Monday, May 20, 2019

Star Control II: Summary and Rating

            
Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters
United States
Toys for Bob (developer); Accolade (publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1994 for the 3DO console; later fan ports to other platforms
Date Started: 23 March 2019
Date Finished: 14 May 2019
Total Hours: 47
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
      
Summary:

Star Control II takes the ship-by-ship action combat of the original Star Control and places it solidly within an adventure game of epic proportions. In a galaxy of more than 500 stars and 3,000 planets, a captain must build alliances, find artifacts, mine minerals, and coerce information from alien races so that he can ultimately throw off the yoke of the Ur-Quan Hierarchy and free Earth and its allies from slavery. Gameplay comes with a lot of lore and plot-twists, but every so often it reveals its origins and requires the player to defeat enemy ships with selections from his own armada, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. Although the sense of an open world and a nonlinear plot both end up being somewhat illusory, the game is still fun and memorable.

****
        
In the comments for my winning entry, several readers have offered descriptions and text that occurs when you try some of the game's alternate strategies, such as surrendering to the Ur-Quan, provoking the Orz, or selling your own crewmembers to the Druuge. Most of them are either dead-ends or offer such harsh consequences that you'd best not do them in the first place.

One thing I was curious to check out is what happens if you wait out the game's time limit. The Melnorme originally told me that the Earth would be destroyed in January or February of 2159, but my actions in the game managed to delay the apocalypse by almost two years. As I sat in hyperspace and watched, nothing much happened until November 2159, when the Supox and Utwig returned to their original systems, much diminished. 
          
No one remains but the Ur-Quan.
         
Around the end of 2159, the Kohr-Ah won the civil war and started to circle the galaxy, destroying each sentient race in turn. Some of their ships reached Earth in April, but they weren't here to destroy Earth just yet. I fought a few dreadnoughts and the horde moved on. The Arilou, Umgah, and Zoq-Fot-Pik were all gone by June 2160, the Supox and Utwig a month later. By October 2160, the Ur-Quan fleet had reached the "southern" end of the galaxy and destroyed the Yehat. Finally, in November, I received a broadcast from the Ur-Quan notifying me of Earth's destruction, and the game was over. My ship was parked right next to Earth at the time, and I was hoping I'd see a bunch of dreadnoughts approaching it, but alas, it wasn't quite that detailed.
             
The "bad" ending, unless you're a big Ur-Quan fan.
          
If I hadn't cheated a bit during the game by reloading when an expedition proved a waste of time, I probably would have run into issues with the time limit. Watching the slow destruction of every race, along with the intelligence that they possessed, would have been mildly horrifying. But apparently you can still win the game at any time during this process, with nothing altered in the endgame sequence.

I confess that the last bit bothers me a little because it's indicative of the approach taken by the game as a whole. When I started playing Star Control II, it gave the impression of an open-world game with multiple narrative possibilities. But it turns out you have to follow a few paths in a relatively specific order, and most of the choices turn out to be illusory. Oh, it certainly does better than the typical RPG of the period, I hasten to add. It was just a bit disappointing to find that open exploration isn't really rewarded. If you're lucky enough to stumble upon a key location amidst all the planets in the vast galaxy, you probably won't be able to do anything because you haven't bought an important piece of information from the Melnorme first.

I have similarly mixed feelings about the game's approach to the alien races and racial characterizations. On the one hand, I enjoyed the variety. When you're making a game (as opposed to shooting a film or television show), you have the freedom to make some interesting races without worrying about the CGI budget. I appreciated that there were no "bumpy forehead" aliens except perhaps for the Syreen.
           
I could have done with less of this.
         
I also don't fault the game for broad characterizations. It's a longstanding trope of science fiction and fantasy to paint races with a broad brush: the wise elves, the logical Vulcans, the proud Klingons, the evil orcs, and so forth. You rarely have time to explore the detailed characteristics of an entire culture. It's perfectly acceptable that Star Control II decided to highlight one major attribute of each race, such as cowardice, depression, loneliness, and greed. When it did go into more detail, such as in the case of the Ur-Quan and the Syreen, the detail was generally good, and it was rewarding to unlock those stories. I also appreciated the consistency of characterization. The Spathi locking themselves under their own slave shield amused me to no end because it was perfectly in keeping with the Spathi personality--and, in hindsight, 100% foreseeable. 

But I also felt there were too many moments of outright goofiness and parody among the racial interactions. The Orz, the Pkunk, the VUX, the Umgah, and the Utwig mostly just exhausted my patience. I couldn't help but think how the same races with similar characteristics might be handled with less silliness. We don't have to look very far to find an example. Starflight and Starflight II had some of the same broad racial characterizations, but rarely crossed the line into outright slapstick. I felt the stories and plot twists of those games were much better, too.

Nonetheless, I understand why Star Control II is regarded as the better game: it's all about the combat. I wasn't any good at it, but I can see why people like it. Until I played it, I wouldn't have thought that a single choice--what ship to pilot--could have so many tactical implications. There are 14 ships that can join the New Alliance and 13 potential enemy ships, resulting in 182 potential battle combinations, and each has completely different tactical considerations. (With the Super Melee application, you can fight any of the ships against any of the others, for 625 possible combinations.) Slowly mastering the strengths of your ships and learning the weaknesses of the enemy ships is a huge and rewarding part of gameplay. Later in the game, when you have to fight multiple ships in a row, there are strategic implications for what ships you send into combat first and which you reserve for later in the battle.
            
The typical outcome of my combats.
          
