Monday, July 16, 2018

Update

Sorry about the disappearance (again). I'm in a former SSR for a couple of weeks with spotty Internet access and limited time. I had hoped to schedule some entries in advance last week, but it didn't happen. I have quite a bit of material on both 2088 and Citadel, but it may be another week or so before I can get an entry together.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

2088: Cultural Assumptions

Vinay Pai appears in his game to offer some tips.
       
The plot of The Cryllan Mission has resolved into a somewhat interesting mystery full of poignant metaphors. I'm a bit worried that it won't pay off, but I'm enjoying the journey so far
        
It turns out, first of all, that the residents of the various cities are Cryllans, not remnants of the lost U.S.S. Houston. Whatever they look and sound like, it's close enough to humans that they don't seem to recognize that we're not from their world. (How we're communicating at all is a mystery best left unaddressed.) The story that they tell is that Crylla used to be a peaceful, sedate, multi-cultural planet with a nurturing government and no weapons. Fairly recently, however, a revolution took place against the "misanthropes" who had previously "infested" the government, the state was overthrown, and a new government was formed. This new government values industry, ambition, and long-term planning. Some Cryllans are happy with the new circumstances; some are appalled.
             
This NPC would prefer things returned to normal.
           
This one wants to make Crylla great again.
            
One big change is in the availability of weapons and armor. The state now encourages everyone to own guns, ostensibly to protect them from "misanthropes." The misanthropes, for their part, protest that they aren't a different species; they just have a different skin color. A couple of them--refugees from a destroyed city--say that they used to be wealthy landowners, with a household full of servants, but are now looked down upon as second-class citizens. One of them, Aenur Bryllium-Se in Zenetych, makes an impassioned argument against these new weapons:
             
What are you? Some kind of communist?
        
Aside from the obvious plot holes (e.g., the language issues), this is a reasonably compelling story, particularly since I still don't know the fate of the Houston astronauts or how they might have instigated these events. 

Now, until yesterday, I was also convinced that the plot was an obvious case of real life writing the story. Doesn't it sound a lot like a story that some young Indian boys might have written after experiencing the culture clash of moving to America--particularly Texas? Their lives overthrown, their status inverted, perhaps coming from an upper-class existence back home and now suddenly lumped in with everyone with dark skin, denigrated, mistrusted? Especially coming from a country with strict gun regulation to a state that actively encourages people to open-carry? Is it any wonder that the disruptive force that has landed on Crylla is called the Houston?
               
This sounds like a mighty topical issue.
            
Alas, there are dangers in assuming too much autobiography in a fictional story. I had a brief exchange with Vivek Pai, and he said that the brothers not born in the U.S. emigrated at too young an age to remember much of India. They were more influenced by 1984 than real life; even the name of their company (Victory Software) was not simply taken from the "Vi" in front of all of their names but rather the ubiquitous brand name (Victory Gin, Victory Coffee, Victory Cigarettes, Victory Mansions) in Orwell's novel. Star Trek was also a clear influence, as was Apocalypse Now and The Killing Fields.

Whatever the case, I'm more interested in 2088 than last time. Since the first entry, I've explored the opening overland, which is 128 x 128 and wraps. I visited the cities of Karkala, Torphur, Adion, and Zenetych, and talking to every NPC that I could. The NPC names are a weird mash-up of what sounds to me like Indian, Polynesian, English, and Greco-Roman; for instance, Rala Mahana, Vanesh Wyckenry, and Brudhier Bryllium. Some women are designated with the suffix "-Se" after their husbands' last names, as in the married couple Hrishym Bolgarium and Giselle Bolgarium-Se.

Interacting with NPCs is entirely a one-way process of clicking on the various dialogue buttons--"Background," "Introduction," and "New Topic"--with any of them offering the possibility of "More Detail." Despite the different labels, clicking on them in order generally produces a progressive (if somewhat redundant) narrative, not so much individual topics. Vivek said that NPCs are so verbose and repetitive not so much as a reflection of Indian dialogue patterns but because the brothers were trying to pad the length of the game and make it more of a challenge to find the real clues amidst all the blather. So I'm 0 for 2 on my cultural assumptions.

