Saturday, August 11, 2018

Game 300: Citadel of Vras (1989)

A clear homage to Space Invaders?
Citadel of Vras
Independently developed; distributed by Megadisc
Released in 1989 for Amiga
Date Started: 5 August 2018

Citadel of Vras is a low-frills dungeon crawler inspired by The Bard's Tale for its mechanics and any number of science fiction books and television shows for its content. (These facts are relayed right on the copyright screen.) It does nothing particularly wrong, but it's the type of game that exposes all its secrets by the end of the first level, and all that's left is to repeat that experience eight more times in pursuit of what will almost certainly be a underwhelming "winning screen."

The characters are agents for the Galactic Federation of Planets, sent to the planet Vras to recover a Talisman of Truth before the pirate Sarkov and his evil band of Graids from the planet Saluté can get to it. The Talisman was left behind by an ancient species called the Old Ones, and it's apparently the key to the next step in the evolution of sentient races. The party assembles at a spaceport on Vras's moon, Nigris, and then assaults the 9-level citadel. All levels are 20 x 20 and all exploration is in first-person view.
The Nigris Spaceport serves as the main menu.
Five characters are created from six classes: Jedi knight, Arcturian giant, Horb ant warrior, Denk Mentat, Lamian Elfin, and Sirian Lizard-Man. I believe Arcturian giants are a reference to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Mentats come from Dune, but I'm not sure about the others (aside from Jedis, of course). It feels like Sirian Lizard-Men have been in a lot of things. Each has strengths and weaknesses in the seven attributes: weapon skill, intelligence, dexterity, constitution, luck, life force, and psychic energy.
Character creation. This Mentat does indeed look pretty Denk.
As the game begins, the characters have no weapons or psychic abilities, and their only armor is basic spacesuits--which you have to equip immediately to avoid taking damage every few turns. Enemies start attacking immediately, so you spend a lot of time reloading until you find the store and training center to get some entry level weapons and base-level psychic abilities.

After that, the game is a lot like The Bard's Tale with a sci-fi patina. You march through featureless hallways and burst through doors, fighting random combats with aliens and robots (including Daleks), in search of the two or three squares per level that have anything interesting. Vras is somewhat easier than its cousins in that a) you can save anywhere; b) the combats on the first level almost never offer more than one enemy; and c) both hit points and spell points regenerate as you walk around.

Combat follows the basic structure established in Wizardry and retained by the Interplay titles. When you first meet an enemy, you have options to greet, flee, or attack. When the first two fail, they give the enemy a free round, so they're not often good options.
Initial combat options.
If you attack, you specify an action for each character: attack, defend, or use a psychic ability. These actions execute all at once, in character order, at the end of the round. You watch the outcomes scroll by, designate a new set of actions at the end of the round, and so on until the enemy party is destroyed. You get experience, credits, and sometimes items from each slain enemy, equally distributed among party members.
Combat actions slowly scroll by.
The psychic abilities, which function like spells in a fantasy RPG, make things a little too easy because (at least on the first two levels) they never fail. The Denk Mentat has a Level 1 ability called "Illusions" that distracts all enemies for one combat round. Its cost is so low that you can usually cast it on every enemy party and kill them before they can recover, then recover those psychic points before the next combat. At Level 2, the Mentat gets "Sleep," which lasts even longer. The Jedi similarly gets "Freeze Foes" at Level 2 that amounts to the same thing.
Jedi powers alas do not include Force Lightning.
Physical attacks depend heavily on the weapon. At the beginning, you only have enough for staves, but soon you start finding weapons post-combat. Another source of treasure comes in the form of randomly-encountered lockers that you need some kind of tool to open. Pretty soon, characters are wielding needle guns, plasma axes, atomic lasers, blasters, and so forth. On Level 2, I found a weapon called a "neuronic whip" that damages all enemies in a party, not just one.
Lockers pop up randomly as you explore.
Other items found in the shop and abroad include various pieces of armor (tangle fields, repellor belts, carbal cloaks) and utilities like flashlights and sonic screwdrivers. There are a bunch of things whose use is unknown to me, like silver amulets and gold plates (they may just be for sale). Some enemy attacks damage spacesuits, so it's best to keep a few spares.
My inventory. A character can only hold 9 items.
When you level up, you get a boost to a random attribute, more hit points and psychic energy, and the ability to learn a new psychic ability. By the time I hit character Level 3, the monsters on the first two dungeon levels were trivially easy.
The game's version of the "review board."
In addition to its facilities, Level 1 had a couple of squares with messages. One said "...1 to here," echoed by a similar message reading "...3 to here" on the second level. They probably refer to some kind of teleportation schema I'll later discovered. Another message on Level 1 warned me to "beware the moonbeast!"
A message very much in keeping with the Bard's Tale roots.
Level 2 had less obvious structure than Level 1. It was dark, and flashlights run out pretty fast, so I had to load up before heading down. In one open area, I found the remains of a Jedi, along with a note that said an old man on the levels below knows something about coordinates. More important, the Jedi had a lightsaber, which I gave to my own Jedi. It works as both a weapon and a tool, but it only damages a single enemy.
In Star Wars, it wouldn't be something as pedestrian as a "tape recorder." It would have to have "holo" in the name.
A final message on Level 2 said, "Face a wall you don't want and use the gadget!" I figured this referred to an "unknown gadget" sold in the shop on Level 1 for 30,000 credits. Ladders are one-way, so I had to find the way back up to Level 1 before my flashlight inventory ran out. When I got there, I spent my accumulated money on the gadget, and sure enough, it destroys any wall you're facing--once. The gadget is destroyed in the process, which is a pretty hefty expense to remove a wall. Still, when I did it in front of a single enclosed square on Level 1, it led me to some kind of portal.

