Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Two Towers: Won!

Want to bet?
It's probably good for my version of the Fellowship that the story ended here, more warped and twisted from Tolkien's tale than you might imagine a computer game based on this material would allow. At the end, we'll have to have a little thought experiment about what happens to the story from here. There's a lot to complain about with this game, but I certainly can't complain that the developers didn't give the player the freedom to diverge from the original.

This last session began with Frodo's party in Ithilien. The map continued to be bounded by the river to the west and the mountains to the east, so I explored in east-west strips as I slowly made my way south. At one point, for no real reason, the game suggested that we were hungry and that we send Gollum to hunt for food. (Food and drink exist in the game, but to provide light amounts of healing. There's no hunger/thirst system.) Gollum took off to hunt, which is ironic because after he left, we found rations repeatedly as we walked.
Faramir looks like a jerk in this game.
Investigating an elephant, we were ambushed by Faramir and his men and taken to a hidden grotto, where Faramir gave us some lore, a healer tended our wounds and taught the "Herblore" skill, and one of Faramir's men made fun of us for picking up a shovel.
What a dick.
Wandering around, we found ourselves on a cliff with a pool below. Faramir pointed out Gollum fishing in the pool and asked if his boy Anborn should shoot him. "Sure," I had Frodo say, calling his bluff. Anborn nailed him between the eyes, and Gollum's corpse sank beneath the water.
From Gollum's perspective, it's probably better than being burned to death in lava.
Well, that's going to make things a bit easier, I thought, and decided to keep going instead of reloading. We left the grotto with Faramir and two other rangers in tow. At the south end of the map were the ruins of Osgiliath, and the game warned me that I shouldn't go in there, but I did and suffered an instant death scene.
But where will I get an inspirational speech from Sam?
Moving on, we found a statue whose head was missing. We replaced it but then the game wanted me to find a gem to put in its eye. I was losing patience about this point, so I just had the party press east to the gap in the mountains leading to the Morgul Vale. When we reached the entrance, Faramir, the rangers, and Gilglin took off. Gilglin didn't even have any farewell dialogue, and he took a bunch of Athelas with him.

This doesn't sound like a good use of my time.
In the Morgul Vale, I decided to adopt an exploration pattern that took us counter-clockwise around the mountain borders. We soon came to a river where the game decided it was important that we pick up some "Morgul Water." Then we came to a bridge that was "draped in evil," and Frodo froze, unable to move. 
Abrupt changes in the active party continued through the end.
The action switched back to Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf, who (the game reminded me) were on the road to Helm's Deep. We passed by a couple of houses where there was this suspicious Rohirrim clearly up to something, but I couldn't figure out anything to do with him. Moving on, we fought some battles with orcs, Dunlendings, and Dunlending leaders called "Dunarches." (There were also "orcarches" a couple of times.) We tried to walk to Isengard, but the game wouldn't let me go past a particular point.

As we headed west, Gandalf suddenly decided that he had to head off on his own to find "the lost armies of Rohan." He split off into his own party with three Rohirrim named Wulfgrim, Hunthor, and Beodred--no idea where they came from--and went north in search of "Erkenbrand." I was a bit confused because in the films, Gandalf goes in search of Eomer, but I figured it was roughly the same quest. We wandered around until we found Erkenbrand next to some mountains, and everyone agreed to return to Helm's Deep.
Just a reminder of the manual paragraphs. For the most part, they're shorter than the in-game text.
Back to Frodo and Sam. Frodo somehow came to his senses and we walked off the bridge. Two steps later, we were at the gates of Minas Morgul, and the game relayed how we saw the gates open and the armies pour out with the Witch King at their head. We had to use the "Hide" skill to avoid being seen. Then it was back to Aragorn.
The game does an awful lot of telling rather than showing.
Rather than head directly for Helm's Deep, I had them thoroughly explore the area, fighting a number of orc parties along the way. We found a mountain pass north of the fortress that led into some caves occupied by Rohan citizens. We were unable to fully explore the caves because guards kept blocking certain passages. This becomes important later.
What is this place?
Eventually, we left and went to Helm's Deep itself. When we arrived, the first thing the gate guard suggested is that we go check out the secret exit at the "Glittering Caves" and make sure that Saruman's forces hadn't already found it. We went back to the caves but found nothing new.

