Friday, October 21, 2016

Game 231: Heavy on the Magick (1986)

The game has no title screen; instead, it starts with these instructions.
Heavy on the Magick
United Kingdom
Gargoyle Games (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 16 October 2016
Date Ended: 18 October 2016
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

One of my best friends is British. We met in a training course on September 10, 2001. The next day, we watched the planes hit the towers together and spent the rest of the week getting drunk and watching CNN. I've visited him in London a few times; he's visited me in the States a few times. There have been some minor points of confusion over the years. I once brought him to a Waffle House and had to explain that "well done" is not an acceptable answer when asked how you want your eggs. He had to explain the whole City of London/city of London thing to me, and he laughs at my confusion when he gives his weight in "stone." But on the whole, we understand each other fine, and he's never struck me as coming from a culture so alien that he would have taken naturally to these 1980s British games we're seeing, particularly Swords & Sorcery and Heavy on the Magick.
I'm tempted to show him some of these games the next time I see him. Because he seems like a normal person, I expect bafflement. But I could be wrong. Maybe he'll take a look and say, "Ah, the old Speccy! My, wasn't she fine? Ah, you see, Apex the Ogre--he's a popular children's cartoon character in the U.K. Like your Rocky the Flying Squirrel, really. He shows up and offers advice at trying times. Opening doors, you say? Ah, yes, it's a common cliche in British literature that if you need to open a door, you ask the inanimate pillars nearby for a hint. We call them 'guards.' What about using a key? Oh, I understand the confusion! English doors don't have locks on the door: they put the locks on nearby tables! Say, that game doesn't let you delete letters after you type them, does it? Oh, thank god. The Accurate Typing Act of 1984 requires all software to force users to re-type the entire sentence if they make a single spelling mistake. It's supposed to make us more precise, what? My, what a grand game!"
In the thick of the dungeon. I'm casting the BLAST spell on a troll while the corpses of several previous foes lie on the ground. When he's dead, I'll collect that key.
Heavy on the Magick is an adventure-RPG hybrid that, like a lot of hybrids, doesn't do either of its parts very well. There are very few classic adventure puzzles--most involve shuffling inventory around and using the right items to open doors--and the RPG elements are limited to gaining experience for killing wandering monsters, which you can then convert to stamina.

The game casts you in the role of an obnoxious wizard named Axil the Able. (The game missed an option to make "Axel F" its theme song.) Axil likes to stir trouble by telling fake ribald stories about other wizards. One night in a crowded tavern, Axil has just finished a lewd tale about a wizard named Therion when Therion himself strides up and magically banishes Axil to the dungeons beneath "a dreary castle called Collodon's Pile." The object of the game is simply to get out. Supposedly, there are at least three exits, but I only found one.
This salamander charm will later get me past some fire. I don't know why.
Exploration occurs in a multi-leveled dungeon with dozens of rooms. Each room can have up to 8 exits (each of the cardinal directions), some of which might take you up or down, so you have to watch the descriptions carefully to make sure you haven't crossed levels, which will screw up your maps. I didn't take any video or animated GIFs, but the outline of Axil (as well as the monsters) does move around the screen. You can use LEFT and RIGHT to move him on the screen without leaving it, which allows you to interact with specific objects.

You control Axil through a text parser. (The game presents this as a language called "Merphish.")  In most cases, you strike a single letter for the first word and then type the second: for instance, P(ick up) KEY or X(amine) DOOR. You can speak to NPCs (and, for some reason, inanimate objects) by putting a single quotation mark, then the name of the NPC, then the subject you want to ask about; for instance " GUARD, DOOR.
Getting hints on opening a door. Not Apex's hint to me "WHO GUARDS KNOWS." Is that even English?
I had issues throughout the game getting the emulator to recognize all my keystrokes, meaning I either had to play really slowly or I ended up typing the same commands over and over again.

