Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Knightmare: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Does that mean there's no more show?
United Kingdom
Mindscape (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for Amiga and Atari ST
Date Started: 6 November 2016
Date Ended: 5 December 2016
Total Hours: 55
Difficulty: Very Hard (5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
I have never come as close to needing therapy because of a video game as I did in the final stages of the aptly-named Knightmare. I blame commenter Quido. If he hadn't sent me his maps and notes, I would have gotten stuck early in the final level, quit in frustration, and published a quick GIMLET. But since I had his materials--and, all kidding aside, they're a brilliant set of maps, with absolutely everything carefully annotated--I was motivated to keep playing. For 30 hours after my last post. That's right: the final level is bigger, longer, and harder than all the previous ones combined. The difficulty increases so much, in fact, that it essentially becomes a different game. I was leaning towards liking it after Quest #3; now I just want to forget it.

Quest #4 comprises around 4,000 squares of small maps interconnected by teleporters, portals, pits, and ladders. Here's a summary: illusory doors, spinners, radiation squares that deal constant damage, walls that disappear and reappear when pressure plates are stepped on, doors that respond to keys, doors that respond to levers and pressure plates and "open" spells cast from afar, pressure plates that you have to get monsters to walk onto, pits, hidden buttons, buttons that you have to press or shoot from moving vehicles, pressure plates you have to throw things onto, teleporters that don't alert you you've been teleported, enemies that spawn when you step on pressure plates, invisible pressure plates, invisible swamps to sink into, boats, water, fireball launchers, halls that rotate, and monsters, oh so many monsters, that you must waltz, waltz, waltz all night because they're capable of stoning and blindness and aging and crippling and if any of these happen to you, you might as well be dead.
The game has never featured quicksand before, but boy is it about to.
Knightmare is far harder than Chaos Strikes Back, which is celebrated for its difficulty but at least offers you that hint disk. No such luck here. It is the first game to get a full 5/5 on the "difficulty" scale, and I honestly question whether it's possible to win it without hints. I guess Quido must have, although I'm guessing--hoping, really--that he built his walkthrough off some previous, less thorough version, or perhaps the official hint guide.

At first, I was determined not to use Quido's maps, which would have been a shame because they deserve to be looked at. After all, I'd gotten through Levels 1-3 without a lot of difficultly, and I arrived at Level 4 healed up with a full stock of rabbit pies. It didn't start out so hard. Near the beginning of the level is a series of four gated rooms where enemies continually respawn. The game calls them "training rooms." Here, you can grind to your heart's content--not that it really does you any good.
Quido's detailed maps of the fourth quest.
As I began this session, I was sick of picking up missile items all the time, so I stopped using my rear characters as archers and started using them more for their core strengths: spells. This meant resting a lot more than I'd been doing before, but really I was being stingy about resting. It has virtually no penalty. Around the middle of the level, when combat became so hard I figured I must be doing something wrong, I watched a YouTube series for a little while. (The 15-hour series comprises 100 videos, more than 60 of them in the fourth level.) Not only did they put my fears to rest, I saw that the player was routinely resting every minute or so.

Anyway, the level didn't start out hard: a few pressure plate puzzles, a variety of keys opening a variety of locks, and so forth. I got some weapon and armor upgrades early on, including a chainsaw and various pieces of plate armor. I finally figured out the magic system and had my wizard and priest dual-wielding wands of different types. The combats were hard but the usual tricks got me past them.
One aspect of the level promised to be easy and indeed remained so: food. Near the starting area is a ladder leading to a small map of constantly-respawning spiders, which drop edible spider's legs. Between those and frequent grapes and apples scattered throughout the level--plus a portal back to the forest you encounter about halfway through--starvation was never a threat. I guess the developers felt you needed to focus on the hard stuff.

My first obstacle was a series of pressure plates that served as a "conveyor," yanking my party up and down a hallway with no easy way to stop it and get to the end. After trying everything I could think of, I capitulated and looked at Quido's maps. The solution was to throw a "spanner"--an object found in an earlier section--on a particular plate. Nowhere else in the game so far had specific objects been required to trigger the pressure plates (at least, I don't think so; if there were such puzzles, they were obvious), and of course using a wrench by throwing it is unintuitive. Even if I'd hit upon this solution, I probably would have given up after throwing it on a couple of the plates and seeing no result (it has to land on one particular one).
Do you see a button on any of those walls?
Shortly after this puzzle, I encountered another one that I couldn't solve. The area of the map was labeled "target practice" and it consisted of a wagon on a track flying past a series of 7 hedges with walls on the other side. The game had offered a bow and set of arrows shortly before I entered this area, so I understood the basic gist of what it wanted me to do--but there were no obvious "targets." I mean, it turns out that one of the 7 wall squares--which you zoom past too fast to look at, let alone from two squares away--has a button, and throwing or shooting something at the button causes a wall to open. But you have to know it's there, and then hit it from a moving vehicle, and between the two I don't know how you'd solve it without some spoiler at least telling you the particular wall section to aim for. In the meantime, you have to contend with snakes that spawn every time you miss and hit a different bit of wall.