Helm's Deep in the game consists of a central keep with about four rooms surrounded by an inner wall with one opening. Outside the inner wall is an outer wall with two openings. A moat surrounds the whole thing but is crossed by two bridges.
A satellite view.
None of the famous faces of Rohan--Theoden, Eomer, Eowen, etc.--were anywhere to be seen since I left Edoras in the last session. No sooner had I poked my head into the inner keep than I received a message that "an immense force of orcs has come," and I had to rush back outside.
I was hoping to have an unproductive shouting match with Theoden first.
Let's take a moment to go back in time to 2002, when the second Peter Jackson film hit theaters. I'm sure I have some readers who can't even remember 2002, but to a near 50-year-old man, this is "recent." I still think of Sleepless in Seattle as "recent." To me, Renée Zellweger is a fresh young face who's clearly going places. The other day, when Irene remarked that "Murphy Brown" had been canceled, I said, "Well, they had a good run. It must have been on for--what--15 years?" She had to explain to me that it had actually been off the air for 20 years and what was canceled was a brief revival series. I'm just adding some perspective.
I know that the way the film depicts the Battle of Helm's Deep violates some aspects of canon, which for some people is like violating a religion, but sitting there in the theater, looking across the field of 10,000 orcs, I realized we had reached a point in cinematic history where a movie could show us anything the director wanted to show us--that there was no more limit to what could be accomplished with special effects. It was one of the most thrilling sequences I'd ever seen. They technically topped it in the last film, but by then I was expecting it. Helm's Deep came out of nowhere.
I also couldn't help thinking how the battle illustrates the difference between the mentality of an RPG player and . . . well, real life, I guess. I'm sitting there thinking, "They're just orcs!" They don't have any mages or clerics, no trolls or ogres. My Might and Magic VI party would descend from the heavens and slaughter them all with a single "Armageddon" spell. If it was a Gold Box game, the battle would be over after six "Fireballs." These days, my character from Shadow of Mordor would scoff at 10,000 orcs. He'd dance through their ranks, exploding heads, and have half the army converted to his side within 10 minutes.
What do you mean "too many?" That's just more experience points for me. Plus, do you know how many wands, potions, and scrolls I have to get rid of?
In other words, some part of me had been waiting to fight Helm's Deep in an RPG for a long time, and the experience was . . . underwhelming. Aragon and friends rushed out of the Hornburg and encountered six orcs and two Dunlendings immediately outside the entrance. We killed them. Then a message told us more orcs were crossing the bridge, and we killed half a dozen more there. Then the message said that some Dunlendings had come through the south wall, and the game took us directly there so we could kill them.

Now, I guess we were supposed to have the sense that we were only seeing our part of the battle, and that the Rohirrim were fighting other battles all around us. In any event, we got a message that things were hopeless and we should retreat to the Hornburg. We did, then got another message that the absolute final battle--we mean it this time--was beginning. Outside we rushed again and fought three consecutive battles against orcs and Dunlendings right outside the gate. It occurred to me that it might be useful to blow Helm's Horn at several points during this sequence, and every time I tried, nothing happened. I mention this because after I won, I looked at a hint guide that said I could use Helm's Horn to make the battle easier. I have no idea where or when.
The Battle of Helm's Deep was basically six screens of this.
Gandalf showed up, as did an army of Ents, and the whole thing was over. Gandalf suggested that we "find any of our comrades who were scattered in the battle" and then go confront Saruman. I looked around and saw that we had Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas, so I didn't really need to gather anyone. We thus headed up the road towards Isengard.

On the way, we ran into a party of Dunlendings, led by Prince Burlag, who said that it was their custom that, when they were defeated in honorable battle, the victor should give them a "gift that honors our skill." My version of Aragorn explained that it was his custom that when he defeated enemies in battle, he tracked down any who were left over and killed them, too.
I mean, talk about gumption. They'd just allied with an evil force to utterly destroy the people of Rohan, and they want a gift?! (The hint guide later told me I should have given them any sword.) Unfortunately, we lost Gimli in the ensuing battle. Figuring the game was almost over anyway, I didn't reload.

We arrived at Isenguard to find Merry smoking pipeweed at the front gate. The game didn't give me any option to talk to him or invite him into the party, so we pressed on to the main keep. We saw Saruman up at the top of Orthanc and entered the keep. The tower consisted of four levels, with one or two battles with human allies of Saruman. In a library, way too late to be useful, we found books that would teach us various skills.
Why would they introduce this now?
At one point, we discovered two "corrupted eagles" and one regular eagle behind a locked door. When we killed the corrupted eagles and freed the regular one, he gave us a word of power called MANWE, which we never used. The only word of power we ever used in this game is a single use of some elf word to open a locked door.
Can we just speak it, or do we have to whisper it into the ears of a little moth?
We continued up to the top of the tower, where the game gave us a paragraph indicating that we were now stuck on the top of Orthanc. Hint guides later told me that I should have used MANWE here to get the Eagles to give us a ride, or use the "Climb" skill to get down, but the stairs still worked just fine for me, so I'm not sure what happened there. Anyway, exploring more carefully, we found Saruman in a corner of the third level. We fought him, and he fled just before he would have died. He left the palantir behind. Picking it up ended the game for this party.
Our last shot of Aragorn and his part of the Fellowship.
Action returned to Frodo and Sam. After an instant-death scene when I blundered into Minas Morgul . . .
. . . we continued around the mountain range--I think we fought one battle against spiders--until we found the mountain pass to Cirith Ungol to the north. It was a long pass, but nothing assailed us, and we just had to use "Climb" at one point to keep going. 
Note that, with Gollum out of the picture, Sam is still with Frodo and we both have plenty of lembas bread.
The pass took us into the caverns of Shelob. I guess Gollum would have attacked us there if we hadn't killed him earlier, but I spared us that. We used the Star Ruby to burn our way through Shelob's webs, and Galandriel's phial to drive off Shelob herself when she attacked.
Alas, we get no image of Shelob during this sequence. That reminds me: Lord of the Rings fans, how do you feel about Shadow of War's revelation that Shelob is really a hot woman in disguise? Cool? Or . . .
And then, with no final battle or puzzle or anything, the game limped to its inevitable end:
You have been wounded with spider venom. You hear the approach of iron-shod boots. Orcs! But you collapse, and feel your consciousness fade. The last thing you remember is the Ring falling from its chain.

