Monday, August 10, 2020

Amberstar: Summary and Rating

A well-designed cover that actually makes sense in context (a varied party, a giant eagle, the Amberstar itself) decorates a game with the same type of attention to detail.
Thalion Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS
Date Started: 20 June 2020
Date Ended: 29 July 2020
Total Hours: 50
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Amberstar is an engaging German game with roots in Ultima and other U.S. titles. The plot, about an evil demon-wizard threatening to return to the world of Lyramion, is less interesting than the individual quests necessary to reassemble the ancient artifact (the titular Amberstar) that will stop him. The game features interesting towns, dungeons, and other areas with a variety of lengths and difficulties. The player starts with a player-created character and from there slowly assembles a party of six from about ten potential companions. First-person and top-down sections alternate effectively, and the game has relatively strong (if not superlative) mechanics for inventory, commerce, NPC dialogue, and combat. A lack of sound, a sometimes-difficult interface, and an excess of long combats at times threatens the player's experience, but ultimately a strong base and an attention to small details and innovations makes this one a winner.

Amberstar is a better game than the summary above suggests (minus the final line) because of small things. It doesn't announce itself as an evolutionary step forward with SVGA graphics, masterful use of sound, or innovations in combat AI. It is not "next generation" anything. If you only read the manual or watched a few minutes of video, you would see little to distinguish it from other, largely-derivative European titles of the period--or indeed from its own antecedents.
This is just a random shot of the party flying over various landscape features on an eagle.
Instead, it improves upon its predecessors with slight tweaks and adjustments, ultimately making for a more interesting, more satisfying game. Its innovations are less fully-formed than nudges towards what CRPGs would ultimately become, while still largely using the mechanics of what went before. Some examples of what I mean:
  • It improves NPC interactivity and the depth of lore conveyed by NPCs. Mechanically, it has barely improved upon the keyword system used by Ultimas IV-VI, but it gives its NPCs more text and more character than the usual RPG, and it keeps things interesting by giving the player some keywords but forcing the player to seek out (and figure out) others.
  • It's a rare game to offer a truly open world. And just like good modern games with open worlds, it lets the player figure things out for himself. If a dungeon is too hard, he can turn around and try again, or keep throwing himself against it until he overcomes it through sheer force of will. There are gates to some areas, of course, but they feel natural rather than artificial. 
  • It has a lot of lore, but it doesn't require that the player find and absorb all of it to succeed in the game. It is possible to figure out most of the puzzles without the associated hints from NPCs, and the player can literally stumble upon some of the Amberstar pieces. I never found anyone on the surface world who had anything to say about the Realm of Manyeye, for instance; I just found it by seeing what happened when I sailed into a whirlpool.
  • It anticipates later games in which the player creates one character (with a backstory and personal connection to the quest) and then recruits his party from a variety of NPCs. Those NPCs have no dialogue once they join the party, and a couple are unforgivably hard to find, but it's still an interesting divergence from the player creating his entire party.
  • To make up for limited graphics, the game does a particularly good job with textual descriptions as you wander the dungeons.
This not only adds some flavor to what would otherwise be a pile of bones, it makes sense in context of the dungeon.
  • I loved the mix between hand-crafted top-down areas and first-person textured areas. It was a good way to vary the nature of exploration, encounters, and puzzles, using the relative strengths of the two interfaces.
  • This is far from the first game to offer an automap, but it is one of the few games up to its time to offer a truly useful automap, including annotating doors, chests, teleporters, and other navigational elements. 
  • The translators did a good job. There are some weird spellings, but overall I see less of the awkwardness of phrasing that I see in many translated games.

What I admire most, however, is the wonderful sense of variety that goes into finding the Amberstar pieces. I know I've said this before, but when the game started, I was absolutely sure that finding each piece would involve 13 quests of similar length and difficulty, making the game extraordinarily monotonous. Instead, a few of the pieces are obtained with just a few minutes of questing, a few are at the ends of long and difficult dungeons, and a few are in between. And the dungeons themselves all have their own themes and character; they're not just featureless corridors.
Few of these features are wholly original to Amberstar, but it's still rare to find so many positive elements assembled in a single game. The result is a title that doesn't look much like Ultima VI, or Wizardry, or Pool of Radiance, but which nonetheless managed to bring together the things that worked best in those previous titles, as if it had cloned their souls rather than just their faces.
The developers perhaps could have spent some time varying the graphics for statues.
Not everything worked. I struggled with the interface all the way to the game's final hours. Too many of the skills were never called into play. You have to carefully step over a few walking dead scenarios, and only having one save slot doesn't help with that. The inability to speed up the combat animations was a near-fatal flaw, and overall the game lasted just a smidge too long; I don't care how interesting and varied the quests are, 13 pieces is just too many.
If my GIMLET does things right, it should put Amberstar right around 50--higher than other German contenders, not quite as high as the most innovative games from North America. Tweaks and nudges get you into the top fifth, sure, but not the top. Let's see.
1. Game World. The backstory is a relatively banal account of an evil wizard trying to return from exile and take over the world. (Just once, I want to read a story in which the evil wizard or demon, having been freed from a thousand years in prison, has no interest in re-embarking on the same path that got him imprisoned in the first place, and now wants nothing more than a good meal and a stiff drink.) I groaned at the "Disassembulet of Yendor" main quest. But the game world is otherwise well-realized, with different geographic areas under the control of different factions, and an interesting pantheon of gods. The game also enjoys an Ultima-like relationship between the game and the game manual, avoiding the problem inherent in so many other titles in which the manual just tells a framing story and seems to have been written by a different person. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. The big problem here is that the player doesn't have immediate or even early access to many of the game's guilds. I got lucky in finding the paladine guild early, but otherwise a first-time player is forced to choose between becoming a thief or a warrior. Those aren't bad choices, I suppose, but it still bothers me that I didn't find some guilds until the last quarter of the game. You do have to give quite a bit of thought to party composition, which I liked. You make a real sacrifice in front-line power with any pure wizard class. Trying to mitigate this with the hybrid classes creates its own problems, and in some ways I like that paladines, rangers, and monks are balanced between warriors and spellcasters instead of having the full power of both.

