Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Game 352: Dungeons of Avalon II: The Island of Darkness (1992)

This screen is the same in both the German and English versions.
Dungeons of Avalon II: The Island of Darkness
Zeret (developer); published by CompuTec Verlag (German) and Amiga Mania (English)
Released in 1992 for the Amiga
Date Started: 7 January 2020
It was over three years ago that I played the frustrating Dungeons of Avalon (1991), which exceeded the typical diskmag game (a game that was distributed via an electronic magazine) in technical quality. But I wasn't able to win it, first because the final battle was unbelievably hard--I can't imagine anyone winning it "straight"--and second because even when I cheated to win the final battle, I couldn't get any flag to trip to show me the endgame screens. Said screens did exist in the game, as attested by the various files.

So the ending was a bit of a downer, but the gameplay experience until then was very good, and we find the same experience in Dungeons of Avalon II. As far as I can tell, the game mechanics, graphics, and sound haven't changed at all between the two versions. The only thing that's changed is the layout of the dungeon and the ostensible reason for being there.
The German version supplies the backstory.
The games look a lot like Dungeon Master and indeed follow some Dungeon Master protocols when it comes to door switches and navigation puzzles. In everything else, however, they are much more products of the Wizardry lineage. In particular, enemies can't be seen in the environment--you just stumble upon them--and combat is run by having each character specify an action and then watching as they execute in conjunction with the enemies' actions. In their use of grotesque graphics and ambient sound, the Avalon games arguably exceed the best commercial Wizardry derivatives of the era.

I had expected to import characters between the games, so I was glad to see that the sequel starts things over with a new party. It takes place 49 years after the defeat of the Dark Lord in the first game. Avalon has become an empire and expanded to the sea and beyond. On one of its islands, evil has befallen the city of Isla. Monsters have appeared out of nowhere, overwhelming the trading port and slaughtering the city guards. The mayor, Roa, has written to the king for help. The king has dispatched several parties of soldiers and mages to the city, but none have returned. Finally, in desperation, he organizes one more small party, hoping they can succeed where the others failed.

The backstory specifies that "five heroes were chosen . . . two fighters and three magicians," which conflicts with the fact that you can create a party of six and you're not in any way limited by class. The races and classes haven't changed. Races are human (mensch), elf, half-elf (halb-elf), dwarf (zwerg), troll, "gnom," "lizzard" (echse), and "stembär," the last an homage to music composer Rudolf Stember. Classes are fighter (krieger), thief (dieb), knight (ritter), hunter (jäger), monk (mönch), magician (magier), healer (heiler), and wizard (hexer), the last four equipped with spellbooks as well as melee weapons.
Creating a new character.
Once you specify race and class during creation, the game automatically rolls for intelligence, dexterity, wisdom, luck, strength, and constitution, modified by race. You can spend a lot of time re-rolling, but these attributes increase between 2 and 11 points per level anyway. Character portraits are automatic based on class and always seem to look human. All are male.

Even though I didn't play with them--I never do--I noted that the default party starts at Level 3, which puts them at a major advantage over a party that you create yourself. 

I went with:
  • Armin, a human knight
  • Fomorus, a troll fighter
  • Ferry, a half-elf thief
  • Jolson, a dwarf monk
  • Aurion, an elf magician
  • Taliesin, a lizzard wizard
I had a tough time getting things started. There are multiple German and English versions of the game on the web, some "patched" in some way, others not. I started with a WHDLoad version of the English edition, but halfway through Level 1 I ran into some problems--the same problems that a period reviewer found when he tried to play the game. It essentially had to do with the wrong encounters showing up in the wrong squares, making it impossible to pass those squares.
The shopowner is proud of his limited wares.
I couldn't find any English version in which that problem had been repaired, so I switched to a "patched" German version (although I don't know if that's one of the things it patched), which meant starting over with new characters and losing a couple of hours of progress. Fortunately, the game is not that text-heavy, and I can read a lot of it without needing a translator, thanks to previous German RPG experience. Also, a lot of the text is in English even in the German version, including the title.
Not only is this encounter in the wrong place, he doesn't actually give you a key.
There are 10 levels of 32 x 32 to explore (with worm-tunnel walls), divided into two structures: the dungeon and the Tower of Roa. (The first game had 50 x 50 levels, but fewer of them.) A menu town with a shop, a temple, and a training guild sits outside.

