Monday, June 1, 2020

Abandoned Places: Turnabout

In this session, I saw the "full party death" screen for the first time.
           
I tried hard to finish Abandoned Places for this entry, pouring almost 16 hours into it over the last six days, but I'm not quite there. It's been very frustrating, and I wish I'd just wrapped it up when I was toying with it last time.
      
The frustration has come more from length and size than difficulty. If a game isn't giving you what you want, the last thing you want it to do is persist, but Abandoned Places has unearned dreams to be epic. It started in the Hall of Light, which was about as big as a single regular dungeon level. The "proving grounds" at Souls Abbey was another level, then another at the library of Kal Kalon. The Steps dungeon had two levels, and that's where I learned that I would need to find three Ruling Symbols--sword, orb, and staff--each broken into three pieces and secreted in three different dungeons. Each was only one level, but that was still another nine dungeons. Then, each Symbol required a fourth dungeon where I'd find an altar to assemble them, so that was another three. Once I had all three Symbols, Bronakh appeared and challenged me to get through a dungeon called the Halls of Rage.
            
The Ruling Symbols came together on their respective altars.
         
All told, I've been through 18 dungeon levels. That's five more than Dungeon Master already. If you're going to make a game in this style, you've got to supply something to keep it interesting. Options could be:
            
  1. Challenging combat. Make the player really fight for every inch. Make every foe memorable. Require the player to explore the full range of spell capabilities. Improve enemy AI and tactics on each new level.
  2. Challenging puzzles. Really work the player's mind with the mechanical puzzles. Force him to take a lot of notes and maps and make leaps of logic.
  3. Interesting environment. Make the dungeon immersive. Blow the player's mind with scenes and vistas that he's never seen before.
  4. Interesting stories. Give each level a backstory and character. Populate it with lore and encounters that fill in an ongoing narrative.
            
Dungeon Master made itself famous with the first two options, particularly the second. Ultima Underworld went largely with the latter two but also had some interesting puzzles. Abandoned Places, at least for most of its run, does none of them. For 14 of the 18 levels I've experienced so far, the enemies have been staggeringly easy, and for 17 of the 18, the puzzles have been entirely of the rote mechanical kind. Push a switch here to open a door somewhere else. Dungeon Master had puzzles like that, too, but it kept you guessing. That switch might open one door but close another. Or you might need two switches to open the door. Or the switch might have multiple settings. Or it might only open the door for a limited period of time. I learned to play Dungeon Master and most of its lineage (e.g., Eye of the Beholder, Knightmare, Black Crypt) by carefully mapping without touching anything, then slowly testing things out. In Abandoned Places, you might as well pull a lever the moment you see it because there isn't going to be any trick to it.
          
The game has some interesting wall textures. Sometimes it's tough to tell what's interactive and what's not.
          
Some of the levels got highly annoying in their attempts to artificially stretch the length. A switch in the southwest corner opens a door in the northeast corner, for instance. Going through that door leads you to a lever that opens a door back in the southwest corner. Solving most of Abandoned Places' levels means making multiple "loops" through the dungeon, checking for what changed since the last time you were there. In that sense, the dungeons have been relatively linear and I've only been mapping spottily, mostly during those times when I ran out of options and I needed to make sure I hit every square and studied every wall again. Some of the buttons and switches are awfully hard to see.

Pressure plates on floors tripped me up a couple of times. You can't see them; you have to listen for them. There are times I unthinkingly started playing without my headphones on and thus didn't note when I walked over a floor plate. This isn't a big deal if you only walk over it once--it probably just opens some door that you needed open anyway. But if you walk over it a second time, it closes the same door. Only if I wasn't wearing my headphones the first time and was the second time, I might think I just walked over it for the first time and thus avoid it in the future, unknowingly locking myself out of an area until I get the whole thing sorted out.
           
The game is fond of occasional messages, most of which have no relevance to the level.
          
I said "for 14 of the 18 levels" above. Things changed a little after I recovered all of the Ruling Symbols. The next three levels required me to find the altars to unite the pieces of each symbol. The location of each dungeon was revealed to me as I exited the dungeon where I found the third piece. The game had a bug where it told me the Tower of Scions twice when it really meant to give me Draken Tor for one of the two, but I sorted that out with an online walkthrough. Anyway, the enemies in the three "altar" dungeons were much harder than those I'd encountered previously. They weren't hard compared to Dungeon Master or any other game of this subgenre, but they were harder than before. I had to be a little more careful in combat and a couple of times rest between battles.
         
Exiting each dungeon after you find the third piece of the Ruling Symbols brings up a message that tells you the location of the altar to unite them.
           
On the subject of resting, theoretically the hunger system ought to discourage you from doing it too often unless you bring a huge supply of food with you from town. But I discovered through experimentation that the characters' health regenerates faster than hunger depletes it. The ratio is about 1.4 to 1. So as long as you don't mind dealing with everyone saying "oof!" about once a minute as hunger pains drain a hit point, you might as well ignore the whole system. Spell points regenerate much slower than hit points, unfortunately, and there were a couple of times that I parked my party in a corner while I did something else for 20 or 30 minutes so their spell power would regenerate.
          
A random shot of opening a treasure chest.
        
