Thursday, August 31, 2023

It's Going to Be a Little While

Hi, everyone. My apologies for my absence for the last couple of weeks. Some unexpected travel ran right into a conference which has run right into the start of the new semester--and I'm both taking and teaching classes this semester. I am so buried right now that it's hard to see how I'll ever get out. Unfortunately, that means there won't be any game playing for a while. I know this comes at an awkward time, too, when the ends of both Serpent Isle and Ambermoon were right on the horizon.

I have a feeling that this break is going to be a long one, alas. I may not be on solid footing again until October. Accordingly, I have paused Patreon billing for the month of September.

I will continue to monitor comments and do my best to approve them quickly. 

See you as soon as I can,


Sunday, August 20, 2023

Serpent Isle: Chaos Talking

If not humbly.
When I left off, we had entered a dungeon on the Isle of Crypts. This is apparently where the Great Hierophants of the past were entombed. We find several sarcophagi with corpses as we explore. We try "Summon Shade" on each of them, but of course the spell doesn't work except on the one corpse that it's programmed to work on. This is a little disappointing. There are books that fill in some flavor, such as Javalloja's treatise on Funeral Ceremonies; The Voice, a history of the first Great Hierophant to hear from the Great Earth Serpent; and The Great Hierophants, a discussion of the early leaders who built the temples to the various Ophidian virtues.
There are giant spiders roaming the dungeon. We barely notice them. The Ring of Reagents obviates the spider silk that would have been valuable to pre-Silver Seed players. There are a few light teleport puzzles, a couple of buttons, and a chest we can't figure out how to get to. 
"Awesome!" -- any poor bastard who bought this game between March and August 1993.
We run into one puzzle that I have to look up a hint to solve. A room has two pedestals, one with a golden serpent, the other empty. A plaque between them says "BALANCE IS WISDOM." A nearby scroll says that the golden serpent can send me "on the path to knowledge, but only if balanced by wisdom." The scroll encourages me to "use thy newfound wisdom to balance the power of gold." Clearly, it wants me to put something on the other pedestal, but what? I try just about everything in my pack except for the one item it actually wants--the very scroll that we've just read.
How meta.
We get teleported to a new area of the dungeon, where a skeletal dragon guards two huge serpent statues flanking an object encased in a force field. "Dispel Field" takes care of the field. The object is called a "Chaos Serpent Eye." All right.
What do you bet I'll need an Order Serpent Eye at some point in the future?
I can't figure out how to move forward from here. I start casting "Reveal" and "Columna's Intuition," and one of them reveals a secret door north of the serpents.
A few more corridors and teleporters, and I'm in the chamber of the Great Hierophant Ssithnos. I know this because "Summon Shade" finally works in his chamber. His ghost appears to tell me a few things:
  • I need to restore the Balance.
  • This is the will of the Great Earth Serpent, who has been speaking to me in visions. Ssithnos reiterates how the whole War of Imbalance started, with Exodus kidnapping the Great Earth Serpent from the void. 
Hey, I won Ultima III as quickly as I could.
  • To do this, I will need the "symbols of authority" of the Great Hierophants: A serpent crown, serpent staff, and serpent armor. I have the crown, which I found in a tree hollow. The staff is in Furnace. To get the armor, I'll need to ease the "troubled heart" of someone who was "once Beauty herself" but maimed by the Banes.
  • Before I can restore Balance, I'll need to "reunite the Chaos Serpent." Only the Chaos Hierophant can tell me how to do that, and Ssithnos doesn't know where I can find him. He was killed during the war.
  • Once I fix the Chaos Serpent, I'll need to hie to the Grand Shrine of Balance and do something there.
Our work done here, we exit the dungeon and take the Serpent Gate to Furnace. As previously discussed in the comments, the Serpent Staff is behind a locked door. I guess one of the cyclopes is supposed to have the key, but I missed it when I first killed him, and items left on bodies have no permanence. The "Fetch" spell just fizzles. Thus, I reluctantly enable the cheat menu and drag the door out of the way.
Belt of Strength for the win!
The person who was "once Beauty herself" must be Lady Yelinda, Fawn's former ruler, and apparently the most beautiful woman in the world if you like 1980s hair. We walk to Fawn from Furnace's egress. As always, the guard stops us on the way into the city and warns us to "avoid trouble whilst thou art here," as if the entire city isn't dead. 
The Avatar has a random observation as we wander past some skeletons.
We go through the city searching houses and bodies, finding little that we did not find on our last visit. There is a note on the body of Leon, the Fellowship leader, that indicates "Mad Iolo" had his tongue cut out. I loot some items from various houses and have the Hound of Doskar sniff them, but he doesn't pick up a scent on any of them.
"Woof woof" means "I only track uniquely-scripted, plot-relevant characters."
