Sunday, October 14, 2018

Game 306: Legends II (1989)

         
Legends II
United States
Asgard Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for TI-99
Date Started: 9 October 2018

It was about a year ago that I looked at Legends (1987) for the TI-99, a platform that was already three-years discontinued. By 1989, it had been five years. And yet Asgard Software was still pumping out titles for its little cult following. Legends II is explicitly "dedicated to the TI community," according to the manual. "Daily we keep the TI legacy alive and with each passing year we create our own legends." Ironically, this was the company's last year, but it was a busy one, releases include a third version Tunnels of Doom anthology and four ports of Infocom text adventures.

You may recall that the original Legend was a Phantasie-inspired romp to defeat a warlord named Ashtar Creel. I liked that it used Phantasie's approach to dungeon exploration, but I thought the character development was limited and the combat far too frequent. It was also very grindy; to win I had to pretty much grind to the highest level before I even seriously attempted the dungeons.

Legends II--unimaginatively subtitled The Sequel everywhere but the title screen--doesn't begin with much of a backstory. The four-person party (every player gets a fighter, ranger, cleric, and wizard), bored after defeating Ashtar Creel, sets sail for a newly-discovered continent, hoping to find something to do there. They're shipwrecked on the way, and they wind up in the town of Grumble on an island called Femble.
         
A tavern tale hints at a bigger plot to come.
        
The game doesn't support any character-creation process. You either have to play with the (weak) default party or import a Legends party, which reduces them all to Level 3 but maintains their hit points and most of their equipment. I had trouble with the import process, so Adamantyr supplied me with a clean installation that includes a default party with appropriate attributes but lousy equipment. I changed the names.

Grumble, the only town on the new continent, has an inn, a potion shop, a temple, and a training hall, but oddly no weapons shop (you have to find all weapon and armor upgrades). Legends had only one town, too, but the rest of the island was dotted with inns where you could rest and heal. Instead, in Legends II the ranger occasionally finds "safe havens" for resting while you explore the outdoor landscape.
        
Options in town.
       
Every time you leave Grumble, you set a difficulty level for the monsters you encounter, on a scale of 1 to 10, the lower the easier. The setting affects not the type of monsters but their hit points and damage levels. Higher risk yields higher rewards, but it takes a while to build up to those higher settings. Just as in the original, in advancement my characters are hampered far more by lack of gold than lack of experience.
          
Sure, that will only take me about 70 combats to earn.
          
Movement is accomplished with the ESDX cluster, with a few other keys to perform special actions inside and outside of combat. The game checks for random encounters based on a number of cycles rather than the number of moves. This is highly annoying. Not only are you penalized for not immediately moving the moment that you have the ability (after a few seconds, the game inevitably rolls a random encounter), but in the modern era you can't crank up the emulation speed to get other things to run faster unless you're prepared to deal with all the extra combats.

Combat hasn't advanced at all since the first game. It's basically Phantasie's system without the little character animations. There are only a couple dozen enemies in the game.  Upon meeting an enemy party, you can choose to fight, intimidate them, greet them, surrender to them, or flee. Anything other than "fight" gives the enemy a free round of attacks if it fails. "Intimidate" is a great option. If it succeeds--which it does enough to make it viable--you still get the experience and gold from the combat, without having to fight anything.
            
I'm glad I didn't have to fight these guys. They eat armor.
           
If you choose to fight, you have options to thrust, parry, lunge, or cast a spell. Actions execute immediately instead of waiting until everyone sets up. The spell selection is small--eight each for wizards and clerics and six for rangers--and they can only be cast in combat. As in Phantasie, many are simply variants in power of the same base spell; for instance, the wizard gets "Firestorm1," "Firestorm2," and "Firestorm3." There are no mass-damage spells, which I somewhat like, as it makes me more likely to cast buffing spells like "Strength," "Protection," and "Prayer" in combat.
         
Fighting a cute giant snake.
        
Dungeon exploration offers the same weird dichotomy as in Legends, where half the dungeons offer traps and treasure chests but no monsters, and the other half offer monsters but no traps or chests. The first type of dungeon is attached to Grumble and is the first one that you explore. Legends started with some of the dungeon levels exposed, but the sequel makes you move to find every available square. It doesn't even open up the squares around you; you have to actually move into walls to see if you can go that way.
              
Threading my way through the dungeon. The dot indicates a special encounter.
           
Chests are often trapped and have to be disarmed. They might hold gold, potions, or equipment. You have to keep careful track of your current weapon, armor, and shield because when you find something new, you don't have an option to review what you're already carrying before deciding whether to keep it or leave it. One trip through the starter dungeon mostly made up for the paltry equipment my characters imported with.
            
I think most of my guys have better weapons than this.
            
The pair of games does a good job with narratives and encounters that develop the backstory and propel the main quest. I wish more titles of the era, independent and commercial, rewarded exploration with an occasional bit of text. (A text card like the one below at the end of each Shadowkeep level would have incentivized continuing to play it.) Grumble's tavern offers hits of gameplay elements to come. Rooms and hallways in dungeons have brief descriptions, and special encounters, annotated with a dot, sometimes offer role-playing options.
           
A signpost on the starting island.
       
An intertitle at the beginning of the Grumble dungeon explains that it's used for storage as well as the city's famous water and sewer system. As you explore, you repeatedly encounter a guide leading people through the sewers. On Level 2, there's a maintenance man who sells some tools to the party, and on Level 4, you run into the city's mayor, in hiding from assassins, who gives you a key to a special room at the Zen Outpost.
          
If Crusaders of the Dark Savant presented its text like this, I'd have a lot less of an issue with it.
         
Back on the surface, the tools are necessary to repair the drawbridge connecting the starting island to the next one to the south. I know from peeking at the map on Adamantyr's site that the game world consists of an absurdly long chain of islands running from north to south, none wider east-west than a single game screen but occupying perhaps 13 screens vertically. Apparently, Donn Granros has said that players of Legend complained of the open-world nature of the first game, so in this one the authors decided to feed them the dungeons in a linear order.
          
Good thing we bought those tools!
        
The problem with this approach is that you can only level up and heal in Grumble. And while you can quit and save in camp in the wilderness, every time you reload, you're back in Grumble. This is going to get annoying towards the end of the game when I'm far afield, want to save to avoid losing progress, but then have to trek all the way back to my position from Grumble again. (And the Classic99 emulator doesn't offer save states, so I can't cheat this process.) The overall setup seems to suggest that, once again, the player is best off doing a lot of grinding near Grumble before heading out into the open world. Fortunately, as long as you check in once in a while, grinding is as easy as weighing down the "1" key, since that key acknowledges messages, choose to fight, and chooses the "thrust" action each round.
           
Signs warn of strange happenings to the south.
         