By this time, the dam had broken and I had a hard time not using Quido's walkthrough quite liberally. I never would have survived without it. There are several places in which you have to cast an "open" spell on a door you can't even see, or fire a missile onto a pressure plate that's also out of visual range. Sometimes, I couldn't tell what a button or lever did, largely because it affected a remote area of the dungeon. One button, towards the end of the dungeon, lowers a wall that took me more than 20 minutes to fight my way back to. Without consulting Quido's map, I would have had to explore nearly the entire dungeon to find out what had changed.
In that darkness is a door, and behind that door is a pressure plate. So all I have to do is fire an "Open" spell ahead of me, followed by a missile, and I'm all set. But how would you have figured this out without a hint?
The worst part, though, was the increasing difficulty of the enemies. Certain monsters, like knights and large dragons, were taking me nearly 15 minutes per enemy to waltz around and kill. Then the game started serving up enemies with special abilities: medusas who can stone you; wizards who can blind, age, and cripple you; demons who can do all of those things. Killing them was taking so long that I wondered if I could just run past them instead. The problem was, maybe 5% of creatures carry a key or some other quest item that you really need. Hence, I started consulting Quido's sheet to see what enemies I really had to kill and which I could avoid--provided the layout of the corridors allowed me to avoid them.
I'll be waltzing around this guy for 15 minutes or more.
Quite often, the sheer density of enemies, or the corridor configurations, makes waltzing impossible and you have to fight them head-on. In such situations, your party members' lives depend on how quickly you can shift the healer back and forth, casting spells to undo the damage. If the healer's points run out--which happens pretty fast--you're screwed.

One particular area had me nearly give up in despair. There was a succession of 3 or 4 rooms with unavoidable pressure plates, and stepping on those plates causes three spellcasting enemies to spawn. These guys are nearly impossible. Not only do they have spells that age you, cripple you, and turn you into a moron, draining your attributes to about 10 each, but they have a particularly annoying spell that causes you to turn 90 or 180 degrees and waste your next spell or attack on a blank wall. I had to try luring them one by one into an area where I could escape via a ladder if necessary. Waltzing each one took about 20 minutes, meaning killing all the mages in the area took about 4 hours of gametime on its own. The area is so ridiculous that the developers stuck a couple of mages that cast healing spells in a nearby corridor. One of them randomly casts "Youth" (reverses aging), "IQ" (reverses dumbness), "de-cripple," and 5 spells that restore attributes drained by these spells. I had to park my characters in front of him for almost an hour before everyone was healed.
These guys are going on the "most annoying" list.
There were several areas that featured a similar puzzle: a series of buttons or levers that caused 4 corridors surrounding a central square to rotate clockwise. Some of these squares would have doorways, and each set of corridors interlocked with two or more central hubs. Passing through the areas meant pushing or pulling in the right order to "pass" doorways between hubs and create chanis of open spaces leading to where I wanted to go. The problem was, I had no idea what the corridors looked like on the other side. I had to guess (or use Quido's maps). I liked the puzzles--they involved a lot of deduction--but even with maps, figuring out the correct order of levers was challenging.
One such area. different levers rotate the corridors around hubs 1, 2, 3, and 4."D" represents doors, and the other corridors are blank wall. I have to pull the levers in the right sequence to lie up the doors so I can get to Point X.
A few other notes:

  • Apparently, if you're unencumbered, you can run across a single square of water. There were several areas in which this was necessary.
  • A lot of enemies have dialogue or hints if you take a second to click on them in the middle of battle.
It's nice to have goals.
  • My characters capped the game at "doyen" in their respective classes. I'm not sure if there's a higher level.
It would take too long to recap the dozens and dozens of puzzles on the map, but they all come together to open a wall not far from the entrance. Passing through there takes you down a ladder and into a room full of demons, whom I simply ran past (apparently missing a second chainsaw and an "aqualung" of unknown use). A ladder from there takes you to the large final area.
Not doing so well against some demons.
I had assumed that I'd find the crown in the level, then take it back to the beginning, and then fight Lord Fear (the manual hinted at that sequence of events), but it turns out Lord Fear has the crown and is found in the final area. I first had to kill his demon ally--about 20 minutes of waltzing--to get a key. This opened the door to Lord Fear's chambers and the final battle was on.
It took longer than some entire games. Fear is capable of all of the previously-mentioned spells, including blindness, stoning, and crippling. You simply cannot let him hit you. He also bounces spells back at you, so your melee fighters have to carry the day. There's no other solution except to waltz him to death. The one saving grace is a nearby portal where you can recuperate in a safe area in case he does happen to zap you with something bad.
My lead character after a few unlucky breaks.
It took me 430 hits to kill him, representing over an hour of waltzing and retreating, saving every 5-10 minutes, and reloading if things got too hopeless. (Completely healing a single character who's been hit with "stone" and "lame" might take 15-20 minutes by itself between the casting and resting; I typically reloaded rather than go through it.) I won late last night and my hands are ruined today.
Picking up the crown after killing Lord Fear.
Lord Fear leaves the crown when he dies. I had to make my way past the demons to finally get out of the dungeon and back to the starting area, where a pressure plate waited to receive the crown.
Tossing the crown on the plate opened the way to another pressure plate, which brought me to the endgame: a graphic of a trophy, a congratulations screen, and an advertisement for Antony Crowther's other games.
This was not, in fact, the title of Captive 2.
Oh, I'm sure there are plenty of players who love the challenge inherent in these puzzles and this style of combat. As for myself, if for some reason I had to play this game again to continue my blog, I'd give up the blog. These last 30 hours have been excruciating. This simply is not what I like about RPGs.
Knightmare is a rare game for which I would consider the hintbook a necessity.
This post is already long, but I want to GIMLET this and be done with it:

  • 2 points for the game world, which is confusing and inconsistent. I'm not really sure where I'm supposed to be, or why I'm there, or how I got roped into defeating Lord Fear in the first place.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. The usual Dungeon Master system is in place. There are more races and classes than necessary, particularly since you're screwed if you don't have a mage and a healer. Development isn't very satisfying--you don't even find out when you've leveled, and the effects of leveling aren't palpable in combat. 
  • 1 point for NPC interaction, and I'm being generous in calling the heads on the walls "NPCs."
I think he actually had it.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. For the enemies, we have the usual Dungeon Master nonsense where we don't even know the monsters' names. You figure out their special attacks and overall difficulty pretty fast, although I would have liked a hit point chart in the manual so I'd have some reassurance that they'd die eventually. Most of the points here go to the puzzles, which I rate as "encounters" in this type of game. Although I thought they were too hard, they were also highly original and constituted impressive use of the engine.
I just wish the game didn't make the buttons so hard to discern.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. The old Dungeon Master mechanics reach their nadir in this game, where nothing you do really matters because you end up having to waltz every enemy to death anyway. The game doesn't even bother with the pretense that you can survive in a stand-up fight. The magic system, consisting of a variety of spells that seem to do the same thing, cast from different wands, is unimpressive.
  •  3 points for equipment. Weapons, armor, helms, pants, and boots are found at fixed locations. There are no rings or amulets as in Dungeon Master and only a few special items. As with character development, the nature of the combat system makes you feel that item upgrades hardly matter.

I like the way different weapons have different attacks depending on skill, but they didn't seem to make a lot of functional difference.
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 3 points for a main quest in 4 stages with no choices or branches.
  • 6 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are decent, the sound even better, and the interface has more keyboard options than the typical Dungeon Master clone.
  • 2 points for gameplay. I found it too linear, too long, and too hard. I suppose for some people, the difficulty is a virtue, so add another 4 points if you really like to be challenged by pressure plates and buttons and moving walls and whatnot.
The final score is 29, quite a bit lower than I gave to Dungeon Master, Chaos Strikes Back, Captive, or Eye of the Beholder. But in a funny way, if you're a fan of those previous games and you like them better than most other RPGs, you might find Knightmare to be the pinnacle of this sort of game. I mean, there must be some players out there who love the mechanics of Chaos Strikes Back but think it's for "n00bs." Or those who have played it so many times that they want a fresh challenge. I'd love to hear opinions from players who prize this particular lineage.

As for me, at its best moments, the Dungeon Master line nears what I love about RPGs but doesn't quite reach it. In the original game, character development is highly satisfying and rewarding, and the combat and magic system are well-balanced between tactics and digital dexterity. Chaos Strikes Back increases the difficulty of the puzzles but not so much the encounters, making it a worthy successor. But I don't play RPGs for the puzzles--particularly this sort of puzzle--and I much prefer a more tactical, turn-based approach to combat. Captive and Knightmare both tip the balance so far towards speed and action in combat that tactics take a far back seat.

Still, I suppose the difficulty of Knightmare is in keeping with the difficulty of the television show, which only 8 teams won in 8 years. I have to admire the producers for maintaining such a high difficulty when there was no winner in Seasons 1 or 3. There must have been pressure to dumb it down. Reading more about the show, I see that the quest objects in the game--the Sword of Freedom, the Shield of justice, the Cup of Life, and the Crown of Glory--were in the show as well, and the screenshot of the trophy mimics the awards given to victorious players. Even Lord Fear appears in the show.
My in-game reward.
I think Computer Gaming World missed this one. Amiga magazine reviews of the time range from 64/100 (Amiga Joker) to 91/100 (Amiga Action). I've read a few of the higher reviews, and I'd bet real money that most of the reviewers never got to the fourth quest. (My own rating would likely be 7-10 points higher if it was based only on the first three quests.) Amiga Action manages to discuss the game and its changes from Captive without once mentioning Dungeon Master.

I have to quote this hilarious paragraph from the beginning of the Amiga Computing review:
Knightmare is that terrible show where they get four kids and blindfold one of them by sticking a massive helmet on top of his head. This normally happens to the smallest who is always called Colin or Jeremy. The other three kids get the chance to kill Colin by telling him to walk around a computer-generated world into traps and clutches of giants, witches, trolls, etc....The three kids aren't supposed to kill him, but most of them couldn't find their way out of Woolworth's, never mind a dungeon plagued with goblins and giants.
It goes on to make fun of the show for about 5 more paragraphs before spending a small part of the rest of the review on the game itself. The reviewer admits he hasn't finished the first quest yet when he gives the game 86%. Was there any sense of journalism among Amiga magazines of the 1990s? I mean, I don't always love Scorpia, but at least she finished the games before reviewing them.