Let me take a diversion to complain about spells. While warriors suffer a "cool down" period after physical attacks, there is no similar pause after spells. The mage's ability to destroy every foe with whatever offensive spell she chooses to cast is limited only by her mana. Because a player with a normal index finger can double-click the mouse about five times a second, it really doesn't matter whether the mage is casting "Electricity," "Fireblast," "Mage Bolt," "Ice Strike," or whatever. The spells that cost more points do more damage, but you can cast them so fast that it hardly matters whether you cast three "Fireblasts" at 8 points each or four "Electricities" at 6 points each (or, for that matter, twelve "Mage Bolts" at 2 points each; and yes, I really do need to standardize when I use digits and when I spell it out). There might as well have just been one generic "Blast" spell for mages.
    
My cleric has lagged well behind the others in character development because he can't swing a weapon to save his life, even though I bought an amulet and a ring meant to improve his abilities. He currently has 52,877 experience points compared to my primary warrior's 269,512. He gets some offensive spells, but I needed to save most of his spell points for healing, particularly as the foes got more difficult. "Cure of Gods" came along just as I was getting sick of having to cast "Minor Cure" dozens of times, and then he got "Healing," which restores all hit points for 10 spell points. Equally important are his exploration spells, including "Swimming," "Walk on Fire," and "Jump," the last of which lets you jump over a square. That became vital in the Halls of Rage.
               
How is walking on fire a spell, but general fire resistance isn't?
           
Before I get to the Halls, I'll just talk a bit about the economy. It's relatively generous as long as you save and sell extra weapons, gems, and jewelry. (Oddly, extra armor can't be sold.) There's nothing useful to buy in the armory, but jewelry stores sell Rings of Mighty Attack, Amulets of Strength, Amulets of Speed, and Rings of Protection, and I was able to give each character some new item every two or three dungeon levels. Now my inventory slots are full, so I only need to keep a little money to buy passage into towns and the occasional meal or room at an inn. I'm thinking about dumping most of it because it weighs you down, and I think slows you in combat.

I don't want to suggest that none of the dungeon levels prior to the Halls of Rage had anything interesting. The Summer Vale had 12 small interconnected levels (all of them together still equaling the size of one standard level) which were a challenge to map. The dungeon near the Lake of Dreams had a maze of single squares in which three of the four walls had levers that activated teleporters. There was a way to find your way through using messages, but I mapped the whole thing by dropping items on the floors. Still, until the Halls of Rage, that's about as exciting as it got.

Once I united the three Ruling Symbols, I got an image of a crown for some reason. The Symbols themselves disappeared from our inventories. Then the weirdest thing happened: the game said that I had "new powers"--specifically, we could all transform ourselves into bats and fly across the landscape, avoiding random encounters and no more relying on boats to get between islands. (For some reason, the option to transform into a bat is activated by a button that looks like a hot air balloon.) I mean, I guess I appreciate the ability, but it really came out of nowhere. Perhaps it has some root in the frequent representation of vampires in Hungarian folklore? If so, it's the only Hungarian-influenced thing I've seen in the game so far.
               
Maybe now that we have the "Ruling Symbols," we're now "rulers"?

Using my new power to cross the land.
             
The Halls of Rage was the final dungeon I explored for this entry, and it completely changed all the rules. It showed that the developers were capable of extremely challenging environments; they just didn't implement them for the 17 previous levels. It was one of the most hateful dungeon levels that I've ever experienced, full of things that the game hadn't even hinted were possible before. Fireballs roar continually down the hallways. Plants suddenly come alive and eat you when you're adjacent. There are perpetually spinning squares in which you have to fight enemies coming at you from all directions without being able to stop yourself spinning. There are teleporters that dump you into the middle of fire or water. If you try to outsmart them by having "Swimming" or "Walk on Fire" active, they up the ante by dumping you on squares that cancel magic and are on fire. There's one long corridor full of fire with one square in the middle that cancels magic and another just after it that spins you around, so you go racing through it at a panic when you lose "Walk on Fire" only to find that you've just returned to where you started. One whole section of the level features a puzzle where you have to push or pull planters around to clear a path, but one wrong move can leave you in a "walking dead" scenario. Getting through this level took me about six times as long as any other level. It was like playing an entirely different game.
           
The party walks into a fireball.
            
Check out this particularly awful area. You come into here from the western corridor. The moment you step on the "T@" square, it teleports you to one of the spinners ("@") on the north or south ends of the room. They spin continually, so you have to try to walk off of them while they're spinning. If you're lucky, you walk into one of the safe corners. If you're unlucky, you walk into one of the "FB" squares and fireballs--the kind that kill your entire party in seconds--come roaring out of the opposite end of this north/south section. Meanwhile, the plants in the two "P" planters are alive and biting you while you stand adjacent to them.
          
A particularly vexing section of the Halls of Rage.
           
Your only hope moving forward is to get to one of the doors on the east end, but there are enemies behind the doors--ghosts--and if they step into the doorway and block the path, you have to try to fight them while getting slammed with fireballs. That doesn't work. So you have to lure them out into one of the corner squares, deal with them, and then get to the end of the room.
               
Plants attack you in this dungeon, and you can't fight them back. They've always been non-hostile before.
           
