Saturday, August 10, 2019

SpellCraft: I Can't Always

This session saw me kill four "minions," some of whom cursed their masters.
One of the notable features of CRPGs in contrast to some other genres is that they almost always support a Plan B. When one way of playing doesn't work out, you can almost always resort to a more boring, more banal, grindier method of getting something done. I tend to mentally preface these fallback plans with "I can always . . . ." Having a tough time with the final battle? "I can always reload again and again until the initiative rolls go my way." Can't overcome the evil wizard at your current level? "I can always grind." Running out of resources? "I can always retreat from the dungeon, head back to town and buy a ton of healing potions."

Some games subvert the most common possibilities but usually leave you a way out. NetHack, being a roguelike, doesn't allow saving and reloading, but even there, "I can always mess around on lower, easier levels until I assemble my ascension kit." Sometimes what comes after "I can always" is an exploit: "I can always do the import/export trick to make copies of my best equipment and then try the final battle again." For some, it's a blatant cheat: "I can always hex edit my character." "I can always kill the enemy with console commands."
During this session, I nearly acquired the full complement of "aspects."
There's almost always some way to finish that sentence because of the nature of the genre, in which you are the only player. Oh, it may seem like you have an "opponent" in the game and its artificial intelligence, but it doesn't really care. It was made to be won, after all. You can't really lose a CRPG any more than you can lose a maze or a crossword puzzle. You can only stop trying. 

The most frustrating moments in CRPGs are when you suddenly find yourself with no way to finish "I can always"--when there is no Plan B, when luck alone will never save you, when there isn't even a long way around. I think of the baffling final battle in, say, Dungeons of Avalon (1991), and I wonder how anyone was ever supposed to win it, or the helplessness I initially felt at the final battle in Pools of Darkness (1991), where you have to fight three combats without saving, and the second two take your magic away.
Swarmed by orcs, some of which don't seem to die no matter what I do. Is there any color difference?
SpellCraft got very frustrating this session because it negated my Plans B. It's also forced me to confront a sobering fact: I'm a lazy tactician. I like to have a lot of tactical options, but I want the same thing to work 95% of the time. I appreciate all the spells that the Gold Box engine offers, but I want "Fireball" to solve most of my problems. When it doesn't work, I want to be able to reload, cast "Bless," "Prayer," and "Haste," and then rely on "Fireball" again. Oh, I do occasionally love those battles that take you out of this comfort zone, that require you to explore uncomfortable weapons and unusual spells and different ways of outsmarting the enemy, but I want this to occur maybe once or twice per game.

SpellCraft, in short, is not what I want. It offers about 85 different spells, and you'd better damned well know the ins and outs of every one of them, because some don't work in different domains, and some don't work against different enemies, and some don't work in various circumstances. You can't rely on a standard set of combinations. You can't even, as I had been doing until now, rely on your sword and endless batch of healing spells.
Messed up an Earth spell!
Last session, we already saw how the wizards--or simulacra thereof--defied expectations by creating an endless supply of minions. The process I had used for clearing the maps--find a clear corner, engage enemies one at a time, retreat to the corner to wait and heal--is useless when the enemies never stop. 

Simulacra and then wizards' apprentices continued to be problems during this session, but they were supplemented by a worse one: magical obelisks that generate a constant stream of enemies. I had to destroy eight of these obelisks in a row; this is the kind of game that has no problem giving you a mission to destroy four obelisks, one in each realm, and then upon victory saying, "Well done. Now go destroy four more obelisks!"
Trying to approach an obelisk "generator" as it continues to create more enemies.
The obelisks generate enemies faster than you can kill them--but only just so, so you keep getting to the point that you can nearly approach the damned things unimpeded. You can theoretically destroy them with your weapon, but it takes forever and you get pushed away by newly-generated enemies after a few whacks. The better solution is to destroy them with spells, but spells are so damned hard to target in this game, and a lot of damage spells you can't target at all with adjacent enemies. Meanwhile, enemies are surrounding you shoving you this way and that, so you've got to watch your position and make sure you don't get shoved into a chasm, or that your hit points don't dwindle too much, all while switching between various spells to figure out how to damage the damned obelisk. Each map took me hours as I tried various spells to confuse or block enemies while I dealt with the obelisks and wizards. I had to abandon maps more times that I can count.
I trick a NUKE into falling into a chasm. The pathfinding of this particular enemy is very direct.
Then the game went and introduced NUKEs--"nigh-unkillable enemies." That is, enemies that mysteriously don't respond to the same attacks and spells as other enemies that look just like them. (There might have been a red/green difference, but I can't see it.) I mostly encountered them in the Earth Domain: regular orcs who suddenly wouldn't die. I had to lead them to chasms and trick them into falling in to kill them. There were plenty of times in which these enemies swarmed me and made it impossible to progress anywhere. I could do nothing but watch them whittle away my hit points until I gave in and warped off the map.
These enemies have cornered me in the water. I can't get out because of their presence. I can't attack or cast because I'm in water.
The obelisks and NUKEs together killed both of my previous "I can always" statements. I can't always rely on copious numbers of healing spells when there's an object capable of generating infinite enemies, and I can't rely on killing enemies one at a time with my sword when they won't die by the sword.

