Flame Frost Blade

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Closer Look: Demos Without Finished Games

Exploring several demos for games that were never finished

Authored By: Dr. Dos
Published: Jun 15, 2020
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And finally, we have Last Dynasty, a medieval fantasy game with this fun looking title screen. I'm a sucker for flags in ZZT. Like basically all the other demos, this one clearly wants to be a large game as well, with its demo touting itself as being "File A - Cray". BroKen, (the author, not the description of the game) seems to have suffered from a demo curse, with their two ZZT releases being demos that were never completed. So let's see how huge this game is supposed to be.


Like Jurassic Park ZZT, this one also captivates immediately. Before this opening cutscene can even play I'm already loving the way this board looks. It seems like something you'd see before Super Tool Kit with its giant sun in the sky and blocky landscapes, yet here we are in full sixteen color glory.

The kingdom of Caylenia has been suffering from attacks from nearby tribes. The castle itself is no under siege and the kingdom's only hope is for a hero to answer the call. I love the little ASCII swordplay as the tribes make their advancement on the castle.


The opening continues with this great cast shot. Five warriors that answered the call, each specializing in a different weapon. For this file, we'll be playing as Cray the swordsman.

Visually, this board looks great. Five characters are crammed onto a single board, and while they're kind of paper-dolls of each other, they do all look pretty good. BroKen found a way to draw a human figure and ran with it, and the use of shadows across the bottom really makes them seem more imposing as opposed to them just standing in a blank void.

My one complaint is that I can't help but see the smiley representations of themselves as part of the larger portraits, like they all have a little colored ball atop their heads.


Whether the plan was for five vignettes or for the group to quickly be united and travel as a party is unclear. If you're interested in anybody other than Cray, they won't make any appearances here at all.

Cray also seems to have gone from swordsman to knifeguy. Perhaps he's going to grow and master the not-flame not-frost blade on this adventure.

And wow the shadows on the previous board really were doing a ton of work. I found the quality of art here to be a lot worse when in fact it's the exact same portrait except with a knife drawn rather than a sword sheathed on Cray's back. (Still miles better than what I'd come up with regardless.)


The game begins proper with Cray hanging out by a small pond and the messenger no longer in sight. He gets to read the letter and immediately take on the quest.


Already we've got a significantly more engrossing story than Flame Frost Blade. I understand what the threat is, and the letter gives us some good reason to want to stop it.


Cray doesn't waste time with words and sets off immediately. The board itself is speckled with bits of brighter and dimmer grass and numerous trees. It's a simple but effective forest that keeps itself fairly open to navigate. The path helps the player get their bearings, guiding them forward instead of trying to stumble through the woods searching for connecting boards.


The first half of the demo is honestly a bit bland. Cray simply follows the path, stabbing all these woodsmen that get in his way. The woodsmen simply try to move towards the player endlessly at a slow enough pace that you can avoid them reasonably well if you choose to be sneaky about things.


Two hits is enough to defeat them, and the first hit takes a unique approach of displaying what I think is supposed to be a drawing of a knife to let you know the enemy was hurt. (It may just be a sub-par health bar as well.)


TA few things to note are that the shading in the grass isn't made of fake walls. This combines with the woodsmen leaving corpses behind when they're killed to bring up the possibility to have the player get stuck and have to cheat.

One last poor decision is using brown for the enemies' foreground color. Since objects take on the background of things they're standing on, whenever they wander off the main path they end up being a solid brown rectangle. Either the grass or enemies should have had some colors tweaked to prevent this from being an issue.


The path does drag on for a little bit, and I was worried this would be the entire demo. If it were, it would be about the same as Land of Gannon though with the benefit of actually having a weapon to fight back with.

Feel free to challenge yourself to finding all five woodsmen on this board!


It continues on, definitely too long for nothing new to be introduced. The boards remain pleasant to look at, but it takes only a few before you'll decide to just try and avoid fighting.

Finally though, the end of the forest is reached with some passages at the end of the board leading to the next cinematic.


Following the classic rule of "if it isn't on screen it doesn't exist", Cray walks onto the next part of the forest and is instantly surrounded by more than a dozen woodsmen and meets with their leader.

It's a very funny scene because you actually get to watch Cray walk a few steps down the path before realizing that he's surrounded with a simple "Uh-oh".


Surprise, surprise, this leads us into an RPG battle. These are incredibly in-vogue in the late 90s and it's practically a given that any game released around that time will have at least one of these. I already said plenty on them with Flame Frost Blade, so let's see what BroKen has to offer with his own.

