Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Bard's Tale II: Hiatus

I can save the GAME? This is different than saving my characters? FF...no, I'm not doing that.

A series of unfortunate things this week:

1) I've been on the road again, this time to the west coast, and I've had lots of down time in hotel rooms in which I could have been finishing The Bard's Tale II, but I've found it so mind-crushing that I've been re-watching Firefly instead. That would be fine if my blog was called the "geeky TV Addict."

2) When I did finally fire up the game, I discovered to my horror that the pieces of the Destiny Wand I'd managed to collect were gone! No idea where they went. But perhaps it's related to...

3) I discovered that there's a "save game" option completely independent of saving your characters, and that you can save anywhere--even in dungeons. Somehow I missed this in the manual. I had been trekking back to a guild every time I wanted to save, and then I was only saving my characters attributes, not what I had accomplished in the game. Bollocks.

4) Insistent that I was not going to reply the previous dungeons just to find those wand pieces again, I downloaded a character editor, frigged around with it, and ended up corrupting my character files, of which I had not made backups.

So I'm faced with the task of starting completely over in The Bard's Tale II. And you know what? I'm going to do it. My posts lately have sucked, I've been playing with a bad attitude, and finishing the damned thing is my penance. But I'm going to take a one-game break before I tackle it again. Might and Magic I is the next game on my list, and it was released the same year as The Bard's Tale II, so technically I'm not going out of order. I'm downloading it now and getting back into the game.

Much Later Edit: After finishing Might & Magic, I have no desire to return to The Bard's Tale II.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bard's Tale II: Not Feelin' It

I'm going to say "death and drek!" every time I curse from now on.

When I last wrote about The Bard's Tale II, I was "waiting for it to get difficult." My wait didn't last long. By the time I got to the third level of the Ephesus tombs, I was facing some pretty tough critters. Not tough enough to send me crying home to mama, but the game definitely notched it up. I expect it to get harder from hereon in.

My biggest problem now is fighting boredom. This game is an endless slog through dungeons and battles. The little obstacles in the dungeons--spinners, teleporters, anti-magic zones, zones of darkness--are more "annoyances" than challenges.

I managed to find the first segment of the Destiny Wand. The "snare" part of the dungeon was somewhat interesting. I assume the other segments involve something similar. Basically, I had to interpret a series of clues written on the dungeon walls to get through the maze and find the segment. The moment I entered the "snare," a voice told me that I had a limited amount of time, but it couldn't have been that limited, because it took me a while to bumble through it. Spells didn't work, and the "time out" function was disabled. The puzzle consisted of:

  • A pool of water that poisoned my characters when I drank it
  • An old warrior who offered to join my party
  • A creature called a "toxic giant."

Clues from the walls suggested that I should put the old man first in my party and he should "light the way." Others informed me that only poisoned characters could defeat the toxic giant. So I put the old guy in the number one slot, poisoned everyone from the pool, killed the giant, and got a torch from it. I gave the torch to the old feller, which revealed a secret door, behind which I found the wand segment. Woo-hoo.

Earlier in the level, I solved a rhyming riddle to get a hint as to the next dungeon I should explore: Fanskar's Fortress. This was confirmed by the Sage, who for a bundle of gold told me where it was, which was nice except I already knew from having mapped the wilderness. That's where I am now.

The creators made the game a little more tactical by putting distance between your party and the enemies (check out the first screen shot above), forcing you (or the monsters) to "advance" towards each other before you can engage in melee combat. I keep getting into fights with liches and mages in which they repeatedly summon monsters, and I spend a combat round killing their summoned monsters. Then they summon more. Round and round we go, with spellcasters remaining outside melee range, and you can't "advance" towards them as long as there are other monsters closer than they are. My only options are to invest in ranged weapons, but these take precious spaces in your inventory slots, or to cast the MEME spell, which yanks them into melee range but costs a boatload of spell points.

Yeah, so even I'm going to vote "meh" on this posting, but that's really how I feel about the game. It's extremely linear and repetitive, and the endless combats are annoying. Character development is nil: my spellcasters already have all the spells and my other characters' stats are maxed. I get a few hit points and spell points for each level up, but that's it. I feel like I should be enjoying the tactical combat more, but I'm just not. I don't know whether it's me or the game, but I'll give it a few more days and move on if it still doesn't click.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Game Economies

Morrowind, otherwise one of the best CRPGs I've ever played, has the most idiotic economy of any modern game. At the beginning, you're so poor that you can barely afford your first chitin sword. You're hauling wooden buckets and oars from a nearby cave for the few pennies that you can get for them at Arille's Tradehouse in Seyda Neen. You're burglarizing houses and stealing pillows. This is fun and challenging, and it's a real reward when you can buy your first mortar and pestle or decent stock of arrows.

"A plate, a cup, a fork, and a candelabra?! Soon I will be able to afford a pair of steel boots!"