So far, the levels haven't offered any navigation obstacles like teleporters or spinners. They've mostly featured large, one-way sections, with a couple of basic nods to rhyme and reason in the macro structure of the corridors and rooms.
Level 1 of the Citadel of Vras.
The control scheme works well, supporting both mouse clicks and obvious keyboard commands. I'm avoiding the mouse because the jackasses that "cracked" the copy I found insisted in replacing the mouse cursor with the logo of their little club. They also might have messed with other aspects of the game. At one point, trying to load a saved game, I was instead taken to the "warez" screen with the message "naughty, naughty" for no reason that I could see. I'm going to have to rely mostly on save states for this one, but that's not really cheating because the game lets you save anywhere.

A couple of things make Vras slightly annoying beyond the fact that the game is a bit boring. First, random encounters (including enemies and lockers) don't trigger until you try to move out of a square. The graphics show you moving forward just before the enemy appears, but what really happens behind the scenes is that you get kicked back to the square you just left. This makes it easy to lose count of where you are when trying to map long corridors. Second, combat is slow. There's a speed setting, but even at the maximum setting, watching the actions crawl by is mildly torturous. I've tried speeding up the emulator, but nothing in WinUAE's settings seems to do the trick--I can't find anything akin to the "warp" mode of the C64 or Apple II emulators that I've come to love.

The developer, Sarva Engelhardt of Western Australia, has at least created a competent game here, but I suspect Levels 3-9 are just going to offer more of the same experience. Let's hope I'm wrong.

Time so far: 4 hours

Monday, August 6, 2018

Game 299: Bandor: The Search for the Storm Giant King (1992)

It turns out he's not hard to find.
Bandor: The Search for the Storm Giant King
United States
Magic Lemon (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 30 July 2018
Date Ended: 5 August 2018
Total Hours: 16
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 
Ranking at time of posting:

A party of adventures has come to an ancient town in the midst of re-civilization. From a central keep, the regent for a Council of Lords hands out quests that will further the city's mission, including clearing the slums (where a seer lives), dealing with troublesome bandits, and finding documents that tell of the city's history. The city's efforts are threatened by a mysterious, powerful figure who is gathering evil armies to his side. Does any of this sound familiar?
Sasha was prettier.
Bandor is a ripoff of a previous game, but it's at least original in the selection of that game: Pool of Radiance (1988). We don't see many Gold Box clones. The cloning here takes several dimensions, including a basis in Dungeons and Dragons races (human, dwarf, elf, half-orc, half-elf), classes (fighter, magic-user, thief, cleric, fighter/thief, fighter/magic-user/thief), and attributes (strength, piety, magic, dexterity, stamina). Attributes are rolled on a scale of 3-18, hit points derived from "stamina," and so forth. You know the drill.

Like the Gold Box series, Bandor combines first-person exploration with top-down tactical combat. And as we've seen, elements of its plot are drawn directly from Pool of Radiance, including certain quests.
Attacked by some dwarves while exploring.
Bandor being a shareware game, everything is somewhat scaled down. The game world consists of only three 40 x 40 maps: the city, the forest outside, and the "underworld." There are only 10 monster types, half a dozen spells for magicians and clerics, two or three usable weapon types per class, and one or two usable armor types. Graphics are significantly reduced in quality from the Gold Box, although they're still decipherable. And although combat takes place on a Gold Box-style tactical grid, there aren't as many options. In particular, backstabbing, "Delay," and "Guard" are all absent.
A couple of trees and a river in the forest area. Honest.
Despite these compromises, the basic setup is fun and would have produced a reasonably enjoyable game except for one fatal choice: the game supports no keyboard controls. You have to use the mouse to do everything. Now, I know from experience that plenty of you think that's perfectly fine, but I promise this isn't just me with a quirky preference. I defy any of you to play this game and tell me that the control scheme is acceptable. It's worse than simply not supporting sensible keyboard backups (not even the use of arrow keys) for simple tasks. The game is far too sensitive to the precise position of the mouse when you click. Miss the exact center of a button or menu option and you get an error tone, a question mark, and a maddening pause. Everything ends up taking four times as long as it should.
A little wizard explains the backstory.