Eventually, I run into Ruggs (I reloaded after I accidentally killed him in an earlier entry), who tells me that Lady Yelinda has run off to the Gorlab Swamp, leaving her diamond necklace behind in the throne room. He also says that his true love, Delphynia, is dead. He buried her in her garden. He finds irony that he, the ugliest person around, is the only one left alive in the City of Beauty.
Iolo has absolutely no reaction to any of this, nor does Ruggs seem to realize that Iolo is standing right in front of him.
I find the necklace and summon the Hound of Doskar. It would be nice if you could just follow him once you show him the item you want tracked, but instead you have to re-summon him almost every screen.
Maybe the dog could lead instead of just pointing?
After about 45 minutes, the hound leads us to Yelinda in the swamp. "Mad Iolo" did something to strip her skin from her body. (Iolo has nothing to contribute during this conversation. It's not even clear that the companions are aware that they were inhabited by the Banes.) She's nearly suicidal over this, the loss of Jorbin, and the destruction of her city. Oddly, she attributes all the death in the city to famine and a "strange sickness" that "crept through the city like some silent predator," putting people to sleep. This seems to mirror what happened to the gargoyles and what's apparently happening to the emps in Britannia, but it contradicts Ruggs's statement that Iolo killed everyone.
I hear that "Body Worlds" is coming to Monitor in the fall.
Yelinda hopes I can cure her condition, and she gives me some information about what will likely do the trick: The Comb of Beauty. She'll give me the Serpent Armor (or, more precisely, the key that opens the door to the treasure room where the Serpent Armor is kept) if I give her the comb. This seems like an obvious place to use "Vibrate" to short-circuit the questline, but Yelinda doesn't drop the key when I cast it on her. I'll have to do it the long way. I know from previous NPC dialogues that the comb was in the possession of Columna of Moonshade, so I decide to return to that city and toss her place.
I do some mental math and decide that the serpent gate at the Sleeping Bull is the fastest way to get to Moonshade, so I exit and head south. Along the way, I come across the burning laboratory that commenters had warned me to avoid like the plague in a much earlier session, when I was looking for the transported Royal Mint. I save the game and stop in to see what all the fuss is about. There are two ghosts roaming around the building. I double-click on one, and what do you know: It's the Chaos Hierophant. I mean, it isn't really--I get the impression from his subsequent dialogue that Sethys (the imprisoned Order follower in the Temple of Ethicality) is supposed to have told me how to find him, and that the real Chaos Hierophant is somewhere else. But for some reason, these ghosts have the Chaos Hierophant's dialogue, so I figure that's good enough. The Serpent knows I'm not going to pass on a shortcut at this stage of the game.
"What am I doing in this house, and why are there two of me?"
The Chaos Hierophant is reluctant to help me because he knows I'll reunite the Chaos Serpent only as a step toward restoring Balance, and he believes in the supremacy of Chaos. "Chaos must reign supreme, and not be unequally yoked to Order in the prison known as Balance!" But he recognizes that "even servitude would be better than the damnation that Chaos now endures," so he tells me what I need to know. The Temple of Chaos is in the Skullcrusher mountains, behind some bronze doors that he suggests I detonate. We then have to use a Blackrock Serpent--ideally, the Chaos one--to open the Wall of Lights. We then have to place the prisms containing the Banes on their respective altars. A flame will appear if we do this right. We then recite a mantra: "IN PRI KLI ORT AILEM, PRIIN ORT INTEN MANI!" He finally mentions that "the rite cannot succeed without an allied force strong enough to weld the Banes together into the serpent." He disappears in a black funnel.
We finish the trip to Moonshade and head to Columna's house, even though I'm pretty sure I already searched it. But Columna herself is lying between the house and a fence that surrounds it. There are bushes and trees inside the fence. It takes me a while to figure out how to get into the little garden; there's a secret door in the bedroom. If Columna's body weren't in the garden, I wouldn't know to look for a way to get into it.
One of three secret doors this session. At least I found this one on my own.
Her body has some potions and a generic "brush." I suspect this isn't the Comb of Beauty, but I can't find anything else. So I take a save and go all the way back to Yelinda, who confirms (by having no new dialogue) that the brush isn't what she's looking for. I reload and look around some more. I move her body; I search the house; I cast "Reveal" and "Columna's Intuition" everywhere. I can't find anything. Back I go to the walkthrough. Apparently, there's a chest hidden by some bushes in the south part of the garden. I suspect my colorblindness is screwing me again. Tell me if you see it.
Am I supposed to believe that Columna went bushwhacking every time she wanted to use the Comb?
Before returning to Yelinda, I go to Monitor and pick up four of the powder barrels that [checks entry from a lifetime ago] Marsten had secreted there as part of whatever his plot was.
I'm surprised I even remembered this room.
