Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Game 464: Fushigi no Umi no Nadia (1991)

Fushigi no Umi no Nadia
"Nadia of the Mysterious Seas" 
Advance Communication Company (developer); Toho Co. (publisher)
Released 1991 for NES
Identically-named adventure games released for other platforms, 1992-1993
Date Started: 3 May 2022
Date Ended: 3 August 2022
Total Hours: 22
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Nadia came up on a random roll a few months ago. Although it was originally released only in Japan, I checked to see if anyone had made an English translation, and it turns out that it did. (There isn't much text in the game anyway.) In fact, it was translated as early as 1998 by an outfit calling itself J2E Translations; they don't seem to have been active since 2004. When I saw how long it was going to take, I nearly dumped it, but I unexpectedly found myself enjoying it. I dipped into it once or twice a week over the summer and just recently managed to finish it. It was a decent contrast to the other games on my plate this summer.
The game is based on a 1990-1991 Japanese animated television series of the same name, translated for English release as Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. This is the name that the translators chose for the game's title screen, but I understand the Japanese title means something closer to Nadia of the Mysterious Seas. In any event, the show is set in the late 1800s and draws themes and characters from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (I got a copy of the book when I was eight, but it took me nearly another 40 years to realize that the 20,000 leagues are how far the Nautilus traveled, not how deep it traveled.) The 14-year-old heroine has a secret past and carries a mysterious jewel called the Blue Water. She and her inventor friend, Jean, hook up with Captain Nemo and an assortment of other characters to battle a warlord named Gargoyle, who seeks to restore the dominance of Atlantis.
A promotional image for the show.
There were adventure games of the same name released for the SEGA Genesis and Japanese PCs around the same time, but those don't have anything to do with this Nadia. Frankly, the game has as much to do with the show as C3P0's cereal had with Star Wars. Characters drawn from the show face off across a variety of different landscapes, but they could have easily been swapped with different icons and names to draw from a different framing story. In fact, given the quick turnaround time (the series ended the same year this game was published), I have to wonder if the game wasn't originally developed as a non-licensed title, with some last-minute text and icon swapping.
Without any introduction, the player is given a list of 50 scenarios, organized into 10 groups: Streets of Paris, Stone Circle, Gargoyle Castle, Bunglegun Soil, Warehouse, Pipe-Line, Ocean Floor, Antarctic, Cave, and Temple. Each one has a slightly different map, but the goal is always the same: move at least one of your characters across the map and engage and kill the emperor before the Neo-Atlantean forces engage and kill Nadia on your side. If you have two controllers, you can have a second player control the Atlanteans. The names of both allies and enemies are drawn from the show. Allied characters include Nadia, Jean, Nemo, Grandis, Electra, a lion named King, a whale, and the Nautilus itself. Enemies include Gargoyle, Garfish, Canrobot, a tank, and (for some reason) the Tower of Babel. I don't know if their various strengths and skills have any basis in the show.
Considering my options on one of the "Antarctic" maps. Yes, there are igloos in the Antarctic.
The game looks like a strategy game, and that's how I originally saw it, but it's more accurate to think of it as an enhanced version of chess. Each round, you can move only one character. Each character is capable of different movement paths and distances. Some can move one or two squares in any direction (assuming there are no obstacles); others can move all the way across the map, but only straight across a row, or only diagonally. The emperor, taking the role of the king in chess, is usually somewhat protected, and you have to maneuver your pieces in such a way that you can reach him. There are no automatic captures as in chess; every engagement between pieces results in an RPG-like combat on a separate screen. 
This character can move as far as he wants, but only in his existing row or column. If I move him now, I'll only be a couple of steps away from the emperor (the figure two squares from the top and two squares from the right) when I arrive.
Combat happens when you end a round adjacent to an enemy. If you end a round adjacent to two enemies, you fight both of them. One good way to protect Nadia is to ensure that she can't be approached without engaging at least one other character at the same time. Since you can only move one character at a time, you can never offensively attack with more than one character.
On the combat screen, Captain Nemo attacks a tank.
There are other RPG elements. Each character has attributes--strength, armor class, and hit points. Many of them have "skills" that draw from a pool of magic points. Most are used in the combat screen, but some, like a long-distance ranged attack called "Long," can be used on the main screen in lieu of engaging someone in combat. And while you move around the map, useful objects pop up at random, inviting you to grab them to gain an edge in combat. There are items that make a powerful attack, heal, restore magic points, allow you to escape combat without a chance of failure, and several other effects.
A "pod" appears on the map for anyone to grab. I honestly don't remember what they do.
Most importantly, for our purposes, characters gain experience after each victory and frequently level up, increasing strength, health, magic points, and armor class. (There's also an attribute called "MD" that I never figured out; it might be "Magic Defense.") A character earns about 50 experience points for an evenly-matched battle and levels up every 100 experience points. As your level increases relative to the enemy's, the experience rewards are less and less.
A character levels up.
Enemy difficulty is based on the map. The first scenario has Level 0 and Level 1 enemies; the fiftieth has some enemies at Level 80. It thus makes sense to take the scenarios in order, and even to repeat the same scenario multiple times as a type of "grinding."
Checking the enemy's statistics.
That's the theory, anyway. After I got some experience, I realized that the enemy AI is so poor that you don't really have to play the game the way it's clearly intended. (Obviously, that wouldn't be true with a skilled second player.) The enemy fails to take obvious chances to kill Nadia and doesn't do a very good job protecting his emperor. Thus, you're encouraged to build up only one or two characters and just send those powerful allies directly across the map to the emperor, leaving the rest behind to do nothing, rather like decimating a chess opponent by playing nothing but your queen. You occasionally lose this way--there's a lot of randomness in combat--but losing just means you have to play the scenario again. I found that I rarely died. Most characters level up after every couple of combats, which completely restores hit points and magic points. You don't have to conserve your resources when you know you're getting them all back every two or three combats.