The introduction (which is supposed to offer a digitized voice, but crashed every time I left it enabled) has the party visited by a wizard named Osi who offers the basic backstory. After character creation--which includes a selection of portraits--the party is free to explore the central city of Bandor. The city map offers no random encounters, so any battle that you fight will solve one of the regent's quests, such as defeating C'Dor and his bandits, clearing some wild boars, and eliminating a group of kobolds.
Putting bandits to "Sleep" in an early battle.
The town offers a training facility, a tavern, the Temple of P'Tah, and the castle and its regent, where you receive and turn in quests. There are two armories in town but hardly any reason to visit. Characters start with axes and leather armor (the game doesn't have D&D's full set of weapon and armor restrictions for clerics and mages), and the armories don't offer much that would be considered an "upgrade." You may want to buy missile weapons for battles in tight corridors, but their utility is limited by the fact that you can't change weapons during combat.
The armory and its paltry selection.
The forest and underworld areas both offer plenty of random encounters. Bandor does a decent job simulating the basics of Gold Box combat, but having to mince around with the mouse kills any sense of momentum, and the game missed any opportunity to adopt shortcuts to this tedious process. You can't just move; you have to turn and move. You can't just click on an enemy to target him; you have to right click to bring up the menu, click "Aim," click the arrows to set the aiming cursor, right-click to accept, and click "OK" to accept again. This tedious process--plus all the missing that you do at early levels--makes early combats with three or four kobolds last half an hour.
An auto-map fills in the city area.
Things get a little better once you get mass damage spells, particularly the magic-user's "FlameBall" at Level 4, which affects a 3 x 3 square area and reliably ends most combats. In contrast, I found clerical healing spells mostly unnecessary because I rested to often to restore my magic-user's spells. I played with a fighter, thief, magic-user, and cleric, but if I played again, I'd probably go with two fighters and two magic-users. The thief has a few locked doors to pick, but "Open Doors" spells replicated this ability.

Bandor follows the Gold Box convention of having combat occur on a screen that mirrors the wall pattern of the environment you were exploring when combat began. However, where the Gold Box expanded the area by 400% in transitioning to the combat map, Bandor keeps the literal proportions. This results in a lot of cases where only one character can fight in melee range, or even where one or more characters are separated from combat by walls.
Dirtena and Ohlo can't do much back there.
The economy is somewhat purposeless. Since there's nothing useful to buy at the shop, the only thing you really need money for is training (100 gold pieces per level) and resurrections, if you don't simply reload. The manual says that you sometimes get item rewards for solving quests, but I never got any.
One of the few places you have to spend money in the game.
Exploration has a few annoyances. First, there's an automap, but it seems to forget your progress after a lot of combats. Second, the game does a poor job of showing you the periphery in 3D view. In any square, what you see to your left and right is the status of walls, doors, etc., in the squares ahead of you, not in your own square. Good games give you a sense of the terrain to your immediate left and right, so you know when you need to turn. After combat, you'll be facing in a random direction instead of the one you were going, which can confuse systematic exploration. Finally, the game does something weird with the walls, adopting the "razor wall" approach, but still requiring you to move an extra step to get beyond a wall, meaning you can turn and look at the ultra-thin wall mid-stride. Even weirder, walls don't actually come together in their corners.
This kingdom has a way to go, architecturally.
There are about 10 quests in the game, but I only solved about half of them before stumbling upon the endgame encounter. Bandor ends once you've defeated the Storm Giant King in the underworld. He's supposed to be the hardest enemy in the game, but he isn't very hard. He attacks alone, and I was able to kill him in two rounds with a few melee attacks and a couple of "Magic Missiles." Then again, Tyranthraxus wasn't all that difficult, either.
He offers the option to join, just like Tyranthraxus did, but there's no mechanism to say "yes."
Striking the final blow against the "Storm Giant Kin."
After he dies, the wizard Osi appears and provides a quick congratulations screen, and the game saves and quits to the prompt. Weirdly, you can reload it at this point, but there are no more encounters and nobody in the keep acknowledges further quests.
While I appreciate the fame and thanks, maybe something more tangible is in order?
I offer a GIMLET here, but I can't overemphasize how much my experience was ruined by the maddening control system. I would not have lasted 16 hours except I knew I was going to bail on Citadel and I couldn't justify two losses in a row. I binged a decent chunk of the TV series Episodes while playing the game because I needed some other source of entertainment to keep me going.
  • 3 points for the game world. I like the setup, but it's derivative and not as fleshed out as Pool of Radiance.
  • 4 points for basic D&D-style character creation and development. You might gain six or seven levels during a normal game, but aside from new spells, leveling doesn't have a palpable effect on success. Fighters never get a second attack, for instance. 
My thief towards the end of the game.
  • 1 point for NPC Interaction. There aren't really many classic NPCs; just a couple of encounters.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The small selection of foes doesn't provide a lot of variance in the challenges offered. There are a couple of non-combat encounters where you can make a basic yes/no choice.
If you help this guy, once you get to the temple, he turns into a thief and steals most of your gold.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Bandor copies the Gold Box in look but manages to drain the blood out of it. In particular, the reduced number of spells provides fewer tactical options.
  • 1 point for equipment. You don't find any during the game and you barely have to buy more than what you started with.
  • 2 points for the economy. You earn a modest amount but don't need it for much.
A gambling mini-game in the tavern serves no purpose.