Character creation is very odd. In a system clearly influenced by the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, your attributes are stamina, skill, and luck. Stamina serves as a combined action point/hit point/spell point pool, and it decreases as you perform certain actions, cast spells, and get hit by enemies. (You also lose 1 stamina point every time you save, which is an interesting idea that more games should adopt.) As you start, the game generates three numbers for these statistics, and they're always very high, moderate, and very low, like 38-9-2 or 35-7-1. You can assign these stats to the attributes in any order you want.
Starting a new game. I can shuffle the points but not re-roll them.
At first, I thought it would make sense to assign the high number to stamina, but later it became clear that it's much more important for skill. I only had success in the game when I gave the moderate number to stamina and the lowest to luck.
The opening screen.
In the first room of the game, you find a couple of books. One of them (on the left) contains a poison that damages and eventually kills you. You have to figure that out through trial and error. The other is a magical grimoire that gives you your first spells: BLAST, FREEZE, and INVOKE. BLAST is an all-purpose combat spell and really the only combat option in the game. (There are no weapons.) FREEZE performs as expected, freezing monsters, but that doesn't do you much good because you generally need to kill them to get through a room. Later, you find some additional spells, including TRANSFUSION, which swaps experience for stamina, and CALL, which allows you to summon an annoying NPC (below).
BLASTing a wyvern.
The game's monsters include ghosts, vampires, wyverns, werewolves, and trolls. Their primary statistic is "cunning," and as long as it's lower than your skill, your BLASTS do a reasonable amount of damage. Eventually, you find some garlic which allows you to instantly kill vampires, as well as a "nugget" that allows you to instantly kill werewolves, and for all I know the other monsters have instant-kill options, too. I didn't find them if they did.
Killing a werewolf immediately with a nugget. I assume it's a silver nugget.
As you kill monsters, you gain experience, which can then be traded for stamina with the TRANSFUSION spell. There's also a "leveling" system in the game that I didn't quite understand and seemed more dependent on wandering into certain rooms than gaining experience through combat. I only "leveled" this way once in the game, from "neophyte" to "zelator," and I was allowed to keep my level even after I died.
Going up a level just for entering a room.
Much of the game involves picking up a variety of items to use in other locations, a process rendered difficult by the fact that you have only 5 item slots. At first, I tried bringing everything to a central location, but later I just marked the location of items so I could go get them if I needed them later. Most of the "puzzles" involve passing through doors. Some doors are passed by dropping keys on nearby tables, others by dropping bags of gold on nearby tables, and still others by giving a password to the door. There were a handful of doors I never found any way to open.
Picking up a key in a multi-exit chamber.
The password puzzles are the only really challenging ones in the game, and it took me a while to figure out how the hints worked. You can get password hints from the "guards" (really just inanimate pillars) that flank some doors, or from an NPC named Apex (more below). The hints are pretty cryptic, and I had to look up one before I understood what the game was doing. That one was "CRY AND ENTER DOOR." The answer to it is WOLF. As in "cry wolf." Another was "TO ENTER IS MADNESS." I tried a bunch of synonyms--INSANITY, CRAZINESS, PSYCHOSIS--before I got it with LUNACY.

In the midst of all these dungeon rooms roams a "helpful" NPC named Apex the Ogre. You can ask him for hints about the various monsters, objects, and doors, although he rarely gave me anything that really helped. You can CALL him once you get the spell scroll, but most of the time, he just showed up unbidden and generally stood in my way until I said "APEX, THANKS to banish him. Although he's not hostile, if you happen to be standing where Apex appears in the room, you'll take continual damage and die.
When Apex gets in your space.
A major part of the manual is given to a dynamic that I never really experienced in-game and didn't understand: summoning demons with the INVOKE spell. The manual lists four demons--Asmodee, Astarot, Belezbar, and Magot--each of which is supposed to help in a different way. For instance, Magot knows of "hidden treasures" and Belezbar "reveals all deceit." When you INVOKE them, you have to be holding their particular talisman--found within the dungeon--or they send you to a furnace room with no exits. If there's any way to escape from there, I never found it.
Invoking Magot turned out to be a bad idea.
A fiery room with no escape.
I guess the demons might be solutions to particular puzzles, but I never figured out what they were, and I managed to win the game without needing to invoke them, so I'll appreciate if another player can fill in the blanks there.