Exploration is not entirely "open," but it's less linear than the typical dungeon crawler. Each level has multiple sections, some disconnected from the others, and at any given moment you're probably looking for at least three keys, objects, puzzle solutions, or other necessities to uncover different areas.
You have to check all walls for these little floor buttons. Pressing them removes the wall.
The levels also wrap, which always disappoints me. Wrapping dungeon levels give you a momentary navigation pause, but they otherwise offer little extra challenge to justify tearing the player out of any sensible reality.
My map of Level 2 of the main dungeon. Note the north/south wrap on column 8.
The levels are full of the types of light puzzles I remember from the first game. Small grates at the bottom threshold of the walls indicate secret doors; sometimes you have a dozen of these in a sequence. Other secret doors are revealed by pressure plates or wall switches. There are teleporters, traps, spinners, magic barriers, and occasional "ice floors" that send you careening down long hallways with no ability to stop. Fortunately, a group of spells keep you oriented and solve most of the navigation issues, including "Vogelblick" ("Birds' View") "Magier Auge" ("Magic Eye"), and "Falkenfeder" ("Levitation").
The game's automap is quite good, though not enough that I could rely on it exclusively.
Combats occur at fixed locations (with no respawning), but most have random compositions. Sometimes, you lose to two groups of three zombies, reload, and face a single skeleton on your second try. You don't see the enemies themselves in the environment, but there are very feint blue lines on the tiles where a fixed combat is going to occur; whether this is intentional or some kind of side-effect of the game's coding is unknown. Fighting follows a Wizardry model in which only the first three characters can attack in melee range. You specify actions for each character and watch them execute (threaded with the enemies' actions) all at once. One nice thing is a "quick combat" option that just runs through the actions without narrating the results. At the end of combat (whether you win or flee), you get a little summary of who did and took how much damage, and how experience and gold were allocated. The only other game I remember ever offering such a feature is the German Legend of Faerghail (1990).
Combat options when attacking a "pest baby" include attacking, using an object, casting a spell, and defend.
The game strikes a good balance in difficulty. It allows you to save anywhere, but you can only camp (to recover health and magic points) on rare fixed squares that have an emblem with the letter "C." You have to keep spell points in reserve to handle the occasional blindness, poison, disease, or petrification.
Final statistics after a battle with an "invisible."
There's been some nice ambient sound--creaks and groans and moaning wind as you explore the dungeon corridors. Unfortunately, it's a bit repetitive and can't be turned off independently from the music, which is well composed but (as always with me) unwelcome. Thus, I have been playing mostly in silence. 

Perhaps the best part of the game is the grotesque monster portraits and other unusual graphics. The graphics are credited jointly to Hakan Akbiyik, Frank Matzke, and Klaus Ehrhardt. I've checked out their individual portfolios and don't see anything quite the same as the Avalon games, so I'm not sure who to credit.
The authors' conception of a "zombie."
This dragon wants a "dragon stone."
This "voodoo man" might be considered a little "questionable" today.
Unfortunately, the game has a lot of negative points, too:

1. I don't care for the controls much. Too much depends on the mouse. You can move with the arrow keys but not activate doors or switches. Number keys open the characteristics of the characters, but you then have to use the mouse to switch to inventories or exit. When you're given numbered commands on the screen, you can't activate them with the number keys--you have to click on them. Things like that add up.

2. As with its predecessor, characters in Dungeons of Avalon II start hitting their level caps with two or three game levels left to go.

3. There might as well have been no economy. After you equip your characters at the beginning, the only thing to spend money on is the occasional temple healing and leveling up. For your first 4 or 5 character levels, you're chronically under-funded and almost always waiting for enough gold to advance half your party. Pretty soon, the situation reverses and you have tens of thousands of gold pieces.
If you don't get diseased or killed much, money doesn't have a purpose.
4. It's too goddamned long, particularly where the encounters leave you no reason to fight once you've hit the level cap except that all the encounters are fixed. A diskmag dungeon crawler of this skill would have been perfect at 12-16 hours. Instead, I think it's going to come very near to 40.

As the game begins, you can enter either the dungeon on Level 0 or the Tower of Roa on Level 5. But the part of the Tower that you enter takes you only a short distance before you run into either locked doors or an encounter with a giant named "Argha" who wants you to bring him a dragon to grant passage.

You thus have to explore a while in the main dungeon. The game follows European hotel tradition by designating the first floor "0" and the second floor "1." Level 0 is full of long, snaky corridors with a lot of false walls that have to be opened with switches. In the far southern corridor is a teleporter that takes you to a central area with four pressure plates (and four camping squares), the combinations of which determine which corridors are open at which times. The pressure plate is preceded by message squares that say "BEAM ME UP SCOTTY" in the German version but misspell "BEAM" as "BAEM" in the English version.

The northern half of the level is suggested as a "jail" with numerous cells curving off the main corridor, most hosting fixed combats. A guardian blocks the way to this area until you give him a letter of invitation, which is found in a treasure chest to the southeast.

Monsters on Level 0 are mostly giant turtles and giant frogs, neither of which has any special attacks. They ease you nicely into the combat system.
A freaky-looking turtle.
Two of the "cells" have special encounters. A dragon is looking for a "dragon stone" for some reason. A group of thieves offers to trade a key for their freedom, although I neglected to write down what I had to do to achieve their freedom. Their key ends up opening the "map rooms" in the Tower of Roa, allowing some further progression on its first level.
Some thieves complain about being locked up.
A teleporter brings the party to a long north/south corridor that leads to the stairs to Level 1. There, things get more complicated. A small, winding corridor leads you immediately to the stairs to Level 2, which you must nearly fully explore before you find stairs back up to Level 1.