  • 4 points for quests. A central quest hub with lots of side quests is never a bad setup. The quests offer no choices or role-playing, however.
Turning in completed quests for treasure never gets old.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. I offer it for a meager attempt at graphics. I couldn't experience the sound without the game crashing, but even if I blame that on the emulator, the interface is so bad that the negative points I award it cut into anything I would give for sound.
  • 4 points for other gameplay elements. There are some positives here, such as a moderate difficulty, a nonlinear approach, and a modest length. On the other hand, interface issues make those hours seem a lot longer.
That gives us a final score of 26, putting it in the "some good elements, but not recommended--try again" category.
Bandor is a product of Marysville, Ohio-based Magic Lemon Software, which seems to be a sole proprietorship of developer Don Lemons. He supposedly produced a sequel, Bandor II: The Wrath of the Storm Giant King the same year, and Bandor III: The Final Encounter in 1993, although I haven't been able to find either so far. He has two other games on my list: Shadowkeep 1: The Search (1993), a single-character dungeon crawler with an Arthurian framing story, and The Infernal Tome (1994), a multi-character Dungeon Master clone. The titles are all relatively obscure, lacking any significant online reviews or commentary. I think I've identified the right Don Lemons, who would have been 32 when Bandor was released, but I haven't been able to make contact yet.

Only more independent clones in the near future, I'm afraid. We have to look at the Bard's Tale-based Citadel of Vras (1989) and the Wizard's Crown-influenced Dungeons of Kairn (1989) before checking out one of 1992's anchor games, Wizardry VII.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Citadel: Summary and Rating

Citadel: Adventure of the Crystal Keep
Postcraft International (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for Macintosh
Date Started: 1 July 2018
Date Ended: 3 August 2018
Total Hours: 8 (not won)
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Yeah, I'm bailing on Citadel. Sorry. I know it's kind of pathetic. You have to give me one like this every once in a while. Nine solid, thorough attempts and one half-assed one. Maybe I'll come back to it later. I'd certainly be happy to entertain a guest posting if someone is a real fan.

Since it's been a while, let me remind you that Citadel is a Mac-only RPG that showcases the Mac's strengths and weaknesses. It has detailed graphics but no color, the ability to move windows around (which I find more annoying than useful), and lots of mouse work. It shows a heavy reliance on the Mac version of Wizardry in that it's a multi-level dungeon crawler with six characters chosen from the standard set of races and classes, with the standard set of attributes, although with a little thesaurus work (e.g., "lords" become "knights" and "charisma" becomes "mien").
I don't remember what's happening here, but it's a nice screen shot.
Before I start complaining, let's cover a couple of things that Citadel does well. The graphics are nice. Instead of the featureless wireframes or tedious repetitive tile sets used by 95% of RPGs through this era, Citadel has a more hand-crafted feel, with little graphical touches like alcoves, chains, arches, and torch sconces. The levels don't have a uniform "block" design, but feel more organic, with multiple ways up and down. The levels seem to get bigger as we descend, as if the design is based on a spire. You can see monsters in the environment, which is unusual in this era except in the Dungeon Master line.
The corridors are more graphically-interesting than the typical game.
Unlike most RPGs, the dungeon isn't unrealistically packed with creatures. You don't find combat after combat. Each battle is a rare affair, maybe a couple of times per level, with significant consequences for the party's well-being and inventory. There are a satisfying number of puzzles, even if we were permanently stymied on the "how long does it take to fall 10 feet" one. There are some cute touches like the ability to give your own names to items. There's a good in-game help system (for mechanics, not hints). I like the realistic lighting system. Apparently, there's an automap once you find the right item, and NPCs can join and fight with the party. The sound effects are solid, and theoretically include digitized dialogue, though I couldn't get that to work.
"Key" seems good to me, but if I wanted to call it "Agagadl," I could.
But the game's positive aspects wither in the face of its annoyances and frustrations, which together led me to spend the past month resolving to play the game, opening its folder, staring mutely at the emulator icon for a few minutes, and then closing the folder with a sigh. Here they are:

1. For someone who loved the Mac in the early 1990s, it's surprising how much I now hate the Mac. That this is more of a platform/emulator issue than a game issue still doesn't change the fact that it hurts my enjoyment of the game. You can't right-click. You can't select a file and hit "Delete" to delete it--you have to drag it to the trash. You can't just kill the emulator; you have to "shut down." I hate the way the files don't have extensions, and thus don't make it clear which is an application and which is a data file.

After my first experience with the game, commenter Adrienne gave a good answer to some of the Mac problems that I complained about. While that takes away some of my disdain, Mac games still seem overly delicate, with too many penalties for not being a single-button mouse master. I find it easy to click on the wrong thing, or double-click when I should single-click, or vice versa. I end up in the Finder constantly because I'm a couple pixels off when I go to move a window. There's not enough keyboard redundancy.
I accidentally single-clicked.
2. The game is resolutely character-based rather than player-based. What do I mean by this? It acts as if different players are going to be controlling different characters. You can password-protect the characters. Each has his own gold inventory, both on his person and in the bank. It's a pain to transfer gold around (there's no "pool" or "distribute" options, among other things). If you buy items from the store, instead of going to the character, it goes to the party's "camp," but even in camp every character has his own separate stash of items, and it's kind of annoying to transfer them. It gets this idea from Wizardry, which had some of the same elements, and Wizardry was of course mimicking the multi-user PLATO games it adapted. By this point in the timeline, in a single-player game, it's absurd to make distinctions between character assets and party assets.

3. There's no development. I like the sparse approach to combat. But on the opposite side, the game doesn't seem to have taken the rarity of combat into consideration when structuring the character development system and the economy. Eight hours into the game, I still haven't reached Level 2.
When it comes to my last character, the game adds insult to injury.
4. My party doesn't stay in a consistent place. I save in the dungeon. On the next reload, it's a crapshoot whether they'll still be in the dungeon or whether they'll for some reason be back in the tavern, dispersed, and I'll have to form a new party again. It's almost as if, having not reloaded in a while, my characters got bored, left the dungeon, and went for a drink. That would be awesome if that was actually happening, but the game's not clever or consistent enough for that. It's just being weird.

5. Healing is unbelievably annoying. By 1989, most games offered some pretty fast ways to rest and heal, particularly if the party was back in the safe town level. But Citadel retains Wizardry's conventions, in which a night at the inn only heals a couple hit points, and you need your cleric to truly heal. But where Wizardry allowed you to pop in the dungeon and use a sequence of easily-memorized keyboard commands to cast one healing spell after another, Citadel makes you go through a tedious, mouse-intensive process of "memorizing" spells one-by-one based on rune sequences, then casting them, then memorizing them again--rather like the Gold Box games before they introduced the "Fix" command. Come to think of it, if Citadel's authors played anything other than Wizardry, it would have to be Pool of Radiance. That would explain the codewheel and their weird Gold Box approximation of combat.

(Incidentally, mages are supposed to find their spell books in the dungeon. I haven't found a single one.)
The tedious clerical magic system involves first meditating on runes, then stringing them together to makes spells, then casting the spells.
6. Rewards are paltry. In five dungeon levels, I've made about 50 gold pieces. That's been enough to buy a few torches and a night or two at the inn. The few random combats that come along never seem to drop gold, suggesting there's a fixed amount of money in the game.

7. Combats are bizarre and too difficult. This has to be the weirdest combat setup of any game in my chronology. When battle begins, party and enemy icons are scattered across the combat screen. You have to drag your characters and drop them next to the enemies you want them to engage. After you do so, rounds pass with excruciating slowness, and hardly anybody ever hits anybody. It's like Infinity Engine combat slowed to 1/10 the speed. But when an enemy does hit, it often kills a Level 1 character.
Combat options with Tasmanian devils.
After offering breezy battles with skeletons on the first few levels, the game suddenly served up near-impossible mummies and "Tasmanian devils" on lower levels, with nothing in between that would allow me to grind and level up. My party gets slaughtered almost every time I try to explore further than I've already been, and I don't have enough money to raise even a single character.