The demons are some of the nods the game makes to the "real" world of the occult. "Therion" was one of the drug-fueled names used by the occultist lunatic Aleister Crowley, and the manual encourages the reader to check out several titles from the "Western Occult Tradition," but honestly there isn't enough game content to really develop this theme. Probably some of the symbols on the walls have an occult angle that went over my head.
Does the SATOR square have some kind of occult meaning?
I'm not sure my description so far has conveyed just how confusingly weird the game feels. The text is presented without punctuation and is often awkward. Color is used like a weapon, with each screen saturated in some garish bright shade. The mechanisms for interacting with objects often don't make any sense. You can't delete or backspace after entering text, so if you make a typo (which happens frequently), you have to abort the entire line and try again. Skill and luck fluctuate for reasons I don't understand. Some of the messages make no sense. I don't know what "2° = 9°" meant for the entire game, but it was right there under my current rank.
One of the map levels I made.
I did my best to map as thoroughly as possible, and in the process of blundering around I found a door. It was past a cyclops with a high "cunning" score, and I wasn't able to defeat him until I put the highest statistic in "skill" and jacked up my stamina with multiple TRANSFUSION spells.
Fighting the "final battle," at least of my game.
The guardians at the door said "TO ENTER SAY A NUMBER OF MAGICK WORDS." Like everything else, it's an awkwardly-worded clue, but I figured it out. The manual says "the number of Magick is 11," and the door opened when I gave it that password.
The room beyond indicated that I was in "the Pile Collodon" (not "Collodon's Pile") and a punctuation-free message indicated that I had made it to an exit while my character did a little dance on screen. I could re-enter the dungeon if I wanted, but screw that. This dude's YouTube video shows him reaching all three exits in a 75-minute game, if you care that much.
I "won."
The game gets a 15 in the GIMLET, scoring 1s and 2s in almost every category (economy gets a 0). It's boring and weird, and I'm afraid I got to the end without ever really "getting" it.
Contemporary reviewers liked it a lot more--it got "best adventure of the year" in Crash! magazine and Computer Gamer gave it the equivalent of 95/100, but between what they produced and how they rated real RPGs (cf. the Amiga magazine reviews of Gold Box titles), I'm pretty well convinced that the Brits of the era simply had no idea what they were talking about.
From the manual, a significant waste of effort.
Heavy on the Magick was roughly the 6th game from British developer Gargoyle Games, which specialized in ZX Spectrum titles, including the action game Ad Astra (1984) and the adventure games Tir Na Nog (1984) and Marsport (1985). Magick uses an updated version of the adventure games' engines. The creators had greater ambitions for Magick: the manual maps a large game world (called Graumerphy) of multiple islands despite the game taking place completely underground, and it promises future titles called Collodon's Pile, The Tombs of Taro, Paradise Reglossed, and The Trials of Therlon as well as a book. To this end, the game allows the saving of Axil as a character independent of the game. Of course, none of this extra material ever happened. Gargoyle closed shop in the early 1990s, and as far as I can tell, developers Roy Carter and Greg Follis left the gaming industry at that point.

Honestly, at some point the Brits must start producing RPGs that make some modicum of sense, communicate in actual English, and don't feel five years behind modern technology. I just don't know when that's going to be. We've got three more in 1986--Mindstone, The Wizard of Tallyron, and Tallyron II. Maybe one of those will finally feel like something recognizable to a fellow westerner.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Pools of Darkness: Summary and Rating

The implications of requiring a hard drive didn't occur to me until now. This must have been a tragedy for C64 owners who'd enjoyed the previous three games.
Pools of Darkness
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga and Macintosh, 1993 for PC-98
Date Started: 18 September 2016
Date Ended: 7 October 2016
Total Hours: 68
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

I feel like we've reached the end of something. Pools of Darkness is not the last Gold Box game, but it's the last of the original series--the last time we'll see Phlan and the Moonsea region. Names like Corymr and Hillsfar and Zhentil Keep won't appear again in CRPGs in our lifetime, unless I'm mistaken. (We will, of course, encounter Myth Drannor again, but that's better forgotten for now.)

Reflecting on the entire series, Secret of the Silver Blades seems the least "necessary" of the four; the appearance of Priam aside, there are the fewest plot ties to the other titles. It was important for character development and inventory (more on that below), but the cycle really could have been a trilogy. Between Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, and Pools of Darkness, each title opens up more explorable area of the Moonsea and adds more to the "Banite" plot. I might even recommend that modern players approach it that way. You don't lose that much in the way of experience and character development; you'd hit encounters like the Cult of Moander, Myth Drannor, and Mulmaster while their prior references are fresh in your mind; and inventory acquisition in Pools would be much more meaningful.
Pools of Radiance let's you explore basically the northwest quadrant; Curse of the Azure Bonds takes place across most of the western half; this game doubles the map to the east.
In an earlier post, I suggested that Pools might be the Gold Box game that finally surpasses Pool of Radiance in the GIMLET. I no longer think so. The primary problem with Pools is the lack of meaningful character development. In the first 10 levels of a first edition AD&D game, spellcasters learn most of the most valuable spells, fighters become notably more powerful and get a second attack, and clerics learn to turn just about every type of undead. The next 30 levels are boring by comparison. Sure, spellcasters get more and more slots and a few extra spell levels, but not enough to make a serious difference. In Pools of Radiance, each map might only have 3 or 4 safe resting spots, so you have to conserve spells in between and use every resource you have. In Pools of Darkness, each map has those same 3 or 4 resting spots, but this time you can't possibly cast even all of your "Delayed Blast Fireballs," let alone all your spells, before you have a chance to rest again.

Similarly, you gain very little in inventory development in Pools. I started the game with several +5 weapons and armor, but I think the highest I found in Pools was +4. For the most part, my characters ended the game with the same equipment they started with, excepting Vorpal Blades, Girdles of Giant Strength, and Boots of Speed, most of these items not appearing until end of the final map.

Someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but I also think that this is the last time we'll see characters of this experience level in a D&D game. I think I got into the 20s in Throne of Bhaal, maybe around the same in all the expansions of Neverwinter Nights. Of course, in those games, high-leveled characters have a lot more to work with--feats and skills that don't exist in first edition AD&D--making them arguably more powerful. It's frankly bizarre that the game lets you get so high. Pool of Radiance is meant for Level 1-8 characers; Curse of the Azure Bonds caps out around Level 12; and Secret of the Silver Blades stops you at 15. If Pools of Darkness had ended at Level 20-22, it would have been enough to get into the highest spell levels but not so high as to create staggeringly overpowered characters. I guess the greater length required more levels.

I happened to watch Captain America: Civil War on a plane last night, and I began to think of parallels between the Avengers and my Pools of Darkness party. I thought about how eager everyone was to see us to a ship and send us to parts unknown. The game presents it as if it's some kind of reward, but in reality it seems like exile. But then again, what do you do with a bunch of Level 40 characters running around? My mages could level the city. Two of my fighters could defeat a phalanx of city guards. There are no Sokovia Accords in the Forgotten Realms. And my 6 characters aren't even all good by alignment (though none are evil). Perhaps it really was time for this group to retire.

This is particularly true when you consider that the party and its strength, in effect, caused the core crisis of the game. From the opening animations, it's clear that Bane is wreaking havoc on the Moonsea region specifically to punish the party for its previous successes. Like the Avengers with Ultron, we created our own enemy, and the world is paying the price. I'm not really fond of plots like this, where the world doesn't gain any net benefit and the heroes simply deal with a problem that they created.
Just a thought: maybe the powers of good should have stepped in now.
I always like checking out the unused journal entries when I've completed a Gold Box game. There won't be many more of these. I counted 20 unused entries, but some of them might just have been entries that I didn't find. A couple were just nonsense tavern tales--one of them warning the party not to go through the "magical gates" because they deplete strength. Others hint at enemies that never show up--The Frostmaiden, the Red One, and some mysterious "rider in red." There's one fake entry that has Bane himself talking to the party, saying that the party is wasting its time defeating the lieutenants when in fact a "rider in red with a sword of flame" is the real enemy. Another tells the party to "seek out the Flaming Sword" to defeat Bane. Less obvious misleading stuff than in some of the earlier titles; there was probably a sense even among the "fake" journal entry authors that the journal's time was coming to an end.

Let's see how she rates:

1. Game World. In my final rating on Curse of the Azure Bonds, I discussed my basic problem with the Forgotten Realms, amounting to there not being any "there" there. For the era, the Moonsea is a reasonably well-defined place, with a variety of factions and each area steeped in lore. I liked all the call-backs to previous games and the ability to re-visit some memorable areas. On the other hand, as I note above, I didn't really care for the overall plot, particularly the end. Score: 6.

2. Character Creation and Development. Nothing new added in this installment except higher levels, which (as above) is a lot less rewarding than advancing in lower ones. Even dual-classing doesn't add much here because you get to Level 10 in the space of half a map. The title otherwise has the general A&D and Gold Box strengths, although the level caps for non-human races become completely unworkable here. Pools seems to offer fewer encounters in which character race, sex, or class actually matters; the optional Dave's Challenge is the only place I can think of. Score: 6.
An end-of-game character sheet.
3. NPC Interaction. There are some memorable NPCs--Nacacia, Shal, and Sasha stand out as "characters" more than any previous Gold Box denizens. I like the way that so many different NPCs can join you briefly for mini-quests and play out their own stories. On the other hand, the series refuses to advance at all when it comes to NPC dialogue and role-playing options. Score: 5.
The last we'll see of Sasha.
4. Encounters and Foes. Again, we must reflect that the Gold Box series, in using the AD&D monster manual, is giving us a much greater variety of foes than just about any other title of the era. Practically every encounter is a mid-term exam that requires player to recall the strengths, weaknesses, and special attacks of the foes. (And as we saw, I often forgot some of them despite my experience with the titles.) There are a few original, high-level foes created just for this game. Many battles are preceded by some contextual text, which I always like. You can grind as much as you want. Oh, I found some of the enemies annoying, but really that's a minor complaint when you consider the breadth and depth of what's programmed here.

