Based on The Death Gate Cycle series of fantasy novels by Margaret Weis and Tracy Wickman, the folks behind the Dragonlance novels, Legend Entertainment's Death Gate puts you in the shoes of a young Patryn named Haplo. Patryns are a humanlike race imprisoned in a world known as the Labyrinth, a harsh nightmarish land where every day is a struggle to live. Miraculously, Haplo manages to escape and meets another Partyn named Xar, who had also managed the same task years before. Xar tells the story of a war between the Patryns and the Sartans, another human-like race who condemned your people to the Labyrinth. Xar wants retribution for the evils perpetrated against his people, and would gladly crush every Sartan in existence, except for one major hitch - the Sartans appeared to have disappeared completely. Xar send Haplo out into the world to search for the remaining Sartan, and report back on his findings.
Aside from the Labyrinth, the world is divided up into four lands, each occupying its own floating island in space. Each world is its own self contained chapter, and there are usually a few major locations in each, which are accessed via Xar's flying ship and select a map screen.
The world of Arianus is based on the element of air, and is a mountainous region largely inhabited by group of dwarves. Their job is to maintain a strange device called the Kicksey-Winsey, which burrows holes through the planet's surface, which in turn provides water for the people. Said dwarves are also slaves to a group of elves, who have used trickery to disguise themselves as glowing gods. The world of Pryan, although based on the fire element, largely consists of lush forests. Its lands are inhabited by groups of humans, elves and dwarves, which has led to some tight racial tensions. The world of Aberrach, based on stone, is a world filled with lava and death. Most of its remaining inhabitants are mindless zombies brought to life with the power of Necromancy. The final world is Chelestra, the realm of water, with a beautiful city which reveals the resting place of the Sartans. The final chapters involve Haplo returning to the Labyrinth to save the worlds - all of them - from total destruction.
Death Gate contains the usual elements of fantasy fiction - dwarves and elves, swords and sorcery, wizards and dragons - it's far from a typical adventure story, which helps it stand out from Legend's other fantasy titles like Companions of Xanth and Shannara. The mystery of the Sartans play a large role in the story, and it's clear even in the beginning that Xar's intentions to destroy them go beyond a mere thirst for vengeance. All of the realms, while in varying states of disaster, show that the Sartans may not be nearly as evil as the Patryns have painted them, and once Haplo discovers a tomb filled with their bodies, hints that something may have dreadfully gone wrong somewhere.
In telling the expansive backstory, there's tons and tons of dialogue, in addition to history books and journals that further flesh out the world's history. It's well written and avoids the dryness inherent to some fantasy text, although sometimes it is overwhelming. The first fifteen minutes or so are spent as Xar elaborately explains the plight of your race, and it's all too tempting to click right through it just to get into the game. Outside of Xar and his somewhat troublesome ambitions, the most interesting character is Zifnab, a Sartan who looks an awful lot like Gandalf. Despite his immense power, he's largely confused and addle brained, often believing he's a secret agent akin to James Bond. (His pop culture references aren't intended to break the fourth wall, seeing how the world in Death Gate is meant to take place far in the future of our own world.)
The interface is essentially the same as Companions of Xanth, with a series of verbs on the side of the graphical window, and a context sensitive interface that lets you easily interact with the game world. Running in VGA, its visual style is very similar to Xanth, although the CD-ROM version features higher resolution SVGA graphics, which look much better. Since Legend games evolved from text adventures, much of the action is told through narrative text, although the intro and ending sequences featured aged CG animation. A few events in game use animation more consistent with the rest of the graphics, although these were only rendered in VGA, so the game needs to briefly switch back to the lower resolution if you're playing in SVGA.
In addition to the usual inventory puzzles, Haplo is also a wizard and learns a fairly vast number of spells throughout the game. Some of these have simple uses, like heating and cooling objects, or possessing animals, while others are a bit more advanced, like one that can create a whole pocket of reality based on a painting. The magic in Death Gate is cast by assembling a series of runes into a pattern. They can be automatically cast by selecting them from a menu, although there are a few instances where you'll need to look at the individual runes to the solution. There's a single instance where you must make up your own spell by arranging the runes, which is rather clever, and the game could've used more instances as such. Otherwise, the puzzles are of fairly average difficulty. There are spots where you can die, and while the game features an "Undo" command, it's not always very useful. There are a number of "timed" situations, where you need to complete certain actions in a specific number of turns. Since the "Undo" command can only rewind a single turn, you can potentially find yourself trapped in a loop where you can't do everything you need to do, requiring that you reload a saved game.
Death Gate is not based on a specific novel from the seven book series, but rather takes aspects from the first four entries, and creates its own ending, since the final book had not yet been published when it was undergoing development. Since there's so much compressed into a single game, it's obviously missing huge chunks of the story and some of the characters are totally missing, but it's a good way to experience a good chunk the storyline in interactive form. Unlike some of Legend's other games based off novels, it feels more self contained, and you don't really need any prior exposure to the books in order to really understand it, The retail package also includes a pamphlet containing a short story written by the original authors, which has very little to do with the game itself but fleshes out the Assassin's Guild from the series, and is meant for fans of the books. Overall, it's a pretty fantastic game, certainly one of Legend's best, weaving an excellent plot and dense backstory into an extremely enjoyable experience.