Still, the nature of combat, plus the lack of "character development," really makes this a non-RPG, which means it might not do so well on the GIMLET as an RPG. I played it as an exception. I don't want to hear any future comments along the lines of, "Well, you played Star Control II, so to be consistent, you should also play This Game." The point of exceptions is that I don't have to be consistent with them.

As to the GIMLET:

1. Game World. Star Control II manages to check most of the boxes in this category. It has a rich, detailed backstory, an open world, a clear place for the character and his quest, and an evolving game state that responds to the player's actions. (I particularly like how the starmap continually updates to show the dispositions of the various races.) The plot and its twists are original and interesting. The only fault I can find is that there isn't much to see or do in the open universe. I wish the creators had seeded more planets with optional encounters and finds, perhaps replacing the system by which you purchase all your technology upgrades from the Melnorme. Score: 8.

2. Character Creation and Development. Alas, there is none of either except for the ability to name your own captain. Even if you regard the ship as a "character," it doesn't get innately better so much as it gains better equipment. Score: 0.

3. NPC Interaction. Another strong point. I've given my thoughts about the NPC personalities, but I should add that even goofy personalities are better than we get from the typical RPG of the period, which is no personality (or even NPCs) at all. I wish there had been more honest variety in dialogue options instead of one that's obvious, two that are stupid, and one that's evil. The Starflight games did a better job giving the player real "options" when talking to different alien races even though they came in the form of "stances" rather than specific dialogue choices. 

I should also note that most NPCs aren't individuals but rather representatives of their races who somehow know the previous conversations the player has had with other representatives. But the game otherwise hits most of the criteria for a high score here, including a plot that advances based on NPC interaction. Score: 7.
            
My thoughts exactly.
             
4. Encounters and Foes. The game has an original slate of foes (ships) that require you to learn their individual strengths and weaknesses. There are otherwise no real "encounters" in the game that aren't also NPC dialogues. Score: 6.

5. Magic and Combat. I can't give a high score here because my scale is about RPG-style combat and the various tactics and strategies that draw from attributes, skills, and the player's intelligence rather than his dexterity. Still, as I discussed above, the choice of ship and the way you plot long combats create some important tactical and strategic decisions. I just wish combat had only been about ship versus ship. The planets, which show up suddenly as you switch screens, were unwelcome guests. Score: 3.
          
The asteroids, on the other hand, I didn't mind so much.
        
6. Equipment. All of the "equipment" in the game is ship-related rather than character-related, and it all applies to the flagship, which a good player arguably does not rely on. I wish there had been opportunities to upgrade the other ships in the fleet. It would have been tough to offer meaningful options with so many of them, but even just generic attack or defense improvements would have been nice. Beyond that, it's fun to figure out how to best make use of the limited modular space on the flagship, particularly as new options come along regularly. Score: 3.

7. Economy. There are really two economies in the game: the "resource unit" economy that lets you build a fleet and equip your flagship, and the Melnorme "information" economy that depends on bio data and Rainbow World identifications. I found both rewarding enough for about two-thirds of the game. Score: 7.

8. Quests. The game has one main quest with a few options (though, as I mentioned before, a lot of the options are illusory) and side-quests. There's only one ending. Score: 4.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. I don't have many complaints in this category. The graphics are perfectly fine for the scope and nature of the game; the sound effects are fun and evocative throughout; and it's hard to complain about the interface of a game that supports both joystick and keyboard inputs and lets you customize the keyboard. I had problems in combat despite these advantages, but I don't think I can blame the game.

I do have one major issue, or several related issues, that fits into this category. The dialogue is delivered one line at a time in a huge font. You can hit the SPACE bar after each bit of dialogue to see a transcription in a smaller font that you can barely read. Either way, if you don't make your own transcriptions or screen shots (which must have been tough for an era player), the dialogue is lost once you leave the screen. In most cases, you can't prompt the NPC to speak the same lines again, and there's no databank in which to retrieve it as there was in Starflight II. Thankfully, I took copious screenshots, but they're a cumbersome way to review previous dialogue and I think the game should have offered a better system. Score: 6.
            
This text is better than nothing, but it's still not very easy to read.
         
10. Gameplay. I give half-credit for non-linearity. The game is more linear than it seems when you start, but you still have a lot of choices about the order of your activities. I also give half-credit for replayability. As I mentioned earlier, many of the "options" seem illusory, and a replaying player might find himself swiftly on familiar paths, but there is at least some variety for a replay. The hourly total is just about right for this content, and while I had difficulty in combat, I still managed to win with an acceptable number of reloads, so I can't fault the difficulty. Score: 7.

That gives us a final score of 51, surprisingly close to the 53 I gave both Starflight and Starflight II, which had actual characters and character development. But reviewing those games, I'm reminded how awful combat was, and how many issues I had with the interface. I'm thus comfortable with the rating. 
             
The ad makes it seem like the game's enemies are the Umgah.
         
There are plenty of players, however, who would consider a 51 an insult. Star Control II still continues to make "best games ever" lists compiled by various publications. In a March 1993 preview in Computer Gaming World, Stanley Trevena liked the game enough to put it on his "top ten list of all time." "It is not often," he says, "that such a perfect balance is struck between role-playing, adventure, and action/arcade." In the November 1993 issue, they gave it "Game of the Year" in the adventure category (or, at least, it tied with Eric the Unready). Dragon gave it 5 out of 5 stars. It's rare to find an English review out of the 90s, though for some reason European reviews tended to put it lower, in the 70s.