I'm sure the game has more monster types than any of its predecessors. The manual describes 40 monsters, the same as Secret of the Silver Blades, but it's missing a bunch, including 4 different types of vampires, wights, wraiths, all of the human enemies, and many of the animal enemies you fight outdoors and in Mulmaster at the end. This is the first time that I've noticed that the manual doesn't exhaustively catalogue every enemy in the game--did I just not check in previous titles? 
A fitting pre-combat message.
On the other hand, the series still hasn't managed to out-perform Pool of Radiance when it comes to non-combat encounters. When I think of true "role-playing" in the Gold Box series, I think of maps like the Zhentil outpost, the buccaneer base, or the lizard man village in the original game, where you could play the entire series of encounters in different ways depending on your preferred approach. I think of the final battle, where you can have your evil party members join Tyranthraxus. A handful of encounter options with gate guards and whatnot don't rise to that level of roleplaying. Score: 7.

5. Magic and Combat. In general, all of the strengths and weakness of the previous titles. I honestly love the Gold Box combat system, and I don't think I'll ever tire of it, but that doesn't mean I didn't tire of many of the battles. We've already talked in this series about how overpowered "Delayed Blast Fireball" is--and how it's almost impossible to force yourself not to use it regardless. 

As many commenters have pointed out, combat in Pools of Darkness amounts largely to a "quick-draw" in which you have to hope you can blast a group of enemies with magic attacks before they blast you. Either way, combat is usually over within a few rounds. I miss the longer, grander battles of the early games in which making use of terrain, holding a line, concentrating physical attacks, exhausting all your spell options, and healing in battle really made a difference. (You could argue that the Moander battles meet these criteria, but the game ruins that by offering too many of them.)

One thing that I constantly wished for is the ability to revive unconscious characters and to cast "Resurrection" and "Stone to Flesh" in combat. That would have turned a lot of hopeless combats into real tactical challenges. I guess canonical spellcasting times would have made this impossible under AD&D rules.

All that said, the game is still significantly ahead of anything else in the era when it comes to the tactical nature of combat and spells in particular. Few other titles, before or after, can match Pools of Darkness in the variety, logistics, and utility of so many spells. For that alone, it deserves a high score, and nothing is going to surpass it until we get to an era of better enemy AI overall. Score: 7.
My party in the thick of the final battles.
6. Equipment. The equipment system in general remains quite good in the Gold Box titles, and I appreciate the addition of helms to this outing. Melee weapons, missile weapons, ammunition, armor, rings, helms, boots, gauntlets, girdles all add to character development, and wands, potions, scrolls, and a few special items add to combat tactics. That said, this game offered fewer honest rewards than any of the previous Gold Box titles. I ended the game mostly equipped with the same items that I had at the end of Secret of the Silver Blades, which offered several +5 items, compared to what seemed to be a +4 cap in Pools. Making me wait until the last area of the last map to get a couple extra Boots of Speed and Girdles of Giant's Strength was a particular slap in the face. Score: 5.
My thief's inventory at the end of the game.
7. Economy. I offered a double guest post on how much it "sucks," and I think that pretty well covers it. You only need to buy a few items (mostly Elixirs of Youth) in the game, and the developers could have saved everyone a lot of time by just making everything free. Score: 1.
8. Quests. Decent main quest. No opportunities for role-playing or alternate outcomes, but more than any previous title, we see a lot of optional areas and side quests. In fact, in general these side quests were better than the main plot. I particularly liked Myth Drannor and Dark Phlan, and it was fun to clear up little "pockets of evil" in between the marked places on the map. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The interface remains fantastic--supporting very intuitive keyboard, mouse, and joystick inputs. It's a model for others to follow. The graphics are getting dated. Although many of the cut scenes are well-composed and animated, the blank hallways and empty rooms are getting less defensible. The sound is probably the worst part of the game. Amidst a bunch of mediocre sound effects are a few that are so grating (the Wilhelm scream that accompanies the death of every enemy is the primary example) that I had to play most of the game with the sound off. Score: 5.
I didn't take many screenshots of blank corridors even though they make up 80% of the game. This is supposed to be Gothmenes' "palace," and the text has to tell me that there's a pool in front of me.
10. Gameplay. We had a little argument in my first post about whether the game is "linear." I maintain that it at least presents itself in a linear manner, meaning that you start in the northeast, end in the southeast, and there's an obvious sequence to your exploration by going counter-clockwise around the Moonsea. If you do that, you'll hit the main plot points in a sensible order (running right to the Moander dimension would be suicide, for example). I know that the game supports different orders, and indeed you can get quests from both underground Phlan and Arcam's tower if you don't approach things that way, but that doesn't change what 90% of players are going to do on a blind first run.

Still, given that there are some alternate dialogues and encounters to be found if you do things in a different order, that makes the game slightly replayable.

