Friday, March 22, 2019

Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers: Summary and Rating

             
Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers
United States
Interplay (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 5 February 2019
Date Ended: 15 March 2019
Total Hours: 18
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Summary:

A shallower, smaller, shorter sequel to a superior predecessor, The Two Towers tells the second of Tolkien's three books from the perspective of three adventuring parties. While the top-down perspective and interface (recalling Ultima VI but with a bigger window) are both adequate, and the game follows its predecessor in offering a number of non-canonical NPCs and side-quests, it remains under-developed in RPG mechanics like combat, character development, and equipment. The switching between parties, over which the player has no control, is jarring, and by the end it feels like no party ever got any serious screen time.

*****

I'm not sure that it's possible to make a truly excellent RPG based on an existing plot with existing characters, particularly ones who live as largely in the imagination as the canonical members of the Fellowship of the Ring. This is different, you understand, than setting a new adventure in a familiar universe. If I had made a Lord of the Rings game, I would have told a story of a group of rangers, or Rohirrim, or even a motley group like the Fellowship, engaged in a struggle ancillary to the main plot, perhaps featuring Frodo, Aragorn, et. al. as NPCs. Games based on Dungeons & Dragons' Forgotten Realms largely seem to take this approach, although with much less well-known source material.
           
Offering an option to execute Gollum took some guts.
        
The problem with using existing plots is that either the player is on a railroad towards a predetermined destination, or he's jarred by the detours. Perhaps the only way to do it well is to allow such detours (as Interplay did here) and then give it to a player who doesn't care much about the original (e.g., me). In that sense, the game world worked out very well. Before we get into a litany of complaints, we have to at least admire the flexibility of the plot, plus the game's ability to introduce side quests that work thematically with the main plot points. It was a strength of Vol. I as well.

The game fails, on the other hand, in just about every possible way as an RPG. There is no experience or leveling. Character development occurs through the occasional increase in attributes and the occasional acquisition of skills as a reward for exploration or quest-solving. None of these improvements mean anything because, first, combat is so easy that your characters don't need to improve to beat the game, and second, every party starts with all the skills they need spread out among the characters. Inventory upgrades are scarce and essentially unnecessary for the same reasons. Combat couldn't be more boring, and there's essentially no magic system: "spells" are keywords that solve puzzles, more like inventory items.
             
Very late in the game, Aragorn can learn skills he won't need for the rest of the game.
          
Even worse is the way that it undercuts nonlinear exploration and optional encounters, essentially its only strength. While many of the side-quests and chance encounters are interesting, hardly any of them offer anything material to the characters. In fact, every time you stop to check out an unexplored area or building, you run the risk of some extra combats that leave the party weakened for the required encounters. This is related to the game's absurd healing system, by which characters are only fully healed at a few plot intervals, with meals and Athelas curing just a few hit points in between.

Now, it turns out that I missed a lot of side quests, mostly towards the end. The open world is nice, but the game only gives you any directions along the main quest path. I never returned to Dunland, and thus missed the side adventures there. Ithilien had at least three side quests that Frodo and his party didn't do, including a crypt, a Haradrim deserter who will join the party, and recovering the eye of the statue. If I'd gone another way in the Morgul Vale, I would have met Radagast. Aragorn missed the entire "Glittering Caves" sub-area, which culminated in a fight with a dragon and would have given him some powerful gloves. I still don't know what I did wrong here. I did find the way to the Glittering Caves, but I somehow missed the transition to the multiple levels that the hint guide says exist. I guess I was supposed to return after the Battle of Helm's Deep, but that would have meant embarking on a lengthy side-quest while on the threshold of victory for the game at large.
             
I'm not sure how I was supposed to get past this.
            
It's also possible that I missed some of these side quests because of another problem: the interface. There are parts that aren't so bad. The top-down perspective, the commands, and the auto-map all basically work, and I like the way you can make the interface go away and use the full screen for just exploration. What sucks is the approach to triggering encounters. You don't see an NPC or group of enemies in the corner of your exploration window. No, they just suddenly pop up because you've happened to walk on the right set of pixels or brushed up against the right object. There's very little correspondence between visual cues on screen and the appearance of encounter options. Sometimes, you see chests but walking up to them and bumping into them does nothing. Other times, you're in a blank room, and you're told about items and people that aren't on the screen at all.
            
Note that there are no orcs anywhere on this screen.
          
Finally, we have the matter of pacing. It's like the game itself has no idea what's going to come next. The battle of Helm's Deep involves six combats in a row, in two sets of three, with only a little bit of healing offered between the sets. After this epic battle, the party can rest and get fully healed, then (apparently) go off an find some magic gauntlets, when there's only one more (easy) combat remaining in the game. On Frodo and Sam's side, late in the game they have to figure out how to cut through Shelob's web. The option I chose (use the Star Ruby) causes the hobbits to get burned a little bit, which would suck--except that the endgame happens five seconds later. Why bother to attach a penalty to the choice?

And while we're talking about pacing, it's important to remember how all the erratic cutting between parties makes it hard to keep track of what any one party is doing. I completely missed an opportunity to recover Anduril because the game lurched to a different party when I was on that quest, and by the time it took me back to Aragorn, it was shouting that Helm's Deep was nigh.
           
Making the least-optimal choice hardly matters when the game is over at the next intersection.
        
