Friday, December 1, 2023


Just quick update: I know we were just getting on track after a long September/early October hiatus, but I'm afraid blog activity is going to be sporadic until my winter break starts in mid-December. I have too much to do with final grading and final papers for the classes I'm taking to spend time on games. That doesn't mean I won't get one or two entries published, but I can't promise anything.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Game 499: Worlds of Legend: Son of the Empire (1993)

It was war last time, too.
Worlds of Legend: Son of the Empire
AKA Son of the Empire: Legend Worlds 1: This Time Its [sic] War! 
United Kingdom
Mindscape (developer and publisher)
Released 1993 for Amiga and DOS
Date Started: 19 November 2023 
Mindscape is one of my least favorite developers from this period. I say that with some sadness, because their games are always innovative. They just have a way of dragging on, getting too hard, and wearing me out. This is true of both the Anthony Crowther line (Captive, Knightmare, Liberation: Captive II) and the Anthony Taglione line represented in Bloodwych (1989), Legend (1992), and this game, meant to be the first in a line of Words of Legend titles.
(A quick note on the name: Both the game box and the manual give the title as Worlds of Legend: Son of the Empire, but the title screen, as you see, has the subtitle and main title reversed. My policy in such situations is to go with whichever title is most common among the three sources.)
This screen comes up while the game is loading.
Both Bloodwych and Legend are among the small percentage of games that I couldn't bring myself to finish. With both, I have occasionally toyed with the idea of trying again. Bloodwych was a superior Dungeon Master clone that featured a rare mechanism for cooperative two-person gameplay. Legend was an isometric game with a fascinating magic system. Both impressed me before, ultimately, exhausting me. I thus start this game in a pessimistic mood.
Bloodwych concerned the efforts of one or two parties to save the land of Trazere from the evil Zendick, a wizard who had seized control from the ruling council, called the Bloodwych. Legend--called The Four Crystals of Trazere in the U.S. release--has a party save the land of Trazere from the sorcerer king, Necrix. At the end of the game, the characters establish the Bloodwych, demonstrating that Legend is a prequel to Bloodwych
Even in a tavern, the barbarian doesn't put on a shirt and the assassin doesn't take off his mask.
Worlds of Legend lies somewhere in between, a sequel to a prequel. (Apropos of nothing, I was reminded the other day that the film The Scorpion King 4 is a sequel to a sequel to a prequel to a prequel to a sequel to a remake.) It adopts most of the mechanics of Legend, including the use of four defined characters: a barbarian, a runemaster, a troubadour, and an assassin. In Legend, these classes had been presented as coming from the north, south, west, and east, respectively. As the game begins, the victorious party is enjoying a drink in the "remote village of Brodfird" when a black-clad figure darkens the door. He brings a letter from the assassin's homeland, the Empire of the Moon. The assassin PC is apparently the son of the Emperor, who has just been assassinated. The letter comes from the emperor's sister and the PC's aunt, Sushiana. She begs the PC to return home to investigate. "I think that Ti-Mann MoChun is somehow connected," she writes; this is apparently the old emperor's sorcerer and aide.
Using an assassin to run an errand.
My party had actually consisted of four female PCs, named after New Orleans jazz musicians. You can import them into the game or create new characters. I have never seen a greater variance between imported and created characters in a sequel. The imported characters retain their levels (in my case, Level 7), attributes, gold, spells, runes, reagents, and inventories from Legend, and their hit points double. New characters start at Level 1 with virtually nothing.
Either way, the party must consist of a berserker, a troubadour, an assassin, and a runemaster, each of which is restricted to specific weapons, armor, other items, and abilities. New characters have attributes (strength, intelligence, speed, dexterity, constitution, luck) fixed; the only things to change are names and sexes. You can also alter starting attributes by clicking on one of four buttons to indicate that the character is particularly attuned to earth, fire, air, water, or some combination of these. Each one raises some scores and lowers others; clicking on all of them results in the same statistics as if you had clicked on none of them.
Creating a new party.
The game begins at Sushiana's house in the city of Imperia, where she is happy that her nephew brought three friends to help. She suggests that the way to save the Empire is to bring her the four shards of the Eternal Amulet, which she can then reforge. In addition, Sushiana offers three services: the ability to rename characters, the ability to change their appearance ("reclothe"), and selling troubadour songs. I remember that "reclothing" was vital to my ability to actually discern my party members in the chaos of Legend's combat. As for learning songs, that's done in taverns in Legend, but the manual explains that taverns aren't as popular in the Empire. I still wonder why, given what's at stake, Sushiana won't teach us the songs for free.
The two lines of smoke from the incense in this scene are animated, as is the flag outside.
