Saturday, June 23, 2018

Wizard's Lair: Won! (with Summary and Rating)


The party passes "the Trial."
          
Wizard's Lair I: The Trial
United States
Independently developed; distributed by Microstar
Released in 1988 for DOS as shareware
Date Started: 2 June 2018
Date Ended: 24 June 2018
Total Hours: 20
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Wizard's Lair ended in a satisfying manner after a reasonable amount of game time, providing a moderate challenge all the way through. That sentence hardly sounds like high praise, but compared to a lot of the dreck I'd had to suffer in this era, it's practically a rave. The author didn't take a lot of bold chances, but neither did he screw anything up. The result might be a bit staid, but I'll take that over an author who can't spell "experience."

When I last wrote, I had explored the main continent and all its cities and was just beginning to explore the first dungeon. To get from there to the end, I had to explore three more outdoor areas, two dungeons, three castles, and a bunch of caves. I probably could have squeezed two or three entries during the process, but for some reason--probably a desire to get to the end of 1988--I just kept pushing myself forward. In determining the order to explore, I was aided by a hint file that comes with the game. It does a good job suggesting a rough plan without offering any major spoilers.
         
Exploring a dungeon room. The sigmas are statues. Note the secret door in the upper-right.
         
The basic order was:
          
  • Grey Dungeon. Four levels with bestial monsters and giant insects. You find a bunch of keys to open doors on subsequent levels. One large tiled area with traps must be carefully navigated with a message you find on Level 1. A hermit in a jail cell explains how to use the teleporters and provides a necessary key.
  • Back outside, enjoy zipping around with the teleporters. Every city and dungeon in the wilderness has one, labeled A-I. "0" takes you to the Wasteland.
         
Using the portals.
         
  • White Dungeon. Another four levels with the same sorts of enemies. Learn from messages about the Pool of Enchantment and the Circle of Six. Learn the items needed to survive in the Wasteland and the password necessary to get from the Wasteland to the Hidden Valley. Find the Ring of Stef, which helps protect against undead. 
  • The Pool of Enchantment is found past an NPC in the eastern part of the wilderness. He wants to know who created it (MYLOGG THE WHITE). Step into the pool and speak the holy words (UHLECK GRATIS ON SEMTAR) to get its power. I honestly didn't note what this did for me.
          
Wasn't UHLECK the name of a race in Starflight?
        
  • The Circle of Six is a group of stones in the south coast. If you stand in the middle, and recite the holy word, you receive a "blessing" that protects you against demons.
          
Speaking the holy word in the Circle of Six.
         
  • Ruins. A small wilderness area off the main wilderness map near the south coast. It contains the small Crypt of Callus and the Decrepit Castle.
  • Decrepit Castle. Four levels full of undead and demons. Find the Wings of Izemuth (protects against cracking ice in the Wasteland) and the Lamp of Oerling (protects against hidden crevasses in the Wasteland). Learn how to use the Amulet of Callus to banish the Demonking.
  • Crypt of Callus. Find the Amulet of Callus in the northeast corner. (I was supposed to say some words at the entrance, but I didn't and I found the amulet anyway.)
  • Demon Castle. Enter via the shallow shoals on the southern coast east of Oceanview. Various demonic entities--demon cats, lesser demons, demon lords, young dragons--are introduced. The lesser demons' poison spit should only do 1 hit point damage most of the time. It's annoying but survivable. (I assume it's more deadly without the Blessing of the Elders.) The lesser dragons spit much more dangerous "acid fire" and need to be killed quickly. Find the iron, brass, silver, and gold rings among the four levels.
          
Approaching the Demon Castle.
         
  • Wasteland. Hit "0" on a teleporter to enter, but make sure everyone has furs and you have the Wings of Izemuth and the Lamp of Oerling first. The teleporter starts the player right next to the final castle, but you need some other stuff first.
          
"No one is harmed" when the ice gives way because I have the Wings of Izemuth.
       
  • Wasteland Cave #1. Wind around until you reach a dead-end, then speak CAXIIS MAJORIS to warp to the Hidden Valley. The caves introduce cave trolls, ogres, and cave bears, which are some of the deadliest creatures in the game. Don't let hit points fall below 50.
  • Hidden Valley. Unnecessarily large. Find the towns of Lush and Filmore (technically not necessary) and the cave west of Lush. 
          
The only clue in Filmore is useless if you've already been to Lush.
           
  • Lush. Disappointingly little to do. Get clue about the cave to the west and buy food if you need it.
  • Cave west of Lush. Entrance can only be seen during the day. Find the Charm of Idio (protects against poison gases in Ice Castle) northwest of the river. Return to Wasteland.
        
This took me a while because the bridge (to the northeast of the party) uses the same shading as the walls.
       
  • Wasteland Cave #2. Find the Power Amulet, which more than doubles spell points. I gave it to my conjurer so I wouldn't have to worry about running out of points for REVEAL anymore.
          
Finding the remains of a wizard and his amulet.
        