I've explored about four screens to the south. It appears there are going to be special encounters at a lot of the bridges. I found the second dungeon--a monster one, this time. But I'm relying on the idea that all dungeons are visible on the screen and don't require you to poke around the map. Anyone who's played the game--which is probably just Adamantyr--please let me know if I'm wrong about this.
         
It's a tough call, but I'm thinking "no."
         
Just like its predecessor, Legends II is not a fantastic game, but it's one of the few fully-developed RPGs for the TI-99, and it offers enough of interest to keep me going. I look forward to seeing how or if the story develops and what the main quest truly is. One of the tavern tales suggests that Ashtar Creel isn't really dead, and another says, intriguingly, that "they somehow snatched this great king from a parallel world," likely to hold him for ransom. Are we going to end up rescuing Lord British in a non-Origin game?

Time so far: 4 hours

Friday, October 12, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: Pomp and Circumstance

I would hope that the number of people I have "both loved and slain" is small.
             
In several long sessions, I conquered and pillaged the Temple of Munkharama. I had to review my screenshots from hours ago to remember why I was there in the first place. (Because of all the dialogue and descriptions, my screenshots folder has swiftly ballooned to over 2,000 shots.) It goes back to the garrulous Brother T'Shober, guardian of the Munkharama Bridge, who begged me to find my way to the Temple, beneath the city above it, and retrieve the Holy Work before a bunch of evil monks from the Dark Forest got to it first. He told me to bring it to Master Xheng, Lord of the 5 Flowers.

I thought the Holy Work might be the Astral Dominae, but I should have realized it was silly to expect any actual connection between the game and its backstory this soon, if at all. Instead, it was just a book.
           
A book as helpful as the in-game text!
         
Reaching it was a long process that began by--as I had surmised several entries ago--shouting "COINS" as a response to the riddle of the well. In return, it delivered me four coins that I had to use in four receptacles to open four doors, two of which had switches that opened secret doors accessible from the other two. One of those secret areas led to a bunch of new rooms on the east side of the monastery, one to a bunch of rooms on the west.
           
The east side housed a logic puzzle by which I had to drop four beans into four chalices and then pull a spindle in a central room. The spindle activated a kind of slot machine with four panels colored black or white. It took me a few tries to figure out what was going on, but basically after pulling the spindle, the panels showed me how many beans were in the correct chalices by the number of black panels vs. white panels--but not which beans were correct. Every time I got it wrong, I got dumped through a trap door into a basement and took damage. There were 4!=24 potential combinations, but each try gave me enough information to cross several possibilities off the list and narrow it down. Eventually, I got it right. The solution opened a secret door to the rest of the section.
              
This was a good thing.
             
With my recent failure in Shadowlands on my mind, I should point out that this is the kind of puzzle I like. It takes some effort and experimentation to figure out what's happening, and once you intuit that, you can solve it by logic. It wasn't just about mechanics, and there weren't rats or a food meter impelling me to solve it faster.

The new passage led the party to Brother Moser's Apothecary. Aside from selling potions, he didn't have a lot that was interesting to offer just yet.
              
My full map of Munkharama.
           
Over on the west side, I found myself in front of a large building labeled "Palace of the Gran Melange, The Land of Dreams." ("Gran Melange" is a perfect David Bradley phrase, like "Dark Savant," that at first sounds okay but then falls apart when you consider its true meaning, in this case something like "great miscellany.") Inside, a monk wanted to know what I was doing there. I tried HOLY WORK, GRAN MELANGE, ASTRAL DOMINAE, and even COSMIC FORGE (hey, my characters are still a bit confused) before finding success with (duh) DREAMS. But I couldn't answer his second question about "what happens to those who cannot walk the land of dreams" until I returned to Brother Moser and asked him, and learned that such people "walk the land of the living dead." This is another kind of puzzle that I like: the kind where you have to pay attention and take notes, then use those notes at a later point. Admittedly, the copious verbiage in this game makes it tough.

What followed were a series of rooms (connected by a maze of ladders) where I encountered a bunch of monks high on some kind of pipeweed, spouting nonsense about life being a dream and other silliness that was probably meant to sound profound. (Sample: "Life is a mystery, a puzzle, a riddle, a rebus, an enigma. As you live, you discover some of its pieces. Some you know, as if you had always known. Others you do not recognize, and discard. But all is part of the puzzle.") From these encounters, I got a smoking pipe and some "pastilles" to pack into it.
            
I'll smoke what he's smoking.
          
The monk at the entrance had warned me not to go through a black door, but it was the only way to go, and after doing so, I found myself in a blank void. And here I got one of the games absurdly, almost offensively long expositions. I've complained about wordiness a few times, but I want to make it clear that I certainly don't mind the brief atmospheric descriptions. For instance, here's one that came later in the area:
            
You step into the arena of a tremendous cathedral, its bizarre frescoes long faded, its papal pews submerged under a dense cesspool of stagnant water and filled with the wrenching odor of offal and decay. Thick molds cover much of the ceiling and chamber, and splotches of scummy mires are visible floating on the surface of the water. It is not a very pleasant atmosphere.
              
Now that's great. It gives a lot of context to otherwise somewhat featureless wall textures, and it even makes sense given the overall backstory of the location. I wouldn't mind if the text was delivered a bit faster, in a smaller font, without requiring me to acknowledge every sentence, but I otherwise have no problem with the prose.
           
Occasionally, the descriptions are funny. I don't often appreciate Bradley's humor, but this passage from later (beneath the temple), got a chuckle, even though it hijacked my characters' attitudes, something I usually object to:
          
You pull the lever but nothing happens . . . Playing with the lever for a while and getting nowhere, you eventually resort to more forceful tactics. Pretty soon the floor is littered with piece of hacked lever parts, everybody is yelling at everybody else, and finally you concede that some things were not meant to be.
          
This, on the other hand, is what I got in the dream void:
            
You step into oblivion. You are falling . . . falling . . . falling. And then you are falling no longer. All is quiet and black. Though you can feel a solid surface beneath your feet, you see nothing, and all around you presses the deep void. A vision of burning flames appears in the distance. You draw closer to the fiery blaze, and you see there is something burning in the flames. It is you. The fire swells and suddenly you are surrounded by faces from your past, faces of those you have both loved and slain. Their skin bubbles and their eyeballs swell and then explode as they scream. And you watch as they turn into a host of blackened charred corpses. Their screams become a mad cackling, and as they crumble into dust you see arise within the flames huge buildings and structures. And you sense that the structures mean something important, but watch as they too crack and fall into the burning inferno. The flame congeals into a flaming ball, and from its smoke and ash forms a sphere of spinning firmament which begins to orbit around the burning mother. And you look upon the sphere as its surface transforms, blossoming an infinite variety of features, and soon there are other spheres and then behind them still others and then a thousand suns dot the black sky. A million planets swarm past you, racing through the void, and time itself seems to accelerate as you witness the birth and demise of nations and whole worlds. You gaze upon the evolution of life as it streams through the galaxies, birthing and growing, warring and dying, and soon the shapes become a blur until they finally collide in a tremendous explosion and time itself becomes exhausted and collapses. And then all is still and black again.
              