In the rest of Imperia, you can buy horses or "enter vaults." This last option has you threatened by Ti-Mann MoChun before you enter a two-level dungeon whose purpose, I can only imagine, is to get non-imported characters up to speed.
I guess there's no chance you were wrongfully accused, then.
The core of the gameplay takes place on these isometric planes that make up dungeon rooms. They look identical to those in Legend; as far as I can tell, nothing has changed in the interface or combat mechanics. You select an active character by clicking on his icon in the lower-left. You then select one of the commands on the bottom row or one of the icons in the lower-right to get the character to push something, take something, look at something, open something, shut something, use the character-specific tactic, use an item in the left hand, attack with the weapon in the right hand, or cast a spell. The fist (or whatever it is) causes the other party members to rally around the active character.
These combinations of commands are used for both combat and puzzle-solving, and the thing that I have difficulty remembering is that when targeting an enemy or object, you have to click the square at his base, not at the enemy or object directly. For instance, in the very first dungeon room, there's a notice posted to one of the pillars. Clicking on "Look" and then clicking on the notice directly causes nothing to happen; you have to click on "Look" and then the base square of the pillar to which the notice is attached.
The first dungeon room.
Combat is a chaotic free-for-all in which your party members act on their own except when given specific instructions. In my reviews of Legend, I made comparisons with the real-time-with-pause systems of Darklands and the Infinity Engine games (e.g., Baldur's Gate). But there are numerous problems with the system as implemented here, including an inability to see anything about your foes, even their names, so you have no idea which ones to prioritize. Pathfinding is also horrible, rendered worse by extremely crowded rooms, so it's hard to target a specific enemy unless you happen to be standing next to him already. 
With multiple foes on screen, I have difficulty telling enemies from characters.
The game is saved somewhat by its creative spell system, which I am going to have to re-learn. You mix spells by combining two types of runes: "director" runes and "effecter" runes. The latter specify what happens (e.g., healing, damage, teleportation) and the former specifies how the spell is cast (e.g., surrounding the caster, forward from the caster, as a missile that can go anywhere). Mixing a spell that uses "Surround-Healing" will heal all the people in the immediate area of the caster. "Target-Damage" is like a magic missile that streaks towards its target. But the particularly neat thing is that you can string together combinations of directors and effectors to create some spectacular effects, such as a targeted missile that itself spawns numerous missiles that fly in all directions, or a sequence that simultaneously casts every buffing spell on the party. In Legend, I admired these options but wasn't very good with them, and I ultimately quit playing when I simply couldn't survive any more combats no matter what tactics I used.
A new runemaster starts with only three runes--"Missile," "Damage," and "Healing"--which eases a new player into the system.  
A runemaster starts with various spells pre-mixed.
I'm not a fan of the interface. It essentially requires the mouse. There are keyboard backups for some actions, but they're relatively unintuitive. For instance, F1-F4 select the active character, which is fine, but F5-F10 control the actions at the bottom instead of more obvious selections like "L" for "Look" and "O" for "Open." The "ESC" key, which I'm always reaching for by accident, causes the party to engage in "flight" mode. "Pause" is mapped, for some reason, to the negative sign on the numberpad (and has no on-screen button, unlike most commands). There are no keyboard commands at all for two things that you want to do often: attacking and viewing the automap.
There are some passable sound effects--sword clangs, mostly--but you can't turn off music independently of sound, something that's basically unforgivable by 1993, so I'll be playing this one silent.
I played around in the dungeon for a while, reminding myself of the game's conventions. A sign at the entrance warned me that "fierce beasts" were roaming the halls of the imperial citadel. Decorations and furniture use Asian themes, such as taijitu (yin-yang symbols), little mini pagodas, and Buddha statues. You have to search every object in every room because any of them could contain treasures, including gold, weapon and armor upgrades, scrolls, potions, and keys necessary to progress in the dungeon. 
Each character has an inventory of 16 items, to include weapons, armor, boots, helms, and gloves. I remember that the equipment system was a good aspect of Legend and almost every few rooms, I got some kind of upgrade.
My early-game runemaster, carrying the bones of his slain companion.
I got frustrated with this game, though, when I lost one of my characters in the third combat despite healing him a couple of times. Given how much trouble I had with the predecessor, I'm tempted to use an imported party here, except that it feels like the imported party comes with far too many advantages, and I don't understand how the game could possibly be balanced. On the other hand, perhaps a little imbalance in my favor is what I'm looking for. I'm curious to hear the experiences of anyone who's played the game before I make a final decision.
Time so far: 1 hour

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Bloodstone: Tower Heist

Finding the next artifact.
Bloodstone revealed its structure relatively early in the game. A young dwarf must unite the dwarven tribes against the taldor menace. To do so, he will need the support of the two major dwarven clan chiefs. They want him to track down nine magic artifacts. Visiting various cities, encampments, and NPCs provides leads as to the artifacts' locations.