  • Wasteland Cave #3. Get password to first door in Ice Castle.
  • Ice Castle. Eight levels with multiple up and down staircases. Speak EXCELLGYC to get past first door. Put rings in order and pull correct lever at ring puzzle. Fight upward through demons and dragons. When the game tells you you're feeling depressed, speak HLYRXXM. Proceed to endgame (covered below).
            
I had to leave and return to the early dungeons several times, mostly because my conjurer didn't have a lot of spell points, and I needed him to cast REVEAL frequently (the only way to see secret doors), which costs 10 points per casting, while still preserving at least 12 points for OUT. I rested whenever night rolled around in the dungeon, but that only restores 10 spell points per night, and you need 2-3 castings of REVEAL to get through a day.

In my summary above, I omitted a lot of the dungeons' puzzles because they were mostly too easy. You typically find a message indicating how to solve a puzzle before the puzzle itself. For instance, a wizard in the White Dungeon gave me this riddle: "A creature lives with head of man, body of lion, tail of scorpion, wings of bat. Name it."

I would have probably figured out the answer (MANTICORE), but just in case, the dungeon spoiled it for me a few corridors ahead of the riddle:
      
        
In the Decrepit castle, there were riddles that wanted me to "pick the swiftest of the air dwellers" and "choose the greatest of the water breathers." The first set of options had eagle, roc, sparrow, and pelican. Do you know which is fastest without Wikipedia? The second set was guppy, bluefish, shark, and goldfish, which was a little easier.

Using the four rings in the Ice Castle involved a very light logic puzzle in which you had to figure out their order from a couple of clues.
            
There were three clues, but this one alone basically establishes the order.
           
Character development wasn't as fast during this process as I'd hoped. The game significantly increases the number of experience points required between levels while not significantly increasing the experience rewards from new foes. In fact, there was a poor correlation in general between the difficulty of an enemy and the experience for killing him. The result was that levels increased rapidly through about Level 8, then very slowly to Level 12, which is the game's cap. You really aren't strong enough to attempt at dungeon at all until about Level 6-7, but after that, the hardest dungeon isn't that much harder than the easiest. Nor does the difficulty of monsters significantly increase based on dungeon level. The only real threat is from the accumulation of multiple combats and the inability to save indoors.

In some ways, the mild slope of this difficulty ramp is good. You're unlikely to get into a situation you absolutely cannot escape from. As long as the druid saves enough spell points for a REVIVE and the conjurer saves enough for an OUT, you should be okay. On the other hand, you do have to be careful not to over-extend yourself in dungeons, and the game does offer some of Wizardry's tactical tension as you try to balance hit points, spell points, and exploration time.

The game struck a good balance between combats that you can breeze through and those you have to micro-manage, particularly because the default actions, including the various "blast" spells used by the spellcasters, are usually the best actions. The only time I really had to slow things down is when I was low on hit points, when I faced large parties and decided to use mass-damage spells, or when I faced parties capable of mass-damage spells themselves. I never got much use out of the very high-level spells like BANISH, PSIWAVE, or MINDKILL, because they required too may spell points. Low-cost spells like ARROW, BOLT, and DART scaled with the caster's level and remained viable throughout the game. Perhaps my most effective spell was the illusionist's FLASH, which takes an entire party out of commission for a couple of rounds.
            
BOLT remains valuable late in the game.
         
Even when I wanted to blow through combat, though, I couldn't just hold down ENTER because I had to conserve the conjurer's points for REVEAL and the default has him cast BOLT. I armed him with a bow and used that as his usual action instead, but I had to do it manually every combat.
        
Vyolat conserves his spell points while the other spellcasters blast.
      
Again, no individual combat in the game is very hard. There are some enemies capable of status effects like poison and enchantment, but these are easily healed with spells or potions. There are no level-drainers, no stoning, and otherwise no enemies capable of instant kills unless you let your hit points get down below 50 or so. There are also no fixed combats in the entire game. In some ways, this all sounds too easy, but on the negative side you can almost never flee from combats (every character has to make an individual check), and if a character dies, you have to heal him right away or lose him.

One huge disappointment was equipment. In contrast to what other players have reported (and the manual offers), I never found a single enchanted weapon or piece of armor. I jacked my "Magic Sense" skills to max levels for multiple characters, but the only random loot I ever found was a single "Icewand." I don't know if my particular game was broken or what. I was also disappointed that neither of the towns in the Hidden Valley sold anything new.
          
The one non-fixed magic item I found all game.
            
The economy was tight for a long time, and I continued to have trouble paying for all the training that I was due. But somewhere around the Demon Castle, I found enough loot in the dungeons that the ratio reversed. Not only did I pay for as much training as I needed, I was able to stock up on healing and spell power potions that made extended explorations much easier. 
           
Chests like these soon erased my financial woes.
        
Each dungeon level, although often offering multiple up and down stairways, was small enough that I didn't feel that I had to map. A couple of the outdoor areas were a bit too large for comfort (and MAP doesn't work except in the starting wilderness), but most of the important things were found around the edges.

Miscellaneous notes:
        
  • I'm not sure I mentioned before that the game has a "fatigue" system by which characters slowly lose effectiveness if they don't sleep. In one of the game's few bugs, resting at an inn, even for multiple nights, doesn't seem to restore (at least not reliably) the character's fatigue levels. You have to camp outside instead.
           