Then, sometime around hour five, you stumble in to a Daedric ruin somewhere, kill a dremora, and suddenly you have a weapon worth so much that literally no merchant in the game can buy it. You sell it to Creeper for one-third of its value, and money no longer has any meaning. You can buy anything. Two or three trips to the ruins, and you can train your character up to level 100 in any skill you desire (Morrowind, unlike Oblivion, places no limit on the number of times you can train per level). The economy, if you let it, breaks the game.

Bad economies, it seems to me, are the rule rather than the exception in most CRPGs. Oblivion doesn't have the training bug, but you do reach a point rather quickly in which amassing a fortune no longer makes sense, even accounting for buying and furnishing houses in every town. I remember in Baldur's Gate II slaughtering an entire map full of fighters with swords +3 and not even bothering to take them to sell them. This is particularly annoying because many of the "evil" role-playing choices in these games center on trying to bully more money out of people, burglarizing houses, selling stolen loot, and so on. What's the point of doing all this if money comes so easily anyway and there's nothing cool to buy?

To me, a good CRPG is one in which money has real value--you never run out of reasons to collect it, kill monsters for it, and quest for it. Some of these early CRPGs, like The Bard's Tale II (my current game), sort-of fit the bill because they have one or two expensive things that make money valuable. In The Bard's Tale II, those things are the mystic emporium, where you recharge spell points, and temples, where you heal your characters of death and petrification. Since the costs for these things go up with your level, it makes sense to keep collecting cash. In Phantasie, leveling up cost so much that I was constantly under-funded. But this is a boring sort of economy. Contrast this with Ultima IV, where you had a role-playing choice about whether to cheat the blind herb seller. Some reagents are damned expensive, and cheating is a real temptation. After all, you want to outfit four of your characters with magic wands, and they cost 5,000 gold pieces each.

If only I wasn't trying to achieve avatarhood.

Always needing cash is not the only part of a good economy, though. I like games in which there's always a cooler magic weapon waiting for purchase, where you can sell looted weapons, armor, and gear to shops (the Elder Scrolls games are particularly good with this), where gold from your fallen foes is a tangible object that makes a satisfying clink as you pick it up (for some reason, I love the graphics and sounds associated with money in Icewind Dale II). I particularly like it when there are goods and services not strictly essential to the main quest that you nonetheless might want to buy: Oblivion's houses are a good example, as are tankards of expensive drinks. You feel like you're really role-playing when your Baldur's Gate crew staggers into Nashkel from the mines and each character gets thoroughly drunk on pints of dragon's blood.

"Six wyvern kababs, medium rare."

Let me see if I can recall a few economy-related quirks from other games:

  • If you play a fighter in Baldur's Gate II, you can get a castle for your stronghold. You get a number of stronghold-related quests in which you have options ranging from, say, paying 20,000 gold pieces to strengthen your land's fortifications against outside invaders all the way to erecting no fortifications, executing the person who suggested it, and then levying a punitive tax against your subjects (I'm getting the details wrong, but in spirit this is right). The problem is, by this point in the game you have so much money that you're almost grateful for an excuse to spend as much of it as possible, making what could be a sincere role-playing choice almost no choice at all.
  • In Wizard's Crown and the later SSI games based on the D&D rules, there are multiple types of coins, just like in pen and paper D&D. If you lug around too much cash in Pool of Radiance, it slows you movement and hurts you in combat. Most games treat gold as if it has no weight.
  • In Ultima VII, you can burglarize the royal mint. Since spells and reagents are so expensive, it takes a real role-playing choice not to do this.
Fortunately, you don't actually have to achieve avatarhood in this game.

  • Alternate Reality: the City started you out with a paltry amount of cash but gave you the option to do menial jobs for an honest wage. This took precious game time, but it was a nice touch of realism. I seem to recall that in Ultima VII you can try to make some income baking bread.
  • It's only tangentially related, but I love how in Neverwinter Nights, you've just been given a mission to save the city from destruction, and yet you still have to buy your weapons and armor from the temple shop. A lot of games do something similar.
  • Games in which you can pay for training (not level-increasing training but skill-increasing training) offer a good reason to quest for cash. Aside from Wizard's Crown and The Elder Scrolls games, I can't think of any off hand. I would love it if Baldur's Gate offered you the ability to add a + to one of your weapon skills for 10,000 gold, or add one point to an attribute for 15,000.

Racking my brain, I can think of only two games that have truly "good" economies. The first is Might and Magic VI. First, there are many, many, things to buy: weapons, armor, helmets, boots, alchemical ingredients, rings, wands, and so on. Skill acquisition and training also cost a lot of cash. Fortunately, you can sell items you loot back to the shops. Still, for much of the game, you're struggling to get enough money to train and outfit all of your characters, which is as it should be. Later in the game, you find yourself with an overabundance of money, like in most games, but at that point you find a magic well in Kriegspire that takes your gold for an equivalent amount of experience. Gold, therefore, remains relevant until the very end of the game. Might and Magic VII and VIII have similar economies in general but lack the magic well.