When I last wrote, I was trying to find someone named Groval so I could obtain a reagent called Lilten from him and return it to Borton the Apothecary in Phoroshe. Borton had promised to tell me the password to get into the tower of Pradaqa, where the Moon Scarab was rumored to be kept on the top level. Borton had told me that Groval had gone west into "Amqal."
Finding Groval's camp. It would be nice if there was a spell that let you detect locations from more than one square away.
I had thought "Amqal" would be the name of a town or settlement, but at one point during my search, I looked up and saw it on the screen. The starting island is divided into a bunch of different lands, and the screen shows which one you're in. I thus started looking for locations within the land. It took me forever and occasioned a lot of reloads before I finally found Groval in a camp alongside a mountain range. He sold me Lilten for around 60 gold pieces. I returned it to Borton and found that the password to Pradaqa was VUNTISTA.
This almost sounds like a bad word.
The password opened the tower, which turned out to be 7 levels and did indeed have the Moon Scarab in the top chamber. I think I explored all the others along the way. There were several ways to go up, but I backtracked and tried to get all of them, as the gold and other rewards were lucrative. I think I only experienced two ambushes; most combat was fought in rooms.
For some reason, the game has you "whisper" magic words rather than "yell" them.
Room combats in dungeons are just like outdoor combats in the wilderness. They follow conventions established by the first Magic Candle, and as far as I can tell, haven't changed a bit since The Magic Candle III. It's been a while since I covered the combat system in detail, so I thought I'd give some attention to it.
The party and enemies start on different halves of the room. Before combat, there's a phase in which you can position your characters anywhere on your side of the screen. Combat screens are all 11 x 9, and whether you start at the top, bottom, left, or right, the middle column of tiles between you and the enemy is always "no man's land" in which enemies are never positioned and you cannot advance during the positioning phase. Enemies never reposition. Obviously, the ability to study their positions and then move your characters to ideal counter-positions is a major advantage to the player. For instance, if you're facing melee enemies and you plan to take them out with bows and spells, you probably want to move to the far side of the room. If you plan to engage in melee attacks, you may want to move as close as possible--or just far enough away to make the enemies walk to you instead of vice versa.
I like these moments of NPC "banter."
Other things you can do during this phase are look at the enemies to remind yourself what their icons represent, draw your chosen starting weapon (this is vital to do during the introductory phase because it costs an action once combat actually begins), and select an active spell. When you're ready for combat to begin, you can either just hit B)egin or you can take your chances with T)alk, which has two sub-options: G)reet and R)ally. G)reet is an attempt to parley with enemies. If the power differential is great enough, they might offer money if you'll leave them alone. Otherwise, they might suggest that you bribe them to leave you alone. Or they might just attack. Similarly, R)ally attempts to motivate your own troops with a speech; if successful, it provides boosts to courage and agility. It almost always fails for me. Either way, combat begins afterwards. I think the success of greeting is covered by the "Charm" attribute and the success of rallying is governed by the "Leadership" skill.
The "Look" command during the pre-battle phase lets you identify your foes. That's particularly useful to me because I find these graphics very difficult.
The one thing you can't do in the pre-combat phase is eat a mushroom. You either have to have done that before you entered the combat screen, in which case you take a chance that your mushrooms will be wasted on easy foes, or after combat begins, in which case you have to use actions eating the 'shrooms.
Once combat begins, the party members get to go first--another huge advantage--unless you failed a greeting or rally, in which case enemies go first. Each character gets a number of actions between 1 and 3 depending on dexterity. By default, the game will have the first character use all of his actions, then the second, and so forth, but you can manually select the characters to go in a different order, even threading actions so character #1 does something, then characters #2 and #3, then back to #1. 
Enemies come in three major varieties: melee enemies, missile enemies, and spellcasters. You want to prioritize them in the reverse of that order. I've found that enemies tend to pathologically target one character, and it's quite common that if I don't wipe out every single enemy the first round that I end up having to cast "Resurrection" on someone at the end of the battle. 
Slaughtering a bunch of tlatol with bows before they can get close to us.
As I covered in the postings for previous games, a combination of the "Jump" spell, Gonshi mushrooms, and Mirget mushrooms essentially trivializes any battle. Gonshis give you four actions per round (though if you don't already have one in your system, one of them is eating the Gonshi); Mirgets make your first attack at maximum power, usually killing the foe; "Jump" puts you in position without wasting any of your actions on movement. So if I want to be sure I win a battle, I can have one of my spellcasters, say Pran, recall "Jump" and take a Gonshi at the beginning of the battle. He can then "Jump" three fighters into melee range of as many enemies as possible. With their own Gonshi/Mirget combination, they can each kill at least one and up to four enemies depending on the strength of the enemy and whether they had the mushrooms in their system at the beginning of the battle or whether they had to spend actions eating them. Either way, the combo can often end a battle in one round, before the enemies can even act.
