Saturday, February 13, 2016

Disciples of Steel: Final Rating

 

Disciples of Steel
MegaSoft Entertainment (developer and publisher)
Released 1991 for Atari ST; 1993 for DOS
Date Started: 3 December 2015
Date Ended: 8 February 2016
Total Hours: 94
Reload Count: 52
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 

Think about the different RPG eras in terms of the key questions of the time. In the early days (c. 1978-1983), that key question was, "How do we best adapt tabletop RPG mechanics to the computer?" Dozens of titles stood up and said, "Like this!" The best of them--the Wizardry series, the Ultima series, some of SSI's early efforts--advanced to the front of the class. Some of those that didn't make it to the forefront were a mess--fundamentally misunderstanding what was engaging about RPGs--and many introduced mechanics that simply didn't work in the long run.

In the late 1980s, the question changed to, "How can we improve upon the success of Wizardry (or Ultima, or any other previous successful title)?" And again, dozens of developers responded with their own answers. We fondly remember the best of them: Ultima's own sequels, Might & Magic, Dungeon Master, and Pool of Radiance. Again, there were a lot that we don't remember because their answers didn't make sense. We just saw that with Xyphus.

So what was the framing question of the early 1990s? Keep in mind that we've entered an era of hard drives, CD-ROMs, improved hardware for graphics and sound, and memory measured in megabytes instead of kilobytes. I think the key question developers faced was, "What are we going to do with all this extra stuff?" Consumers were demanding games that met the potential of available technology, and developers had a number of ways to respond, including greatly expanded content, better graphics, better sound, more detailed mechanics, and more complex artificial intelligence.

Disciples of Steel feels like a game in which the developers started with Wizard's Crown in mind (although I'm not ready to give up on the idea that they'd been exposed to Knights of Legend, Sword of Aragon, or both), asked the question, threw a bunch of ideas on the board, and tried to implement all of them at once with only the slightest coordination.

The resulting package is intriguing, excellent at times, but oddly disjointed and incomplete. We have fully-voiced audio for a few seconds in the opening screens (the first time I've ever seen this in a PC RPG, although I haven't played a lot of 1980s titles yet) and never again. We have high-quality animation for the opening, a nonsensical final scene, and a few shops in between, but never where it really matters. We have a fully-designed strategy game combat mechanic that hardly ever gets used unless you already know what you're doing. There are hundreds of evocative, atmospheric text messages as you explore--and hundreds of spelling errors. There are three ways to end the game--something you hardly ever see in this era--and yet no real ending.
 
Seriously, what was this about?
  
To be a fan of Disciples of Steel--and I am an unequivocal fan--is to forgive an awful lot of things that just don't work. There's a food and water meter that never budges, conversation options with NPCs that never tell you anything, a "search" function in the dungeon that never finds anything, "parley" options that never work, skills and spells that have no use, an unnecessary theft mechanic, an unnecessary haggling mechanic, a mechanism for setting the formation of your characters that doesn't matter because enemies are always scattered randomly when combat starts. As much as I liked the tactical combat, I was never able to get the hide/backstab mechanic to work, nor do I understand why there's a "search" option and the ability to pick up dropped treasure in the middle of a battle. I forgot until the end of the game that you can actually change which part of the enemy's body that you target; it turns out that you have an equal chance of hitting each body part, so the head (the default) makes the most sense anyway.

And yet, despite failing in so many things that it tried to do, Disciples of Steel performs excellently in the core areas that make a good RPG: tactical combat, magic, equipment, character development, and quests. I'm hard-pressed to think of a single game previously in my chronology that gets as many things right as Disciples. Perhaps the Gold Box games come closest, but they lack the satisfaction of Disciples character development system, and they have a far worse economy.

Complete non-sequitur. I just like this image. The text makes it sound like "The Balor" is the name for this section of the hallway.
    
In content, Disciples also excels. I love that the game world is so open at the outset, allowing you to blunder into difficult areas before you're ready, allowing you to solve quests before they've been given (although this introduces its own problems if you don't know to keep the quest item). I thought the expedition-and-return quest system was excellent, as well as the way each kingdom had its own questline that integrated well with the backstory. I wish there had been more meaningful choices and more ways to role-play factions or choose sides in disputes, but you can't have everything. The game does offer you the option to just overthrow every kingdom--or ignore the kingdoms entirely and head right for the final dungeon--if you want to make an extreme choice.

The GIMLET is thus going to be a mixed bag. I expect that it will score high in the end, but let's see.

1. Game World. Disciples follows the lead of the best games of the 1980s by setting up the game world in a detailed manual and then following through with in-game events and characters that make sense given the backstory. It does a good job giving a different "character" to each kingdom on Lanathor and setting the events of the game in motion. I'm also giving credit here to all of the flavorful on-screen text descriptions that make the otherwise-bland dungeon corridors seem interesting.