Leveling was satisfying and rewarding, if a bit annoying to have to visit so many guilds. But the skills were a bit problematic. About half of them (Listen, Find Traps, Disarm Traps, Swimming) are called into play so rarely, and with so little consequence if you don't have the skill, that it doesn't make sense to invest points in them. I'm not even sure that "Search" really did much, although I suppose you wouldn't know if you didn't find things that would have otherwise been found with the skill. Different races, and their associated languages, were a minor part of gameplay that could have been better-developed. Score: 5.

3. NPC Interaction. I'm still waiting for the first game that offers true "dialogue options," but Amberstar otherwise takes keyword-based dialogue about as far as it can go. You have to pay attention to NPCs and seek keywords based on their statements, or type in your own. There are different types of NPCs found in both interfaces, and obviously a fair number of them can join the party. Score: 5.
NPCs may not be as memorable as in, say, Ultima VII, but they're close.
4. Encounters and Foes. The game's bestiary uses similar creatures as other fantasy RPGs, but they're not entirely the same. One thing I liked (although I can see how other players might dislike this) is that different areas heavily feature just one or two types of creature, usually starting with small numbers and slowly building as you explore. This gives you time to become an expert on the enemy's strengths, weaknesses, and special attacks. Blunt force rarely saves you even if it serves you at the beginning of an area.

Most of the encounters in the game are fixed; finding random encounters and thus grinding is possible but not easy. I thought this was fine. It keeps the system from being completely closed, but it also means you can generally walk between two cities without having to fight six combats. I also liked the variety of special encounters with boss-level enemies in many of the dungeons.
Aside from the magic mouths--most notably in the Tower of Riddles--there weren't a lot of non-combat encounters, though, nor any strong opportunities for role-playing. Score: 5. (By now, you're suspecting I'm engineering all the scores to be 5s. I promise I'm not.)
Even the finding of treasure is often presented as a contextual encounter, with a little narrative to accompany the loot.
5. Magic and Combat. The game does a decent job adapting the tactical combat process of games like Wizardry, where you assign individual actions for each character and then watch them execute all at once, threaded with NPC actions. There are associated considerations of character formation, whether to concentrate or spread out attacks, and of course when to use spells. It isn't as tactical as the Gold Box series, but it is more so than the Ultima and Interplay titles with which the developers must have been familiar.
I thought the magic system worked well, too. Even late in the game, you don't have so much spellpower that you can just cast your most devastating spells on every enemy party. Like most good RPGs, you have to balance success in a single combat with success over an accumulation of combats. There was also a manageable number of spells, and some nice variety among the classes. Not having a competent white wizard meant that I had to miss out on a large variety of enemy-effect spells, for instance.

But the number and length of combats is a problem that goes beyond the couple of points in the "gameplay" category where I would normally rate it. The game really needed a "quick combat" option or at least some option to auto-assign every character's attack to the closest enemy. And it needed to get rid of enemy combat animations, which kept the built-in "fast forward" button from doing what it was meant to do. Score: 5.
Combat is never bad, exactly--just a little too slow sometimes.
6. Equipment. The six characters have slots for weapons, armor, shields, necklaces, helms, rings, and boots, and there is a nice variety of items to buy and find, many restricted to particular classes, races, or genders. I also liked the large variety of usable items--wands, potions, herbs, scrolls, and weapons with special attacks, all of which could provide an edge in combat. I liked that most statistics for the items are clear by looking at them, and that the "Identification" spell (or sage) reveals the rest. I particularly liked the selection of items that slowly improve the interface (e.g., watch, compass, location finder, etc.) Score: 6.
Statistics show me exactly what the amulet does, and who can wear it.
7. Economy. The economy is relevant throughout the game, but you have an overabundance of wealth in the latter half, and the associated effects on encumbrance means that you end up dropping most of it. I ended the game with thousands of gold pieces and dozens of uncashed gems. If the guilds had replenished their stocks of scrolls, that would have provided a good "money sink" for the game's final hours. But the game deserves some credit for its first half, when money is scarce and the party has to make some tough decisions. Score: 5.

8. Quests. The main quest is fine, and as I've said, I like the variety in its stages and the way that the player can assemble the 13 Amberstar pieces in almost any order. Unfortunately, there are no choices or alternate routes in the main quest. As for side quests, there are fewer than it first appears. Most of them end up being steps towards one of the Amberstar pieces. But there are some, and their presence enhances the game even if they don't allow a lot of role-playing options. Score: 4.
One of the game's few side-quests.
9. Graphics, Sound, and Input. Alas, a less rosy category. The graphics aren't bad, but to me they were generally too small. (My colorblindness is often an issue with small graphics, which may have made them look worse to me.) The developers put a lot of detail in the top-down areas, which was often then ruined by the inability to tell one object from another. I often couldn't even distinguish humanoids from animals. The textures in the first-person interface were find, and there were some decent cut-scene graphics.

As for sound, there isn't any except for the music, which I consider a crazy oversight. I know a lot of people like game music, but to focus on it exclusively and offer no sound effects is not a choice most developers would make. Music fans will bump up this category a couple of points for the sheer variety of quality compositions (although a fair number appear to have been at least partly plagiarized) that play in different situations.