This is an era of Mindscape ascendant. We've already played two of their games in 1991--HeroQuest and Moonstone--and we'll have Worlds of Legend: Son of the Empire and Liberation: Captive II coming in 1992 and 1993, respectively. I have to note that while I haven't rated their titles very high, I don't find them weird, so sometime between 1986 and 1991, the British Isles worked out the problem I highlighted in Heavy on the Magick.

We'll periodically check-in with Antony Crowther for the remainder of this blog's existence, starting with his Captive sequel next year. And of course the basic Dungeon Master style isn't going anywhere soon: we still have Dungeon Master II and the two Eye of the Beholder sequels to explore in the next 100 games or so. I'm still waiting for any of its clones or sequels to be as good as the original.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Fate: Killing Time

Hey, around here we call it the "Lake of the Ozarks," bub.
We've all experienced it in games like Skyrim, Dragon Age, and Fallout 4: a long stretch of time between quests where we focus on something nebulous, like "character development." We sort through junk on the workbench, smelt our accumulated ore, circle around our NPC friends to see if they have anything new, run around to a few shops, get a little bit of training...and suddenly it's time to go to bed, and you realize you've accomplished nothing in terms of the game's plot.

Contrast this with the stark efficiency of the "between quest" time in games like Wizardry or Pool of Radiance, where you return to the town (or town level) and very methodically go through the same 5-minute routine: heal, rest, level up, identify and sell equipment, get the next quest, get back on the road. 

Fate is the first game in my chronology to really support this kind of aimless dithering. Perhaps the two Might & Magic titles came closest. There have been games in which you might grind between quests, of course, which is a bit different but nonetheless a step along the way. In the 20 hours I've played since the last posting, I've accomplished almost nothing in terms of the game's actual plot except to make myself feel that I'm in a better position to pursue it.

It's probably a time for a recap of Fate's plot, so here it is: Winwood, a record store owner in the "real" world, has been sucked into the land of Fate for reasons unknown by an evil mage named Thardan. Having managed to evade Thardan's forces on the night of his arrival, he has assembled a party of adventurers and embarked on solving the mysteries of the plot. Before he could do anything else, he needed to get the "Cavetrain" system operating throughout the land, as the place he appeared was cut off from the rest of the world except by train. Thardan had apparently deliberately sabotaged it to prevent Winwood from leaving the beginning area.

Once the rest of the world opened up, Winwood explored and found a variety of mysteries. Chief among them is the city of Cassida, where the population is absurdly rude to visitors--a situation that seems to have something to do with a statue in the center of the town. In the city of Valvice, Winwood's party heard of a mage named Mandrag who had arrived fleeing Thardan's forces and had disappeared in the grottos beneath the city. Winwood managed to find and free Mandrag, who revealed that he was on a quest to find "Bergerac's Heart."
Mandrag's quest comes into context.
After that, most of the NPC dialogue centered on lands across the sea: a "Forbidden Zone" erected by Thardan and a city called Katloch. As I closed the last post, I had saved enough money to purchase a ship and hit the waves.

This is where the trouble started. I didn't think I was quite ready to try my luck on the high seas. I had barely mapped the mainland. My characters where horribly under-developed, some with as many as 35 upgrades waiting to be allocated. I also had been advised by commenters to periodically re-visit the altar in the Alarian Vaults. I felt I could do better on weapons for some of my characters, and I wanted to check out the various smithies. Finally, I didn't think I had exhausted the hint threads on the Forbidden Zone and Katloch.
Sure, you're sorry.
My first step was therefore to head back to Larvin and the vaults. Around this time, Zardas posted an exhaustive list of improvable skills and the places that improve them most. I should have probably condemned that as spoilers, but it did save me from wasting my improvement slots. Seeing that most of the best guilds were in places I've yet to explore, I decided to use the Guild of Masters in Larvin to bring everyone's "skill"" attribute to 99 (Larvin is the best location to train that attribute) and then worry about the other attributes later.

It took me a while to get there because visiting that guild means traveling through several teleporters and a catacombs maze. When I arrived, I soon found out that progression in attributes is capped by character race and class. I had expected to spend half or more of my upgrades here, but each character ended up spending only 10-12 slots before they maxed in the ability. Lowest was my human enchantress, who stopped at 45. Highest (oddly) was my Laurin banshee, who went all the way to 99. This is particularly cool because she has a "greater melee" weapon called a "Vixhammer" that can hit every creature on the combat screen. 
Dichara takes out an entire company of mages by herself.
I spent a lot of time trying to get NPCs to train my characters. Unfortunately, I found a plethora of them who would train intelligence and wisdom, which aren't really that important, and hardly any who would train dexterity, which I really need (several of my characters are still in the teens). I went back to the altar and got a few attribute upgrades there. Before long, my overburdened characters leveled up, and their new encumbrance calculations put them back in the green again.