The enemy uses a "Long" spell to lob a cannonball at one of my characters. It's one of the few ways you can attack from the main screen instead of the combat screen.
One thing I liked about the game is how tactics continually evolve. In the early levels, strength is paramount. No one has enough spell points to use magic more than once or twice per scenario. Items like "Boosters" (despite the name, they're an offensive weapon) and shotguns are so much more powerful than your own attacks that you run around the map collecting them. "Boxes," which restore magic points, are worth their weight in gold.
I win a scenario!
In the late game, physical attacks are nothing. Spells like "Freeze," "Charm" (which just stuns), and of course "Heal" are vital. There are a lot of offensive spells like "Throw" and "Long" that do massive amounts of damage but also have a high chance of failing. Adding to the mix, you don't exactly "take turns" in combat; sometimes, you or the enemy gets two, three, or even four moves in a row. You can never tell, so you have to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
If this spell works, I should be able to kill the emperor in one hit.
Fifty is a lot of scenarios, and at higher levels, they get particularly tedious since almost every character (enemies included) has healing spells. There's nothing more frustrating than whittling 500 hit points away from your enemy only to watch him restore 300 of them with 10 magic points--and he still has another 250 magic points to go. Having more hit points also gives enemies more time to decide to flee, at which point they appear in some random part of the map. When the emperor does this after you've spent 20 minutes trying to reach him, it's maddening.
An enemy casts a "Silence" spell on my whale.
Still, I enjoyed the scenarios overall, in limited duration. Just as you probably wouldn't want to play more than one or two games of chess per day, that was about my limit for Nadia battles, which is why it took me so long to win.
At first, I wasn't even sure there was a winning condition. I thought maybe the game was just about the individual scenarios. I skipped some of them and replayed others. After I'd completed about half of them, I started jumping directly to #50, hoping to win it to see if anything happened. When I did win it on my fifth or sixth attempt, and nothing did happen, I figured that was it. But a note on a random web site mentioned something about an endgame cinematic, so I sighed and kept at it.
Choosing from among the scenarios.
When I'd won all the original 50 scenarios, the game suddenly presented me with a new row of five more! The title of the new group was "Space." I nearly packed it in at that point, envisioning yet another row appearing after I'd won #55, but I read a synopsis of the show and learned that the end takes place in space, so I figured that might be the last row after all.
One of the final space-based battles.
I played the five additional scenarios, and the game finally ended with some animated scenes of the characters dancing around the screen, followed by some credits. 
Character images from the show appear for the closing credits.
It gets only a 16 on my GIMLET, doing best in character development and magic/combat (3s), but as often happens, the game is a bit better than the rating suggests, since it really wasn't intended as a classic RPG.
Nadia got me thinking a lot about the relationship between strategic board games like chess and strategy wargames. I have written and deleted a couple thousand words on the subject; I keep finding holes in my logic. I suppose I ought not to write anything at all about chess, which I don't like and am horrible at. (I've never known which of these is the x variable and which is the y.) Suffice to say, it seems to me that a game in which you move only one piece per turn is fundamentally different from a game in which all units can act per turn, but every time I try to articulate the consequences of this distinction, I get lost in a morass. Maybe some of you can point me to existing writings on the subject or offer your own thoughts.
For now, I'll just say that because I suck at chess, I'm always envisioning ways to change the rules more to my liking, such as introducing dice--rolling to capture another piece instead of the capture happening automatically. Or giving each player a list of "spells" they can apply at their discretion, once per game, like a spell that lets a particular piece double its movement, or a spell that resurrects a lost piece. Nadia basically represents these ideas come to life. It turns out what I've always wanted from chess is to make it more like an RPG. How astonishing.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Angband: From the Halfway Mark

Playing Angband makes me feel my life draining away.
It's been about four months since I last wrote about Angband, but I still have been playing it intermittently. I don't consider it a good use of time, so I generally save it for when I have something else to do on the side, like a TV show or a boring Zoom meeting. Irene and I listen to a radio show called "Rhythm Sweet and Hot" from WESA in Pittsburgh some Saturday nights, for instance, and that's a good couple of hours for some Angband.

I decided I wouldn't blog again until I'd reached Level 50, a milestone I just crossed this week. It looks like I was at Level 31 in my last screenshot from March. That makes sense. I've gone down about 20 levels in as many weeks. During this period, my cycle has looked like this:
  • Load the game. I always save in town.
  • Shops rotate their stocks over time, even while the game is shut down, so I first run around to the shops and make sure there's nothing I want to buy, particularly Scrolls of Identification.
  • Use a Scroll of Word of Recall to zoom down to the lowest dungeon level I've explored so far.
  • Start exploring, picking up items that sound useful. I prioritize items that involve speed, healing, mana regeneration, or restoration of experience or attributes. Weapons and armor get picked up in case they're artifacts. Potions that increase attributes are quaffed right away.
  • Try myself against most enemies. Flee from anything on a long, rapidly-growing list; e.g., archpriests, hydras with more than 5 heads, ghosts, undead beholders, regular beholders, greater titans, dreads, phantoms, chaos drakes, death drakes, vampire lords. Flee from anything else when health gets to less than half of maximum. "Flee" means that I cast "Teleport." If that doesn't work, I use a backup rod or staff that I periodically recharge.
Enemies that cause your items to lose their enchantment are particularly vile.