The 3DO version from 1994 has some significant differences from the DOS version. It has an animated, narrated introduction and cut scenes plus voiced dialogue for the conversations. (My understanding is that the open-source Ur-Quan Masters would use some of this voiced dialogue but re-record others.) Some readers encouraged me to play this version specifically because of the voices. I'm not sure I would have liked it better. There's really just too much dialogue overall. Some of the voices are good: I appreciate the Vaderesque bass of the Ur-Quan, the lispy enthusiasm of the Pik, and the weird Scottish accent the creators gave to the Yehat. For some reason, they decided the Shofixti was a bad English translator of a 1970s Japanese kung-fu movie; the Orz, Spathi, and Utwig are just annoying; and the Umgah is the stuff of nightmares. The Talking Pet is the worst, with some ridiculous southern "Joe Sixpack" accent. I was also disappointed by the Syreen, who sounds like Doris Day rather than . . . well, honestly, I'm not sure what would have done justice to the Syreen. How do you blend a fierce Amazonian and a seductive vixen in a single voice?

Star Control II left a satisfying number of mysteries, such as the fate of the Precursors and why they seemed (to the Slylandro) to be nervously searching for something. We never learned about the Rainbow Worlds or why they (apparently) form an arrow pointing to the "northeast" of the galaxy. We never learned what the Orz did to the Androsynth, what the Orz really are, and how they relate to the Arilou. I was disappointed that we never found out why the Ur-Quan destroyed historical structures of humanity, including some places we weren't even aware of. I was disappointed to find that most of these questions are unanswered in Star Control 3 (1996), although we do apparently learn that the Precursors genetically modified themselves so they would have the intelligence of cows, thus protecting themselves from a race that periodically harvests the energies of sentient races. I think the creators missed an opportunity by not making the Precursors actual cows. There could have been a Gary Larson tie-in and everything.
          
The creepy cover to the game's sequel.
         
The direction of Star Control 3 reveals some of the background drama between developer Toys for Bob (authors Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford) and publisher Accolade. According to Reiche and Ford, Accolade gave the developer such a limited budget that they had to essentially work for free for half a year to create a quality game. Accolade would not increase the budget for the sequel, so the original creators refused to develop it, and the job went to Legend Entertainment instead.

In 2002, authors Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford made the source code available for free, and some fans used it to create The Ur-Quan Masters for Windows, with multiple releases starting in 2005. It has since been ported to multiple additional platforms. The effort also led to the creation of the Ultronomicon, a Star Control II wiki.

The Star Control trademark passed to Infogrames when it purchased Accolade in 1999; Infogrames soon rebranded itself as Atari. When Atari filed for bankruptcy in 2013, its assets were sold. Stardock Corporation managed to acquire the Star Control license and produce Star Control: Origins (2018). Set 26 years before the original Star Control, the game would seem to retcon when Earth first encountered alien life. During development, Stardock claimed to be in contact with Reiche and Ford, and were developing the game along their vision, although they couldn't technically participate because of their Activision contract. If this relationship was ever friendly and cooperative, it soon became otherwise when Reiche and Ford announced they would be creating Ghosts of the Precursors and Stardock started selling the first three Star Control games on Steam. Both parties counter-sued each other for copyright and intellectual property violations, and Steam removed the Star Control titles (including Origins, at least temporarily) after receiving DCMA takedown notices from Reiche and Ford. As far as I can tell, the litigation is still ongoing.
           
Combat in Origins has improved graphics but seems to adhere to original principles.
       
Toys for Bob still lives as a subsidiary of Activision, and Reiche and Ford still continue to direct the development of its games. I don't think we'll see them again, however, as none of their titles are RPGs. (For more on Reiche and Ford, see Jimmy Maher's excellent coverage of Star Control II from this past December. My favorite part is when Reiche gets fired from TSR for questioning the purchase of a Porsche as an executive's company car.)

I am often dismissive of calls for remakes, usually considering them to be the products of dull, dilettante gamers who can't handle any graphics more than 5 years old. But I would like to see, if not a remake, a modern game that has the basic approach of Star Control II (and, for that matter, Starflight)--perhaps even one that realizes it better by offering truly alternate plot paths. We have plenty of games (although, in my opinion, not enough) that allow us to explore open worlds; have any so far allowed us to explore an open universe? Perhaps that's what we'll get from Bethesda's forthcoming Starfield.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Game 327: Darkwood (1992)

               
Darkwood
United States
Published as shareware in 1992 for the Macintosh
Date Started: 15 May 2019
Date Finished: 16 May 2019
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
               
You are an orphan named Derek who wants to join the elite city guard of Darkwood, the safest city in the kingdom. Anyone who defeats the toughest creature in the arena will become Captain of the Guard. You start at Level 1 with no experience, a dagger, and 10 gold pieces. In front of you lies a town with a weapon shop, an armor shop, a magic shop, an inn, and an arena.
           
Starting the game. You click on buildings to enter them.
           
Because it's all you can afford, you buy some leather armor for 5 gold pieces before heading into the arena. You are offered battles against 20 creatures, listed in order of difficulty from a giant rat to a red dragon. You choose the giant rat. You defeat him in a few rounds of combat and get 10 gold pieces and 75 experience points. You rest up at the inn, and with your newfound wealth, you upgrade your weapon to a short sword. Back you go to the arena to face the next monster.
                   
Over the next several hours, you kill successively harder monsters, buy successively better equipment, and level up. You can save at any time, so death is not permanent. Eventually, you make your way to the arena wielding a Sword +5 Holy Avenger and wearing Full Plate +4, and you defeat the red dragon. Then the game is over.
         
Battering away at an enemy.
         