After that, I hit the wilderness. I don't really know why. I already knew that I wasn't going to map the whole thing. I guess maybe I thought I'd meet some NPCs on the road and kill a few birds with one stone. My inability to tear myself away from mapping, however futile, occupied most of my time during this session. I also discovered that I hadn't finished mapping Fainvil, so I had to finish that.
My map of the world, which I'm going to stop working on any minute now.
I did learn some key things about the world. First, I had assumed that the "overseas" portion would take place on a completely different map, but now that I've traced the southeast coast of the mainland, I'm not so sure. There's plenty of room to fit some islands in there. 

Second, it's clear that rivers and forests slice up the geography more acutely than in the starting area. On the map above, you can see an entire river whose path I traced while I was just looking for a way to cross it. All the mapping I did of the forests in the middle-eastern side happened when I was looking to cut straight through to the west, but I got caught up in a kind-of forest maze. Lesson learned: stick to the roads.

Finally, the days of finding random treasure in the wilderness seem to be over. The starting area had all kinds of useful weapons and armor stuck into niches in the mountains and forests, but I haven't discovered a single thing in the bigger portion of the world.

Of course, I killed a lot of people, rats, and snakes during these explorations. I've long passed the point in which wilderness encounters--even dozens of mages--are any kind of threat to me. Reflecting this relative ease, I only leveled up once or twice per character.
An optimistic single wizard tries to rob me.
My explorations did lead me to the extra intelligence that I needed, particularly once I found a beggar on the road north of Cassida. Between him and wandering mages, I learned that the people of Cassida used to be friendly when they were ruled by the wise mage Bergerac. Thardan, fearing the growing power of the city, turned Bergerac to stone (he's the statue in the center of town) and made off with his heart. As part of this curse, the hearts of the people of Cassida turned to metaphorical "stone." Anyway, Mandrag's quest to find "Bergerac's heart" now makes more sense.

Clearly, I'm going to have to solve this quest and get Bergerac to join my party, as it's said that only a Cassidan mage can pierce Thardan's "Forbidden Zone." Some NPC had told me to seek out a druid at Sorion Lake for more information, so after I'd finished my coastal mapping, I started using gems to find lakes. After one false trail led me to "Moron Lake" (top screenshot), I eventually found the right one. 
How do I get to the little island without a bridge?
The druid was wandering around an island in the center. He said that a Cassidan mage could break the sphere surrounding the Forbidden Zone, but he would also need the "legendary Moonwand." So now I have two quests: find Bergerac's heart, and find this Moonwand. I probably need to make sure there aren't any more dialogues related to these items before I cast off in the ship I've since re-named Lucky Lady.
An old druid gives some advice.
Other notes:

  • My party is fighting a constant war with rain. Ever since I got the "Elemental" school spell "Rainzap," I've been casting it whenever it starts raining. Inevitably, it only lasts about 20 minutes before the downpour starts again. Most of my banshee's spellcasting is going into this one spell.
  • Speaking of banshees, the ones in the wilderness used to talk with me on occasion, but for some reason during this exploration session, all they want to do is attack. Even "gral wizards" and "black wizards" are occasionally up for some conversation.
That's not very ladylike.
  • Like Valvice, Fainvil is full of pirates and corsairs. It makes sense in Valvice, because it sits on the coast, but Faivil is pretty far inland, with only a little trickle of a river. It's hard to imagine pirate ships coming so far upriver.
  • The game has featured some scantily-clad women so far, but no overt nudity--until it arrived randomly on this password request screen. It doesn't get more gratuitous than this; there's no particular reason for a woman to even be on this screen. No, I don't mind it, but as a kid it wouldn't have done anything for me but increase the chances that my mother would walk in the room at the wrong time and send me to Bible Camp for the summer.
Ready for some good news? I dislocated my kneecap! (Put down sand in your driveways, my friends.) That means work and travel are canceled for a couple of weeks, and you know what's going to take its place.

Time so far: 131 hours

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Knightmare: Almost Awake

This doesn't look so much like a Sword of Freedom as it does a Sword of Freedom cake.
I was hoping I could wrap up the last of Knightmare in one article, but it looks like I won't be that lucky. Either I have to write up things the way they are now, or I won't get another post out until next weekend. This will be short, but it represents about 6 hours of gameplay.

At the end of my last post, I was toying with taking a shortcut and going right to the final quest. I ultimately didn't do that because it seemed like bad form, plus killing the trees that block the quest entrances is hard. All your attacks bounce back on you. I finally gave up and tossed the Cup of Life at Tree #3 and entered the third quest.
Groups of floating skulls assailed me in the third quest. They were hard to defeat because their images have no side view, so it's impossible to tell which way they're really facing.
The third area consisted of three independent regions, roughly 20 x 30 each, and together I thought they made up the most satisfying map so far. Both puzzles and monsters got significantly more challenging, but in a fair way. Some memorable puzzles from the level included:

1. An area of 4 north/south hallways interlocked with 4 east/west hallways. At every intersection was a pressure plate that caused fireballs to simultaneously shoot towards the party from the north and west. (I'm assuming on the cardinal directions, since the game has no compass or method of determining your facing direction, but you get the idea.) I had to first find a safe alcove to dart into (after re-distributing inventory to make sure no character was overloaded) and then find a series of buttons that turned off some of the pressure plates, allowing limited movement in the area.