Back to the swamp. Yelinda gratefully takes the comb and uses it to break the curse.  She gives us the key to Fawn's treasure room. One of the Monks shows up and says he'll take her back to Fawn, not offering to do the same for us even though we're obviously heading right there. (On the matter of "Vibrate" not working, I suspect that what happened is that Yelinda's "cursed" body is a different NPC object than her "restored" body and the former doesn't have the key on it.)
You and Ruggs have fun, now.
Thus, we walk back, head to the room below the palace, open the door with the key, and find the Serpent Armor in one of 12 chests. The others contain riches and magic swords, none of which interest us. 
I refuse to spell it that way.
I don't know what the Chaos Hierophant's "allied force" is, but I decide to see if I can just complete the damned ritual. We return to the City of Chaos and blast our way through the temple doors as instructed. (I verify later that "Explosion" doesn't work; you must use powder kegs. I don't know what you do if you've used them all.)
The party uses a "chaotic" way to enter the temple.
Naturally, the temple isn't in the room beyond. Instead, we enter a multi-leveled maze in which we have to fight giant scorpions, giant spiders, mongbats, wildmen, slimes, and trolls. There's a music room, a weaving room, a forge, an armory, and a kitchen, and if you're still in love with the Ultima VII engine, you can use this opportunity to play songs, turn yarn into cloth and then cut it up for bandages, forge a weapon (or at least heat up a sword blank; I don't think there's a hammer), play some music, and bake some bread.
The collapse of the Ophidian textile industry.
After multiple levels and a pointless teleporter detour to an enclosed field north of Monitor full of sheep and cows, we reach what appears to be the "final room." It has water, braziers, and plenty of serpent statues. There's even an altar. But nothing I do has any effect, and I know I'm looking for three altars, not just one. "Columna's Intuition," "Reveal," and "Dispel Field" show me nothing. Back to the walkthrough. There's a secret door behind the serpent statue that you have to reveal by double-clicking it. Ah, of course. How stupid of me. I should have just been clicking on every goddamned wall instead of foolishly casting spells like "Reveal." Honestly, how did anybody win this game when it was new? [Answer: Apparently, there's a button on a wall that I missed.]
I had one more chance to upset my party over wasted ale.
The temple with the Wall of Lights is on the other side. There's an indentation for the Blackrock Serpent and three altars for the Soul Prisms, but also (ominously) a fourth altar. I put the serpent into its crevice, which causes the wall to light up. I put the prisms on the altars, which cause flames to appear when you put the right prism on the right altar. But nothing happens after that. I run through absolutely everything in my backpack on the final altar, but nothing works.
The Black Sword is one of many items that doesn't qualify as an "allied force." Note that in this screenshot, I have the wrong prisms on the first two altars. I did eventually fix this, but I still couldn't get anything to happen.
Unwilling to walk my way back, I reload from outside the dungeon and try to figure out what to do next without consulting the walkthrough yet again. I remember that Xenka told me to return to her if I was unsure how to proceed, so I do. She has a new ominous keyword: "Sacrifice." I try it, and she explains that the imbalance has grown so powerful that one of us will have to kill ourselves. Huh? Before we can process this, she has us draw straws and she says that I drew the shortest straw: "Take comfort that thine ashes shall bind the wounds of the land." How, exactly? What does any of this have to do with the "allied force" that I need to reunite the Chaos Serpent? And who's going to restore Balance once I'm gone? Shamino? That actually wouldn't be a bad idea, but there's no conversation about it at all. My companions don't even react.
Xenka's mum on these issues, too. She just tells me to go jump in the oven at the crematorium in Monitor. At least the game will be over, I reason. (Aside: if all your companions are dead when you talk to Xenka, she still insists on the "straw-drawing" ceremony even though you're the only one there.)
Doesn't this violate literally every prophecy you made?
Of course, the Avatar doesn't sacrifice himself. I remember this part. But the dumbest part of an already-dumb sequence is that there's no way the Avatar could sacrifice himself. If anything kills him, the Monks just resurrect him. So the only option would be to throw himself alive into the oven. But he can't stand on the trap door leading into the oven and pull the lever, so clearly something else is going to happen.
What happens is that Dupre intercedes, claiming he can't let the Avatar kill himself nor live with the deaths he's caused (this is the first time any of the companions have mentioned this). Before we can say anything, he drops all his stuff on the ground and dives into the oven, emerging a few seconds later as an urn of ashes. None of the companions have any reaction. What an utterly ham-handed episode. The self-sacrifice of one of the Avatar's longtime companions deserved a lot more justification and reaction.
Come to think of it, who pulled the lever for Dupre's sacrifice?
You may wonder what happens here if Dupre isn't in the party. The answer is: nothing. You can't sacrifice yourself. The door to the oven just opens and closes. Dupre doesn't rush in from wherever you've left him. There's no way to progress in the game, with no indication of what you're doing wrong.