As tempting as it is to go immediately to GIMLET and make this the shortest entry of all time, there are a few more things to talk about. The first is that I've played this game before, when it was new. Someone had loaded it onto one of the lab computers at my university, and I copied it to floppy disk and brought it home. (This would have been around 1993, in my only Mac-owning period.) The entire time I played, I assumed I was playing a prologue, and once I was named Captain of the Guard, the game would open up and I'd perform a bunch of quests in my new role. I couldn't believe that it was over when it was over.
                                                            
Dad would be so proud.
          
I mis-remembered a few things about the game. I thought I remembered that you could only fight each creature once, but not only would this make for a 10-minute game, it would be impossible. You need to grind relentlessly against low-level creatures to survive and build wealth. The game doesn't really encourage you to test your limits. Even with reloading, if a goblin gives you 25 gold pieces and 110 experience points, and you can kill him 100% of the time (which you can after Level 2), what is your incentive to move up to a bugbear, which offers 40 gold pieces and 250 experience points but a 50% chance of death? Just fight the goblin twice. It only takes a few seconds.

You have to be careful not to be lured by the ghoul (400 gold, 500 experience) or the wight (500 gold, 700 experience). They can drain levels, so their rewards aren't worth it. If you can get to the point that you can defeat the troll, he's a reliably rewarding enemy, offering 1500 gold and 1800 experience. He's the third-to-last enemy, so he should be a lot harder, but something isn't programmed properly. He almost never hits you.
       
Grind all those experience points again? Or just reload?
        
I bought the best weapon and armor in the game, as well as a ring of protection +3, before purchasing any healing potions (easier just to reload than chug a 1000-gold-piece potion) or tomes. The tomes cost 2,000 gold pieces each and allow you to increase your dexterity and constitution to 18 and your strength to 18/100. (I don't think intelligence, wisdom, or charisma do anything. They can't be improved.) After that, the only things to spend money on are wands and potions.
          
Using a tome.
           
I made it to Level 8. It was taking too long to grind to Level 9. I found that the red dragon was unconquerable with melee weapons, even with a full stock of healing potions. But it was vulnerable to the lightning wand that you can buy in the magic shop. Four or five blasts and I was Captain of the Guard.
          
I don't want to accuse the author of anything, but our past experience with shareware titles makes me suspicious of the provenance of these graphics.
         
In a GIMLET, it earns:
           
  • 2 points for the game world, featuring a basic backstory commensurate with the scope of the game.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There's no creation, and leveling doesn't seem to do much more than confer extra hit points.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. The bestiary is Dungeons and Dragons standard, and the level-draining attacks of the undead are the only special attacks programmed in.
                 
A few statistics help you determine what foe you'll want to defeat next.

              
  • 1 point for magic and combat. Your options are only to attack, use an item, or surrender.
                     
Using the Wand of Lightning in the final battle.
          
  • 3 points for equipment. Only one weapon and armor slot, but the magic item selection is decent.
  • 4 points for the economy. It lacks any complexity, but it remains relevant until the end.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. There are only a couple of sounds: hit, miss, and "you won!" Graphics are sparse enough that it might as well have been a text game. It's disappointing how all the monsters are represented by the same helmeted figure. I found the all-mouse interface annoying, as I do all all-mouse interfaces, but it was easy enough to determine what to click on.
  • 2 points for gameplay. Too easy, too limited, and not replayable, it's at least short.
              
That gives us a final score of 18. It's about as minor as you can get and still qualify as an RPG at all. Author Robert Chancellor returned to the setting with Siege of Darkwood (1993), a light strategy game that he published through Pointware. Based in La Verne, California, Chancellor would later go on to work for Blizzard and Amazon Game Studios.
              
He sure got a lot of mileage out of that graphic.
             
What Darkwood does best is raise uncomfortable questions about what makes it a "lesser" RPG. Imagine that it is the menu town of something like a Gold Box game. Instead of leveling up and gaining wealth by fighting monsters in the arena in 30 seconds, you have to spend hours questing in dungeons, only to ultimately return to the city to spend your money and level up. What have all those extra hours gained you? Are they anything more than sound and fury? In stripping away the frills of typical, more elaborate RPGs, does Darkwood also strip illusions about the value of time spent playing those games? Can I honestly say that the endgame screen is less satisfying than a typical era title that takes 5 times as long but introduces no extra plot?

Those questions might be more worth thinking about if the combat in Darkwood were a bit more elaborate, a bit more tactical. I feel like if you're going to set your title entirely in the confines of an arena, combat needs to offer something more than clicking the icon of a sword until someone is dead. (Has any good RPG been set entirely in an arena? I'm open to the possibility.) Perhaps an action-oriented approach drawing upon the underlying attributes. Perhaps the ability to team up with other NPCs. As it is, Darkwood leaves me uncomfortable and unsatisfied. Perhaps I can pretend it's a prologue to Darklands.


****

I've removed Dragons Shard from the list after playing it for a while, then realizing that the shareware version caps character development at Level 5. This is my third half-hearted attempt to play a Bit Brothers game, all of which seem to feature the same engine. Until I can somehow obtain a full-featured copy of the game, I can't get far enough to bother writing about it.

Also gone is Mission: Thunderbolt, which it turns out is not really a 1992 game but a 1991 Macintosh release of a single mission of a mainframe game called Doomsday 2000 (1987). The game has been moved to re-consideration in its appropriate year.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Star Control II: Won!

There's no one "congratulations" screen. This is the final screen of the game.


The final chapter commenced with a re-visit to the Syreen. After clearly being instructed to "LEAVE" in our last encounter, I had thought that the Syreen commander was going to do something without my participation, but it turns out she was just formulating a plan. When I returned--which I imagine I could have done right away--she asked for my help in punishing the Mycons.