Lord of the Rings, Vol. I had a lot of these problems (except the last one), and it ended up with a relatively-high 49 on the GIMLET. Before we rate this one, it's worth thinking about some of the differences. One is size. Vol. I is quite a bit bigger. Although Vol. II is good in this regard, Vol. I offered more opportunities for side quests, inventory acquisition, character development, healing, and general exploration. Pacing issues were caused as much by the player as by the plot.

Vol. I gave you a lot less direction on what to do next. There was a general sense that you had to keep moving east, but you weren't constantly getting title cards explicitly explaining the next step of the quest. For that reason, NPCs and the dialogue system took on a much greater importance. Here, although you can feed NPCs a variety of keywords, they mostly just tell you what the game has already told you in long paragraphs. You never really need them for any clues.

NPCs themselves were more memorable. They had personalities, agendas, side quests, and even a couple of betrayals. Vol. II only marginally developed any of that. There was a poor economy in Vol. I, but Vol. II had no place to spend money at all despite showing that the characters had it. Also keenly felt is the loss of nice graphical (or animated, in the remake) cut scenes between major areas.

Both games do reasonably well in the area of encounters. I've always liked the way Interplay games (including Wasteland and Dragon Wars) require you to read clues and then figure out the right skills to directly employ. Sometimes, items can substitute for skills. But Vol. I's encounters of this nature were less obvious and a little less generous in the variety of things that would work. You couldn't ignore options to improve skills or acquire quest objects. In Vol. II, you can pretty much just walk from beginning to end, knowing that your starting characters have whatever they need.

The rest might just be a matter of bad memory. Recalling the first game, I feel like the graphics offered a little more detail, that encounters didn't depend on hitting quite such a small set of pixels, that there was a little more character development, a slightly better inventory system, and so forth.
            
The game tries to evoke the majesty of Middle Earth without showing much.
         
Let's see how they compare:

1. Game world. The Two Towers definitely makes good use of the Middle Earth setting. The backstory and lore section of the manual are thorough and interesting. It wasn't until I read it that I finally understood some allusions from the films and the previous game, such as what "Numenor" refers to and what Gandalf actually is. While the game doesn't do a lot to build on this setting, it certainly is in keeping with it. Score: 6.

2. Character creation and development. There's no creation at all and only the slightest, near-invisible development. You mostly forget that the attributes even exist. Aragorn started with 70 dexterity, 28 strength, 33 endurance 75 luck, and 75 willpower, and he ended with 74, 28, 38, 79, and 77. Clearly, some development occurred, but never was I notified of any of these increases, and I really have no idea what caused them. The skills system would get more points if the game was a bit more balanced in how you acquire and use them. Score: 2.

3. NPC interaction. I always enjoy keyword-based dialogue systems, but here it's mostly purposeless. When a title card has just told you that "Orcs have ravaged this village and its people are forlorn," you don't need six different NPCs saying, "Orcs destroyed us!" and "We have lost hope!" I did like the few NPCs who could join the parties. Without them, the game would have been forced to either avoid combat with the hobbit parties or make the hobbits uncharacteristically effective. Score: 5.
          
I'm sorry we didn't see more of Eowen.
        
4. Encounters and foes. Despite Tolkien featuring a large bestiary, you only really ever fight orcs and men in this game (aside from a few one-off battles). The only points I give her are for the non-combat encounters, which are frequent, require some puzzle-solving skill, and offer some role-playing opportunities. As mentioned, I don't like the way that they appear, but that's more of an interface issue. Score: 5.

5. Magic and combat. Combat features no tactics, no magic, no items to use. Just "attack" and select your preferred foe from a menu. The "magic system," as such, is just the acquisition of some spell keywords that occasionally solve puzzle, but I only had to use one of these words once. (This is in contrast to the first game, where they were constantly required.) Score: 1.
           
The easy, boring combat system.
         
6. Equipment. I found a few upgrades throughout the game: leather to chain, chain to magic armor, sword to magic sword, and so forth. It just didn't feel like any of it did anything. Most of the items that burdened my inventory were quest items, and I found no use for a lot of them. Score: 2.

7. Economy. In contrast to the first game, there is none. The game keeps track of a "silver" statistic for each character for no reason. Score: 0.

8. Quests. Perhaps the strongest point. Each party has a clear set of main quests, an equal number of side quests, and even a few options about how to complete them. I enjoyed the side quests most because with them, I was exploring Middle Earth rather than just hitting a series of determined locations and plot points in a row. Score: 5.
          
9. Graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics aren't objectively bad, but I do think they fail to live up to the player's imagination of storied places like Helm's Deep and Minas Morgul. The failure to show so many things that the game tells you is also pretty stark. Sounds are mostly beeps and the occasional "oof" in combat.
             
The staircase to Cirith Ungol hardly seems hidden, tight, steep, or foreboding, especially with the silly "mountains" on either side.
           
There are aspects of the interface that work well. The size of the game window seems practically luxurious, and you have to wonder if Ultima VII took a lesson from this game or its precursor. The automap works pretty well. There are some nice touches like the star that appears next to the most recently-saved game when you go to load a game. I definitely appreciated the use of keyboard commands for most major actions, in addition to the buttons. Overall, the game would earn a high score in this category except for the encounter-triggering issue, which is both a graphical problem and an interface problem, and comes close to ruining the game on its own. Score: 4.

10. Gameplay. Vol. II is a bit more linear than Vol. I, but not compared to other games. I suspect that Frodo and Sam could have turned around in the last chapter, left the Morgol Vale, and walked all the way back to the Dead Marshes, cleaning up side quests along the way. The nonlinearity coupled with the side quests lend a certain replayability--in fact, I think the game would probably improve on a replay, with a better understanding of the pacing and terrain.
        