Most NPCs, incidentally, don't talk at all. You waste a lot of time running up to icons and hitting Apple-T.
              
Off to kill a guard, I guess.
           
Karkala and Zenetych both had a full set of services: weapons, armor, food, transport sales and repair, and medicine. Janiv Masawanere, who works for the Karkalan government, told me that you have to have papers to buy a transport, and those are currently restricted to guards. Zenetych's NPCs are proud of it as a high-tech city where many of the weapons and armor currently being sold were originally invented. 

One Zenetych NPC, Hackyrn Kassimar-Se, is married to a human and doesn't seem to realize it. She says she lost her first husband in the war, but then "Yanov" came along, "one of the new appointees to manage this district."  A "Janov Kassimar" is listed among the crewmembers of the Houston. He has two children with Hackyrn, Yany and Iri. He has recently been recalled to Nepenthe, so I didn't get to meet him directly. Did the Houston crew overthrow the legitimate Cryllan government themselves? What else would have led the Cryllans to adopt so much of the humans' culture?

Torphur was a ruin of a city with only one NPC, a refugee named Broonden Mair who admitted he was a "misanthrope" who had rebeled against the new government, with the help of "dissenting outsiders" (the Houston crew?). He told me that force field generators can be destroyed with a plasma grenade.
                  
Torphur is as destroyed as Magincia.
           
The force fields in question activate at night, preventing "misanthropes" from entering the cities. The implication is that the self-same "misanthropes" make up most of the thieves, outlaws, soldiers, merchants, and other enemies attacking me in the countryside.
          
Crylla at night.
           
Adion was hidden amidst some mountains, but there wasn't much I could do there. A group of guards at the entrance said it was a "restricted" city and said I'd be executed if I proceeded. 
         
The wilderness combats remain generally easy. The only thing you have to worry about is earning enough money to offset the cost of the medicine you use post-combat. That hasn't been hard. I've mostly been letting the computer fight except when NPCs get hung up on each other. My characters all leveled up at some point, which confers attribute and hit point increases.
               
Leveling up.
             
NPCs told me repeatedly of another land lying "beyond Cramur." Cramur is a dungeon that connects to at least one other continent, where I will find the cities of Nepenthe (the seat of the government) and Eune.

I found Cramur and accidentally entered it too soon. Dungeons apparently switch you to 3-D view, until you encounter monsters, when you go to a regular combat grid. (This dual interface was featured in Ultima IV and V, which Vivek confirmed as influences.) The problem is, the entrance seems to be one-way. I can't leave from the square I entered and I can't find the exit. The monsters, meanwhile, are much tougher and more numerous than those on the surface--I think I need to be Levels 3 or 4, with plenty of upgraded weapons, armor, and grenades, before I attempt Cramur.
             
The dungeon view.
          
Unfortunately, 2088 is a bit of a bastard when it comes to character death. First, it saves the game upon every death. It also saves when entering and exiting buildings. Second, if your doctor dies, there is no way to resurrect him or any other party member. The doctor is the only character who can resurrect, and the service isn't available in towns. Not only did I have to restart after the game saved in Cramur with no way out, but my next party also became completely useless when the doctor died. (There's also no way to swap out party members; you have to reconstitute the whole party.) I guess I'd better put two doctors in my next party, then spend a while grinding.
                
This combat is not survivable at my level.
          
My enjoyment of the game increased when I realized that it does support movement by the numeric keypad. The problem was that KEGS automatically maps the keypad to the joystick, but if you disable the joystick, you get your regular keypad back. It makes it so much easier to move around than clicking on the screen. I look forward to visiting other cities and seeing how the plot develops.

Time so far: 3 hours.
 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Game 296: Citadel: Adventure of the Crystal Keep (1989)

            
Citadel: Adventure of the Crystal Keep
United States
Postcraft International (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for Macintosh
Date Started: 1 July 2018

When I started playing Quarterstaff a few months ago, I thought the way Mac-native games incorporated the Mac interface was intriguing. It took exactly three games for my opinion to morph from "intriguing" to "f@%&* gorked." Who the hell wants the title screen to come up with a bunch of other stuff in the background? It's like breaking out the Monopoly board and laying it down on the coffee table without clearing it off first. You're trying to play while the board is balancing on the remote control, the Xbox controller, and two coaster, while a couple discarded newspaper sections, a few pieces of mail, and the TV Guide stick out from under it.