The main part of Level 1 is presented as a rectangular hallway with six crypts jutting to the east and west. The crypts belong to royalty of ages past--kings and queens and princes of Avalon, Isodor, and the Isle Rachon. A couple of them are answers to later puzzles that otherwise block progress. One of the kings is given as the king of "ZD and CT," which is I assume a reference to Zeret and CompuTec.
Zouth Dakota and Connecticut?
In a chest deep in the level, you find the first truly good equipment. Until then, you've mostly been stuck with the stuff you bought at the beginning, plus perhaps a few scrolls, potions, and regular missile weapons for the rear characters. Here, you find Arc's Helmet and Ara's Armour, Arc and Ara being heroes of ages gone. Mysteriously, you also find a few treasure chests that go into your inventory as whole chests. I've tried everything, and I don't think there's any way to open them. I think maybe you're just expected to sell them whole.
What am I supposed to do with these damned chests?
I'll stop there so I have something to talk about next time. I poured hours into this game over the weekend, hoping to finish it for a single entry, but it was to no avail. Cross your fingers and hope I can win this one.

Time so far: 24 hours

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Realms of Arkania: The Long and Winding Road

Taking a mountain trail between two cities.
I spent most of this session wandering the sea lanes, trails, riverways, and mountain passes between various towns, on what has become a clear quest to collect various map pieces and other bits of intelligence about Hyggelik's resting place. In its outdoor explorations, the map recalls Curse of the Azure Bonds, where you had fixed travel routes between towns (some of them interesting, some of them boring) which you selected and watched your party move on its own, and upon which various events could divert the party for a while. I gather that Arkania offers a mix of fixed and random encounters whereas Curse's were mostly fixed.

Arkania's encounters tend towards the type of text-driven interface that I complained about in Tunnels & Trolls (and did not, perhaps paradoxically, complain about in Darklands). There have been a couple of occasions in which my progress along the road was broken by the discovery of a cave or dungeon, but most of the time I've been asked to read a few paragraphs and select my options from a list. I won't know until later in the game whether I think it used text for too many encounters, as Trolls did, or whether it achieves a better balance.
The game offers a lot of these textual encounters as you cross the map.
One of the things I like about Arkania's system is the palpable tension that these encounters engender thanks to the limited saving system. As we've covered, the game docks every character 50 experience points when you save outside of a temple, and in between towns there are limited opportunities to even take advantage of that penalty. When you haven't saved since the last temple an hour ago, you're a lot more careful in your choices. You start to sweat some of the skill- and attributed-based challenges, as well as (of course) the combats. When I was writing about Camelot, I forgot to discuss the delightful sense of fear the game imparts when you're exploring a level or two above your head. Arkania evokes some of those same feelings.

Combat has gotten a little easier as I understand the tactics better, as I leveled up, and as I poured spell points into the "Fulminictus" offensive spell. I concede to my readers who argued that the keyboard interface works well once you get used to it, although I still don't see any excuse for not mapping each distinct action to a unique key, nor for the inability to attack on the diagonal, nor for the way that the arrow keys work differently depending on whether you're moving or attacking. I'm also having a unique-to-me colorblindness problem where I find it hard to distinguish party members from enemies (especially when they're standing in a cluster) or even see the thin outlining on the floor tile when it's selected.
Fighting some goblins. The battle wasn't too hard, but it's hard for me to distinguish what's happening in that blob of characters and enemies.
But the worse problem is that combats are just too frigging long. Enemies and characters should both hit and damage each other more often. Even in the rare cases in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion and I use "computer controlled combat," I mostly just sit there and watch for a quarter of an hour as the characters and enemies bang against each other to no avail.

I confess that I have been a bit spell-lazy. The spell system in Arkania is one of the more complicated ones that we've seen, with virtually no overlap with, say, Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, the creators of The Dark Eye system seem to have deliberately created as opposite a system as possible. Making things worse, the manual is extremely sparse in this area and doesn't describe the effects of the spells. (Yes, I know there are external resources.) There are 12 spell categories (e.g., "Combat," "Demonology," "Movement," "Illusion") and four spell "lore" categories (magician, elf, druid, and witch), and about 80 total spells. It isn't as simple as druids are good at "Demonology" and magicians are good at "Combat." Rather, within the "Demonology" category, druids specialize in "Banish Spirits" and "Conjure Spirits," magicians specialize in "Blood and Furor, Deadly Fate" and "Heptagon and Eye of Toad," and witches and warlocks specialize in "Summon Crows."