The game has otherwise progressed as before. Garwayen keeps giving me different missions in the different domains. After a few, the lord of the Earth Domain showed up personally to challenge me, and introduced the concept of obelisks, or "generators." After I destroyed each one, the Earth Domain lord had something to say, generally suggesting that they were deliberate made too easy to test my mettle or something.
The Earth Domain wizard's reaction after I destroyed his generators for the time being.
After the obelisks, minions started showing up. They look and act the same as the previous simulacra, casting a constant stream of spells until I find and kill them. The minions themselves were interesting, often not looking much like wizards in their portraits. The Earth Domain lord employed a woodcutter named John Cartwright who, upon death, cursed his own master for making him face me. "Stop them all!" he added.
Well, now I feel bad.
The Air Domain minion was a woman named Anya Bavarich, dressed in 18th-century garb, who also cursed all wizards and wished me well when I killed her.
Garwayen has a little something to say about every minion I defeat.
The Fire Domain minion was named Timmy Flanagan, and both his garb and speech indicated that he had been a member of Al Capone's gang.
He doesn't seem much like a wizard's apprentice.
The Water Domain continues to be the most annoying because of the need to cast "Water Breath." The wizard's minion was named Mahmoud, and he was the easiest to defeat. 
Fighting the water wizard's minion. I somehow got close to him with no enemies around.
As I destroyed each minion, I got the third words of their elemental schools, an extra 25 maximum hit points, and their "totems," which I have yet to figure out how to use.

As I explored each realm and got the special treasure chests, my weapon and armor items improved, allowing me to sell the old ones to various NPCs for much-needed cash. I found a ton of spell clues, and got more from the NPCs, and continued to build my spell arsenal. New additions include "Icy Storm," which supposedly damages everyone on the map and "Explosion," which does a lot of damage but I can't figure out how to target correctly. I had to learn "Read Map" and "Revelation" to see treasures and enemies on the game map again, but once you mix these spells once, their effect is permanent.
A weapon upgrade! It still doesn't do anything against the NUKEs.
I've learned a lot of spells that modify terrain, such as "Create Lake," "Remove Lake," "Gel Water," "Create Lava," and "Remove Lava." Enemy wizards are always casting spells like these, and it is one of the more interesting aspects of the game that you can mess around with the mission maps to your tactical benefit, or nullify enemies' attempts to do the same.

Easily my favorite new spell is "Create Dragon," which does what the name suggests. Unfortunately, the created dragons have minds of their own and often just fly off to engage enemies on the other side of the map rather than attack the ones that are currently bothering me. 
My summoned dragon breathes fire at my enemies--but continues on before destroying all of them.
Each batch of missions puts special treasure chests in the Death Domain, too, so at least once per set of missions, you want to kill yourself so you can explore this domain. Garwayen then makes fun of you for getting yourself killed.

My maximum health keeps increasing, but at fixed intervals based on the missions I've completed. It would be all the false starts and the extra grinding they entail were paying off in character development, but they don't. They do pay off in extra reagents and funds, however. I suppose one new "Plan B" might be "I can always grind until I have so many reagents that I can mix so many spells that it doesn't matter how ineptly I use them."
My character towards the end of the session.
Mixing spells wrong started killing me outright, so I stopped experimenting as freely with the mixtures. I've found that you usually get two sets of hints for each spell, so if there are too many unknown factors with the first set, you just wait until you get another corroborating hint. For instance, one hint may say something like, "A second-level water spell uses stones, powders, and jewels." I find a likely candidate in the spell list, which has a "12" in the "powders" column and question marks for the other reagents. It tells me that the spell's "aspect" is cats' feet. There are too many potential combinations of the reagents for me to start messing around, but later I get a hint that says, "To freeze enemies, use cats' feet and 9, 12, and 15. So now I know the spell either uses 9 stones and 15 jewels or vice versa, which narrows it down enough to give it a shot.
A chest offers some spell clues.
I've been upgrading spells every time I learn new magic words. I kept the old "levels" for a while before realizing that they were just cluttering up my spellbook and I'd probably never use them again.
No point keeping all three levels of "Lightning." I'll probably never use the first two again.
On Earth, there was some light plot progression with my NPC friends. They gave me spell clues and occasionally items of equipment. Several of them gave me sets of numbers that seem to be clues for a puzzle that hasn't been presented to me yet. A new NPC named Pendragon Clerke showed up in Istanbul; he gave me a clue about a weapon called the Damascene Sword. As this session went on, some of the NPCs started to suggest that they were getting harassed by the elemental wizards and might have to eventually disappear for their own safety. "Last night a rainstorm caused a flash flood that swept away our pickups," said the Albertan paleontologist. "And today the side of the hill almost buried my crew." In Salem, Selina says that someone tried to "torch the museum."
Pendragone Clerke, who I just met, threatens to leave.
Before sending me off to explore each of the domains and defeat the four minions, Garwayen had told me to look for a magic orb that allows teleportation or something. But I still hadn't found it when I defeated the last minion. (I assumed it would be in one of the special chests.) After I defeated Mahmoud, Garwayen noted that I hadn't found the orb and then said:
You will never be able to complete the quest I set for you. You have shown yourself to be deaf to my advice, and so I denounce you! Go! Back to your boring world of Terra! Let the Lords have you and your world! I am finished! Farewell, Robert. I expect to never see you again!
This was followed by a screen that told me I lost and invited me to reload and start over. Wow, that was pretty mean. Garwayen tells me repeatedly I'm the "chosen one" and then fires me because I didn't do things in a particular order. As some commenters have pointed out, he's probably going to turn out to be worse than the other wizards.
I'm really tempted to end it here. SpellCraft is one of the most original and interesting games I've played in a while, but it's also extremely frustrating, seems to be taking forever, and grows in difficulty with every mission. If it gets much harder, I think I'm just going to be paralyzed when I visit the domains, unable to clear enough enemies fast enough to destroy the wizards and obelisks generating them.