I didn't take a screenshot of anything relating to what I'm talking about, so here's a teleportal chamber.
Nift mushrooms, which protect against three physical attacks, and the "Shield" spell, which absorbs magic damage, are also vital to success. "Shield" can be cast ahead of combat, multiple times up to a shield value of 99, and it never wears off. There's really no excuse not to cast everyone's shield back to 99 between combats. I get less use out of Luffin flowers, which ensure accuracy of the next attack (enemies rarely dodge as it is) and Turpin mushrooms, which cast spells at maximum power, for no other reason than I spend most of my spell points on binary spells like "Jump" and "Resurrection" for which "power" is meaningless. Sermin mushrooms, which you had to take constantly in the Candle games because regular movement required stamina, are here used primarily by spellcasters to recover stamina in battle.
Mowing down a row of mages is easier when you can each shoot 4 times.
Mushrooms have been less plentiful and more expensive in Bloodstone, which has forced me to conserve my mushrooms and spend more time experimenting with different tactics and spells. I wonder if this will continue to be true now that I've conquered Pradaqa. I got a lot of gold, gems, and weapons and armor to sell, not to mention that the two NPCs working day jobs should now have about 4,500 gold between them. Of course, I still have a couple spell totems to buy, and I learned about another large expense shortly after leaving Pradaqa.
When combat is done, you have to immediately resurrect anyone who died or lose him forever. You can then loot bodies and open any chests in the room, both of which may have gold, mushrooms, weapons, armor, gems, or other items. In dungeon rooms, you can almost always rest in the now-empty room, which makes things a bit too easy. It would be better if there were fewer rest points.
All that work for a comic book collection.
Some of these rules go out the window when you're ambushed. Ambushes have no "sides" to the combat screen; enemies and party members appear randomly. Enemies get to go first unless you've detected the ambush with a "Sense" spell, but even then there are no sides and no pre-battle phase.
This will be annoying, but at least they won't attack first.
The battles in Pradaqa began with melee enemies: taldor, pennari (taldor dogs), and tlatols. These were easy to mow down with arrows before they even reached the party. As we moved upward, we started encountering more dimelfs (archers) and taldormages, which we had to prioritize. On the highest levels, we had battles with sometimes eight taldormages in a single battle, all lined up against the back wall, and there really was no way to deal with them except the trusty "Jump"/Gonshi/Mirget combo.

I didn't write down the specific composition of enemies in the chamber with the Moon Scarab, but I think it was one of those all-mage battles. Outside the chamber, we met a human warrior named Raran Benach. He gave us the teleportal combination for one of the islands off the coast of the main island. He offered to join the party, but I felt his statistics were only average.
I'll try one of these teleporters soon.
My work done, I made my way back down and out of the tower and continued moving around the continent, forgetting that last session, I had abandoned circular movement in favor of north-south movement. I went north to the coast and then started working west. The first thing I ran into was a camp in which I found a dwarf named Denatrius the Mad. This turned out to be a dwarf I'd heard about in the tavern in Hikar, "a crazy man who thinks that dwarves can walk on the sea." It turns out that what the NPC was referring to wasn't some magic means of walking on water. Rather, Denatrius is the first dwarf (and thus likely the first person) in this land's history to conceive of a "boat" (named "after a great-aunt on my mother's side," Denatrius says). This goes with the lore of the Candle series, in which dwarves found boats so foreign that they got seasick every time they traveled on one.
I guess if you had teleporters between islands, you might be slow to develop boats.
Denatrius had built a prototype, but it sank. He wants to build another one, but he needs wood planks, canvas for the sail, a golden needle, and 3000 gold pieces as a "consulting fee." I'd learned previously that the needle was "last seen in the southwestern regions of Tarq."
We kept working our way along the coast, across mountains and rivers, fighting the occasional band of tlatol or taldor. There were some islands off the coast that I think I could have reached with a "Teleport," but I left them alone for now. As we crossed to the west side of Tarq, I angled for the town marked on the map as Galaq. The town had a lot of fences, and NPCs mentioned loving their fences. They seemed to have a problem with the women (I'm assuming Amazons) of Rulaan to the southwest.
I can't imagine why they'd be upset with you.
The town offered:
  • A carpenter. No one in my party was very skilled when we first visited, but I returned later.
  • An NPC named Narcoti said that when he was exploring an "ancient temple dungeon" to the northwest, a party of flying skulls knocked a crown off his head. The crown was "a Galaqian artifact, rumored to have been created by Ziphanu." This is almost certainly the crown of the quest, and it was the first lead I had on it.