The second is the Hordes of the Underdark expansion to Neverwinter Nights. There are two excellent reasons to get rich in this game. First, about halfway through you find a smith who will take any weapon and add a variety of enchantments (increase the +, make it do fire damage, and so on) for lots of money. (I should point out that Wizard's Crown offered this option but I didn't play long enough to get into it.) You never have enough to buy all of the upgrades. Second, late in the game you meet the Knower of Names, who for gold will tell you the "true names" of various NPCs in the game. You never have enough gold to buy all of the names, and which ones you do buy have significant role-playing consequences, since equipped with an NPC's true name, you can order him or her to do all sorts of things. For some ridiculous amount of gold, you can even purchase the true name of the demon prince Mephistopheles (the game's villain) and completely skip the game-ending battle by simply ordering him to kill himself!

Bargaining with the Knower of Names

I haven't played every CRPG, of course--not yet--so there might be other good ones out there. Let me know what you think in the comments.

In the era I'm playing now, economies are very basic, with only a few ways to get cash (there aren't even any side-quests yet) and even fewer to spend it. I'll keep rating this category on the GIMLET scale, though, and we'll see how the economies evolve.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bard's Tale II: Waiting for It to Get Difficult

Yes, yes: legions of horrific undead. .

Okay, so I followed y'all's advice and kept my Bard's Tale I characters. To make it at least somewhat challenging, I ditched all their equipment. I changed my two spellcasters to the new "archmage" class, bought some basic swords and armor (the shop in every town is called "Garth's," just like in Skara Brae), and set out...

...and promptly got bored. The game threw all kinds of monsters at me that couldn't even begin to touch me. The critter I summoned didn't even take a hit during the three hours it took me to map the wilderness.

The "wilderness" is a 48 x 32 area with six cities, a handful of huts, and dozens of trees that serve in the basic capacity as dungeon walls, forcing you to navigate around them. The cities are all named after ancient Greek metropolises: Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and so on.

As usual, I mapped it in Excel.

One of the huts, incidentally, holds the "Temple of Narn." I have no idea what I'm supposed to do here--I'm sure it becomes clear later--but I hope it has something to do with G'Kar.

"What do you want?"

The game manual told me to seek out the Sage's hut and ask the Sage about the Tombs. The Sage required a bit of a bribe, but I managed to get a hint from him to visit the city of Ephesus. This led me to my first dungeon; I am currently mapping level 2 and still haven't had a decent stand-up fight.

The basic trouble with The Bard's Tale II is that it's too much like The Bard's Tale, just bigger. So far, I'm encountering copious monsters, messages scrawled on dungeon walls, teleporters, traps, zones of darkness, anti-magic zones, magic mouths, and everything that I already experienced a couple of months ago. Since I don't even have the satisfaction of character development to go along with it, this game promises to be fairly tedious.

One good thing, though: there's an archmage spell called BASP ("batch spell") that simultaneously casts all of the buffing spells (levitate, sorcerer's sight, greater revelation, shield, and magic compass) at once. That saves a little bit of annoyance.

Expect a lot of "special topic" postings as I play this one.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Game 18: The Bard's Tale II (1986)

The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight picks up shortly after the first installment of the game. The premise and main quest are provided in a single page of the game manual: 700 years ago, an archmage named Turin forged an artifact called the Destiny Wand in the molten depths of the holy mountain Krontor. The power of the wand maintained peace and prosperity for seven centuries, but then the evil archmage Lagoth Zanta, ruler of the neighboring kingdom of Lestradae, stole the Destiny Wand and broke it into seven pieces, hiding each in a different dungeon, in a puzzle room called a "Snare of Death." Lagoth Zanta's monsters and mercenaries are now roaming freely across the realm. Now, the wizard Saradon has called my party, fresh from our Bard's Tale I victory over Mangar in Skara Brae, to find the pieces and reforge the wand, promising "unimaginable power" if we do.

(Many thanks, incidentally, to The Adventurer's Guild, which has the original documents for each of The Bard's Tale games.)

The game was originally released for the Commodore 64 in 1986. It was ported for the Apple II in 1987 and for DOS in 1988. That, of course, is the version I'm playing.

You begin in the Guild of Adventurers, next to a roaring fire, listening to a bard strumming an eight-bit banjo.

Reading through the manual, it looks as though not much has changed since The Bard's Tale. The basic interface and combat actions are the same, and so are most of the spells. From what I can tell so far, the differences are:

  • The ability to summon creatures and slot NPCs in ANY available slot, not just a single slot at the top of the party list.
  • Slightly better graphics for everything, including dungeon textures, city views, monsters, and character portraits.

