Review: Cadaver (Bitmap Brothers)

ST Format Review

My Review

The Bitmap Brothers were absolute megastars of the 16-bit era, a team of developers known for taking established genres and polishing them to perfection to create masterpieces. Their first, Xenon, was a simple but technically fairly accomplished shooter, and they followed that with Speedball, their first effort at future sports. The formula wasn’t quite there yet however but then Xenon 2 happened (admittedly it was The Assembly Line who did the actual development with the Bitmaps handling design). At this point the Bitmaps had only really done fairly arcadey things, and indeed their later games all trend in that direction with Gods, Speedball 2, Magic Pockets and the Chaos Engine games being firmly arcade. Cadaver was a bit of a curio, the Bitmaps branching out into an adventure game with an unusual isometric style reminiscent of 8-bit classics like Head Over Heels.

Control is handled mostly by the joystick, moving around as you’d expect and the fire button handling interaction with objects – typically icons appear when you go near an interactable object and you can press fire to switch from movement to selection mode, move the joystick to pick your option, fire to confirm and then you’re back to movement. Return brings up your inventory – they couldn’t quite get everything onto a single-button joystick. Additionally pressing space will make the right-hand side panel of the normal display show the most recently-interacted object in your inventory and the icons in the interaction box update to reflect this. F1 brings up a map of what you’ve seen so far. The manual (linked below) details a few ways you can customise those controls.

Save and Load are handled by pressing S and L on the keyboard, with saves costing gold. A formatted disk is required, so if you’re using an emulator you may prefer to just use a save state instead. I’m using MiSTer emulating a 1meg STFM with TOS 1.04 which doesn’t do save states, so I’ll be saving the old-fashioned way.

I went with Automation Menu #415 which is quite a low-key menu, in part I suspect due to the difficulty in squeezing everything in. Once into the game we get treated to the story (or you could read the 9 pages of story in the manual) told in a scroll with some sampled music in the background (the Bitmaps do love a bit of sampled music). Sound in-game is less spectacular with chip-driven spot-effects in contrast to the Amiga’s samples. In the end I got fed up of the slow loading and switched to a hard disk image.

Visually, the game is a treat. To maximise detail the palette is largely drawn from two distinct hues, a bluey-grey for tiles and water, and brown for wood (and this was something of a signature approach for the Bitmaps). Indeed Karadoc himself is formed of those colours. Alongside the well-considered palette and beautifully-drawn artwork, animation is solid and the frame rate is consistently smooth. Usability is pretty solid – once you learn the controls it’s pretty easy and usually fairly self-explanatory. The only irritations are common to most isometric games – that sometimes you walk behind something and can’t see yourself (nobody had yet thought to fade out the foreground layer like The Sims does house walls) and that you can only pull an item in 4 directions rather than 8. The latter can make it hard to arrange things as one might like.

The story is revealed through scrolls and objects left lying around, a trope which continues today in many immersive sims. Progress is largely linear, and the story is on rails, not that there’s much to it. The game itself is small and self-contained, with no real hint about an outer world beyond the walls of the dungeon. Curiously it is both small and quite empty, with many rooms containing nothing of value, and yet I completed 20% of the game in a matter of an hour. It is true that games were shorter back then but it’s surprising how little there is to Cadaver.

Cadaver is a product of its time, both in its adherence to traditions of dwarves and swords and magic, and in its efforts to mimic something of the atmosphere of the kids TV series Knightmare (I have no idea whether the bitmaps stated it as an influence but it certainly has the feel of being influenced by it). The small self-contained rooms with monsters and objects to pick up, much as they could remind me of a million other things, remind me of Knightmare.

Verdict

The thing which makes Cadaver stand out from the crowd really is its atmosphere. It sells a limited game pretty well, and that’s not to denigrate it. Cadaver aims to do one thing and do it well, and there’s no shame in that. It’s a remarkable departure from the rest of the Bitmaps oevre and they are to be commended for trying something different. This is one of those occasions where their trademark graphical excellence really served to enhance the game they created (if people say graphics don’t matter tell them to fuck off – they’re right that it doesn’t matter if a game is 4k with 50 billion teraflops running at 4000 frames per second but they’re wrong that art style can make a game that is technically weak look like a masterpiece). Where it does perhaps fall down is that it doesn’t always feel like a place. At times it feels more like a puzzle constructed by some malevolent creator than a real place in which anyone lived or died, and while I get that it is intended to be a dungeon, that lack of connection with any reality is a shame, though this is something which was corrected in the data disk Cadaver – The Pay Off. It’s a very good game that you will likely have fun with, it’s just not quite a Hari Seldon Gold.

Resources

Manual: https://www.starehry.eu/download/rpg/docs/Cadaver-Manual-atrist.pdf

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