I found it far easier than its predecessor, as exemplified by the battle in which Frodo killed the vampire. I was supposed to solve that with a quest item. The game should have made combats harder and the healing system less erratic. Finally, it's also a bit too short, particularly with the action split among three parties. I suspect you could win in a speed run of just an hour or so. Maybe I'll try when I get some more free time. Score: 4.
        
That gives us a final score of 34, as I suspected quite a bit below Vol. I and even below my "recommended" threshold, though just barely. The engine was a bit better than the game itself, and was used in a superior way in the first title. This one seemed a bit rushed and perfunctory.
              
I did like some of the "instant deaths."
               
Computer Gaming World disagreed with me on the first game by largely hating it: reviewer Charles Ardai obsessed about divergences from the books and didn't even seem to notice the more revolutionary elements of the interface. He dismissed it as "not special enough to carry the Tolkien name." But in the October 1992 issue, reviewer Allen Greenberg gave a much more positive review of the sequel. In particular, he addressed the carping of people like Ardai by pointing out that Middle Earth had taken on a certain life of its own, and if we can forgive Tolkien himself for his many appendices and allusions, why complain about a few side-quests and side-characters in a game that's otherwise relatively faithful to the material?
        
Greenberg also offers a relatively nuanced discussion of the party-switching system, pointing out (correctly) that the very approach is revolutionary, and while Interplay might have refined the approach ("Interplay may wish to consider allowing the player at least a vote in the decision making process as to whether it is time to switch locations"), the innovative system offered a "depth of narrative which would not otherwise have been possible." Greenberg's comments led me to avoid subtracting points for this element despite complaining about it several times.

MobyGames catalog of reviews for the game has them averaging in the high 50s, which is pretty miserable. On the other hand, the lack of any seriously rabid fan base must have softened the blow when Vol. III was never released. A couple of years ago, Jimmy Maher published an excellent entry on what was happening with Interplay during this period. The summary is that the company was struggling as a developer/publisher, with Dragon Wars not having sold well in a crowded RPG market. Founder Brian Fargo managed to secure the rights the trilogy from Tolkien Enterprises, figuring that the Lord of the Rings name would make the games stand out among their competitors. 

Interplay was already in the midst of a new RPG called Secrets of the Magi that would feature a free-scrolling interface. Fargo pulled the team off that project and put them to work on Lord of the Rings. By the time the game was released, the company had been badly hurt by the collapse of Mediagenic, publisher of Interplay's Nintendo titles. Interplay rushed production to make the Christmas 1990 buying season. They ended up releasing the game with a lot of bugs and cut features (including an automap), missed the Christmas season anyway, and got lukewarm reviews.

The company was saved by the unexpected success of a strategy game called Castles. Now understanding that the Tolkien name alone didn't ensure success in sales, Vol. II was produced with a smaller staff. When it, too, got poor reviews, and when repackaging Vol. I on CD-ROM also failed to generate significant sales, there was no impetus to move on to Vol. III. Some sites claim that before it gave up on III, there had been plays to turn it into more of a strategy game. 

". . . no one."
        
Maher memorably concludes:
         
Unlike Dragon Wars, which despite its initial disappointing commercial performance has gone on to attain a cult-classic status among hardcore CRPG fans, the reputations of the two Interplay Lord of the Rings games have never been rehabilitated. Indeed, to a large extent the games have simply been forgotten, bizarre though that situation reads given their lineage in terms of both license and developer. Being neither truly, comprehensively bad games nor truly good ones, they fall into a middle ground of unmemorable mediocrity. In response to their poor reception by a changing marketplace, Interplay would all but abandon CRPGs for the next several years.
             
Indeed, the next RPG we'll see from Interplay isn't until 1995 (Stonekeep), followed by two in 1997: Fallout and Descent to Undermountain. It's hard not to see a little of the Lord of the Rings interface in Fallout's: axonometric graphics, continuous movement, a large main game window, and commands hosted in a set of unobtrusive icons with keyboard backup. (Vol. II and Fallout even share at least one designer, Scott Bennie.) Fallout shares these characteristics with the Infinity Engine, which was developed by Bioware but with a close relationship with (and financing from) Interplay. I'm probably grasping at straws, but I look forward to exploring the engines' history more when we get to those games.

The Two Towers was the last attempt to make an official Middle Earth game until after the Peter Jackson film series, which spawned a host of new games that, like the films themselves, are controversial among fans. (We won't see another one until 2002's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.) The 1990s were the only era in which Tolkien fans were likely to get an RPG that was technologically and graphically advanced enough to be fun, but not yet influenced ("tainted," as I'm sure some would have it) by the films. While the two Interplay titles have some promise and fun moments, it's too bad that they were the only attempts.

****

While we're wrapping things up, I think I might be ready to throw in the towel on The Seventh Link. I hate to do it, particularly when I know the developer is reading, but I can't seem to force myself to map and explore all the large dungeon levels. I'll chew on it for another couple days while I get started with Star Control II.



Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Two Towers: Won!

Want to bet?
           
It's probably good for my version of the Fellowship that the story ended here, more warped and twisted from Tolkien's tale than you might imagine a computer game based on this material would allow. At the end, we'll have to have a little thought experiment about what happens to the story from here. There's a lot to complain about with this game, but I certainly can't complain that the developers didn't give the player the freedom to diverge from the original.