  • A few new spells, including some "mystery" spells that you have to figure out at some point in the game. There is also (finally!) a stone-to-flesh spell.
  • An "archmage" is not just a title you get when you complete levels in all four mage classes; it is a separate class with its own spells.
  • Instead of a single city with five dungeons, there are multiple cities, dungeons, castles, and wilderness areas.

The official game map.

  • Missile weapons exist.
  • All of the bard songs have been renamed, there are seven instead of six, and the effects are slightly different.
  • Some battles start with your characters not quite engaged with the enemy--they can be some distance away, allowing them to shoot missile weapons at you before you advance and engage them.
  • New monsters, some with strange names.

"Wander mages"?

Already I'm facing an interesting dilemma. The game allows you to import your characters from The Bard's Tale, which I did, finding to my surprise that the import retained all their levels and items! This means I have absurdly powerful Level 28 characters, including two characters who have achieved all spell levels in four mage classes and can both transition to archmages. I like being rewarded for finishing previous games, but I also like a challenge, and this seems a little too easy. Thus, I'm mulling four options:

  • Play with my existing party and breeze on through--at least the opening sections
  • Retain one or two of my existing characters but drop the rest and start the rest of my party at level 1
  • Play with a brand new party but keep my existing spellcasters in the Guild of Adventurers so I can use them to heal/resurrect my new characters if they die
  • Delete my old characters entirely and start afresh
Any opinions, especially from those who have played The Bard's Tale II before?

I'm looking forward to stepping back into this world.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wizard's Crown: Packing It In

A Wizard's Crown dungeon.

I hope it's obvious by now that I hate to start a game and not finish it. Since I started this blog, the only games I haven't finished (that were "winnable") are Wizardry II and Wizardry III, and this had more to do with their rules about character creation and importing than it did with the games themselves.

But Wizard's Crown is simply no fun. It has some neat innovations, but these are wrapped in countless hours of rote combat and death. I was toying with quitting it during my last posting. Then I went to D.C. for a few days and slept on it. When I got back today, I played for a few hours, but I'm just not feelin' it. I'm going to give it a final ranking here with the understanding that I didn't finish the game so I may have missed some things.

1. Game world. There's an interesting setup in the game manual having to do with a golden age brought to a close by a theft and usurpation. I covered this in my first Wizard's Crown posting. There isn't much history or lore associated with the game, though. You encounter buildings and dungeons with intriguing names but no back story. There are a couple of quests, like clearing the town of thugs, that have some affect on the game world, but otherwise your presence isn't really felt. Final score: 2.

The introduction from the game manual.

2. Character creation and development. It's not bad. Although I was confused during the creation process, the game is fairly unique in the way it gives you experience points to divide among different skills. I'm not sure I ever came up with a good strategy for it, and there were some skills that never seemed to be used, but kudos to the developers for including a character development system ahead of its time. Since you get experience from every battle and can spend it more-or-less immediately, character development is swift and constant. This is the first game to allow selection of your own icons (although from a limited pool), and it might be the first to allow multi-classing. On the other hand, the game offers the exact same experience no matter what your class. Final score: 5.

Spending experience to increase skills.

3. NPC Interaction. Virtually none. There's an old man in a park who tells you different stories, and a girl you can save from some thugs, but your interaction with them is limited to just listening what they say. You learn a few things about the game world from them, but there is no dialog or role-playing opportunities. Most of the game is combat. Final score: 1.

Your primary NPC interaction is an old man ranting about some nonsense.

4. Encounters and foes. There are no real unique monster's in Wizard's Crown that I could see--just your standard D&D fare like goblins, orcs, and brigands. Such monsters are not described in the manual or the game itself, and they're distinguishable from each other only in their icons. There are no opportunities for role-playing in the encounters. There are a mix of random and fixed encounters in both dungeons and surface, which is nice. The surface constantly re-spawns (you never "clear" it), and there's an option to reset dungeon levels in case you want to play them again, which is nice. Final score: 3.

5. Magic and combat. Tactical combat, described in my last posting, is where Wizard's Crown really shines. There are almost too many options having do to with range and direction of attack, but it's hard to complain about the complexity when the game offers a "quick combat" option. You can theoretically role play during combat by having your characters behave in unique ways. The magic system is a little weak, offering a paltry selection of spells for mages (I did finally get these to work by pouring experience into spellcasting) and no offensive spells for priests. If your characters are knocked unconscious or killed during battle, you cannot heal them, which is a bit of a drag. My biggest problem with combat was that I could never do as well in the tactical combat as I did in the quick combat--you would think the reverse would be true. Final score: 5.

6. Equipment. Wizard's Crown offers a wide variety of weapons, armor, and accessories, and it's not too hard to figure out how the items compare to each other. These are generally randomized within the game world, and you even have the opportunity to "customize" items by paying to increase their enchantments. None of the items are described, however, and there are a lot of baffling accessories that either do nothing or I just couldn't figure it out. Final score: 5.