I'm being generous in calling the screen at the top of this entry the "title screen." That's actually what appears when you choose "About Citadel" from the Apple menu. When you simply start the game, the title and some introductory text comes scrolling on up atop your mess of windows and icons, as if you're watching a movie by projecting it against a wall that already has a bunch of things hanging on it. Frankly, I've been generous to the Mac games since I started playing them a few months ago, cropping my screenshots so only the game window was in view. But if you really want the Mac experience, I should be showing you the entire desktop every time.
          
The seas majestically sweep across my hard drive icon.
       
What is supposed to be the advantage here? "You can arrange things the way you want!" Screw you. You're the developer--arrange things in the way that the game is best played. Does Martin Scorsese leave the aspect ratio up to the viewers? And don't get me started with the game's love for the mouse. Here's an idea for the next Avengers movie: Thanos's plan is to wipe out half of humanity by selecting the 20% who would prefer to click on arrows rather than use a keypad and the 30% who go to a real creamery and order "soft serve" ice cream. The Avengers clap him on the back and welcome him to the team.

Like all Mac games, this one has a bunch of cutesy nonsense to make you think maybe it'll be clever and original. Character creation, for instance, has you slowly fill out a little birth certificate. The "menu town" screen has you click on little rustic signs. Oh, I suppose these sorts of thing have their charm if you're in the right mood, but if you're in the wrong mood, you want to grab the developer by his lapels and say, "Just because I like computer games doesn't mean I'm a damned child. I was toggling between Boltac's Trading Post and Gilgamesh's tavern with the 'B' and 'G' keys before you knew enough to type 10 PRINT 'HELLO' 20 GOTO 10. Now stop screwing around and give me some orcs to kill."
         
Well, isn't this just freaking adorable.
           
Thus, anyway, were my first impressions of Citadel, one of a pair of Apple games that gets my 1989 sweep-up off to a rocky start. Other than fluff, there is little to distinguish it from Wizardry. It's a multi-level dungeon crawler with six characters and a menu town on top.

In this case, the dungeon is the titular Citadel, once above-ground, high in the mountains, ruled by a sorceress named Lady Synd. One day, a stranger appeared in the town below and asked directions to the Citadel, and before long the land was enshrouded in blackness, with sounds of combat coming from the direction of the Citadel. A mighty earthquake signaled the end of the conflict, and when it was over, the entire Citadel had been subsumed into the ground, with only the top of its highest watchtower sticking above the surface. Since then, many adventurers have entered, and few have exited. Those few tell of Lady Synd entombed in a shimmering crystal.

Cue character creation, where you choose from five races (human, dwarf, hobbit, elf, and gnome) and eight classes: fighter, thief, wizard, cleric, knight, ninja, shaman, and magus, which basically equate to Wizardry's four core classes and four prestige classes. (Knight sub for lords, shamans for bishops, maguses for samurais.) In another impressive display of the developer's ability to use a thesaurus, attributes are strength, health, intelligence, knowledge, mien, and coordination. There are the usual minimum attributes per class.

I admit the game is a little creative in how you build the character. First you choose the occupations of both father and mother, from selections like "Farmer," "Beggar," "Noble," "Gypsy," "Milkmaid," "Tramp," and "Wench," the latter two hardly seeming exclusive of the others. Race, sex, and alignment (good, none, evil) follow. Sex is somewhat original in providing a "neuter" option, whose lack of inguinal distractions makes the character better at magic. As you choose all of these things, a little birth certificate fills in its blanks.
           
Setting my father's occupation.
           
After setting these definitions, you hit the "birth" button and then a button that says "age" a couple of times, watching the character grow from 0 to 18, with random numbers assigned to the attributes. Then you get to determine what proportions of the character's childhood was spent on labor, study, prayer, and play, with consequent effects on the expected statistics, although "mien" seems to be all random. Finally, you pick from the available classes, with the option to choose "serf" if the character can't meet any of them. The penultimate option is to spend some of your inherited gold (pity the player who chooses a beggar father and a tramp mother) on training of between 1 to 4 years, which adds to the class's prime requisite.
        