With the presence of his enemies revealed to him by the Palantir of Orthanc, Sauron decides to move his forces against the city of Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor. Saruman is beaten, but a far greater threat remains. 
I love how, in the film, it was treated as a big revelation that "Sauron moves to strike the city of Minas Tirith." Was there really anywhere else for him to strike?
And so ends the second part of "The Lord of the Rings," not in triumph and glory, but in uncertainty and deadly peril. Can Gandalf, Aragorn, and the other members of the Fellowship save Gondor from the armies of Sauron? The Ringbearer is trapped in the dreaded tower of Cirith Ungol. Can he be saved?
Someone's wedding is ruined.
You have done well indeed to bring the Ring this far, but the quest is not over yet. The Ring must be taken to Mount Doom and destroyed for all to be set right. To be continued in . . . "The Return of the King" coming soon from Interplay.
Not so hasty.
We've still got a bit to talk about, including the GIMLET, false journal entries, missed material, and why Volume III was never made, so I'll wrap things up in another entry. For now, let's analyze what happens in the darker world I've created. Gimli is dead--does it matter? (I mean, what did he really contribute?) Is Aragorn's decision to execute the Dunlending prince going to have any consequences? Most important, what changes with Gollum out of the picture?

Final time: 18 hours

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Game 320: Xoru (1989)

Character selection occurs right on the main title screen.
United States
Castle Technologies (developer and publisher)
Several versions released between 1987 and 1989 for DOS
Date Started: 13 June 2018
Date Ended: 5 March 2019
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Xoru has taken me on a hell of a ride over the last 9 months. Last June, I played it for a few hours, got stuck, and decided I had enough grounds to reject it as an RPG. Then, in December, I got a long, impassioned letter from a fan who begged me to reconsider. I fired it up again and got stuck in roughly the same place. This time, I put out a call for help and commenters Zenic Reverie ("The RPG Consoler") and D.P. got involved. They helped a bit but got stuck with the same puzzles that I did. Then I tracked down the author, Brian Sanders, and we exchanged several e-mails. Brian didn't remember enough to help with my specific problem at first, but I must have put a bug in his ear, because a few weeks later wrote back with a map and hint guide that he'd "commissioned," which suggests to me that I annoyed him so much that he paid someone to solve the game so I'd go away. On the same day he sent the hint guide, Zenic won it on his own and sent me his solution. In the end, I still don't feel like it's much of an RPG, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to write about it after all that.
My Trizbort map of the dungeon.
Written by San Diego-based developer Brian Sanders and released as shareware, Xoru is a text adventure-RPG hybrid that invites comparison with Beyond Zork (1987) in its mechanics, if not its attitude. The game went through several versions in the late 1980s and eventually acquired an "Advanced" tag (i.e., most sites have it as Advanced Xoru), but the main title didn't change. There's sort-of a subtitle--Descent into the Depths of the Ebon Titan--that appears far enough away from the main title that I've chosen to regard it more as flavor text than a true subtitle.

The backstory casts the character as a denizen of the modern world, abruptly wrenched by a cabal of wizards from a busy airport terminal, through a portal, and into a "pseudo-medieval fantasy world" in which he must explore a sprawling, multi-leveled dungeon for various reasons. In this, the game almost immediately clashes with its extremely brief character creation system in which you choose from among an unusual list of classes: paladin, necromancer, barbarian, zen-druid priest, and shadowy tracker. The implication is that each class will call upon special abilities and strengths to solve the game's obstacles, in the manner of Quest for Glory, but in practice it mostly means that some classes have an easier time in combat than others.