For difficulty, I rated it an average of "hard" above, which I don't mind, but what matters more than the average is the variance--and that, unfortunately, is quite significant. Deliberately nerfing characters by making them abandon their best equipment just before the hardest battles, and then removing spells--a huge part of the game--for the final battle are both a little hard to swallow. In general, the pacing is good, though I think it clocks in a little on the long side. Score: 4.

That give us a final rating of 52, not anywhere near the 65 I gave to Pool of Radiance, which I rated for a better story, better character development, better non-combat encounters, and a better (though still bad) economy. But it outperforms Secret of the Silver Blades (50) and puts the title in my top 10%. More important, it ends the overall series with honor. It's not a perfect game, but it's epic and ambitious and a worthy bearer of the Gold Box label.
This Drow woman featured prominently on the box cover and game ads doesn't actually appear in the game, unless she's one of the random Drow mooks in Kalistes' realm.
My review aligns fairly well with Scorpia's December 1991 Computer Gaming World review. She disliked having to give up equipment at Limbo--calls it "idiocy," as a matter of fact--and has a lot of venom for the end of the game:
[Your party has] just finished a task whose proportions are almost immesurable, turning back, virtually single-handed, powers of darkness and defeating what is nothing less than a demi-god. What's the reward? Nothing. That's right, nothing... No cheering crowds, no banquets, no speeches not even a thank you. After all they've been through, there is nothing for your party to do except slip out quietly by ship, either for retirement or Dave's Challenge. What a downer!
But aside from these flaws, she calls the title "otherwise the best in the Gold Box line to date." She loved the Moander portion.
I'm still a little confused as to why we're just leaving.
Dragon gave it 5 stars on its usual scale of 5-5.

Amiga magazines, which always seem to favor graphics and sound over good RPG gameplay, were generally less charitable, offering scores in the 50s-80s (out of 100) on average. The worst comes from our old friends at Amiga Power (whose criminally incompetent review of Secret of the Silver Blades I covered in my final posting on that game). The reviewer, Dave Golder (a different one than the Secret reviewer) gave it 22/100. Among his complaints are a "plot so thin it makes Lena Zavaroni look like Mike McShane." This is a cringe-worthy simile, given that Ms. Zavaroni suffered from anorexia all her adult life and died in 1999, in part because of the disease. But it's also cringe-worthy because he clearly didn't play the game long enough to grasp the plot--he believes that it is "Lord Blane" (not kidding) who is jumping around using the Pools of Darkness. He complains about the speed of combat messages, apparently not bothering to note that you can slow it down, and the "sub-menus" of the interface. This is clearly someone who never played anything that wasn't an easily-controlled, first-person blobber (he praises Eye of the Beholder in the same review).

But the most mysterious comments are at the end: when you meet NPCs, he says, "you can't actually engage in a proper conversation with them, which goes completely against the spirit of role playing." I mean....okay, I guess I can't disagree, but what games was he playing in 1992 where you can have strong role-playing conversations with NPCs? I sure haven't run into them yet.

Despite Amiga Power's hope that this would be the last of the series, of course we still have Neverwinter Nights (1991), The Dark Queen of Krynn (1992), Treasures of the Savage Frontier (1992), and some Unlimited Adventures modules (1993) to check out. I'm sure I'll have a huge Gold Box retrospective some time next year, but for now, I'm sorry to be leaving the Moonsea for the last time. We had some unforgettable times in the Forgotten Realms. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Pools of Darkness: Won!

I actually think it's time for a big celebration and then I retire in Phlan with my riches.
There's a surprisingly large amount of game left to play after the "final battles" of Pools of Darkness. It's not the first game to allow continual play after winning, but it might be the first to have actual interesting content in the post-victory world.

Once you've struck the final blow at the end of the three battles, Gothmenes' wounded body (despite the battle screen clearly stating that you "killed" him) goes flying into the Pool of Darkness. Gothmenes cries out for Bane to save him, but Bane doesn't because of reasons.
I honestly did not intend to pull you back.
Gothmenes is consumed by the Pool of Darkness. Moments later, a vision of Elminster waves at you creepily from the same pool. He says that "the powers of good [have] undone all of Bane's plot" and "everything is as it was--only ye and I know what fate the realms almost bore." Some "fog lifts" and the party stands on a street in Phlan, where we were when the game began.
Okay, I know we're at the epilogue here, but could the storytelling have been any lazier? The party is somehow magically transported back to the beginning? Everything is reset? No one remembers? Why not just say it was all a dream? I wanted a victory parade, damn it!