The middle room has a secret wall behind it with a treasure chest on the far side. This is the ostensible goal of the area. But the only way to get into this area is to step on three successive fireball squares, each one of which continually launches fireballs as long as you're on the square. So somehow you have to quickly sidle to the door, press the lever to open it, and hope that the enemy on the other side stays back long enough for you to walk through the door and escape the fireballs. Oh, and the one right in front of the door ("FB!") also cancels magic, so you're doing this with no protection and in the dark. I don't think "Mage Shield" and "Walk on Fire" and other spells really help in this situation, but it would have been nice to have some false hope.
    
The treasure chest, by the way, is entirely optional. I mean, this is the sort of game where you have to check everything, but it turns out that you don't even need to be in this area. The problem is that once you step on "T@" and get teleported to one of the edge squares, there's no good way to escape. You can linger in one of the western corners forever, but you can't get out by entering "T@" from the north or south because you immediately get teleported. You have to cast "Jump" to get across it from the square in between the two planters--which is a perpetually spinning square. Half the time, your "Jump" won't work because it will try to send you in the direction of a planter, one quarter of the time it will put you back in the doorway to the east, and the final quarter it will actually get you out of the room. You only have to somehow survive three fireball squares to make it in the first place. I couldn't do it with all my characters alive. Maybe if I'd grinded more. I had to reload from outside the dungeon.
                
The whole purpose of the Halls of Rage was simply to find the stairway out. Once I'd achieved that, Bronakh again appeared and said "now let me see what you can do in my lair" and automatically transported us to his lair in the middle of a volcano, with no option to return to town to level up or anything.
           
Our intro to the final dungeon.
           
Miscellaneous notes, many dealing with bugs:
        
  • I am particularly grateful for the ability to fly as a bat because it was getting increasingly hard to get anywhere on the overworld. You can't just move smoothly across the map. The party gets hung up on all kinds of obstacles that you can't even see.
  • The game weirdly divorces the overland features from the dungeons you have to find. For instance, I had to find the dungeon beneath the Tower of Scions. The tower is a feature on the map, but if you walk directly to the tower, you just get the "town menu" but with no menu options. You have to root around in the scrub surrounding the tower before the game finally tells you that you've found the dungeon.
       
The regular Tower of Scions menu offers no option to enter its dungeon.
Instead, you have to hunt around its periphery until you get this.
           
  • The game deletes unused keys from the previous dungeon when you enter a new dungeon, thus saving you from bulking up your inventory with extra keys that you're too afraid to throw away.
  • In an early entry I said that the "combat waltz" was impossible because "enemies are always facing you." This turns out not to be true. You can approach enemies from the side and rear. The waltz still doesn't work though, for reasons having to do with the fact that there are actually four "positions" in each square, and you can only hit enemies if they're in the two positions adjacent to you, which do require them to be facing you.
  • The graphic depiction of the cool downs frequently glitches, often showing that the weapon is available even when it isn't. 
  • There's an occasional bug in shops where accidentally clicking off the menu takes you to a blank screen. At this point, you can't do anything and have to kill the game.
           
I hope I saved recently.
          
  • I've been avoiding the "Terror" spell because I don't see any purpose in sending enemies running off for other parts of the dungeon, where I'll just have to fight them again. However, I accidentally cast it (I was going for "Toxic Cloud" below it) on a dwarf. It somehow turned him invincible. Once it wore off, I was unable to hurt or even hit him with melee attacks or spells. I had to reload an earlier save.
  • In treasure chests, I found several suits of robes that told me they were the "wrong armor for this class" no matter what character I tried to equip with them.
  • A couple of times in the Halls of Death, my lead two warriors froze and refused to do anything when I clicked on their weapons. Both times were fighting ghosts. I don't know if the game glitched or if ghosts have some kind of paralysis or terror effect. There's nothing in the character sheet that tells you what kinds of conditions you're under, and up until then (other than hunger), there hadn't been any conditions.
        
I have mixed feelings as I move forward towards the end. One the one hand, I'm glad I played Abandoned Places long enough to find out that the creators were capable of some Ördög-level cruelty. On the other hand, that was a lot of boring sludge to make me wade through to get to the good stuff. I don't know if I hope that Bronakh's fortress continues in the vein of the Halls of Rage or if it offers a quicker wrap-up.
            
Time so far: 25 hours
        

Thursday, May 28, 2020

TaskMaker: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Can my reward be a haircut?
            
TaskMaker
United States
Storm Impact (developer); XOR (publisher)
Released 1989 for the Macintosh
Remade and re-released as shareware in 1993
Date Started: 15 May 2020
Date Ended: 25 May 2020
Total Hours: 13
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
          
Summary:
TaskMaker is perhaps the perfect Macintosh game. A challenging game with an easy interface, TaskMaker takes the player on a top-down quest to complete 10 tasks for the titular lord, each one progressively more ominous and evil, until at the end the player has a fateful choice. Gameplay is like a combination of early Ultima and a roguelike, with challenging combats made easier through a vast inventory selection. An unusual set of attributes governs success and gets stronger when exercised. Many of the dungeons have complex puzzles involving teleporters, switches, and hidden doors.
          
***************
                      
The best metaphor I can find for my TaskMaker experience is that I just had an excellent lunch. It was tasty, filling, and didn't do anything wrong except lack the gravitas of dinner. It won't unseat Ultima on the GIMLET--no game that lasts only two entries is going to do that, any more than a great lunch place is going to show up on a city's "best restaurants" list. But for the meal that it offered, it offered it perfectly. I need a way to distinguish such games beyond the raw quantitative score of the GIMLET. 
         