8. Okay, this is a fairly minor one, but still. You have to refer to the manual a lot, and the pages in the manual are in Roman numerals. I know how to read Roman numerals, but the mental delay is still long enough to be annoying.

A few words on my explorations since the initial entry. Having lost my access to the elevator by taking it to the top level and then falling down, I mapped out the small areas of Levels 1, 2, and 3 and part of 4. Levels 1 and 2 had no more than 20 squares and staircases. Level 3 offered two large rooms with small hallways spinning off. There was a combat with skeletons in the first room, and one with various giant bugs in a corridor off the second room.
Fighting skeletons and giant bugs.
In another corridor on the level, a skull said that "to pass, you must know when I came to this keep." Assuming that the skull meant the big bad, I went back to the game's backstory: "I can still remember the fine spring day when the mysterious, cloaked figure arrived and asked directions to the citadel." SPRING was the answer and it opened up a second stairway down.
How am I supposed to know that "I" is the evil necromancer?
The first stairway to Level 4 led to a crossroads where I had a vision of Lady Synd in a crystal. I tried to approach, but the illusion broke apart and four guys in executioner's masks attacked me. After that battle, there was a pit to jump over but not much else to find on this section of the level.
An occasion for the "jump" command.
The other way down to Level 4 opened up into the largest dungeon section so far, including an alternate way back up to Level 3. At one point, I found a wand in a glass case that said "In emergency, break glass," but I can't actually figure out any way to break it. In a door beyond this area is the actual Lady Synd entrapped in a crystal. My guess is that you have to find various items to free her throughout the dungeon.
It's good that she had time to pose before the crystal froze her.
I took to the Internet hoping to find validation of my complaints. In March 1990, Dragon gave it 5/5 stars, which could of course mean anything. (Perhaps in response to my constant needling about their inflated rating scale, they note at the beginning of the column that: "These days, most publishers are providing gamers with superior software entertainment. This is one reason why you don't see very many negative reviews in this column.") They seem to have fallen in love with the cutesy character creation system but did not actually get very far in the game itself. Dave Arneson offered a more satisfyingly negative review in the January 1991 Computer Gaming World. He sees through the silly "nursery" system of character creation: "Everything is almost immediately translated into numbers . . . once the data is converted into numbers, the background is never again referenced . . . so one can only ask 'Why bother?'" Like me, he'd rather just have a series of menu options than a group of corny signposts to click on. He notes the slow character development system, the lugubrious combat, and the tedious clicking involved in casting cleric spells.

Some comments at the beginning of Arneson's review suggest that Citadel was originally supposed to be published by Mindscape, but something must have fallen through and Postcraft ended up distributing the game themselves. Postcraft seems to have specialized in font and graphics software; I can't find any evidence that they made another video game, let alone an RPG. Moreover, although the manual gives a Valencia, California address for the company, the company headquarters seems to have been in or near Ontario, Canada, and all the developers (whose names also do not appear on any other RPGs) are Canadian. I have thus modified my spreadsheet accordingly.

My best guess at a rating is 30, but I'm not going to try to justify it. You can see what I gave to each category in the spreadsheet.

As I was wrapping this up, I happened to find the cluebook for the game, Citadel Secrets, published in 1990. It's clever. Like the Bard's Tale hint books that were published earlier in the 1980s, it offers hints in the form of fictional narrative separated into non-linear, numbered paragraphs. Maps at the end of the book offer numbers that reference those paragraphs. I never use hint books. Maybe it would be fun to literally go through the game step-by-step using the hint book as a guide. Maybe I'll come back to the game and try that. Right now I just need something to take my mind off how hot it is.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

2088: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

A brief and somewhat mysterious victory screen.
2088: The Cryllan Mission
United States
Victory Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for Apple IIGS
Date Started: 24 June 2018
Date Ended: 29 July 2018
Total Hours: 12
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at time of posting: 204/299 (68%)

2088 ends up owing a lot to the classic Star Trek episode "Patterns of Force," in which the Enterprise crew discovers that a Federation envoy has re-established Nazism on an earth-like planet. As usual, questions of language and anthropology (how could a species that evolved on another planet be indistinguishable from humanity?) are avoided in the service of a larger sociological point--and, of course, a cheaper budget.

In the case of Crylla, it turns out that Captain N. Scott Robertson was overthrown by his first officer, Yvonne Smith. (According to Smith's dossier in the manual, she has been suffering from PTSD since the "War of 2081.") Smith enlisted most of the rest of Houston's crew in a plot to overthrow and militarize the Cryllan government, complete with the demonization of a formerly-peaceful minority population--the aforementioned "misanthropes." She liquidated most of the ruling class by claiming that they were misanthropes in disguise (they weren't) and ultimately took supreme power for herself. 
The imprisoned captain outlines the mutiny against him.

