This is another one of the relatively few games of 1984 that I've been really looking forward to playing. I first heard of it around 2003, when abandonware site Home of the Underdogs featured Seiklus, an independently-developed freeware platformer with a major emphasis on exploration, and cited Below the Root as a major source of inspiration.
This time, I am pretty sure that the Commodore 64 is the lead
platform, though the overall aesthetic, with its monochromatic sprites, simple tiled backgrounds, and lack of ingame music, comes across as something you'd see on a ZX
Spectrum. One could just as easily attribute this to the industry's inexperience with the platform as to the need to adapt to more basic systems. Only Apple II and PC were also supported, and those
versions are credited to people other than designer Dale Disharoon.
One of the first games released under Spinnaker's newly launched Windham Classics brand, Below the Root is the canonical conclusion to the Green Sky trilogy, a series of juvenile fantasy novels by author Zilpha Keatley Snyder (no relation to Tom Snyder as far as I know) about a society of tree-dwellers with magic powers and no concept of violence, theft, or negative emotions, which I haven't read and don't intend to.
The manual explains sufficient backstory; the Kindar hero Raamo, who reunited his people with the underground Erdling nation, has gone, and the leader of Green Sky's ruling class D'ol Falla has premonitions of darkness and disaster. Playing one of five Kindar and Erdling heroes, you must uncover some kind of momentous secret that will save the world, though she doesn't give you much to go on!
Of the five heroes, I chose to play Pomma, Raamo's younger sister. Though the physically weakest character, magic power wanes in adulthood in Green Sky's world, and Pomma, with 10 spirit points, is at her natural peak in this regard. Inside her treehouse, I collect a shuba; a wingsuit-like garment, three currency tokens, and a bowl of "pan" bread.
Outside - mind the gap - a fellow Kindar woman greets us, and with the telepathic "pense" skill it is revealed she is of sympathetic disposition and communicates a tip; to gather berries from the ends of branches.
Being an open-ended world, I decided to construct a map as I explored.
I'd like to say that exploring the world of Green Sky was filled with the joy of discovery, but the truth is that it was kind of a pain in the ass. Movement controls aren't quite as smooth as they should be, sometimes speeding up or slowing down seemingly at random, and the branches you traverse are full of little gaps that look like solid, barely uneven surfaces until you clip right through and fall several screens down to the undergrowth. It creates an unhealthy distrust of the ground you walk on.
Plenty of accidental falls were also to blame on the stiff walk, the sometimes ambiguous demarcation on where platforms turn into dropoffs, and on Pomma's pathetically short hop. Sometimes I'd inch myself closer to a ledge, only to drop right off it, and other times I'd try to jump, only to find I wasn't close enough and miss the other side.
You can't really die - falls and other injuries cost stamina, and "death" just respawns you at home and costs you a day of ingame time, but going too long without food or rest will do this too. The game offers no warning when either is running low, you have to periodically check your character status, and will instantly respawn home when either runs out. This can happen often; these meters drain from full to empty in about twelve minutes, food supplies are limited, and while exploring uncharted territory you might have no idea where the nearest friendly bed can be found. Messages like "you spent a day recovering from lack of food" are kind of funny, though.
Some of the things I encountered exploring:
- People that offer you free stuff like food and tokens, or their beds. Only once per day, though, and supplies run out.
- Three vine ropes, which can be used to create makeshift bridges across gaps too long to jump, are found in the upper branches of Sky Grund. But you have to be very careful to crawl while crossing, or you fall and lose the rope. I accidentally ruined all three this way!
- A monkey, high up in the trees of Sky Grund, increases spirit level when pensed.
- At the bottom of the woods, a guard standing by a sealed cavern can be bribed with berries, and a second guard inside with a token. Further in, though, it's too dark to progress.
- Roast lapan, a rabbit dish, and wisenberries, a narcotic plant, can be eaten, but they will deplete your spirit power.
- Evil Kindar, more commonly found as you explore far from home, but at least one was found just two screens from home, can attack or kidnap you. An attack sends you home, costing you a day, and being kidnapped transports you to a prison hut, which can be escaped with the "renew" magic which also sends you home and costs you a day.
Far from home, some offer you their beds, but pensing reveals ulterior motives.
- A shopping area at Broad Grund sold fruit, "trencher beaks," and lamps.
I also spoke and pensed everyone I could find, and took note of clues.
- Visit the Temple Grunds
- Seek high and low
- Ropes will take you to Sky Grund Top
- The elixir will strengthen you
- Seek the forgotten chamber on temple
- The guard eats too many berries
- Find the wise one
- Learn to use the spirit powers
- The wise child knows more than I do
- Glide from star to temple
- Vatar lives below the root
- Find the wise child of the garden
- Pense the animals if you have the power
- The hermit bestows spirit
- Seekers need a honey lamp
- Pass the two gates of the forgotten
- D'ol Falla's key is well hidden
- Perhaps the hermit will help you
- Search the heights of Grand Grund
- Find those who will raise your spirit
- You should carry a rope and a beak
- Raamo's mother can help you.
Eventually, I found the wise child's tree house, up on a very precarious series of branches in the Garden Grunds.
This boosted my spirit up to 16 points and also granted me healing magic, which miraculously restores food and rest at the cost of spirit.
Despite some of the frustrations I've noted, and still have, with the game's various mechanics, I am so far overall enjoying the experience of exploring, mapping things out, and discovering Green Sky's little secrets. It wouldn't surprise me if my quest is already doomed to failure from wasting my finite time and resources, and that I'll have to restart before I may finish properly, but if that's so, it won't have been a waste; my map and knowledge gained will certainly be valuable the second time around.