I wonder if a truly epic, dinner-worthy RPG has been created for the Mac. It's not like the hardware and software wouldn't support it, and of course it receives ports of such games. But something about the operating system seems to encourage games (or, indeed, perhaps all applications) that are the equivalent of dragging files to the trash can: tidy, cutesy, intuitive, and yet a bit groan-worthy to someone who grew up typing DEL FILE.TXT and still finds it easier to do so. TaskMaker avoids the worst of other Mac games in this regard--its main character is not, for instance, a smiley face--and it admirably backs up almost all mouse commands with keyboard controls, but it still has that sense of being an "app" rather than a program.
           
Making cute drawings out of the dungeon wall pattern is something that a Mac game would do.
        
Still, the focus belongs on the positives. The titular TaskMaker had ten tasks for me:
               
  1. Retrieve a package from Skysail Village.
  2. Retrieve a chessboard from within the castle.
  3. Invade the silver mines, kill the usurpers, and bring back a golden chalice.
  4. Dig in the sands of Porta to find a magic item.
  5. Remove his belongings from the Quagmire Estates.
  6. Steal the coat of arms from the Enitsirhc Family, which "resists [his] reforms."
  7. Slay and bring the head of the leader of a rebel faction in Dripstone.
  8. Raid the crypts at Pentamerous and bring back the body of the previous king.
  9. Bring back the crown of the land from Vidair's Tower.
  10. Murder the prisoner in the TaskMaker's island prison.
            
The steps needed to accomplish these tasks are designed exactly as they should be in a game of this nature. Too many developers, in such a situation, would mistakenly try to create "symmetry" among the tasks by giving them all a similar structure and length, or even worse make them escalate in complexity. But TaskMaker does it right. Some of the tasks are easy, some are hard. Some are long, some are short. To the extent that any are challenging, the challenge is a bit different for each. The variety keeps things interesting and prevents the player from learning to dread the next task.
            
Digging holes in the desert was boring but easy.
          
Even better, while the task order is linear, the game world is not. The player could perform all of the tasks before speaking to the TaskMaker once, then stand in front of him and turn them in all in a row. Nothing is gated. If he knows what he's doing, or just has a bit of daring, he can plunder some of the best equipment early in the game. It would be fun to do a speed run of TaskMaker just to see how quickly you could complete it. 
           
Mapping out a teleport puzzle in one of the last dungeons.
          
I particularly love that the author didn't put up artificial barriers to two slightly game-breaking options: The "Teleport" spell, which moves you to a random place in the current map, and various items that let you walk through walls (e.g., Ethereal Potion, Passwall Scroll). Most games would offer these options but keep you from using them when they really counted. Not this one. I got lucky with a "Teleport" spell on Task 9 and bypassed most of what was probably the game's toughest dungeon. That in some ways, it's too bad that you can do this is outweighed by how awesome it is that you can do this.
           
The easiest tasks were #2--the chessboard was just down the hall, though guarded by some tough early-game foes--and #10. The toughest were the ones that had long, large dungeons: #3, #6, #8, and #9. The game specialized in Dungeon Master-style puzzles like switches, teleporters (visible and invisible), energy barriers, and illusory walls. Vidair's Tower consisted of about 50 small areas interconnected by such devices. They ultimately frustrated me, even though I could have taken the time to map them, and on a different night may have had a great time doing just that. On the particular night I was playing, my impatience led me to try "Teleport" and I was tickled to see it rewarded.
          
A choice of three staircases and a teleporter. Instead of mapping all these paths, I rolled the dice and got lucky.
        
The combat difficulty I reported in the first entry got easier as the game progressed and I got better equipment. I still probably over-relied on the "Instant Vacations" that my deaths unintentionally replicated, but those deaths became rarer as the game went on and, in particular, as I learned how to effectively use the spells. This is another area that the game does quite well. There are ten spells given to you at the outset, and all are useful. Even if you don't use "Teleport" to bypass dungeon puzzles, you can use it to get out of combat. Even a melee player should use "Attack" frequently because it applies your physical attack to all adjacent foes. "Haste" lets you escape monsters (as well as fight them more efficiently). Even better, NPCs give you additional spells throughout the game, called by casting the "Invoke" spell and then typing their names. HOME is a particularly useful invocation that warps you out of wherever you are and back at the starting location. As I speculated last time, casting spells is what exercises "Intellect" and "Spirit" (and to some extent, "Health") and causes those maximum bars to increase.
            
TaskMaker also gives you a lot of inventory resources to take the edge off combats, first in the form of increasingly good stuff to wear and wield, but also in a fun variety of usable items like scrolls, wands, and potions. It is in this area that the game starts to feel a bit like a roguelike, although without the interaction between objects that characterizes that sub-genre. 
        
It probably doesn't surprise anyone to learn that the TaskMaker is actually evil--he does call himself "The TaskMaker," after all. From the game's earliest moments, his over-reactions if you return to him without completing the task show at least a lack of kingly composure, if not outright malevolence.
            
Lord British never gave me this kind of quest.
                 