2. A 5 x 5 area with 9 moving walls. Moving walls by definition are hard to map, but I had to figure out their starting positions and ultimately push them in a way that allowed me access to each of the corners of the room. It took about 30 minutes of mapping, testing, and reloading to get this one just right and not block a necessary exit or something.

3. A teleporter maze with multiple teleporters going to nearly-identical areas (most consisting of a single square with teleporters in all four directions). Fortunately, I had been hoarding miscellaneous junk and was able to use items dropped on the floor to map the teleporter system.
A clue in case I couldn't figure it out for myself.

4. A ghost who couldn't be killed with weapons. I had to experiment a bit with spells to learn that the mage's "Dispel" was the key to making him go away. This is the first time that I've needed a particular spell to progress in the game. Are you simply screwed if you didn't get a mage? I suppose I could have led him to another area and locked him behind a door, but I think maybe he had a key or something.
I thought the art was pretty good here.
5. A room full of giant snakes who start behind walls. Stepping on a pressure plate (which you cannot avoid) abruptly removes the walls. This is one of the few places in the game so far where waltzing doesn't work and you just can't avoid a head-on fight. I had to heal the front characters frequently from the rear as I slew about 12 snakes.

6. A riddle: "when is a well not a well." This was given to me next to a well. When I couldn't figure it out immediately, I tried tossing every item I had into the well to no avail. But one of the items, recently acquired, was a Staff of Curing, and it led me to reason that a well is not a well when it's not well. I cast a curing spell on the well, and sure enough it opened into--actually, I don't know what. But walking into it teleported me to another area.

7. A roomful of dragons at the end of a long corridor where pressure plates shot fireballs down the corridor. This was another place where I couldn't waltz--there were too many dragons in the room--nor even back up, since I'd trigger the fireball plates.

This latter room put me face to face with a jester walking on his hands. I figured he wasn't an enemy and clicked on him instead of attacking him. He simply said, "I will pay you." I went through my inventory and reasoned that he might want something called a "Funny Staff" that I'd previously found.
As with the trees in the opening area, the game gives you only one way to "give" an object to an NPC: throw it at him. If it's the right object, the NPC will paradoxically dissolve into a puff of blood. That's what happened to the jester here, and his body left behind a coin. The coin later went to a Charon-like NPC in the game's final area. He gave me his boat.
Yes, sir!
The final area had some really tough battles, including a series of floating skulls (it's hard to waltz them because they always face you straight-on), witches on broomsticks, and whatever the hell this thing is supposed to be:
But it also produced some nice equipment. I'm pleased to report that finally, after three quests, my party members have several items of chain and plate mail plus...get this...a broadsword
I finally discover what would be starting armor in most games.
The quest rewarded me with the Sword of Freedom, which I owned proudly for about 30 seconds before I tossed it at the final tree to make him disappear and let me into Quest 4. I played around the starting area for a little while; it appears that the opening area allows for infinite grinding against creatures that keep respawning. Although I prefer games that give me the opportunity to grind, I really hope it isn't strictly necessary.
Moving on to the final area.
Only after I finished Level 3 did I begin to understand something about the game's magic system. For spellcasters to cast spells, they must find a wand, rod, or staff that goes with the spell class. My wizard found a "Wand of Magic" and my priest found a "Cross of Aid" early in the game. I found some items that went with other classes but was never able to develop any skill with them.

As I've been exploring, I've been finding other wands and staves. Quest 3 gave me a Wand of Pain and a Staff of Curing, and I didn't understand them. Finally, I realized that each spellcasting class has more than one associated object. The Wand of Pain, for instance, gives extra spells to the wizard. I'm pretty sure I deliberately left behind something called a Cross of Life because I thought it duplicated what I already had.
A very stereotypical witch attacks.
Other notes:

  • This nonsense comes up now and then here, just like it did in Captive. No idea what it's going on about.
  • This is a button! A random skull on the wall. How I ever knew to push it, I have no idea, but I'm glad I figured it out. (Is there another game with very similar buttons?) There were a few of these.
I'm surprised by how much I'm taking to the puzzles, particularly considering that I didn't love the ones in Chaos Strikes Back, and I generally consider them an optional part of an RPG at best. But the combat system is wearing me down, and I'm glad I'm approaching the final areas.

Time so far: 25 hours
Reload count: 19

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fate: Jail Release

NPC dialogue in this game inevitably ends in an exclamation point. I don't think there's a single exception.
I recently emerged from the Grottos of Gahmos after 20 hours. Seeing the virtual sun and streets of Valvice was such a physical relief that it nearly approaches how I would feel if I'd just come out of 20 hours of real-life solitary confinement. Boom, subtitle justified.

Fate long ago crossed the line from "audacious" to "obscene" in its physical size, and the Grottos of Gahmos really drive it home. Each of the 7 levels used at least 1,500 squares. A couple of them had no special encounters--one had no treasures, even--just huge mazes from beginning to end. And the combats on some levels came literally every step. In both successful battles and reloads, my experience in this one dungeon alone must approximate the total number in all my RPG-playing so far.