I saw no reason to visit the armory after my first visit.

7. Economy. You get gold for killing monsters, but there's hardly anything to buy with it. You can buy a limited amount of training, but beyond that it's just about increasing item enchantment, which costs way more gold than I ever had. The good news is, because it's so expensive, you never find yourself with too much gold. Final score: 4.

8. Quests. There is a main quest in the game, but it's easy to forget because the game doesn't give you a lot of hints about how to proceed along it. There appears only one outcome to this quest, and no opportunities for role-playing. I counted two side quests, one of which I guess allowed some limited role-playing (I could have let a young woman get beaten by thugs). Final score: 3.

9. Graphics, sound, and inputs. The graphics are mediocre, especially on the character and dialog screens which are text-only. The only sound is the occasional combat effect. Keyboard commands are intuitive enough and easy to grasp, but constantly having to specify a point man when you leave camp is annoying. Final score: 2.

10. Gameplay. The world is so constraining, and it's so hard to avoid dying, that the game feels very linear. It offers no different experiences on replay, and I found that it varied between too easy and too hard: either I won combats in a snap or I was thoroughly trounced. Final score: 2.

Final score: 32. This puts it above some of the worst games on my list, but not as high as Wizardry or The Bard's Tale, which feels right.

Next up: The Bard's Tale II!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Wizard's Crown: Ultra-Tactical Combat

An unfortunately common message in my Wizard's Crown adventures

Since I last blogged about Wizard's Crown, I have:

  • Found the marketplace where I can sell goods. This is different than the Town Square, which had me confused.
  • Cleared the town of monsters and got 2 gold pieces a person for my trouble.
  • Received a broadsword +2 as a reward for rescuing the aforementioned girl.
What, does everyone know I'm after this crown? Nice punctuation, incidentally.

  • Found a hidden magic shop where some day, when I have way more gold than I do now, I can improve the enchantments on my weapons and armor.
  • Got some hints at a tavern. I need an emerald key to get somewhere. The password to something else is "breakfast." A master thief told me of a thieves' guild in the ruins I ultimately have to explore.
  • Fought a lot of battles for which I got experience. I used this experience to increase my weapon, magic, and thieving skills. Putting a lot of points into karma for my priests turned out to be a good thing because it gave me access to high-level healing spells fairly quickly.
  • Discovered temples scattered about town which immediately recharge your priests' karma. It's handy to use these immediately after battle and heal your characters.
I'm still confused about a lot of stuff. For instance, I keep finding bottles and jars and wands after I kill monsters, but they don't seem to have any purpose. The game manual suggests that I can spend experience on increasing statistics but the game never gives me that option (maybe I need a lot more experience than I've been accumulating). My sorcerer never seems to be able to cast a spell successfully no matter how many points I channel into power and spellcasting ability. Every time I leave the inn or camp, the game asks me who I want to put on point and how far away I want them to scout, but for the life of me I can't figure out what this actually does or who I should choose.

It wouldn't be so bad if you could set a default.

All of this pales in comparison to my most serious conundrum, though, which is that I don't know what to do from here without dying. Every time I leave the town, I die. I don't mean a single character dies--this is easily fixed with a "raise dead" prayer, which believe it or not I already have. I mean my whole party gets wiped out. But since I cleared the town of monsters, wandering around in town only occasionally offers up a paltry battle in which I get some minimum of experience. I feel kind of stuck.

While I figure this out, let me use this space to talk about the tactical combat system, which is both interesting and confounding. I can only say that I'm glad that they simplified it for the Gold Box games, because there are enough statistics and options in combat to give a migraine to Sun Tzu.

Let's start at the beginning. When you come across a group of monsters in Wizard's Crown, the game asks whether you want to engage in quick combat. If you do this, the game fights your battle for you in seconds, which is nice, but you don't get to use the full variety of spells, items, and actions at your disposal, which is not. The only way to successfully win difficult battles is to do it the long way. Unfortunately, at this stage the game doesn't tell you how many of each monster type you face, so it's tough to gauge whether quick combat is worth the risk.

To be fair, a "thug" really isn't a monster type so much as a profession.

If you choose to eschew "quick combat," the game puts you in to a tactical battle screen. The first step is "placing" your characters--selecting their starting positions. You have a limited space in which to work, but it's easy to set up a defensive wall with your spellcasters and archers protected.

Placing my characters before combat.

Now we come to the first thing I don't understand: why can't I see my enemies? It's not that they're off-screen. Oh, no. As soon as battle starts, they'll be right up against me. I don't know why they get to be hidden until they attack.

After the placement phase, the combat phase begins. There are no less than 20 actions that each of your characters can perform in combat. There are three attacks: a regular (a)ttack, a reckless "attack to (k)ill" that sacrifices defense for offense, and a conservative (d)efensive attack that does the opposite. If you want a sure hit, you can waste an entire round aiming at your (t)arget before exercising an attack the next round, or you can spend your round (z)ig-zagging to avoid being hit entirely.