On the other hand, I could probably make things easier by changing my tactics. I rarely do this, but because I had such a difficult time with this session, I watched a few LP videos from YouTuber Garg Gobbler. This one is a good representation. Until I watched the video, I didn't really "get" the purpose of the stone circles in each domain, which is specifically to serve as a place of refuge for me. Enemies can't enter, and they get destroyed if they try (although the circles can take damage, which is why they have a health bar). I've also been under-utilizing the "Magic Wings" spell to get around maps quickly, and I've made things more difficult for myself by insisting on "clearing" each map rather than just accomplishing the mission. Apparently, for instance, I could have just killed each of the minions and gotten out of there--I didn't have to destroy the generators.

I'll try, but win or lose, I think the next entry will be the last.

Time so far: 21 hours

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Treasures of the Savage Frontier: Confederacy of Dunces

This should have been clearer a lot sooner.
Treasures consisted of three major phases. The first was the introductory section in Llorkh, Loudwater, and Secomber. The second was the foiling of the evil plots in the various Lords' Alliance cities: Waterdeep, Daggerford, the Way Inn, Leilon, Triboar, Yartar, Longsaddle, Port Llast, Mintarn, Orlumbor, and Neverwinter. (Of these, Port Llast is odd in that it seemed to be completely optional.) This also involved trips to Luskan and Ruathym. The section culminates at a council meeting in Mirabar, where you present your evidence on the Hosttower/Zhentarim/Kraken scheme and thus forestall war in the area. Part three has you explore a few villages and a cave in the frozen north to recover a magic gem from a dragon named Freezefire. I'll cover the third phase in my final entry.

Part two manages to be satisfyingly non-linear. Amanitas gives you the next-easiest city every time you contact him, but you can do the towns in any order. More important, visiting cities "out of order" does not trigger events prematurely or otherwise break the plotline. You can go to Mirabar early in the game, for instance, but it's just a regular town with various shops and services until events elsewhere trigger the council meeting and the Zhentarim presence.
Good descriptions replace banal graphics as we arrive in Longsaddle.
In my case, I went from my last entry to Longsaddle, a somewhat goofy "frontier" town in which honest, plain-spoken folk run farms and ranches and use words like "reckon." Members of the Kraken Society had been invading farmsteads and tying up the residents, but I kicked in front doors and liberated the places one-by-one. The ruler of the town, Malchor Harpell, wasn't around--his doorman said he was at the Tower of Twilight to the west--but after I defeated all the enemies in the town, his apparition showed up to congratulate me.
Residents of Longsaddle are mostly caricatures.
Amanitas suggested I hit Mintarn next, but that's an island and I wasn't sure which port town would take me there. Thus, I decided to complete the loop of road I was already on, which took me prematurely to Mirabar. I was happy to find a couple of stores selling magic items. One sold +1 magic weapons, including magic arrows, which are the traditional "money sink" of the Gold Box series. Here, they screwed it up a bit because they made 10 of them cost only 30 platinum pieces, not the several thousand per batch that you find in other games.
This shop took a small percentage of my money.
These magic shops showed up in a couple of other towns, too, some of them selling some +2 items. I did my best with them. I bought anyone not wearing a cloak a Cloak of Protection even though I don't think they stack with leather armor. I bought everyone Belts +2 even though they also don't seem to do anything with armor. I upgraded my two clerics to staff slings +1. I bought hundreds of arrows +1 for anyone with a bow. I bought my wizard Wands of Ice Storm and Lightning Bolt for occasions when he can't cast, and I also bought him every mage scroll I could find to increase the spells in his book. I bought Potions of Giant Strength for everyone and would have bought dozens of them to use in front of every battle but they don't stack and I was already having issues with inventory space. Despite all these purchases, I never exhausted my supply of gems, let alone having to sell the more valuable jewelry. In fact, at one point I actually lost my entire pile of gems by accidentally having an NPC pick them up (you can't trade items or wealth from an NPC), and yet I still made up enough in the subsequent hours that I never had to appraise a piece of jewelry.
This shop would have taken a lot more of my money if scrolls and potions stacked.
Mirabar is divided into north and south sections, the south run by humans and the north populated by dwarves. The dwarves work a mine, and even though I was visiting the city prematurely, there were some mine-related encounters that had nothing to do with the Zhent plot. After I fought some giants and purple worms, the dwarves rewarded me with a two-handed sword +3.
One of the few battles available in Mirabar this early in the game.
I took a break between Mirabar and continuing on, which turned out to be lucky. When I reloaded the game, the copy protection question asked me for a word after the heading "Tower of Twilight." This reminded me that the Tower is a real place and not just a throw-away reference in Longsaddle. So I backtracked a bit to find it, which wasn't hard.
The Tower of Twilight, directly west of Longsaddle.
It was a small, weird experience. After I entered the tower, a voice said we'd have to overcome some beasts before he'd help us. These turned out to be a bunch of electric spiders and (in a separate encounter) an iron golem. The electric spiders were annoying, firing lightning bolts with every attack, but I managed to take them out with swords, "Hold Monster," and "Charm Monster." The iron golem fell to physical attacks from anyone with a +3 weapon or higher, slowed with a "Lightning Bolt."