After nine nights at the inn.
       
  • In towns, NPCs go to be at night and disappear from the screen.
  • Every time you start the game you have to set three options. I'm not even sure what the third one is asking me.
         
        
  • This option showed up at the beginning of a small minority of combats but never did anything. Choosing "Leave" always landed me in combat anyway.
           
It would be nice if this had worked.
        
  • I never figured out what this message meant. 
            
What is my shirt size progression over the last year?
         
  • Although I didn't think so when I first started playing, the game does save dungeon states. You can't loot the same treasure chests multiple times.
  • I never found a single trap and thus never used the "Disarm" skill.
              
The game ends on Level 7 of the Ice Castle (though you have to go to Level 8 first, then back down), when the Amulet of Callus begins to glow, warning the party that the Demonking is near. At that point, speaking GRYXLIM (found in the Decrepit Castl) banishes the Demonking.
           
You almost feel bad for the poor Demonking.
         
A few steps beyond, the party finds the titular Wizard's Lair and discovers that it has passed the subtitular Trial. The wizard tells the party that the game so far has been a test to find a party worthy enough to aid an oppressed population on another plane. That story presumably would have been told in Wizard's Lair II, had it been created. (Don't be fooled by web sites suggesting it exists; they're hosting version 2 of Wizard's Lair I.) After this winning screen, the party is teleported back to Angston and can keep adventuring.

In a GIMLET, I award the game:
          
  • 3 points for the game world. There isn't a lot of history and lore, but it's at least thematically consistent.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. I didn't love the level cap at 12, but at least I didn't hit it until fairly late in the game. The game offers a decent selection of races and classes, plus a solid skill system alongside the leveling system. It would be fun to replay with a more challenging party combination.
            
My centaur fighter towards the end of the game.

           

  • 3 points for NPC interaction. You mostly just talk with them and sometimes pay them. There are no keywords or dialogue options, so in a way, NPCs might as well just be sign posts.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are basically drawn from the usual high fantasy menagerie, though curiously muted in special attacks (with a few notable exceptions). Non-combat puzzles were okay.
         
You'd think acid or fire by itself would be enough.
       
  • 5 points for magic and combat. A decent Wizardry-derived combat system with a small but effective selection of spells.
  • 3 points for equipment. Weapons, armor, potions, and a few magic items. The selection could have been bigger.
  • 4 points for the economy. You need money for bribing NPCs, buying equipment, making potions, and training skills. You go from too little to too much very fast.
  • 3 points for a main quest with a few optional areas.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are minimal but work for their purpose. The bloopish sound isn't worth much attention, but the keyboard interface is intuitive and easy to master.
  • 6 points for gameplay. Though a little linear and not very replayable, the game benefits from a moderate challenge and a moderate length.
          
That gives us a final score of 38, just above my "recommended" threshold, which few shareware games of the era manage to achieve. I don't see any evidence that author Rick Nowalk worked on any other games, which is too bad. Wizard's Lair was a strong foundation.

Finishing it means that I've finished 1988 for the second time. Although I played about 8 new games this time around, and some of them (Nippon, Legend of Blacksilver, Silvern Castle, Wizard's Lair) had their moments, I don't feel a particular need to update my 1988/1989 transition posting from 2012. Pool of Radiance is still the clear "Game of the Year." Let's plunge right into 1989, where 24 games--minus the ones that I ultimately reject--separate me from finally catching up on the non-DOS backlog and getting back to a single list.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Game 294: Bones (1991), and a stymied attempt at Stone Mist (1992)

A bare-Bones title screen.
          
Bones
United States
Independently developed and published as freeware
Released in 1991 for DOS based on several earlier versions going back to 1981
Date Started: 16 June 2018
Date Ended: 16 June 2018
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy (2/5), except that I can't figure out how to win
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

What a depressing few days. I've done nothing but waste time. After some failed starts (recounted below) with a few games, I ended up settling my efforts on Bones, which upon investigation is neither a 1989 (backtracking list) or 1992 (current list) game. It's hard to place it in a specific year. The author, Bruce N. Baker, originally wrote it on the DEC system at Eastern Montana College in 1981, with contributions from an Arron Barnhart. In 1987, Baker "revived" the game and produced several versions in several languages between 1987 and 1991. I decided to tag it as a 1991 game because Baker's notes indicate he didn't develop the mapping system until then, and I think it's a key part of the gameplay.

Left unstated in Baker's notes is that Bones is another adaptation of Joseph Power's The Wizard's Castle (1980; link to my review). This curiously long-lived line of quasi-RPGs takes inspiration from Mike Mayfield's Star Trek (1971) and includes titles such as The Yendor's  Castle (1986), Leygref's Castle (1986), and Mission: Mainframe (1987). Bones is subtitled The Game of the Haunted Mansion on most online catalogs, but the subtitle appears nowhere in the game, only in one of the documentation files.

