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After publishing a couple of relatively successful role-playing games developed by Paragon Software and MPS Labs' mega-hit Darklands in the early 1990s, MicroProse decided to take on in-house development of a couple of role-playing titles of their own. The first of these was Challenge of the Five Realms: Spellbound in the World of Nhagardia, and with a subtitle like that, you would think that the company was at least considering the idea of expanding the game into a series. That unfortunately never happened, but what we're left with is a solid party-based role-playing game that can easily stand on its own merits.
Challenge of the Five Realms was clearly inspired by ORIGIN's Ultima VI: The False Prophet, which released a couple of years prior. Not only does the game pose a dozen questions to the player during character creation in order to determine starting attributes and skills (each reflecting the role of a diplomat, thief, warrior, or wizard), but it also borrows a few gameplay ideas (such as the need for spell components), the overhead graphical design, and a handful of interface conventions. With that said, however, CotFR also has many unique aspects that sets it apart from U6 and other titles of the same era - your party can span a total of ten characters, a single "character" in the party can actually be an entire squad (a group of archers, a band of swordsmen), character progression spans five attributes and thirty-three useful skills (that allow puzzles and other challenges to be solved in multiple ways), an attribute- and skill-influenced "PAL" system that provides feedback from party members during obstacles, and environments to explore that aren't usually found in your typical fantasy RPG (including an underwater realm and a kingdom in the sky).
Due to their diversity and uncommon nature, the skill and "PAL" systems are especially worth digging into. The thirty-three skills are spread out over five different categories - Physical, Combat, Personality, Mental, and Magic - and many of them even serve multiple functions within the game. For example, the Crime skill determines your effectiveness at both stealing and picking locks, the Observation skill determines your effectiveness at both discovering secret objects and detecting hidden enemies, and the Charisma skill affects everything from merchant prices to persuading NPCs to join your party. The "PAL" system helps you to keep track of when certain skills should be used and which characters in your party should execute them. Each character has a specific personality assigned to them - one might be "cynical", another "cowardly", and yet another "aggressive". Whenever you reach a point where a decision must be made or an obstacle must be overcome, you receive "PAL" suggestions that are based on your party's composition for how best to approach the situation. You don't have to follow the suggestions that are given, but it's a neat feature nonetheless.
In the game, you assume the role of the Prince of Alonia, one of five realms of Nhagardia, which you'll quickly learn is a flat disc-shaped world that doesn't revolve around its sun and therefore experiences eternal sunshine. Your mother, Queen Feya, died in an accident ten years before the game begins and your father, King Clesodor, has banned all magic in the kingdom since her death. After your father is murdered by a sorcerer named Grimnoth during the beginning cutscene, you take it upon yourself to travel through Alonia and the other four realms in Nhagardia to save them from the spread of Grimnoth's "Plague of Darkness". You have 100 days to complete the task, so despite the fact that the game has an absurd number of side quests, you must retain a sense of urgency throughout the game in order to successfully finish it. In addition to the vast amount of side quests eating up your time, the game is filled with a plethora of well-written and interesting dialogue from all manner of NPCs - humans, gnomes, fairies, elves, and even dragons. As such, you can easily spend dozens if not hundreds of hours with the game if you so choose.
Interested in more RPG spotlights? Check out our previous entry for King's Bounty, or our next entry for The Dark Heart of Uukrul.