Finally, while the use of screen real estate was fine, the controls never worked well for me. It remained awkward throughout the game to explore the iconographic areas, and I was always trying to move when the control panel was locked on the "action" side. Beyond that, I liked that you had to earn some elements of the interface, and as I said earlier, the automap works very well. Score: 3. 
10. Gameplay. We end on a high note. Amberstar is impressively non-linear and modestly replayable when you consider different party compositions, a different class for the main character, and a different order to the quests. I found its difficulty just right, and while I thought it lasted a little too long, it was just a little. Score: 7.

All the 5s make this one easy to sum up, and the final score is exactly 50. I promise I didn't engineer that outcome, but I agree with the result. It gets it just into the top 10% of titles I've played, and it beats the next-highest German offerings, Spirit of Adventure and Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny by 6 points. (I would stress, though, that Arkania had some individual categories that out-performed Amberstar.) Perhaps more notably, it beat Thalion's previous Dragonflight by a full 16 points. Although some influence of Dragonflight can be seen in Amberstar, clearly some of the new additions to the team (including designer Karsten Köper and programmer Jurie Horneman) made a crucial difference.

I was hoping that designer Karsten Köper would appear during this series of entries. He showed up briefly to comment on his one known previous game, Mythos, but only to address the Axis/eagle thing. This is what I always fear: that a developer will visit and get turned away by one of the more stupid or offensive parts of our discussion (and I freely admit I started that one by making fun of the publisher's name). Anyway, he's given most of the credit for the Amber series, having apparently brought a strong experience with both computer and tabletop RPGs to Thalion. But he disappears almost as fast as he arrives, with design credits on Amberstar and Ambermoon and quality assurance on Trex Warrior: 22nd Century Gladiator (1991). Much later, he has testing credits on two other German games: Stephen King's F13: Ctrl, Alt, . . . Shiver (1999), which has to be the most awkward game title of all time, and K. Hawk: Survival Instinct (2002).       
Despite the game's North American release, most American computer magazines seem to have missed it, including Computer Gaming World. Thus, most reviews are found in German and British magazines, where the result was extremely varied. The best score (92/100) comes from the British ST Action in March 1993, but the magazine just offers a quick blurb: "Tasty German RPG with a huge play area, several varying quests and exceedingly smooth scrolling. An immediate purchase!" The worst was from the German PC Player in January 1993, which found it "a rather frustrating program only for freaks who [like to] struggle with every [role-playing game] regardless of controls, graphics, and sound." To be fair, "controls, graphics, and sound" are exactly where this game falls apart, and thus you're likely to rate it low if that's your primary orientation. This explains a large number of ratings in the 60s and 70s, particularly from Amiga magazines, although a few saw through these flaws. The October 1992 Amiga Action faulted those features but otherwise recommended that you dump your girlfriend so you'll have more time to finish it; they gave a 91/100. The German Power Play wasn't far behind, with ratings of 85 for the Amiga and Atari ST versions and 83 for DOS.
The sequel, Ambermoon (1993) looks to have addressed many of these concerns. The third-person sections are zoomed in more, to better distinguish features and creatures, and also angled to be more axonometric. The first-person sections show even more color and detail, as do the NPC and monster graphics. More important, the first person sections seem to offer continuously-scrolling movement, along the lines of Ultima Underworld, which was a major change to have implemented in only a year. Unfortunately, the videos I watched suggest that the game still didn't offer any sound effects, and the toggled control pad is still there.
 A shot from Ambermoon, courtesy of MobyGames.
The series was reportedly intended as a trilogy, but poor sales forced Thalion to close in 1994 before the third game was produced. I can't speak about Ambermoon, but I can say that Amberstar doesn't really require a sequel, so unless Ambermoon ends on a cliffhanger, a couplet rather than a trilogy will probably be just fine. Many former Thalion personnel ended up at Blue Byte Software, and I've heard that Blue Byte's Albion (1995) is seen by some as a "spiritual sequel" to Amberstar.

It won't be long before we check out Ambermoon, but for now it's time to roll the dice on a new title, for the first time in a long time. The result is Quest for Kings (1990). I tried to play it over a year ago, got stuck with some error messages, and put it back into the rotation for later. In the meantime, I got some assistance from the author, Howard Feldman, who also happens to be the owner of the Museum of Computer Adventure Gaming History. It's long past time I gave it another try. In the short-term, however, we're going to look at an obscure Atari 800 title called Abraxas Adventure #1: Assault on the Astral Rift (1984).

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Black Gate: The Road Not Taken

So here's what's supposed to happen, picking up from the party's victory at Skara Brae: I get the answer to the question of Life and Death (or, at least, enough of one) from the Tortured One and return to Alagner. Alagner lets me borrow his book. I have to solve a bunch of annoying navigation puzzles in his lab to get it, and while I'm doing so, Alagner is murdered by Hook and Forkris, an event I'm able to witness in the crystal ball on his table, since it records what happened in the previous 24 hours.
Alagner's notebook satisfies the wisp, who tells me that the Time Lord wants to speak to me, but he's trapped in the Shrine of Spirituality. I can reach him by using my Orb of Moons directly to the northwest, even though this has never worked before. The wisp goes on to explain that Britannia is under attack from the Guardian, who is vain, greedy, egocentric, and malevolent. He has conquered numerous worlds, and his followers--the leaders of the Fellowship--are building a black moongate to allow him to enter and conquer Britannia. The wisp warns us to prevent this, as in Britannia, the Guardian will be unstoppable. Most of this is stuff we already know.