You start to get real confirmation of his villainy during your invasion of the castle of the Royal House of Enitsirhc (the developer must have known someone named "Christine"; there's also a Scroll of Christine in the game). NPCs say things like, "No one must serve the TaskMaker" and "Please help us. Kill the TaskMaker." In Dripstone, you get the sense that the rebels are more like freedom fighters than terrorists. As a reward for Task 8, the TaskMaker says "may this keep you ever faithful" and then gives you "DRUGS!"
           
The TaskMaker's instructions on the final task are also a bit of a clue.
         
Unfortunately, you can't do anything about it until the final task. If you try to turn on the TaskMaker and slay him during any of the previous game, he just laughs at you. You don't really get any choice until the final task, when you visit the incarcerated prisoner, apparently another rebel leader. "He wants absolute power of the kingdom," the man says, clearly speaking about the TaskMaker.
    
If at this point you choose to kill the man, he says "you just killed a good guy" as he dies. From then on, every NPC in every town is hostile to you. When you return to the TaskMaker, he mocks you for following all his orders and then apparently has you killed. The game isn't 100% clear.
            
Also, he's either undead or really good at illusions.
              
If instead you leave the prisoner alive, the TaskMaker attacks you upon return, also bringing his guards into combat. I didn't find the battle very hard. I don't think I had to even dip into one of my "Instant Vacations" or healing potions. 
              
Fighting the TaskMaker in the final battle.
             
When he dies, you get the message at the top of this entry, but even better, you get a new special menu called "Master," which gives you godlike powers over the game world. You can conjure any object, NPC, or monster; change the tiles to any type of floor, furniture, or wall; and toggle time stop, x-ray vision, and ethereal movement. Among other things, this gives you the ability to fully investigate dungeons you may have only partly mapped. It turns out there was a lot to find in the TaskMaker's very own castle. What a fun reward.
        
Using my new powers to block my throne room with fire.
                        
In a GIMLET, the game earns:
          
  • 4 points for the game world. The backstory doesn't break any new ground, and there isn't much lore, but I like the way that your actions have permanent consequences (which you can reset!) and the way that the "Info" command gives you a little history of each new location. I just wish the TaskMaker hadn't been called such in-game and the game had taken his story and yours a little more seriously and thus put a real dagger blade on the twist ending.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. The creation process (specifying qualitative attributes) is creative, and I like that your development is based partly on how you act. I like that it's possible to gravitate towards a warrior or mage "build" based on what skills you favor. I do wish that the game offered more options than just warrior or mage, and that it made better use of its own alignment system.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. Unfortunately, I think NPCs were a lost opportunity for this game. Instead of using them to introduce game lore, the developer just gave them each one or two lines (depending on whether they have anything different to say after you bribe them). None of them are really necessary, and only a tiny percentage are even helpful.
        
Even when bribed, the rebel leader tells me nothing I don't already know.
       
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. Foes are just names and how hard they hit. There are no special attacks or defenses, and a lot of the time, I didn't even pay attention to the names. The non-combat encounters, in the form of puzzles, were more interesting.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. It seems like you just stand in front of enemies and exchange blows, but as I mentioned, the game's approaches to magic and inventory give you a lot more to do in combat than just keep hitting "fight." I like the magic system with its "extra" spells, many of which I didn't discover.
           
An NPC gives me a new spell keyword.
            
  • 7 points for equipment. The game is generous with useful inventory, inventory slots, and backpack space. It lacks the descriptions, crafting, and interactions among items that would be necessary for a higher score.
  • 5 points for economy. It's useful until about halfway through the game, when you amass so much money the store no longer sells anything you need. The ATMs are a fun touch, though one of many things that make it hard to take the world seriously.
  • 4 points for a main quest, in manageable stages, with a couple alternate endings and side-areas.
          
The "evil end" of the game.
         
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. It gets most for the interface. I found the graphics a bit too detailed for what the resolution was actually able to deliver, and the sound with its recorded voices contributes to that "cutesy" Mac quality I talked about. The first two times I heard "what is it?" when I went to identify something made me chuckle. Then I turned the sound off.
  • 7 points for gameplay. It's as nonlinear as it can be for a game that presents tasks in a fixed order. It lasts a perfect amount of time for its scope and offers a near-perfect challenge. It's also extremely replayable--I know I missed a ton of content in my first pass, and this is just the sort of game that would make speedrunning fun.
        
That gives us a final score of 45, significantly higher than the highest score I'd previously given to a native Mac RPG (Shadow Keep's 36), high enough to put it in the top 15% of games played so far.
    
TaskMaker was written by David Cook, whose company, Storm Impact, was based in Illinois. David did most of the coding for the company's games, while Tom Zehner did most of the large-scale illustrations, including the TaskMaker title screen and TaskMaker portrait. Dan Schwimmer and Dave Friedman helped with playtesting and map design. The team had met in high school and college and were in their first years at college when they founded the company. While TaskMaker sold reasonably well, the company's most successful game was MacSki (1990).
         
For years, the original version of the game was lost, but reader LanHawk wrote directly to David Cook and asked him for it, and David obliged. I later corresponded with David by e-mail. He said that TaskMaker began as a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. (This is probably the source of the incorrect statement, found on several web pages, that TaskMaker was originally a board game.) In porting it to the Mac, Tom says he was influenced by Ultima and The Legend of Zelda. But he intended to create a persistent world in which multiple characters could operate even if they couldn't exactly play together. Future characters would have to contend with the detritus of slain ones. This separation of character state and world state created the unintended item replication bug.
         