But as with most things, it doesn't do it perfectly. In particular, "Variz" comes out of nowhere, and his relationship to Rathadon is unclear until the end. (The "forces of Rathadon" are given as the game's antagonists, but the king of Rathadon doesn't seem to be aware of Variz's existence.) Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. Simply excellent. You start with the usual race/sex/class templates, but through the skill systems, you can essentially define who you want your characters to be. For instance, you can load up your warriors with armor and put a lot of points into that skill or keep them lithe and put your efforts into "dodge." Mages can specialize in bows and hang back on the battlefield, or you can give them points in edged weapons and armor and make them battlemages. Any class can develop skills in any school of magic, and the different magic systems mean that each character has a stronger sense of role. The ability to dump experience directly into skills (and attributes, though I never did that) means that development is constant and palpable.

I'm also a big fan of the way experience is earned, by successful action rather than just kills. It's a joy to watch the effects as your skills increase: more attacks per round, more spells per round, more damage, increased frequency of critical hits and stunning, and characters who dodge and block attacks instead of getting eviscerated by them. Until the advent of games where classes really make a role-playing difference and we start to see perks and special abilities, I can't imagine a better system. I was disappointed when the game ended because I hadn't gotten all my characters to their target skills. Score: 7.

3. NPC Interaction. Alas, a weak spot. The various lords serve as NPCs, as do some of the shopkeepers, who will occasionally have a useless bit of dialogue. While some of these NPCs were unique and memorable, a couple of dialogue options would have gone a long way towards cementing Disciples in the "great" category. Score: 3.

I kind of liked this guy.
   
4. Encounters and Foes. In addition to NPC dialogue, a major deficiency of Disciples in encounters. While I appreciate the pre-combat dialogue that precedes many of the key battles, there really is never anything to do on these screens but fight or run ("threaten" sometimes works, but "be amicable," never). Except at the macro-level (do the quests or conquer the kingdoms by force), there are no meaningful role-playing options.
   
Monsters are about as varied as a Gold Box title but with fewer defenses ("Power Word: Stun" shouldn't work against everyone) and no descriptions at all in the manual. Score: 4.

5. Magic and Combat. SSI had the best tactical combat systems, and Disciples of Steel is the first non-SSI game that seems to recognize that. Throughout the entire game--nearly 100 hours of gameplay--I never got sick of the combat system until the final dungeon, where the sheer number started to overwhelm me. And right then, I got "Wrath of God."

The combats in this game are either easy--in which case your characters satisfyingly mow through the enemies and finish in seconds--or quite hard--in which case you have the satisfaction of plotting detailed tactics. The magic system is excellently balanced; there are extremely powerful spells, but you need time (or expensive mushrooms) to recharge after casting them. I think part of the satisfaction of combat comes from the skill development system; even when slaying the lowliest, most pathetic orc, you know that you just earned a couple of dozen points to channel into your favored skill.

A few days ago, I might have tried to argue that Disciples of Steel is the best game to occupy this category so far in my chronology. But upon reflection, I still have to give a slight edge to the Gold Box series. First, Disciples lacks the interesting buffing spells that are important to the combat tactics in other games. Second, while there are a small number of items to use, we don't have the more robust wand/potion/scroll/grenade options that SSI gave us in the Gold Box. Still, it comes awfully close. Score: 7.
 
You don't scare me, Air Elemental.
   
6. Equipment. As I pointed out in my post on the topic, I really like games that give you lots of items to equip and use, and Disciples offers more than most, with separate items for the head, body, arms, and legs, as well as melee weapons, shields, missile weapons, ammunition, rings, potions, and occasional special magic items like Phasecloaks and Boots of Speed. The "quality" and "condition" dynamics added add additional complexity.

Disciples is one of the earliest games to introduce us to a dilemma that we still see today: plenty of shops sell good gear, but it's so much more satisfying to loot it from the battlefield. And while the locations of artifact items are fixed, it's not impossible to find a Potion of Strength or some other major boon among the detritus from a random battle.

I wish there had been more weapons with special effects (e.g., nothing does fire damage or increases the odds of a critical hit), and better item descriptions, but in general this was a very satisfying part of the game. Score: 6.

Some of my warrior's late-game gear.
   
7. Economy. If there's one area in which Disciples blows past the Gold Box titles, here it is. The economy in the game is actually meaningful. You get money from solving quests, looting opponents, selling gear, and setting taxation rates in conquered cities. You can even put unused mage points into "Lead to Gold." On the "spend" side of the equation, we have a variety of equipment and transportation, item repair, healing, the all-important mushrooms, and...oh, yes...the ability to raise, equip, and field vast armies.

As I reported in my last postings, I didn't fully engage the economy and thus couldn't take advantage of the "army" options, but I'm glad it's there and it would be fun to go that way on a replay. Score: 7.

8. Quests. A truly fun set of individual quests of varying length and difficulty, all culminating toward a main quest with several options for ending it. I supposed technically you could ignore all the questlines and just go kill Variz in his dungeon, but to me this kind of flexibility only enhances the game. There are even a few side-dungeons with valuable items to explore on your own time. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The animated graphics on the encounter and shop screens are attractive. I thought the iconographic views were less interesting but by no means bad. Sound effects are sparse but well-composed and fun. I mostly had no problem with the interface, but I did have some complaints, including the inability to use the keyboard fully on some menus and the necessity of having to acknowledge every critical hit in combat. I give an extra point for the voiced introduction. The dungeon's automap works great--perhaps the first one we've seen that didn't make me feel like I also had to map things manually. Score: 6

Simple animations accompany most encounter and shop screens.
  