In his prison in the Shrine of Spirituality, the Time Lord confirms that it was he who sent the red moongate to bring me to Britannia. He is being held in his prison by the spherical generator in the dungeon Despise, which he bids the Avatar to destroy. The Avatar has to journey all the way there, get blocked by the red moongate, and return to the Time Lord to hear the Time Lord's solution to the barrier: get Nicodemus's hourglass.
The Time Lord ruins the fan theory that he was Hawkwind in Ultima IV.
Nicdoemus tells you that he sold the hourglass to an antique store in Paws. You can buy it or steal it there, but Nicodemus needs to enchant it for it to be useful. If the ether is still messed up, he can't do that, so the Avatar has to return to the Time Lord and get the clue to visit Penumbra as a first step to destroying the tetrahedron generator. Afterwards (or if the Avatar has already done this), Nicodemus can cast the necessary spell.

The enchanted hourglass somehow provides protection from the barrier, allowing the Avatar to enter and destroy the generator as I did by accident. More important, by double-clicking on the hourglass, the Avatar can contact the Time Lord later on.

To destroy the cube generator legitimately, you must use the hourglass to contact the Time Lord, who suggests that its defense can be countered with a special metal called Caddellite. I had already picked up Caddellite ore on a premature visit to Ambrosia, but if I hadn't, the Time Lord would tell me to ask Brion at the Moonglow observatory. Brion tells you that Caddellite only comes from meteors, and the last one to strike Britannia landed in the "northeast sea." It is also Brion who recommends that you take the ore to Zorn in Minoc to have helmets fashioned from it. Zorn's helmets protect from the cube generator's attacks, allowing the party to access it and get the cube prism.
Zorn forges faster than the player character in Skyrim.
By bumbling prematurely into the sphere generator, I destroyed some of this questline, but less than I thought. As we've seen, I could still contact the wisps and get the hints to visit Alagner, and from Alagner the quest to visit the Tortured One, and I could have continued through Alagner's murder.

Unfortunately, I couldn't visit the Time Lord in his original prison, since I'd already freed him and then broke the Orb of Moons. This meant that I never asked him about a way to get through the red moongate, which means he never gave me the HOURGLASS keyword to feed to Nicodemus. However, I discovered that if I obtained the hourglass from Paws, Nicodemus still had the ENCHANT keyword that would allow me to pick up from there.
That was the past, Time Lord.
When I used it, the Time Lord addressed me as if speaking to me for the first time, using dialogue that I would have received if I'd visited him in his prison, but I also had keywords from later in the questline, so it was a weird conversation, mixing dialogue that suggested he was still entrapped with dialogue that I was meant to get after freeing him. Either way, he directed me to Brion and the Caddellite helms the way he was supposed to, allowing me to pick up from there.

Truth be told, I had already obtained the cube prism by dismissing my party, sucking up the damage that the generator dealt with my enhanced hit points, solving the puzzle, and re-enlisting my party members. But I still went to Brion, got the hint, went to Minoc, and got Zorn to make me eight Caddellite helmets.
Spark puts one on.
I declined to finish the Alagner questline because it would have gotten him needlessly killed, and I no longer needed the wisps' hints about reaching the Time Lord. Thus, we pick up this narrative as my Avatar arrives at the Meditation Retreat for the second time. Whether it's the Caddellite helm that protects the Avatar or the extra hit points he gained from Forge of Virtue, he ends up in the generator (as he does with all the generators) alone.
Thank the gods. Trying to move my party through this area would be a nightmare.
If the phrase "fiendish without being particularly clever" makes any sense, it applies to the little cube generator maze. The cube is in the center of a series of concentric squares. The Avatar can walk around the squares, but there are invisible walls blocking him at various points. Stepping on some points sets off traps, while stepping on others creates little bridges between the outer and inner squares. You basically have to walk around the whole thing multiple times, doing your best to avoid fireballs and gouts of flame, reloading if you suddenly wake up at the Fellowship shelter in Paws.
Maneuvering my way around the area.
The voice of the Guardian taunts you throughout this process, sometimes laughing, sometimes saying, "Yes, that is the proper direction to travel, Avatar." Either way, you ignore him until you finally reach the center and take the cube. As usual, this destroys the generator.