The color in the remake makes it easier to tell what the graphics are supposed to be depicting.
          
Version 2 of TaskMaker was released in 1993. This is the one that more players are familiar with. Having experienced a couple hours of it, I don't believe it's different enough from version 1 to warrant a new game number and set of entries. The most significant changes that I can see are:
            
  • It's in full color (but otherwise uses most of the same graphics).
  • It comes with a tutorial to get you used to the conventions.
  • Some keyboard commands have been changed.
  • Some spell names have been changed and the "Teleport" spell is gone.
  • There's no character creation process. Everyone starts with equal values in all attributes.
  • The score only increases; it doesn't decrease over time.
         
The remake comes with a tutorial with magic mouths. Somehow this makes it feel even more like a Mac game.

           
  • The save states for the world and character are unified, so the item duplication glitch is gone. You can no longer "reset" a map or the game world.
  • There are a few additional sound effects.
  • The runic language is gone; wall messages are now in English.
  • Combat is quite a bit easier.
  • Food depletes at a much slower rate.
  • Task #4 no longer has you digging randomly in the desert but rather sends you to a new "Arbalest Catacombs" map.
                  
Visiting in the TaskMaker in the remake.
           
The increases are mostly an improvement, and I suspect that if I'd played the 1993 version from the outset, the GIMLET would have come in at maybe a 47 or 48.
            
Storm Impact dissolved in the late 1990s, but David Cook still sells TaskMaker and the company's other titles on his web page.  I can look forward to 1997's Tomb of the TaskMaker. For now, I think I've had enough of a break from The Black Gate to give it another shot.
      

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Abandoned Places: Empty Frame

Spider webs posed a (mild) obstacle on some of this session's dungeons.
          
A second session with Abandoned Places has shown it to be an adequate but unmemorable Dungeon Master clone. Most of the things I initially liked about it--elements in which it departed from the usual Dungeon Master template--have not really compensated for a certain lack of imagination and challenge.

You'll recall that the plot involved the resurrection of four long-dead heroes to save the land of Kalynthia from a new threat posed by a threatening figure named Bronakh. It turns out that I was missing a large part of the backstory, kept in a book separate from the game manual called The 23rd Chronicles of Kalynthia. The 40 pages of this book tell a Tolkienesque history, full of allusions, partial biographies, and heroes lost to history except for their names. It's an impressive effort, one that suggests epic ambitions for the series that were frustrated by poor sales or lack of interest.

It's probably not worth trying to summarize all of it, but I'll cover it in broad strokes. Thousands of years ago, Kalynthia was an icy world with a technologically advanced population. The manual is written from the perspective of someone who doesn't understand the ancient technology ("armored carriages that could release explosions of fire"), but the population clearly had firearms, bombs, airplanes, and tanks. Some leader named Zander united this world through a combination of diplomacy and conquest. A million-year peace followed in which the population built shining cities and fortresses, tunneled deep into the earth and built entire cities underground, and mastered the art of magic.
            
A long backstory is delivered in a 40-page book with thick text and no illustrations.
             
A warming of the world caused this ancient population to decline and vanished, replaced in dominance by the human creations of two gods, Kiri-Sam and Gardi. After several thousand years of tribal living, a figure named Drexel the Great established the first major civilization. Guilds of craftsmen and storytellers thrived in this civilization, and the most powerful of the guildmasters became the world's first kings and queens.

Several generations later, a queen named Solara ruled a Camelot-like kingdom when a mysterious, dark, charismatic stranger named Zorin became her steward. Her husband died under mysterious circumstances, and she remarried Zorin, bearing from him a child named Bronakh. A "strange and willful" child, Bronakh exerted a power over his mother that caused her to disown her previous children and make one desperate attempt after another to please him. As she descended into insanity, Bronakh was raised by his wetnurse, a gypsy witch named Xonia. As he grew, he became lovers with Xonia's daughter, Ellida. Anyone who spoke against him or Xonia suffered a mysterious death.
          
Here's a random shot of the guy who runs the jewelry shop in town.
          
When Solara died, Bronakh declared himself king and Ellida used enchantments to help him win the support of the people. Solara's older sons (Nikor, Igon, Drel, and Erik) raised an army to oppose Bronakh, but Ellida filled their heads with mistrust for each other, so that when the battle came, the brothers' armies turned on each other and left Bronakh unharmed and victorious. However, Bronakh was mentally exhausted by the many glamours that he'd cast to get this far, and he ended up retreating to an island in the northwest and establishing his kingdom there. On the mainland, with the help of a great Council, the four brothers established four separate kingdoms.

Generations passed and peace reigned for a while, but eventually Bronakh stirred and began sending abominations to the mainland to threaten the populace. The citizenry had to retreat into walled cities to avoid certain death. The rulers of the four kingdoms decided to commission warriors and mages to clear the world of these monsters. Lacking the resources to establish a true army, they selected the 12 most talented specialists in war, magic, and healing, commissioning a Great Contest to suss them out. Bronakh tried to sabotage the contest by sending his own son, Ignis, to compete, but King Soron discovered the plot and destroyed Ignis by pouring a jug of holy water on his head. The 12 heroes did their jobs, and ultimately Bronakh was bound and tossed into a volcano. But the rulers knew that he was immortal and would eventually return, and thus they used magic to turn the 12 heroes to stone and stuck them in the Temple of Heaven's Light to await the world's need.
     