For one, I think the space is used a lot better. We still get smiley faces with ASCII weaponry. (I really like the axe design.) We still get some character portraits. I'd say they're a little bit better, but it's pretty subjective which cookie-cutter human shape design you prefer more.

Where BroKen does have an edge over Flatcoat Lab is in the background scenery. It's basic, but it adds some color that was sorely lacking in Flame Frost.

Though Lab has an advantage in his meters for attacking being shorter and thus faster to fill. These still move at a steady pace, enough that I think the difference isn't that great, but it definitely feels slower.

The restriction of inputs is also a bit more physical. With FFB, you simply hit the button when you're able to, but here a little red object slides out of the way giving the player access to the button. It seems minor until you realize that every time you attack the player is pushed aside and has to make multiple steps before attacking again the next time.


There's also no taunt command! Even if the lines were hardly good, I liked getting a little surprise with every attack.


BroKen takes a rather unique approach to items that I haven't seen before. Your usual option for items is the one flag equals one item approach, (like in November Eve where you either have a medikit or you don't, or using a counter to represent them like in Resident Evil (or you know, Flame Frost), which allows for an easy way to have a large quantity of a single item, but at the expense of being very limited in the number of unique items you can implement.

BroKen just decided to invent "Item Points". The player's torches represent these points and you can convert them into specific items at a cost. It's... honestly really clever. Not only does it let you offer a large variety of items, but there's an opportunity to actually add some kind of strategy on-the-fly. At least in theory. For this demo these are the two kinds of items you'd see in any ZZT RPG really. One for healing, and one for damaging the enemy.

This actually solves a lot of problems with ZZT RPGs the more I think about it. Enemies can drop money, item points, or action points and it really makes things a lot more open ended at the expense of the player not having to commit to things until the exact moment they're needed. I would love to see a complete game using a system like this.


It uses all my item points, but a grenade takes off a solid chunk of the enemy's HP. This is already feeling a lot more doable than the fight in Flame Frost Blade.

You'll also note these battles use life bars on the board rather than in counters so the player's actual health counter is irrelevant.


With two available spells, we're again doing better than Flame Frost. You'll note these spells match with items in every way other than using a different counter to pay for them. Again though, this is where some strategy could be implemented. There's of course the obvious potential of implementing elemental attacks. There's an easy risk/reward there with guessing for damage vulnerabilities, but honestly even just having to decide whether you're better off using Item or Action points can give the player a chance to think for a second and not just mashing the buttons.


I'd love to tell you how the spells went, but it turns out you get action points from killing enemies, which after a board and a half I decided wasn't worth my time. Whoops.

Oddly, the attack system and magic system both use the same counter to pay for attacks. If we're getting things like elemental weaknesses or other vulnerability/resistances, then BroKen is on to something. If these are merely identical re-skins then the author is really squandering a surprisingly good idea.

Thankfully he had the foresight to handle players like me and a basic punch attack is available at no cost.


The woodsman follows the attack up with more axe swings. I am amused that the axe's blade doesn't change to the vertical arrow character during this animation.


But just look at the difference in balance here! Even reduced to one damage punches, I have good reason to believe I can win this fight, and had I played smarter early on (or perhaps it's BroKen's fault for not explaining the importance of "Score",) I'd definitely be confident.


Alas, while I do have a lot of praise for this engine, both in comparison to the one seen in Flame Frost Blade but also to ZZT RPGs overall, it all falls apart in the end when the woodsman leader eventually just breaks. The attack meter fills, but the attacks stop. At least it's broken in a way that you win rather than lose, but this is still a big letdown.


Against a foe that can't fight back, Cray punches his way to success.


Of course, none of this changes the fact that Cray is still surrounded by a dozen enraged woodsmen who just watched him kill their leader.


The RPG engine is quickly followed up with something a bit more unique: escaping from being tied to a tree.

I'm always a fan when games come up with something like this that doesn't really have precedent elsewhere. While RPGs, sidescrollers, shoot em' ups all have easy examples to look at elsewhere for how to try and capture them in ZZT, this is far more likely to be a completely original design.


The method to free Cray is easy enough. The arrows along the bottom of the screen move back and forth, and by touching the 1-2-3-4 objects when the arrow is in the center, Cray can free a limb. Unfortunately, again we run into some late demo bugs.

Firstly, and not really a bug, is that there's no penalty for poor timing. You don't hurt yourself, have a time limit, or anything else. In fact, you can just hold down an arrow key and keep touching the button until you win.