Establishing a strong, active, but kind of dumb atheist.
         
When you're all done, you can password-protect the character (again, like Wizardry), choose an icon, and even make edits to the icon. Lacking any artistic skills, I left the icons alone.
        
I literally would have no idea what do do here. Even out her smile, maybe.
            
The menu town has a store, temple, hotel, bank, and tavern in addition to the "nursery" where you create new characters. After creation, characters show up in the tavern and can be dragged into the party. Outfitting the characters with basic weapons and armor in the "shoppe" took most of my gold and depleted most of the shopkeeper's inventory. He pretty much has only one of every item, and when you've bought it, its icon is replaced with an "on order" message until some time later.
          
Adding characters from the tavern.
       
Purchasing equipment.
            
On to the dungeon. On the way in, at least the first time, you have to answer a copyright message using the game's codewheel, which it either adapted from Pool of Radiance or an unknown (by me) source for both games. I have an image of the codewheel but no way to manipulate it; fortunately, the game doesn't seem to have a problem with unlimited exits and returns until you get it right; I just kept guessing "A" and got it right on my fourth visit.
            
            
Exploration starts in a small dungeon level lit with torch sconces. Light dims as you move down corridors, and it took me forever to figure out that the way to light my own torches was to hold them up to one of the lit sconces. (But who keeps them lit?!?!) I got started mapping, but the first level (at least, the opening part) consisted of no more than 15 squares with a locked gate and a down staircase. All the levels I've explored so far have been small, making me think the game's levels are likely to be a bunch of small sections with multiple up and down options.
            
The dungeon view.
          
Combat is going to take me a long time to get used to. I really don't understand what's happening, and the manual is a bit obtuse in some areas. The best I can figure, when you enter combat (I've only faced skeletons so far), characters fight automatically but need you to move them into position. You do this by dragging their icons from wherever they start to melee range of the monsters. After a few rounds, someone dies. That's about all I can report so far. I haven't explored the spell system, nor more specific combat tactics like backstabbing. Saving issues (and lack of save states with this emulator) discourage a lot of experimentation.
             
I don't quite get what's happening here.
           
On the second level, I found an elevator that seems to transition multiple levels. It brought me back up to the first, but the gate was still locked.
               
Using the elevator. Midway between levels.
           
It also brought me to one level above the first (which I guess means the first is the second, or lower), which consisted of just a short corridor ending in a skull. The skull asked me a riddle--"How long does it take to fall ten feet?"--for which I didn't know the answer. It certainly wasn't the obscenity I offered in reply. My party fell through the floor and took some damage.
            
Anyone have a guess?
            
I wanted to reload and try some other options, but I guess I need to invest some time figuring out how the save system works. I get the impression from the manual that the game saves your progress in the default data files as you go, but if you want to take a backup at any point, you can use "save as" and then double-click on that file to restart. All I know is that when I tried to reload a "backup" I'd taken before the fall, my characters were mysteriously back in town again, with the inventories I'd had like a hour ago. After I saved that game and quit, upon reloading there wasn't even anyone in my party.

If the game has any promise, I suppose it's in the controls that I detest. If you're going to require your character to click around all day with the mouse, then the environment ought to have some things that require the mouse's precision. Dragging a torch up to another torch to light it is an example of this, as is hitting the right buttons on the elevator controls. There is something vaguely satisfying about dragging a bag of gold from the floor to the character's inventory that isn't quite matched by just seeing the spoils of combat in a text window. The game also does a decent job offering keyboard backups for the most common commands, so it's mostly my own fault when I accidentally click on the desktop and end up in the Finder. I just need to learn them.
         
I'm not sure that the developer knows the difference between a hotel, a hostel, and another place that features the letters OTHEL.
            
Apropos of both this and the last entry, I should mention that while you'd only want air conditioning in Maine about one week a year, this is that week, and I don't have it. When you can't type for more than 30 seconds at a time because contact sweat develops between your wrist and the laptop, it's hard not to be cranky about anything that keeps me at the computer. Maybe I'll like both Citadel and 2088 better when I'm more comfortable. If not, this is going to be a long month.