Back on Monk Isle, Xenka says Dupre's ashes are what's needed to power the reunification of the Chaos Serpent, which makes no sense, but at least the game is coming to an end. She also says that my destiny will be found on "the island known as Sunrise Isle." She gives me a Serpent Sword that will have some role in the final ritual. I talk to Gwenno while we're here, and she's suddenly willing to join us.
We go all the way back through the dungeon and perform the ritual, this time putting Dupre's ashes on the final pedestal. There's an explosion, and then I get an image of a serpent speaking to me in Dupre's voice. (I took screenshots of the text version, but the audio version of the episode has Dupre pronouncing his name as "du-PREE." I've been pronouncing it wrong for almost 40 years.) [Ed. No he doesn't. I'm not sure how I heard that on my first and only pass at the recording. He clearly pronounces it du-PRAY.] He says his soul has been fused with the Chaos Serpent, which allows him to restrain it from attacking me. He tells me to hurry to Sunrise Isle. If that's not enough, Xenka suddenly teleports in and also reiterates that I should go to Sunrise Isle.
Does anyone have an idea where we should go next? Anyone?
Naturally, she doesn't just teleport me there, so I have to take the long route back out of the dungeon. When I get back to the serpent gate hub (I think the game's official name for it is the Dark Path, which I haven't been using), I study my options because I can see Sunrise Isle on the game map, off the north coast, but I don't know how to get there. I suspect that where I really need to go is the Temple of Balance, which may be on Sunrise Isle, but it's hard to tell since once you get there, you're never outdoors.
Hoping to bring a hasty end to the game and subtitle this entry "Won!," I take the gate to the Temple of Balance, but it becomes clear that the temple is going to be yet another Whole Thing, thus pushing the conclusion of the game by at least one more entry. 
Time so far: 107 hours
Comments on Level 8/9 Spells
Level 8
Create Ice. Creates a block of ice. If you cast it on a target, it freezes the target for a while. Otherwise, it just provides a barrier. This is one of many spells that would be cooler if combat were more tactical and less random. I can't think of a good reason to use it here.
Mind Blast. Fires a bolt of energy. I've never had it not kill an enemy, so I guess it's pretty powerful. If any single enemy in this game was both a) hard to kill with weapons, and b) not immune to magic, it would be my go-to spell.
The Fawn guard told me to "avoid trouble" one too many times.
Delayed Blast. "Explosion" but with a five-second delay. As with its counterpart in D&D games, it would be useful in a tabletop session but not very useful in this game's engine. Enemies move out of its range too fast and anything that you might want to destroy with it is destroyed to the same degree by "Explosion."
Fetch. Lets the caster retrieve an object in view. Through testing, I learned that doors are no barrier, not even locked doors, but it only works on small things like potions and keys. It doesn't work on weapons or pieces of armor, including the Serpent staff. That still makes it theoretically useful, but I didn't find a single point in the game where there was an object that a) I needed, b) I couldn't reach normally, and c) was sitting in plain view (instead of in a chest or on a body). 
The one place it would have been useful.
Invoke Snow Serpent. Summons an adorable little blue snake that does absolutely nothing in combat.