The actual bugs come from... only the first chain object working? The other three will just never work forcing you to zap your way to freedom instead. I'm willing to bet that the RPG battle broke in a way that could have been avoided during gameplay, but this is clearly not working. It's broken BroKen. There's only one board left in the demo, and honestly if it had just ended with you being chained up I think BroKen would have had a good cliffhanger to end on.


But thanks to cheating this last board can be seen, giving a good idea of the scale of the world we're dealing with in Last Dynasty.

Despite having a ton of settlements, it feels very devoid of places to journey through.


Like, obviously the next stop is the town of Chyton, and then crossing the trecherous "Barren Lands", but then the rest of the world is just towns. No mountain passes, no ancient ruins, no river rapids, no nothing.

I really think the cliffhanger ending would have been better because all this does is says that the world is big without giving any reason to be excited about that.

Final Thoughts

Despite the rough ending though, Last Dynasty might be my favorite of the bunch. Its basic combat system isn't too exciting, but you can actually kill your opponents unlike in Land of Gannon. It's RPG battle engine was broken in programming, and yet still plays better than Flame Frost Blade, and has a really clear way it can be expanded into something truly unique for ZZT. The story is straightforward, but makes sense. Bad guys are invading, good guys are going to help. There's a lot of ambition in having a group of five characters, of whom we only meet one and don't get much more of a personality out of Cray than "hero", but everything here works. Last Dynasty doesn't seem like it wants to be the greatest RPG ever made. The lack of hype makes me more confident in its ability to succeed despite things really falling apart by the end.

Seriously though, I love the idea of "Item Points". It's an extremely ZZT solution to an extremely ZZT problem. I feel like BroKen was much more likely to deliver on his promises than Lab was.

There's not much to compare here with Kings. Last Dynasty definitely feels more coherent of a story at least.

It's biggest competition among the demos we've seen here is with Jurassic Park ZZT, but really none of these demos were even released in the same year. There's no actual competition here beyond picking which feels like the biggest shame to not have been completed. JPZZT is probably the sensible choice for that with its lack of bugs, actual gameplay, and source material meaning it can be more easily understood by those familiar with it. Last Dynasty is unintentionally doing a better job of what Flame Frost Blade was meant to be, an exciting RPG system with unique abilities and spells all while telling an epic story. BroKen was just smart enough to not put a spotlight on it where it can more readily face scrutiny. It's very likely a full game would not have lived up to the expectations I got from playing it, but in that case the problem is with me expecting too much. With Flame Frost, you're told what to expect, and that it will be unparalleled. That means you know who to blame if a full game never lived up to those expectations.

Final Final Thoughts

As messy as most of them were, these demos were a treat to play through. Land of Gannon was a bit dull, but all the others had something to offer I feel. The era of the demo is long past in ZZT, with three in the past decade. With the significantly reduced number of releases compared to ZZT's hey-day and the general shift to shorter games, there's little need for a demo. In their time they worked as a tool to gauge interest and just show off if you thought you had something cool. The more insular community today lends itself better to just asking folks to provide feedback on a work in progress rather than going through the trouble of releasing a proper demo. Back then you had competition for the community's attention with new releases almost daily. The briefness implied by a demo made it approachable for folks to spend a few minutes seeing what would be coming out eventually. With a bit of luck, when they saw the finished game on the front page of whatever site was hosting ZZT worlds at the time, they'd immediately want to download the recognized title first.

It's pretty clear which of these demos I'm genuinely interested in (Jurassic Park ZZT, Last Dynasty), which might be good for a laugh (Kings, Flame Frost Blade), and which I have no interest in (Land of Gannon). For picking so arbitrailly, I'm glad I got a nice mix out of the group. There are good ideas in these games, and the more middle of the road ones aren't beyond saving. (Although if the player finishes your demo not caring about the final product, you've probably screwed something up). What's most important though is their historical value. The disposable nature of the Internet means that these demos are often the only trace of a game we have left. You can't quickly dig up posts about how great Flame Frost Blade is going to be, and your best bet for more info on Jurassic Park ZZT is to hope it's mentioned in an Interactive Fantasies magazine somewhere.

The skewed ratio of ZZT games finished versus started means that there's not much reason to get your hopes up that one day a finished version will fall into our laps. Short of the authors revisiting content on a 20+ year old computer stored in a basement and hoping it works, I don't think we'll be seeing any more of these titles, but maybe that's for the best. These demos give us those mysteries and let our imaginations come up with what might have been, without having the tragedy of know there's a full game lost to time out there. (I don't hold my breath on rediscovering any specific lost ZZT games these days, but Kings being made from a more complete game is the most likely contender to having a more complete version out there somewhere.) These demos are a glimpse worth taking even knowing you'll never get a happy ending from them.

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