  • A man named Gregor who boasted of his hunting and battle prowess.
So, you have no purpose, then?
  • An instructor taught "Soulreading." I had to look in the manual to remind myself what it is. It basically increases the odds that the character will identify the disposition of monsters at the beginning of a battle, such as whether they'll be amenable to a bribe. It doesn't sound all that useful. A couple of my characters already have reasonable skill in it.
  • In the tavern, I met a woman named Migdalia, which stirred a lot of old memories of a girl I loved in high school. The Migdalia of the game had recently been to Rulaan and had come back brimming with news about the town and surrounding locations. Among them, the princess of Rulaan is missing, kidnapped by "antmen." More important, a magical mitre (which I need for the main quest) and crossbow are rumored to be in Kireini Tower, in a clearing to the southwest of Rulaan. Katrina in Rulaan knows how to enter.
You have to spend a full 24 hours in each tavern to ensure that you talk to all the NPCs as they come and go.
  • A taldor named Layel was eager to demonstrate that not all taldor are mindless barbarians. He told us of the Delqafi Caverns, deep in the mountains of Seneret. He didn't know the word to open the gate. He offered to come with us. I took him into the party long enough to put him to work at the carpenter's shop.
  • A wizard named Ucensio told us of an ancient mage named Tito, and the two magic artifacts he wielded: a sword called Kstapha and a silver quarrel. The town's chieftain, Tanro, has the quarrel. 
  • On the subject of magic items, a tavern visitor named Pikin related the geography lands to the northwest. A ruin called the High Temple has an iron crown and a magical sword called Zlmnrdra. This must be the same place that Narcoti talked about. 
  • I met a wizard named Atun, whose wife had been searching for him back in Kafari. He related some area geography, including the location of Groval, which would have been useful if I hadn't already found him.
  • A trader offered sealskins and snowshoes, but I already have what I need there. 
  • At a gem shop, I sold my accumulated gems for so much money (over 20,000 gold) that it's hard not to imagine that any money woes are over.
(It's become clear that paying careful attention to geography lessons from NPCs is the key to finding things like groves, mushroom patches, and NPC camps without searching every tile in the outdoor map. Fortunately, the "Notes" feature helps keep track of all this, and I've been consulting it frequently as I move around the land.)
As is the tradition in this world, the dwarf chief, Tanro, was in a locked hut, and we had to know his name to enter. He admitted to having the magic quarrel and said he was getting too old to use it, but he didn't offer it for sale. An NPC named JK had told us that Tanro really wants to write his memoirs but lacks a writing instrument, so perhaps we need to find something to give him in exchange for the quarrel. He didn't respond to any related keywords, though. 
This doesn't sound like a good time to be giving away your martial artifacts.
I left Galaq heading northwest for the High Temple. It took me a while to find the "ominous gateway" leading to it. I don't know if it's more than one level, but so far the first level is absolutely enormous. I might be here too soon. Some battles with thamalques exhausted me with all the "restsouls," and I was absolutely slaughtered by a room full of ghosts, who only seem vulnerable to magical weapons and spells, They come with shields already set; they have high hit point totals; they cast multiple damaging spells each round; and they go invisible to avoid your attacks. I may have to go back to civilization first and stock up on mushrooms. I probably also need to experiment more with my own spells. I'll report more next time. 
This was way too many ghosts.
I'm still really enjoying this one. There's a lot to keep track of, but the "Notes" option really helps, and I understand the big picture--where the main quest is going--much better than I ever did in a Candle game. My only big concern is that there's a time limit, in which case I'm going to pay for all my walking back and forth.
Time so far: 17 hours


Friday, November 17, 2023

Game 498: Exeter (1988)

I used to live down the street from Exeter, New Hampshire, where there was a famous UFO incident in 1965.
Independently developed; published by Blaxland Computer Services
Released 1988 for Tandy Color Computer 3
Date Started: 14 November 2023
Date Ended: 18 November 2023
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
We see a lot of Ultima clones on this blog but not a lot of Akalabeth clones. That's what we have in the curiously-titled Exeter from Blaxland Computer Services in New South Wales. From Lord British's first-published game in 1980, this one takes:
  • The basic quest structure to descend into a dungeon and kill a specific enemy.
  • The size and structure of the dungeon levels (9 x 9, worm-tunnels).
  • The method of increasing hit points by awarding them as you exit the dungeon based on enemies killed.

When you're low on health, better find some monsters to kill.

  • A recursive approach to allocating enemies per level, discussed below.
  • The look and feel of the dungeon levels, including the chests, pits, traps, and ladders that you find.