So this is all nice to know, but what strikes me more is how little it would have affected my experience of the game if I'd never found this document. Because as with Dungeon Master, the story is simply a framing story. Telling a more elaborate framing story is like putting a more ornate frame around a painting--it may be an interesting object in and of itself, but it doesn't fundamentally change the experience of the central piece. What's annoying is that Abandoned Places at first shows every intent of abandoning the framing story as the main plot device. It has an overworld with numerous interesting-looking locations. Wouldn't it be nice if visiting those locations produced NPCs and encounters that referred back to the story? Perhaps a couple of places where knowledge of the story helps you solve a puzzle? Alas, the story hardly references actual locations on the map (it mostly contradicts it), and the places you can visit either have generic menu towns or nothing at all. You can't even visit the different dungeons out of order. Thus, the overworld just becomes an interlude between dungeon levels in a game that otherwise plays like most other games in its sub-genre.
        
I forgot to include the overworld map in the last entry. Here it is.
          
We began last session with four of the heroes awakened. It is unclear why there were only four, who awakened them, and what happened to him. The four heroes had to fight their way out of the Temple, make their way to the mainland, and visit over a dozen locations before finding anything to do at Souls Abbey. There, it wasn't even clear that the (unidentified) person who greeted them knew who they were or why they were there; he simply sent them on a "prove yourself" quest to clear out monsters from a dungeon.
     
The dungeon was a single 22 x 22 level with the same sort of navigation puzzles already described: buttons and levers on the walls, keys and keyed doors, squares of fire or water that you must avoid or take damage crossing, pressure plates, and illusory walls. There were enemies in the form of flying skulls and zombie-like humanoids.
         
How did skulls acquire wings? How do they affix?
       
When I cleared the monsters and returned to the abbey, the unidentified representative--again not suggesting that he knew anything about us--suggested we go seek the Book of the World in the "old library" at Kal Kalon. Kal Kalon is the capital of the land, with a full set of services, so I certainly didn't mind the visit. I sold some excess equipment and leveled up before clicking on the "sage" icon option. There, another unidentified old man gave me permission to enter the library.
         
Souls Abbey.
           
The library was three levels, but fragmented so that they really only took up two 22 x 22 level spaces. Other than the textures suggesting books at certain points, the only thing the dungeon introduced was furniture that I had to push out of the way and cobwebs that I had to destroy. (The only way I could find to do it was with the priest's "Fire Path" spell, but I feel like there must be other options.) Enemies included what looked like ghosts of priests and hairy monsters with long claws and razor teeth. In the end, I got the Book of Worlds and returned to the abbey.
         
I don't even have a placeholder name for these guys.
         
It turns out that when you activate the Book of Worlds, it activates a little auto-map in the lower right corner. But it shows only a small space and doesn't annotate puzzles or anything. I haven't been mapping very faithfully for reasons I'll discuss below, but if this were the sort of game where you really had to map, I don't think the automap would do much to help you.
          
Note the automap in the lower right window.
       
Back at the abbey, the priest finally figured out that we were four of the 12 heroes from hundreds of years ago. He then said we'd find a valuable scroll at the Steps and sent us away again.

The Steps are a mountain range southeast of the abbey. From the manual, I learned that when searching for a dungeon entrance over a large area, you need to turn the "search" option on in the overworld interface. From a commenter, I learned that you needed to be dismounted for this to work. Eventually, we found the dungeon entrance.
               
The Steps featured the first pit, and thus the first use of a rope.
            
It was another pair of 22 x 22s. This dungeon introduced a pit that we had to climb down, explore for a while, and climb back up. Ropes we'd found plus my fighters' "climbing" skills did the trick.
   
Finally, in this dungeon, we found our first item of armor--a suit of ringmail. I had begun to wonder if the game even had armor given that there's no explicit slot for it. It turns out that the character figure in the inventory section has been reflecting armor all along. When I dropped the ringmail on a fighter, he gave up his previous suit of leather.
          
My fighter wears a fancy new set of ringmail as we fight some kind of warrior.
           
Enemies in the Steps were mostly skeletons and large, armored warriors. The culmination was a scroll that I couldn't read. I took it back to the abbey, and the priest couldn't read it either. He told me to take it to the "wise" at Kal Kalon. He, in turn, said that the scroll discussed the Ruling Symbols.
            
The Ruling Symbols are some kind of magical items. They were created by a group of powerful spell casters to keep evil from Kalynthia. The work was completed too late. Evil got to them. Then after an adventurous fight of mighty heroes the items were brought back to the Council of Elders. They decided that these items may help forthcoming generations. So they cut the items into pieces, and hid them around the empire. Only the worthy ones can find them. You will need all of these artifacts to destroy Bronakh.
           
The Ruling Symbols turn out to be three items: the Sword of Darkness, the Staff of Supremacy, and the Globe of Forthcoming. Each is in three pieces, leaving nine total pieces to find. For each piece, the first one will somehow lead me to the others. The scroll describes the location of each first piece: the Broken Isles, the Sands of Fire, and Seers Point. So it appears I have a bit of freedom at this point. I can start in any of those three locations and then either finish finding an entire item before moving on to the next, or find all "first pieces" before the seconds, and so on.
            