This last session began with Frodo's party in Ithilien. The map continued to be bounded by the river to the west and the mountains to the east, so I explored in east-west strips as I slowly made my way south. At one point, for no real reason, the game suggested that we were hungry and that we send Gollum to hunt for food. (Food and drink exist in the game, but to provide light amounts of healing. There's no hunger/thirst system.) Gollum took off to hunt, which is ironic because after he left, we found rations repeatedly as we walked.
          
Faramir looks like a jerk in this game.
          
Investigating an elephant, we were ambushed by Faramir and his men and taken to a hidden grotto, where Faramir gave us some lore, a healer tended our wounds and taught the "Herblore" skill, and one of Faramir's men made fun of us for picking up a shovel.
             
What a dick.
            
Wandering around, we found ourselves on a cliff with a pool below. Faramir pointed out Gollum fishing in the pool and asked if his boy Anborn should shoot him. "Sure," I had Frodo say, calling his bluff. Anborn nailed him between the eyes, and Gollum's corpse sank beneath the water.
              
From Gollum's perspective, it's probably better than being burned to death in lava.
         
Well, that's going to make things a bit easier, I thought, and decided to keep going instead of reloading. We left the grotto with Faramir and two other rangers in tow. At the south end of the map were the ruins of Osgiliath, and the game warned me that I shouldn't go in there, but I did and suffered an instant death scene.
          
But where will I get an inspirational speech from Sam?
         
Moving on, we found a statue whose head was missing. We replaced it but then the game wanted me to find a gem to put in its eye. I was losing patience about this point, so I just had the party press east to the gap in the mountains leading to the Morgul Vale. When we reached the entrance, Faramir, the rangers, and Gilglin took off. Gilglin didn't even have any farewell dialogue, and he took a bunch of Athelas with him.
          

This doesn't sound like a good use of my time.
          
In the Morgul Vale, I decided to adopt an exploration pattern that took us counter-clockwise around the mountain borders. We soon came to a river where the game decided it was important that we pick up some "Morgul Water." Then we came to a bridge that was "draped in evil," and Frodo froze, unable to move. 
        
Abrupt changes in the active party continued through the end.
         
The action switched back to Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf, who (the game reminded me) were on the road to Helm's Deep. We passed by a couple of houses where there was this suspicious Rohirrim clearly up to something, but I couldn't figure out anything to do with him. Moving on, we fought some battles with orcs, Dunlendings, and Dunlending leaders called "Dunarches." (There were also "orcarches" a couple of times.) We tried to walk to Isengard, but the game wouldn't let me go past a particular point.

As we headed west, Gandalf suddenly decided that he had to head off on his own to find "the lost armies of Rohan." He split off into his own party with three Rohirrim named Wulfgrim, Hunthor, and Beodred--no idea where they came from--and went north in search of "Erkenbrand." I was a bit confused because in the films, Gandalf goes in search of Eomer, but I figured it was roughly the same quest. We wandered around until we found Erkenbrand next to some mountains, and everyone agreed to return to Helm's Deep.
           
Just a reminder of the manual paragraphs. For the most part, they're shorter than the in-game text.
            
Back to Frodo and Sam. Frodo somehow came to his senses and we walked off the bridge. Two steps later, we were at the gates of Minas Morgul, and the game relayed how we saw the gates open and the armies pour out with the Witch King at their head. We had to use the "Hide" skill to avoid being seen. Then it was back to Aragorn.
           
The game does an awful lot of telling rather than showing.
               
Rather than head directly for Helm's Deep, I had them thoroughly explore the area, fighting a number of orc parties along the way. We found a mountain pass north of the fortress that led into some caves occupied by Rohan citizens. We were unable to fully explore the caves because guards kept blocking certain passages. This becomes important later.
            
What is this place?
           
Eventually, we left and went to Helm's Deep itself. When we arrived, the first thing the gate guard suggested is that we go check out the secret exit at the "Glittering Caves" and make sure that Saruman's forces hadn't already found it. We went back to the caves but found nothing new.

Helm's Deep in the game consists of a central keep with about four rooms surrounded by an inner wall with one opening. Outside the inner wall is an outer wall with two openings. A moat surrounds the whole thing but is crossed by two bridges.
           
A satellite view.
          
None of the famous faces of Rohan--Theoden, Eomer, Eowen, etc.--were anywhere to be seen since I left Edoras in the last session. No sooner had I poked my head into the inner keep than I received a message that "an immense force of orcs has come," and I had to rush back outside.
          
I was hoping to have an unproductive shouting match with Theoden first.
         
Let's take a moment to go back in time to 2002, when the second Peter Jackson film hit theaters. I'm sure I have some readers who can't even remember 2002, but to a near 50-year-old man, this is "recent." I still think of Sleepless in Seattle as "recent." To me, Renée Zellweger is a fresh young face who's clearly going places. The other day, when Irene remarked that "Murphy Brown" had been canceled, I said, "Well, they had a good run. It must have been on for--what--15 years?" She had to explain to me that it had actually been off the air for 20 years and what was canceled was a brief revival series. I'm just adding some perspective.
          
I know that the way the film depicts the Battle of Helm's Deep violates some aspects of canon, which for some people is like violating a religion, but sitting there in the theater, looking across the field of 10,000 orcs, I realized we had reached a point in cinematic history where a movie could show us anything the director wanted to show us--that there was no more limit to what could be accomplished with special effects. It was one of the most thrilling sequences I'd ever seen. They technically topped it in the last film, but by then I was expecting it. Helm's Deep came out of nowhere.
       