  • The combat system.
  • Thieves who steal your weapon. 
  • Enemies flee and heal when their health gets too low.
  • The need for food.
You'd think that in the intervening 8 years, author G. J. Doak would have been able to out-do Akalabeth, but alas Exeter has even fewer features. Where Akalabeth had an overland map with multiple dungeons and infinite levels, Exeter has only one dungeon of 20 levels. It lacks any magic system. What it adds are color graphics, slight monster animations, and some very, very annoying monster attacks.
Lord British had you build up to the final boss with lesser creatures first. This guy doesn't have the time or patience for that.
The manual's framing story says that Exeter used to be a peaceful, prosperous kingdom until a dragon showed up with "its many disgusting and evil followers." The Master Wizard seeks adventurers to go to the bottom of a dungeon and slay it. 
As the game begins, the game automatically rolls for strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, and constitution. Akalabeth lacked intelligence and wisdom, but neither of them really do anything here. Intelligence supposedly affects the bargaining ability with the trader, but there's no real need to bargain with him. Wisdom supposedly improves your chances of finding secret doors and traps with the S)earch ability, but this is not an ability that you often need. Dexterity, which directly affects armor class, is probably most important, followed by strength, which determines accuracy and damage.
This character is doomed, oddly, by wisdom.
After you choose a name, you're taken to a marketplace where you can buy weapons and armor. You can buy most of what you need with the starting gold, and you can buy everything else after a few easy trips to the first few levels. The economy stops being any use quite fast. Despite this, the game makes you keep a stock of food going, with one meal consumed with every action. You can return to the surface at any time to visit the stores and gain your hit point rewards.
Buying weapons.
The dungeon is randomized for each new character. I made a couple of level maps before I realized this. All levels are 9 x 9 with one ladder up and one ladder down. There may be one or more additional pits going down only, and on some levels one of these pits is hidden and can only be revealed with a S)earch and avoided with a J)ump. About half the doors are hidden doors, so you have to bump into most walls.
I mapped a couple of levels before I realized they were randomized.
Enemies start attacking the moment you enter, usually from behind or to the side, so you have to spin around a lot looking for them. Like Akalabeth, the game adopts a recursive approach to stocking the levels with enemies. Level 1 always has one thief, one orc, and one goblin. Level 2 has those three enemies plus one "bogbear." Level 3 adds a skeleton warrior, and subsequent levels add beholders, mind strippers, mimics, trappers, and horned devils. No new enemies appear after Level 8. There's never more than one of each enemy on any level, but levels respawn as you climb up and down. Thieves, mind strippers, and trappers are the only enemies with special attacks; the first two are discussed below. Trappers cannot be seen. They cloak you in darkness when you're in their squares, and you have to fight your way out.
An orc approaches with a chest in between us.
Combat is just a matter of mashing A)ttack. There are no spells, no tactics, no healing potions, no objects to use. If enemies get too low on health, they'll back up and move away, healing with each step. You have to chase them down to kill them. You can use missile weapons (bows and crossbows), but for reasons explained below, I think they're a bad idea. 
The toughest enemy in the game.
The enemies honestly aren't very hard, and it doesn't take more than 30 minutes of traveling around the first four or five levels to have a couple thousand hit points and everything you need from the store. There are really on two very annoying problems to hinder your progress:
  • Thieves steal your weapons. You can carry up to four at a time and equip one. They'll steal both equipped and unequipped weapons. When you kill them, you only get back the last weapon they stole. On low levels, this isn't so bad, but after Level 4 or so, it becomes nearly impossible to kill the thieves with your bare hands, and they could easily strip all four of your weapons before you get anywhere near killing them. So you get into a death spiral in which you're unable to do any damage to them to get your weapons back, and other enemies are pounding on you from the sides. This dynamic also makes missile weapons a bad idea, because you don't want a thief to steal your two-handed sword and short bow and then only get the short bow back if you finally kill him. Instead, you want to adventure with four two-handed swords.
  • Mind strippers have a "mind blast" attack that drains your wisdom. There's no way to protect yourself from this except to try to kill them before they use it, but it's random. There's no way to avoid or defend against it. If your wisdom drops to 0, you instantly die.
An enemy who exists just to make the game artificially harder.
These two factors make it very difficult to reach the lower levels no matter how many hit points you build up. You inevitably get killed by a mind stripper or get stuck because a thief has stolen all your weapons and you can't kill any enemies without them, which means you can't get past them.
All you can do is a lot of save scumming, saving at a ladder and reloading if you don't like the configuration of enemies when you get to the bottom of it. Using such "tactics," you can try to make your way quickly from ladder to pit to ladder and get down to Level 20.
Dying in the depths.