Gahmuret targets a thug with his bow.

You can (f)all prone if you're facing archers and you want to minimize your chance of getting hit, then stand (e)rect once you engage them in melee combat. If you're an archer, you can (l)oad your bow or crossbow, a sorcerer can (c)ast a spell (although, and this is item #2 I don't understand, they never seem to work) or use a (m)agic item, and a priest can (p)ray to heal companions in combat or turn (u)ndead. Thieves can (s)neak, but I'm not sure what this does because there doesn't seem to be a back stab. There's also a (v)iew command which maybe is my solution to the hidden enemy problem, although it never seems to do anything. If you run into a door on the combat screen, you can (o)pen it. You can waste a turn (r)eadying a different piece of equipment, and finally you can (i)nspect your character or just (q)uit your turn. Understand that all of these various commands apply to each character in each round.

This happens literally every time.

Ah, but that's not all. The game also considers the direction you're facing when calculating the likelihood to hit, how much damage you do, whether you can target a particular enemy, or whether your shield does anything to protect you. Note in the screenshot below how the northeast, east, and southeast are highlighted (the "9" and the "3" correspond to directions on the numeric keypad). This means I can move, attack, and (I think) defend in those directions. If I want to aim or move somewhere else, I first have to use the comma key to turn my character in that direction.

This battle isn't going so badly, but note that Anfortas has a moderate injury (6) and minor bleeding (2), but still has all 25/25 of his life points.

When you strike a hit, or when any enemy strikes a hit against you, the game is very specific about where it does damage and what kind of damage it does. This lends the game an air of realism, but it also introduces a quirk unique to Wizard's Crown: the overall number of hit points that you have is treated separate from your current level of injury. There are two types of injuries: bleeding and...well...just injuries. You can have a serious injury and be knocked unconscious and still have all 25/25 of your hit points. Bizarre.

This does make it more fun to picture the battle.

When battle is over, you get a bit of gold and you can take the items owned by your enemies--usually just basic weapons and armor that you can sell. Occasionally you find bandages, which a party member skill in first aid can used and thus save your priests' karma points.

I have no idea what that vial is about.

Also after combat, you want to check out your party members' statuses. In my case, Feirefiz has a minor injury, Anfortas has both minor and major injuries and minor bleeding, and Sigune has a major injury and minor bleeding. If you leave the camp while your characters are still bleeding, they die, so this is where I have to use my priests' healing power to deal with their injuries. Note again, however, that none of them have suffered a loss of life points.

Tactical combat can take up to an hour with enough enemies. This is particularly frustrating because, as I've said, every time I leave the town, all my characters die. Wasting 30 minutes on combat only to lose everyone and have to start over is a bit demoralizing--and not just to me. The longer the combat takes, the more your characters' "morale" score dips, making them less effective at all of their skills. You have to spend a night in a comfy room or spend an evening of revelry at a tavern to eradicate the effects of poor morale and get your characters in fighting strength again. This is another first for Wizard's Crown.

My morale is restored and I got a hint on the side.

I'll echo what I said yesterday: I'm grateful to this game for being an obvious precursor to the Gold Box series, but I can't say I'm loving it. Nonetheless, I'm determined to improve my characters enough to start exploring the ruins and see how they differ from the very constricted game so far. Again, I certainly appreciate any tips or advice from readers who have played this game before!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Game 17: Wizard's Crown (1985)

This may be the least attractive opening screen of any game yet, but it speaks to the game's emphasis on tactics and statistics.

I had never heard of SSI's Wizard's Crown before starting this blog, and I never played it until today. Just looking through the manual, I can see its influence on the later D&D "Gold Box" games, so I'm grateful for this opportunity to play it, but damn is it confusing.

Let's start with the basics. Wizard's Crown was originally released for DOS and had Apple II, Atari, and Commodore 64 ports a year later. (Its sequel, the Eternal Dagger, was ONLY released on these other systems, so I won't be playing it.) This means that Wizard's Crown is the first game in my project that I'm playing in its original platform.

The basic plot of the game seems simple: once upon a time the (unnamed) land was governed by a Fellowship of Wizards who ruled justly from the beautiful city of Arghan. These wizards took turns wearing the Crown of the Emperor, a magical artifact that gave "power and reason." Then one day a wizard named Tarmon refused to give up the crown at his appointed time, prompting a civil war during which Arghan was destroyed and hosts of monsters were raised. Tarmon sequestered himself in his laboratories.

500 years later, Arghan is still infested with monsters and sealed off from the world by a magic barrier. But the wizard Kaltar has raised a party of eight adventurers to venture into the city and retrieve the Crown so that a new age of peace might dawn.