What these games all have in common is an organization of the "game world" into multiple levels consisting of square grids of cells, the contents of each cell--monsters, treasure, items, special encounters--randomized for each new game. You move cautiously from room to room, with the ultimate goal to find a particular artifact and then escape the dungeon. In the case of Bones, the game consists of 4 levels of 49 cells in 7 x 7 arrangements. The goal is to find a Transportal Globe and get out of the haunted mansion.
           
I fail to get out alive.
        
As is de rigeur for these titles, graphics are minimal and the game is controlled through a text interface. It works pretty well here. You can arrow through the options and hit ENTER to select, or you can hit the first letter of the option you want. Most of the screen is wasted except in combat.

Bones's opponents are all skeletons, but of various types--closet, flying, fire, dancing, mystic, etc.--some of whom are immune to regular weapons and some of whom are immune to magic weapons. Thief skeletons steal your things. To fight these monsters, you find a magic sword, a magic bone, a magic mace, spellbooks, a laser, and an Uzi (with numerous clips) scattered through the maze. (The Uzi's popularity in juvenile film and literature throughout the 1980s continues to baffle me.) Other treasures include gold, jewels, healing potions, and a "warlock's shield" that provides extra defense. (I guess maybe you can encounter the warlock, who steals back his shield, but I never did.) One of the game's shticks is that it's not always clear what item is in the room with you; you must intuit it from the description; for instance a "box full of metal pieces" is almost certainly gold and something that "looks like a bug" is probably a RAM chip. As you find treasures, your score increases, which improves your effectiveness in combat.
               
Fighting a group of skeletons.
        
In a strange twist, you can also try to "Communicate" with the skeletons, offering to be their friends, threatening them, or asking them for help, with your effectiveness based on your relative strength and how much you've already damaged them. Whether you kill, charm, or cow them, you get points added to your score.
         
The skeletons aren't buying it.
       
There are no "special encounters" in Bones the way there are in The Wizard's Castle, but there are a few special rooms. "Transfer rooms" teleport you somewhere else in the maze, "mist rooms" deplete your hit points, and "smoke rooms" deplete your hit points and cut off your exits; you must blow up the walls with explosives or attack them to escape. There's at least one room full of laughing gas in each dungeon, where you can't accomplish anything.

Like most of its predecessors and followers, Bones can be arbitrarily deadly. Sometimes a potion kills you instantly, for instance, or you may wander into a smoke room from the starting square. That's a consequence of the randomization. You don't really mind because a winning game only takes an hour or so. (There isn't even a save feature.) I found it relatively easy as long as I could survive long enough to find a couple of potions and weapons.
           
My mid-game character stats and inventory.
         
All of the games in this line offer an auto-mapping feature. Bones's take on it is that the map is computerized, and you need to find RAM chips to store the maps and V-RAM chips to display them. Each kilobyte of RAM stores or displays one room, so if you run out, the game stops auto-mapping. This isn't a huge deal because you can theoretically just keep paper maps.
           
I have plenty of RAM and V-RAM, so the automap is working well for me here.
         
To keep things interesting, the game randomizes descriptions of each room: "A picture on the wall seems to be watching you"; "A room full of burning candles"; "Just a black cat on a Persian rug"; "You see an old rocking chair and it's moving." Unlike most games, Bones doesn't re-use many of these descriptions. They're part of the initial randomization and then permanently attached to each room.

Eventually, you find the Transportal Globe, and what's currently infurating me is that I can't figure out how to use it to win the game. Using it on one of the upper floors simply transports you up and down. If you use it on the first floor, your options are "Up" and "Door," and if you choose the latter, it says that you "struggle furiously with the mansion door," but you can't get out. Use it more than twice, and the globe overheats, causing you to drop and break it. No amount of waiting between the second and third use causes the globe to cool down.
           
Finding the Transportal Globe.
         
I tried using it in every room on the first level. I explored every room in the dungeon looking for a key or some other object that I might have to use with the globe. There are a couple of rooms that the game says are cold, or contain water, and I tried bringing, dropping, and using the globe there, thinking something might cool it off. I can't get anything to work. So now I have to carry this game as a loss until someone comes along with a hint. I should have rejected it as an RPG and preserved my statistics.

The game only earns a 15 on my GIMLET. It has no backstory, no NPCs, and only minimal character development. Its best category is "gameplay" for at least being short and replayable. The rating sounds bad, but none of the games in this line are really intended to be taken seriously as RPGs; they're more like computerized board games or enhanced versions of something like Solitaire. You play them as lark for a few hours a few times a year and enjoy them for what they are. Let's hope whatever comes up next on the list has some more meat on it, though.

*****

My experience with Bones came after a depressing couple of days in which I couldn't get my Apple IIgs emulator to run 2088; it crashes shortly after loading, complaining of some corruption with one of the disks. I suspect it's an emulator problem and I confess I didn't try that hard to solve it yet, so don't kill yourself trying to give me help. I'm leaving it on the list until I exhaust more options.

Advanced Xoru turned out to be an interesting text adventure, but not even an RPG hybrid. I keep seeing it compared to Beyond Zork, but that game had attributes, experience, and combats that drew upon them. Thus, I put it in the rejection pile.
       