Unfortunately, that's where the game breaks, at least for me. There are no ladders or pits down on Level 20, so I assume it's supposed to be the last level. I mapped it, so I know I didn't miss any squares. There's no dragon that I can find. There is one square that looks like it has a chasm that you shouldn't be able to cross, but you can walk on it. If I press the key to go down (X) on this pit, the screen goes blank as if it's loading something and then crashes with "UL ERROR IN 5."
As far as I can get before the game crashes.
I decided to carry it as a BRIEF instead of an unwinnable game. [Ed. I reversed this decision when I won it; see below.] While I don't know what other category to use for it, it doesn't meet my criteria for an RPG because the only way the character improves is by increasing hit points. I think. The hit points you earn depend on the number and level of enemies you killed in each foray, which means the game is tracking a hidden experience statistic. I suppose it's possible that this statistic influences combat effectiveness. I don't think so, though.
Overall, Exeter is a frustrating, annoying, boring game that was eight years obsolete before it hit the shelves. I don't imagine it sold well. If Doak or Blaxland ever made another game, I can't find it.

Well, I should have predicted it: Within a few days, commenter Twin Valley had diagnosed the problem and commenter LanHawk had fixed it. With a new version in hand, I loaded up my save state and descended into the pit again. This indeed turned out to be the right thing to do, as it brought me face-to-face with the dragon. The monster animation shows the dragon breathing fire, but I couldn't get the timing right to capture it.
It's not a horrible graphic, but the artist really phoned it in on the feet.
Defeating him took me a few attempts. All you can really do is stand there and mash A)ttack. Ideally, you'd have about 2,000 hit points at this point, and I had slightly less. I lost the first two times but beat him the third. When you defeat him, the image of the dragon fades away to be replaced with the image of the Master Wizard congratulating you on your success.
There you go.
Well, now I'm going to give it a number. It gets a 14 on the GIMLET with the best score in "Gameplay" (3) for being short and challenging. "Economy" and "Graphics, Sound, and Interface" deserve 2s; everything else is a 1 or 0. Thanks, guys.. It's always nice to be able to document the end, especially when it's just one screen away.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Game 497: Dragons (1978)

At least there are no dungeons this time.
United States
Software Industries (developer and publisher)
Released 1978 for TRS-80
Date Started: 12 November 2023
Date Ended: 13 November 2023
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5) if you're willing to do some of your own coding
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Any game we can recover from the earliest era of commercial CRPGs is interesting, even when it's featureless and flawed. The period from 1978 to 1982 is full of interesting oddities--games with no precedent, with a couple dozen authors struggling with the best ways to adapt tabletop RPGs to the computer. Ultima and Wizardry won that contest like the Wright Brothers won the skies, but it's fascinating to look at some of the other contestants. They are the zeppelins, ornithopters, and winged bicycles of the RPG genre.
Dragons was created by John McCalpin and sold through his company, Software Industries, of Richardson, Texas. (There's a fun coincidence here in that I was living in Richardson, Texas in 1978, about two miles from where McCalpin was doing his coding.) "Sold" may be a slight exaggeration: we only know about the game because El Explorador de RPG found it in an archive of thousands of TRS-80 games. It is uncertain how, where, or if it was ever marketed and played.
I love how specific the date is.
The framing story sets the game in the year 828 in Denmark. You play an adventurer "drawn by tales of a great treasure of over 5,000 gold pieces, said to be in a castle inhabited by monsters of every sort." In fact, there are 10 types of monsters: orcs, trolls, slithers, green slimes, giant ants, shadows, giants, purple worms, hydras, and dragons. The dungeon is three "levels," with the treasure found in a large room on Level 3. You have to get there and back with this haul. 
You set out with a dagger, a two-edged sword, a bow with 5 arrows, a 10-foot lance, and 5 points of "magic dust." The lance, arrows, and dust are consumed when you use them, but the dagger and sword remain with you until you replace them with magic versions of the weapons that you sometimes find.
I'm not going to be charming any dragons with that charisma.
As the game begins, it rolls values from 3 to 18 in strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity, and charisma. Unusually for the era, all attributes play a role in the character's success, as discussed below.
So far, so good, but the game falls apart when you actually descend into the dungeon. You don't actually get to navigate its levels. Instead, the game tells you that you're walking along a corridor and there's a room to your right or left. Do you want to check it out? There's no actual map, just a series of subroutines that lead you left, right, and forward by the hand, and your only navigational choices are whether to enter rooms, which almost always contain enemies, or not. Everything else is handled automatically: hiding when you hear a noise, searching for traps, picking up gold pieces, turning right or left at the end of a corridor. Dragons' philosophy seems to be that when there's only one sensible thing to do, or when the choice is arbitrary, why not just automate it?