  • When my inventory gets full, use a Scroll of Word of Recall to zap back to the town level, buy more Scrolls of Identify if available, identify my stuff, sell what I don't want, stash items useful for the future in my house, and start the process over.
  • On every third or so trip, move downstairs a level before warping back to town.
Using this method, I have not only made slow progress but have mostly avoided having to circumvent the game's intended permadeath. I've restored backups a few times, usually when I get frustrated by some enemy and fail to teleport away before he kills me.
I almost always have something waiting to be restored, such as experience, intelligence, and wisdom in this screenshot.
Every half a dozen trips or so, I find an item that improves upon what I'm already equipped with. The best items, I've found, don't do more damage or increase your accuracy but rather confer some kind of resistance. For instance, my Cloak of Thronogil makes me immune to anything that would paralyze or stun me, and it makes me resistant to acid. My Ring of Flames makes me immune to fire damage, although that immunity doesn't extend to my inventory. Still, there are a lot of negative conditions in the game, and I'm nowhere close to being immune to all of them. I'm rather sick of getting blinded, afraid, and most importantly, drained. Ever since about Level 20, every other damned enemy seems capable of draining something, either an attribute or overall experience and levels. I'm almost never fully restored, although Mushrooms of Restoring started showing up a few levels ago and at least take care of the attributes.
My current list of equipped inventory. I still need artifact items for boots and gauntlets, and I could do better with my rings, amulet, and weapon.
Beyond that, just a lot of miscellaneous things:
  • Inventory space is precious and always diminishing. You get 22 slots, but if I want to travel with all the spells my character is capable of casting, seven of them are immediately taken up by holy books. I need a slot for food, another for Scrolls of Word of Recall, and at least one more for my teleportation gear. That's half of them gone before I pick up a single item.
  • The game is fond of large packs of things that never seem to end, particularly trolls and hounds. There's never just one fire hound or stone troll; if you see one, there's at least twenty shortly behind it. You have to retreat to a hallway and kill them one after the other until they stop.
  • Most levels also feature at least one unique creature like Rogrog the Black Troll or Adunaphel the Quiet. (Their names are almost all drawn from Tolkien.) I almost never beat them. They have hit points in the hundreds or thousands and are almost always immune to anything a wand or rod might be able to do. On earlier levels, I killed them by engaging for as long as I could take it, then teleporting away, healing, and re-engaging. But ever since about Level 25, they almost all seem to be capable of regenerating health, because multiple sorties no longer work.
Quaker, Master of Earth was my latest unique foe.
  • I earn about 10,000 gold pieces per expedition these days. For a while, I was spending it on potions that increased my attributes, which go for about 30,000. But those are all over 18 these days, and those potions now only increase them a few decimal places. Recently, a Ring of Speed showed up in one of the stores for almost 150,000. It was gone before I could save up nearly enough to afford it, but my new plan is to accumulate a lot more gold and start looking for useful long-term items like that. I want to find speed-related items in particular, because everything in this game seems capable of attacking six times to my one.
  • On Level 47, I fought Chester, the Vampire Lord. A lack of Google results suggests this was a deliberate mirroring of my name, probably because I died on this level previously.
I must have died on this level.
And this short entry is all I have to report after about 20 hours. I know I've said it before, but it bears repeating: this game is absurdly, indecently long. I don't just find it tiring; I find it actively offensive that someone felt it was advisable to create a game of such ridiculous length and limited plot. I can only imagine that later versions are somehow more respectful of the player's time; otherwise, I can't fathom how it shows up on lists of so many players' favorites. Thus, I am going to continue to approach it opportunistically, playing a level or two when I have a complementary thing to do, and I probably won't blog about it again until I've won.

Time so far: 53 hours

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Return of Werdna: Grandmaster! (with Summary and Rating)

I won't tell you how to win. I'll just tell you what I did to win.
The Return of Werdna: The Fourth Wizardry Scenario
United States
Sir-Tech (developer and publisher)
Released 1987 for Apple II; 1988 for PC-88, PC-98, and DOS; 1989 for FM-7 and Sharp X1
Date Started: 23 May 2022 (9 October 2010 originally)
Date Ended: 2 August 2022
Total Hours: 70 (84 including 2010)
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
This famously-difficult entry in the Wizardry series casts you as the evil wizard that you would have defeated in Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981). With limited resources you must make your way up 10 levels of a hostile dungeon, emerge into the sunlight, and seek your final destiny in the castle. Billed as a game for expert players, Werdna requires a lot of patience, careful mapping, some knowledge of previous games in the series, and a generous tolerance for reloading. The sparse graphics and lack of sound are well out of date by the game's release year, and it lacks most RPG mechanics. Character development occurs at fixed intervals; combat is more about luck than tactics; and there is essentially no economy. The plot is threadbare and rife with in-jokes, pop culture references, and nerd humor. But for all that, the game succeeds very well in its primary mission, and it offers a rewarding experience for an old-school mapper.
The so-called "Grandmaster" ending commenced with my arrival in the hidden Level 11 of the dungeon. It was a highly-symmetrical level with no combats, just a lot of riddles at regular intervals.
The theme of the level is made clear with Oracle hints about the Qabalah and the Roots of the World. I was primed to see it because I had been trying to figure out what "Live the Qabalah!" had to do with the game, and thus I had been Googling QABALAH and its alternate spelling, KABBALAH. With every search, I kept seeing the same images.
Various images when Googling QABALAH.
I'll let you do your own reading on Kabbalism if you're really interested. For our purposes, we need to know only that a key concept of its theology is the sefirot, or the ten "emanations" by which the infinite god (Ein Sof) manifests in the material world. Each emanation has a name, and they are usually presented in a complex "tree" diagram in which the top emanation, Keter, is the most esoteric and the bottom, Malikhut, is the most concrete. There is a long tradition of overlaying this diagram with the human body, or replacing it with an image of the human body, and thus each emanation ends up associated with a body part.