If even that doesn't seem so bad, keep in mind that this narrative is being delivered basically one sentence at a time, frequently appearing that it's over, because it ends one-third of the way down the screen, only to start up again on the next screen. And if it still sounds cool, ask yourself: What is the point? Why these images? Do they actually mean anything? Is there any payoff? Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think so. I think the author is just being self-indulgent. I think he's read things like this in other stories, better stories, where there is a purpose and payoff, and he's trying to mimic that.
          
Here, it's just a waste of time. It doesn't even lead you to the correct next action, which is to combine the pipe and pastilles and light it. A good narrative, in addition to being much shorter, might have ended by saying something like, "You see images in the void, but your sober mind is not in any position to decipher them." Oh, incidentally, if you do the wrong thing, you have to read all of this again.

Lighting the pipe didn't make anything more sensible. A being called the Spirit of Life appeared, spouted some more pretentious nonsense ("this is the seed that is the root and heart of all living things" offered a particularly glorious mix of metaphors) and then asked me to choose the form of divine assistance: a sword, a staff, a gown, a ring, or a stone. I somewhat unimaginatively chose the sword, and I was given a magic weapon called the Sword of 4 Winds. Equipped by my lord, it does about twice the damage as his previous sword, so it wasn't a terrible choice, but I'm curious what the other choices would have gotten me.
          
Yeah, choosing the sword is pretty "basic," but who says "gown" at a time like this?
           
Incidentally, I think there's a bug attached to the sword. First, it's cursed, which means I can't unequip it until I cast "Remove Curse." That's fine; I don't want to unequip it. But it's also one of those weird Wizardry weapons that asks me if I want to "invoke" it, which usually gives you something like an attribute boost in exchange for the item disappearing. In this case, invoking it raises my maximum hit points, permanently, but the sword doesn't disappear because (I think) of the curse. This means I could theoretically use it to elevate my lord's hit points to game-breaking heights. But after I saw what was happening (after invoking it twice), I stopped.

Out of the dream world, I found myself in a new area: the courtyard of the Xen Xheng School of 5 Flowers. Inside, Maser Xheng challenged me with a code phrase ("Slay not he that cannot hear"), to which I fortunately knew the counter-phrase from Brother T'Shober: BE THANKFUL YE THAT HATH AN EAR. Master Xheng wanted the Holy Work, which I didn't have yet, so there wasn't much else to do here.
            
Be thankful ye that took screenshots.
          
To get into the temple beneath the city, I had to solve another coin-related puzzle by putting four coins (ruby, emerald, diamond, and amber, found in pools in the central part of the keep) in associated urns: cuprum, viridian, silver, and gold. If it's not clear (and it wasn't to me at first), each gem/urn pair is the one closest together in color. This requires you to know that "viridian" is blue-green and that "cuprum" is the Latin word for "copper."
       
The underground had two large levels with many interrelated stairways, ladders, and pits. Getting through it was a long process of finding the right keys and objects to open the right doors in other areas. There weren't a lot of puzzles otherwise, just fairly tough encounters with a variety of monsters. Several types of monks (spelled "munks" by the game for some reason), all with mid-level magic powers, kept attacking. There were also ghosts capable of causing a "terror" effect, nymphs who could cast high-level mass-damage spells, and some kind of floating jellyfish. I hate the "fear" effect, because in addition to taking the party member out of commission (about 50% of the time), there's a chance that the party member decides on his or her own to flee, abruptly ending combat no matter how well you're doing.
        
The spirits are particularly well drawn.
      
There were three notable "boss" battles. The first involved a bunch of deranged monks and a "leper giant," who was capable of doing enough damage in a single round to kill a character. Fortunately, he usually missed, but after three tries I couldn't win the battle without losing one character, so I sucked it up and resurrected her with a scroll I had found earlier.
            
And Esteban goes spinning through the sky.
         
The second boss battle was with the leader of the evil monks, the Lord of the Dark Forest, who had some very high level spells and resisted most of mine. I got lucky with a critical hit on my third combat with him.
            
The Lord of the Dark Forest "holds" a bunch of us during our first fight against him.
             
The last tough fight was with eight "skeleton lords" in three groups of two. They were curiously resistant to even my highest level "dispel undead" and had to be killed by more conventional means, which was tough because in addition to fear, they can cast "Fireball." This one combat produced over 17,000 experience points, the highest total in the game so far.
            
Skeleton lords appear t be skeletons of cows.
             
Mitigating the difficulty was a fountain that restored health, stamina, and magic points. It's been a while since I found one of those. Even with copious resting, the party is so rarely at maximum strength in all three attributes that these fountains really are a cause for celebration. Even better, it was in the middle of a water area, so I used the occasion to swim around (refreshing stamina at the fountain every few moves) until everyone's "Swimming" skill was at 100. This is enough to swim about six squares before someone dies. 
         
This is always a welcome sight.
         
When I was done, I had two artifacts: the Holy Work and something called Wikum's Globe of Power. I don't know what the latter object is for, but the former I returned to Master Xheng. He took it gratefully and offered us the choice to join the monastery and learn the "path of the five flowers." I said sure--I probably just made some irrecoverable faction choice or something--and he gave me a further quest to go find five flowers in some mountains. He also gave me some equipment, which included some cool bits of armor for my ninja.
               
My undiscriminating party just joins the first faction that asks.
           
By this time, I should mention, my inventory was bursting with stuff, including a lot of scrolls, potions, bombs, and powders that basically just serve as lesser alternatives to spells. I ended up selling a lot of them to Master Xheng just to clear space.
             
On the one hand, that's a useful item. On the other, that's a reasonable amount of money.
            
But I still have a bunch of things that I'm not sure about. These include:
            
  • Items marked with large yellow question marks (instead of small white ones) always seem to be quest items. I've used most of them (like the cable trolley) and know what they're for, but I'm still toting around "bone combs and brushes," a bonsai tree, and a white rubber bear. They're all mysteries.
  • I've had two iron keys and a pewter key for a long time, since like maybe the first dungeon.
  • Back in the Gorn castle, I fond three jars of "munk innards" and 15 units of "salted munkmeat." Since munks are humans, the Gorn must be cannibals. Why am I carrying these around?
  • A potion called a "Cask of Ill Repute." I forgot where I got it. 
  • Something called a "Rebus Egge." No idea.
  • Several items in small blue pouches with stars on them: brimstone nuggets, skullbones, aromatic salts, and deadman's hair. They sound like spell reagents, but this game doesn't have a reagent system. Nothing happens when I try to "use" or "merge" these.
            