All of Bit Brothers' 1992 title screens look pretty much the same.
           
I spent about four hours with Stone Mist (a lot of sites put a 1 after it, but the game itself doesn't, although it does call it "version 1"), the first of several games that we may see from "Bit Brother Software" of Littleton, Colorado--basically a sole proprietorship of (then) 21-year-old Michael Ramsey. He's not a famous developer but neither is he an unimportant one. After cranking out Stone Mist (1992), Dragon's Shard (1992), Teradyne (1992), and Stone Mist 2 (1993), he went on to specialize in 3D graphics engines for companies such as Trillium Software, Devil's Thumb Entertainment, Idol Minds, and Blue Fang Games. He's still in the field, working on virtual reality games at San Francisco's Linden Lab. Thus, I wanted to give Stone Mist a fair shot.
          
Combat with a giant spider.
            
The title was intended as an engine for any number of modules, and thus supports a huge number of classes (fighter, knight, priest, druid, bard, cutpurse, wizard, thief, barbarian, ranger, shaman, monk, rogue, sage, and hedge wizard), races (human, dwarf, mountain dwarf, hill dwarf, elf, wood elf, dark elf, gnome, halfling, and half-elf), and attributes (strength, dexterity, constitution, body, intelligence, ego, presence, and comeliness).
           
My first character. He turned out to be too ugly to get very far.
         
The game, or at least the module that comes with it, was never going to be epic. It plays like a thousand other games we've already seen. Shreland is in trouble from an evil wizard named Yesmar (sigh), and King Telisx gives a staged series of quests leading up to defeating him. There are NPCs who offer one-line bits of advice, enemies to fight, dungeons to search and loot. There are a handful of spells and a variety of weapons so you can pick the most effective one in combat.
           
The king sends me on the first quest.
          
The monsters are mostly from the standard D&D bestiary, though often with an adjective in front of them (fury dragons, crazy trolls, rogue orcs, etc.). Some of them are capable of spells or special attacks that can easily wipe out a first-level character, and you find them almost right away. But the game doesn't have permadeath and running from combat seems to be 100% effective. These facts plus the fact that you can rest and heal at any time makes the game a bit easy, at least in the outdoor areas.
        
Taking on a tough enemy--someone didn't know how to spell "otyugh"--too early in the game.
           

However, the game seems to have a couple of bugs, one of them fatal. First, a lot of the items that you can buy from shops, including herbs and potions, don't seem to do their intended thing. When you use them, the game asks you "Allright?!" and does nothing to your statistics. This is fatal if you start the game with too low a "comeliness" score, because NPCs won't talk with you (they just say "Hmpf!") if the score isn't high enough, and only a potion can raise it.

Even if your score is high enough, the game doesn't load some of the dialogues for some NPCs; talking to them just produces a blank screen and then "Leave me Alone!" if you try again. One helpful bug is that the game somehow thought I had completed the king's first quest when I hadn't done anything at all.
         
That was a freebie.
         
The fatal bug has to do with the game's many keys, which you need to enter certain areas of dungeons. They simply don't work. You're supposed to walk up to the dungeon door and press (U)se, which should then bring up a menu of keys, but 9/10 times, nothing happens, and the 10th time, the game crashes to the desktop with a runtime error.
            
Unable to do anything at a door.
         
I might not have been able to get very far anyway. The unpaid shareware version of the game caps the player at Level 5. For registration, Ramsey offered packages ranging from $5.00 to $35.00, the higher ones offering a larger game world with more side quests, extra campaigns, the ability to build your own dungeons, and exhaustive documentation including a treatise on designing RPGs. Alas, these features are not part of the versions I've been able to find for download. Barring the discovery of a registered version--or at least a demo version that works--we'll have to render this one "not playable" despite my having spent more hours on it than Bones. I'll try Ramsey's other titles later in the year and see if I have better luck.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Wizard's Lair: Chasing Leads

This is intriguing...
           
I'm having authentic fun with this obscure little game, though not making a lot of progress. When I first started it, I thought I would like it a lot less than UnReal World, to which it seemed passingly similar, but now I think I might enjoy it more. It doesn't have a roguelike's "sandbox" feel in which anything can happen, but it's well-crafted, making up for a certain graphical paucity with an interesting narrative and set of encounters.

A few months ago, while playing some roguelike, I noted that I've come to dread top-down games with large game worlds. This is still true. I've found no good way to map such games. If they come with at least a sketch of the outlines of the world, that's enough to help, but I hate starting a new top-down game ignorant of the size and configuration of the land. This caused a bit of frustration early in the game, as it took me a while to find the major cities and get myself oriented. The "wilderness," which seems to be one of several outdoor maps, occupies a 80 x 160 grid, but frequent encounters and impassable mountains make it seem bigger. The navigation window is almost unforgivably tiny, but a "Map" spell helps a bit if you're willing to sacrifice the spell points.
            
The "Map" spell alerts me to a shrine at the end of a mountain pass.
         