10. Gameplay. Back to "excellent" territory again. Vast, open, nonlinear, and challenging, I thought the game struck the perfect chord here. Yes, at the beginning, when I didn't know if it was ever going to get better, I found the combat a little too hard. But at the end, I don't really mind having gone through the experience. (Creating a patch to start characters with 1,000 experience points was a good idea.) It falls short of a perfect score by being a bit too long, but it scores high on the "replayability" scale; I'd enjoy trying it again with different class/skill combinations and making better use of the army options. Overall, it ties with other games for the highest score I've ever given: 8.

This gives us a subtotal of 59. That would be the seventh-highest score I've ever awarded, and the highest in almost two years. But what do I do with all of those bugs? What do I do with the horribly unsatisfying ending? What do I do with the manual, whose writer ought to have been quartered for failing to explain so much about such a complicated game? What do I do with the time limit, which was long enough for me but apparently was spring upon many hapless players without warning?

On the other side, what do I do about the strategy game add-on? I managed to make it through the entire GIMLET without event talking about it. Disciples is a perfectly satisfying RPG without it, but we can't ignore that there's an optional strategy game lurking in the background, with the same sorts of considerations of equipment, training, and unit composition as excellent RPG-strategy hybrids like Sword of Aragon. (A lack of in-battle magic use makes Disciples not quite as good, but still.) That such large and complex mechanic is offered and made optional is almost baffling.
    
I barely explored this game-within-a-game.
    
(Aside: the basic problem with the strategic combat in Disciples is that there are no small battles. To overthrow any of the kingdoms, or even their ancillary cities, you have to raise, equip, and train a couple dozen units at no small expense. There is therefore no way to "ramp up" to this part of the game.)
    
In the end, the positives don't quite equal the negatives, and I've got to hack off a couple of points. Two should do it. A final score of 57 keeps it in my Top 10 but puts it between Might & Magic II (which I agree I liked more) and Champions of Krynn (which I agree I liked slightly less).
     
If the quality of the manual was part of my GIMLET, Disciples would get a 0. The army combat system and options aren't mentioned at all. It has a section called "World Inhabitants" that most games would use to list each monster, but Disciples only has a paragraph saying, "They're all dangerous. Be careful."
   
However much I subtracted, Disciples of Steel definitely does not deserve a place among the "worst RPGs of all time," and Computer Gaming World's designation in that category, without having published a preceding review, was shameful. It was a decision made by someone who played the game for a few minutes rather than a few hours. They didn't even get the facts of the game right; they list it as a 1993 title and give its publisher as FormGen, which was simply the Canadian distributor.
    
I haven't been able to find a single contemporary review of Disciples, which makes me wonder how widely MegaSoft distributed or advertised it. Judging by the company's appearance in some computing magazines in the mid-1980s, and its location in a retail area of tiny Webster, Texas, it appears that the company was a brick-and-mortar computer store that entered the publication business for this one title (although it's possible that there were other non-game titles).
    
The two principals on the game--coordinator Kevin Henderson and programmer Martin Kruse--have no other credits. Graphic artist Patrick Wilson appears later on Daggerfall and some 2000s action games, and game tester Sean Clark has a bunch of later titles as an executive. But these are common names and MobyGames has a way of conflating people with the same name, so I'm not entirely sure that it's the same Wilson and Clark on all the later titles. In any event, they're only credited on the DOS version. None of the graphic and sound artists on the original ST version have other credits.
    
If any game deserves a sequel that could build upon the lessons learned from its predecessor, it's Disciples of Steel, and the title screen, calling it "the first tale" of the Chronicles of CyHagan, suggests that one was planned. I'd love to find out what the developers had in mind for it. Kevin Henderson commented briefly on a "let's play" at RPGCodex a few years ago; his profile indicates that he was 22 when Disciples was published. I did some searching for both him and Martin Kruse, but I wasn't able to identify them among many other people of the same names, so I can only hope that they eventually find my posts the same way they found the RPGCodex thread.
    
Thus ends our two-month journey into this flawed-but-amazing overlooked game--the very sort of game that I started this project hoping to find. But now I'm ready for a slightly shorter title; if Vengeance of Excalibur is the same scope as its predecessor it should qualify.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Xyphus: Won! (with Final Rating)

    
Xyphus
Robert "Skip" Waller and Dave Albert (developers); Penguin Software (publisher)
Released 1984 for Apple II; 1985 for Commodore 64 and Macintosh
Date Started: 2 February 2016
Date Ended: 8 February 2016
Total Hours: 20
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 

Winning Xyphus in two postings took a lot of effort, but I didn't want to linger on this one.

As covered in my first post, the game is organized into six "scenarios," each with its own map and selection of items and foes. All of them except the last begin with the party in one fortress and end with the party in another fortress on the opposite side of the map. In between, the party usually has to find a particular item or kill a particular creature or both. The party also has generic side missions to slay as many foes as possible, find useful magic items, find useful spells, and replace Xiphoid amulets, which shatter after you've cast enough spells. Each scenario took me about 3 hours.