Afterwards, the Time Lord speaks unbidden:
Avatar! The Astronomical Alignment is almost at hand! Time is running out! The Guardian must be prevented from coming through the Black Gate! The cube will help thee find the location of the Black Gate. With it in thy possession, those under the influence of the Guardian will be more receptive to speaking the truth to thee. Go to Buccaneer's Den. Search for the one called "Hook." Talk to the so-called Fellowship. Thou shouldst have no trouble ascertaining his whereabouts there. I am sure that thou wilt eventually find the location of the Black Gate. Good luck!
Gorn has no new dialogue on the way out; his "god" is somehow still able to speak to him, so he and the Avatar still part with animosity. 
Having already visited Buccaneer's Den (and, of course, having already gotten to it twice), I already know that the Black Gate will be found on the Isle of the Avatar, but the prospect of using a lie detector on Fellowship members is too good to pass up. I spend a while flying everywhere with a Fellowship hall, re-engaging various members in dialogue. They often begin with their "old" dialogue, but then the cube vibrates and they have additional dialogue in which they're forced to speak the truth. Here are some highlights:
  • Klog in Trinsic not only knew about the Fellowship's role in Christopher's murder; he instigated it. When Christopher refused to help with the Black Gate project despite having been paid, Klog confronted him and Christopher shoved him out of his smithy. Klog called for the assassins, and Hook and Forskis arrived in The Crown Jewel to take care of the deed. Inamo was in the wrong place at the wrong time after all.
  • Batlin casts a spell and disappears the moment he sees that you have the cube.
  • Patterson has no new dialogue. He's not being influenced by the Guardian; he's just a jackass.
The Avatar looks at the cube in confusion, shakes it, checks the battery compartment.
  • Elynor in Minoc knows full well that Hook and Forskis committed the murders of Frederico and Tania. She attributes the Fellowship candelabra left at the scene to their carelessness.
  • Danag, the branch leader in Buccaneer's Den, has the most to offer. He spills the beans on Hook, who is the Fellowship's chief executioner, having been trained to the role by his predecessor, de Snel. Danag doesn't like the Fellowship leaders. He calls Elizabeth a "royal she-bitch" who "will murder thee at a moment's notice," and he says that Abraham cheats at cards. He also says explicitly that the Black Gate is being built on the Isle of the Avatar, in case it wasn't clear from the materials in Hook's chambers, and that Hook has a key. He confirms that Buccaneer's Den and its pirates are completely controlled by the Fellowship, and that most of the organization's profits come from there.
The cube basically vibrates continually as Danag talks.
  • Gordy, the game master, confirms Fellowship owner of the casino and says that the guard Sintag has the key to the back areas.
  • Sintag willingly hands over the key if asked. This is how players were supposed to get in without the "Telekinesis" spell.
  • None of the NPCs in the Baths have any new dialogue. I guess maybe they really are volunteers.
  • The game specifically notes that the cube had no effect on some Fellowship members, meaning they were honestly suckered. This is true of Feridwyn in Paws and Quan in Terfin.
  • Mistress Mandy, the tavernkeeper in Buccaneer's Den, causes the cube to vibrate "a little," but tells me nothing she didn't when I didn't have the cube. The game notes that "somehow you know that Mandy would have told you the truth without it."
Lord British has no new dialogue, neither from the cube nor any of the things we've discovered the whole game.
Apropos of nothing, in the sea between Buccaneer's Den and Serpent's Hold is a ship floating by itself with no crew. I didn't check it out (it would require my own ship), but I wonder what's in the hold.
The Crown Jewel at last!
Thus we made our way once again to the old dungeon Hythloth, built into the mountains west of the old Shrine of the Codex, and we use the key from Hook's chambers--conveniently forgotten by the loyal Fellowship assassin--to open the front door.
Immediately inside the door, we're startled to see a giant stone throne, clearly built for the Guardian. It's not so much the presence of the throne that startles us, but its specific location. Did the Guardian really want to sit so immediately in front of the main door, in a dungeon with a dirt floor, looking out on the Shrine of the Codex through iron bars?
This is more where you'd put the receptionist's desk than the throne of your leader and conqueror.
There are living and dining quarters for Fellowship staff--all of whom we kill--immediately south of the throne room. The dungeon continues to the north, opened by a switch found behind a hidden door.

The area beyond has a jail with three doors. A switch puzzle opens the doors; one must enter the third one, where the body of a well-dressed woman lies dead on the floor. She has a necessary key.

The next area has a variety of switches and walls opened by those switches. We got through by figuring out the pattern. The next chamber we explore has dozens of bodies and skeletons, almost all of them wearing Fellowship medallions. As we move west, we see that the chamber is occupied by a dragon, which we kill without much trouble. There's an enormous pile of treasure, including gems and multiple stacks of gold pieces, at the southern end. We pick up a few final enchanted armor pieces, but it would take a moron to bother to pick up all that treasure.
The dragon's useless treasure hoard. Shamino gets a magic choker, at least.
The rest of the dungeon is weird. If the other Fellowship members have to travel through it to get to where they're constructing the Black Gate, they must constantly put their lives in their hands. There are numerous hidden passages (and I hate how this game does hidden passages) and one succession of areas in which you get teleported every time you sit on a throne, only to an identical chamber so you don't realize you've been teleported. There are some false teleporters that dump you back to the beginning. There aren't a lot of enemies, but a lich nonsensically blocks the way to the final area.

The lich killed Dupre, so I have to resurrect him.
The penultimate area is a large Fellowship hall, where we defeat about half a dozen members of various classes. A hidden hallway behind the altar leads to a final teleporter, which in turn leads, at last, to the chamber of the Black Gate. Knowing what's coming, we arrive with "Mass Might" and "Protect All" having been cast.
This place would make more sense for the throne.
The chamber is a long north-south room with the Black Gate on a triangular platform at the north end. Each corner of the platform has a pedestal with a receptacle for each of the three prisms. The room is occupied by five people: Batlin, Elizabeth, Abraham, Hook, and Forskis. As we enter, the Guardian's voice booms: "Stop the Avatar! I will come through the Black Gate now!"
Each of the Fellowship members has some dialogue. Batlin demands that we stop and questions our sanity. He says the Guardian will crush us "like an insect." He says if we bow down to the Guardian, "perhaps he shall give thee a place at his side."
How is it "mad" to stop a tyrannical, otherworldly being from coming through a portal?
Hook isn't interested in bribing us with power. Neither is his henchman, Forskis.
To be fair, Hook and I are in agreement.
Forskis is like a parody of gargoyles.
Abraham and Elizabeth both join in the calls to kill us:
These two names have loomed so large throughout the entire game, and yet these lines are the entirety of the Avatar's interactions with these characters.
Outvoted, Batlin changes his tune:
Batlin, you're the craftiest guy I know. But you're the only one in this room who doesn't realize that I decided to kill you five minutes ago.
I saved a lot of resources for this battle, including several Potions of Sleep. Immediately after the battle begins, I administer them to each of the Fellowship members.
Batlin flights with spells while his companions sleep.
Only Batlin is immune, and it doesn't take the rest of the party long to defeat him. He has a little speech:
Dost thou imagine thyself an immortal? The Guardian is far more. Return to your precious Earth and rest. Sleep, that he may visit your dreams with countless visions of death in the belly of the Great Sea Serpent. As for me, I shall begone! Thou shalt never find me! Farewell, Avatar!
And with that, Batlin teleports away, leaving me to wonder what he meant about the "Great Sea Serpent." We spend a grim few minutes executing coups-de-grâce on the rest of the Fellowship. After the sordid business is over, I remember that we've been carrying around about a dozen glass swords that I had intended to use in this final battle. Ah, well. An Ultima glass sword wouldn't be an Ultima glass sword if it was actually used.
One by one, I place the cube, tetrahedron, and sphere prisms in their receptacle. The last one lowers the protective barrier around the Black Gate. As I insert the objects, a few questions occur to me, such as how a gateway can be constructed of solid material, and why the Fellowship members built a fail-safe into their protective barrier that involved the three generator prisms.
I'm also a little confused about the blue light on the wall behind the gate.
Regardless of the answers, as the barrier collapses, the Guardian once more invades my thoughts:
So, Avatar! The moment of truth has come. You can destroy the Black Gate, but you will never return to your beloved Earth. Or you can come through now and go home! It is your choice!
If I didn't already know that it works, I'd be thinking now that the Guardian is trying to trick me. How can this portal go both to the Guardian's realm and to Earth? I'm grateful Lord British isn't here, as he'd probably shove me bodily into the portal before the Guardian finished speaking.
Instead, I point Rudyom's wand at the Black Gate and the endgame cinematic commences. It shows the Guardian struggling to come through just as the portal explodes.