Gameplay for everyone begins in an "edifice ruin" at the top of the dungeon, each character finding items there appropriate to his class. The text window is accompanied by a mini-map that shows the directions the character can move, a clear Beyond Zork influence.
The game begins. A little map tells you which ways you can go.
The dungeon under the ruin consists of about 75 rooms arranged in three sections, logically-constructed and well-described. Xoru lacks most of Zork's humor (which got a little too thick in Beyond, I thought) but it has the same attention to economical, vivid descriptions of rooms and events, at the best of times eliciting the sense of exploring a dangerous place with a good dungeon master. There isn't much of a core "theme" to the dungeon, and like Zork the pseudo-medieval world has modern concepts like plumbing and elevators. Some examples of the experience:
  • A trap door is on a high ceiling. You have to drag a bench from another room and stand on it to open the door. It takes you to an alchemist's lab where you receive a couple of important items.
  • A hobbit sits in a room with ten cards, kind of like a Deck of Many Things. He invites you to draw as many cards as you would like, one of which will free him. But for each draw, he will take a random item from your inventory. This can result in a "walking dead" situation if he takes an important item, so you have to prepare by dropping anything vital and loading up on miscellaneous treasure and extra weapons. The cards have various positive and negative effects. One of them does free the hobbit, for which he gives you a necessary gold key, and another gives you an important clue to another room.
The memorable hobbit encounter.
  • The clue mentioned above is: "Make music with the giraffe, camel, elephant, and a pair of ferrets." When you find a room with an organ, you therefore have to play GCEFF. The game has virtually no sound, but it does represent these tones faithfully. Playing the right sequence opens a secret door to an area with a vital key.
  • An area has enormous tanks full of water. You have to go to a pumping station and turn the controls to empty the tanks, at which point you can enter each tank, each of which holds a different puzzle piece. Putting them together gives you a sapphire cube that you need for the penultimate area.
Was there a similar puzzle in one of the Zork games?
There are a fair number of "red herrings" in the game, not just as objects but also areas that feel like they ought to serve a larger purpose because of the detail in which they're described (e.g., the torture chamber) or how much trouble it took to get there. For instance, there's a puzzle involving an elevator that leads you to something called an "Ant-E-Room" where you have to kill a giant ant. But despite a vivid description of the room, there's nothing to accomplish there. There's an entire sub-section full of one-way chutes and passages that seems to have no purpose except to challenge your ability to get out if you're unlucky enough to blunder in.

Monsters pop up occasionally--ogres, gnolls, ghouls, bugbears, basilisks, and maybe one or two others I didn't write down. Fighting them is generally a matter of typing KILL [MONSTER] WITH [WEAPON] and letting the action play out. Spellcasters are supposed to find scrolls that they can use in combat by typing CAST and the name of the scroll. I never found any spell scrolls beyond the one that the game starts you with, which seems to do nothing. The game tracks a strength statistic and a health statistic that deplete as you take hits. The fighting classes seem to have a easier time than the others, but nobody has a terribly hard time. There are potions and generic scrolls scattered around the dungeon that increase strength and restore health and armor protects you from harm.
Trading blows with a basilisk.
I spent a lot of time annotating the presence of monsters and items on my original map, only to discover on a replay that these locations are heavily randomized for each new game. Sometimes you meet monsters in practically every room; other times, you can make it through the entire game without fighting once. Sometimes, I had half a dozen weapons to choose between; other times, I never let go of my starting scimitar. Most of the time, I never found any armor. Playing a couple of times helps you determine which items are necessary, as they're always found in the same locations for every game. There are a lot of unnecessary items (except perhaps as fodder for the hobbit's card game), including lots of gems and valuables, but also things that sound like they ought to do something, like ropes and 10-foot poles.

The interpreter is adequate. It follows most of Infocom's standards; for instance, the player can switch between VERBOSE, BRIEF, and SUPERBRIEF descriptions of places he's already been, and hitting G is a shortcut for "again," or repeat the previous action. Z passes time. Yes, it's derivative, but on the other hand it's nice for players not to have to learn a new set of conventions. Unfortunately, the interpreter tends to fail when given complex commands or compound sentences with propositions. The manual says that it supports actions like TAKE THE APPLE AND EAT IT, but I found that most of the time it would do the first part of the sentence and ignore the second part. I've never seen the advantage to using such complex sentences anyway, so it mostly didn't bother me. A little more annoying was the tendency of the interpreter to confuse objects; for instance, if you have both the sapphire and the sapphire cube, trying to drop the sapphire will actually cause you to drop the cube.
The parser gets a bit confused from compound sentences.
There are a ton of commands I never found any use for, including TALK, JUMP, KNOCK, PULL, PUSH, and LISTEN. These plus the extra items and poor use of the classes suggests to me that Sanders meant to keep expanding the game, or perhaps offer additional modules with the engine.