If the game has one major flaw, it's the frequency of random encounters in the wild, which creates a frustrating experience when trying to explore. I also wouldn't mind if the day/night cycle had been extended a bit more. Day can turn to night and back again, with 12 encounters in the meantime, while your party is poking down a dead-end mountain pass.

Nonetheless, combat got a lot easier once I hit Level 5 or so, and in particular once my sorcerer could cast more than a couple mass damage spells in between sleeping. By the time everyone was Level 8, I could blast through most wilderness encounters by holding down the ENTER key and accepting the default options, taking charge only when light on hit points.
           
The "HARPIES" spell helps a lot against large groups.
           
Outdoor foes include bandits, giant humans, rock trolls, mountain trolls, lesser trolls, berserers, black orcs, gray orcs, high orcs, goblins, giant boas, and something called a "cuspis" (I wish the game had monster images). Perhaps the oddest is the (presumably giant) turtle, which hits pretty hard. You'd think fighting turtles, giant or otherwise, would be pretty easy.

Eventually, I had explored the other cities: Oceanview, Mountainview, and Forestview. Only Forestview offered a service not present in the other cities: an herbalist where anyone skilled in "Alchemy" can mix potions. You have to pay for the privilege, so it's basically the same thing as buying potions in most games, except that you have to have a character with a high skill level.
           
I have to pay 463 gold and you want me to mix it myself?!
            
More important, NPCs among the towns gave me a number of new hints:
        
  • I had been previously told to ask a guy in Oceanview about ELVES. His hint was some kind of password (HRYLYM), but I don't yet know where to use it.
  • A sorcerer named Gerrmy once created a magical amulet to enhance his abilities. He disappeared in the Wasteland.
  • To defend against lycanthropes, I should find wild wolfbane, which grows in narrow river valleys. I should check southwest of Forestview.

A very descriptive hint about surviving werewolf encounters.

  • In the ruins, I'll find the Decrepit Castle, which has a secret about the Amulet of Callus. But before I enter, I'll need "certain safeguards," including the Ring of Stef, which protects against undead attacks. I'll also need three holy words to enter the Crypt of Callus, which I'll find on Level 4 of the Grey Dungeon.
  • To survive combats against demons, I need the Blessing of the Elders.
  • To solve the Ice Castle, I will need the Rings of Ghen from the Demon Castle.
        
In addition to these, I chased a group of hints that led me to Thieves' Hollow, a hidden town on the northeastern coast. I had to get its location and the password (ERESTHENES) required to enter. The small town had two vital services that the other towns didn't offer: training in lockpicking and trap-disarming for my thief, and a store selling a set of lockpicks.
             
My thief finally gets some training.
           
Another group of rumors had to do with the Shrine of the Ancients. A grotto on the north coast, behind a dried waterfall, gave me the mantra: UL GURA SANCTORUM. The Shrine itself was along a mountain pass that included a gap where I needed a rope to cross. Fortunately, I had bought one.

Speaking the mantra at the shrine caused a scroll to appear, and reading the scroll led to the images at the top of this entry. I don't know if they refer to the game's quest as a whole, or just a part of it, or even a side quest.
          
Speaking the mantra at a holy shrine.
           
My explorations had shown me the locations to the Grey Dungeon, the White Dungeon, and the Ruins. I got the idea that I wanted to explore the Grey Dungeon first. The levels are relatively small--about 20 x 20, I think--but just as with the outdoors, frequent encounters make them last longer and seem bigger. Enemies increased in difficulty the moment I entered, and I only got through the first level for the purposes of this session. 

The dungeons have Phantasie-like dots to mark special encounters. There are doors to unlock and traps to disarm. Secret doors are revealed with the "REVEAL" spell, but my conjurer is only capable of casting one of those between rests, so I have to use it judiciously. 
            
Encountering a locked door in the dungeon.
Note the special encounter to the northwest of the party.
  
          
I had been hoping to find a lot more gold in the dungeon, because my primary problem right now is that my characters are ready for a lot more training (not to mention equipment upgrades) than I can afford. There are 10 skills--swords, axes, pole arm, bow, picklock, trap disarm, cast spell, languages, magic sense, and alchemy--and you can train any or all of them up to your current level. I don't have enough money to train even a single skill past 5 or 6 (most of my characters could go up to 9 now), let alone multiple skills per character.
            
Lining up training.
           
Fortunately, the cost of training does not increase as the skill increases, so if I just stand outside Angston and grind for a while, I should eventually make enough money. I was just hoping that the dungeons would start delivering treasure chests or something.

A few other notes:

  • Every major location has a metal-walled chamber outside it. Clearly, these are teleporters of some kind. I assume I have to learn the codes to use them. I think there was a hint that a hermit in the Grey Dungeon would tell me about them.
  • There's a "steal food" command that I haven't explored. You can only use it while standing near the food store, and if you get caught, you spend 2 weeks in jail and have to pay a fine. I'm guessing this is an homage to Ultima II, where you had to steal food to survive. Here, it's easy to forage for it and cheap to buy it.
  • The equipment store sells furs, but I don't yet know why.
  • The developer did a good job programming shortcuts for commonly-used sequences of commands. ALT-H automatically has the druid attempt the HEAL spell and ALT-M automatically has the conjurer attempt the MAP spell. The function keys also offer shortcuts to check the entire parties armor, weapons, encumbrances, and health status. I also like how, when you're in a shop, you can easily change characters without backing all the way out. Few games have offered that so far.
                 