During these explorations, I kept encountering certain NPCs over and over. It got a little annoying because they almost all have several screens of inescapable text before you can talk to them or dismiss them. One of them was the Gorn king, who I'd met in his castle. He alternately told me that the war was going well or poorly, sometimes both within a matter of 10 steps. Brother T'Shober appeared once, but I didn't get anything useful from him. An Umpani named Lt. Gruntrapper stopped us a couple of times. When I went to trade with him (which I almost always try with NPCs), I saw that he was carrying something called a "Crypt Map." I got an idea from comments that I'm supposed to be collecting these "maps," so I bought it from him, even though it took 2/3 of my gold. Finally, some tall blue guy from the "priests of Dane" kept ranting about the end of the world, but I could never get him to like us enough to talk or trade.
            
This had better pay off.
           
Leveling slowed to a crawl, causing a bit of a withdrawal after my last session. Almost everyone is back up to Level 10 in their primary classes, and with hundreds of thousands of experience points necessary to get to Level 11, it's hard to imagine ever making it to, say, Level 15. I don't think I'll be up for yet another round of class-changing, though, so I'll just see how it goes.

I have no particular idea where to go next. A couple of my characters have the "Watchbells" spell now (which awakens sleeping party members), so I could try that field of poppies, and there are some water squares I could explore given my new ability to swim. Beyond that, there are unexplored paths to the south of Munkharama and to the north of Orkogre Castle.

This session ended at the 40-hour mark, and I feel like at this point I should have some sense of the main plot, but if it wasn't for the Umpani and T'Rang showing up occasionally, I'd begin to suspect that the backstory has nothing to do with the game itself. I may feel differently by the end, but right now, it feels I'm in the middle of a sprawling, silly narrative with little thematic consistency or sensible story arc. At least I like the combat, leveling, exploration, mapping, and puzzles.

Time so far: 40 hours


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Shadowlands: Summary and Rating

That's maybe not a torch I'd want to carry in a cramped hallway.
            
Shadowlands
United Kingdom
Teque London (developer); Domark Software (publisher)
Released in 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS
Date Started: 2 October 2018
Date Ended: 8 October 2018
Total Hours: 8 (unfinished)
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
            
This is simply a genre that I'm never going to take to. I didn't like DarkSpyre; I didn't like Legend; I didn't like Heimdall. I developed a fondness for Dungeon Master, but largely because it had a good combat, magic, and character development system alongside its many buttons and pressure plates. I like the occasional puzzle, but not so much the switch-and-pressure-plate variety. There's a reason there's no "puzzles" category in my GIMLET. I say this with all respect to people who really do enjoy them. The world would be boring if we all liked the same things.

I would have persevered if not for a few other "features." One thing I hate about any game--and I don't mention this often because it rarely comes up--is the sense that the game is nipping at my heels. The occasional timed puzzle or quest is fine, but if the entire thrust of the gameplay is to impel you onwards, to punish you for dallying, to discourage careful exploration and thought, then I'm going to get frustrated fast. Shadowlands does this this first metaphorically with its food and water system. The meters deplete so fast, and the inventory of food items in the dungeon is so sparse, that I spent most of my time in a constant state of agitation. I continually felt that I needed to reload and do things faster so as to minimize food consumption.
            
The game offers a hint to throw something to the hidden pressure plate beyond the pits.
       
But even worse, Shadowlands nips at your heels quite literally by including--this has to be the worst design element in any game ever--unkillable rats that follow your party throughout the dungeon levels and attack you every time you stand still for more than a few seconds. If you don't get away from them, they'll kill a party member in less than a minute. These rats can't be targeted by weapons and can't be killed by spells. They can only be "outrun" for about 30 seconds. They're present to serve as a constant punishment for not knowing exactly what to do or where to go next. They're often present at places where you need to split the party, so that while you're trying to have one party member accomplish some task, you have to keep switching back to other party members and have them run down a corridor to give them a momentary reprieve from the rats.

Everything came to a head on one level where three of my characters, upon standing on three pressure plates, were warped into individual prison cells while the fourth character had to find a way to free them. Each of the small cells had rats in them, along with much-needed food and water fountains. So I'm desperately switching between characters, trying to get them to drink and stay away from their individual rats, while meanwhile rats are attacking all my other characters. I keep switching to the fourth character for a few seconds, but thanks to the game's horrible pathfinding, my rat-bitten characters keep dying while I futilely try to maneuver him through a small opening in the wall. I started to have one of those "what am I doing with my life" moments, and that's always a good sign that it's time to give up a game.
            
The characters end up in individual prison cells.
            
Judging by a hint guide in the June and July 1992 Amiga Power, quitting is the right decision. I left on Level 4 of ultimately 13 levels. The puzzles get harder and less intuitive, though admittedly some of them sound fun. On Level 8, there's one that involves standing characters on pressure plates in the order of the Zodiac. Level 9 has a champion battle with a minotaur. Level 7 is a giant maze--that must be fun with food and water constantly depleting. There are a number of puzzles that require light, or the absence of light, to trigger something, which is definitely a new take, but as I pointed out in the first entry, not really enough to sustain interest in a game on its own.

Throughout the game, you collect a series of "gateway keys," all of which have to be used on Level 11. After that, you face "the cave," and I'll quote the Amiga Power player directly:
             
Go through this area in darkness to get to the teleporter at the end. However, it has to be said, the odds are against you down here, with countless fire-breathing ghouls and a herd of minotaurs roaming about. If you do succeed against the beasts, exit via the teleporter and reappear on Level 13. Unfortunately, this was where nearly all of our boys got picked off by the fire-breathing ghouls, so only the warrior lived.
        
On Level 13, you kill the Overlord, "a shady looking bloke in a cloak," collect his key, use it to enter the Temple Room, and "that's it." The guide doesn't tell you what kind of an ending to expect, only that "it's a bit of an anti-climax." Having the party kill the Overlord seems to contradict the manual.
            
My warrior has a sword and buckler and has managed to get his combat level to 4. But he's about to start dying from a lack of food.
            
I can't imagine many players got this far. No one seems to have posted video of the endgame, so I'll offer a $25 Amazon gift card bounty for anyone who can reach the end and offer a quick guest post (or long comment) with their experiences and a link to the endgame video. Barring that, I preliminarily give it:
            
  • 3 points for the game world. It's a well-written story, but it's a framing story. It doesn't play any role in the game itself, or at least not in the part that I experienced.
  • 2 point for character creation and development. There are a few options, mostly cosmetic, in creation, although the ability to mix and match facial features may be a "first." Development consists of a digit occasionally added to combat or magic ability.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. One of those points is for the enemies, which seem to exist in two varieties: those that die in one hit, and those that kill you in one hit. They're not even named in-game. The other 3 points are for the puzzles, which in other ratings I included as a type of "encounter." That's as high as I'm willing to go for strictly mechanical puzzles, though.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. The combat system--select and attack--couldn't be more boring, but the magic system deserves some credit for the way you re-energize spells by sucking energy out of regular objects. I didn't get to experiment past "Light" and "Fireball," both of which performed adequately but were hard to target, especially the latter on moving enemies.
           
