Playing Spellbreaker (1985)

Spellbreaker is the climax of the Enchanter trilogy, preceded by Enchanter and Sorcerer. Unlike its predecessors, it is ferociously difficult — though most of the solutions feel fair, once you realise what they are.

But, boy, is it hard. With this one, I followed the maxim Cheat Early, Cheat Often, and I don’t regret it one tiny bit.I read a ton of invisiclues, and at one point resorted to a walkthough in the hope of finding the exact command I needed to get past a problem I had already solved. In the end, I wanted to experience Spellbreaker more than I wanted to beat it. And beating it would have taken months or years, if I managed at all.

This time, the setup is that magic is failing. All this is explained by the in-game prologue, in which a series of guild-masters berate you, until a shadowy figure appears, turns them all into amphibians, and vanishes. He must, you assume, be responsible for the failing magic. As the senior ranking wizard, following your earlier successful adventures, it’s your job to find out why, and fix it.

The mechanics are similar to the earlier games, with three main differences. First, potions, introduced in Sorcerer, are discarded. That’s no loss, as they function identically to un-gnusto-able scrolls. Second, you no longer have to manage the tedious business of eating and drinking, which is also no loss. But most importantly, navigation is primarily by means of a travel spell, so that the map is broken up into more than a dozen geographically separate regions, most of them tiny.

Access to regions is gained via cubes that the spell works on, and the main goal of the game is gathering all these cubes. Figuring out the mechanics of all this, and of the gold box that contains one of the cubes, is at the heart of the game. On top of the regular game-world puzzle-solving you’d expect in a game like this, Spellbreaker has three set-piece puzzles: a sort of maze whose rules you figure out as you go along, a sliding-pieces capture game, and a logic puzzle where you have to figure out which is the odd one out among twelve seemingly identical cubes. I enjoyed all of these. Jimmy Maher rightly describes Spellbreaker as “an extended proof of the theorem that adventure games don’t need to be unfair to be really, really challenging”.

*** SPOILERS FOLLOW ***

But what really lifts Spellbreaker onto a different level is the ending. Having completed the quest for all thirteen of the real cubes — the correct one from the twelve identical ones is the last of these — you gain access to the end-game. It’s short but difficult; but, more than that, it’s genuinely thought-provoking.

It transpires that the shadowy figure is a personification of your own magical ability. The problems are being caused not by a lack of magic, but by too much of it. Your shadow figure uses the cubes you’ve gathered, plus four more of his own, to create a tesseract representing the universe, and finally places the most magical one of all in the centre, remaking the universe to be entirely subject to his own magic. If you can prevent him, the way you win the game is by placing something non-magical in the centre of the tesseract, thereby removing all magic from the universe.

This works well on several levels. It hangs together as an explanation for the plot of this game; but more than that, it draws a firm line under the Enchanter trilogy. There will be no more games in this series. There can’t be: there’s no magic any more. Extra-textually, it indicates the Infocom are moving on to different things, becoming more experimental.

As you move through the game and your score increases , your ranking moves upwards to “Archmage”; it’s fitting that at the very end, when you have scored the maximum possible 600 points, you finish as “Scientist”. As the official “invisiclues” have it:

Why isn’t there an alternative ending?

The inevitable result of magicians wielding such unchecked power as existed before the end of the story would be the creation of another shadow. It too might be defeated, but eventually one would arise who would be victorious over its original. The outcome of such a victory is too terrible to contemplate.

In a way, this is more satisfying than the end of The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s book, Sauron is destroyed, sure. But there’s the knowledge that a new Dark Lord will one day rise up — just as Sauron, originally Morgoth’s lieutenant, rose to power after the banishment of Morgoth. In Middle-earth there is no final victory: just moments of triumph as the elves and their allies fight the long defeat. But in the Enchanter trilogy, a true end is achieved.

To my mind, despite the fragmentary nature of the game and its extreme difficulty, this makes Spellbreaker the best of the three games.

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