It's not my fault that your followers made it so small. How were you planning to get your legs through?
I don't think it's going to stretch.
I feel like this should have killed him.
"Avatar!" calls the Guardian. "You think you have won? Think again! You are unable to leave Britannia, whereas I am free to enter other worlds! Hmmm . . . perhaps your puny Earth shall be my NEXT target!" I want to remind him that I've just beaten him in about two weeks in a world of 100 people with medieval technology, and he's talking about trying to conquer a planet of 5.4 billion people with fighter jets and nuclear weapons. And it's not like Earth is likely to be flim-flammed by a secretive, seemingly-benevolent organization led by an oily figurehead. But the game gives me no chance to respond. Instead, we get the endgame text:
In the months following the climactic battle at The Black Gate, Britannia is set upon the long road to recovery from its various plights. Upon your return to Britain, Lord British decreed that the Fellowship be outlawed, and all of its branches were soon destroyed. The frustration you feel at having been stranded in Britannia is somewhat alleviated by the satisfaction that you solved the gruesome murders committed by the Fellowship and even avenged the death of Spark's father. And although you are, at the moment, helpless to do anything about the Guardian's final threat, another thought nags at you . . . what became of Batlin, the fiend who got away? That is another story . . . one that will take you to a place called The Serpent Isle . . . 
And then the "congratulations" screen at the top of this entry. Several things occur to me as the credits roll:
  • This is the first game I can remember in which "credits roll" at the end. They last a while, too.
  • Any player who didn't take Spark into his party way back in Trinsic would probably be confused at the mention of avenging the death of "Spark's father."
  • Rather than outlawing and destroying the Fellowship, a better solution would have been to have the Avatar take it over, using its infrastructure to promote a return to the eight virtues and a rebuilding of each city around them.
  • There were times where the Guardian's communications with the Avatar seemed to be helping him. Was that just to sow confusion, or was the original intent to make the Guardian a more ambiguous figure?
  • The Astronomical Alignment was a silly and needless addition. The game has no time limit whatsoever, and the planets (as viewed with the orrery viewer, in any event) are never in anything but random positions, even when the alignment is supposed to be "imminent."
Oh, give me a break.
  • The series has now completed the severing of the Avatar from the player. The brilliance of the Avatar concept as introduced in Ultima IV has been disassembled. The Avatar is no longer the player's literal "avatar" within the realm of Britannia but just a character of that name that the player controls.
For the final reason above, it's not surprising to me that many fans consider The Black Gate to be the "end" of the Ultima series, the next three games notwithstanding. To many players, remaining in Britannia would hardly be a punishment. You are a powerful fight and mage, famous, the right arm of the king, adored by most of the population. It's a worthy reward for between four and ten world-saving quests. But the severance does bring it all to an end. When we pick up again, whether it's with Ultima Underworld II or The Serpent Isle, the game no longer will begin with the player being pulled from the "real" world and inhabiting his avatar in Britannia. If you don't get why that matters, you and I have never played the same Ultimas.
Actual final time: 74 hours


Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Miracle Warriors: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