Serpent Bond. Changes the Avatar into a serpent, which sounds like it would be useful in a million places but is actually only useful in the Temple of Ethicality puzzle. I guess some players use it to break the game's scripting (moving over trigger points as a serpent doesn't trigger the scripts) and keep NPCs alive who are supposed to die.
Firesnake. "Explosion" but with a superfluous trail of fire between the caster and the explosion.

Swordstrike. An offensive spell that creates a vortex of blades. Not as powerful as "Mind Blast," but can damage multiple enemies. The only caveats are those I attached to "Mind Blast."

Level 9
Death Vortex. Probably the best offensive spell in the game. Creates a black cloud that zeroes in on an enemy and kills him usually instantly, then often lingers long enough to kill someone else. Again, it would have been nice if there were more enemies in the game that required such a devastating spell. I found myself casting it towards the end of the game just to get people out of my way.
A "Death Vortex" heads toward Mad Iolo.
Mass Death. Sends a "death pulse" outward from the caster and kills everything, but it also significantly damages the caster (usually), so it must be followed immediately by a "Great Heal" or "Restoration." Still, it's immensely powerful and useful for packs of enemies.
*Invisibility All. Turns everyone invisible at once. I never got it, but I assume it's about as useful as multiple castings of "Invisibility," which don't last very long. I think I'd rather spend the points on one of the death spells. Again, I could see this being handier if it were harder to just run past enemies when you didn't feel like fighting.
Spiral Missile. I don't know why it's called this. The spell causes each enemy on screen to suffer a little individualized "Explosion" that does a small amount of damage. Why would I cast this when I can cast "Mass Death" for the same number of spell points?
"Spiral Missile" fails to even kill goblins.
Stop Storm. Messes with the weather and turns stormy weather clear. The effects are mostly cosmetic, but there are times in a game that inclement weather animation is annoying. I remember using its analogue in Skyrim a few times just because I found the constant snow oppressive. Still, it's hard to imagine using the points on it unless you knew you wouldn't be needing those spell points for a while.
Summon. Summons monsters to help in combat. I usually get trolls, skeletons, or ghosts. Companions are already pretty useless in combat, and summoned creatures even more so. Plus, a lot of the time it doesn't work (i.e., no one appears). I suppose you could use the spell for grinding, since killing summoned creatures gets you experience and, in the case of trolls, gold and gems. Summoned creatures never turn hostile even when you're attacking them. In general, I can't see wasting the points on it when "Mass Death" is right there. 
Some mongbats come to my aid.
Time Stop. It's supposed to stop time, which could be useful in combat. It could also be useful out of combat, if it stops traps or explosions and similar mechanical events. Unfortunately, it fizzled every time I cast it, and I gave up trying to make it work.
*Imbalance. According to the description in the manual, it casts a "wave of fire fields, explosions, and streaks of lightning" that is "difficult to control" and thus should be "cast only in dire emergencies." Sounds dramatic. Alas, I never found it, and I can't think of an emergency so dire that one of the death spells wouldn't solve it.
"Imbalance" occupies the spot given to "Armageddon" in The Black Gate. I can only imagine that they replaced it because a Serpent Isle player would cast "Armageddon" the minute that he discovered it without a second thought. This place sucks..

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Ambermoon: The Plot Thickens