When these creatures were dead, Malchor Harpell agreed to tutor my mage, Monitor. She went away for a little while and then came back "very satisfied" with a new Black Crystal Ring. The game said she got experience, but it wasn't enough to rise a level. She didn't get any extra spell slots from the ring or otherwise, and the ring never seemed to do anything. I'm not sure what the entire purpose of the side-journey was.
Are you sure you've been studying magic, Monitor?
My first visit to Luskan was a bust. All the high captains wanted tribute, but none were available to just attack. Trying to bash my way into the Hosttower of the Arcane just triggered an impossible battle against a bazillion mages who all went first, blasting us to smithereens with "Ice Storm" or paralyzing us all with "Hold Monster." I want to see how this battle plays out with my Pools of Darkness party later.
Attacking the Hosttower is a good way to get hit with 50 "Ice Storms" in a row.
Port Llast was similarly uneventful. There were a few random battles. I had thought to find the ship to Mintarn here, but the only thing I could do in the city was take a sea tour, which led to an episode in which pirates attacked the boat, which led to us firing a cannon (through text menus) at the pirates and sinking them, which gained us some experience.

That finally brought us to Neverwinter. I had only explored a little of the city when I visited Lord Nasher and he had us arrested, apparently still believing that we had kidnapped the ambassadors. There was no opportunity for us to show evidence or plead our case, so we were treated to another scripted sequence in which Nasher declined to execute us because of our heroism in Ascore. Instead, he had us exiled to Farr Windward.
So maybe listen to our pleas of innocence now? Are we even pleading?
Farr Windward turned out to be on the same island as Orlumbor--the two cities are connected by a series of caverns. It was easily the most bizarre sequence of the game. Our boat crashed as we neared the city, which turned out to be a good thing, because we had to crawl ashore. If we'd entered through customs, they would have branded us with a mark that basically made us permanent outcasts. Everyone in Farr Windward had this brand, and their exile had either driven them insane or that's why they were exiled in the first place. As we arrived, the town was having a parade for one of its members who had died. Everyone we talked to was slightly goofy. Unfortunately, the city seems to have been invented for the game and is not otherwise discussed in Forgotten Realms lore.
A shop selling "Certificates of Normalcy" was par for the course in Farr Windward.
A weird fighter/cleric named Ougo joined the party. Or, I guess, he was just acting weird. As we explored the town and defeated a series of Kraken spies, it turned out he had a plan to free the people of Farr Windward. It involved recovering the brand used on the exiles in the first place, then using it on Tulgar Wrighttson, leader of Orlumbor, so that he'd have to either go into exile himself or annul the entire branding system and thus free Farr Windward. At the same time, the party was trying to convince Wrighttson that the ships blockading his harbor were not from Waterdeep, despite their false flags, but rather the Luskan pirates.

It all worked out, but the plot started to annoy me a bit. It seems far too easy for the evil forces to convince the members of the Lords' Alliance that they're being betrayed. Has this part of the world never heard of false flags and stolen uniforms before? If my party hadn't come around, would they have even bothered to contact each other and straighten things out? And here's a tip for time travelers: When you go back to 1930s Germany, just kill Hitler. Don't try to stop the Holocaust by slipping a Star of David armband on him at night. There are ways for the wealthy and powerful to get around such things. This is the second game I can think of that uses this trope, the other being Dishonored, and it didn't make any more sense there.
"Guards, take him away!" "Sorry, sir, we have to arrest you now, even though if you had acquired that brand through any legitimate process, we almost certainly would have heard about it."
A store in Farr Windward sold indecipherable equipment called "Farrberjiks." But because I had more money than I knew what to do with, I bought everyone "Farrberjik Lined Boots," and damned if they didn't subtract a point from armor class.
I have no idea.
The caves in between the two cities had some interesting encounters with enemies I've never heard of before: giant kampfults, great vilstraks, and rock reptiles. Kampfults seem like giant collections of vines; vilstraks look like earth elementals; and rock reptiles are, like their name suggests, giant lizards made out of stone. None was terribly hard, but kampfults seem to have some kind of "smothering" attack, much like shambling mounds, that keep a character immobile until the beast is killed.
Both responded satisfyingly to "Fireball."
As we prepared to sail away from Orlumbor, Siulajia got kidnapped by some sailors who hauled her off in a burlap sack. The captain of the transport ship refused to follow the kidnappers, and I had options to stay or take the ship to its original destination. Since the game didn't give me enough information to determine which option would get me closer to Siulajia, I decided to stay with the ship and head for Mintarn. Broadside was sad.

