purple-skinned quadrupeds which seems a very 2020 joke. There’s a key for a car.

Transporter 2 sees me at Dooberry’s Solicitors on Metis, where I find a Filofax (how very 80s – for those too young to know it’s like a diary/address book for yuppies – nope, you’re not going to get it). It contains funnies, but nothing of value. Metis has no air so going outside is out of the question. Avoid floor 8 where you’re informed you’ve been sued for costs.. reload..

Just at Dooberry’s and about to skip the 8th floor, when I spotted the comet out the window. I’ve not got long, having already used a third of my available time. Eris will almost certainly get splatted but that’s ok. I’ll come back for a second go stronger (I’m avoiding walkthroughs and thankfully can’t remember specific locations of things thankfully so this is a fairly faithful ‘first play’ albeit I know the mechanics and the general gist).

The key I picked up at Vesta parliament gets me this car on Dion. Time to go exploring. I’d prefer a spaceship but flying between planets costs time so this is the most sensible option for now (though the lack of aerial view makes mapping a little tricky). Next stop, the new post office HQ (assuming I don’t encounter anything cool en-route).

Looks like I’m heading in the right direction.

And here I am, at the temporary Eris Post Office HQ (though quite what they’ll do if Eris is destroyed is uncertain – so why bother relocating the office?). In the first room I find a bed, and a notepad on a table. The notepad informs me of Hantzen’s new address (which I’ve already found via transporters). So, I’m a bit short of leads right now. That said, we know that one was lost on Gaea and one was lost on Metis. The former I can get to via transporters and I have transport. Metis however lacks an atmosphere so I’ll need to find some means to breathe, or bring a spaceship and land right next to buildings and make mad dashes in and out of them. Onwards, to Gaea.

A quick stop at Lawson Bank to get a nice snap of the bank, a road, and the comet approaching the sun. Lawson Bank was so named because the Chancellor at the time of coding was Nigel Lawson, who these days is better known as the father of Nigella Lawson (does anyone get the feeling he was hoping for a son?).

Would someone please tell me how this…

… created this…

.. because it’s a complete mystery to me.

So this is my ride on Gaea. Time to do some exploring to see what I find.

Leaving the building and following the road round, the first named building I encounter is this one, the Bank of Gaea – which just so happens to be where the Gaea recipient worked. Let’s go inside.

Gold in the basement.. hmm.. well I’m not the most moral person in the world. Besides, I need some cash. Need to find a trading post of course.

Ah a desk, a chair and a clipboard. The clipboard will surely have something funny on it. Turns out it’s a receipt. An acknowledgement of receipt of the item. He has however taken it to be payment for debts rather than something more important, and has thus sold it. It then gives me a location for the trading post. The trading post paid 30000 credits and I’ve only got 9000. Looks like I’ll need some cash. Hopefully there’s some other trading posts nearby where I can sell the key for the Limo on Eris and the gold. I might come back for the sofa, the desk and the chair if need be. No leads yet on the actual bomb, but hopefully something will come up.

So here’s the trading post, and they’re asking for 40000 credits. I’ve got 9000. Time to see if I can make some money.

And here’s an empty trading post. Time to go sell something. A kidney maybe?

So the way this works is you cycle your inventory, and the price appears. If you’re happy to trade, you drop the item and get the cash. Simple. Each trading post only deals with a single item (something that the scroll in Vesta parliament proposed a law to fix – a nod to the technical limitations of the game lampshaded for comedy). I now have some cash.

If I leave and come back this is the price to buy back the gold.. a 100% markup! Cheeky bastards!

So I want to buy the hi-fi. All I need to do is pick the object up when I have enough cash and it’s mine.

And as you can see it’s one of the triggers.. wait I paid 40000 for that you rip-off bastards.

So I’m going to stop there as I don’t want this to turn into a full solution – I want you guys to have fun playing it. This is a genuinely great game. Looking at it from 2020 it’s clear there are technical limitations. The spacing apart of the buildings, the single-object trading posts, the lack of humans, etc. And yet none of it matters. The game evokes a wonderfully desolate alien atmosphere that you end up just not caring about those things, and its world is so well-realised and beautifully-written that it drags you in. Finding things is hard, but that’s part of the fun, it’s a treasure hunt. It’s notable that the sequel (Mercenary 3: The Dion Crisis which I plan to cover in a similar way) gets around some of these problems by having people in the game, albeit in a limited way, and a public transport network (with bus timetables printed and in the box). The thing is that this game just puts my brain in such a wonderful place. The relaxed pace (even with that timer) means I can soak up the world and have some fun. It’s glorious.

It’s pretty damn cool and hugely ahead of its time in so many ways, though perhaps something of an evolutionary cul-de-sac where Midwinter can trace its lineage down to the modern Far Cry games, Damocles has never really been copied or extended, which is a dreadful shame.

If you have some spare time, jump into this extraordinary world created by an extraordinary man. Paul Woakes created something genuinely beautiful. Go and enjoy it.

Resources
Map of Gamma System: http://www.atarimania.com/st/boxes/hi_res/damocles_novagen_uk_i_9.jpg
Manual: https://www.mediafire.com/file/a752wnzvhdhx51b/Damocles_Manual.pdf/file
Windows Conversion/Remake: http://mercenarysite.free.fr/mddclone.htm
Save game at end of this review: https://www.mediafire.com/file/7qyvie2yooqrxoh/Damocles-003.sts/file

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