The game has a time limit of 360 moves, but that's pretty generous, especially considering that a lot of moves don't count, such as waiting. Also, for some reason, drinking water in a particular room (you have to solve an inventory puzzle involving a well bucket crank first) increases the number of available moves while also (nonsensically) increasing your score every time you drink. But if you do wait out all the turns, you suffer an instant death as water comes bursting through a couple of previously-unopenable doors and floods the dungeon. There's also a hunger and thirst system, but food and water are both plentiful, and anyway you could easily win the game before even noticing that you're hungry or thirsty.
Instant death when you run out the timer.
When I got stuck, I was about 80% of the way through the game, and in retrospect, I wasn't really stuck. I was overthinking a solution to a particular puzzle that involved replacing a cracked jug on a statue with a new one. I didn't realize from the room description that the room is basically in two halves, and that to approach the statue, you need to walk through an energy barrier, which you can only do if you have a sapphire cube in your possession. There were times I had the cube, but I never tried walking through the room with the cube in my possession, I guess.
The room where I spent way too much time trying to throw things at the jug, and poke it with poles, and lasso it with a rope.
Once you solve this puzzle, you get a ruby prism, which reflects some laser beams coming out of the eyes of a couple of lion statues, allowing you to pass to the "Chamber of the Lake," where you climb a statue and pry an emerald sphere out of one of its eyes. With sphere, cube, and prism in possession, you visit a room called the "Mirrored Room" and insert them in three appropriately-shaped holes. The floor drops out and you're dumped into the final area, to confront the Ebon Titan.
Reaching the endgame.
This final area gives you an odd puzzle, a bit unsatisfying to me because I didn't really figure it out. You find yourself on a grid of blue, green, red, and black (or "void") squares, the colors shifting as you plot your moves. You're represented as an asterisk, and the Ebon Titan is represented as an exclamation point. The only goal is to make it to the Titan's square, but each of the colored squares (at least most of the time) has some kind of trap.

Earlier in the game, at a random location, a jester comes prancing through one of the rooms and gives you a clue about this area--just before he's incinerated by a lightning bolt. The problem is that his clue (at least, to me) doesn't really help because it indicates that any of the colored squares could have a trap.
The jester tries to help but doesn't tell me about any "safe" squares.
It took me a couple of reloads, but I made it through by luck. I'd be really curious how I was supposed to deduce the right path here. Even the author of the hint file that Sanders commissioned wrote, "Look, I honestly don't know where the traps are or what the colors mean. That is why you save."
Trying to make it through the final area.
Once you reach the Titan's square, he just dies with a pathetic "Nooooooooo . . ." The game congratulates you on having defeated "The Great Enslaver." A sword that was embedded in the floor in front of the Titan--now named the Sword of Life--"quivers to life, leaping from the stone into the palm of your hand." You're teleported outside the dungeon, where the edifice collapses to reveal a gleaming diamond palace, and a wizard appears and congratulates you on becoming king. Not bad for a guy who was suffering from a flight delay just half an hour ago.
Vanquishing the Ebon Titan.
The game gives you a final score at the end which makes little sense. When I died, it said I had accomplished 100% of my goal, but when I beat the game having done all the same things, it said I was at 79%. Much like other text adventures, including Beyond Zork, once you know what you're doing, a winning game is trivially short. You could win this one in 10 or 15 minutes.
At 100%, I could have been a GOD.
I'll leave judgement as to its text adventure qualities to The Adventure Gamer, if they ever get to it. As an RPG, it barely qualifies. There is extremely minimal character development in the form of strength increases, and combat, simple as it is, does technically rely on attributes as well as equipment. In a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 2 points for the game world. It's not terribly thematic and could use a more compelling backstory. It would be nice to have heard something about the Ebon Titan and his status as an "enslaver" before actually meeting him.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There really is no point to the classes, particularly the thief-oriented "shadowy tracker." It would have been cool if there had been class-oriented puzzles, for instance a door that a thief could pick, a barbarian could bash, and a magic user could open with a spell. Puzzles like the trap door could have easily been class-aspected rather than having everyone drag over a bench.
Checking my inventory and stats.
  • 1 point for NPC interaction, and that's very limited, consisting of basically the hobbit and a couple of optional encounters in random places with a jester and a hunter.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The foes are unimaginative, and the puzzles are mostly simple inventory puzzles.
At first, I thought there might be something more interesting to do with the hourglass, but no, the solution was to just BREAK it.
  • 1 point for magic and combat with no real options. I think maybe you can throw holy water at a ghoul, but otherwise your only "tactics" are KILL MONSTER WITH WEAPON.
  • 2 points for equipment. There isn't much in the traditional RPG style, and a lot of red herrings on the adventure side.
  • 0 points for no economy. No, trading stuff to the hobbit doesn't count.
  • 2 points for the main quest.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. It gets most of this value for the quality of the text. The map images are mostly superfluous, the sound is extremely scant, and as we saw, the interpreter had some issues. I do like that you can move with the arrow keys instead of having to type NORTH and EAST all the time.
  • 3 points for gameplay. I give it a little credit for some nonlinearity and replayability in the optional areas, although overall the dungeon is a bit too small and the puzzles (despite my getting stuck on one) are a bit too easy. It doesn't drag, at least.
That gives us a final score of 17, which is pretty low, but I'm not really rating it in its appropriate genre. Text adventure fans will probably enjoy it more than RPG fans.
Xoru was reviewed in the April 1993 issue of Red Herring, where the reviewer said that he could "highly recommend it," although he'd only been exposed to the demo copy, which killed you after 80 moves. The 1997 issue of the British magazine SynTax provided a more thorough review, agreeing with me that the "text descriptions are very good: not flowery but straight to the point and informative," but complaining about the simple puzzles. He also notes--and I would have to agree--that the $44.95 price tag was a bit steep for a game of such limited content.