Fighting the big boss--of the previous game.
During the last session, I had obtained the last of the ingredients necessary for the "Demon Sleep" potion that would allow me to get past the guardian of the Brotherhood of the Temple of Tarbos. As this session began, I took them to the Witch Master's house, where I knew there was a cauldron in the basement. In front of the cauldron, I used the recipe again, and within seconds, I had the potion. I got a tingle watching so many quest items disappear from my inventory at once.
I whistled for the eagle, mounted its back, and flew it to the fortress on the island in the lake east of Newlake. I think this is where Twinlake was in the original game. A cratered ground suggested that the fortress was at Ground Zero for the moon impact 70 years ago.
I'm not sure that type of crater makes sense on this type of landscape.
We walked through the front door and found a crystal wall in front of us. The game had Gryban try to smash it with his axe, but he was unable to cause even a scratch. Moving around the wall, we found a short passageway with a demon at the end of it.
You'd like us to not pass. Is that what I'm reading?
We tried a regular battle against the demon, but no magic spell would touch him and no physical weapon would "penetrate the magic aura." He, meanwhile, was capable of casting "Iceshower," the most powerful destructive spell in the game. We didn't last long against him.
We had to try.
Reloading, we found an alcove off the demon corridor with a food bowl. "That looks like the food bowl of a very, very large guard dog," Gryban remarked. We poured the potion into the bowl and waited. The demon soon visited his bowl, lapped it up, fell asleep, and disappeared.
Taking care of the demon.
We moved past the demon into the fortress. The fortress's primary enemies were "magical guards." Each had a few hundred hit points. They were resistant (though not immune) to magic, and their physical attacks frequently caused critical hits, which in this game kills the target. I had to resurrect characters a few times and reload a few other times as I fought them. They were reasonably good for experience.
A locked door had runes reading "HANGAR," which I found intriguing, but we couldn't get in there for now. We took a staircase down and found ourselves facing another locked door with a "12-pointed recess." This one opened to the Amberstar--I'm glad I grabbed it when I went to wake up Gryban.
Using the Amberstar to open a door--just like grandpa.
The room beyond the Amberstar door had a huge coffin. As we approached, we "triggered an inaudible mechanism" which caused the ground to shake. The lid opened and a "gigantic demon" emerged:
He reaches his full height, looks around with flashing eyes and thunders at you in a voice which almost blasts you away: "Ah, mortals! Be afraid, for Tarbos, the God of Chaos, is free again!" Then he looks down and, with a cry of rage, he howls: "Aaarrghh! Why have I been separated from Tar? It's your fault, you miserable piles of dust! You will die for this, and right now, as true as I am the King of Hell!" He breaks down into an incomprehensible roaring and, in the deafening noise, Sabine shouts to the group: "That is Thornahuun! Our only chance is to attack immediately!"
I promise that we'll parse that little speech in a few minutes. For now, combat commenced with a demon that looked exactly like the invincible guard demon that we faced earlier. Thornahuun wasn't invincible, though. He had 792 hit points, a strong attack, and powerful fire-based spells, but he took damage readily enough. He was resistant to magic but not immune, and Nelvin got some lucky "Ice Balls" through his defenses. We had our own buffing spells going (principally, "Magical Attack," "Magical Wall," and "Anti-Magic Sphere") when we encountered him, so we shrugged off a lot of his attacks. Sabine kept up with healing as I whittled him down. He was easier than the magic guardians I had to fight to get to him. On his corpse, he left something called the "TAR Amulet."
He didn't do this every time, but he did it enough.
While we chewed over what just happened, we took another staircase from the main floor to the "head priest's chambers."  We fought several more parties of magical guardians. In a chest, we found a "hangar key" and a document titled "S'Orel News." The document was long but answered a lot of questions, while raising still others. It was written from S'Orel, the head priest of the temple, to his master, someone named S'Lorwin. The document indicates that the dwarves of Lyramion had been tricked into helping the Brotherhood of Tarbos build some kind of machine. In exchange, the Brotherhood promised to fly the dwarves to a moon that was "one enormous jewel" (recall the dwarf in the last session who had wanted to "go on the big boat to the green jewel"). But the Brotherhood lied; the moon in question was not a jewel but a "contaminated forest moon." The Brotherhood "dumped them there" and left them with no way to return. "Now that there are no more dwarfs here on Lyramion, no one will hear of our plans."
The letter goes on to say that no one in the Brotherhood had entered the chamber containing Thornahuun because they didn't have the Amberstar. The Brotherhood believed that the chamber contained "a godlike being by the name of Tarbos," but they didn't actually care. They just adopted the name "Brotherhood of Tarbos" to scare away everyone else on Lyramion. The members of the Brotherhood are, in fact, from another planet, and their "machine," which has already been activated, is doing something to "make [their] world fertile again," at the expense of Lyramion's eventual destruction.
The letter finally alerts "Master S'Lorwin" of our party. He knows my name but calls me "he." "Just let him come here!" he finishes. "Even if he should get past the guard demon, which he simply cannot, he still has to deal with me." 
Always like to see the character's name reflected in the game.
We "dealt" with him in the next chamber--a lizard-like humanoid with several magical guardians. "You are too late to stop the machine below the temple starting its work very soon," he boasted. Sensing our confusion, he added: "Ah, I see wonderment in your faces--perhaps you don't know what is going on? That is not important, anyway, because now you are to die!" He blasted us with a fireball, but most of us managed to avoid it. 
The ensuing combat pitted us against S'Orel and two magical guardians. We went all out with damage spells and scrolls and killed them in two rounds. The high priest dropped a "S'Orel Key." 
S'Orel and the Magic Golems.
Let's pause to consider what we've learned:
  • Thornahuun appears in the backstory to Amberstar. He was, indeed, the King of Hell, and the father of the evil wizard called both "Tar" and "Tarbos." He and Thornahuun somehow became a single being. He was on the verge of conquering the world when a confederacy of mages banished him to one of Lyramion's moons.