Part of Yvonne's villain's exposition at the end of the game.
You learn the full backstory from a handful of surviving Houston crewmembers who resisted Smith. They're scattered in various facilities around the planet. Each require you to answer a copy-protection question to talk to him, and each has an item necessary for the endgame. The easiest to find of these is in the ruined city of Torphur, where on my initial visit I missed an entire underground with additional NPCs.
I mapped the first half of the game world but didn't bother with the second.
Crylla consists of two 128 x 128 outdoor maps connected by a dungeon called Cramur. (Or, more accurately, two one-way dungeons called Cramur, since you can't exit once you enter, and the dungeon's exit is at a different place on each side than its entrance.) The starting side has two regular towns, Karkala and Zenetych, the ruined town of Torphur, and a military prison in the former city of Adion. It also has an eight-level network of caves called Draque, but its only purpose seems to be grinding.
Meeting an enemy in a dungeon.
Crylla's second side has one regular city, Filene, a military prison called Euene, a "dungeon" building called Wycke, and the capital city of Nepenthe, situated on an island. Cramur, Wycke, and Draque are all explored in first-person view. The levels are small and the game has an automap.
An automap helps with dungeon levels that aren't all that big in the first place.
The outdoor areas and dungeons are swarming with humanoid enemies like soldiers, outlaws, and thieves; robotic enemies like automatons, androids, and battle robots; and monstrous enemies like polymuts and mudactyls. (The game says, sadly, that many of these creatures are "misanthropes" who have become terrified of humanity and are just trying to defend themselves.) You fight approximately one billion combats with these creatures. Thank goodness for the auto combat option.

The tactical grid is somewhat like Ultima V, but with no spells, there aren't enough options to justify wasting a lot of time in manual combat. Even grenades--the one option other than shooting--are more annoying than useful. So mostly you just watch your characters fight, although you can fine-tune the computer's actions with a few settings. After the initial few hours, you have more than enough money to keep a hefty supply of medicine, so as long as you check your character's health levels frequently and prevent them from dipping below a minimum threshold, no combat is very dangerous. You can even stop to heal in the middle of battle.
Watching the computer fight my battles.
(In a previous entry, I said that if the doctor dies, you have to start over, since only doctors can resurrect. I was wrong about that. Hospitals in most cities do offer resurrection. I based my comment on the one that didn't.)
Being able to fully heal during combat makes things a bit too easy.
You level up quite rapidly. My characters ended the game at Level 22. They get promotions every 5-7 levels, and my characters ended as lieutenant colonels. You get attribute increases and hefty hit point increases with every level. By the end of the game, some of my characters had nearly 10,000 hit points, and I adopted a policy of checking them every 5 or so combats and restoring their health if it dipped below 3,000. Even then, I ended the game with hundreds of extra vials of medicine and tens of thousands of unspent gold pieces. 
Since we can't make transmissions to Earth, who is doing all this promoting?
Combats also get easier as your equipment improves. There are six types of common rifles and lasers (sold in shops) plus five other types that you can find on the bodies of high-level enemies. By the end of the game, you're absolutely swimming in excess weapons. There are five types of armor, and you have to buy separate pieces for chest, back, forearms, upper arms, thighs, shins, and head. You rarely find armor. Rather than purchase my way through the entire scale, I just waited until I had enough for "heavy" everything.
Different types of armor available. For some reason, you can't sell armor.
Once you have enough money, you can also buy transports. First you need transport papers, which can be obtained in some dungeons or by killing guards. There are several classes; some work on land, some on water. You can buy one for each character or everyone can pile into one, but once you're in a transport, the game uses the transports' weapons in combat instead of your own. These can be pretty powerful, but transports are such a pain to get in and out of (and you can't take them into buildings) that in the end I didn't find them worth it. Enemies often have their own transports.
An exhaustive transport list.
Exiting my sea transport on Nepenthe Island. Lots of foes await me.
The opening stage ends when you're strong enough to assault the military prison at Adion. You use grenades to blast open the gates and to disable the force fields around the prison cells. You fight packs of guards, free a few Cryllan resistance fighters, and meet Lance Corporal Mick Yaya, who tells you part of the backstory.
Blowing up a shield generator.
Once through Cramur, you basically repeat this process in the prison at Euene. The city has been turned into a huge mad scientists' lab, where ghoulish experiments are conducted on prisoners. Most of them are insane. But Lieutenant Vidya Chang fills in more of the history and gives you another key item.
Dead bodies in front of mind-control chair at Euene. The game let me do a little role-playing and blow up the chairs with grenades.
This NPC had been in the chair a few too many times.
The last crewmember to find is the captain himself, N. Scott Robertson, who is imprisoned in the fortress of Wycke. You have to navigate up and down eight levels of interconnected elevators to find his cell. Once you hear his story, you have all four items necessary for the endgame: papers to enter Nepenthe, an entry card to the Broadcast Room, admission codes to access the computer, and "final transmission" codes to reach Earth.