But not all is the same as it was before, because NPCs who were in other places are suddenly wandering around the streets of Phlan. You meet Priam, wondering what adventures we could possibly have together, given how peaceful everything is.
You do realize the Moonsea is only a small part of the Realms, right?
Shal says hello and thinks she recognizes us but can't place us. Vala slaps us on the back and talks about stirring up trouble in Vaasa. Nacacia invites us to visit her in Elven Court someday.
Sure. Maybe I'll explore the ruins of Myth Drannor.
Finally, Elminster pops up and offers some nonsense explanation for the way things are ("when the greater powers returned the cities, 'twas needful of them to return time as well"). He says he's arranged passage for us on a ship to "a land ye can call home," as if Phlan wasn't good enough for that. He notes cryptically that there's a second ship at the docks that Rolf will tell us about. He then takes off for Shadowdale.
Is there a reason you're trying to get me out of here?
In the town hall, Sasha dismisses us completely.
You know what? I think I'm over you.
The seer in the old slums says she can't see our future.

You can take the party outside Phlan's walls and re-explore the entire Moonsea region. All of the evil fortresses are ruins that you can't enter. Manshoon has sealed Zhentil Keep. 
There are still scattered encounters in the wilderness, mostly with land-sharks.

All of the former craters now have menu towns.
There are no menu towns in the main part of the game. They programmed this just for the endgame.
The one exception is Mulmaster. If you visit there, a guard informs you that the arena monsters have escaped their pens, and you can run around fighting them if you want. Personally, I felt more sympathy for the monsters. 
Have you heard the "enemy of my enemy" theory?
Back in Phlan, Rolf offers you a choice of two ships. The one will bear the party to parts unknown, because there's no possible good a group of Level 40 adventurers could possibly do in the Realms. The second ship "limped in with a busted mizzen t'other day" and the captain says "he is here to offer you a challenge."
If you take the first ship, you get a final series of screens in which the party ruminates on the changes they have wrought to the Moonsea region, feeling pride, etc., and once and for all abandoning any idea that you can role-play the games as an evil party:
You board the ship, which soon has its sails smartly set and a bow wave rising before it. You look back at Phlan and the Stojanow River rolling peacefully into the sea. What changes your hands have wrought!

When you first set foot towards adventure, the region was aboil with evil and corruption. Now, its citizens will know a lasting peace, free from fear. What wonders will they create in this golden age?

Turning your musings inward, you know a deep satisfaction in your deeds well done, and realize that it is time to say farewell to the land and the many people you met there.
Then there's the other ship. It takes you to Dave's Challenge, an optional final area of the game. (It's named after co-developer David Shelley; we had a dungeon of the same name at the end of Death Knights of Krynn). I gave it a shot after I resurrected my dead characters, healed, leveled up, and retrieved my old equipment from the hold of Rolf's ship--let's not worry about how it got there.
Sounds like an RPG developer.
The challenge is presented as a special dungeon erected by some lunatic for the specific purpose of challenging high-level adventurers. From the moment you enter, the only goal is to leave. It's a standard 16 x 16 map, but only about 60% of the squares are used.
Arriving at The Challenge.
I save-scummed liberally as I mapped the Challenge, trying to figure out the optimal order in which to do things. There are three major issues in the challenge:

1. There's only one place that you can rest. It's off a hallway where lightning bolts shoot at you randomly. You can only rest there three times.

2. There are squares where your spells are wiped away. Various sites say that you lose your "mage spells" or "cleric spells," but the reality is that you lose all spells for mage and cleric characters. Since all my spellcaster are dual cleric/mages, all of their spells get wiped on every square.
This happens all over the place in Dave's Challenge.
3. You play the dungeon with all monsters on "champion" level.