I also couldn't help thinking how the battle illustrates the difference between the mentality of an RPG player and . . . well, real life, I guess. I'm sitting there thinking, "They're just orcs!" They don't have any mages or clerics, no trolls or ogres. My Might and Magic VI party would descend from the heavens and slaughter them all with a single "Armageddon" spell. If it was a Gold Box game, the battle would be over after six "Fireballs." These days, my character from Shadow of Mordor would scoff at 10,000 orcs. He'd dance through their ranks, exploding heads, and have half the army converted to his side within 10 minutes.
          
What do you mean "too many?" That's just more experience points for me. Plus, do you know how many wands, potions, and scrolls I have to get rid of?
         
In other words, some part of me had been waiting to fight Helm's Deep in an RPG for a long time, and the experience was . . . underwhelming. Aragon and friends rushed out of the Hornburg and encountered six orcs and two Dunlendings immediately outside the entrance. We killed them. Then a message told us more orcs were crossing the bridge, and we killed half a dozen more there. Then the message said that some Dunlendings had come through the south wall, and the game took us directly there so we could kill them.

Now, I guess we were supposed to have the sense that we were only seeing our part of the battle, and that the Rohirrim were fighting other battles all around us. In any event, we got a message that things were hopeless and we should retreat to the Hornburg. We did, then got another message that the absolute final battle--we mean it this time--was beginning. Outside we rushed again and fought three consecutive battles against orcs and Dunlendings right outside the gate. It occurred to me that it might be useful to blow Helm's Horn at several points during this sequence, and every time I tried, nothing happened. I mention this because after I won, I looked at a hint guide that said I could use Helm's Horn to make the battle easier. I have no idea where or when.
            
The Battle of Helm's Deep was basically six screens of this.
        
Gandalf showed up, as did an army of Ents, and the whole thing was over. Gandalf suggested that we "find any of our comrades who were scattered in the battle" and then go confront Saruman. I looked around and saw that we had Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas, so I didn't really need to gather anyone. We thus headed up the road towards Isengard.

On the way, we ran into a party of Dunlendings, led by Prince Burlag, who said that it was their custom that, when they were defeated in honorable battle, the victor should give them a "gift that honors our skill." My version of Aragorn explained that it was his custom that when he defeated enemies in battle, he tracked down any who were left over and killed them, too.
             
            
I mean, talk about gumption. They'd just allied with an evil force to utterly destroy the people of Rohan, and they want a gift?! (The hint guide later told me I should have given them any sword.) Unfortunately, we lost Gimli in the ensuing battle. Figuring the game was almost over anyway, I didn't reload.

We arrived at Isenguard to find Merry smoking pipeweed at the front gate. The game didn't give me any option to talk to him or invite him into the party, so we pressed on to the main keep. We saw Saruman up at the top of Orthanc and entered the keep. The tower consisted of four levels, with one or two battles with human allies of Saruman. In a library, way too late to be useful, we found books that would teach us various skills.
           
Why would they introduce this now?
        
At one point, we discovered two "corrupted eagles" and one regular eagle behind a locked door. When we killed the corrupted eagles and freed the regular one, he gave us a word of power called MANWE, which we never used. The only word of power we ever used in this game is a single use of some elf word to open a locked door.
             
Can we just speak it, or do we have to whisper it into the ears of a little moth?
            
We continued up to the top of the tower, where the game gave us a paragraph indicating that we were now stuck on the top of Orthanc. Hint guides later told me that I should have used MANWE here to get the Eagles to give us a ride, or use the "Climb" skill to get down, but the stairs still worked just fine for me, so I'm not sure what happened there. Anyway, exploring more carefully, we found Saruman in a corner of the third level. We fought him, and he fled just before he would have died. He left the palantir behind. Picking it up ended the game for this party.
          
Our last shot of Aragorn and his part of the Fellowship.
        
Action returned to Frodo and Sam. After an instant-death scene when I blundered into Minas Morgul . . .
           
       
. . . we continued around the mountain range--I think we fought one battle against spiders--until we found the mountain pass to Cirith Ungol to the north. It was a long pass, but nothing assailed us, and we just had to use "Climb" at one point to keep going. 
            
Note that, with Gollum out of the picture, Sam is still with Frodo and we both have plenty of lembas bread.
          
The pass took us into the caverns of Shelob. I guess Gollum would have attacked us there if we hadn't killed him earlier, but I spared us that. We used the Star Ruby to burn our way through Shelob's webs, and Galandriel's phial to drive off Shelob herself when she attacked.
            
Alas, we get no image of Shelob during this sequence. That reminds me: Lord of the Rings fans, how do you feel about Shadow of War's revelation that Shelob is really a hot woman in disguise? Cool? Or . . .
          
And then, with no final battle or puzzle or anything, the game limped to its inevitable end:
           
You have been wounded with spider venom. You hear the approach of iron-shod boots. Orcs! But you collapse, and feel your consciousness fade. The last thing you remember is the Ring falling from its chain.

With the presence of his enemies revealed to him by the Palantir of Orthanc, Sauron decides to move his forces against the city of Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor. Saruman is beaten, but a far greater threat remains. 
          
I love how, in the film, it was treated as a big revelation that "Sauron moves to strike the city of Minas Tirith." Was there really anywhere else for him to strike?
           
