Dwarfs hate Elves and Orcs. Elves hate Dwars and Orcs. Humans do not like anyone, but despise Orcs the most. Orcs hate everyone. Now then, who do you want to be? In Battlemaster, the hero you play is chosen from a roster of sixteen, four from each race. You might be a merchant, a fighter, a wizard or a thief but whatever or whoever you are your task is the same.
Four kingdoms that have warred and crumbled now face complete extinction, unless a hero who can prove his worth and gather an army can conquer all four nations and take the crowns of each race to the immortal Watcher who resides in the northeastern wastes.
You may start with a number of followers, which is partly determined by your character: warriors, for instance, always begin alone. Your hero is kitted out with one ranged weapon and one close-combat weapon and promptly plunged into the midst of the first scenario. This may be based on a puzzle, combat or negotiation: there are a good many scenarios and they vary considerably in style.
Most play occurs on the left-most two-thirds of the screen, on which you view all characters present. The rest of the display is given over to icons for accessing other features. Followers tag along in formation; they might engage enemies in combat, should morale be high, or try to leave the scene of battle if they do not think much of your leadership. You can ask them to wait while you go ahead, or call them to you: these commands are made via a group of icons on the right of the screen.
Other icons lead to nested screens, dealing with character status, parleying or travelling across the world map from one scenario to the next. You can only leave the scenario you are in after completing it but, depending on where you are in the game, you can get to a number of others by calling up a beautifully detailed map. Action on the main screen freezes while you access icons.
To help you figure out what needs to be done in each scenario there is a message window at the bottom of the screen. Some are easy. Others demand good tactics and planning and will cost you at least a follower or two. But as you go, you will face traps (and tricks) and will find rewards in the form of artefacts, treasure and food: all three of which are the staple diet of every hero in the making.
GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Beyond a loading tune of mediaeval inclination, sound in Battlemaster is limited to the hack of blade on armour, the ozone-devouring shoosh of a flying fireball and, of course, the screams of the dying. But the graphics work wonderfully, especially in a party of Orcs: all those round-shouldered green guys shuffling up behind the boss has to grab a giggle from even the weariest cynic. The backgrounds are all colourful but clear and the stats screens are adorned with all kinds of implausible weaponry. To top it all, you can actually tell what everything is on the screen, a criterion often ignored for the sake of effect.
Though it is hard to survive at first, the number of different openings will call you back for long enough to want to sit down and start a serious bash. A large party engaged in combat with a similarly large group of opponents sometimes proves difficult to control via the mouse, but the keyboard controls (which are redefinable) are easy to master. Once you make lots of progress you will be fumbling for the save game option right away.
Take a plot that is longer in the tooth than a dragon's incisor and then apply a unique approach to turning it into a game. It is not as static as Laser Squad and is more visually appealing than anything in the Ultima vein. It has a good sense of humour, too, thank goodness (this is not given away much by the tame and tired documentation but boot up and there it is). Battlemaster, thanks to some clever design, has both instant and lasting appeal. This way, grunts!