The problem in Mintarn was the same as in Orlumbor: Luskan pirates pretending to be the Waterdeep navy, blockading the port. About half of the city's available squares were water, and it didn't take long to clear out the rest of the buildings and warehouses of the various groups of giants, Hosttower mages, Kraken spies, and Zhentil lords that were gathered there. One battle introduced an efreet.
The "Lucky Paper" outlines the group's plan for Orlumbor. But do the Luskan pirates and the Waterdeep navy really use the same ships? Is the flag itself really the only way to tell?
We were joined for a time by Princess Jagaerda of Gundarlun, also a companion from the first game, who as a powerful fighter was a nice replacement for Siulajia. I found her late in my explorations of the city, though, and she departed when we returned to the mainland.

Eventually, we found the necessary enemy papers to prove that they were using fake Waterdeep uniforms and flags, and we presented these to the leader of Mintarn, ominously named The Tyrant, who gave us a +3 trident as a reward. My ranger used it for the rest of the game.
My party really is just the most pathetic group of do-gooders.
We returned to Neverwinter. During our absence, Lord Nasher apparently discovered the truth about things, as he was extremely apologetic for disbelieving us and exiling us in the first place. He asked us to hunt around the city for the missing ambassadors, and we found them both in secret areas after defeating their captors in battle.
This has never gotten old and never will get old.
We went back to Luskan at this point but still couldn't find anything new to do in the city, with one exception. We ran into Princess Jagaerda again just as she defeated a band of evil forces, and she recommended that we take a ship for Ruathym, where the leader, Captain Redleg, had either been captured or turned by the conspiracy. It was another map of clearing buildings before convincing the leader of our cause and getting his support.
Now I want to rewatch The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Redleg joined the party for a while and helped us clear out the rest of the town. He departed just as we ran into Jagaerda again, and she joined us for the second time.
Jagaerda tempts a blogger to devolve into crudity.
My party had gained a couple levels, and I wanted to try the Luskan Hosttower again. Unfortunately, upon return to the Hosttower, it was just locked. I couldn't trigger the same battle again. Fortunately, the game now let us assault the homes of the pirate captains and otherwise have our vengeance on the city. In some building, we came across a bunch of guards holding Siulajia. She and Broadside were joyously reunited--just as Ougo decided to return home. Jagaerda also left us when we left Luskan.
The male NPCs have a strange way of bowing out every time female NPCs appear.
Some documents suggested that the conspirators had kidnapped Siulajia because of her family, which confused her because she said they were just normal people living in the High Forest. As we'll discuss next time, I'm pretty sure the developers were establishing High Forest as the setting for the sequel.
For the record, that's not very far from where we started the game.
At last, it came time to visit the council in Mirabar. On our second visit to the city, we ran into numerous encounters with enemy forces not present the first time. They culminated with our visit to the Council Chambers, where the representatives were talking of war--until we presented the various "lucky papers" along with our report on the conspirators' activities.
The game is being kind here. I didn't save all 10 lucky papers.
The leaders were in the middle of thanking us for our work when the doors burst open and a very large group of Hosttower sorceresses, Kraken agents, and Zhentarim lords attacked. They were the same types of enemies I had faced in countless previous battles, but they were very hard in this one.
The final battle starts you with groups to the north, west, and east of the party. More appear after the first round.
The key problem--as a couple of commenters have pointed out--is that if enemy spellcasters get the drop on you, the battle swiftly becomes unwinnable. This one featured at least 12 mages in the opening round, and maybe another 8 joined in subsequent rounds. (By the way, I came to hate that particular addition to the game mechanics.) They started in three groups in different locations, so they couldn't all be targeted with one "Fireball" even if my mage had a chance to act. Almost all the spellcasters started with "Hold" spells, and each spell was capable of targeting three or four characters. On my first two attempts at battle, I ended up with all or most of my party held and slaughtered by the end of the first round.
Properly prepared this time.
It was only after a few reloads (informed, now, with buffing spells) that I got a handle on the battle, using hastened fighters to charge and occupy the mages and hastened clerics to charge and "Hold" them long enough for my mage to get a chance to damage them en masse. But I made the mistake of wasting all my best spells in the first couple of rounds, thus having nothing left to deal with groups of mages gating in during the third and fourth rounds. Altogether, it took me five attempts to win the battle. Both this battle and some of the others late in the game require you to carefully note the location and status of each spellcaster, and in particular whether you've already damaged him or he's already cast a spell that round. You have to be willing to pull characters out of melee combat (giving enemies a few free swipes) and switch them to ranged weapons so they can target undamaged spellcasters who haven't acted yet. Since the original Pool of Radiance, only the final battles in Pools of Darkness required this much attention to detail.