I originally put a table here with the ten emanations, their traditional body parts, and Werdna's interpretation of those body parts. I decided to remove it because I'm not an expert on Kabbalism and I didn't want to get into arguments about what is "traditional." My understanding, for instance, is that usually Chochmah and Binah are associated with the left and right brain whereas Werdna has them associated with the left and right cheek. Similarly, Yesod is usually associated with genitalia while Werdna associates it with the stomach. Nonetheless, there are a lot of books about the sefirot, both traditional and modern, and for all I know, Roe Adams had a book in front of him that gave the ten parts exactly how he included them.
The final level, looking a little bit like the sefirot tree.
While having that specific book or any book about Kabbalism might help the player understand exactly what's happening on this level, I think you could probably get through most of the riddles without it. The level is presented as a squashed sefirot diagram (Adams had to fit it into a square). You arrive in the south-center and make your way to the "mouth" via a linear path (with a lot of one-way doors that take you back to previous areas) that walks you through the emanations in traditional (reverse) order.

Along this path, you face a series of riddles whose answers are body parts. The riddles are relatively straightforward if you ignore the first sentences. For instance, the first riddle is: "I am discrimination at my best and avarice at my worst. I symbolize the part of the boy upon which all the rest stands." The answer is FEET, which makes sense with "all the rest stands" but not really with "avarice" or "discrimination" unless you're cramming together your location on the sefirot diagram with traditional teachings about the associated emanation (Malikhut).
Similarly, the next riddle is: "I am independence yet I am idleness. I symbolize the part that fuels the body with energy." The answer, STOMACH, works great for the second sentence. You can concoct an explanation for why it works with the first, but you'd never get it organically unless you knew you were walking through a giant sefirot diagram.
I had the most trouble with this one: "I am unselfishness, yet I am lust. I am the foundation of the body upon which the main rests. What am I?" FEET and LEGS had already been used here, and SPINE and BACK didn't work. I tried some frankly embarrassing guesses based on the first sentence before finally getting the answer with HIPS. Fortunately, getting a wrong answer only knocks you back a square.
Having read about the sefirot did prepare me for some answers needing to be qualified with LEFT and RIGHT, which makes sense in the map only if you imagine it represents a figure facing you (i.e., the riddle whose answer is LEFT ARM is on the right side of the map). The RIGHT CHEEK gave me some trouble ("I am the part of the face upon which the sun rises each day"), but by then I was used to just listing body parts anywhere near that part of the diagram.
CHEST is obvious if you only read the last two sentences.
The final body part riddle is clued with: "I am attainment. I am that part of the body that is above all the rest, yet beyond mere touch. What am I?" I tried MIND and then got it with BRAIN.
You then move south into a room that appears roughly where the mouth is. On the sefirot diagram, this place is given to Da'at, an "eleventh" emanation that I guess is understood as a part of Keter, the top emanation and the one associated with the conscience. Werdna had an entirely different riddle here: "The answer to the Greatest Question is also the simplest. Upon what paths have you trod? Where are you?" I tried several spellings of SEFIROT to no avail. I remembered the Oracle hint about the "roots of the world," tried that, and also failed. It took me some more Googling to find that the tree of the sefirot is often called the TREE OF LIFE, which was the answer. That might have been a tough one in 1987.
You also need the Void Transducer at one point, but I forgot where this happened.
The game told me that I was "truly to be counted among the wise." I then met a being dressed in a miparti: "I am knowledge. As a seeker of truth, I present you with this gift. With it, you can cut the veils of illusion. Now go. You have a destiny to fulfill!" The item shows up in the inventory as a Kris of Truth, a kris being a Malaysian dagger with a wavy blade.
The Kris of Truth doesn't help if you want to become king, but it can take the place of one of the swords when you go to confront Kadorto. After you defeat the Softalk All-Stars and Hawkwind as before, the endgame sequence commences with you using the Holy Limp Wrist on Kadorto and Kadorto tossing you the amulet. Only after you catch it does the text start to change:
You draw your dagger of clear light, and face Kadorto unafraid, for you are whole and secure in your knowledge of the Tree of Life. Kadorto stops his laughing when he sees your blade. "No, no, not that!" he cries. The kris blazes forth. In its clear penetrating light, no lie or illusion can remain. Kadorto's motions become jerky, and smoke begins to pour out of his knees and elbows. His head pops open, and a singed high priest climbs out of a concealed control cabin. Now you see the real truth! Kadorto is a fake, an invention of the priests, a cunning device to perpetuate their social position and control over men!
If this is true, how did I get stuck in statue form for centuries? And why would this kind of ruse be necessary with Hawkwind guarding the door?
You laugh at the ridiculous sight of a high priest with his robes smoldering. It feels good to be alive. You take out the amulet, and in the light of the kris, you see it for what it really is: a dangerous trap for those unwary. A joke of the gods. For it is neither good nor evil, but fashioned out of pure chaos. You vow to "return it" to its makers, and you are sure the Kris of Truth will aid you. But that can wait for tomorrow. Today is to be enjoyed!
Outside, into the beautiful sunshine, you walk, feeling at last free and alive. You have returned to the world. You look back at the temple for a moment and wonder . . . Have you forgotten something? You laugh, for you know that you have not. You are master of your fate, and the winding paths of the Tree of Life illuminate the shape of your destiny!
I'll take it.