And so ends the second part of "The Lord of the Rings," not in triumph and glory, but in uncertainty and deadly peril. Can Gandalf, Aragorn, and the other members of the Fellowship save Gondor from the armies of Sauron? The Ringbearer is trapped in the dreaded tower of Cirith Ungol. Can he be saved?
            
Someone's wedding is ruined.
          
You have done well indeed to bring the Ring this far, but the quest is not over yet. The Ring must be taken to Mount Doom and destroyed for all to be set right. To be continued in . . . "The Return of the King" coming soon from Interplay.
         
Not so hasty.
         
We've still got a bit to talk about, including the GIMLET, false journal entries, missed material, and why Volume III was never made, so I'll wrap things up in another entry. For now, let's analyze what happens in the darker world I've created. Gimli is dead--does it matter? (I mean, what did he really contribute?) Is Aragorn's decision to execute the Dunlending prince going to have any consequences? Most important, what changes with Gollum out of the picture?

Final time: 18 hours

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Game 320: Xoru (1989)

Character selection occurs right on the main title screen.
        
Xoru
United States
Castle Technologies (developer and publisher)
Several versions released between 1987 and 1989 for DOS
Date Started: 13 June 2018
Date Ended: 5 March 2019
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
        
Xoru has taken me on a hell of a ride over the last 9 months. Last June, I played it for a few hours, got stuck, and decided I had enough grounds to reject it as an RPG. Then, in December, I got a long, impassioned letter from a fan who begged me to reconsider. I fired it up again and got stuck in roughly the same place. This time, I put out a call for help and commenters Zenic Reverie ("The RPG Consoler") and D.P. got involved. They helped a bit but got stuck with the same puzzles that I did. Then I tracked down the author, Brian Sanders, and we exchanged several e-mails. Brian didn't remember enough to help with my specific problem at first, but I must have put a bug in his ear, because a few weeks later wrote back with a map and hint guide that he'd "commissioned," which suggests to me that I annoyed him so much that he paid someone to solve the game so I'd go away. On the same day he sent the hint guide, Zenic won it on his own and sent me his solution. In the end, I still don't feel like it's much of an RPG, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to write about it after all that.
            
My Trizbort map of the dungeon.
        
Written by San Diego-based developer Brian Sanders and released as shareware, Xoru is a text adventure-RPG hybrid that invites comparison with Beyond Zork (1987) in its mechanics, if not its attitude. The game went through several versions in the late 1980s and eventually acquired an "Advanced" tag (i.e., most sites have it as Advanced Xoru), but the main title didn't change. There's sort-of a subtitle--Descent into the Depths of the Ebon Titan--that appears far enough away from the main title that I've chosen to regard it more as flavor text than a true subtitle.

The backstory casts the character as a denizen of the modern world, abruptly wrenched by a cabal of wizards from a busy airport terminal, through a portal, and into a "pseudo-medieval fantasy world" in which he must explore a sprawling, multi-leveled dungeon for various reasons. In this, the game almost immediately clashes with its extremely brief character creation system in which you choose from among an unusual list of classes: paladin, necromancer, barbarian, zen-druid priest, and shadowy tracker. The implication is that each class will call upon special abilities and strengths to solve the game's obstacles, in the manner of Quest for Glory, but in practice it mostly means that some classes have an easier time in combat than others.

Gameplay for everyone begins in an "edifice ruin" at the top of the dungeon, each character finding items there appropriate to his class. The text window is accompanied by a mini-map that shows the directions the character can move, a clear Beyond Zork influence.
        
The game begins. A little map tells you which ways you can go.
        
The dungeon under the ruin consists of about 75 rooms arranged in three sections, logically-constructed and well-described. Xoru lacks most of Zork's humor (which got a little too thick in Beyond, I thought) but it has the same attention to economical, vivid descriptions of rooms and events, at the best of times eliciting the sense of exploring a dangerous place with a good dungeon master. There isn't much of a core "theme" to the dungeon, and like Zork the pseudo-medieval world has modern concepts like plumbing and elevators. Some examples of the experience:
           
  • A trap door is on a high ceiling. You have to drag a bench from another room and stand on it to open the door. It takes you to an alchemist's lab where you receive a couple of important items.
  • A hobbit sits in a room with ten cards, kind of like a Deck of Many Things. He invites you to draw as many cards as you would like, one of which will free him. But for each draw, he will take a random item from your inventory. This can result in a "walking dead" situation if he takes an important item, so you have to prepare by dropping anything vital and loading up on miscellaneous treasure and extra weapons. The cards have various positive and negative effects. One of them does free the hobbit, for which he gives you a necessary gold key, and another gives you an important clue to another room.
        
The memorable hobbit encounter.
          
  • The clue mentioned above is: "Make music with the giraffe, camel, elephant, and a pair of ferrets." When you find a room with an organ, you therefore have to play GCEFF. The game has virtually no sound, but it does represent these tones faithfully. Playing the right sequence opens a secret door to an area with a vital key.
  • An area has enormous tanks full of water. You have to go to a pumping station and turn the controls to empty the tanks, at which point you can enter each tank, each of which holds a different puzzle piece. Putting them together gives you a sapphire cube that you need for the penultimate area.
            
Was there a similar puzzle in one of the Zork games?
          