The version I played was 5.94. From the release notes, the Version 5 series had one more dungeon area than earlier editions, and at least some previous versions didn't even bring the game to an ending. While this was the last text version, it wasn't the last version entirely: In 2014, Sanders--his company revived and re-christened Castlelore Studio--created a 3D graphical version of the game for the Mac. You can see it in action here and buy it here. The graphics are what you'd expect from an indie developer (it's "really hard to do by yourself," Sanders wrote me), but as the video played, I found myself easily recognizing the various rooms based on the text versions that I'd explored. Certainly, I got zapped by those lion-lasers plenty of times.
The series of "gallery" rooms represented in the 3D engine.
In e-mail correspondence with me, Brian Sanders said that he originally wrote the game while he was a junior in high school. His mother suggested the title, but after he found it listed once-too-often at the bottom of game lists and the ends of catalogs, he made "Advanced" part of the title. It was originally just a grid of rooms with randomized monsters and treasure--something like a text Wizard's Castle--but grew from there. Sanders says he was inspired by the Infocom titles as well as Choose Your Own Adventure books.
I was an avid reader and I was enchanted and captivated by these computer programs which made stories exploratory and interactive. There was this exciting illusion that the games offered limitless possibilities for exploration--even if the world was clearly finite, you had no way of knowing how far it went, and you would have to use your own mind to get there.
That's a good summary of the experience playing a lot of RPGs, but perhaps more so for adventure games. With most RPGs of this era, and their fixed grids of tiles, you generally get a sense of the dimensions of the maps and overall game world, and you know when your character is about to hit its edges. There isn't quite the same sense of wonder as to what's around the next bend. Adventure games mostly feature non-symmetrical layouts that can sprawl unannounced in any direction. Once you have the entirety of the game before you, it often seems simple and underwhelming, but when you're playing live and you don't know whether the locked door opens into a closet or an entire sub-dungeon, it can be exciting in ways that perhaps my GIMLET doesn't capture. I'm sorry we won't be seeing many more of these.
Thanks to Brian, Zenic, and D.P. for helping to clear this one, and to everyone for your patience in a slow week as I recovered from a lot of travel and work late in February. The rest of this month ought to be back-on-track and productive.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Two Towers: Bored of the Rings

The Ringbearer hasn't left the same perilous countryside since the game began.
Lord of the Rings, Vol. II simply doesn't work. I'm sorry to have reached that conclusion. I had enjoyed the first game well enough and had been looking forward to the sequel, even though I knew there would be no Vol. III. Now I feel that if Interplay was going to leave fans hanging, they should have left them hanging after Vol. I instead of proceeding with this lackluster title.

The yanking around from party to party got worse--laughably worse--after the last session. I began this session with Frodo and Sam, and I'd barely done more than wander through the marsh for five minutes and fight one battle with some orcs, when the game decided it was time to switch the action to Edoras. There, Aragorn et. al. did nothing more than approach the gates of the city before we were off to check in on Merry and Pippin. Then, for some reason, those two had an absurdly long session, ignoring several obvious transition points, culminating in the destruction of Isengard by the Ents. It feels like their story is over before Frodo even got near the Black Gate.
One of my three parties now has nothing to do but wait.
But the problems with Vol. II run much deeper than that. Its core problem is that it is satisfying neither as a Lord of the Rings game nor a standard RPG. If you were a fan of the original books, I can't imagine that you'd find this game a good representation. The characters are mute and bereft of any personality. Epic moments are rendered in banal, bloodless manual text or on-screen exposition. The little side quests that the developers threw in to lengthen the plot and make it more like a standard RPG simply slow down and confuse the main story.

Even worse--and I don't often criticize games on these grounds--the graphics fail to evoke any sense of the kind of awe and wonder you should feel when exploring Middle Earth, running up against its most famous landmarks, and meeting its most famous denizens. I wasn't one of them, but I can imagine a Lord of the Rings fan, having read the book umpteen times, conceiving in his imagination "the green shoulders of the hills" and the "wide wind-swept walls and the gates of Edoras." Let's recall how Tolkien describes the Black Gate:
This was Cirith Gorgor, the Haunted Pass, the entrance to the land of the Enemy. High cliffs lowered upon either side, and thrust forward from its mouth were two sheer hills, black-boned and bare. Upon them stood the Teeth of Mordor, two towers strong and tall. In days long past they were built by the Men of Gondor in their pride and power, after the overthrow of Sauron and his flight, lest he should seek to return to his old realm. But the strength of Gondor failed, and men slept, and for long years the towers stood empty. Then Sauron returned. Now the watch-towers, which had fallen into decay, were repaired, and filled with arms, and garrisoned with ceaseless vigilance. Stony-faced they were, with dark window-holes staring north and east and west, and each window was full of sleepless eyes.