One level had several consecutive hallways with these female warriors.
          
  • 2 points for equipment. You get basically one weapon slot and one shield slot, and even then the weapon slot has to be continually vacated for other items. I upgraded from sticks to daggers to swords and axes during my exploration.
  • 2 points for the economy. It's not really a traditional economy, but you do find coins during your explorations that you can trade for hints or save to purchase the occasional item-filled treasure chest. (I had to read this in the hint guide; I never experienced it in-game.)
  • 2 points for a main quest with no side-quests, choices, or alternate endings.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The lighting effects are innovative for the time, but playing now the graphics in general look grainy and blocky. There are some fun sound effects, but also a lot of unexplained pings and dings that add nothing but confusion to exploration. The interface couldn't be worse--all-mouse, and even then with far more clicking than should be necessary to accomplish simple tasks, and with terrible responsiveness and pathfinding.
  • 0 points for gameplay. It's completely linear, non-replayable, too difficult (not "challenging," just difficult), too long, and too frustrating. There's absolutely nothing I like about it in this category.
           
That gives us a final score of 20, far lower than any commercial release should be rated in 1992.

Then again, we are talking about my own preferences here, and contemporary magazine reviews seem to have been written by the other kinds of people. The best comes from "Jonathan" in the April 1992 Amiga Computing. He rates it 94% and calls it a "bloody ace adventuring role-playing game" and even says (this ought to enrage everyone), "it even beats Dungeon Master, mainly because it's a lot more interactive." Whatever that means. But the text and screenshots don't show progress beyond the first couple of levels, calling into question his overall conclusions.

A lot of the reviews focus on the lighting effects (a system called "Photoscape" by the developer); Neil Jackson's 93% review in the April 1992 Amiga Format talks about almost nothing else. This makes sense for the era, the same way it makes sense for me not to be overly impressed with the same effects today. Paul Presley's March 1992 review in The One for Amiga Games manages to get the entire backstory wrong, but he actually made it to at least Level 8, so his 93% is based on a firmer foundation. He's one of the few reviewers to mention the rats, but he seems to regard them as more of a challenge than an annoyance.
               
The lighting effects are admirable, but only for a few minutes.
           
ACE gave it 92%, CU Amiga 91%. Non-English magazines were a little less charitable, ranging from 86% in the February 1992 Amiga Joker to a horrid 40% in the July 1992 German Play Time. In general, DOS reviews are far worse than Amiga reviews. (In separate reviews, the German Power Play gave the Amiga version 85% and the DOS version 74%.) Part of this is the graphics, praised by Amiga reviewers and criticized by DOS reviewers (I've watched videos of both and can't really see the difference), but part of it is that different audiences were looking for different things, and isometric puzzle-based games were just really popular in the U.K.

In the U.S., the always charitable Dragon gave it 4/5 stars in the April 1993 issue, calling the interface "frustrating" but admiring the lighting effects and overall gameplay. Robin Matthews' February 1993 review in Computer Gaming World is also positive, but in a weird way. Consider this paragraph:
            
Each of the four party members can be individually controlled and sent off on their own or in parties with other party members. This totally flexible approach means that several quests can be undertaken at any one time, or several different solutions applied to one puzzle at the same time. Combat also becomes very varied, as one can attack multiple enemies, attack from completely different angles, or even set complicated ambushes.
            
All of this sounds great, but actual gameplay in Shadowlands doesn't really support these options. There aren't "several quests" for party members to approach at the same time, nor are there really alternate solutions to puzzles (at least, as far as I can tell). The clunky combat controls--click on a character's arm, then try to click on a moving opponent, then try to repeat for the next character--don't really lend themselves to fine-tuning tactical combat. It's hard to imagine that Matthews isn't speaking entirely hypothetically. I would also note that I thought it was CGW's policy that reviewers had to complete the game, but all the screenshots in the review are from the first two levels, and none of the text suggests exposure to the deeper levels.

Elsewhere, she compares the interface to Darklands but calls it "much simpler and far more playable." That really makes me dread Darklands.

Not as much, however, as I dread Shadoworlds, the sequel to Shadowlands, released in the same year. The second game moves the action to a space station. I fired it up for a few minutes, and I'm pleased to see that they made at least some improvements to the interface. Not everything I would have hoped for, but some. There's only one character portrait on which to activate body parts, for instance, and if you switch between characters the activated body part stays active. You can now transfer items between characters' entire inventories and not just their lead hands. Walking seems a little easier. But there's still no keyboard support except for "pause" and "quit."

Shadowlands and Shadoworlds were designed by Dean Lester and programmed by Barry Costas, with art by Mark Anthony and sound by Matt Furniss. Although all of these individuals had reasonably long careers, with credits extending into the mid-2000s, none of them worked on another RPG before or after. Neither, for that matter, did Teque London or Domark.

If anything would have kept me going with this game, it's that the upcoming list is populated with stuff that just makes me groan. I have to get through a sequel to a mediocre TI-99 title, two Mac games, a porn game, and a French game before I get to anything that sounds encouraging. Lets hope one of these is surprisingly delightful in a way that Shadowlands, alas, was not.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: Career Changes

My party, members now in their permanent classes, confidently marches out of New City.
           
When I started this blog, if I referred to "rose-colored memories" of past games, I would have been referring to times I played games in the 1980s or 1990s, when I was young and the games were new. These days, on the other hand, I could use the phrase to refer to games I played at the beginning of this blog. Writing today, I haven't played any of the pre-Bradley Wizardry games in almost four years. Are my memories accurate? Is my admiration valid?

What I remember most about the original Wizardry, and to a lesser extent the second two scenarios, is a marvelous sense of tension in exploration and combat. Particularly since I was adhering to the series's use of permadeath, every step forward felt like a risk. The further you got away from the safety of the town level, the more your hit points dropped, the more you depleted your spell slots, the greater the odds were stacked against you. These considerations created a tactical landscape that went far beyond the strict combat mechanics. In deciding whether to try to wipe out your enemies with just a MAHALITO, or to double it up with a MODALTO from another caster, you had to think beyond the immediate combat. You had to worry about the next combat, plus all the combats in your backpath on the way to the surface. Your spell slots were precious resources. You wouldn't waste a high-level spell on an easy party, just to make combat go more quickly--you needed it for the unanticipated high-level group down the hall.

Wizardry VI completely upended the nature of combat tactics in the franchise while not significantly changing the combat mechanics themselves. You still plan everyone's action ahead of time, then execute them (in tandem with the enemies' actions) all at once. You still have limitations on spells, though "slots" have been replaced with magic points, and the spell system in general has been expanded. You still have a lot of variability in the difficulty of enemies that you encounter. The big difference is that you can save, and usually rest, in between combats. The focus is thus entirely on the individual combat rather than the entire landscape. It pays to err on the side of over-use of powerful spells just to make victory certain.