A couple of congratulatory screens follow, including one that offers a special number to call to inform Sir-Tech about your victory. You also get a screen bestowing the title of "Wizardry Grandmaster Adventurer" upon you and a series of goofy "P.S." screens, including another "Have you forgotten something?" and a follow-up that assures, "Don't worry, you haven't." Is it just me, or would this repeated question have made more sense if it had been "Have you overlooked something?" or "Have you missed something?" Not having found something in an obtuse maze isn't the same thing as "forgetting" it.
Thanks for the reassurance.
It's an interesting ending, although not a perfect one. I must point out that it conflicts a bit with the others. The Kadortos that you fight in the various sword endings are manifestly not just priests in giant suits. I like the idea that the amulet is just a device to draw out megalomaniacs. I'm not sure why "return it" is in quotes above, and I find it amusing that the ending specifies that Werdna is "master of [his] fate" but also that he has a destiny. As with the whole business of bathing in pools of water to change alignments, Werdna's transformation in this ending is a bit too easy. I don't know if Roe Adams had some personal belief in the Qabalah, but it's a bit odd to introduce it in the eleventh hour when he could have made it a persistent theme throughout the 10-level dungeon. Imagine a game in which each level gave Werdna not only mechanical challenges but moral temptations to overcome, with the multiple endings determined by how well he had achieved enlightenment during his journey. It's just another way that lore, theme, and storytelling aren't really the strong suits of this game or this series.
But we should remember that at this point in CRPG history, nothing quite like this had been done. It was rare enough to find a game with multiple endings, let alone one with a hidden "true" ending. I wonder if I would have found it without a hint. I'm certain that I would have known that there was something to find--there are too many unused Oracle hints otherwise. But I'm not sure how I would have hit upon the idea of trying to teleport below Level 10. I probably would have needed some kind of hint that led me to realize the dungeon was deeper than it first appeared; something like "Seen Inception lately?" or "the dungeon is primed with levels." I otherwise probably would have spent a long time trying to get something to happen at the lych-gate and then given up. I wonder who the first person was to find the hidden ending, and how long it took him.
Twelve years ago, I gave Werdna a 30 on the GIMLET without explaining it. Today, I would rate it:
  • 4 points for the game world. It's an original approach, and the backstory as presented in the manual and opening screens are clear enough about the nature of your quest. Unfortunately, the lore of the setting is hopelessly tangled in SCA in-jokes and nerd references, diminishing the impact of the various endings.
I would like to never hear this question again.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There's no creation, and you develop only at fixed intervals (pentagrams), once per level. Everyone plays the same Werdna with the same abilities and spells.
  • 2 points for NPC interaction. I'm basically using this category to give some credit for the variety of allies you can summon at the pentagrams; learning their strengths and weaknesses are key parts of the game. There really are no individual NPCs otherwise. I don't think the Oracle is worth a point.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. It gets this for both the variety of enemy "do-gooders" that you have to analyze and learn and for the inventory puzzles and riddles throughout the game, most of which are fair.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Combat tactics come down to knowing what spell to cast, what allies to keep with you, and when to flee. It's still worth a few points.
I'm going to miss my monster allies.
  • 2 points for equipment. Most of the stuff you find in the game is for puzzles. Regular equipment for Werdna is not a big part of the experience.
  • 1 point for economy. You get tons of money that you need only for the Oracle and for the weregild in one of the potential endings.
In retrospect, many of the Oracle's "hints" turned out to be spectacularly unhelpful.
  • 4 points for quests. You have a main quest with several alternate endings. My only quibble is that these alternate endings have more to do with luck than with role-playing, and some of them feel a bit arbitrary (e.g., a good ending for choosing a blue sword but a horrible one for choosing a green one).
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface, all for the keyboard interface. You don't play this series for graphics or sound. 
  • 4 points for gameplay. I'm giving full points on the "difficulty" variable. Although I might rate the game as "too hard" if it was a regular game, it's the right difficulty for what it both intends and promises. It has some replayability at the end, and although it's a bit too long, it's mostly too long because of that replayability.
The subtotal of 27 is lower than my original rating, but I was overly generous during my first year or so, and I think this better represents how I feel about it now. It is not a very good CRPG, but it is a good game in a category for which it is essentially the only representative. You get exactly what the box promises. Although I didn't like it when I first encountered it, I was playing it wrong. This is a game to be taken slowly, in long sessions where you map a whole level at a time and then take a break for a while. It's a perfect game for my current practice of alternating at least two games, and it's a perfect game for someone who has a summer off to concentrate on it.
Having now finished it, I think the hyperbole about Werdna being "the most difficult game in CRPG history" is mostly wrong, particularly for any ending. It requires time, patience, and careful notes and maps, but with those things, there are only a couple major stumbling blocks. With someone else's notes and maps, it would hardly seem difficult at all. I would reserve "hardest game in CRPG history" for titles in which knowledge and skill aren't enough to save you, where battles are titanically impossible or rely on incredible odds. Almost any game with permadeath is objectively "harder" that Wizardry. For all the time it takes to map Werdna, what happens on those maps is relatively straightforward. Many Dungeon Master derivatives like Knightmare and Chaos Strikes Back are "harder" in that you have to note complex chains of cause-and-effect often in remote locations. "The hardest CRPG in history" would have something like an invisible button on Level 2 that opens a door on Level 9, but only if you press it twice.
(This issue has made me think about what it really is that I'm measuring with my "difficulty" rating. It's really more of a "fairness" rating, I think. I should clarify and perhaps differentiate the two variables at some point.)