Across the mouth of the pass, from cliff to cliff, the Dark Lord had built a rampart of stone. In it there was a single gate of iron, and upon its battlement sentinels paced unceasingly. Beneath the hills on either side the rock was bored into a hundred caves and maggot-holes: there a host of orcs lurked, ready at a signal to issue forth like black ants going to war. None could pass the Teeth of Mordor and not feel their bite, unless they were summoned by Sauron, or knew the secret passwords that would open the Morannon, the black gate of his land.
Even I, as a non-fan, have to admit that this is pretty powerful stuff. And here is the Black Gate in-game:
One of the two Teeth. There's a mirror about one screen to the east.
Say what you want about the recent Shadow of Mordor/Shadow of War series, but at least they did (in my opinion) graphical justice to the setting. Here, no matter what Tolkien intended, the architectural style favored by the game for just about every building is "aluminum airplane hangar." The setting's most fearsome foes and most majestic allies are impressive in neither icon nor portrait. 
Every building looks like the same temporary shelter with no door.
As an RPG, meanwhile, the game fails in almost every category. Character development occurs solely at plot intervals and is remarkably impalpable. The skills system, by which characters can actively use certain skills and attributes, goes back to Wasteland but is ill-used here. Among the individuals in each party, you never lack the necessary skill, and it's always perfectly obvious where to use it. It might as well have happened automatically. The basic equipment list is unexciting, and the combat system--by which you select "attack" and choose from a list of indistinguishable foes--is even less so.
The game's relatively boring inventory system.
Many of these problems were present in Vol. I, too, so you will naturally wonder how I can justify giving that game a relatively high score and a positive review. To be fair, I did levy some of the same criticisms about how the game fared as an RPG, but beyond that . . . I don't know . . . the game just somehow felt fresher. I recognized that it wasn't perfect, but it was doing something new and original and I was more willing to give it a chance. I expected the developers to have learned some lessons between Vol. I and Vol. II and thus have corrected some of the engine's weaknesses. If anything, they went backwards.

The lack of cut scenes is a particular blow. The first game had some original artwork at set intervals that served to keep the characters' personalities embedded in your mind, and that kept you on track with the source material. (The remake replaced this artwork with scenes from the Ralph Bakshi film, which I liked less, but was still better than nothing.) The fall of Isengard ought to command more than a single paragraph of exposition next to a couple of goofy little icons that are supposed to be Ents.

Feeling as I do, I was going to try to push through to the end of the game for this entry, but I didn't quite make it. Perhaps I didn't even come close--I have no idea how this game is going to stretch and warp the book's events. I'll recap the progress of the characters, but to avoid exposing you to the same constantly-jarring changes in perspective that I experienced, I'll just relate each group in turn.

Frodo, Sam, Gollum, and Gilglin started at the edge of the Dead Marshes, essentially where they'd started the game 7 hours prior. They'd had the vampire interlude and were looking for something called the "star ruby" before making their way to (or past) the Black Gate. Gollum warned us not to follow the lights in the marsh (I wonder what would have happened if we'd never enlisted him).
"Do not follow the lights. They lead to . . . [hiss] . . . Cleveland."
Systematically exploring the marshes, we soon fell into a barrow in the ground and met an elf named Nendol. He had sworn to never leave the side of a Numenorean named Vorondur who had saved him in combat--a vow that he soon regretted when Vorondur was cursed by undeath and sentenced to wander the marshes as a shade. Nendol asked if I might be able to release him.

We climbed out of the barrow but soon fell into another one where a ghost, in exchange for some rations (which he mimed eating), allowed us to take the Star Ruby. Back at the vampire's tower, the Star Ruby banished the undead who wanted it. I think it probably would have helped me against the vampire, but who explores the map in such an erratic fashion that they'd find the ruby first? 
A magic ruby for some Lembas bread that you can't even eat. Seems fair.
We found a group of ghosts hanging out in the marshes, and one of them was Vorondur. Since we had already killed the vampire and received the "spirit key," all we had to do was give it to Vorondur, and he and the other ghosts were able to pass on. Nendol rewarded us with a dagger, some food, a prybar, a shovel, and leather armor. This was good since Gilglin had joined us with no equipment and had been beating orcs with his fists.
This was a fun encounter, but some bug put the text all over the place.
We finally made our way through the marshes and south to the Black Gate. There was one encounter where we had to hide from some passing orcs using the "Sneak" skill. As we approached the gate itself, Gollum gave his canonical speech about we'll all die that way and he can show us a secret path instead. Just for fun, I pressed forward and got a scripted ending. Reloading, I followed Gollum's directions, and Frodo's part of the adventure ended as he crossed the border into Ithilien.
West of the sea, everything's cool.
Merry, Pippin, and their two Ent friends resumed their adventures in Fangorn Forest. They had been tasked with finding two Ents--Leaflock and Skinbark--and watering them so they could rouse themselves and get to the Entmoot. I already knew their locations, and my travel was facilitated by the wandering Ent named Longroot, who will carry the party from place to place if they're lucky enough to encounter him. Leaflock and Skinbark both responded to Entwater, and both gave the party some kind of password to use, although there was never a place that I used them. I also don't think I fully explored the ruins or solved the quest involving the seed and the Entwash source. Oh, well.