I had finished Levels 1 and 2 when I last blogged. Some of the enemies had been tough--a few were able to kill my lower-HP characters in one hit--but basically I got through it. Level 3 is where the nightmare really began. It featured bafflingly hard enemies called "dracs" which always acted first in combat and immediately stoned or killed half my characters. I didn't have a chance against them. If I'd really tried and gotten really lucky in the first-round rolls, I could have maybe won 1 in 20 battles with them, and there must have been 50 parties of the damned things.

Dracs are difficult for another reason: they never seem to die from hit point loss alone. I've met a few other creatures like this. I can deal thousands and thousands of points of damage per round, and they remain standing. The only thing that kills them is a lucky "critical hit" or a special attack from one of my unique weapons, like stoning from the "Medustaff."
The end of a typical first round against dracs.
Now, mitigating this somewhat is the fact that most of the level is completely optional. The staircases up and down are at two ends of a fairly short corridor. Passages jut off from this main hallway and take you (via teleport) to the resting chambers of various named heroes--Etrin, Grendal, Bendarion, and so forth--where you can loot their most powerful artifacts. The dracs are found in those chambers. I could have continued my explorations downward and saved the cool weapons and armor for later. 

The problem was, I wasn't 100% sure of the level's structure until I was already through most of it. In this game, so much depends upon obscure items and messages found on individual squares, that you can't blithely plow through an entire dungeon level and head for the down stairs. You'll miss the one clue that's vital to get through a lower level.

The difficulty associated with the dracs thus led me to experiment with a few of my other pre-combat options. Fleeing was always an option, of course, but it left the enemies on the screen and only really worked in a permanent sense if there was a door nearby. It turns out that Holy Scrolls--which I hadn't used at all before--destroy the entire enemy party before they can even act. But I'd only found about half a dozen in the game so far (I'm going to have to check and see if they're sold anywhere, now that I know what they do), so it wasn't a long-term solution.
They are quite satisfying, however, in the short-term.
The biggest surprise turned out to be the priest's "pray" ability, which will literally pray away the enemy party. That's not what the game says it does. It says, "a silver sphere appears and enables your party to escape unseen." But what it actually does is remove the enemy party from the map. I guess at higher levels, it works nearly all the time. At my priest's level (roughly 25 going into this), it only worked about 25% of the time. But fleeing worked more often. So with the dracs, I settled into a pattern of trying prayer, then fleeing if that didn't work. If they re-encountered me after fleeing, I tried prayer again. I had to reload a lot when neither option worked, but it got me through the level.
A life-saver.
The rewards were worth it, or nearly so. I ended up with two weapons--a "Hulkhammer" and a "Vixhammer"--classified as "greater melee weapons," meaning they do damage to every enemy within range, in all groups, not just a single enemy or single group. Winwood finally gave up the "Ice Sword" he found early in the game. There were several nice pieces of armor, plus several potions that permanently increased attributes.

The rest of the dungeon served up some hard combats, rendered easier by my new weapons, but nothing again on the level of the dracs. I continued to make liberal use of "prayer," particularly when I encountered enemy spellcasters at range.
Yeah, screw that.
One thing I noticed, though, moving forward, is that my characters almost never go first in combat. I understand that order is influenced by both skill and dexterity. I had invested quite a few improvement slots in the +3 skill guild in Larvin, getting all my characters up above 45. I guess that wasn't enough. Frankly, given how hard I was finding the dungeon, and given the fact that several of my characters still had dozens of unused improvement slots, I should have gone back to the surface and done some more character development. Instead, I stubbornly persisted onward, using "Refresh" potions and "Rejuvenation" and "Vitamins" spells in place of proper sleep and food.

Level 4's major contribution was in the form of a small statue. Digging around the statue produced a brush to go along with the paint can I'd previously found. Why it had to be under a statue, I don't know, but that's par for the course with Fate, which revels in unnecessary details (e.g., all the nonsense with the Mongards and the Shade Ghosts and the Cavetrain).
Level 5 was a huge maze with enemies practically every step. They were curiously bipolar in difficulty: I might encounter 1 giant spider in one battle, and then 8 giant spiders, 9 evil frogs, 5 bane wizards, and 6 saurians in the next battle. There wasn't a single message, treasure, or special encounter except a couple of fountains and teleporters to the escape stairs. I was tempted.
The next combat was one frog.
Level 6, another huge maze, offered two types of vital special encounters. The first was with a series of eyes painted on the walls. The only productive thing I could find to do with them was to paint over them, but since the game so readily jumped at this solution, I figured it was correct. It later turned out that once every eye was painted over, a teleporter deactivated and allowed me access to the down stairs. I think there were 10 eyes on the level.
This seems somewhat rude.
The level also offered a bunch of gold plates on the wall that had something to do with jewels and a sequence. "Press as first the jewel at the right end of the lower line," for instance. I catalogued all of these for later.
Finally, I reached the last level: a maze of independent areas interconnected by teleporters. Most of the teleporters dump you back to the starting area, but with careful mapping you can find your way forward. I eventually reached an area with a hallway that I couldn't enter. Every time I tried, it eliminated all my spellpoints and knocked me back to an earlier square. I explored the area exhaustively, looking for buttons, secret doors, plates, or anything, but I found nothing. Eventually, I went back to the corridor and tried entering again, and it didn't give me any trouble. So I'm not sure what was going on there.