This was a multi-part quest. It began with the recovery of the mothballed Syreen fleet. When they had surrendered to the Ur-Quan, the Syreen had to fly their fleet to an unknown planet. All she could tell me was that it was within 200 hyperspace units, and the sun was red or orange. Betelgeuse is at 412.5, 377.0, and 200 units constitutes a fairly large radius. However, I suspected the planet would be in Ur-Quan space. I got Irene's help with the colors, and she pointed out that the Camelopardalis constellation had quite a few orange and red stars. I started exploring them starting with the closest one to Betelgeuse, and I found the ships in the second system I explored. That was a bit of luck.

There were lots of Ur-Quan in the system, but I dodged them and delivered the Syreen pilots to their ships. I returned to the Syreen station and, largely because I was ensuring that I exhausted dialogue options, had sex with the Syreen commander.
             
The developers tactfully cut to black.
            
Afterwards, she explained her plan to lure the Mycon fleet to a carefully selected world and ambush them. I just had to tell them about it. I delivered the information to the Mycon and watched as the Syreen fleet left its world, engaged the Mycon fleet, and significantly reduced the latter. For the rest of the game, the Mycon territory bounced around the map, steadily shrinking. Later, in a visit to the Syreen commander, she reveled in the success of the mission but said there wasn't much else she could do until we brought down the slave shield.
           
Not quite shambled enough, as we'll soon see.
          
In the meantime, on the star map, the Ilwrath and the Thraddash were completely gone, the Pkunk were heading towards Yehat space again, and the Supox and Utwig had invaded Ur-Quan space. The Ur-Quan space, I should note, never got any smaller despite an internal civil war and an external war with me.
           
The state of the galaxy towards the end.
            
My next visit was to Umgah space, where I had forgotten to follow up on the Arilouleelay's request to look in on the injured Talking Pet they'd entrusted to the cosmic otyughs. When I arrived and met with an Umgah vessel, it was clear something was wrong. They were talking robotically, had lost their sense of humor, and attacked when I kept questioning them.
            
Not all is right with the Umgah.
           
I didn't mind. I don't find the Umgah ships very hard, and I wanted to practice with my new acquisitions. The Syreen ability to lure enemy crewmmembers to their deaths (they space themselves) is cool in a horrifying way, but it takes too long to significantly damage the enemy and the Syreen primary weapon isn't very good. I couldn't do anything useful with the Supox ship. The Utwig ship, on the other hand, was fantastically useful. Its secondary attack raises a shield that absorbs energy damage and recharges the battery with it. Its primary attack is a widespread blast, though somewhat weak. Against the Umgah, I just had to hover outside their short range and blast them with the primary weapon, activating the secondary weapon to recharge the battery when they got within range.
             
The Umgah ship isn't much of a match for the Utwig ship.
           
Eventually, I reached the Umgah homeworld, where I found myself speaking to the Talking Pet. Apparently, the Umgah experimentations had restored both its intelligence and psychic abilities, allowing him to dominate the Umgah. He tried to control us, but we had the Taalo Shield, protecting us against psychic interference. Enraged, he sent a fleet of 10 Umgah ships at us. Destroying them wasn't too hard, but 10 is still a lot of ships. When we were done, the cowed Talking Pet agreed to come with us to help defeat the Ur-Quan.
           
But only after trying to trick me first.
        
Meanwhile, the freed Umgah expressed gratitude and gave us 500 units of biological data. Then, they decided it would be funny to attack me, so I had to fight a bunch more Umgah ships.

With the 500 biological data units, I returned to the Melnorme and purchased the rest of the technological upgrades that they had to offer, including auto-tracking modules to improve the aim of weapons, protection for planetary landers, and "hellbore cannons" for the flagship, none of which I ever actually used.

I was out of clues at this point and had to search deep in my notes and screenshots for what to do next. Finally, among some shots of dialogue with the Shofixti, I found reference to the Mycon testing some powerful device on Beta Brahe. Since the Syreen attack, Beta Brahe was outside the core Mycon territory, although when I arrived I still had to defeat 5 Mycon ships in a row. Fighting them was no easier than the last time I tried. They spammed their homing spores faster than I could destroy them, and I lost several ships while fighting them.
               
The Utwig ship absorbs the Mycon bombs, but I had a tough time getting it close enough to the Mycon ship to blast them.
           
When it was over, I recovered a "Sun Device" from the surface of Beta Brahe. This turned out to be the artifact necessary to give extra power to the Chenjesu and Mmrnmhrm unification ritual.

When I returned to Procyon, I didn't get any additional dialogue options, so I just used the device. After a blinding flash, I was contacted by a grateful Chmmr, the name for the combined race. They did something to finish "installing" the Precursor bomb on the flagship and also gave me plans for a new fighter called an Avatar. I thought they were going to give me a way to pierce the slave shields, but there was no dialogue to that point.
          
I'm having flashbacks to my honeymoon.
        
Returning to starbase, I found that the Chmmr alliance had made us so rich, I no longer had any limit to the resource units I could spend. I restocked my fleet with Chmmr Avatars and some other ships, then tried to figure out what to do with my flagship. The bomb took up more than half the available module slots, so I had to greatly reduce crew and fuel capacity in order to keep any weapons at all. It turns out that I probably should have just ignored weapons entirely (since I never fought with the flagship again) and maximized crew and fuel. Either way, it worked out.
            
The Precursor ship is basically just a flying bomb at this point.
          
It was time to take on the Ur-Quan Sa-Matra platform, I guessed. I had no idea where it was, but I had a few hours to kill and several episodes of Dead to Me to watch in the background. I headed for the center of Ur-Quan space and started probing stars in the Crucis and Crateris constellations.