More about combat and magic in a minute, but let's take a moment to check in with the party, which has undergone some changes since I last blogged. Last time, I was wrestling with the game's class-changing system, including when and how often. Based on your comments, I realized that I had been thinking of it all wrong. I hadn't shaken myself out of Dungeons and Dragons (second edition) mode, where dual-classing can create powerful characters, but it pays to get as high as possible in the first class before dual-classing because afterwards you can only level in the second class. Here, that's not true. Once you acquire skills and spells, they're part of your repertoire forever, and you can keep adding points to them even if they don't make sense with your current class. A Dungeons and Dragons fighter who duals to a mage at Level 10 isn't a fighter at all anymore until she reaches Level 11 as a mage, and even then she's only kind of a fighter. In this game, even if you only spend one level as a mage, you're at least partly a mage forever.

(The one big exception here is that your current class defines what weapons, armor, and items you can use. Thus, it doesn't make sense to build someone's sword skills to high levels and then dual to a mage, who can't use a sword.)
           
Having been through several class changes, Esteban has a lot of weapon skills at his disposal, only some of which he can actually use as a bishop.
          
Thus, I began to think of my party more in terms of what skills I wanted the characters to have rather than literal classes. I spent some time changing, grinding, experimenting, and changing again, in some cases limited by minimum attributes, but generally able to acquire what I wanted. That included at least two characters with high-level mage abilities and at least four characters with healing abilities.

Ultimately, I wanted to end this session with my characters in their "final" incarnations (at least for most of the game). Every time you change a class, you reset the character's attributes to the minimum requirements for that class. It's tough to give up all that strength, speed, and so forth, and I imagine it's particularly tough later in the game, when your foes are harder. As thrilling as it is to level up, I'd rather do it less often but in pursuit of more heroic characters. 

One of my first changes was to make my thief a samurai. I can't really remember why. But once I did, she acquired the "Kirijutsu" skill, and I absolutely fell in love with it. Every point in the skill makes it more likely that the character will strike a critical hit in combat, instantly killing an enemy. I don't even care if the chance is really small; I just love that the chance s there. Thus, I cycled all my fighters through classes that imparted that skill, at least for a few levels. Three of them were able to change to ninjas for a while, which is a great choice because it has such high attribute requirements that, if you can make it in the first place, you don't lose as many of your accumulated points.
            
Gideon strikes a critical hit on a Savant Guard. This never gets old.
           
I advanced in my new classes mostly by grinding in New City. At first, I did this primarily by sleeping in the street, which seems to attract an enemy party about 25% of the time. Later, I realized that if I used the wrong item to try to open a door in one of the buildings (I don't even know what the right item is), it would reliably send at least one party of Savant Troopers or Savant Guards my way. These guys offer quite a bit of experience, but the problem is that they're tough enemies. Troopers have lances that can drain stamina and paralyze party members. If I got three parties of 5 Troopers each, I was toast. Nonetheless, it was worth the risk, and I learned a lot about my available spells during the process.

When I was done (and this all took me maybe 8 hours combined):
           
  • Gideon had cycled through several levels as a monk (that was a waste of time) and several levels as a ninja before ending up as a lord again.
  • Noctura got some mage spells as a samurai for a few levels before she had high enough attributes to change to her permanent ninja class (she had been a thief originally)
  • Bix went from a bard to an alchemist to, finally, a mage. I know that's not a lot of diversity, but the alchemist position at least afforded him some healing spells.
  • Svava went from a Valkyrie to a ninja to a ranger (that turned out to be mostly a waste) and back to a Valkyrie. I had to take her all the way to Level 9 as a ranger because it took forever to reach the Valkyrie minimums.
  • Esteban went from a priest to a ninja to finally end up where I wanted him as a bishop.
  • Prenele, who was already where I wanted her (alchemist) spent some time as a mage and a priest before returning her her original class.
       
I might have missed some. I seem to remember having someone as a psionic for a while before realizing the spells just weren't very good. In any event, I realize that not all of these changes made sense or ultimately served any strategic goal, but remember I was just experimenting, and the best part is that there's no real harm in trying out a class that doesn't ultimately work out. The worst that happens is you gained some skills that you don't bother to develop any further.
         
My Valkyrie mulls a class change. Her stats aren't good enough for lord, bishop, ninja, monk, psionic, or alchemist.
            
Just before I started changing classes, some of my higher-level fighters started to achieve extra attacks in combat. They had already been at a point where they often struck twice during a single attack, but eventually they reached a level where they'd get an extra couple attacks at the end of the combat round. The odd thing is that they retained these extra attacks even after they changed classes and were busted back to Level 1 again. So I'm not really sure what governs these extra attacks. I don't know, it's probably in the manual somewhere, but the frigging thing is 70 pages long.

The exercise accomplished my primary goal of making a stronger party. Now I have four characters with Kirujutsu, and thus a chance at critical hits every combat round. More important, I have three characters capable of some mass damage spells.

It took me a while to figure out the spell system, and I'm a little fuzzy on parts. Each character has what amounts to a "mana" bar, but that's a bit misleading because the bar is a composite of each individual status, and each individual maximum, within a variety of spell "realms." The realms (fire, earth, water, mental, air, and divine) are different from the spell "schools" (mage, alchemist, priest, psionic), each of which has multiple spells in each realm. Right now, my mage Bix has anywhere between a maximum of 22 points (divine realm) and 47 points (water realm) in each realm. His actual spells are a combination of those learned during his time as a bard, an alchemist, and a mage.

When you cast a spell, the number of points available in that realm depletes. Your overall mana bar may look great, but if you're out of points in the divine realm, there's no more healing. It takes a long time, or several sleep sessions, to fully restore points in a realm, so my characters basically end up cycling through them. One combat, my mage will favor earth spells, the next he'll focus on fire spells. It thus pays to have a couple of mass damage spells or a couple of incapacitation spells spread across multiple realms.

What I don't fully understand is what determines the number of points available to the realms. It's not based on your skills in the various magic schools, since those apply to all realms. (I think those points just determine what spells are offered to you at each level-up, but I'm not completely sure.) I think it has something to do with the literal number of spells you've taken in each realm. Thus, when leveling up, it sometimes pays to choose a spell you don't really care about, but in a realm in which you want more power.

When casting spells, you have the option to specify a multiplier, from 1 to 7, which is a major consideration. A "Fireball" cast at the base level of 1 only does 2-10 hit points of damage to 3 creatures in a group. Cast at Level 5, it does 10-50 hit points of damage to 8 creatures in a group--but of course it absorbs much more magic. The consideration is there even in status effects like "Cure Disease" and "Cure Paralysis." Not all disease, poison, paralysis, and other effects are created equal. You have to try to guess how strong it is and then override it with the right spell level.

