Submitted by: Joshua Mosher
Created by Quarter Note Software
Price: Shareware $25
Jewel of Arabia:Dreamers (JoAD) had me intrigued before I even downloaded the game. The idea of a game set in the milieu of Arabian Nights sounded perfect for a role-playing game. In most regards, my expectations were surpassed--this is a game well worth playing, with an excellent balance of challenging battles, enthralling atmosphere, and engaging storyline. There are some areas for improvement, primarily in terms of interface, which I will discuss later. Nonetheless, my recommendation in a nutshell is that this game is a worthy contribution to the field of adventure games.
JoAD pulls you into its imaginary world as soon as you fire it up. The Arabian ornaments, the middle eastern music, and the scimitar pointer are clever and enchanting details--though I confess that I eventually turned off the music since my Palestinian wife kept making fun of the "Arab movie music." The game is filled with imaginative touches like these. The color scheme also fits the atmosphere, though it has provoked controversy. Some have found it ugly, but I appreciated its Persian flavors; my one concern is that the stats of characters who have been poisoned turn green, which is hard to see against the blue background.
Character creation is actually rather fun, with some interesting twists. You must have a Prince or Princess as well as a Djinni in your party, and if either die, the game is over. The bond between these two characters, and the way their relationship affects the plot allowed for a level of role-playing I have not experienced before in computer games--instead of the usual faceless crew of combat specialists that one generates in such games, here one can begin to imagine that the characters truly are friends. The other characters in the party are chosen by you, ranging from brutal Ghazi warriors to Sufi mystics who are masters of mind-over-matter to Magi, the fairly typical spellcasters. There are no healers (the designers had always found them to be unsatisfactory characters in other games and so dropped them from JoAD); instead, each character learns meditations that fill that function. Another fun addition is that one of your party is an animal. You start with a pet monkey, but may find ways to trade for other, more powerful beasts.
To succeed in this game, balance is the key. You must trade a limited store of Prana (the inner focus used to meditate) to restore health and stamina or risk increasing ineffectiveness in combat. You must choose to burden your party with goods, food, and most importantly water or risk death in the desert. You must choose to keep a beast of burden or a fighting animal with little carrying capacity (the ultimate animal companion is a balance of the two). A great deal of the mind-challenges involve getting these balances right.
The other challenges are, of course, deadly combat. I found this to be a fun part of the game, with lots of possibilities for tactical variations. The combat spells are quite varied, with the Djinni casting illusions, the Magi controlling the elements, and the Sufi strengthening his own body or weakening the opposition. There are no really unbalancing higher-level spells that tend to make wizards into nuclear artillery, leaving warriors with little to do. Indeed, having at least one good fighter besides the Prince is essential to survival. Enemies vary in tactics depending on their intelligence, which adds spice. Some will withdraw if seriously threatened, though fleeing from battle seems to be impossible; everything is a fight to the finish.
There are some wonderful brain-teasing riddles in the game that fit the milieu perfectly. I wish there were more. There are some clever traps and nasty mazes, not to mention some towns you can't access without some creativity, but little in the way of puzzles in the dungeons. Not that I crave the rube goldberg devices that afflict some computer role-playing games, but I would have liked more dungeon scenarios that were less slogging through carnage. Speaking of carnage, there comes a point when one no longer feels a thrill after squishing 20 slugs while paring your nails. The Exile games made by Jeff Vogel have a nice feature that causes wandering monsters to flee from you before battle begins if they are hopelessly outmatched. A similar feature would be welcome here, even though combat tends to be more varied than in Exile.
Where JoAD really shines is in the storytelling. And I mean to emphasize the telling. The game begins with an old storyteller spinning a tale about a captive prince. Suddenly, the point of view shifts to that of the Prince and then you take control of his party. These frames within frames are wonderfully expressed with illustrated storyboards that appear at each transition point in the game. The writing is superb and the characterization is fascinating. The designers do as good a job of telling a story as I've seen in a shareware game. I only wish they'd done even more. The storyboard concept would be spectacular with an occasional large, dramatically drawn picture to bring to life the major turning points. The plot, while intriguing, with lots of fun side-plots, is not as intricately woven nor as climactic as I had hoped. The final sequence is touching, but since the challenges immediately before are not too severe nor dramatic, it is not as satisfying as it might have been. But don't take these criticisms without remembering the superlatives above. The conclusion may not be brilliant, but the along the way there is great swashbuckling and mystery to be enjoyed.
The interface shows many thoughtful touches (I love the sundial cursor that replaces the standard watch--the shadow moves around as time passes). Most things have been designed with intuitiveness in mind. There aren't any particularly obscure commands that you only discover on your second time through as you wander through submenus. On the other hand there are some useful features that are missing. The trade and selling windows need a second info button so that items on the left side can be identified without moving them to the right. The phase of the moon, which powerfully influences the ability of your djinni, should be visible in combat. The movement rate of the character should be visible in the inventory window so that one can immediately see what effect giving Ghassan that heavy armor does. Faster scrolling through inventory, perhaps combined with some form of automatic sorting of items into different categories, is essential once you have a beast of burden. And some more keyboard shortcuts would be lovely. Still, all in all this game is a pleasure to interact with.
Jewel of Arabia: Dreamers is a great start to a promising rpg trilogy. I had a wonderful time being swept up in this imaginary world the first time through, and I'm enjoying my second game now. And I look forward to the sequel, which I have every reason to hope will be better yet.