I've had my disagreements with Scorpia, but somehow I had faith that she would "get" this game, and thus I had been looking forward to her review. I wasn't disappointed. In the November 1987 Computer Gaming World, she said "the answer is a resounding 'Yes!'" to the question of whether the wait for the game (originally promised in 1984) was worth it. (She uses the term "vaporware" in the review; it amuses me that there was a time that word was used after a delay of only three years.) She warns readers of its difficulty but also says that the game "is eminently fair and is perhaps one of the most finely-balanced games I've ever played." She had complaints about the lack of advancement in graphics and long disk access times, and she "had trouble accepting" the resurrection of all enemies every time you save the game. (I thought it made saving a tactical decision and added nicely to the game's challenge.) "Unique, and not to be missed!" she concluded. 
Dragon didn't get to the game until February 1989 and only gave it 3.5 stars, but their complaints were more about the graphics and copy protection system than anything else. "No other scenario can offer more bang for your buck" for the experienced player, they said. Curiously, the magazine had offered a "preview" a year earlier, after the actual release of the game, in which they noted that Sir-Tech's hint line would only offer help after a certain amount of time had passed. You could get hints for the first level on release, but you'd have to wait a few weeks before they'd give you a hint about Level 5. They really wanted gamers to figure it out for themselves.
Despite positive reviews, Werdna sold abysmally. It was Sir-Tech's worst-selling product in history, probably because of a combination of the outdated interface, word-of-mouth, and multiple box warnings not to even think about buying the game unless you were an "expert." Robert Sirotek, interviewed by Matt Barton in 2014, indicated that he was always skeptical about Adams's approach:
There were other hard-core players in the market that loved it. They said, “Ah, why doesn’t everybody do this?” Well, we don’t because you guys are a minority. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you’re going to have to get your pleasure somewhere else because nobody can survive catering to such a small number of people.
I don't know under exactly what circumstances Adams left Sir-Tech; all I can say is that this was his last game for the company. The delays and reception couldn't have been great for his future prospects, although the delay seems to be less his fault and more that of programmer Robert Woodhead, who had decamped for Japan and had one foot out Sir-Tech's door.
I tried hard to track down Adams to interview him for this series. He supposedly lives in Maine. (As always, please don't make any attempts to contact authors on my behalf. Chances are, I've already tried whatever methods you're using and they didn't respond to me, so further attempts are just harassment.) He'd shown a lot of promise as a game designer, contributing significantly to Ultima IV and The Bard's Tale. In fact, there are some accounts that indicate he had more to do with the plot to Ultima IV, including the creation of the eight virtues, than Richard Garriott. An interest in the religion and philosophies of other cultures does seem to unite both Ultima IV and Werdna.
The game's difficulty was, I'm sure, a marketing challenge, but there must have been a better way to meet it than by putting a "warning" on the box.
Werdna may have been a commercial failure, but it wasn't an artistic one. Nonetheless, either discouraged by Werdna's reception or just eager to get on to other things, Adams went back to writing game reviews and founding AnimEigo with Robert Woodhead, a company that licenses Japanese animation and films for redistribution in North America. I'm not sure if Adams actually moved to Japan with Woodhead or just served as the U.S.-based representative of the company. Either way, he all but disappears in the 1990s, showing up on only a couple of obscure games as a consultant. Although his LinkedIn profile indicates that he was a game designer all the way through 2017, I can't find anything about what he was working on for the last two decades of that period, and I can't find any evidence that he was ever interviewed after about 1992.
Werdna took a good chunk out of the year, but I'm satisfied that it was time well-spent. I have a friend who was a respected professional for decades but always felt bad because he had never even finished his bachelor's degree. He finally went back to school at the age of 45, got the degree, and told me that although he didn't "need" it, it makes him feel better about calling himself an expert in his field. That's how I feel.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Eye of the Beholder III: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Once again, I feel compelled to point out that at least four of these characters could have been evil.
Eye of the Beholder III: Assault on Myth Drannor
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS, 1994 for PC-98
Date Started: 5 July 2022
Date Ended: 2 August 2022
Total Hours: 29
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
A short, unsatisfying sequel to Eye of the Beholder (1991) and Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon (1991). Assault has the party from the previous games transported from Waterdeep to Myth Drannor to address a nebulous threat. The game uses the same Dungeon Master-inspired engine as its predecessors and offers similar mechanics but tells a shorter story. [Ed. As commenters pointed out, it would have been better to say that it uses a recreated engine that replicates the experience of the previous games.] Aside from grating, loud sound effects, it doesn't do much that's overtly wrong; it even adds a few mechanical improvements such as an "All Attack" button and the ability for fighters to attack with long weapons from the second rank. But subtle issues of timing and balance come together to make this a less satisfying game. The game mostly wastes its Myth Drannor setting and populates its areas with a seemingly random selection of monsters.
Never have I been so surprised to win a game. I wouldn't have guessed I was even at the halfway point. I figured we'd be chasing the Dark God through three or four more dungeons. I was planning to use four or five more Margaret Wolfe Hungerford books as subtitles; I figured there'd be potential places for Marvel, The Witching Hour, A Conquering Heroine, A Tug of War, An Anxious Moment, and perhaps even Moonshine and Marguerites. If you didn't figure out the subtitle puzzle, it's in Hungerford's Molly Bawn (1878) that the phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" first appears. [Ed. The subtitles have all been changed to reference the works of Bishop Joseph Hall, whose works contain the first true known English use of the phase. Glad we got to the bottom of that.]
When I wrote last time, I had explored one level of the temple of Lathander, and there were three more levels to go, all of them relatively straightforward. We did a lot of things to clean and purify the temple, for which we received near-constant rewards from Lathander. Most enemies died in single "All Attack" actions. It was fundamentally too easy.
Blocking a fireball trap with a "Wall of Force."