There are a fair number of "red herrings" in the game, not just as objects but also areas that feel like they ought to serve a larger purpose because of the detail in which they're described (e.g., the torture chamber) or how much trouble it took to get there. For instance, there's a puzzle involving an elevator that leads you to something called an "Ant-E-Room" where you have to kill a giant ant. But despite a vivid description of the room, there's nothing to accomplish there. There's an entire sub-section full of one-way chutes and passages that seems to have no purpose except to challenge your ability to get out if you're unlucky enough to blunder in.

Monsters pop up occasionally--ogres, gnolls, ghouls, bugbears, basilisks, and maybe one or two others I didn't write down. Fighting them is generally a matter of typing KILL [MONSTER] WITH [WEAPON] and letting the action play out. Spellcasters are supposed to find scrolls that they can use in combat by typing CAST and the name of the scroll. I never found any spell scrolls beyond the one that the game starts you with, which seems to do nothing. The game tracks a strength statistic and a health statistic that deplete as you take hits. The fighting classes seem to have a easier time than the others, but nobody has a terribly hard time. There are potions and generic scrolls scattered around the dungeon that increase strength and restore health and armor protects you from harm.
             
Trading blows with a basilisk.
          
I spent a lot of time annotating the presence of monsters and items on my original map, only to discover on a replay that these locations are heavily randomized for each new game. Sometimes you meet monsters in practically every room; other times, you can make it through the entire game without fighting once. Sometimes, I had half a dozen weapons to choose between; other times, I never let go of my starting scimitar. Most of the time, I never found any armor. Playing a couple of times helps you determine which items are necessary, as they're always found in the same locations for every game. There are a lot of unnecessary items (except perhaps as fodder for the hobbit's card game), including lots of gems and valuables, but also things that sound like they ought to do something, like ropes and 10-foot poles.

The interpreter is adequate. It follows most of Infocom's standards; for instance, the player can switch between VERBOSE, BRIEF, and SUPERBRIEF descriptions of places he's already been, and hitting G is a shortcut for "again," or repeat the previous action. Z passes time. Yes, it's derivative, but on the other hand it's nice for players not to have to learn a new set of conventions. Unfortunately, the interpreter tends to fail when given complex commands or compound sentences with propositions. The manual says that it supports actions like TAKE THE APPLE AND EAT IT, but I found that most of the time it would do the first part of the sentence and ignore the second part. I've never seen the advantage to using such complex sentences anyway, so it mostly didn't bother me. A little more annoying was the tendency of the interpreter to confuse objects; for instance, if you have both the sapphire and the sapphire cube, trying to drop the sapphire will actually cause you to drop the cube.
          
The parser gets a bit confused from compound sentences.
          
There are a ton of commands I never found any use for, including TALK, JUMP, KNOCK, PULL, PUSH, and LISTEN. These plus the extra items and poor use of the classes suggests to me that Sanders meant to keep expanding the game, or perhaps offer additional modules with the engine.

The game has a time limit of 360 moves, but that's pretty generous, especially considering that a lot of moves don't count, such as waiting. Also, for some reason, drinking water in a particular room (you have to solve an inventory puzzle involving a well bucket crank first) increases the number of available moves while also (nonsensically) increasing your score every time you drink. But if you do wait out all the turns, you suffer an instant death as water comes bursting through a couple of previously-unopenable doors and floods the dungeon. There's also a hunger and thirst system, but food and water are both plentiful, and anyway you could easily win the game before even noticing that you're hungry or thirsty.
        
Instant death when you run out the timer.
      
When I got stuck, I was about 80% of the way through the game, and in retrospect, I wasn't really stuck. I was overthinking a solution to a particular puzzle that involved replacing a cracked jug on a statue with a new one. I didn't realize from the room description that the room is basically in two halves, and that to approach the statue, you need to walk through an energy barrier, which you can only do if you have a sapphire cube in your possession. There were times I had the cube, but I never tried walking through the room with the cube in my possession, I guess.
         
The room where I spent way too much time trying to throw things at the jug, and poke it with poles, and lasso it with a rope.
         
Once you solve this puzzle, you get a ruby prism, which reflects some laser beams coming out of the eyes of a couple of lion statues, allowing you to pass to the "Chamber of the Lake," where you climb a statue and pry an emerald sphere out of one of its eyes. With sphere, cube, and prism in possession, you visit a room called the "Mirrored Room" and insert them in three appropriately-shaped holes. The floor drops out and you're dumped into the final area, to confront the Ebon Titan.
          
Reaching the endgame.
        
This final area gives you an odd puzzle, a bit unsatisfying to me because I didn't really figure it out. You find yourself on a grid of blue, green, red, and black (or "void") squares, the colors shifting as you plot your moves. You're represented as an asterisk, and the Ebon Titan is represented as an exclamation point. The only goal is to make it to the Titan's square, but each of the colored squares (at least most of the time) has some kind of trap.

Earlier in the game, at a random location, a jester comes prancing through one of the rooms and gives you a clue about this area--just before he's incinerated by a lightning bolt. The problem is that his clue (at least, to me) doesn't really help because it indicates that any of the colored squares could have a trap.
        
The jester tries to help but doesn't tell me about any "safe" squares.
         
It took me a couple of reloads, but I made it through by luck. I'd be really curious how I was supposed to deduce the right path here. Even the author of the hint file that Sanders commissioned wrote, "Look, I honestly don't know where the traps are or what the colors mean. That is why you save."
            
Trying to make it through the final area.
          