Miscellaneous notes:
  • Gateway and Treasures have seven locations in common. Of them, Llorkh, Yartar, Luskan, and Neverwinter use the same maps between the two games. (And as a bonus, Neverwinter's is the same as used in 1991's Neverwinter Nights.) There are only a couple of minor changes, such as doors where there were once arches. Neverwinter's map in Treasures adds a couple of docks. The map of Secomber in Gateway is half of the map of the city in Treasures. Loudwater is unrecognizable between the two games, as is Port Llast, although in the latter case I think the maps are showing two different areas of the city.
  • One consequence of having two characters in love: when either gets knocked unconscious or killed in combat, the other "frenzies" and is taken out of my control.
  • "Quick" combat is pretty good about transitioning between melee weapons and missile weapons as necessary, with one exception: It does not recognize staff slings. Characters who possess them and cannot get to enemies in melee range just dither around doing nothing. It otherwise works well enough that I don't know why the developers couldn't give me a command to toggle between missile and melee weapons rather than forcing me to go into the inventory screen.
  • For a series that does a great job overloading you with so much money that you never have to worry about it, there are an awful lot of times where you're asked, "Who will pay?," and you have to try several options because you don't remember exactly how much each character is carrying, and then sometimes you have to leave and go find a shop to sell a gem because you can't pay in gems or jewelry even though they're worth a lot more that what you're being asked for. Why does the party have individual wealth at all?
I have a theory that the events described above, culminating with the battle in Mirabar, were originally supposed to end the game. The battle was about as difficult as an endgame battle should be, and we clearly resolved the main plot. The only reason I can see for phase three, which feels completely superfluous, was that someone decided that the game wasn't long enough. See if you agree when we wrap up the game in a few days.

Time so far: 23 hours

Sunday, August 4, 2019

SpellCraft: A Long Apprenticeship

If you die, Garwayen is kind of a jerk.
At this point, one of two things is true about SpellCraft:

1. Almost the entire game is about you being a student of Garwayen, and in the last 10% or so, I'll graduate and battle the wizards who want to invade the Earth.

2. This is a really long game.

I say this because 10 hours into it, I'm still taking tutorial lessons from Garwayen. I assumed that after a few such lessons, the game would open up, and I'd have a variety of missions of varying length and complexity that I could accomplish at my own pace. But instead, it's been a very linear, step-by-step process by which Garwayen feeds me one or two spells or items at a time, I learn them, and then I do the next step. When I visit the various domains and fight wizards, I'm not even fighting real wizards--just simulacra that Garwayen himself created.

In the 7 hours since the first session, the game has required the following steps in a precise order:
  • Returned to Teotihuacan with the fire opal and received from the medicine woman the second magic word for the "Mind" college. (There is no first word; all mind spells start on the second level.)
Great. I can now go to the restroom.
  • Used this new word to create the "Dispel" spell
  • Visited new locations available on Earth, bought more reagents. Got a quest from Dr. Chen Xiong at Great Serpent Mound, Ohio, to get a Scroll of Thoth. Got a quest from Ali ibn Mustaph in Giza to find the Plaque of Quetzacoatl, for which he promised the Scroll of Thoth.
Garwayen disses my new NPC friend.
  • Explored the Earth Domain again. Found the Plaque of Quetzacoatl.
  • Took the Plaque to Ali. Got the Scroll. Took the Scroll to Chen and got $15,000. Took a copy of the Scroll to the medicine woman in Teotihuacan who told me it was a fake and that the real one was in the Fire Domain.
  • Explored the Air and Fire Domains and killed their respective wizard simulacra created by Garwayen. Found the real Plaque in the Fire Domain. Returned to the medicine woman, who translated it. This got me the first-level magic words of all the elemental domains.
Fighting the Fire Wizard simulacrum in a rare moment with no other enemies around.
  • Defeated the simulacrum in the Air Domain and was rewarded with the Scarab of Nefertiti, an equippable item that increases combat damage.
  • Visited the hippie at Stonehenge and got a Hauberk of Safety.
  • Created first-level attack spells: "Ice Arrows," "Magic Sword," and "Lightning Bolt," plus the non-attack spell "Cure Poison" and the conjuration spell "Create Orc."
  • Cleared the Air, Earth, and Fire Domains of a ton of enemies using my new spells.
Just wanted to point out this completely useless bridge in the Fire Domain.
  • Committed suicide to visit the Death Domain and find the second-level magic word for water spells.
  • Created "Water Breath."
  • Used "Water Breath" to explore the Water Domain and defeat a wizard simulacrum, found the second level fire magic word, the Cap of Defense, and several new spell recipes.
  • Defeated four more simulacra in each of the domains. 
Do you suppose he says this all the time? Because my spellcasting was pretty clumsy and wasteful.
Garwayen prompted me to the next step in each of these locations, so there was no way to get lost or to go out of order. The domains are only available to visit when he opens them for you.
Occasionally, you have a choice as to the order in which you visit domains.
Everything got progressively harder, of course. When there are 25 enemies per map, you can no longer kill them one-by-one and wait for your health to regenerate in between. You have to fend off several at once with various spells and heal yourself as necessary. Some undead thing started showing up, capable of poisoning the character, so a few "Cure Poison" spells became necessary.

Combat occurs in real time but the game at least pauses when you select and target spells, giving you a little time to think and plan. I'm not liking it as much as I'd like the same game in a turn-based environment, but it's still fun and quite tactical. It's also quite hard, but it would be harder if you couldn't escape the domains at any time with the "X" key. A few false starts are actually good, as they give you more combat experience and reagents.