But theoretically any spellcasting character can cast any spell, if they put the points into it. Every character has an individual rating with each spell that can be increased during level-ups. The manual suggests that if a spell isn't in your "lore" category, it can't be used in combat, but I know that's not true because everyone seems capable of casting "Ignifaxus Lance of Fire" in combat and that's a magician-specific spell.

A lot of spell names are impenetrable: "Solididrid's Rainbow Hue," "Witch's Knot," "Odem Arcanum Sensum Such." The game manual encourages you to "experiment," but here we run into the final issue: spellcasters are nerfed more in Arkania than any RPG I can remember. Even at Level 3, I can cast maybe three spells per combat before my characters are out of spell points. And spell points regenerate much more slowly than hit points--only 2 or 3 per night's rest. Spellcasters need to be melee fighters, too, to pull their weight. Because of all of this, I've only been slowly experimenting with new spells, spending most of my points on "Ignifaxus Lance of Fire," which I know does its job.
Fighting a druid, harpies, and direwolves. Bramele is nominally an elf, but her magic has almost run out, so now she needs to be a fighter.
Most of my characters have leveled up twice now, which is an interesting and long process. First, you get to increase one of your "good" attributes by 1. Then you get to try to decrease one of your "bad" attributes (avarice, acrophobia, etc.) by one. None of the bad attributes have been much of a bother yet, so I've just been decreasing the highest ones. It fails about 50% of the time. The game then randomly rolls for boosts to your magic resistance, health, and magic points.
My dwarf tries to take the edge off his natural greed.
Then you get to assign about 20 skill points to your various skills, but there are a lot of restrictions. It seems that each weapon skill can only be advanced once per level-up (very annoying) and most other skills can only be advanced twice. I've been using the process to make each character stronger at his strengths rather than trying to improve his weaknesses, but even under that philosophy you end up sinking extra points into questionable skills like "Carouse" and "Train Animals." Attempting to increase a skill fails about 33% of the time and it's always annoying when it does.

Magic-users also go through a phase where they get 20 or 30 points to advance their various spells, but again the same rules are in effect by which you can only increase each spell by 2 points per level-up, no matter how low it is to start. Some spellcasters--or maybe just one; I don't feel like checking the manual--have the ability to swap skill boosts for spell boosts or vice versa.
My elf gets better at a combat spell. Notice how poorly she takes to the warlock's "Terror Boom."
Failing your increases is so frustrating, and the random rolls for health and mana increases are so variable, that there would normally be a huge incentive to save-scum the process. In practice, that would be really hard. You're prompted to level-up as soon as you cross the experience point threshold, so you'd have to save before the battle that gave you the experience in the first place, then fight it again with no guarantee that you'd do better the second time. Thus, I've just been accepting what happens. I do generally like the process and feel that the characters are getting notably stronger.
A nice reward for the druid battle.
I have been disappointed in my progress when it comes to weapons and armor. This seems to be one of those "realistic" RPGs where once you've purchased your base items, they don't change much unless something breaks. In 10 hours of play, I've only had a few item "upgrades." I wasted time chasing a tavern lead that "this Tulamidian in Overhtorn, Kherim Al Sherammi, only stocks the finest quality [weapons and armor]," but I didn't find anything spectacular when I visited his shop.

There's a "survivalist" element to exploration that I have mixed feelings about. Very often, I'm faced with an encounter that requires some kind of skill or attribute check and/or some kind of inventory check. For instance, we reach a cliff face that's climbable if every party member has a rope or sufficient skill in "Climbing." Or we're sneaking up on a party of enemies and can either trust our "Sneak" skill or the "Silentium" spell. Or we're crossing a high rope bridge and someone misses an acrophobia check and begins to freak out; we can either blindfold him or cast "Bambaladam" to make him trust us long enough to lead him across.
Climbing a cliff face. Either my skill or my rope is responsible for my success.
These occasional inventory checks have made me paranoid about what I'm not carrying. I have some ropes, a couple of pry bars, a hammer, and blankets and extra shoes for each character. But the general store sells fishing hooks, climbing hooks, drinking horns, recorders, cutlery, flasks, shovels, nets, throwing hooks, oil, mirrors, rope ladders, quills, scrolls, hoes, and dishes among other things. Do I really need to load up with all of these possibilities? Even worse, I suspect every character needs some of these things for success to be viable.
Which of these many items do I need to buy?
There are a couple infuriating parts of this skill/spell/inventory check system during encounters. First, the game often asks me who will do something without giving me any ability to check and remind myself who has the highest skill or spell level in a particular area. I can barely remember who's what class, let alone who has the highest skill in "Camouflage." Second, the game often requires the lead character to have the necessary skill or item. That's not a huge problem (although it's still annoying) when you're in town or a dungeon and you can easily re-arrange the characters. But you can't change the order of characters on the road. This led to a ridiculous situation in which the slain Gorah left a locked treasure chest behind, but I wasn't able to open it because the character who had lockpicks (and lockpicking skill) wasn't in the lead. I had to abandon the chest and go all the way back to the nearest town to swap the party order and then go back to Gorah's lair, spending about 5 days in the process. At least the chest was still there.
In contrast, it has not been a big issue (so far) to manage hunger and thirst. A good meal at an inn or tavern refills both meters and lasts for a couple of days. Only a few trips have taken longer than that, and a few backpack rations easily manage the remainder. The game keeps giving me opportunities to hunt for dinner, but I haven't really had to explore that option yet. Perhaps later there will be more extended wilderness trips.
Camp options at night. I've never needed to "replenish stocks."
I had ended the last session in Felsteyn, which was at the head of its river. My furthest-north lead was in Vidsand, so I thought I'd go there and then make my way back south. The path out of Felsteyn led through the mountains to Orkanger. On the way, I ran into problems. A fixed encounter has the party find the corpse of a traveler slain by brigands. On his body, they find a document.
A fixed encounter between two cities.
While they search, a group of brigands attacks. There are options to flee and bargain, but they didn't work well for me. I found myself in an inevitable and difficult combat. When it was over, it was followed immediately by another combat. Then (before you've had a chance to save or even read the document), the game has you stumble upon the brigand camp. Yes, you have an option to sneak away, but it just doesn't feel right.
The resulting brigand battle in the narrow mountain pass.
I know that my obstinacy isn't the game's fault, but the end result is that I beat myself against it until I finally won those three combats in a row, which took more than half of this session's length. The final victory led to my first round of level-ups.