A central room contains a beholder who gives you hints the first two times you enter, then attacks with a large group of beholders the third time. I was only able to defeat them using the "run up/run away" trick.
Breaking one of the "bonds" that keeps me in the dungeon.
The goal is to break four "bonds," each aspected to a particular class: thief, mage, cleric, fighter. (If you don't have one of each of these, you can't win.) The thief's bond is the easiest--you just have to fight a single battle against some rakshasa and iron golems along the way. The others are much harder because you lose all your spells when you enter their areas. Some of the battles include multiple Blue Minions of Bane and are theoretically harder than the final battles in the main game.
3 of 7 Minions of Bane on this map. If I didn't have my items, this battle would be harder than the final battle in the main game.
I say "theoretically" because I had one major advantage here that I didn't have in Gothmenes' palace: items. I had lots of wands, potions, and scrolls in my cache back at the Phlan docks, and once I saw what awaited me in Dave's Challenge, I was able to reload and buy more. Since I hadn't burned them earlier in the game, I had two Scrolls of Protection from Dragon's Breath (and each scroll is capable of multiple castings), which really ended up saving the day.
The most important item in the game.
After a few false starts, I learned where my spells would disappear and made sure to cast every buffing spell before that happened. I carefully spaced out my rest breaks. I ultimately was able to break all the seals and make my way to the final battle, where a mysterious voice indicated that he'd rescued Gothmenes, Tarental, Thorne, and Kalistes. Immediately before the battle, all your spells disappear yet again.
Wow, Dave has some serious power.
The final battle comes in two waves, with no rest in between. First, Tarental and Gothmenes attack with a bunch of Bits o Moander and maybe 8 Blue Minions of Bane. I never would have survived the breath attacks of the Minions without using the Scrolls of Protection from Dragon's Breath first, but with them, it wasn't too hard. I concentrated my fighters' attacks on Gothmenes and Tarental (despite the "champion" level, each went down in a single round from a hastened fighter) and then the Moander bits while my mages used scrolls and wands with "Fireball" to kill the Minions of Bane.
Killing Gothmenes never gets old.
The second battle was with Kalistes, Thorne, and a bunch of Pets of Kalistes and Red Dragons. Again, it wasn't so bad. My high-level characters were immune from the "Disintegrate" and "Charm" spells the enemies tried to use, and the scrolls kept me safe from the dragons' breath. It took a long time to whittle them down, but I wasn't in a lot of danger in the meantime.
Part of final battle #2.
Without those scrolls, I'm not sure the battles would have been winnable. I'm grateful for my hoarding tendencies.

When the battle was over, I wandered around before walking into a square that asked me to "Repeat the mystic clue." I had no idea what it was talking about. I still don't. I looked through all my screenshots for any kind of clue and couldn't find any. Eventually, I had to consult a spoiler site to learn that the clue is "Oh, well"--comma and all. Does anyone have any idea how I was supposed to know that?

Entering the clue took me to a small "reward" area where I found a chest with thousands of gems and jewels, two Girdles of Giant's Strength, two pairs of Boots of Speed, and some high-end weapons. There was also a fountain that I didn't know what it was doing at the time (it just says "you get wet") when you enter, but apparently it was increasing my experience by 400,000 for each trip (up to the maximum you can achieve between levels). 
The largest treasure reward in the series.
Beyond that, an exit led back to Phlan, where I leveled-up, rested, and saved, then exported my characters for....well, nothing, I guess. Perhaps a replay at some point in the future, or maybe I'll use them to trounce my way through Treasures of the Savage Frontier.
You'd like to think so, but you have nothing on Wizardry IV.
Two quick notes:

  • The druid's "Protection from Fire" apparently never wears off. When I checked which spells were in effect at one point, she had multiple editions of the spell active, since the previous ones hadn't been "eaten up" by fire attacks in previous combats.
I guess she really doesn't need any more.
  • Recovering all spells at these levels, after your mind has been wiped, takes almost 5 days of rest. The game maxes the automatic resting at 2 days, so you have to rest 3 times in a row to recover everything. I didn't know this at first and spent a lot of time wondering where all my spells had gone.

It's been a long game! Let's GIMLET the thing and get back to the list.


As for that list, the next game is anyone's guess, and you might see some dramatic shifts to the "recent & upcoming" list in the near future.

I would really like to play Fer & Flamme, which turns out to be Ubisoft's first game, except I can't find a manual and I can't get past the character creation screen. The game makes you manually type in the character class, and without a list of valid options, I'm stuck. I've tried French translations of common RPG class types--guerrier, voleur, sorcier, etc.--to no avail. [Edit: Someone found the manual already and sent it to me.]

At the same time, I'm having trouble finding a workable download of Le Fer d'Amnukor, the sequel to Tyrann, which exists only for the Oric. I'm new to the emulator, so that might be causing part of the problem.

Moonstone is proving so frustrating that I might add a "keyboard control only" restriction to my master game list. I have a Logitech controller that, after some effort, I basically have working with DOSBox, but either it's reading my inputs erratically or I just suck. I can't even win the practice battles. Adjusting the CPU speed doesn't seem to help.

Knightmare is giving me the usual issues working with the Amiga, which in this case means that it freezes on loading most of the time, and when it doesn't, it doesn't stop asking me for a disk even though I've inserted one. No luck with the ST version, either. This one is probably more solvable than the others, but I reached it after a string of failures with the games above and was low on patience.

As for Fate: Gates of Dawn, I sank 8 hours into it last week and didn't get any further than mapping a few partial levels of catacombs. The game is indecently large, and I'll probably need double that time to encounter enough plot points to have anything to write about.

So barring any movement on the above, the next post you see might be on Legend of Lothain or Heavy on the Magick, neither of which I've looked at yet, so heaven knows whether I'll have any problems with them.