Back at the Entmoot, the Ents agreed to march on Isengard, and action transitioned to the next map, with Treebeard joining the party (now composed of more Ents than hobbits). Rather than head directly for the fortress, I steered them around the edges and through a mountain pass that led to a village of Dunlendings. They demanded that we leave the village, and when we refused, they attacked us in force and slaughtered us.
To be fair, they are marching to Isengard, not Dunland.
On a reload, I went directly to Isengard. As we approached the gates, we got a textual notice that orcs and men were emptying the fortress, marching off to war somewhere, leaving a skeleton force behind.

Since the party had prematurely cleared out a couple of battles in the previous session, we had an easy time on this visit. After a single battle against a few orcs, the game informed me that the Ents were destroying the fortress, Saruman was in hiding, and there wasn't anything left for Merry and Pippin to do but go wait by the gatehouse for the rest of the Fellowship to show up. I don't know how the book is paced, but this seemed an awfully early ending to this thread.
The film version was slightly more epic.
Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf had barely set foot into Rohan before they were set upon by a band of Rohirrim and escorted to Edoras. Most of the buildings were empty, the occupants fled, so the party made its way to the Golden Hall. There, as in the book, Hama insisted that we divest our weapons, but he grudgingly allowed Gandalf to keep his staff. I had to play this encounter twice because the first time, I didn't realize that Gandalf's "Glamdring" was a sword, not a ring, and I didn't drop it before entering the hall.
This felt wrong, and it turned out it was wrong.
Inside the hall, the dialogue between Gandalf, Grima Wormtongue, and the possessed Theoden played out as in the book. When it was over, I used Gandalf's staff, Theoden returned to his senses, and Grima fled the hall.
Paraphrased dialogue from the book.
In a divergence from the book, it now transpired that Grima and his allies had set traps all around the multi-leveled Golden Hall, and somewhere had secreted four ancient artifacts: Helm's Horn, the Cup of Rohan, a bridle, and a scepter. Some prophecy said that Rohan's armies would never be successful lacking these items, so we had to find them before anyone would ride to war. The party had to wander the rooms and corners of the four levels, using "Perception" and "Disarm Trap" frequently, until we recovered all items. (Some notes in a box that Grima left behind gave us clues as to where to find the items.) There was one battle with a spider in the basement. 
Finding the bridle.
When we found the scepter in the attic, Saruman oddly appeared and attacked us. We exchanged a few blows and then he disappeared. I don't know what that was about.
That was briefly satisfying.
We briefly met Eowyn in one of the bedrooms and recovered Theoden's sword, Herugrim, in another, although oddly the game wouldn't let us give it to him. A found note gave a clue as to a side-quest: Saruman had tasked Grima with finding some magical gauntlets near Helm's Deep. We looted some magic armor and a magic sword from the armory, which turned out to be fortunate because when we left the Golden Hall, the game said that Grima had stolen Anduril in his flight.
I'm surprised that Eowyn won't join the party. Shoot--maybe I didn't try.
When the party left the hall, the Rohirrim were yelling things like "For the Mark!" and "Forth Eorlingas!," so I assume they're on the move. I end this session with Aragorn and company exploring the area surrounding Edoras to see if they can recover Anduril and/or meet up with the hobbits at Isengard.
Is Anduril even supposed to be reforged yet?
Having not made it past the first 40% of Lord of the Rings, I'm extremely fuzzy on where this installment is likely to end. (Fuzzy and slightly curious; in fact, vague curiosity about how this game ends is really all I have left to look forward to.) I think I remember someone telling me that the film of The Two Towers ends well before its point in the book, but I could be wrong. As far as I know, Merry and Pippin have nothing left to do. Aragorn and his party still have to go to Helm's Deep, which I assume will be the climax of the game. As for Frodo and Sam, I suspect they need to meet Faramir (though I understand events play out very different in the book than in the films) and then find the secret tunnel. Will they run into Shelob? I guess we'll soon see. One more entry should do it.

Time so far: 12 hours