As for the document, it said:
The unicorn knows many ways to help you. He can even recover lost items, if he himself believes them to be of importance. In doing so, he is faster than the wind.
(This led me to a mental digression about unicorns, because they seem prominent in German games specifically. I didn't actually research the matter, but I thought of the various ways that unicorns have been portrayed in media, and it made me think that in Anglo culture, we've basically infantilized them, making them delicate, fey creatures voiced in lilting, worried tones by Mia Farrow, whose horns are a combination between hood ornaments and magic wands--whereas portrayals in continental culture seem to retain unicorns as, first and foremost, horses, with horse strength and horse appetites--carnal beasts whose horns are metaphorically penises and practically lances. Am I on to anything or is it just selective memory?)

The game grew a bit insidious at this point, having me next encounter a cave. I know now that I could have continued on to Orkanger, saved at a temple, and then turned around to go back and explore the cave. But at the time, I thought it might be a non-repeatable encounter, so I checked it out. It led me to a small dungeon map with several random and fixed battles with goblins, who thankfully aren't that hard. Still, I started to get nervous about how long it had been since the last temple, so I sucked up the 50-experience point loss and I saved. Thank the gods. Moments later, the party was torn apart by some "giant stagga" (they look like giant ants) and I had to reload. I avoided that combat--I hate not being able to fully clear an area--looted the goblin's treasure, and returned to the road.
This is not the sort of option you want to see when you've won three battles in a row and haven't saved in an hour.
Backpacks bursting, we arrived in Orkanger to find that the small town had no weapons shop. But the inn was welcome, and there was a temple to save. We continued on the trail to Clanegh, which also had the same paucity of retail. We finally found a weapons shop and unloaded ourselves in Tyldon. From there, we followed the road to the coastal town of Vidsand.

In Vidsand, we met Ragna Firunjasdotter, who after some conversation showed us her piece of the map to Hyggelik's tomb. She wouldn't give us the piece, just show it to us. So later, when we got a third piece, Ragna's piece did not appear on the resulting map image. I don't know if that means it was a waste of time or not. In real life, I'll be able to make a composite of the map from the various images, but I'm not sure if the game will require me to have the whole thing.
With another piece of the map.
Ragna gave me some more names, one of which I'd already visited (Isleif in Felsteyn). This made me wonder if all these NPCs aren't supposed to have maps, and perhaps whether they show or give them to you is a result of skill checks for various social skills. It thus made me think I should perhaps have been saving before each encounter and better ensuring that I had the right party member in the lead. On the other hand, perhaps the game is generous in the number of NPCs who possibly have maps, thus giving you a chance to screw up one or two of the encounters. I wouldn't mind an explicit hint in this area, because if I've put myself in a "walking dead" situation, I'd like to know.
I wonder if I've made the wrong decision in places like this.
From Vidsand, I hopped on a ship that circled a little bay: Vidsand to Liskor to Tjanset. After a wasted visit to the armorer in Tjanset, we took a mountain path to the town of Orvil, where we had a lead on an NPC named Unbrik Sevenstones. Outside Orvil, we saved a shepherd from some direwolves (easiest combat in the game so far), and the shepherd told us of a "foul druid" named Gorah who has been charming wild beasts and sending them against the people of the various towns.
I think Baldur's Gate II re-uses this plot.
In Orvil, Unbrik would only help us if we agreed to kill Gorah and return with his rune bone. Unbrik told us that he was about a day outside of town but didn't specify which direction. We tried south, on the way to Skjal, as we had to go to Skjal anyway, and we got lucky along the way and found Gorah. (Or perhaps Gorah lies along whatever road you choose.) We approached his lair with the "Silentium" spell and attacked him with his group of direwolves.
What I wouldn't give for a "Fireball" right now.
We defeated him without too much trouble even though he summoned a couple of harpies to join the battle. Most of the party leveled up a second time. We had to return to Orvil and come back again because the only character with lockpicks wasn't in the front of the party. From the druid's chest, we looted the rune bone as well as some other herbs and potions.
One day, I'll have to learn what all those herbs do.
Unbrik had another piece of the map and a couple more names. From Orvil, we turned around and went to Skjal, where Jurge Torfinsson gave us yet another map piece. Unfortunately, we were unable to find Swafnild Egilsdotter, a pirate who I heard hangs around the Skjal port.