Even here, there are things I don't understand. First, you can't cast a spell at Level 7 the moment you acquire it. But I'm not sure what determines what level you can cast it at. Your level in the class? Your skill? Your points in the realm? Some combination of these? It's not even consistent. My Level 4 mage can cast "Chilling Touch" (a water spell) at Level 4 but can only cast "Cure Paralysis" (also a water spell) at Level 2. I know, I know: read the manual. But it's really long and you guys will tell me what's happening within 10 minutes of this posting.
            
Some of Prenele's spell options. The dice indicate the spell level, including the nonsensical last die with seven pips on it.
           
During my grinding, I really learned to appreciate some of the non-damaging status effect spells. I had already been using "Sleep," "Hold Monster," and "Paralyze" quite liberally. The problem with these is that they only take an enemy out of commission for as long as you leave him alone. Once you attack him, the spell wears off. And since you can't specify particular enemies to attack (just a group), it's hard to keep everyone incapacitated. These work best when you're facing multiple groups and you want to sideline two of them so you can focus on one group at a time.

Usually, I go right for the mass damage spells. I have a lot of those now, spread across multiple characters and multiple realms. My favorite is "Acid Bomb," which damages everyone in a group and keeps damaging them for several subsequent rounds. But for causing more damage in a single round, I have (again, spread over multiple characters) "Magic Missile" (divine), "Whipping Rocks" (earth), "Fire Bomb" (fire), "Fireball" (fire), "Iceball" (water), and "Deadly Air" (air). I don't yet have any spells that damage all enemies in all groups, but they're coming.
             
A powerful mass-damage spell.
      
To get any serious power out of those spells, however, you have to cast them at high levels and sacrifice a lot of points. My spellcasters can only handle a couple of them before having to rest. What I've learned to appreciate are some low-level spells that cost less and greatly reduce the effectiveness of enemies. These include "Confusion," "Blinding Flash," and "Itching Skin." Usually, I don't like to waste time on spells that don't show me the effects directly (which is why I never waste a round on "Curse" in D&D games, for instance). But here, those effects are not subtle. When an enemy party goes from a 75% hit rate to a 75% miss rate in one round, you know "Itching Skin" is doing its job.

A lot of single-enemy damage spells were also enormously useful during this process. As I moved from class to class, I didn't always have the right set of weapons to equip my characters. Thus, spells like "Energy Blast," "Chilling Touch," and "Acid Splash," all of which affect only one enemy at a time, became acceptable alternatives to melee combat. Because they only affect one enemy at a time, they have low casting costs, and you can get half a dozen or so before you need to rest.

So that's been my last 8 hours. Now I feel better equipped to take on the unexplored areas. I'm still having no luck cleaning up those last few areas of New City, except one previously-locked door that yielded to a "Knock Knock" spell (and had a chest with some decent armor behind it), but by next entry I should have made a lot more progress on the main quest.
              
Time so far: 31 hours

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Game 305: Shadowlands (1992)

           
Shadowlands
United Kingdom
Teque London (developer); Domark Software (publisher)
Released in 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS
Date Started: 2 October 2018

Some of the games we've seen on my blog are timeless. They may have been developed 30 years ago or more, but they still appear on lists of games you have to play before you die. They're still enormously fun today, and not just in a retro way. I live for those games, and particular for finding ones that you didn't know about. That's only happened a few times.

Then there are the opposites: games that simply were never destined to age well. Those that should have been forgotten a few years after their release, only this is the Internet Age, when nothing is ever forgotten. Almost invariably, such titles depend largely on technological ideas that seemed brilliant and innovative at the time, but that are hopelessly old-fashioned by now. Shadowlands is the perfect example of this latter type of game. It has a few elements that were at least unusual, if not unique, for its day, and those are certainly worth a mention. But it's not 1992 anymore, and if your entire raison d'etre was dynamic lighting, you simply didn't have a long shelf life.

Shadowlands' very title is a nod to its primary innovation. The torches the characters carry cast pools of light in a radius around them. The pool stops at obstacles. The lighter is brighter nearer the character and dimmer farther away. The pool travels with the character and thus changes the effective color of the ground and wall tiles as the party moves. As the torch burns, the glow dims and eventually fades away entirely, leaving the characters in the dark if they don't constantly replenish their light sources by grabbing torches from sconces on the wall.
               
Dynamic lighting is the game's primary innovation.
            
These effects are so expected today that I had to read from other pages that Shadowlands did anything innovative in this regard. I mean, I guess I've never seen lighting effects exactly like this before, but certainly we've had some precursors. Way back in 1982, Dungeons of Daggorath simulated dwindling torches by having the very surroundings fade from view--and that was with wireframes. Ultima V and VI had the visible screen shrink at night and realistic line-of-sight. I can think of a number of games with torches or fireplaces that flicker and glow during cut scenes. This entire topic would make for an interesting special post some day, but honestly I'd have to go back and review games to research it, because until they get really good in the 2000s, marginal increases in lighting effects simply aren't something that you're likely to notice today. I'm compelled to note that Shadowlands' effects, however innovative, are still limited to illuminating a "radius" of square tiles rather than individual pixels. I don't say this to detract from the programming effort that went into it, but simply to suggest that you shouldn't try to build an entire game around a bit of technology that, while innovative, is also destined to be temporary. After the initial "huh" reaction, if you notice it at all, you're left with an annoying game that makes you micro-manage torches.

Shadowlands' second innovation is, alas, less obviously brilliant and basically sinks my enjoyment of the game. The idea must have seemed so brilliant when it came to whatever developer insisted on it. "Game interfaces are so complicated," he must have said. "There's too much stuff to memorize. Why not make it easier? You want the character to walk? Click on his legs! You want him to pick up stuff? Click on his hand! What could be more obvious?" And hence we have this game's interface, where each character is controlled by clicking on body parts and then the appropriate part of the map. To pick up a weapon on the ground, you click on the character's right hand and then the weapon. To read something, you click on his head and then the thing you want to read.
         
To open this door, I put the key in my hand, activate my hand, and click on the keyhole.
            
While I grant that I've never quite seen this approach before, a few things ought to have occurred to the developers. First, as obvious as it is to click a head to read and a hand to pick up, since you can't read weapons and you can't pick up signs, they could have saved a lot of trouble by just having you click on the object directly and had the game perform basically the only action you can perform with that object. There's nothing to do with a skeleton except to attack him. Why do I have to click on my left hand first?

Second, there's a difference between "easy to master" and "easy to play." This is a lesson that every developer who insisted on a mouse-only interface needed to learn. Yes, I picked up the interface in seconds. That still doesn't make it any less annoying than to have to click on a leg to walk, then walk to the torch, then click on the hand, then click on the torch. It would have been better to give me keyboard shortcuts for the type of action and leave the mouse for the location of the action. 