Time so far: 3 hours

Monday, July 2, 2018

Game 295: 2088: The Cryllan Mission (1989)

The Apple IIGS has less a "title screen" as a "title arrangement of windows."
          
2088: The Cryllan Mission
United States
Victory Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for Apple IIGS
Date Started: 24 June 2018

As much as I wasn't looking forward to an Apple IIGS game--I always have problems with the emulator--you have to love the background story of Victory Software, formed in Houston, Texas, by the three Pai brothers, whose names all begin with "Vi": Vinay, Vivek, and Vijay. They produced three titles for the under-served platform: 2088, its 1990 Second Scenario, and Secrets of Bharas (1991). Sales of the three titles capped at 2,000, but we need not feel bad for the trio, as they went on to successful careers at Intuit (Vinay) and Google (Vivek and Vijay; things must get tense when they get together with cousin Ajit at Thanksgiving). In a 2016 LinkedIn interview, Vinay described Victory as a "good failure" in which he "learned a lot." Whether the games were a "failure" because they were bad or because there just wasn't a robust Apple IIGS RPG market is something we'll soon determine.

2088 takes place in a Star Trek-like future in which the Earth-based National Space Exploration Council boldly goes where no one has gone before. The titular mission involves investigating what happened to the U.S.S. Houston, with which contact was lost shortly after it discovered a humanoid civilization in the Gamma-Chi sector, on the planet of Crylla. Why the mission is necessary is a bit of a mystery, since the Houston's captain's own logs say that the planet is about to "pass on the far side of the binary stars," which will block deep-space transmissions for at least nine months. Meanwhile, the Cryllans have been nothing but friendly and appear to have no weapons. Nonetheless, the Strategic Defense Division of NSEC has scrambled your team to investigate.
          
Creating a new character.
          
The game begins in a separate application where you create your party and send them to "training." The way the manual describes the latter process, I thought I was in for some MegaTraveller-style character backgrounds, but alas, it's not that complex. The game randomly rolls for five attributes--marksmanship, intelligence, kinetics, dexterity, and stamina--and then allows you to supplement the initial rolls with a pool of points. Certain minimums are needed for the game's four classes: soldier, science officer, nurse, and doctor. Then, once you finish, the game tells you what bonus points you earned during "training." They generally just boost the classes' existing prime requisites [entry just added to the glossary].
       
The new party. Programmers will be happy to see that the game numbers the characters 0-5
       
After creation, your six characters start on the Cryllan landscape with rifles and thermal armor, a few months' worth of food, and no money. It's not clear how they got where they are, since there's no ship nearby or anything. The party soon comes across roads, towns, and people, all of which are so indistinguishable from Earth that you start to wonder if the party ever actually blasted off.
            
Starting out. Who knew that dotted lines in roads were an intergalactic standard?
           
Given that the Apple IIGS was an "almost-Mac," the interface is similar to a Mac in that the game windows can be moved and arranged to the player's preference, and all of the commands are available from menus. (We'll see the same in the next game, Citadel: Adventure of the Crystal Keep, for the Mac.) The game is too in-love with the mouse, requiring it for movement (you click where you want to go) as well as most commands, though a few commands are backed up with keyboard shortcuts using the Apple key.

The basic interface has something of an Ultima-esque feel. Outside, you navigate a large overland world of islands connected by bridges. Occasional enemies appear as icons in the game world. When you run into a town, you enter and open up a larger-scale map.
           
Arriving in a town.
        
If there's one original element to be found in 2088, it's the combat system. When you attack an enemy or one attacks you, you're taken to a 81-square grid based on the terrain you were standing on when you entered. Enemies face you across the field. You set an action for each character--move, attack, rest, throw a grenade, heal another character, or flee--and then hit "begin combat" to execute them all at once. In other words, it uses a Wizardry-style action/execute system with an Ultima IV/V/Gold Box-style tactical window. The grid to the right helps you keep track of who's who.
         
Setting combat options.
         