This brought me into battle with a lot of dreadnoughts, and I found the Avatars suitably powerful against them. The Avatars' primary laser attack is cataclysmic--if you can aim it. I was less enamored of the secondary attack, which seems to hit the enemy ship with a tractor beam--although once I managed to get the timing just right and use the tractor beam to sling a dreadnought into a planet. Mostly, though, it was the same story: My clumsy fingers couldn't evade the Kor-Ah throwing stars nor aim worth a damn, and I generally lost one Avatar to each Kor-Ah ship. (And here's something else: I am thoroughly sick of bonking into planets while trying to maneuver around enemy ships. I don't care if it's "realistic." The way the screen wraps is not "realistic," nor intuitive, and both had me hating combat by the end of the game.) After the first one, I generally evaded the dreadnoughts and reloaded when I couldn't.
          
The Avatar destroys a dreadnought just before its hit points run out.
          
Eventually, I found the Sa-Matra orbiting one of the planets of Delta Crateris, immediately noticeable because it had a ring of Ur-Quan dreadnoughts around it. At my word, the Talking Pet confused them and they wandered off, allowing me to approach the battle platform.
            
Without the Talking Pet, I would have had a heck of a fight--but can you even get here without the Talking Pet?
           
The final battle consisted of two stages. The first required me to defeat six Ur-Quan dreadnoughts, three regular and three Kor-Ah. If they'd let me fight all three of each kind in a row, it would have been a lot easier. The regular dreadnoughts are easily defeated by the Utwig ships: you just absorb their energy attacks until they run out of battery power, then hit them with your cannons. But since the Kor-Ah use a physical attack, the Utwig ship is no good against them. And you can't alternate your own ships; once a ship warps out of combat, you can't employ it again in the same battle.

In the end, I lost 7 ships, including all but one of my new Avatars, to the six dreadnoughts.
             
Things are not going well for my fleet.
         
Fortunately, the moment I defeated the ships, the Yehat suddenly appeared, the rebellious faction having overthrown the queen. The Pkunk had unified with them in the meantime, and the new queen was Pkunk. They replaced 6 of the 7 ships I lost with 3 Pkunk Furies and 3 Yehat Terminators.
           
I was wondering why the Yehat civil war was taking so long. They couldn't win until the right moment.
         
The next phase required me to attack the battle platform itself. It had six shield generators on its perimeter, generating a shield and preventing me from flying my bomb into it. Also protecting it were these flying "repulsor globes"--that's the best I can describe them. They didn't do much damage, but they knocked my ships off course and made it difficult to approach the platform. It was also protected by these ships that looked like fireballs.

Most important, the platform itself seemed to have some kind of natural repulsing capability--or perhaps it was just the draw of the nearby planet. Either way, the end result was that most of my ships couldn't get anywhere near it, nor outrun the devastating fireballs. The only ships that I could even begin to use were the Pkunk Furies. I had to use them to circle the platform, slowly diminishing the shield generators while avoiding the many repulsor globes and fireballs.

It took me five tries. I only had three Furies and if they were all destroyed, I was out of luck with any of the other ships (the Yehat Terminators could almost make it, but not quite). I'm curious how other people do it, particularly if they don't lose as many ships as I did to the dreadnoughts and thus not have enough space for the multiple Pkunk and Yehat replacements.
             
My nerves were too frayed to get a lot of screenshots during this section.
          
After I finally destroyed the shield generators, I figured it was time to make a run for the center of the platform with the flagship and the bomb. Big mistake. My cumbersome flagship stood no chance against the still-active repulsor balls and fireballs. I had to reload and defeat the damned shield generators again, and it took me three more tries.

This time, I employed the rest of my ships to destroy the remaining globes and fireballs before, finally, sending my doomsday flagship into the maw of the platform. At this point, the game took over and commenced the endgame sequence.
            
"Goodbye, loyal crew!"
          
The sequence showed my captain escaping in a pod that seems much too small for the entire crew. In the escape pod's viewscreen--where he is suspiciously the only one present--he sees a huge explosion and goes unconscious. He wakes up to the beautiful Syreen commander, Talana, watching over him. Talana relates that the Sa-Matra was indeed destroyed and that the rest of the Ur-Quan fleets were destroyed by the New Alliance. The captain has awoken just in time to see the slave shield disappear on Earth.
         
Yes, the planet is definitely what I'd be looking at right now.
          
The narrative then shifts to the captain as an old man, relaxing on Unzervalt (the Precursor planet from the backstory), telling the story to his grandchildren. It is clear that he married Talana shortly after the events of the game. The children demand to know what happened in the five-year period after the Ur-Quan destruction, and how their grandfather found the "Mark II." But the captain simply says that those adventures are "an entirely different story," clearly setting up a sequel.
           
Perspective dramatically shifts in the final shots.
         
As the end credits roll, the player gets little humorous vignettes of the various races. The Zoq-Fot-Pik continue to debate about Frungy; the Shofixti male has run away for some much-needed recuperation; the Utwig manage to break the Ultron again, and so on. Many of them make allusions to being featured in the sequel. The entire sequence (which you can watch here) is cute, but it also serves to emphasize that the game's races are fundamentally silly, which more than slightly undermines the plot.
          
The Druuge makes demands for Star Control III.
         
So . . . I don't know. I was hoping for more of a twist in the ending, along the lines of Starflight. I feel like the only major twist in the game was in the relationship between the Ur-Quan and their Talking Pets, and that happened in somewhat banal dialogue comparatively early.

There's lots of external material for me to read before the final entry. I'm particularly interested in what elements of the game truly had alternate paths and which ones just seemed like it at the time. I'm also interested in any other side-quests or Easter eggs that I missed. The spoiler embargo is lifted, so please discuss liberally.