A title card lays out the key elements for Scenario 5.
And I solve the quest.

I started leveling up on the second map--it requires you to visit one of the towns after accumulating about 1,500 experience points--but leveling isn't rapid. On the last map, I was only Level 5. Leveling conveys extra hit points and allows you to do an extra point of damage in combat.

On each map, there was a wide range of monster difficulty. Some of them were only damageable by magic weapons, and a small number were only damageable by spells. At least one creature, a vampire, I couldn't damage no matter what I did; I suspect the key to slaying him was in a weapon in the middle of a lake that I was never able to figure out how to get. Fortunately, I was able to sneak past him to finish my mission.
  
Three of my characters keep the vampire occupied while the fourth goes past him to get the quest item.
   
An awful lot of creatures are capable of inflicting poison, and most of my spellcasting went into curing spells.

Overall, gameplay is quite hard. Even using save states and reloading liberally, I found myself in a number of perilous situations. Someone playing the game more honestly would have to take a lot of care to stay near garrisons and lure enemies one-by-one.

I wouldn't have been able to stomach the amount of time necessary to do this one for real. Even save-scumming and using "warp" mode in the VICE emulator, the extremely slow hexagonal movement continually tried my patience. The movement system is this game's most egregious mistake, combining four mechanics that would have been annoying enough on their own: hexes instead of rectangles, the necessity to move each party member in turn, an unpredictable order of movement among characters (since some get more moves than others), and the need to coax the party through tight terrain. If you've played Ultima IV and can remember how annoying it was to move the party through dungeon rooms, one character at a time, with some characters getting move moves than others, just imagine playing that for an entire game and a weird keyboard cluster.

Mincing through these corridors, one character at a time, in an unpredictable order, was nearly intolerable.
   
Xyphus piles on to this horrible design mistake by including invisible barriers all over the maps. Testing for passages in invisible barriers is annoying enough when you only have to worry about one character's movement at a time. By the time I reached the final scenario--a large, twisty dungeon with many passages one-character wide, and may blocked by invisible walls--I wanted to throw my laptop out the window. The ability to set an active character would have made a world of difference. It still wouldn't have been a great game, but it at least would have been tolerable.
  
Running into absolutely nothing to my west.
  
The emulator introduced a lot of bugs, too. For a while, it crashed every time I moved west. I had to alternate between northwest and southwest. Then it started crashing every time I tried to change weapons. Generally, saving the game properly in-game (i.e., not a save state) and restarting the emulator cleared up these issues, so I assume they weren't the game's fault.

The final scenario moved the party underground and commanded us to slay Xyphus. As I explored the dungeon, I found a couple of messages indicating I would need the Heart of Xyphus and a Crystal Key. I found the heart in the lower-left corner, guarded by demons, and the key in the upper-left, guarded by a dragon. Only an elf could pick up the heart and only a dwarf could pick up the key; the game had warned me at the beginning that I would need at least one of these.
 
   
Xyphus was in the lower-right corner, blocked by two doors. I was able to get through the first door with the key (since there's no "unlock" mechanic, the game had me wield the key like a weapon "attack" the door with the key). For a while, I couldn't get through the second door with either the key or the heart, and I started writing up this posting as a "final rating" without the "won!" Then, I thought to try all of the other weapons in my inventory, and it turns out that I just needed to attack it with a Xiphoid amulet.

The game very nearly ended here.
    
There was a final battle with three demon guards--my two fighters took care of them with "demon lances" that only work on demons.

   
Xyphus himself was immobile in the southeast corner. He was capable of killing my characters in a single blow, so I had to reload a couple of times, but he died in a single hit from his own heart.

I'm not really sure how I'm wielding a heart as a weapon. No matter what, it feels a bit cruel.
  
After this, the game unforgivably forced me to walk back to the garrison in the middle of the dungeon, where I was "rewarded" with an image of a castle, crown, and treasure chest with no accompanying text. I guess this is the game's way of saying that I got the kingdom that was promised.

GIMLET:

  • 3 points for the game world. The framing story is pretty good, and the game ties into it with the title cards between scenarios. Not much of it is represented in actual gameplay, though.

The Macintosh version has a really nice world map.
 
  • 2 points for character creation and development. Creation is just name, race, and class, and development isn't frequent enough to be truly rewarding.
   
"Character development."
   
  • 1 point for NPC interaction, which I allot to the witches who show up on some screens and give you clues. This is generous. Those are more like found messages than NPCs.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are mostly D&D boilerplate, but they are well-described in the manual and do have a variety of strengths and weaknesses you have to figure out. There are no other puzzles in the game, unfortunately, and no way to grind characters because all the enemies are fixed.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Fairly primitive, with most of the tactics associated with how many monsters you engage at a time, not how you engage them. A selection of spells whose uses you have to determine through experimentation makes things interesting, but for the most part, you're afraid to cast too many spells because you don't want to shatter your Xiphod amulets since each spelllcaster can only carry one at a time.
    