However, you can eschew all of this by letting the computer fight your combats. This is tempting in the initial stages in which everyone has the same weapons and no one has any grenades. Even better, you can set a number of preferences for computer-controlled combat that together ensure that the computer would have done what you would have done anyway. Since computer-controlled combat is over in about one-tenth of the time, this is tempting. The only drawback I see is that pathfinding is relatively poor, and characters often have trouble moving to a place where they have an uninterrupted line-of-sight to the enemy.
             
Fine-tuning auto-combat options.
         
The computer does a decent job lining people up uselessly behind each other.
        
After combat, the doctor or nurse can instantly heal anyone to full strength with something called "GammaPlasma." You have a limited supply, and I assume I'll have to buy more eventually. If a character dies, a doctor (but not a nurse) can resurrect him with something called "TanaShanti" (the Internet suggests this is Hindi for "body peace"), but he suffers with low attributes for a day or so. Combat delivers experience points, money, and occasionally equipment.
       
The doctor heals injured party members.
          
That said, who are these people? Why am I fighting them? How does their hostility jibe with the Houston's report of a peaceful, weaponless population? Did the Houston crew arm them? Corrupt them? Are they remnants of the Houston crew? The game doesn't pause for such questions.
           
Do the Cryllans just happen to have the same name structure as Earthlings? Or is Willy from Earth? You'd think that would be the first question we asked.
          
Things don't get any clearer when you enter the towns. They're like regular towns in a typical fantasy RPG with shops and NPCs, but it's completely unclear whether these are aliens or remnants of the Houston. They sell weapons, armor, food, and other goods for a currency called "terraens," which sounds a lot like they come from Earth. NPCs so far have just been normal people who complain about their work and offer a few hints about how to navigate the landscape. So far, I've found nothing about the Houston or even clues whether I'm talking to Cryllans or humans.
          
Where did the Cryllans get all these weapons?
         
I haven't gotten very far, but I figured it was time to get the blog re-started, and I was otherwise having difficulty motivating myself to play. I'm having the same issue I keep complaining about with top-down games where the terrain is a bit too large and there's no easy way to map it. (The science officer's "Terrain Scan" covers only about 40% more than the regular window.) I tried to cheat by looking for a map online but couldn't find one.
           
This would be more helpful if the regular window didn't already show, like, 6 kilometers.
          
A funny thing about the dialogue. This gets into a stereotype but it's not exactly a negative stereotype so I hope no one's bothered. I have two Indian co-workers, one close enough to call a friend, and I've noticed a particular pattern to his speech. If I say, "Hey, want to grab a drink tonight?," a typical American might answer, "Nah, thanks, my son's got a baseball game." That would be the end of it. But Ayan or Lakshman will respond with entire paragraphs, each expanding in more detail on the central theme.
         
No. No, I'm sorry, I cannot go. I would like to go but my son is playing in a baseball game. My son is very proud of his accomplishments on his baseball team, and he would be very disappointed if I were not there to watch his performance, so as much as I'd like to, I will have to ask your pardon on the drink. You must understand that it is very difficult for an Indian boy to find acceptance on an American organized sporting team, and that . . .
           
At some point I have to tell him, Ayan, man, I get it, no problem, because otherwise I'll get his whole family history, and the history of baseball besides. Anyway, I never knew whether this particular speech pattern was unique to these two men or something commonly found in Indian culture. I still don't know for sure, but I broke out laughing when I saw the NPC dialogue system in 2088, which not only features the same sort of dialogue but structures it as such. An NPC will introduce a topic and then you can click on "More Detail" and see him re-state the same topic but with a couple more details. More often than not, you can click a third time and still get no new information, but more words. At least, that's how it's gone for the few NPCs so far. It means I mentally hear all the dialogue in a typical Indian accent.
              
Rala Mahana takes a long time to say, "Listen up."
         
I'm assuming a lot in tying these observations together, since as far as I know the Pai brothers were eighth generation and fully Americanized. If not, this game may be a "first," in that I don't remember any Indian names among previous game designers (at least, not lead designers). I have some hope that even if the game turns out to be boring and derivative, I'll at least be able to identify cultural influences like Hindi source words and expansively redundant rhetoric.

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 NON 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.
        
Vyvolat 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 bed 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 Castle) 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.