F5 brings up a quick summary of party health.
          
Wizard's Lair feels like it's going to last about 20 hours, maybe two or three more entries, which is about as long as it should last. It's not earth-shattering, but the authors at least blended elements from previous RPGs in an original way.

Time so far: 8 hours

*****

I might be reaching down pretty far in the list for the next. I'm having trouble finding a full set of 2088: The Cryllan Mission disks that don't have a virus attached; I'm on the cusp of rejecting Advanced Xoru as an RPG; and the obscure Stone Mist (which may also fail the RPG test) seems utterly unplayable. But I have to spend a little more time with all of them, so we'll see what happens.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Game 293: Sword Quest 1: The Search (1992)

              
Sword Quest 1: The Search
United States
NGS Software (developer); GT Interactive (publisher)
Version 3 released in 1992 for DOS; unknown if there were earlier versions
Date Started: 9 June 2018
Date Ended: 10 June 2018
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Sword Quest 1 is an afternoon RPG that lingers into the early evening. If, when I was poor and 19, I had found this in a shovelware compilation, I don't know, I might have liked it enough. It satisfies the most primitive RPG urge to explore a fantasy setting, fight monsters, and level up, but it doesn't do much more than that.

You play a court jester in the kingdom of Ferd. An Evil Warlock has flooded the land with monsters, and all the king's knights have failed to stop him. Desperate, the king sends forth his only remaining employee, the fool, hoping that he can succeed where everyone else has failed. It's a somewhat original background, I grant, but other than a few lines of NPC dialogue, your jester status doesn't really play a role in the game and is easily forgotten.
        
Late in the game, an NPC refers to my profession.
          
Character creation consists of a random roll for strength, skill, and dexterity, and then a name. The name doesn't appear on the screen and is never used by NPCs, and is really only referenced when you reload a saved game. The attributes can't be improved during gameplay, and they make quite a difference, so it's worth waiting for a generous roll, which doesn't take too long.
           
The brief character creation process.
        
Gameplay begins outside the king's castle, on a small island to the southwest of the mainland. The game ultimately consists of about 200 x 200 tiles holding the king's castle, the Evil Warlock's castle, 6 or 7 towns, and 6 dungeons. It seems a lot bigger than that because you have to stop for combat every half a dozen steps. The ultimate goal is to slay the Evil Warlock in his castle, but to do so you have to assemble several artifacts, including a magic armor/sword/shield set, plus boots that let you levitate across pits, plus a magic key that opens doors. The lack of the last two items until late in the game causes a lot of backtracking, since towns and dungeons cannot be fully explored without them.
          
The hopeless king assigns the quest.
          
The game offers a stunning difficulty curve during the opening hour and remains pretty deadly throughout. You start with no gold, no weapons, and no armor. You can get a few hundred gold pieces in chests in the castle, but you still have to make your way to a town to buy equipment, and the closest one (an NPC offers this hint) is a few dozen steps to the northwest. Surviving that initial journey is nearly impossible. The game has no compunction about putting you face-to-face, mere steps from the starting point, with Level 10 dragons, Level 15 vampires, and other foes that will remain difficult hours later. They kill you easily in one round. Running hardly ever works.
            
Not what you want to see when you have no weapons and 0 experience points.
        
The only saving grace is that it doesn't take that long to save and reload. During this initial stage, you basically have to save every step or two, slowly mincing your way to the first town, where you can buy a staff and leather armor. That hardly makes you Hercules, however, and well into the first half of the game, you're gratefully saving after every combat and ruefully reloading at least once every few minutes. You have to spend quite a bit of the first hour grinding near a town with an inn where you can rest and heal.
        
This happens a lot in the first hour.
          
Towns all offer armories selling weapons, armor, and shields, inns, and stores where you can buy magic potions. There are only a few levels of progression with equipment. For weapons, it's staff, dagger, short sword, long sword, and great sword; for armor, it's leather, chain, half plate, and full plate. There are only three levels of shield. Not all towns sell all items, either.
           
Purchasing armor.
       
Every town has about eight NPCs who offer hints, sometimes quite explicit, as to the locations of the quest items as well as the other things you need to do to get to the endgame. Many of them are behind locked doors and cannot be consulted until you find the magic key.
           
A helpful NPC.
And one who isn't happy with my magic key.
         
Outside and in dungeons, you get attacked by the same selection of seven enemies: globlins, jellies, griffons, wizards, vampires, warlocks, and dragons. These creatures can be any level from 1 to 60, and of course the level makes more of a difference in difficulty than the type of creature. In combat, you can fight, cast a spell, use an item, or try to flee. Whether you live or die, most combats don't last more than a few rounds and take mere seconds to resolve. This is good, because you can't so much as cross the street without fighting 5 enemies along the way. It got so bad that if I accidentally wandered 20 steps in the wrong direction, I'd reload rather than turn around and walk back.
          