   
  • 2 points for equipment--a small selection of weapons to switch between and an incrementally-improved suit of armor.

Finding items like this was always fun.
   
  • 3 points for economy. I never had enough to buy all the spells.
  • 3 points for a main quest and some optional encounters and items that could be considered quasi-side-quests.
   
A title card gives me the quest for the last scenario.
  
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics and sound are primitive but adequate, but nothing excuses the movement interface.
  • 1 point for gameplay. Xyphus is mostly linear, non-replayable, a bit too hard, and a bit too long.

That gives us a final score of 23. I'm going to resist the temptation to take off more points for the interface since I have a special category for that. 

Xyphus was part of Penguin Software's growing catalogue of RPGs in the early 1980s; others included Expedition Amazon and Sword of Kadash. Each of these titles tries to do something different with the RPG experience--generally making it worse in the process, I should add, but at least they try.

"Featuring." Yes, that's the world I would have used.
    
I haven't been able to track down authors Robert "Skip" Waller or Dave Albert or find full bios on them, so I'm about to do some raw speculating. I'll come back and correct this if I get better information later. We've seen previously that it was Penguin's modus operandi to publish games developed by independent creators, but we've also seen them credit the independent creator along with their own staff, who presumably did some polishing to the final product. For instance, the title screen of Expedition Amazon credits the game to Willard Phillips, Greg Malone, and David Shapiro. From my own discussions with Phillips, it turns out that he wrote most of the game himself and Malone and Shapiro got the credits for additional programming and graphics. They never worked together and Phillips never even met his "co-authors."
 
Since Albert has a producer credit on Penguin's previous The Quest (1983), I'm going to guess that he was on Penguin's staff. I suspect that the original version of Xyphus was created independently by Waller, but after it was submitted to Penguin, Albert did enough polishing on the final version that he got co-credit.

Whatever the case, I can't find any evidence that Waller worked on anything else in the gaming world, whereas Albert went on to a long and distinguished career, with credits on games by Origin, Interplay, and Electronic Arts among others. I'm sure Albert was behind the detailed and evocative monster descriptions in the Xyphus manual. I don't know whether he already had a relationship with Origin at the time, but I suspect he was inspired by the quality of Ultima III's text, and it thus makes sense that Origin tapped him to write The Book of Wisdom for Ultima IV (1985). We've crossed Albert's path several times already: he was on the design team for Autoduel (1985) and served as a producer for various editions of Ultima (1986), Wasteland, Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic (1988), The Bard's Tale III (1988), Fountain of Dreams (1990), and Escape from Hell (1990). His RPG credentials dry up after that.

It would be fun to track down Waller and confirm my take on the events, as well as my suspicion that he was heavily influenced by Ultima III, but the most likely candidate I could find died in 2010.

Finally, I should note that Wikipedia claims that Xyphus was the first RPG released on the Macintosh. I suppose it's possible, but MobyGames shows four other Mac releases in 1985: Rogue, The Temple of Apshai Trilogy, Ultima II, and Wizardry, and it's hard to tell the specific months in which they appeared.

And that finishes 1984! (If you're wondering what happened to Zyll, I played it for a while, and while I thought it was an interesting adventure game with some decent ideas, it lacked the character development of an RPG. It is closer to Zork than Beyond Zork.) We'll have a transition posting before moving on to 1985.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Disciples of Steel: Won!

   
All right. We got the kinks worked out from last time. It turns out that there are at least two ways--probably three--to win the game, and none of them are completely bugged. (Thanks to Peter, Nathan, and asimpkins in the last post for helping with all of this.)

  • First, you can defeat Variz in his dungeon. Yes, I encountered a bug where it incorrectly identified a storm giant as Variz, but Variz is still there, just in a room I didn't find. It's notable that if I had found the room on my first pass, winning the game would have come as a complete surprise, since I thought I was in the dungeon for a different purpose and the text doesn't give you any impression you're about to fight the final battle.
  • Second, you can wait until the "Armageddon" date when Variz leads his forces in an attack on Lanathor. For me, this was August 22, 1035; I don't know if this is fixed or rolled randomly when you start the game.
  • Third, according to a message board post, you can win by conquering the cities of Rathadon, but only if you do it with your armies, not by assassinating the rulers with your party. I wasn't able to verify this one.

I tried the second option first. I had been deliberately passing time, hoping that Variz would attack, but to no avail. Now, there are only a couple of ways to pass time in the game. One is to go to your quarters in the Disciples of Steel guild or a castle and rest the party. You can do this for 120 hours, or 5 days, at a time, but you have to keep doing it manually. The second is to take the party to a dungeon with no random encounters and weigh down the "S" (search) key while you take a shower or watch television or something. You have to acknowledge messages at the end of each month and the occasional birthday, but this method requires the least user input.

Doing it this way, I failed to notice for a while that the calendar wasn't advancing past August 22. The time would advance around the clock, but the date never changed. Only when I left the city I was in and returned did I get the messages that brought on the endgame.

I should point out that I started letting time pass in February, so that was six extra months I could have used to make money, improve my characters, and so forth. Since I did a lot of grinding and backtracking during the game proper, so I feel there was plenty of time to solve all the quests before the game-enforced final battle. I just think the player should get a little more notice.