The wise man doesn't seem to care one way or another if I save the world.
          
We've seen that Abandoned Places doesn't break much new ground, although it initially seems to, in its narrative or game world. That leaves how it plays as a dungeon crawler, and as I said before, it distinguishes itself in neither mechanics nor challenge. To start, I haven't suffered a single character death the entire game so far. In fact, I don't think any of my characters have seen their hit points drop below 50%. Enemies hardly ever hit, and when they do, they don't hit that hard.

Combat itself is unsatisfying. The cool-down period for attacks is just a little too long, so a lot of the time you and the enemy are just standing there looking at each other. Even if combat was faster and harder, the game lacks many of Dungeon Master's tactics. Closing them in doors doesn't work. Combat waltzing (check the glossary!) doesn't work because enemies are always facing you. Enemies have fixed patrol zones, so you can't do the backpedal.
          
Fighting a ghostly librarian in the library. Trying to close the door to crush him just closed it behind him.
         
Meanwhile, the puzzles have also lacked any real challenge. They've all been of the find-the-switch-here-to-open-the-wall-there variety. I've been stuck a couple of times, but mostly because I failed to note a wall switch, or because I hadn't yet tested every wall to see if it was illusory. As the game has progressed, the puzzles haven't gotten harder so much as more distant, so a switch might open a wall on the other end of the dungeon, or even another dungeon level. Usually in games like this, I map everything I can without touching anything, then start experimenting witch switches and plates. I do it carefully because you never know when a switch might be temporary, or a plate might open one door but close another. But here, the causes and effects are so rudimentary that I've started activating every switch the moment I find it.
          
The brick above the cursor is a button.
          
Abandoned Places retains two quirks of Dungeon Master that have always annoyed me: inability to see the names of your enemies and inability to see weapon statistics. At least in Dungeon Master, you could track the damage done to enemies and basically figure out which item was better, but in Abandoned Places, the only feedback you get is whether you hit or missed. Naturally, the ease of combat makes it a lesser consideration for now. My characters have upgraded from clubs and daggers to short swords, maces, and axes. I've found two magic weapons: a magic club and a magic dagger. I gave the club to my cleric, who almost never gets to act in combat and thus has the lowest experience point total of the group (he gets most of his experience from "Minor Cure Wounds" and "Create Food" spells). To help him get more, I have him attack to the rear. After my fighters attack forward in combat, I spin around and give the cleric an attack or two. My mage remains aiming forward, as she can cast offensive spells past the fighters.
 
Opening a chest with a key. You can see the mage's spell list here.
        
Miscellaneous notes:
   
  • So far, no dungeons have allowed enemies to respawn. If I did end up feeling I needed a little grinding, I'd have to do it with random encounters in the overworld.
  • The game's font makes a w look like an m. It's driving me crazy.
            
The mise maits for a second before telling me mhat is mritten. (Or the roise roarts for a second before telling me rohat is roritten.)
             
  • I've found some missile weapons, including a bunch of shurikens, but picking them up after battle is annoying even in games where you desperately need them. There's no chance I'm doing that here. 
  • I found a reasonable amount of gold in the last dungeon, plus lots of items to sell for more gold. I'm just hesitant to spend any of it.
              
This dungeon room had piles of gold on the floor.
           
  • Food depletes very fast, and "Create Food" doesn't create much. I probably have to spend 5 minutes casting "Create Food" multiple times, passing it around, and eating it to get 15 uninterrupted minutes of dungeon crawling. Once characters are starving, they periodically lose 1 hit point, accompanied by an "oof!" I'm not sure, but I think the standard hit point regeneration might be faster than the 1 point they're losing by starving, but the "oof!" is so annoying that I feed them. The whole system exists only to annoy you.
  • Half the time you try to visit some place in town, you get a screen saying that it's "closed now." Most of the time, if you acknowledge the message and try again a couple times, you can get in. Yet another thing that seems to exist solely to annoy.
  • Spellcasters get spells automatically on leveling up. So far, I've been relying heavily on the mage's "Mage Bolt" and "Mage Cloud."  My priest has a spell called "Death Clow"; I don't know if it was supposed to be "claw" or "glow," but either way it doesn't seem to do anything. There are some other mysterious ones, such as the priest's "Create Water" (characters don't need water separately from food) and the mage's "Teleport," which seems to be the "recall" part of a "mark/recall" spell except I can't figure out how to specify the "mark" part.
           
Moving from the abbey to Kal Kalon.
            
Late in this session, I was Googling around to see if I'd missed any documentation on spells. I took note of a walkthrough, checking out only what it said for the parts that I'd already played, and I realized that an entire facet of the game had escaped my notice. The Soul Abbey is one of only three possible places that you can wind up where they give you the initial series of quests. The other two are the castle called Twilight and Vo Marris on the Isle of Mists. Each one of them sends you to a different starter dungeon. The library at Kal Kalon is the same for all three, but then each sends you to a different place to look for the scroll. The three potential paths converge at the point where I am now. It's an interesting approach that enhances replayability.
        
I'm considering whether to declare that I've explored this one enough and just move on, not because it's bad, but because it seems likely to take another 20 hours without offering anything substantially different. I'll give it at least one more session and perhaps a quick scout of other sites to see if someone else has documented the endgame.
        
Time so far: 9 hours