The game resolves most things on its own, only occasionally giving you a choice.
Rooms and corridors have slightly different encounters, but each can produce a combat with one of  the game's many monsters. In a room, you have initial options to retreat, attack, or check your statistics. This is the only time in the game that you get to check your statistics.
If you choose to attack in a room, or if you're attacked in a hallway ambush, your only option is what weapon you want to use to fight it. The game then runs through a series of "crunch" and "smash" text messages until it finally says either "You got him!" or "Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrrgh," the latter indicating you've just died. You don't see any specific statistics during this exchange of blows, so there's no way to tell how much damage you're taking (nor any way to back out if you did).
Well, that's grim.
Combats deliver gold, which does nothing but add to your final attributes. In rooms, you occasionally find (post-combat) magic swords, magic arrows, or magic daggers, which despite their names might actually be worse than regular versions of the same weapons. A regular sword's attack value is 2 and a regular dagger's attack value is 1. The only way to see the attack values of the magic versions of these weapons is to spend 2 units of your magic dust while inspecting the character statistics. You only start with 5 units and you rarely find any more, so you won't be inspecting that often. Any new magic item you find replaces the old one if you decide to pick it up.
Finding a magic dagger.
Combat success depends on strength, dexterity, and experience. Your long-term success in the dungeon depends on the number of "wounds" you take, which is capped by your constitution. Wisdom governs the success of magic dust, if you decide to use it as a weapon.
The game's one major "innovation" is that if you encounter a dragon, you get a chance to tame it, dependent on your charisma. If you successfully tame the dragon, you can use it as a weapon in combat, "D" for "Dragon" replacing what was previously D)agger, and the attack value going from 1 to between 3 and 18. It's still your health that takes a beating in combat, however.
I will name him "Puff."
Shadows are another unique encounter. They cannot be fought. Whether you encounter them at all depends on your dexterity; dexterous characters can sneak past them. If you do meet them, intelligence and wisdom govern whether you can successfully expend your remaining magic to protect yourself. If not, you may die or flee the dungeon, dropping gold along the way.
Modern players emulating the game can't get anywhere with it because they actually lose experience with every battle. El Explorador explains the problem in his entry. Essentially, the programming uses evaluations of IF statements to determine how much experience you gain per monster slain. My reading of the code is that you're supposed to get 1 point of experience plus another 1 point if the monster's level is greater than 5, plus another 1 point if the monster's level is 10, plus two more points if your intelligence and wisdom are greater than 15, minus two points if your intelligence and wisdom are less than 6. The problem is that the program assumes that the results of "true" evaluations will be 1, which I guess maybe it was in the 1978 version of TRS-80 BASIC. But the disk on which the program is found requires a Model III version of BASIC, by which time "true" was represented as -1, so you're actually losing experience instead of gaining it. I think the only way you can gain experience from combat is to roll very low intelligence and wisdom statistics and then only fight orcs, trolls, slithers, and green slimes.
After a few combats, I have -4 experience.
This is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, you have to achieve 10 experience before the game may present you with an opportunity to go down to Level 2. (I'm not sure what the value is for Level 3.) Second, combat depends heavily on experience, and when you get into the negative values, you're likely to die instantly even if you have plenty of wounds available. 

I tried to fix the code but I couldn't get anything to work right, so I finally saw the endgame by inserting a line that set my experience to 50 the moment I entered the dungeon. Even though I then lost some with every victory, it was enough to present me with opportunities to go down to Level 2 and then to Level 3, where the game instantly let me collect the 5,000 gold piece treasure hoard.
I just want to know how I carried it.
I then had to dither around for a few rooms and corridors on Level 3 before the game offered me an opportunity to climb back up to Level 2. I then had to repeat the process on Levels 2 and 1 before I finally got out of the game and to the winning message.
Well, one tale to tell.
This is 1978, so of course we can't judge the game too harshly, particularly since there's no sign it was actually marketed as a commercial title. What it served to drive home to me is that no matter how basic your game is, you have to give the player some agency, if only the mundane experience of walking down a corridor. There's no sense of place in Dragons, and too much of what happens seems arbitrary.
At the same time, among all the 1978 titles, Dragons is the one that most anticipates what a full RPG will look like. It has a full set of attributes, a variety of monsters, equipment, combat based on those attributes and equipment, and character growth through accumulation of experience. It even has a framing story. It is the barest sketch of an RPG, but it doesn't miss any major elements. You could easily imagine someone building on this core, adding subroutines with more complex encounters, NPCs, more combat variables, and an actual map. I don't want to oversell the achievement of Dragons because it would only be another year that Dunjonquest would offer all those things, plus graphics, but it's still fun to watch another rickety glider struggle to take off and soar into the future of our beloved genre.