Armageddon begins.
    
As I tried to enter the city, this is the notice I received:

In the distance, you see a rider galloping toward you. You wait for him to approach and after several moments, he is reining in his horse to a stop in front of you. He is out of breath, but he speaks in hurried gasps, "The forces of darkness march across the mountains and spread into the plains northwest of Farnus. You must unite the people of Lanathor and march our forces to defeat this evil horde."

For several days, you send runners out to the various kingdoms to see who will join you and your troops as you head to the Farnus flatlands. As you prepare to meet the evil wizard Variz and his army, your runners return with word from the other realms.
   
Following this is a roll call of all the kingdoms that you didn't take over but did reach the end of their questlines. In my case, all of them--Kitari, Hollengard, Cartha, Aragual, and Pallasade--offered to send help. The game told me that I would make my stand in Pallasade.
   
    
As the battle began, I had 96 armies to allocate around the battlefield, which took long enough, but it turned out that the enemy had around 145. After allocation, the battle plays much like a classic strategy game, not terribly dissimilar to Sword of Aragon. You can charge enemy armies, fire bows, or defend, and for each unit you can take a detailed look at its equipment, training and morale. It's a pretty impressive system given that it hardly ever gets used in gameplay.

My units attack the enemy. Note the equipment, troop count, and training rank it the lower-right. I guess it would have made more sense to let them come through the gate.
  
I fought for a while, but with so many units, it takes a long time. Each unit had an average of 100 soldiers, and a single attack between units might kill only 15 at a time. Add this up for more than 100 units per round, and you're looking at a multi-hour battle of slowly whittling down the enemy forces.

An end-of-round report from early in the battle. I like neither my chances nor the amount of time this is going to take.
   
I would have stuck with it, but the early battle reports were grim. I clearly needed to enter the endgame with more parity between my army and the enemy's, which would mean reloading the February save and spending those intervening months building units and micromanaging funds. I found this prospect less interesting than taking my party back to Variz's dungeon and trying to find him again.

This is where the storm giant's speech would have made sense.
  
On the third level, behind a secret door that I'd missed the first time, I found him and his army of giants and hellhounds. Upon entering the room, the game told me only that I faced "Rathadon high command within the rifts." I started to defeat them without "Wrath of God," but when the frost giants decimated my party with "Ice Storm" spells and Variz knocked us out for a round with "Time Stop," I pulled out my nuclear option and ended things in one casting.

   
After the battle, I got a quick animation of a knight standing next to a castle wall in a rainstorm and a notice that "the forces of good are victorious!"

I suspect if we'd really put out minds to it, we could have come up with a more interesting and appropriate end-game animation.
   
After that, the game let me keep playing. If I exited and re-entered the square where I encountered Variz, I faced the same encounter again. When I exited the dungeon and visited some of the cities, the lords still spoke as if the big final battle was ahead of us. I suspect if I wait until August 22 again, the land will get attacked as if I had never defeated Variz in the first place.

Thus, a bit of a buggy, let-down ending to a long and complex game, although I do appreciate the ability to win the game multiple ways.

A GIMLET is up next. I'm going to have to do some careful analysis on Disciples of Steel, so I didn't want to conflate this post with the final rating. But because it's so short, consider this an "extra" post that doesn't count within my normal three-day rotation.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Disciples of Steel: Out of Ideas

If only this were true.
  
Ever since I started Disciples of Steel, people have been warning me about a "time limit" that the game imposes--supposedly, you have to have your act together (and I'm not entirely sure what that entails) by a certain date, or the forces of darkness sweep over the world or something. Aware of this, I've been apprehensive with every month that passes. But after this last, long--so very long--session, I have the opposite problem: all the time in the world, and nothing to do with it.

In my last post, you learned how I had started to reach the end of the rulers' questlines, usually getting control of their kingdoms--and the ability to set tax rates and raise armies--in the process. On a monthly basis, I started getting notices about the amount of money my taxes were raising in each city.

Nice of them to bring it to me in the dungeon.

The ends of the rest of the questlines were relatively swift. The elf king had me rescue his kidnapped daughter from a set of caves only a few steps from the city, then kill a demon called a "Sethnor." When I was done with the latter quest, he warned me that a wizard who survived the Battle of Unthar, "once the weakest but now the father of lies," was preparing to march his army from the Isle of Kulm, north of Rathadon. He named the wizard as "Variz" and said that the elves would be with me when the time came. This will be important in a minute.


I then turned my attention to Constantium's last quest: kill a dragon menacing the countryside from a cave. I'm including the screen shot of the exterior just to give another sense of the ubiquitous "flavor text" that the game throws at you:
  

The dragon was easy. He attacked me without backup, and a single "Power Word: Stun" kept him immobile long enough for me to kill him with melee weapons.

Thaddeus prepares to stun the dragon.

I returned to Pallasade with the dragon's body. Like the elf king, the ruler of Constantium declined to hand over his kingdom. But he did warn me that an evil army was gathering and that he'd be on my side when the time came.