The game starts you with a pre-created party of eight adventurers, but of course I immediately dumped them to create my own. I almost wish I hadn't. Maybe by typing it out I can work through some of my confusion. Here's what's clear:

  • There are five available character classes: fighter, ranger, thief, priest, and sorcerer. You can have multi-class characters.
  • Each character has five attributes: strength, dexterity, intelligence, life (hit points), and experience.
  • Each character has a ranking in any number of skills, including combat skills (sword, bow, close combat), magic skills (karma for priests, power for sorcerers), thief skills (search, disarm, pick lock, haggling), healing skills (treat poison, treat disease, first aid), ranger skills (stealth, hunt, track), and miscellaneous skills (swimming, haggling, alchemy). There are 30 skills total. Their initial value depends on your attributes, but they can be increased by spending your experience points.
  • When you create a character, you set your attributes first by spending a pool of 25 points. The level to which you set your intelligence determines what type of class you can choose. For instance, a thief needs only 3 intelligence points but a sorcerer needs 11. If you want to have a multi-class thief/sorcerer, you need 14 points.

Character creation.

Here's what I'm confused about:

  • Is it better to go with single-class characters or multi-class characters? What mix works best? The manual suggests that "most party members should be fighters; only 1 or 2 should be non-fighters." I assume they mean multi-classed fighters, because this otherwise contradicts with its advice to "have at least one character of each profession." The manual also insists that you have a ranger-priest but doesn't say why.
  • Is there any advantage to increasing intelligence above the point at which you get the character class you want? The manual unhelpfully notes that "since intelligence does influence other factors, it just might be worth purchasing more sometimes." What other factors?
  • The game lets you buy experience right off the bat, which you can then use to increase your skills. Is it better to use the points to increase your attributes, or your skills? Do you have the option to increase them both later with acquired experience, or am I setting my permanent attribute levels at this point?

This is just what I'm confused about when it comes to character creation. I can barely understand a word of the combat instructions. I guess there's only one thing to do: make my party as best I can and go out and experiment. I've decided to channel my initial allocation of points into attributes and only buy as much intelligence as I need for the classes I want. I'm going with:

  • One pure fighter
  • Two fighter/sorcerers
  • Two fighter/priests
  • One ranger/priest
  • One thief
  • One sorcerer

Feirefiz is my pure fighter.

During the character creation process, you select the icon that represents your character in the game. These are quite similar to the later SSI D&D games, although without the color customization choices.

This is the first game that lets you choose what your character looks like.

The game starts you off with a weapon of your choice (for fighters) or with a dagger (everyone else). Everyone gets brigantine armor.

The world outside the inn.

Having made my characters, I wandered out into the game world and within moments came across a woman fleeing from a couple of thugs. I chose to intervene and engage in quick combat rather than try to figure out the game's bedazzling combat options this early.

The first quest!

My characters dispatched the thugs and took a fair amount of injury themselves. One of my characters, the fighter/priest Condwiramurs, was bleeding, and the game warned me if I left the combat options screen without healing her, she would be destroyed. Unfortunately, nothing I could think to do would work. We found some bandages during combat, but even though I gave them to someone who was skilled at first aid, the game insisted I didn't have any bandages. I tried to (P)ray for healing but the game insisted none of my priests could pray--it may have had something to do with a morale loss greater than their karma levels. I don't know. There's a lot of stuff to keep track of in this game. Anyway, end result: Condwiramurs died and I had to return to the inn to replace her with another fighter/priest of the same name.

The quick combat screen.

I continued my wanderings and entered the nearby town, where I found training grounds (it looks like you can increase your skills with money irrespective of experience), a temple, and an armory. An old man in a park told me a story about an adventurer who made money cleaning up the city. A group of thieves attacked me but I beat them and this time praying for healing worked. After the combat, I have some items to sell, but the armory didn't seem to have a place to sell them, just to buy them. The manual says that items are sold in the town's marketplace, but every time I search in that area, the game just tells me townsfolk are wandering about.

In short, Wizard's Crown has a fairly steep learning curve. Before my next posting, I'll try detailed combat and see how that goes. In the meantime, since my rules forbid me to look at any walkthroughs, I'd appreciate any tips from people who have played the game.

Ultima IV: Final Ranking

Ultima IV's unusual and fascinating quest is introduced. (This is the original DOS version screen shot. Most of my others have been from the Xu4 upgrade.)

Again, I'm basing my final ranking on the 100-point GIMLET scale that I introduced in this posting.

1. Game world. This is one of Ultima IV's strongest points. Gameplay takes place in a fairly large world scattered with cities, towns, keeps, castles, and dungeons. The world has a rich and compelling back story, interesting characters, history, and lore. You understand immediately how the Quest of the Avatar fits into the overall context of the world. The only place it fails is in the "your decisions and actions measurably affect the game world" point. As in almost all CRPGs of the era, the world does not really respond to what you do. For instance, when you achieve Avatarhood, nobody acknowledges it. Characters continue to tell you about items that you demonstrably have. This one drawback is outweighed by the rich, interesting world. Final score: 8.