The corridor held a lot of treasures that were inferior to what I already had. At the end, I faced a wall panel with a bunch of jewels of different colors "in a geometrical arrangement." The game then asked me what order I wanted to press them. I knew this had something to do with the messages on the previous level, but the messages hadn't said anything about jewel color.
I was in the midst of writing a version of this posting that had me still stuck in the dungeon when I had to consult the manual for something to do with a spell, and I happened to notice this:
I think if a puzzle is going to refer to something in the manual, it ought to be a little more explicit, but I'll remember to go through the manual when I get stuck from now on. Based on the diagram, I was able to enter the colors in the right order and enter the chamber beyond.
But where is he?! How is he positioned?!
There, I found an archmage--the famous Mandrag--asleep. The only thing I could do was add him to my party. This meant giving up a character, so I reluctantly spun my assassin off into his own party and picked up Mandrag. One casting of "Rejuvenate" was enough to wake him up, at which point he thanked me and went into a long spiel about Thardan:
The key to breaking the force of Thardan is located in the city of Cassida, but we can't go there 'til we find Bergarac's heart! I was on a quest for this heart when I was ambushed by Thardan's army! I've heard that the heart might be somewhere in Katloch, but also that a magical key is required to open the magical crypt where it's located! This key, called "Opal Key," should be hidden somewhere in the Grottos but I don't know where! Would you like to help me? I"m reading your mind and I see that you're on the same quest as I am! Winwood's return isn't possible until Thardan's force is broken!"
I consulted my map of the Grottos and found only one area that I hadn't fully explored. Back on Level 1, there were a couple of pressure plates and an inactive teleporter. I reasoned that activating the teleporter would mean weighing down those plates, which required splitting my party into three. As I was making this happen, Mandrag piped up that he though he heard one of the myrmidons saying it was going to hide the key in a fountain. Sure enough, the newly-activated teleporter took me to an area of fountains, and searching one produced the Opal Key.
At last, I made my way to the surface, slept in a proper inn, and ate a few proper meals. I guess I'll keep Mandrag. I suspect I'll need him later, and in any event, he has excellent statistics and 5 spellbooks.
Mandrag's appearance is a bit odd and worthy of a side comment. Many of the NPCs in the game have had unconventional features. Earlier, I had a warlock named "Billy" who was listed as a female, but looked like....well, frankly a transvestite. I chalked that one up to bad art and made a dumb joke of it. But here comes Mandrag, who seems to have some kind of macrocephaly. Meanwhile, the rest of the art in the game is quite good, so I don't think we're seeing careless use of a brush. I think the graphics department deliberately made a bunch of NPC portraits--a lot of which the average player might never see--that represented a wide variety of human faces, some conventional and attractive, some unconventional or even representative of genetic disorders. I think it's an admirable effort.

When I entered the Grottos, I was just shy of 1 million piaster. I emerged with over 12 million piaster. I immediately bought a ship for 3 million, which appeared in the outdoor area near Valvice. I'm not even sure how to board it, but I'm not quite ready for that yet, since I have more intelligence to collect on this island, Katloch, and Thardan's "Forbidden Zone."
This geography sounds confusing.
I need to spend a while on character development, including visiting various guilds and spending my improvement slots, seeing if I can get better weapons for a few characters, and improving dexterity through conversation. I also forgot to finish the mini-quest where I have to ask the women in Herman's Wood how to use diamonds.
My new ship is called "Katrina." She might set sail in time for the next post.
My biggest problem right now is weight. The advanced weapons and armor I found in the dungeon are cool, but they weigh a ton. I had to divest Winwood of all potions and special items and only just barely got him under the amount where he starts having problems. No matter what I do, Toronar is overweight unless I have him give up Gord's Axe for something less awesome.

The manual says that carrying capacity is governed by strength, so I went to Laronnes and got 5 new strength points for each character, but it didn't make a bit of difference in carrying capacity. I'll be happy to hear spoilers if there's anything else I'm supposed to do to nudge up that number.
In the meantime, I guess I'll be sleeping in the best rooms.
Miscellaneous notes:

  • At one point, just because I was experimenting, I had Winwood drink a "Berserk" potion, which turned him into a "Berserker" class. This jacked his strength, dexterity, and skill up to 99 and seemed to give him infinite hit points, but it reduced his intelligence and wisdom to 1 and made him act automatically, out of my control, during combat. He always went first, but instead of using his Hulkhammer, he just did something that killed one enemy. I spent a long time trying to rest him out of the condition before I consulted the manual and realized I need to cast an archmage spell to revert him to normal.
A typical combat action for a Berserker.
  • I would kill for a "passwall" or "teleport" spell in this game.
  • I don't understand the rules on how many potions my characters can make. On some early level, I made 3 or 4 "Refresh" potions and then the game never let me make any more, not even after I'd rested and days had passed. I had the same issue with strength potions earlier.
  • At this level of power, combat really comes down entirely to who gets to act first. If 3 of my characters can beat the enemies to the initiative, I can take down all but the hardest foes with some combination of melee weapons and spells.

Fate has its charm, but it's long past time for it to be over. I suspect that despite that, it won't be over yet for a long, long time.

Time so far: 111 hours