On an overland path from Skjal to Ottarje, we found a faint trail heading off into the forest. Something appeared to have been dragged along the path. We followed it to a cave blocked by a giant spider's web, which we cut to gain entry. I had to stop playing at this point, so I sacrificed the 50 experience points to save at the mouth of the cave. I'll explore it next time.

As I reached the end of this session, the list of places and people to visit has grown to:
  • Ottarje: Hjore. I realized while I was composing this entry that this is the name of the shepherd I rescued outside Orvil, not far from Ottarje.
  • Some port or another: Swafnild Egilsdotter, a pirate
  • Brendhil: Tiomar Swafnildsson (are they related?)
  • Phexcaer: Gerbald
  • Hjasingor: Algrid Trondesdotter
Miscellaneous notes:
  • I didn't record what the game was asking me to confirm at this moment, but it's fun to speculate on the possibilities.
  • I don't know why the developers made travel routes dependent on specific exits from the town. It doesn't add anything to the game except time.
  • Because favored weapons have a decent chance of breaking in combat, it's a good idea to carry more than one weapon and to have each character specialize in more than one weapon type--that way, you're more likely to be able to press a looted weapon into service.
  • In any given city, about 80% of the houses are just regular citizens' houses. About half of these have an angry citizen who throws you out. The other half are unoccupied, and the game gives you a chance to burgle them. For role-playing reasons, I haven't been doing that, but after a recent save, I decided to try to see what happens. The answer is nothing. In about 8 attempts, I simply found empty rooms. I wonder if this option ever becomes necessary or lucrative.
A completely uninteresting game option.
  • One area of the game that I've left completely unexplored is herbology. I occasionally run into an herb-seller in town, I have a character high in the "Herb Lore" skill, and the game gives an option to search for herbs when you camp at night. Despite this, I've only just now bothered to scan the manual for what these herbs can do. 
  • A couple of wilderness encounters have led to the party sneaking up on enemies and observing them from afar. These encounters have offered the option to "rain a hail of arrows on the enemies"--which I think has been effective despite the fact that I haven't been keeping bows and arrows in the party.
I'm pretty sure I don't have a bow, so unless I'm arranging the arrows on the ground to spell out "HELLO," I'm not sure what this option is doing here.
My takeaway from this session is that I haven't really been enjoying Realms of Arkania but it's mostly because I haven't been fully engaging it. I've been playing it like it's a different RPG. I need to take time to learn the spell system and the herb system, find a more effective way to manage my inventory, and re-read the manual in general.

Time so far: 15 hours

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Game 351: Morton's Fork (1980)

I originally had this as a 1981 game, but a commenter found an ad selling the title in 1980.
Morton's Fork
United States
Chameleon Software (developer and original publisher); Adventure International (later publisher)
Released 1980 (or perhaps 1979) for TRS-80 and Apple II
Date Started: 9 January 2020
Date Ended: 9 January 2020
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Morton's Fork is the third game in the series generally called Maces & Magic, after Dungeon (1979; later called Balrog or Balrog Sampler) and Stone of Sisyphus (links to my coverage). It's been difficult to reconstruct the history of the company even though I spoke to one of its principals, Richard Bumgarner, back in 2013. Chameleon was the moonlighting gig of three Indianapolis-based medical professionals, including x-ray technician Bumgarner. From what I can figure, they conceived of the series in the late 1970s and may have produced and marketed all three games before they struck a publishing deal with Scott Adams' Adventure International. The first game was originally called Dungeon but later acquired the (nonsensical) Balrog or Balrog Sampler names from AI. Adventure International also seems to be the source of the Maces & Magic series name, although it appears nowhere except on the game packaging. [Edit: Commenter Jason Dyer found an ad for the game from 1980, pre-Adventure International, that uses the "Maces & Magic" series name.] AI also gussied up the title screens a bit, removing the jokes that the creators had placed and (of course) adding the AI name and logo.
A later version of the main screen, from the Apple II edition.
I've spent years trying to find a working version of Morton's Fork--all three games are notoriously unstable--and the one I was finally able to play lacks the AI logo on the title screen. It's possible that all three games were produced and marketed as early as 1979 and that the 1981 date is from when they were re-distributed by AI, but so far I haven't been able to find any magazine evidence of Chameleon selling the second two games directly.
A 1981 ad for the Adventure International releases of the three titles.
Even if Morton's Fork had a 1981 release date, its technology is essentially the same as the first game in the series. All three games play exactly the same way, just with different scenarios and puzzles. All three are RPG/text adventure hybrids in which the goal is to collect a fixed number of treasures in a large environment and then find your way out of the game. A mutable hero and wandering monsters are blended with fixed landscapes and unchanging puzzles. The hero could theoretically be swapped between games as if they were "modules" in a traditional RPG experience. The games are thus somewhat like Eamon (1980) but without the central "hub" disk.
A leaflet in the game encourages the player to buy the other games.