I don't know; it was 50/50 for a while.
Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord
Kogado Studios (developer and Japanese publisher); SEGA of America (U.S. publisher)
Released in 1986 for PC-88, FM-7, and Sharp X; 1987 for NES and Sega Master System
Date Started: 16 July 2020
Date Ended: 29 July 2020
Total Hours: 10
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Probably the first Japanese console RPG released in America, and the first for the Sega platform, Miracle Warriors is a boring, grindy game in which the player must assemble a team of four characters, collect a series of artifacts, and do battle against a great evil to recover the titular seal and thus save the world from an influx of monsters. As with many console RPGs of the period, real game content lasts only a few hours; the rest of the length is required for grinding for experience, gold, and a few rare magic items. The game features simple mechanics to go with simple controls, including a combat system with virtually no tactics, limited character development and inventory development, and only a thin veneer of lore.
A lot of you warned me that it wouldn't be time well-spent, but I finished Miracle Warriors anyway, mostly to avoid having the loss count against my statistics. One of these days, I'm going to have to have a frank discussion with myself about how many sunk hours that "won" statistic is really worth. My time is probably only half of what it would take to win it on era-accurate hardware; I made liberal use of the emulator's "fast forward" option to speed through combat pauses and animation (I can't help but wish DosBox offered a similar option after all those combats in Amberstar).
Miracle Warriors mostly serves to make better console games like Final Fantasy seem all the more impressive. Final Fantasy required some grinding, but at least what happened after the grinding was interesting. Even the grinding itself was a little interesting, in the sense that it offers actual combat tactics. There's none of that in Warriors, just blunt attacks and the occasional use of a magic item.
Getting the fourth companion.
Winning the game involves running around from continent to continent, hitting towns, dungeons, caves, and castles, first to assemble the team of four Miracle Warriors, then to equip them with a variety of sword, shield, and armor artifacts. By the time you head for the final battle, all four warriors have a full suite of special items, which the game allocates automatically to particular warriors without your input.
There are a few chokepoints that keep Warriors from being a truly open world game. First, you can't explore the sea until you pay 30,000 guilders for a ship. Even then, you can only explore the calm, eastern seas. You need to get a second ship elsewhere to explore the rougher oceans around the final continent. (There is no graphic for either ship; you just walk on water once you have it in your inventory.) There is at least one companion who can't join the party until you find a particular piece of armor. There are some items of equipment that you can't pick up, and areas you can't enter, until you have particular companions. Whenever I ran into such an issue, I just circled around to different areas and returned later. There was always plenty to do.
Getting the second ship.
Some of the equipment is found in treasure chests in small dungeons that you have to explore, but other times you just have to fight one boss enemy the moment you enter.
Finding an equipment upgrade in a dungeon.
There's no sense of team combat. The four warriors are more like four individuals who just walk around together. In combat, only one character can attack at a time, and only he gets experience for attacking. Enemies generally only attack the character who attacks them (in any given round), although some are capable of mass-damage spells.
The party is pretty low on hit points.
There are a few items that can help in combat. Sacred Nuts, found after combat in a few wooded areas, cause damage when thrown. Staffs of Earthquakes can be purchased for 10,000 guilders in a town on the southern part of the map. And on an island in the southeast, you can purchase Stones of Protection (which block enemy spells for one full combat, if they work, which is only about 50% of the time) for 50 fangs. All of these items have maximums, so you can't carry an infinite number.

When you face a particularly tough enemy, there's only one series of actions. First, use a Stone of Protection so that the enemy can't cast mass-damage spells. (Sometimes you have to use multiple stones until one works.) Then, exhaust your Staffs of Earthquakes and Sacred Nuts, both of which can be used without retaliation from the enemy. Next, have the first character "attack" until his hit points are almost gone. Move on to the second character, then the third, and finally the fourth. If he's not dead by the time the fourth character's hit points are exhausted, you need to reload and spend more time grinding before trying the combat again.
One of the boss-level enemies.

One particular annoyance is that you can't use healing herbs in combat. Late in the game, however, you obtain some Potions of Resurrection (which, despite their name, are basically just full-healing potions) from Sea Serpents. These add an intermediate step in tough combats, giving you a few more hit point bars to exhaust before the battle is over. I've seen people recently making fun of Phantasy Star for offering a cake shop in a cave; if Warriors was better known, "sea serpents drop healing potions" might become the same sort of meme.