  • Amberstar dealt with a plot to return Tarbos/Thornahuun to Lyramion. I thought we were successful in preventing it at the end of Amberstar, but then the fact that the moon crashed into Lyramion, depositing Tarbos anyway, made me think that we had failed and the plot of Ambermoon would involve dealing with him for good. Now, I don't know what to think. Tar or Tarbos somehow got separated from Thornahuun before or after the moon crashed. Was that a result of the Amberstar party's efforts? Or a side-effect of the crash?
  • Either way, this party has just killed Thornahuun, something that the combined might of the pre-Amberstar world couldn't accomplish.
Fair point to S'Orel: We do not, in fact, know what is going on.
  • But Thornahuun only woke up in the first place because we brought the Amberstar to the temple. He was never the main threat. The Brotherhood of Tarbos turns out not to be about Tarbos but rather a front for an alien lizard race sucking the life out of Lyramion to restore their own planet. (I have to wonder if this plot wasn't influenced by the V series.) 
  • But why did I need the Amberstar to open the door to his room? The backstory of Amberstar says that the Amberstar was needed to open the way to the temple of Godsbane (where I found Gryban). It said nothing about another chamber on the moon where Tarbos was banished.
  • If Tar/Tarbos was somehow separated from Thornahuun, what happened to him? (More on this in a minute.)
  • The members of the Brotherhood of Tabos are capable of summoning a demon who is more powerful than the literal King of Hell.
The main plot of this game now becomes clear: I have to stop the Brotherhood's machine. To do that, I suspect I'll need to consult with the dwarves who built it, who are currently trapped on a forest moon. 
Fortunately, I have a way to do this. The "hangar key" opened the door to a large terrace full of crystals and what appears to be an airship.
"They all want to see Buck Rogers. And that's us."
We boarded the ship. A small map showed that it has three receptacles labeled "MORAG," "FOREST MOON," and "LYRAMION." I suspect "MORAG" is the name of the lizardmen's home planet. The receptacles looked familiar--more on that in a bit.
The receptacle that takes us to the Forest Moon. I'm glad the lizardmen use Lyramionic runes.
At the end of one corridor was the skeleton of a dwarf. He had a Chest Key, a piece of amber, and a note. The note indicated that the corpse belonged to Brom, who at the orders of his leader, Kire (of the "Palace of Kire" in Gemstone), had sneaked aboard one of the lizardmen's airships so that he could return to Lyramion and get help. The note mentions that Kire stole one of the Navigation Stones needed to fly the airship and hid it in the Old Dwarf Mine. The note mentions a sequence of gems that must be placed into receptacles in the mine to get to the chest containing the Navigation Stone. It is unclear how Brom died or why the lizardmen just left his body in their ship.
It's a good thing I've been holding on to these.
A couple of other chests in the ship contain a Morag Robe and a Morag Dart, both powerful items usable by mages.
It then clicked where I'd seen those receptacles before--there was one in the Old Dwarf Mine, and I couldn't figure out what to do with it. I returned to the mine and placed a topaz in it, and it opened a secret door to another receptacle. That one required a ruby. The third required an emerald, which I didn't have, but I remembered that merchants sold gems, and I found one in the first shop I checked, in Spannenberg. I had all the others: earth stone, quartz crystal, rainbow stone, diamond, and amber.
It would have been nice if I could have put all of them in a single container.
Behind the last secret door, I found the Navigation Stone, which I can presumably use to rescue the dwarves or take the fight directly to the lizardmen on their homeworld.
Even though this entry was pretty short, it seemed like a good stopping point, so I started to type it up. I had just finished typing, "If Tar/Tarbos was somehow separated from Thornahuun, what happened to him?" when it hit me: He's the "mad mage" that the healers have in a cage beneath Spannenberg! I would have completely forgotten about him except that I've been keeping a good Ambermoon notes file, and figuring out his issue is the only outstanding quest in it. Clementine, the healer, said that he arrived "shortly after the great disaster," was clearly a powerful mage, and had "half of a strange amulet." 
If this guy isn't Tarbos, he's someone important.
We returned to the basement. The madman just ranted and threatened us, although he showed a "flash of recognition" when we showed him the amulet. We went to the chest containing his amulet in a nearby room. Selene picked the lock. It had a "BOS" amulet, an old robe (broken), and a cell key. Unfortunately, this didn't help us at all. There doesn't seem to be any way to reunite the amulets, and showing the pieces to him individually just prompts that flash of recognition. If we open the cell door with the key, he attacks.
Oh, no! Not a "magic flash of light!"
So I leave off here, believing that the "madman" is probably Tar, but not sure what to do about it--if, indeed, there is anything to do about it. Whether I'm right or wrong, the game offered a pretty solid plot twist during this act. Frankly, if commenters hadn't spoiled it, I would have assumed that the final battle would be in the Temple of the Brotherhood of Tarbos, and that it would involve Tarbos. The "real" plot had been hinted at with the material about the disappearance of the dwarves, the visions of the dwarves on an alien moon, and an NPC in Newlake who talked about the members of the Brotherhood having scaly skin. I still wasn't prepared for such an interesting pivot.
You may ask why I'm so delighted at Ambermoon opening up a new chapter at the 60-hour mark when I've complained about Serpent Isle doing essentially the same thing, particularly when the quality of storytelling is not vastly different between the two games. (There are other vague similarities to the games, including the availability of fast travel via a central hub.) I think it comes down to Ambermoon offering far better RPG mechanics. Combat, equipment, and character development became afterthoughts in Serpent Isle many hours ago--and frankly, they were hardly ever forethoughts. Ambermoon, on the other hand, has maintained a certain consistency in combat challenge, character progression, equipment progression, and spell acquisition. I find myself looking forward to many of the combats, particularly with bosses. I still don't want Ambermoon to last many more than, say, 80 hours, but regardless of how long it lasts, I don't think I'll ever get as exasperated with it as I've been with Serpent Isle.
For the next entry, look for my party to take to the stars!
Time so far: 63 hours