All three start the same way. The player creates a character and the game rolls for strength, luck, dexterity, intelligence, constitution, and charisma. The character is assumed to be a warrior, or a warrior/thief, as there is no magic in the game. After creation, the player is given a chance to purchase weapons and armor from a very long list of obscure terms, apparently created by a doctor who had an encyclopedia or something. You are limited in what you buy by gold and encumbrance.

Dungeon and Stone of Sisyphus had the player explore dungeons with pan-cultural themes, including a hippodrome, an Egyptian room, and an Arabian desert. Fork moves the action to a large castle. The box says that it's a "wizard's castle," but in-game there's no hint of a wizard. The goal is simply to loot it of as much treasure as possible.
All of the Maces & Magic games feature absurdly detailed weapon and armor lists.
Morton's Fork begins a bit differently from the other titles by including a "good luck" screen as the game begins. Although it seems full of cliches, it is in fact full of hints. For instance, the advice to "lift your spirits; you may pry some of the secrets loose" is a hint to drink with an NPC in the castle's cellar. "Keys to hidden riches may take many forms" is a clue to use a hairpin as a lockpick. "You must know when to hide your light and when to let it spring forth" refers to a section of game where you have to light a torch to navigate a dark hallway, but then extinguish it to avoid getting attacked by bats. "Paint a rosy future for yourself and doors may open" is the clue needed for the endgame.
A pre-game text screen full of spoilers.
The game eases you into its journey with a long path leading to the castle. You find a token, and then on the next screen a pedestal with a slot. This lowers the drawbridge. You find an iron bar and then a rock with a bunch of scratches; prying the bar reveals a passcode that you must give to the butler when you first arrive. Once you reach the castle's entry, the game opens up and you can flexibly explore and acquire treasures.
An early puzzle. The number is randomized for each new game.
The text quality is good, if not as verbose as Infocom games of the period. Inputs are also much more limited. On any given screen, the game gives you numeric inputs for what you can do and where you can go, so you never waste a lot of time typing verbs and nouns that have no effect. The only exception is that on any screen, you can use an item from your inventory, typing a simple (and usually obvious) keyword to specify what you want to do. Thus, you enter a dark room. In addition to following the game's suggestions to (1) leave or (2) feel your way down the corridor, you can also hit "P" to open your pack, choose the torch, and type LIGHT or IGNITE or any of several synonyms. Most of the game's puzzles are about using the right inventory item in the right place.
A typical text screen with numbered choices.
There are fixed combats with certain enemies as well as random combats with guards that roam the corridors. Combat is executed automatically, with your attributes and weapon strengths aggregated into a single combat score and then pitted against your enemy's. Opponents lose hit points (constitution) each round until one of them dies. 
Combat with some castle guards.
It's relatively easy to roll a character too weak to win any of the game's combats, or too poor to afford enough protection to do well. Some of the enemies are, I believe, out of the reach of any first-round character and would have to be fought by a player who escaped a first attempt with a bunch of treasure and used it to buy much better equipment. 

The game follows its predecessors by offering a lot of choices but not being necessarily very logical or "fair" in the execution of those choices. For instance, in a den, you're faced with a fireplace with three levers. One opens a hidden niche and reveals a valuable coin collection. The second causes the fire to roar into the room and kill you. The third releases a "smoke monster" that you have to battle. There really is no way of determining the good from the bad when making your choice.
This is funny, but I'm not sure it's a logical outcome of taking a glass of punch at a party.
They aren't really "role-playing" choices, either. If you find your way into the torture room, you have options to attack the torture troll and thus free his prisoner or help the torture troll crank the wheel that operates the rack. If you attack the troll, you face a near-impossible battle and if you manage to kill him, the prisoner just gruffly wanders away. If you help torture the prisoner, you get valuable intelligence about how to enter the throne room.