Terrain is as much of an enemy as the enemies themselves. Falling in chasms in the Earth, Water, and Fire Domains automatically kill you. Falling off a cloud in the Air Domain--even thin little slits that you can barely see--kills you. Falling into water or pools of fire does continual damage. As you fight enemies, they're constantly battering you this way and that, and they can easily knock you over an edge.
Killed by a combination of summoned creatures.
When wizard simulacra are present--and, I assume, when actual wizards are present--strategic and tactical considerations completely change. They're capable of creating their own monsters, so there's no point trying to clear the map of other enemies until the wizards are dead. They send a constant stream of spells spewing from wherever they are, including fireballs (which home in on you and are impossible to avoid), lightning bolts, steam vapors that wander the land, evil clouds that blow freezing or burning air at you, various types of monsters, and spells that create deadly chasms and barriers. Amusingly, their spells often hit their own creations, or monsters already existing on the map, so you often find maps littered with the little pouches you get from dead enemies, even if you didn't kill anyone.

You have to track down the source of these attacks and do your best to kill him with your own spells or in melee combat. An easy (if blunt) way to do this is to pour a lot of your resources into healing spells, then just run up to the wizard and enter combat mode, stopping to heal as necessary until he's dead. After the wizard is gone, you can take a more conservative approach to the rest of the map.

Entering the Water Domain adds an additional twist in that you have to have "Water Breath" active at all times or you swiftly die.
Mixing "Water Breath."
Each time you enter a domain, there are fixed numbers of monsters to fight, regular chests to find, and special chests to find. (Special chests usually contain quest objects.) Once you get all those down to 0, you've "cleared" the domain for the time being. Pixels flash on the automap to show where remaining monsters and chests are, but some of them are awfully small and hard to see. (These have been automatic so far, but something Garwayen said in my last mission makes me think I'm going to need to learn spells for them from now on.) For the first time, I find myself playing a lot in enlarged or full-screen mode. When you kill the last monster, the character jumps up and down for joy a few times.
The level information screen shows that I have a lot of enemies to go.
If you die, you enter the Death Domain, which has its own monsters to fight and its treasure chests to collect. If you can find the circle of stones in the Death Domain, you can return to Stonehenge (and life) again. If you die in the Death Domain, it's permanent, but as a commenter pointed out, your new character gets the old character's spellbook. I'm not sure if this is deliberate or simply a consequence of saving the spellbook as a separate file than the game save. This causes other weird things to happen. For instance, the other day I entered a domain, cast a bunch of spells, but soon found myself on the verge of death. Since I was going to quit playing soon anyway, I just shut down the emulator and re-started the next day. Even though I had reloaded from before entering the domain, the spells that I had cast there were still gone.
Fighting a revenant in the Death Domain.
Spells themselves continue to be a fun challenge. For instance, in creating the "Dispel" spell, Garwayen would only tell me that I needed two of the aspect and some proportion of jewels, candles, and stones. I didn't know what the aspect was or what category ("Defense?" "Terrain Modifier?") it would be in. Nonetheless, I scanned the list and found three potential candidates, all Level 2 "Mind" spells that required some number of jewels, candles, and stones. One of them, a defense spell, was based on the aspect of "high hopes" (green liquid), which was one of the objects I'd found in the last quest. I figured that must be it.

Still, the book only told me the number of jewels (5) and stones (9) that it required, not the number of candles. After a disastrous attempt with a random number . . .
This is why you wear protection, kids.
. . . Garwayen suggested I consult the "second volume of Shar Adrazar's Advanced Magical Alchemy." I didn't have the book, of course, but the manual has quotes from various books, and two of them referenced Advanced Magical Alchemy. One of them was cited as volume 2, book 5, chapter 7, verse 9, so clearly the book, chapter, volume, and verse numbers have something to do with the aspect and ingredient proportions. I tried the formula again with 7 candles and got it.

So far, from whatever hit I receive, by consulting the spellbook (which has partial information filled in), I usually only have one x factor, if any. The little animations that pop up when you get things wrong are amusing, but I don't think they have any permanent consequences. At least, not so far.
Continuing to fill in the spellbook.
It turns out that the NPCs on Earth have continuing conversations with the player--Selina in Salem even seems to be flirting with me--so it's fun to watch their stories progress. I've become much more liberal with spending money on these trips, especially since I'm always finding pomegranates, and Cheech seems to have an infinite supply of cash. A few new locations opened up just as this session was ending. The full list so far is:

  • Stonehenge, where I meet a hippie named David.
  • Salem, where I meet a museum tour guide named Selina who seems to be into me.
The cost of transatlantic flights is getting prohibitive. Maybe you could come visit me once?
  • Great Serpent Mount, Ohio, where a professor named Chen Xiong is interested in magic maps. I honestly didn't know anything about this location before playing this game, it being in Ohio. It's just a mound of dirt piled into the shape of a serpent about 1,400 feet long, but it's been around for 2,400 years. That's the kind of thing that gives me chills. A bunch of earth, shoveled into a pile, will outlast all your dreams and will still stand when your descendants have forgotten your name.
  • Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, where I meet a paleontologist named Jack Hendricks. He sells stones, which I'm always running out of because of healing spells. I can't imagine anything mystical about this park except the suggestion from the manual that the dinosaurs may have used magic.
Do Canadians use "ain't"? I'm not sure I've ever heard it from one.
  • Teotihuacan, Mexico, which is often described as an "Aztec" ruin but was actually already in ruins before the Aztec civilization arose. There, a medicine woman--who has just now given her name as Senora Espirita (I suspect it's a pseudonym)--has helped me already on several occasions. Just now, she gave me another spell formula.
  • Machu Picchu, Peru. Here at this Incan site, I incongruously meet a Navajo Indian who tells me that the spirits have a present for me, but I must first give them a present: a feather from the Air Domain.
If I can meet a Chinese man in Ohio and an Englishman in Italy, why not a Navajo in Peru?
  • Mount Fuji, Japan, where I meet a geisha named Lotus Flower, which probably has nothing to do with the film Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), but everyone should go watch it immediately anyway.
  • Giza, Egypt. My contact, Ali ibn Mustaph, just sold me a tablet for $1,000 that has more spell formulas. Or, at least, he sold me the promise of a tablet. He seems a bit of a con man, so I may have just wasted that money.
  • Transylvania, Romania, where I meet a woman named Natalye, another tour guide, this time at the castle of Vlad the Impaler. She doesn't seem to believe in magic, but she does sell some reagents.
We're only a few years past the Romanian Revolution here.
  • Pompeii, Italy, where my contact, an English tourist, just gave me a magic formula that has something to do with "solidifying Neptune's realm."
It's getting pretty expensive to do this circuit, but everyone almost always has something new to say or offer every time I visit.
As the game went on, I could feel myself falling into a familiar trap of over-relying on certain spells, so I started to make a concerted effort to do more thorough testing. Some conclusions:
  • "Boil Blood": Decent offensive spell that often kills enemies outright.
  • "Cure Poison": Vital when needed. No power levels; it's a binary spell.
  • "Dispel": Dispels enemy spells. Theoretically. I can't quite figure out the rules of when it works and when it doesn't. 
  • "Dragon Flame": Sounds awesome, but it's basically "Lightning Bolt" with fire and doesn't do as much damage as you would think given the component cost.
  • "Fire Barrier": Creates a barrier of fire that damages anyone who moves through it. Seems tough to guarantee that anyone will move through it, and it's tough to target during the chaos of combat. I could see where it might be useful to "box in" an enemy.
  • "Fireball": Very difficult to target. Technically, it hits not the enemy you point it at, but rather "seeks out the most threatening enemy." Theoretically, you can cast these in any direction from a fixed starting point, and they'll wander around until they find someone worth hitting. Functionally, they often hit an object or a less-threatening enemy first. I get hit with them a lot but don't get a lot of use out of them myself.
My fireball angles towards an Air Wizard.
  • "Ice Arrows": I think this one is bugged. It's supposed to send out "a series of arrows" that, like "Fireball," seeks the most difficult enemies. In practice, it often sends out one arrow that then just sits there on the map. 
  • "Lightning": The only Level 1 offensive spell that you can directly target. Unfortunately, it seems weak. It never kills anyone.
  • "Magic Sword": Pretty awesome. It creates a magic blade that goes after the nearest creature and fights until one of them is dead. Great for occupying one enemy while you fight another.
Apparently, if I can get this to a higher level, it will poison enemies.
  • "Orc": A creation spell that summons a weak orc. Not quite as good as "Magic Sword," but there doesn't seem to be any limit to the number you can conjure, which is helpful when dealing with a wizard and the minions immediately around him.
My summoned orcs aren't doing very well against a couple of ghosts.
  • "Star Healing": Absolutely essential. Makes up a lot for poor skill or planning in other spells.
  • "Steam Vapor": Creates a hot mist cloud that roams around and scalds enemies. I like the idea, but in practice I guess I prefer spells that directly target specific enemies.

That's my arsenal for now, but it keeps growing, giving me new options with each map. I have about six formulas right now waiting to mix.
Formulas are often provided after solving quests.
I haven't spent much time modifying the spells yet. I don't even really understand the "elasticity" system. For instance, for "Magic Sword," jewels and powders have "average to good" elasticity and candles and stones have "good." What does that translate to? How many extra ingredients can I use? What will they do? Is there any benefit to reducing ingredients? It feels like there are too many possible permutations to test. It appears, however, that you can always modify a spell by increasing the level of its magic word (once you learn it), which is less ambiguous than the ingredient elasticity.
Now that I know IGNIS, I can upgrade all the spells that originally used LUX.
One spell I did want to modify was "Water Breath," since it doesn't last very long. The base spell uses 11 jewels, 5 powder, and 8 candles. Garwayen tells me that I can increase the duration by increasing the candles, so I try 15. It works. I try 20. It blows up in my face. Where's the cut-off?
Another mixture goes badly.
For the next quest, Garwayen wants me to kill four improved simulacra in the four domains. Man, I had a hard enough time with the last set. I think I need a Treasures of the Savage Frontier break before I continue.

Time so far: 10 hours