Once you reach the Titan's square, he just dies with a pathetic "Nooooooooo . . ." The game congratulates you on having defeated "The Great Enslaver." A sword that was embedded in the floor in front of the Titan--now named the Sword of Life--"quivers to life, leaping from the stone into the palm of your hand." You're teleported outside the dungeon, where the edifice collapses to reveal a gleaming diamond palace, and a wizard appears and congratulates you on becoming king. Not bad for a guy who was suffering from a flight delay just half an hour ago.
          
Vanquishing the Ebon Titan.
         
The game gives you a final score at the end which makes little sense. When I died, it said I had accomplished 100% of my goal, but when I beat the game having done all the same things, it said I was at 79%. Much like other text adventures, including Beyond Zork, once you know what you're doing, a winning game is trivially short. You could win this one in 10 or 15 minutes.
          
At 100%, I could have been a GOD.
         
I'll leave judgement as to its text adventure qualities to The Adventure Gamer, if they ever get to it. As an RPG, it barely qualifies. There is extremely minimal character development in the form of strength increases, and combat, simple as it is, does technically rely on attributes as well as equipment. In a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 2 points for the game world. It's not terribly thematic and could use a more compelling backstory. It would be nice to have heard something about the Ebon Titan and his status as an "enslaver" before actually meeting him.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There really is no point to the classes, particularly the thief-oriented "shadowy tracker." It would have been cool if there had been class-oriented puzzles, for instance a door that a thief could pick, a barbarian could bash, and a magic user could open with a spell. Puzzles like the trap door could have easily been class-aspected rather than having everyone drag over a bench.
        
Checking my inventory and stats.
       
  • 1 point for NPC interaction, and that's very limited, consisting of basically the hobbit and a couple of optional encounters in random places with a jester and a hunter.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The foes are unimaginative, and the puzzles are mostly simple inventory puzzles.
        
At first, I thought there might be something more interesting to do with the hourglass, but no, the solution was to just BREAK it.
       
  • 1 point for magic and combat with no real options. I think maybe you can throw holy water at a ghoul, but otherwise your only "tactics" are KILL MONSTER WITH WEAPON.
  • 2 points for equipment. There isn't much in the traditional RPG style, and a lot of red herrings on the adventure side.
  • 0 points for no economy. No, trading stuff to the hobbit doesn't count.
  • 2 points for the main quest.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. It gets most of this value for the quality of the text. The map images are mostly superfluous, the sound is extremely scant, and as we saw, the interpreter had some issues. I do like that you can move with the arrow keys instead of having to type NORTH and EAST all the time.
  • 3 points for gameplay. I give it a little credit for some nonlinearity and replayability in the optional areas, although overall the dungeon is a bit too small and the puzzles (despite my getting stuck on one) are a bit too easy. It doesn't drag, at least.
              
That gives us a final score of 17, which is pretty low, but I'm not really rating it in its appropriate genre. Text adventure fans will probably enjoy it more than RPG fans.
        
Xoru was reviewed in the April 1993 issue of Red Herring, where the reviewer said that he could "highly recommend it," although he'd only been exposed to the demo copy, which killed you after 80 moves. The 1997 issue of the British magazine SynTax provided a more thorough review, agreeing with me that the "text descriptions are very good: not flowery but straight to the point and informative," but complaining about the simple puzzles. He also notes--and I would have to agree--that the $44.95 price tag was a bit steep for a game of such limited content.

The version I played was 5.94. From the release notes, the Version 5 series had one more dungeon area than earlier editions, and at least some previous versions didn't even bring the game to an ending. While this was the last text version, it wasn't the last version entirely: In 2014, Sanders--his company revived and re-christened Castlelore Studio--created a 3D graphical version of the game for the Mac. You can see it in action here and buy it here. The graphics are what you'd expect from an indie developer (it's "really hard to do by yourself," Sanders wrote me), but as the video played, I found myself easily recognizing the various rooms based on the text versions that I'd explored. Certainly, I got zapped by those lion-lasers plenty of times.
        
The series of "gallery" rooms represented in the 3D engine.
          
In e-mail correspondence with me, Brian Sanders said that he originally wrote the game while he was a junior in high school. His mother suggested the title, but after he found it listed once-too-often at the bottom of game lists and the ends of catalogs, he made "Advanced" part of the title. It was originally just a grid of rooms with randomized monsters and treasure--something like a text Wizard's Castle--but grew from there. Sanders says he was inspired by the Infocom titles as well as Choose Your Own Adventure books.
        
I was an avid reader and I was enchanted and captivated by these computer programs which made stories exploratory and interactive. There was this exciting illusion that the games offered limitless possibilities for exploration--even if the world was clearly finite, you had no way of knowing how far it went, and you would have to use your own mind to get there.
           
That's a good summary of the experience playing a lot of RPGs, but perhaps more so for adventure games. With most RPGs of this era, and their fixed grids of tiles, you generally get a sense of the dimensions of the maps and overall game world, and you know when your character is about to hit its edges. There isn't quite the same sense of wonder as to what's around the next bend. Adventure games mostly feature non-symmetrical layouts that can sprawl unannounced in any direction. Once you have the entirety of the game before you, it often seems simple and underwhelming, but when you're playing live and you don't know whether the locked door opens into a closet or an entire sub-dungeon, it can be exciting in ways that perhaps my GIMLET doesn't capture. I'm sorry we won't be seeing many more of these.
           
Thanks to Brian, Zenic, and D.P. for helping to clear this one, and to everyone for your patience in a slow week as I recovered from a lot of travel and work late in February. The rest of this month ought to be back-on-track and productive.