Finally, there are an awful lot of instant death situations that are hardly fair. Just wandering into the wrong room can kill you. I suspect these are in place to artificially bolster the game's replay value. Otherwise, I can't see how any player would take one month to finish it, which the box says is the average.
All I did was pull on a rope.
All I did was pull a lever.
All I did was walk into a room.
Overall, though, the castle is a fun place to explore. It's a living place, with guards roaming the halls and shooting craps in their off-duty room, a butler guarding the entryway, and guests dancing the night away in a ballroom. The game isn't obvious about it, but I suspect your success or failure as you navigate the halls is based partly on your attributes. For instance, if you visit the ballroom you can try to pickpocket the guests. Not only is success based (I suspect) on dexterity, but your ability to even enter and stay in the room has something to do with your charisma.

Your ultimate goal is to assemble a group of treasures. I didn't find them all, but I found almost all of them:
  • A ruby necklace, pickpocketed from the guests in the ballroom.
  • A large gold figure. It's found in its "small gold figure" form in a room with piles of objects and a large purple flame. By looking at the objects, you can figure out that throwing items into the flame makes them bigger, so tossing in the "small gold figure" gives you the large one. You also have the option to jump in the flames yourself for a permanent boost to strength and constitution, although you kill yourself if you try it a second time.
The one bit of "character development" in the game.
  • A coin collection, found in a hidden niche in the den's fireplace.
  • A silver tea service, found by picking the lock of a cabinet with a hairpin.
  • An emerald orb, found in a dresser that opens when you strike a tuning fork in the room.
  • Gold cookies, looted after you kill a "cookie monster" in the pantry off the kitchen. That's not right.
  • A diamond stickpin, simply found in one of the rooms.
  • A multi-jeweled crown, found in the throne room, which you reach after a long sequence of puzzles. You have to walk over a pit and pass a swarm of bats by strategically lighting and extinguishing a torch, pass a large dragon by pouring "shrinking powder" on him, and get by a guard monster by giving him a password that you got by steaming open an envelope. 
One of the more memorable sequences in the game, though I never did find any use for the dragon dung.
  • The platinum chameleon, found at the top of a tower that requires a lot of inventory puzzles to successfully climb.
The most difficult puzzle of all is getting out of the castle. I wouldn't have solved it if I hadn't figured out that the welcome screen was full of hints. Eventually, you find a couple of rooms that link to a chute. If you climb in the chute, you end up tumbling into a non-descript room with no exits. It's only from that opening screen that you get the hint to use a bucket of paint (found in a "many-colored room") to PAINT DOOR on the wall. This causes your door to swing upon and reveal "the corporate headquarters of Chameleon Software," where "astonished programmers" help you carry your treasures out of the dungeon.
Might and Magic would draw from this ending years later.
You're then given your final experience score (from the monsters that you killed) and your final point total from the treasures that you acquired. After a few runs at the game, I was able to achieve 1,340 out of a possible 1,492 points.
I'm going to call this a "win."
There were some rooms that I didn't solve that might have held the additional treasures. There's a closet off the top of a staircase with a "closet monster" who was always too powerful for me. If you're unlucky enough to wander your way into the gym, you get picked on by three buff guards. Insulting them causes them to attack you, and I couldn't defeat them. The other options all lead to negative outcomes. Also, I suspect there was something I was supposed to do with a crystal chandelier.
None of these options leads to anything good.
Theoretically, you're supposed to be able to save the character and then re-enter the game, using the riches from your first adventure to purchase better equipment and try again. Unfortunately, for none of the three games have I managed to get a character to survive the transition from game disk to save disk and back again. It's a miracle when the program runs right at all instead of crashing with vague errors, failing to load the weapon and armor tables, suddenly deciding my character has no inventory, or a host of other problems.

In a GIMLET, Morton's Fork gets a 17 compared to Dungeon's 20. Fork has fewer opportunities for character development, fewer interesting encounters, and a smaller game world than the first game in the series.  
My map of the game.
Before we go, we should discuss the name of the game. A "Morton's fork" is described by The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms as "a situation in which there are two choices or alternatives whose consequences are equally unpleasant." It is traced back to John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VII. He is said to have argued that a man living ostentatiously could clearly afford higher taxes while a man living frugally must be saving his money--and could thus afford higher taxes. The "water test" for witches (if you float, you're a witch and you're executed; if you sink and drown, you're innocent) is often given as an example of a Morton's Fork.
An in-game Morton's fork. You die in a fire no matter what option you choose.
It's a curious title for a game, particularly since the only "fork" in the game is a tuning fork, and it's hardly a centerpiece. But like Stone of Sisyphus, which references a process of doing the same thankless task repeatedly, I think the creators were making a commentary on adventure games and perhaps even "choose your own adventure"-style books, in which multiple options lead to the same outcome. There's one notable moment in the game in which you're given three ways to escape from a fire, and none of them work. 

Were they critiquing themselves? Making fun of their own players, who paid $29.95 for the game only to presumably lose three consecutive characters to the same fire? We can't say. All we know is that the creators chose a title that ostensibly pokes fun at the laziest of adventure game tropes--and then they stocked the game with actual examples.