Final time: 47 hours



Monday, May 13, 2019

Dark Stone Ritual: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

The Game Master gives us some useless experience points at the end of Dark Stone Ritual.
          
Magic Tower I: Dark Stone Ritual
Germany
Motelsoft (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for Atari ST
Date Started: 9 April 2019
Date Finished: 12 May 2019
Total Hours: 29
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 27
Ranking at time of posting: 154/327 (47%)
            
Summary:
The prolific but amateurish Motelsoft levels up in this entry, with mechanics heavily inspired by Might and Magic III and IV. A pre-defined party (you had to pay extra for a character editor) explores a large world in a somewhat linear manner, piecing together clues, solving puzzles, and ultimately defeating the tyrant Xoon. Top-down outdoor exploration contrasts with first-person town and dungeon exploration. Unfortunately, the combats are too easy, the puzzles too simple, and the story too threadbare to make effective use of the character classes, skills system, variety of spells, and variety of equipment that the game largely copies from Might and Magic. A better game engine than a game.

****

Dark Stone Ritual ended up being larger and longer than I expected. When you begin playing, the game does such a good job confining the world that it seems smaller than it is. Hemmed in by impassable terrain, water, and walls, the party must slowly acquire passwords and items necessary to make incremental progress around the world's major areas. Eventually, the party finds some teleporters that make navigation easier, as do the "Townportal" and "Caveportal" spells.
          
Unlocking the "Swimming" ability was the last obstacle to open-world exploration.
          
As you slowly acquire the skills necessary to navigate in forests and swamps, climb mountains, and swim, the full world opens up to you, and you can explore every square for the items and clues necessary to reach the end of the game.
           
A bit of the final game map.
        
Ritual is far more linear than I expected at the beginning. Most of what I thought were "side-quests" turned out to be steps along the main quest, all funneling into one or two key items or pieces of information. For example, to win the game you must first find the Dark Stone, which is in the dungeon of Lunos. To pass a certain point in Lunos, at least one of your party members must be a member of the Dark Stone Sect, which you can join by visiting a hut on a section of land to the southwest. To get to this area, you have to use a teleporter in a section of land to the southeast, which in turn requires using a teleporter in a small compound on the starting continent. To enter this compound, you have to find a password (RUHE) by interpreting four messages in the dungeon Zappos. To enter the dungeon Zappos, you need an invitation, and that's as far as I can trace it back because I forgot where I got the invitation. But you get the idea.
            
Combat remained easy throughout the game, which discouraged spell experimentation (rarely did spells do more damage than a physical attack) and trivialized all the time I spent analyzing inventory. Only thrice did I have to fine-tune my attacks in "strategic" combat, and none gave me any trouble once I made that decision.
           
"Strategic" combat lets you position characters and aim your attacks at a particular foe.
         
The nature of enemy encounters was odd throughout. You find enemies at fixed locations on the overland map and very rarely at fixed locations in dungeons. There is also a fixed number of enemies wandering each town map. Some dungeons have no combats, and those that do never have more than one or two. This paucity of combat makes the dungeons feel rather empty, and the very light navigation puzzles (a few switches, hidden doors, teleporters, and pits that you have to cast "Jump" to get over) don't do much to fill them.
          
Exploring a dungeon. An encounter lies ahead.
       
Nothing really evolves in the way of a "story," just a succession of NPCs and enemies that you meet and defeat on the way to the final confrontation with Xoon. Because of these weaknesses, I ended up liking the game less towards the end than towards the beginning. In my first entry on Ritual, I was clearly impressed by the mechanics. I still am, to some degree, but the developers made a somewhat boring, basic game with those mechanics. A lot of it feels unfinished--in particular, more than half the skills are unused, and the dungeons and towns are filled with locked doors that can never be unlocked. Nonetheless, it is an improvement from Sandor and Seven Horror's, and thus bodes well for the many Motelsoft titles we will encounter in the future.

A few things that I otherwise didn't get a chance to cover along the way:
             
  • An arena appears in two locations in the overworld. When you enter, you can tell the game how many enemies you want to face and at what levels. I didn't really experiment with it, but it's an alternate source of experience if you somehow need it. The concept is of course lifted from Might and Magic.
  • In what I think is an original element, a few dungeon entrances (including the last) required entering a pattern of green, red, and blue gems on some kind of plate. You have to find the correct patterns in other places.
            
Arranging stones on the door of the final dungeon.
        
  • There was one door with a combination lock for which I never found the combination. Fortunately, reader Buck reached the same point before me and figured out the answer from the game's code.
  • While I'm on unsolvable puzzles, at least three times I was asked to choose from among five symbols. Choosing the wrong one killed the selected character. A tavern tale had warned me that choosing the right symbol would kill the selected character, too, if it was a man. I had to figure out the answers from save-scumming. I have no idea where I was supposed to get them.
          
Do those symbols mean something?
        
  • There's a useful "return to entrance" button while in dungeons. If your selected character has a high enough "Pathfinding" skill, you'll return swiftly to the exit stairs. I wish every game had this.
  • There are fountains all over the world map that raise attributes, hit points, resistances, and spell points, but no combat is tough enough to require them. The final island has about six.
             
Okay, I guess they're not so much "fountains" as "offers of wine." But they're direct analogues to Might and Magic's fountains.
               
The game culminated on a small compound on a northern island. A guardian demanded a password. What she really wanted was a pass phrase, compiled from five words given by residents in little huts in exchange for certain rare stones. The stones, in turn, came from other residents to whom I brought "stone plates" found scattered about the island. The full phrase, for posterity's sake, is BRENUM BRANUM KANUM LUZE LEI. (Thanks again to Buck for helping with this.)
          