Dragons are capable of devastating damage.
      
Easily the most annoying part of the game is the way it introduces combat. You don't see enemies in the environment. You just suddenly enter combat while you're walking along. Once the combat screen appears, which only takes a blink of an eye, the game reads any errant keystroke as "passing" and gives the enemy a free hit. You can imagine what happens. Eager to get somewhere, you hold down one of the arrow keys. Then suddenly you're in combat and the game reads a few extra arrow presses as "passes" and the enemy has pounded half your hit points away before you know it. Yes, you can avoid this problem by being patient and pausing between movements, but it gets a bit boring.

The good news is that leveling up is rapid. You max out at 9,999 experience points at Level 80, which for me occurred just before the final battle, so throughout the game I leveled up every 4-5 minutes on average. Leveling increases your hit points and spell points. You acquire new spells every few levels and have them all by Level 15. The spells are "Heal," "Injure," "Cure," "Kill," and "Return Home." "Heal" heals a random number of hit points between 1 and 2 times your level, roughly. "Cure" heals them all, and once you're capable of casting a few of them, it really extends the range you can explore away from towns. "Kill" does a great job killing any one enemy, but it costs so much that it's generally a better idea to save the spellcasting for "Cure." "Return Home" warps you back to the starting castle, which is rarely useful because most of the action takes place on the main continent.

The main continent is accessible through a dungeon in the starting island. Once you arrive, you go through the difficulty curve all over again because enemies on the main continent have a much higher average level than the ones on the starting island. But you keep leveling and improving. Once you've bought the best equipment, you can spend your excess funds on potions, which basically duplicate spells. There are potions that heal, cure, and poison (kill) as well as "wings" that perform the same as "Return Home." You're capped at 8 heal potions, 15 poisons, 5 cures, and 5 wings, so after that money is just wasted. I spent most of my second half of the game with my gold at 9,999, unable to earn any more.
            
Finding the magic shield late in the game.
       
You explore the main continent slowly--all the combats ensure that it's slow--assembling your items. The magic armor and shield are found in outdoor locations; NPCs give you specific coordinates, which you check with the (L)ocate command. The magic key is with a sage in one dungeon; the magic boots in a chest in the other. Dungeons are just linear mazes with plenty of combats, treasure chests (which you don't need), pits, and doors.
            
Fighting a vampire in the dungeon.
        
Once you have everything but the sword, a southern dungeon takes you to a small island with the final town. That town has a teleporter that takes you to the Evil Warlock's castle. The magic sword is in the dungeon of the castle.
          
Finding the sword.
          
Shortly after you find the sword, the Evil Warlock appears as a random encounter in the dungeon. He's pretty tough, but as long as you have enough magic points for about 7 "Cure" spells (or 2 plus 5 analogous potions) during combat, you'll outlast him.
           
The adorable Evil Warlock.
        
Once you strike the killing blow, you get a single text screen that indicates that the Warlock mysteriously disappeared. The text says that you make your way back to the castle, where the king knights you Sir Jester. Kick to DOS prompt. Presumably, we find out what happened in the sequel, Sword Quest 2: Tail of the Talisman (1993), which seems to offer new monsters and an automap but (groan) also includes a food system.
            
I was going to complain that the king should have knighted me with my real name, but then I realized it's basically indistinguishable.
       
On the GIMLET, the game gets 2s across the board plus a 3 in "economy," ending with a final score of 21. I should mention that in addition to the graphics, which as you can see are adequate, there are some basic sound effects plus a couple of background tunes that play in town and during combat. The combat tune sounds like a modified version of "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Except for the issue above, the commands work well, but the space wasted in the game interface by the title and company logo is a crime against nature.

Sword Quest is a product of Sequim, Washington-based NGS software, which seems to be a sole proprietorship of the game's author, Erik Badger. (Sequim, incidentally, is pronounced "Skwim." It is in one of the most beautiful parts of the United States. I got to spend three days there a couple years ago, and I nearly tried to convince Irene to move there. My trip was marred only by my striking an elk on the final evening and causing $1,700 damage to my rental car. I think the elk was all right.) A lot of sites list it as a 1986 game, which makes some sense as the version I played is explicitly labeled "version 3." On the other hand, I can't find direct evidence of a 1986 version--even sites that claim to have it turn out to have the 1992 version once you download it. Badger was only 17 in 1992; it seems a stretch to imagine he originally released a game when he was 11 in 1986.
             
Cute tag line.
         
There is some evidence that Badger distributed the game and its sequel as shareware, probably on BBSes. At least one download package for the second game has a text file requesting $12.00. But at some point in 1993, the pair of games was picked up for publication--and given a slick box--by none other than GT Interactive, founded that year in New York City. If anyone ever bought or played it, I can't find any evidence, but I'm sure GT didn't care, as they were about to make $10 million for publishing DOOM. Badger, meanwhile, seems to have gone on to a career as a dentist and never published another game.

As I say, Sword Quest gets the job done in a basic way. I'm certainly not going to complain about single-entry games in such a voluminous year.