I don't know why developers of this era hated the keyboard so much. They must have seen it as an artifact of the 1980s. Maybe some of them got irked at having to play the Ultima games with a reference card next to them. What they forgot is that once you had played for about an hour, you'd memorized the commands on that reference card, and then you never had to think about the interface again. You played a game with the same facility that I just typed this sentence. That's a measure of a good interface. I know--and thank the gods this is true--that by the late 1990s, developers smartened up and stated pairing the mouse and keyboard as equal partners. Until then, a lot of these games are going to be tough to get through.

Beyond the mouse-only problem, the game's interface fails in a lot of other areas. You can't just click to walk across a room; the game won't let you click too far away from the character, and thus you have to mince across the landscape. You're limited to movement horizontally or diagonally by tiles, as if there's an invisible chessboard underneath the terrain, so the characters never take direct paths, nor can they walk through places that look like they have obvious gaps. And when the four characters move together, they get hung up on everything. You're constantly having to send the lead character back to pick up stragglers and to micro-manage their steps through doorways and around corners. To say that pathfinding is poor is to erroneously suggest that it has any at all.
                 
One character got left int he dark on the edge of a narrow doorway.
              
When you get past these issues, you're left with a typical British isometric puzzle-oriented game, the kind that premiered (apparently) in Knight Lore (1984), was made famous by Cadaver (1990), and acquired RPG status in Legend (1992) and now Shadowlands. The RPG elements are quite light. Characters have attributes and combat and magic levels that apparently increase through successful combat. Combat offers no real tactics.

Shadowlands' well-written backstory tells of the conquering of the peaceful nation of Koranos by the hordes of Cthul Tol Anuin, the undead Overlord from the Shadowlands. Koranos's Prince Vashnar was killed by the Overlord personally, but only after a disturbing episode in which his wife Tianna was raped by a fire demon and eventually succumbed to her consequent injuries. In his dying hour, Vashnar swore to take vengeance on the Overlord.

Now in the nearby Harbour Lands, adventurers of all kinds have been experiencing dreams of the fall of Koranos from various perspectives, including Vashnar's. These dreams are a call to action. Eventually, four of them accept the quest to venture to the Shadowlands, retrieve Vashnar's bones, and resurrect him on an altar in the Overlord's temple so he can fulfill his vow.

Every party consists of four characters--a warrior, a magician, a priest, and an orc. Each has preset values in combat ability, magic ability, strength, and health. You can "reroll" these, but there's a maximum value for the total ability score, so if you reroll better strength, you'll lose it in less health (or something else). You get to customize facial features for each character, with separate options for hair, eyes, nose mouth, and chin. While this is perhaps a "first," the only time the character portraits appear in the game is if the characters separate from each other.
          
The limited party-creation screen.
         
As you can see, the artwork is Japanese-inspired, credited to graphic designer Mark Anthony, "a fan of all things Japanese." The title screen is accompanied by an appropriate pentatonic composition. These themes don't really extend beyond the title screen and character portraits, however.

Gameplay begins in a small outdoor area. You can move characters independently or as a party, split parties, and ultimately get your characters quite far afield from each other. I'm sure that various puzzles will eventually require it.

Characters start with no inventory, but there are apples lying around the wilderness, plus a couple of sticks and one bow you can use as starting weapons. It's particularly important to pick up any food you see because you fight a constant battle with food and water meters. There are non-hostile crows flitting about. You can kill them, but I don't know if it helps your statistics. The leveling system is rather opaque, consisting only of a magic and combat level that occasionally increases behind the scenes.

A sign confirms that we're in "The Shadowlands"--I guess that's its official name, and not just some kind of nickname bestowed by its enemies. A nearby graveyard is marked with a sign calling it the "Field of the Fallen Heroes." Just north of that is a stairway down into a dungeon, where I'm guessing the rest of the game will be spent.
           
Nice to know I'm in the right place.
           
The first level of the dungeon had all the hallmarks of an introductory level, with lots of items to find and mostly-easy puzzles and enemies. It took me about an hour to get through the first time, learning the game's conventions, and about 40 minutes the second time. I chose to restart because the first time, I didn't realize that unless you purposefully extinguish them, torches continue to burn in your backpack, and thus no matter how many you pick up, you might reach the end of the level with no light.

Obstacles consisted of a few keyed doors, one door that required weighing down a pressure plate with an object, a door that opened with a hidden switch, one door that required each character to stand on a different plate, and one door that opened when a torch was dropped in front of some kind of statue.
             
Each character had to stand on a different plate to open this door.
            
The game quickly introduced a convention by which puzzles are preceded with coin slots in the wall. You can drop a variety of coins (found in the dungeon) into these slots to get signs with hints to pop up on nearby walls. The plaque next to the puzzle that required a torch in front of the statue, for instance, read "alight here to reach your next stop." The clue to hold down a pressure plate was "weight and see."
          
A hint alerts me to a hidden button nearby.
            
The level had a handful of patrolling skeletons. Most of them left me alone until I got very close. Fighting in Shadowlands requires you to click on a character's left hand--ideally holding a weapon--and then click on the enemy. The problem is if the enemy is in motion, it can be tough to get your click in the right spot. And if you want all characters to attack you have to repeat this for each character. (There's a pause function, but you can't issue orders during it.) Enemies and characters pound away at each other until dead. Health regenerates reasonably fast after combat, so it's individual battles you have to worry about, not the accumulation of them.
             
Preparing to attack a skeleton.
          
The first few skeletons were quite easy, but I encountered some towards the end of the level that I couldn't defeat without dying. I can technically walk past them, but skeletons often drop useful or even necessary stuff (like keys), and I'm worried I might miss something essential by leaving them alive.
         
The full-party death screen.
            
I accumulated a lot of torches and apples on the first level, plus three flasks that I filled with water at the many fountains (you can also drink directly from fountains). I suspect food, water, and light will be scarce on lower levels. I don't just suspect it, actually--the game documentation warns you of it. Theoretically, you could get through a level in the dark, I think, but you wouldn't be able to read anything and it would be hard to see items on the floor. It already is, even with light.

The game's magic system involves collecting and casting spells from scrolls. Scrolls can be assembled into magic books. Each scroll or book has a fixed amount of magic force, which is depleted when you cast a spell. In an interesting innovation, you regain magic force by draining it from everyday objects like sticks and food (which makes the object less effective) and then channeling it into the book or scroll. It thus makes sense to thoroughly drain objects before discarding them. I've only found one scroll so far, so I haven't really had a chance to explore the system.
          
This stick has 26 "force points" that I can transfer to my "Energy" bar.
          
All told, Shadowlands is a game with some interesting ideas, but the nature of the interface and the blunted combat system are going to make a long game tough to tolerate. I'll give it at least a few more dungeon levels, partly because I want to see how the puzzles grow in difficulty. Up next, it's long past time to check in with Crusaders of the Dark Savant.

Time so far: 3 hours