A sea-based transport from Filene takes you to the island on which Nepenthe sits. There are a couple dozen groups of guards in the city, but they don't attack you if you don't attack them. Yvonne Smith has anticipated your arrival and has slain the entire population of the city. Bodies are everywhere.
Alone in the destroyed city.
After you destroy a door with a grenade, you find Smith in your path. She has a long villain's exposition that basically boils down to "I did it for the lulz." She's both impressed with what she was able to accomplish and contemptuous of the Cryllan population for being so easily deceived.
This sounds like absolutely no one I know.
She knows you're there to kill her and doesn't put up much of a fight. She attacks alone, and it was over so quick I didn't even get a screenshot. There ends up being no real "final battle" in the game.
The game gives you no option to act on her request.
After defeating Smith, you head up to the control tower behind here and simply "talk" to the computer. As long as you have the four items in your possession, the game ends with the simple message at the top of this entry. I'm not really sure what I've accomplished, though. Sure, Smith is dead, but there's a brainwashed, armed, and ruined civilization behind me. And what did I "transmit," exactly? A report? A request for reinforcements? Unfortunately, as we'll see, the Second Scenario doesn't really answer these questions.

The plot, though recycled, is decent. It's more than most games of the era provide. But while the game does a decent job adapting Ultima IV and V NPC mechanics, combat and exploration, the game becomes fundamentally too easy after just a few hours, and combats are more annoyances than true challenges. Too much time is wasted trying to find locations: Wycke is hidden deep among twisty mountain passages, for instance. A lot of the game feels padded.

In a GIMLET, I award:
  • 5 points for the game world. As I said, it's a reasonably well-developed mystery, even if the "exactly like earth" trope is a bit tiresome.
Revisionist historians preach in the city of Filene.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. Creation options are limited, and your characters feel more like a blob than six separate people, but development is satisfying and rewarding.
  • 5 points for NPC interaction. Talking with NPCs is vital, and the dialogue is well written. But there are no dialogue options or role-playing options in these interactions.
Captain Robertson makes a sad point.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. Enemies aren't very memorable, differentiated only in how powerfully they punch. There are no non-combat encounters or puzzles in the game.
  • 3 points for combat. It has some innovations, particularly in the options you can set for auto-combat, but there aren't enough tactics to make it interesting or challenging. At least it's quick.
  • 3 points for equipment, consisting primarily of basic weapon and armor upgrades.
Checking my group inventory towards the end of the game.
  • 3 points for the economy, strong in the first couple hours but too rewarding later.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options or side-quests.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The former two are adequate. The interface is reasonably intuitive, but I didn't like the lack of keyboard shortcuts for certain menu options, nor the way that the main window lost focus every time a message popped up.
  • 4 points for gameplay. It's mostly non-linear from beginning to end. There's an obvious order but not a required one. The difficulty is a bit too easy, and nothing makes it replayable, but the length is only slightly too long for its content.
That give us a final score of 34, about average for its era, hovering right around the "recommended" threshold. I feel like the game needed more work on its mechanics to go along with its story.

Victory Software apparently felt the same way, because they did an unusual thing in releasing 2088: The Cryllan Mission—The Second Scenario, which is not so much a sequel as a "version 2" of the original. It shipped with the same manual, though with an addendum, and the same backstory--the crew of the Houston has gone missing on Crylla, and so on. But the addendum promises that the maps and that the story itself have changed, with different plot twists and a different resolution. There are also a number of changes to the mechanics and interface.
The game's production values were better than the typical "indie" title.
In his e-mail correspondence with me, Vivek Pai talked about some of the difficulties facing independent game developers in the 1980s. The game sold for a crazy $69.95, but most of what they made went to costs (including a full-color game box and manual), contracted artwork, and advertising. He said that they conceived of The Second Scenario primarily as a way to get rid of their stock of unused boxes from the first game, which they accomplished by printing up a bunch of gold stickers that said "The Second Scenario--an entirely new game!" and slapping them on the boxes.

I'll get to The Second Scenario eventually during a 1990 mop-up (I found out about it after completing the year), but I'm more interested in the Pai brothers' third and final title, The Secrets of Bharas (1991), which draw upon some authentic Indian themes. After that, discouraged by sales--it didn't help that the Apple IIGS never really took off as a gaming platform--the brothers made some half-hearted attempts at PC coding before ultimately scattering to various university and technology company positions.

It's good to be back on track. If I can finish Citadel this week, I'll be over a major hump. Let's see.