Up next was Denias. The king told me that his regent in the nearby city of Warig was in rebellion, and I'd need to assassinate him. I had tried the "assassination" mechanic before--you walk up to the palace, right-click on the party, and choose "assassinate," which brings you to a large battle inside the palace--but when I was far weaker. This time, I was able to win with a bit of effort. The battle featured a lot of strong guards and mages, but the battlefield was sectioned off into several rooms, so it was easy to clear one room at a time and then lure enemies individually around corners and through doors.

Killing the reagent.

It turned out that this same map is used for all palace attacks, and I had several more to fight before the end of this session. 


In any event, when I returned to Cartha, the king abdicated and gave me the kingdom to control. As was my normal routine by the time, I set a tax rate of 5% but didn't raise any armies just yet.


My final set of quests, before heading into Rathadon itself, was for Serbia. There, the king had me overthrow a Rathadon outpost (involving another palace battle) on the western side of the land. As with Constantium, he didn't hand me the kingdom but he did promise aid against Variz.

At this point, I wasn't entirely sure what to do next. Rathadon had its own questline, but since the king was so manifestly evil, it didn't feel right to follow it. But lacking other ideas, I decided to visit Krighton Krigg and see if he asked me to do anything terribly objectionable. 

"My orcs speak constantly of the power of the man who lives under the fire," Krigg said, and demanded that I go find out who his orcs are talking about. I had a pretty good idea that this person was the previously-named Variz, indicating that while Krigg might be evil, he isn't the Big Bad of the game. Thus, I journeyed to the volcanic island to the northwest of Rathadon (by now, I'm using the priest's "Teleport" to move just about everywhere). Here, upon discovery of a cave, the game warned me that I had discovered "the source of all evil that walks the face of Lanathor."

What is it with evil guys and volcanoes?

I'll pause here to note that throughout these adventures, as well as a couple of side-dungeons that I explored on a lark, my characters continued to steadily improve. Thanks to potions that increased my spellcasters' primary attributes, I unlocked a set of powerful spells, like "Ice Storm," "Deathstrike," "Destruct," "Mass Invisibility," and "Wrath of God"--the latter of which we're going to have to talk about in a minute.

The best treasure cache in the game.

Every time my party members accumulated 1,000 or more experience points, I spent a few minutes on skill improvements. My knight, armed with a "+20 Sly Sword" taken from a Death Knight and wearing a set of Boots of Speed, had become an unstoppable killing machine, absolutely mowing through enemies. (The "Sly Sword" is probably a reference to that ridiculous contraption in The Sword and the Sorcerer [1982]. The creators of the game missed an opportunity by not making it a ranged weapon.) Because of this, she started getting more experience than anyone else per battle, which I then channeled back into even better statistics. By the time she had "edged," "armor," "body," and "dodge" skills above 300, I think she could have won most battles by herself.


So I entered the "source of evil" pretty confident. Between my last post and this moment, I had been playing for maybe another 6 or 7 hours.

I spent the next 20 hours of feverish gameplay in this single dungeon. It was big enough to make up an entire game by itself. There were random encounters every few steps, and though I did my best to evade most of them, I ended up having to fight a pitched battle every 5 minutes or so. About 1 in 6 combats--particularly those with giants--killed a character and forced me to reload. The prevalence of random encounters was exacerbated by the need to turn and face every wall to look for secret doors, since these were plentiful (although towards the end, my ranger got high enough in the "perception" skill that he started finding them automatically). I did gain thousands of experience points, which was good, but the expedition cost me almost two game months. Throughout this entire long, painful process, I wasn't even entirely sure that I needed to be there.

Early in the dungeon, a voice whispered to me that Variz "will attack before the year is out," which turned out not to be true, as I entered the dungeon in December and left in February, and there was no attack in between. Soon after, in a large area with multiple jail cells, I found the body of legendary warrior Ustfa Nelor.

Or "Uthor Nelor" as only this one screen has it.

He had written in blood on the wall, "Only in unity will you find Variz," which turned out to be the password to a couple of places later. In a nearby alcove, I found a sword that a voice told me was capable of defeating Variz. I assume it was Nelor's sword.

CyHagan is the witch from the game's intro screen who prompted the re-establishment of the Disciples of Steel in the first place. She has otherwise been absent from the game until now.
   
Those were the only major plot-based encounters for a long time. For over a dozen hours after this, I just fought wave after wave of giants, elementals, demons, and Rathadon forces (don't know what they were doing here since the king didn't seem to be aware of Variz). Several hallways had traps every step. There was a whole area of undead encounters that never led to anything important, and rooms full of guards and demons that turned out to be dead ends.

At some point, my priestess's "karma" skill got high enough that she got a new spell: "Wrath of God." To call this spell "overpowered" doesn't go far enough. When cast at maximum power, it simply kills every enemy in the battle--on-screen, off-screen, hiding in corners, whatever. Only the fact that spell points take so long to regenerate keeps this one spell from completely breaking the game. I used it liberally on giants, who I otherwise had to micro-manage with multiple castings of "Power Word: Stun" to survive, and my priestess started to overtake my knight as the party's primary experience-hogger.

"Wrath of God" works its way methodically through the enemies.