There are only ever three "spells" in the game, and none of them are usable in combat. They just rouse your companions and allow you access to certain areas.
The game's three spells. "Come, Iason" is necessary to enter some endgame areas.
The game generally does a decent job of updating the latest NPC hints to help you with the next stage of the game. I still needed to look up a hint online for the final area, however. The endgame takes place on the southwestern continent, Areos, but many of the locations you need to enter are hidden. I never got a hint about the fact that they were hidden nor where they were hidden, so I needed a walkthrough to bail me out. After that, it was just a matter of finding three keys and then heading to the final dungeon, which for some reason is called Gelkis.
One of three keys needed for the endgame.
The final dungeon has three small levels, but with extra staircases that lead you astray into the game's other dungeons. If you find the right path, you confront the demon/dark lord/general Terarin at a staircase on the third level. She is presented topless (the way she is on the original Japanese box cover), which I find surprising for a North American console release of the period. Anyway, if you've leveled enough and follow the combat strategy above, you win; otherwise, it's back to the grindstone for a while. Grinding takes a long time at higher levels, even with "fast forward" enabled in the emulator.
This is so anatomically improbable, I'm not even sure I'd call it "nudity."
After the final battle, the game has more endings than The Return of the King. First, you get some messages on the combat screen. Note the inconsistent tense:
Chet defeated Terarin, the dark general, in mortal combat! Entering the depths of the shrine, Chet finds a chest. Within lay man's last hope, the Seal of the Dark Lord!
It's funnier if you imagine that we found a marine seal.
Then, there's a scrolling message:
Chet and his companions came to fulfill Iason's prophecy and the people of the Five Lands, weary from despair, rejoiced. The elders led the Miracle Warriors to evil's gate. After a raging battle of sword and sorcery, the evil Terarin was defeated. Chet took the Seal of the Dark Lord and used it to once again shut the Pandora Passage, returning peace to the Five Lands.
Then a bunch of portraits appear to give thanks. I guess maybe they were some of the NPCs we met along the way, but none of them were memorable enough that I can put name to portrait. 
Thank you, random stranger.
Then we have some images of the king congratulating the party: "Brave Chet! I knew thee surely would be triumphant! Thy feats will become legend in the land for all eternity."
What king are you, again?
Finally, the other three companions each offers his or her own message of congratulations. After that, it's finally back to the title screen.
My fellow party members, looking like apostles.
During my career, I've attended a lot of office parties for departing co-workers. Some of them have even been for me. There's a weird vibe at some of those parties. People who barely spoke to each other are suddenly hugging. The departing co-worker is lauded for doing a much better job than he or she actually did. Statements assure him or her that he or she will be missed much more than he or she actually will. Some high-level manager you've never even met is there to hand out an award or gift card. It's all smiles and support, all cake and cocktails, and the next day you're already struggling to remember the co-worker's face and wondering what the hell that was all about. The end of Miracle Warriors felt like one of those parties. The game simply hadn't engaged me enough with its story and lore for the end to be worth all that fuss.
Here's my GIMLET:
  • 3 points for the game world. Warriors tells a fairly standard backstory and offers a boilerplate quest. Someone went through a lot of trouble in annotating the map not only with the names of the continents but also the various sections of the continents, deserts, forests, towns, and so forth, but none of it amounts to anything. These places have no particular character. Towns are all interchangeable.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. Creation consists only of a name. Development takes place by earning experience and occasionally seeing the bar roll over, which increases maximum hit points. 
The full party.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. You get one-line clues from wandering traders and a few NPCs in towns. They're important to the game but don't offer the same depth of lore as, say, Final Fantasy.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The game's menagerie of weirdly-named monsters is amazingly unmemorable. Some of them have special attacks, but since there are no tactics in combat, there's really no reason to memorize those attacks.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. As outlined above, there simply aren't enough choices to make.
  • 3 points for equipment. You have a base set of gear that you can buy and a prestige set that you can find, plus a few usable items in combat.
The game's inventory screen.
  • 4 points for the economy. Between healing, purchasing staffs, paying the armorer in Hierax to upgrade your swords, and other purchases, the economy remains relevant through most of the game.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no side quests, no choices, and no alternate outcomes.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are decent. Some of the monster portraits are creative and fun. The sound effects aren't interesting enough to deal with the constant, repetitive music, and I thus played with the sound off. The simple mechanics make serviceable use of the simple controller, but there were a lot of ancillary interface issues that wipe out any points I would otherwise give it. It was too hard to distinguish health and experience bars, for instance, and scrolling through menu options doesn't wrap around when you get to the top or bottom.
There are some weird monsters in this game.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It gets some credit for limited nonlinearity, and the total game time wasn't so bad. But the game is otherwise far too grindy, and there would be no reason to replay it unless you just completely forgot what it was about.
That gives us a final score of 26. It perfectly exemplifies what a game in the mid-20s means: it's an RPG; you can play it; it doesn't do anything outrageous; you might be glad you had it if you were in prison and had nothing else to do. I watched old episodes of Arrow while I played it. If I had it only for the console, it would be too boring and slow to keep my attention fixed on the television with nothing else to keep me occupied. Maybe if the television had picture-in-picture. What happened to that? I don't even think my brand-new Roku television offers that option.
I'm not sure Sega had the best ideas when it came to box covers.
Contemporary reviews were very low. The best categorized on MobyGames is from the March 1989 Power Play at 63/100 (March 1989); from there, they drop into the 40s. Almost all reviews, contemporary and current, note the repetitive, slow combat and grinding, which really says something given that these elements were common to console games of the era. Typical is the December 1988 The Games Machine: "Endless repetition of combat, inflexible interaction, and monotonous predictability kills this shallow attempt at an RPG."
In contrast, there are a curious number of modern reviews that seek to rehabilitate the game. For instance, if you've ever wondered what kind of gamer could actually be aroused by the endgame graphic of Terarin and her grotesque bosom, check out this coked-up review at; the author has won it at least four times. My colleague Zenic Reverie also found some value in the game in a 2012 series of entries (starting here) at The RPG Consoler (and if you're looking for more detail than I provided, his is definitely the series to read), although he was also relatively grounded and ultimately rated the game at 33%.

Kurt Kalata took an interesting look at Miracle Warriors in a 2007 article on HardcoreGaming101. Although he was critical of the Sega version, his worst comments were reserved for the PC-88 and MSX versions that the Sega edition was based on. Neither of the original versions feature any kind of in-game map, meaning you absolutely had to use the accompanying paper map to have any chance of figuring out where you were. The fairy companion actually talks to the party in the PC versions, and the towns are just menu towns. The Japanese NES version is closer to the Sega, although with (in Kalata's opinion) inferior graphics.
The final battle from the PC-88 version, courtesy of HardcoreGaming101.
I rated Miracle Warriors higher than I rated Kogado's Cosmic Soldier: Psychic War (1987). Although the two games are quite different, they have similar flaws, including boring combat, limited character development, and weird use of multiple characters in the party. It feels like the developers at Kogado didn't really "get" RPGs the way those at Square did (or at Nihon Falcom, for that matter). I don't know if they ever got better at RPGs--and I'll probably never know, because the company seems to have given up completely on western releases of its products after Miracle Warriors. None of its future RPGs--including Mashō Denki: La Valeur (1989), Mōryō Senki Madara: Daikongō Rinhen (1993), Record of Lodoss War (1994), Kisō Louga II: The Ends of Shangrila (1995), and Magical Squadron (1996)--have North American releases or English translations.
If my experience with Final Fantasy served to emphasize that not all console RPGs of the era are bad, even if played on a PC, my experience with Miracle Warriors perhaps emphasizes that if they are bad, it isn't necessarily because of the "console" part. I don't know how many more console tangents I'll allow myself--at least one to check out the first handheld RPG, I think--but overall it's been an instructive experience.