Part of the rich and fascinating History of Britannia.

2. Character creation and development. Ultima IV features a unique method of character creation, in which you determine your class by answering a series of questions about virtues. Unfortunately, nothing else about character creation and development in Ultima IV really shines. You progress through eight levels by killing monsters and solving quests, but the only thing that really happens when you increase levels is that you get more hit points. (With the Avatar, you also get the option to add one new companion for each level.) Leveling up is somewhat anticlimactic, and there's almost nothing customizable about your character except for the class. Final score: 4.

3. NPC interaction. Again, Ultima IV is utterly unique in its method of NPC interaction, in which you type in keywords. The game is full of NPCs, and you absolutely have to talk to them--practically all of them--to advance in the game and uncover the mysteries of the land. NPC interaction is also necessary to the role-playing aspects of the game, as only by answering truthfully can you advance in honesty, and only by answering humbly can you advance in humility. Sometimes the NPCs have very little to say, and there are only a few dialog "choices," and you can't really establish relationships with any of them, but NPC interaction is still one of the game's strongest points. Final score: 7.

4. Encounters and foes. There are quite a few monsters in the game, each with different strengths and powers, each fully described in the game manual's wonderful prose. Your encounters with them offer opportunities for role-playing--for instance, you have to let fleeing enemies escape to uphold honor, and you have to avoid attacking non-evil creatures to advance in justice. There are both scripted encounters in dungeon rooms and random encounters everywhere else. Respawning is constant. Nonetheless, battles do quickly become repetitive and tiresome. Final score: 6.

5. Magic and combat. The game has an unusual magic system involving the need to purchase and mix reagents before casting spells. Like monsters, reagents and spells are thickly and entertainingly described in the game manuals. But, in general, Ultima IV is very weak in this area. Much is made about the need to discover nightshade and mandrake in the game world, but you barely need them. I don't think I cast more than half a dozen spells that required either. Combat gets boring quickly, especially once your characters have ranged weapons. Most of the time, it's far too easy. I didn't cast a single offensive spell during my gameplay, and the 99 healing spells I mixed before entering the Abyss went entirely unused. There are some tactics involved in successfully navigating dungeon rooms, but the overall lack of danger (only one of my characters died in the game, and only once) means that you have little incentive to carefully plan battles. On the plus side, it's neat how you have to discover the reagents for certain spells by talking to NPCs. Final score: 3.

I mixed 10 fireball spells, and the only time I cast one was for this screen shot.

6. Equipment. Minimal. You have eight types of armor and eight types of weapons, and you figure out which is best by their cost. The items are not described at all. You cannot find weapons, armor, or any other items in the game world itself; you just buy them from shops. The sextant, magic gems, and keys are interesting but not enough to make up for the weaknesses. Final score: 2.

7. Economy. On the plus side, you never reach a point where you don't need money. Weapons, armor, reagents, food, gems, torches, and keys are expensive. On the negative side, the economy is a little unbalanced: you get too little gold for killing creatures and too much sitting around in dungeons. It's neat how the game works gold into the virtue development system, though: you have to avoid cheating the blind herb seller and looting treasuries in town. Final score: 6.

8. Quests. The main quest of Ultima IV is something really never seen before or since in any CRPG, and no one that plays the game ever forgets it. It is, to my mind, the only CRPG quest that's directly applicable to the real world, and it's possible that completing the main quest of Ultima IV makes you a better person. There is, unfortunately, only one way to complete it, and there are no side-quests in the game. Final score: 8.

9. Graphics, sound, inputs. I played a more recent upgrade, but even in the original the graphics aren't horrible, except perhaps in the dungeons where the multi-colored walls look a bit silly. Monsters are well-distinguished by their animated icons. I played most of the game with the sound off because there are no separate controls for regular sound and music. The music is memorable but gets on your nerves. Sound effects consist mostly of boops and (like all games of this era) have no realism. The controls, though, are easy to learn, intuitive, and responsive. Final score: 4.

10. Gameplay. Gameplay in Ultima IV is completely alinear until the end. You can wander in any direction and explore the towns and dungeons in any order. Since the game map constitutes a complete world, there is very little sense of constraint at any point. There is, however, essentially no replayability to Ultima IV; even playing different classes offers up the exact same experience. The overall pacing is good--the only reason it took me two months to finish is because I was traveling (in real life) almost nonstop during the period. Ultimately, however, it's a little too easy. Final score: 5.

Total score: 53. This correctly gives the game the highest ranking of games I've played so far, although I'm surprised how close it is to Ultima III which I liked but didn't love. Frankly, I think I ranked Ultima III a little too high (rather than ranking Ultima IV too low). Ultima IV's story quest are unparalleled even today, but judging strictly in gameplay terms, it isn't a "great" CRPG, so this score feels about right.

On to Wizard's Crown!