Eventually, things started to get weird, and I'm sure there were bugs involved. I found a passage that opened into the negative space between and outside the dungeon's walls. This area, probably not meant to be explored, allowed me to approach stariways from angles unintended by the developers, which took me to similar areas on other levels. I got lost in this vast emptiness for a while, and while there were no fixed encounters here, the random encounters never stopped.

I don't think stairways are supposed to work this way.
   
Before we get to the end of the dungeon, we have to talk about another bug: occasionally, the monster pictured on the encounter screen (and fought on the subsequent combat screen) doesn't match the textual description. For instance, the description might say that you face "numerous undead," but instead you get attacked by a handful of trolls. Here's an obvious example:


This bug may be behind my inability to get to the endgame. Eventually, through multiple secret doors, twisty passages, and fixed combats, I made my way to a nondescript room that the game informed me was "Variz's quarters." Variz said: "Welcome, Disciples. You have managed to succeed where others have failed. But let it be known I refuse to give up, and only I shall leave this room alive!" The game then informed met hat "Variz and his minions attack."


The problem is, the portrait shows a storm giant, and that's what I got in the ensuing battle: a single storm giant. I killed him without too much trouble and nothing happened. I tried re-loading the game and re-entering the chamber, but the same thing happened.

I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd fought Variz and his minions anyway. Would that have been the end of the game? If so, what was all the kingdom-conquering and army-building about?

In my case, I returned to the surface discouraged and returned to the king of Rathadon. His reaction was simply, "a wizard!" I'm not sure if the game thinks I defeated the wizard or if I completed the quest just by discovering that the man in the dungeon was a wizard. Either way, Krighton Krigg gave me 60 experience points.

This ended his questline. When I asked for another quest, he said that after consulting his seers, I needed to "leave his palace and never return" or he would kill me.

That's gratitude for you.

At this point, the only thing I could think to do was attack and conquer Rathadon. I decided to try it by building an army back in Farnus. Thanks to my adventures in the dungeon, I had about 350,000 copper pieces among my party members and another 200,000 back in the vault. (It turns out, by the way, that the Disciples of Steel guilds and the castles all share the same vault.)

Raising an army took more of this sum than I would have believed. It took 1,000 just to define the army and about 75,000 more to staff it with 50 "veteran" soldiers and 40 "elite" soldiers. Equipping the troops with weapons, bows, armor, and mounts took almost another 100,000. Nearly 2/3 of my wealth was gone when I finished this one army, and the game informed me that I would need a monthly outlay of almost 30,000 copper just to maintain the force.

Buying mounts for the "Army of Chet."

When I was done, I chose to take my new elite force on the road with me. On the way to Rathadon, I tried to enter the dwarf city just to see what would happen, and it told me that they refused entry. I guess I can't be too offended by that.


Upon reaching Rathadon, I chose to attack the capital city. The game warned me that if I was defeated, the Disciples would be killed. I acknowledged this. What followed was  strategic game map not unlike Sword of Aragon but with far fewer options. I was given a choice of placement for my one army, after which the enemy armies started appearing. And appearing. And appearing. Yeah, it turned out that Rathadon had about 30 units to my one.

At least there are some convenient crucifixes.
 
I barely got to explore the army combat options before my force was wiped out. Clearly, attacking with 90 soldiers wasn't going to win the day and my current gold reserves weren't going to cut it.

I don't quite blame the game on the gold issue. I stopped bothering to take equipment for sale a long time ago, which undoubtedly has contributed to my financial straits. I also haven't been exploiting the mage's "Lead to Gold" spell, which generates the equivalent of 2,000 copper with every maximum casting. Some of the wealth is clearly meant to come from taxation, which I've probably been setting a bit too low.

I clearly wasn't going to take over Rathadon with an army for a long time, so I did it the easier way: I dumped my army at the nearest friendly garrison, returned to Rathadon, and attacked the palace with just my party. A single casting of "Wrath of God" killed everyone except Krighton Krigg himself, and he went down with a few melee rounds.


But taking over the capital didn't reward me with any endgame text. I also conquered Rathadon's secondary city, Devil's Way, but also got nothing.

So what now? Does the bug that failed to produce the battle with Variz mean that I can't win the game? Or is he still going to attack, eventually, and I just need to find something to do until that date? (To check the obvious, I forced my party to wait until one year had passed since the beginning of the game--which is harder than it sounds--but nothing happened.) I wouldn't mind explicit spoilers on this one. It's going to be horribly disappointing if I got all this way into the game and can't win because of a bug.

In the meantime, some commentary on various encounters:

I couldn't help but think how disappointed David Bradley would be playing this game.
Here's another one where the text writer didn't communicate well with the graphic artist.
Just some awesome flavor text.
I'm not sure this guy really understand what it means to be a "skeleton." Seriously, this is what happens when, unlike in Dungeons & Dragons, monsters have no obvious immunities.

This whole time, I've been worrying that Disciples of Steel would screw up an excellent set of game mechanics with a nonsensical, confusing, or buggy endgame. It's now appearing that, more likely than not, that is the case. I guess by next time we'll know for sure.