Level 2 was a sprawling map full of shambling mounds and bone nagas. The shamblers were the last truly difficult enemy in the game, requiring multiple hits. Puzzles were primarily of the find-a-key, hidden button, or pressure-plate type. The game is fond of having lightning bolts or fireballs shoot from holes in walls when you step on plates or pull levers, or just walk through an area. Fortunately, my Wand of Wall of Force never seemed to run out of charges, and I got in the habit of putting a wall in front of every hole that I encountered so that the trap spells couldn't reach me.
I use some scrolls on the shambling mounds just to clear my inventory.
Statues of Lathander healed us as the god had promised on the last level. There were a few places where we put incense in censers for blessings or other spell effects, although we found far more incense than we could use. 

The level culminated in the discovery of a globe called Morning's Light. As soon as we picked it up, we got a cut scene in which Lathander appeared and gave us a two-handed sword +5 called Dhauzimmer, the Bright Blade. (I believe this is the first +5 weapon we've found since the first game.) It instantly destroys undead. This is the sword that Delmair was looking for, and I made a nod to role-playing by giving it to him and putting him in the front rank. This turned out to be a mistake, as every time he was attacked, he turned into a damned tiger and dropped the sword. The one saving grace is that from this point forward, enemies hardly ever managed to damage us.
We carried that orb for the rest of the game but never found a use for it.
As we arrived on Level 3, we learned that a "putrid stench of carrion" was in the air. We couldn't rest on the level until we purified it. This involved running around and finding brass keys that opened four rooms with braziers. We had to find four rocklike objects called Embers of Hope and burn them in the braziers. This caused four goblets to appear in a central hallway. Putting the four goblets into four niches caused a room to open in the center of the level. Every time we entered the room, we enjoyed a bountiful feast that fully healed and restored our food meters.
"'Final battle?' Already?" I said at this point.
The level's enemies were spirit nagas and banshees. Spirit nagas supposedly have a poison attack, but they never poisoned us, probably because it took significantly fewer than all of my characters to kill them. Banshees frankly ought to have been more dangerous than they were. They had a howl we could hear from across the dungeon, which I thought was supposed to kill us or something. Instead, they just died at the merest touch of Dhauzimmer. Frankly, I don't think it would have been hard to kill them without it. 
I don't know what's "spiritual" about the "spirit naga."
Something we did caused a Key of Faith to appear on an altar. Later, we found a teleporter that kept returning us to the same room. But a nearby plaque read "Faith must go before all good souls." It took me a few minutes of bumbling around to realize that the game wanted us to toss the key into the teleporter before entering ourselves. This brought us to Level 4.
Unfortunately, Faith quit last week.
Level 4 began with a difficult puzzle. There were three locked doors in the room and a plaque that read, "Against these gates neither stealth nor sword nor prayer shall prevail." I searched in vain for hidden buttons or other devices. Re-reading the plaque, I realized that it covered the strengths of fighters, thieves, and clerics, but conspicuously avoided saying anything about mages. I tried a number of offensive spells against the doors before I sheepishly got them to open with "Dispel Magic." One review complained that you had to have a mage at some point, and I guess this was it.
In rushed the level's two enemies: shadow hounds and death knights. Both are purely physical attackers that cause no adverse conditions, hardly what you'd expect for last-level enemies.
Fireballing some death knights.
The goal of the level was to find a Staff of Life and use it to banish an image of death or shadow or something. (I confess I touched the shadow when I first found it, and he killed half of my party members, requiring a reload.) This caused a doorway to appear. We had to find a "Sun Mask" to fit into the door. Honestly, the hardest part of the level was figuring out that the Sun Mask was something that we could pick up and not just a decoration on the wall. Besides a couple of illusory pits, hardly anything on the level gave me pause.
Banishing some weird shadow hanging out in the wall.
A teleporter activated on the other side of the Sun Door, and I was smart enough to realize that something big was coming, but I still didn't expect it to be the endgame battle. I buffed with all the buffing spells I had, though I don't think we ever needed much more than "Haste."
Getting ready for something.
A cut scene began on the other side of the teleporter. The Dark God, sitting on a throne and flanked by death knights and shadow hounds, gave a villain's exposition:
"Welcome, fabled heroes of Waterdeep. Is my allowing you to live to see the conquest of this city not reward enough for you? I hired you fools to distract Acwellan. I didn't actually think you would defeat him. Perhaps age has finally taken its toll on that old fool."
I think it was more us taking the toll.
As we watched, his visage changed from a human one to a gaunt skull. "Now that Myth Drannor's last protector and guardian is dead, I may take what I have coveted for so long. You do not know the power you intend to challenge. Did you actually think that you can take on a god! Take them!"
A figure with a deformed face and black robes, sitting on a throne, telling me that I don't understand the power of the dark side. I feel I've seen this before.
A final battle began in a relatively cramped room. Delmair was almost immediately hit, changed into a tiger, and dropped his sword. I picked it up and gave it to Starling, figuring it might be required to defeat the creature.
Delmair needs to exert better control over this condition of his.
I pulled out a "Time Stop" scroll I'd been saving for a big battle and cast it, then swiftly took down the death knights and shadow hounds. The Dark God unfroze just as I started to focus on him exclusively. He only lasted three or four "All Attacks" before he died. If he had any special attacks or effects, I didn't experience any. 
When he was dead, the final scene commenced. A foul spirit left his crumpled body as Lathander appeared in the room.
"My friends, you have done it. You have saved Myth Drannor and thus the world from the wrath of this dark power. As we speak, other powers are at work to ensure that this vile entity shall never wreak his havoc again in this plane of existance [sic]. If the Dark God had any more time, there is no telling how many of his shadow creatures would have come through the gate.