Does that look like a "word" to you?
         
This allowed me access to Xoon's dungeon, which is called "Dark Stone Verlies." I verified later that the "Caveportal" spell will take you there if you just know the name, meaning that a second-time player could skip a lot of stuff and just warp to the endgame.
          
The game reminds me that I must emerge with Xoon's head.
          
The dungeon is the only one that has multiple levels (three) and the only one that doesn't remember your progress if you leave and return. There was only one combat, early in the first level, with a guardian of Xoon's named Morok (I'm sure that name was in previous Motelsoft titles). It was one of the battles that I had to fight in "strategic" mode to win. In "strategic" mode, you can position your characters around individual enemies and target them, ensuring that you can reduce their numbers faster. ("Quick" combat targets enemies randomly.) You also get more attacks per round. Between the advantages of strategic combat and the "Full Heal" spell that I'd recently acquired, the battle was quite easy.
            
"Quick" combat was the wrong choice for this final battle.
        
The dungeon's second level is one of the largest in the game, full of secret doors, teleporters, traps, and a bunch of pits to jump. Eventually, you find your way to the third level and the mystifyingly anti-climactic encounter with Xoon, if it is Xoon. I'm not sure I haven't mistranslated or misunderstood something. The climax begins with a black-faced man, flanked by two women, saying: "Ihr wollt meinen kopf, ich weiss. Nun gut wenn ihr unbedingt haben müsst. Ha ha ha. Dann sollt ihr Xoons kopf auch bekommen."
          
Nice shoepolish, Jolson.
              
The scene then dissolves away, the party is teleported back near to the entrance, and in their inventory is Xoon's head.

I translate his text as, "You want my head, I know. Well, if you have to have it, you should also get Xoon's head," suggesting that he himself is not Xoon. It's worth noting that the game uses the same portrait for the master of the Dark Stone sect earlier in the game (although it also re-uses a lot of portraits). I wondered if joining the Dark Stone sect and finding the Dark Stone itself are optional, and that doing so leads to an "easy" ending where the master kills Xoon for you. This is partly suggested by an item in the game's hint file that says, "If you have the Dark Stone, the rest is a children's game!" I tested this theory by loading a saved game from before I had the Dark Stone and using "Caveportal" to go directly to the dungeon. (I had to buff with fountains to win the first-level battle.) But no, the same thing happens even if you don't have the Dark Stone.
         
A previous appearance by the same character.
           
Whatever the case, the game ends when you return Xoon's head to the Game Master back in the dungeon Glorys. The Game Master expresses astonishment that you managed to kill Xoon, who was supposed to have nine lives, and then suggests you save your game for Part 2.

In a GIMLET, the game earns:

  • 1 point for the game world. Ritual comes with no backstory, and while the continent and its features are visually interesting, there's nothing in the way of lore or culture to be found here.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Without the separate character editor, the game unfortunately has no creation process. But the characters are quite well detailed in attributes and skills, and development is satisfying enough for a few levels, until the game becomes too easy. In the end, the character sheet is more complex than necessary given the limited game content.
          
My final paladin character.
         
  • 1 point for NPC interaction. The little dudes in huts are more like "encounters" or "quests" than NPCs.
  • 3 points for encounter and foes. Monsters are probably the weakest part of the game. Most of them are unnamed. They're distinguished only by icon and number of hit points. Because they lack significant special attacks or defenses, there's little need to explore the game's variety of spells. Non-combat encounters are a bit more interesting, with a couple of challenging puzzles, although nothing that approaches Dungeon Master in complexity. I liked the option to search for enemies in already-cleared towns and caves.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. I give some credit for the two combat modes, and "strategic" combat offers some real positioning tactics. I didn't bother to explore more than half a dozen magic spells, particularly since there are no mass-damage spells and the individual-damage spells do less damage than a physical attack.
            
Buying spells in the last town. I never found out what half of these spells do and never cast half of the rest.
            
  • 5 points for equipment. Ritual adopted Might and Magic's complexity with inventory, where items can have multiple bonuses and features and there are usable items to sub for many spells. Again, though, combat was too easy to bother exploring most of these features, and I largely decided which weapons and armor to keep based on cost.
           
This helm effectively increases my level by 1.
          
  • 3 points for economy. There are lots of things to buy--training, skill acquisition and building, weapons and armor, and healing among them. It's just too easy to acquire enough money for the entire game within the first few hours.
           
The game provides absurd amounts of gold at regular intervals.
          
  • 3 points for quests. The game has a main quest, if a little light, and a few side quests that impart extra valuables and skills.
           
The party solves a side quest to return a ring, only to find that the quest giver was divorced in the meantime.
          
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are fine, but there is no sound at all. The mouse part of the interface works well, but unfortunately the mouse part is the only part, which I don't find remotely forgivable.
  • 3 points for gameplay. It has a little nonlinearity at the beginning, and the total number of hours was good for its content. Unfortunately, it was too easy and has no replayability.
         
That gives us a final score of 27. Motelsoft is making better, more complex games in 1992, and letting itself be influenced by the right titles from bigger developers, but it still lacks a certain sense of balance and polish. Despite the promised sequel, it doesn't look like there was ever a Magic Tower II. We'll see them again this year with Arcana unless I happen to pick up Projekt Terra (1991) or Sandor II (1991) on my "old" list first.

Let's see if I can finish up Star Control II this week, too. If not, the next 1992 game is a Macintosh title called Darkwood. Looking at a couple of screenshots, I'm pretty sure I've played this before. If it's the one I'm thinking of, it won't be more than a single entry.