Before we begin, let's get one point quite clear. Yes, Eye Of The Beholder does look remarkably similar to Dungeon Master (and Chaos Strikes Back, its latest incarnation). But it's got a very good excuse. You see, Eye Of The Beholder is actually the latest in SSI's line of official Dungeons & Dragons computer games.
Now, as any role-player worth his magic armour will tell you, Dungeons & Dragons games are by far and away the most popular and influential fantasy games money (or dragon's gold) can buy. In fact, almost every computer role-playing game ever released borrows heavily on the concepts of D&D, Dungeon Master included (let's call it DM from now on to save me typing it out each time), so it's only fair that SSI should eventually borrow from DM in return. And now they've done it, applying a 3D maze design to their D&D licence. Yes, you'd be perfectly within your rights to cry 'Just a minute, that looks very familiar', but before you do so just remember that this is as much down to DM ripping off D&D as Eye Of The Beholder ripping off Dungeon Master. Follow that? No? Oh well, on with the review.
What really hits you about this game (apart from the initial déjà-vu) is the remarkable attention to D&D detail. A quick scan of the (very helpful indeed) manual reveals a sizeable number of features ported perfectly from the original game.
This extends from the races and character classes, right through character generation and into the much more wooly territory of 'the flavour of the game as a whole'. Once you've played Eye Of The Beholder for a short period of time, you begin to realise one very important difference between it and DM - whereas Eye Of The Beholder felt like a set of puzzles with a bit of mapping and killing thrown in to make it interesting, Eye gives you a real feeling of participation. You start to believe in the city of Waterdeep, with its underground network of damp, slimy tunnels, and this add much to the game.
Instead of posing problems at every turn, Eye lets you explore quite sizeable chunks of the caverns in a free sort of manner, with only battles with the undead and other assorted cave dwellers cropping up at anything like regular intervals. This gives the game a much looser feel, and in this case that's a good thing, lending it a smooth and realistic fantasy atmosphere.
WHILE NEVER LOOKING OLD FASHIONED, IT DOESN'T REALLY PUSH THE GAME STYLE FAR ENOUGH
IT'S THE REAL THING
A couple of days into playing, and you'll realise two important things. Firstly, just how massive the game is (making mapping essential). They may say size isn't everything, but when you are a hardy, adventuring kind of guy, it's nice to know that it's there. The second thing you notice is just how bloody addicted you are. For crying out loud, why did they have to make it is so compulsive? I've lost hours on this game - more so than with anything I've played in ages. Whereas in DM my characters simply felt like ciphers to be manipulated as I saw fit, the ones created in Eye really grew on me (must be something to do with male bonding). The addition of NPC's (that's computer-controlled non-player characters) joining and leaving the party heightens the realistic effect yet further.
This dedication it engenders reaps you rewards too, for after much clashing of swords and casting of spells, your little guys gain enough experience to move up a level in their chosen profession. This means greater strength and better spells, and, believe me, you'll need them too in the later levels, where (as the traps and tests get deadlier) things get very involving and - yes - frightening indeed.
I can't think of a delicate way to put this but, well, some of the monsters really scared the crap out of me.
I'VE LOST HOURS ON THIS GAME - MORE SO THAN WITH ANYTHING I'VE PLAYED IN AGES
THE LOOKING GLASS
And there we have it really. Eye Of The Beholder may look a lot like Dungeon Master, it may nick quite a few ideas from it (especially the character inventory screens and way the user interface works), but I find it quite easy to forgive. There's a simple reason why too - in all respects it improves things, adding a truer D&D flavour to the proceedings. It's just a shame all these features weren't included in the 'real' Dungeon Master in the first place - I can't think of any real reason why they couldn't have been.
No, the only problem I can really see with Eye Of The Beholder is that, while never looking old fashioned, it doesn't really push the game style far enough. It's 1991 now, and there are a number of things which could (and should) have been given a bit more spit and polish. Smooth animation when walking through the dungeons would have been nice, for instance, as would some degree of character interaction (even if it was only on the same level of complexity as in the Ultima games). And just for once I'd like to see a monster with a little bit of intelligence crop up, perhaps one that you don't have to kill on sight. (And it can be done, most notably in an old, pre-DM Spectrum game, called Swords & Sorcery - a flawed masterpiece if ever there was one).
Still, these are minor gripes, and don't really affect the game as a whole too much. (But programmers please note - if you intend doing another role-playing game, you'll have to get your fingers out!).
It's hard to define exactly why I like this game so much. I know it can be argued that it's already been done five years ago. I know that the only reason it looks so state-of-the-art is that most role-playing games are so dodgy anyway. I know all that, and it doesn't stop this being just so classy, so involving, and so satisfying. The use of real Dungeons & Dragons rules and elements really elevates it to a new level. I just can't help being in love with it. So there.