With a god and mysterious "other powers" all opposing the Dark God, you have to wonder what we were doing here.
"Do not fret over the death of Acwellen. His task is done here. It is time for the living to protect what is right and just."
The scene shifted to show us outside, limping away from the ruins, greeted by the Knights of Myth Drannor. "Well met, heroes! Let us be the first to congratulate and thank you for what you have done here today for all life." They then offered us membership in their fellowship, which I guess given the endgame screen at the top of this entry, we accepted. No one was apparently in any hurry to return to Waterdeep.
I don't know who's speaking here, but he's the epitome of unfounded optimism.
I'm afraid the game satisfied me neither mechanically nor thematically. I shall outline why in the GIMLET:
  • 3 points for the game world. I liked the Myth Drannor setting, but the plot could have used a bit more flesh. The "Dark God" needed a bit more of a backstory; it seems unlikely that he was actually a god if we were able to kill him at Level 11. The novelette that came with the game had little to do with gameplay, and even contradicted it. If I had been in charge of production, I would have insisted that the novelette weave a story that included all of the NPCs and not just Delmair.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Creation is fine, but my characters gained only two or three levels in the entire game and fell far short of the game's maximum level, which I don't even know how you'd reach. I don't think that a different party composition would offer a substantially different experience. I never experienced two whole mage spell levels and one cleric spell level. Has anyone? How?
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. It's nice that a few NPCs can join the party, and at least nominally have their own quests. What's less fun is that once they join the party, they cease to have any personalities of their own, and they never even acknowledge when you've solved their individual missions.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The D&D bestiary usually has a satisfying variety of strengths and weaknesses, but I wasn't satisfied with the selection of foes in this game. They seem to have been chosen (or invented) more for how they allowed re-use of existing graphic assets rather than for any thematic value. For one of the first times in a D&D game, I didn't find myself substantially changing my tactics to different foes, with the exception of the living mucks on Level 1 of the temple. There were a couple of noncombat encounters, but often with unsatisfying dialogue options. I found the puzzles too easy, but many of them at least had a theme, and they're worth a point.
Most puzzles in this game were fundamentally too easy.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. D&D rules and Dungeon Master gameplay were always a poor fit, but never more so than here. Combat is so easy that most of the spells are wasted. Even worse, I found that I took more damage trying to fiddle with spells than if I just danced around and kept hitting "All Attack." Despite this, spell effects are decently implemented, and I liked some of the additions to combat mechanics, such as the ability to attack with polearms.
When Father Jon started casting "Ice Storm," the shadow hounds were at least two squares away.
  • 4 points for equipment. I suppose this is one of the stronger parts of the game, with a lot of slots and six characters to spread items around. I wouldn't have minded if the game had included some boots. And I never understand why items always have to be found in fixed locations and always have to be the same for every game and every player.
  • 0 points for no economy. All I'm asking is for a merchant wagon on the outskirts of Myth Drannor with a few items worth saving for (and harder overall gameplay so you value those items).
  • 3 points for a main quest and one optional area.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are fine, particularly the cut scenes, but the sound is a cacophonous horror show. The keyboard and mouse work well together in the interface, but the game loses points for timing issues that must be experienced to truly understand.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It's far too linear and easy, and I wouldn't call it replayable. Given that it was a bit boring and easy, I'm happy that it wrapped up quickly.
That's a final score of 29, a poor showing for a sequel to games that earned 41 and 40. I tried to find things to like about it, tried to keep the experience positive, but the game just felt perfunctory. It didn't feel like anyone had created it with love, or tried very hard to innovate above what the genre had already offered.
"Petite finale" probably wouldn't have sold as many copies.
My reactions are not unique. Scorpia, writing in her tenth anniversary issue of Computer Gaming World (August 1993), mostly criticized the game. She thought its graphics were worse than Darkmoon. I'm not saying I disagree, just that if they were, I didn't notice it. But she agrees with me on sound ("aurally, the game is a nightmare"). She hated the anti-magic area even though she adopted the same simple solution that I did: "I used [the Helm of Water Breathing] to keep a fighter/magic-user alive to map out the section and cast spells to find the limits of the anti-magic zones. Then, I restored the game and raced the party through to the spot where magic worked again."
She agreed that "the big fight at the end is a letdown," even mentioning using a "Time Stop" scroll as I did. "Supposedly a god in mortal form, he gave us far less trouble than Dran Draggore in The Legend of Darkmoon." Amen. "Overall," she concluded, "Assault on Myth Drannor is a disappointment . . . What started as a series with great promise has, alas, ended on a mediocre note." MobyGames's review summary has a median score in the 60s, compared to around 90 for Darkmoon and about 82 for the first game.
I suppose if it were 1993, and I were itching for a sequel to Darkmoon, this would have at least kept me occupied. It would have been easy to ease into. But it doesn't seem to advance a sub-genre that's begging to be advanced. It doesn't even respond to the challenge of Dungeon Master clones with more open worlds, like Ishar, let alone grittier, less abstract titles like Ultima Underworld. In some ways, Assault feels less "bad" than tone deaf. Only hours after playing it, I'm thinking of it less as an unpleasant experience and more as an unnecessary one. 
Endgame credits are becoming more common as the years pass.
I'll be curious to see how it stands up against Dungeon Hack, SSI's last release of the year. I had been hoping to hear from lead programmer John Miles, whose email address I had from our correspondence on Mindtrap, but he never wrote back. His next RPG will be Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager. His strengths seem to lie more in third-person games (e.g., Ultima V, Dark Sun: Shattered Lands), though I'm guessing that his Assault came with the dual shackles of an existing engine and a very tight deadline.