Friday, August 11, 2023

BRIEF: Caer Shiraz (1984)

Caer Shiraz
Screen Play (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for Commodore 64
Rejected for: Insufficient character development; combat based solely on equipment
Care Shiraz is a trite little game with no winning condition. I found it in some online catalogs, but I'm not entirely sure about its country or if it was ever even sold commercially. A lot of sites link it to Screenplay, a small publisher out of North Carolina, but I don't think Screenplay ever styled itself as two words (as the title screen does here), and its games were generally more complex than this. I haven't been able to find a manual, box, or review. I had no luck tracking down author Paul Kay, a very common name.
[Ed. As per the comments, the company was out of Adelaide, South Australia.]
The game begins by giving you 81 gold pieces and asking you to buy weapons and armor with it. There are some difficulties during this process. First, the lists of items give no prices; you don't find out how much an item costs until you select it. Second, when you select an item, you're asked how much you're willing to pay for it. The game acts like it's willing to haggle with you, but in fact if you type anything other than the asking price, you're told to make another offer. Third, if you can't afford the item on this screen, there's no way to back out of it. You're trapped in an endless loop of either making an offer that the shopkeeper rejects or making one that you can't pay.
Why pretend that I have any choice?
In fact, during this starting session, the only way you can afford both a weapon and armor is if you buy a dagger and a suit of leather--the worst items in both categories. Weapons start at 24 and increase by 12 gold per level, maxing at a 72-gold-piece longsword. Armor starts at 51 and increments by 25, maxing at field plate (226). From experimentation, I decided that a starting character has a greater chance of survival by purchasing the best weapon and no armor.
After these purchases, you give your name and decide whether you want to control the character with a keyboard or joystick. 
"Character creation."
After that, you're thrust into a multi-screen dungeon with fairly simple wall configurations. You start with 23 hit points and however much gold you have left from the beginning. The character remains in constant motion in the dungeon. He'll keep moving in the last direction you indicated until he hits an obstacle, then bounce off in a random direction if you don't otherwise input something.
Encountering my first enemy . . .
Each screen has a chance of hosting an enemy. If it does, it runs towards you and attacks you. You retaliate by holding down the joystick button. There are no other tactics or inputs. Combat is resolved in a few seconds based on your weapon and armor and the enemy type. I'm not sure if your "rank" plays a role or not.
. . . and immediately dying.
If you manage to kill the enemy, there's around a 50% chance that it has some treasure to loot, which goes into your treasure pile. The enemy may have a weapon upgrade or an elixir that restores your health, but they never have armor upgrades.
I did better in a rematch.
You periodically find doorways back to the shop, where you can trade your treasure for better weapons and armor, then re-enter the dungeon (you can even specify a new name when you re-enter). Some weird stuff happens during this process, though. Sometimes you lose your weapon and armor; sometimes you get a "bonus" weapon or armor, which may or may not be better than what you had.
If you die, you can immediately re-enter the dungeon, keeping your weapon and armor but losing your gold, or return to the trader, keeping some of your gold. Either way, you lose whatever rank you've accumulated.
Options if you die.
There are 10 ranks: newman, veteran, warrior, fighter, cleaver, slayer, dicer, warmark, barlow, and lord. You gain one for every battle, I think. If not, it's never more than two. Every new level increases your maximum hit points by one, up to a maximum of 34.
The hard part about the game is surviving the first few battles. It took me five or six deaths before I won one. But since you can keep your gold even in death, you only have to win a battle now and then, then upgrade your weapon or (particularly) armor when you can afford it. By the time you have the third armor rank, you'll win about half your battles, and by the time you have field plate, you'll win almost all of them.
Late in the game, I'm relatively immortal.
I don't think the dungeon has a fixed number of screens. I think that every time you leave a screen, the next screen is completely randomized, something the game hides by always closing the door behind you (sometimes doing damage to you) when you move from one screen to another. 
Anyway, that's about it. I don't think there's any winning condition. The game files don't contain any winning text, anyway. Once you have the best weapons and armor and "lord" status, you're pretty invulnerable anyway, and it eventually gets boring just coasting through the hallways killing enemies who can't hurt you and collecting their treasure. It took me only a couple of hours to reach this point.
Another enemy. The screens either look like this or the configuration in the other shots.
In the end, I don't think I'd call it an RPG. Its character development is insufficient, and I don't think your level has any effect on combat. If I took the time to give it a GIMLET, it would definitely be in the single digits. 
The name is curious. Caer of course means "castle" or "fort" in Welsh. Shiraz is a city in Iran and it gives its name to two varieties of wine grape: one actually grown near Shiraz and the other a synonym for "Syrah." That factoid was perhaps the best thing I got out of the game.