Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Might & Magic II: Anatomy of Combat

RE: my comment yesterday: Apparently, "roasted peasant" wasn't just a bad pun. This is also on the "safe" square of the map, so every time I "Fly" to this map or flee combat while on it, I end up back here facing mad peasants.

When it comes to combat tactics, it still seems to me that Wizardry--one of the very first CRPGs--did it best (I wrote about it a year ago). Not only were there a lot of things to do in combat (attacking, blocking, casting, fleeing) but the nature of each foe demanded a unique strategy. Moreover, since you couldn't just rest, heal, and regain your spell points immediately after combat, the game required efficiency: you had to save your best spells for the times you really needed them. Every battle was a balance between sacrificing too many hit points and sacrificing too many spells, and every exploration was a balance between mapping just a few more squares and returning to the safety of the surface. Oh, and with quasi-permanent death, battle had real consequences. I felt real fear and tension exploring Wizardry's dungeon.

Might & Magic II, while very similar to Wizardry in combat options, is very different from the earlier game in its overall tactics. First of all, full-party death isn't permanent; your party gets restarted at the last inn if they all die. While it sucks to lose whatever amount of exploration you'd accomplished since that last save, it's not as taking-a-golf-club-to-your-monitor-inducing as having to re-generate an entire party. This translates to a lesser, shall we say, "investment" in combat--with both good and bad consequences.

More important, in MM2, you can rest in almost every square and get all your hit points and spell points restored. There are exceptions, and they add an extra level of tactical difficulty, but they are rare. This means that you might as well throw all your best spells and attacks at every foe. Combat tactics--and I know I've said this before, so I apologize--are about individual battles rather than the accumulation of battles. The question of whether to prolong an expedition and risk losing your progress, or whether to return and save, still applies, though less pressingly once you acquire the "Lloyd's Beacon" spell (see below).

This isn't to say that I turn battle into a cataclysm of fire and lightning for each group of kobolds I encounter. In fact, quite the opposite. While the ability to rest and heal means that I don't have to worry so much about spell points, it also means I don't need to worry so much about hit points. There's no sense in wasting too much time trying to turn a 20% loss of hit points into a 10% loss of hit points when you can rest in a few minutes and get 100% of your hit points restored. Thus, I often CTRL-A my way through battles even if it means taking a bigger hit. It's a lot less effort to type the (r)est key than to meticulously plan tactics against a group of zombies.

To illustrate, let's look at three combats of various difficulty. In the first one, in Corak's Cave, I face a moderately-sized group of zombies and skeletons. The most efficient way to approach this battle would be to fireball the group of non-melee zombies (from G onward) and then for my cleric to cast "Turn Undead" to mop up the skeletons. But it would also take time, and for no better result (it turns out) than to save Bolingbroc 19 hit points and Valstaff 3. So instead, after a couple of manual attacks, I hold down CTRL-A and let the automatic attacks do their work.

I don't regret this, because the next combat puts me face-to-face with a group of "coffin creeps," whose attacks drain all magic points, instantly, from all characters. This means I have to rest and heal right away anyway; it's dangerous to go wandering around with no spell points.

I draw the CTRL-A line, however, at times when I risk killing one of my characters. I don't have "Raise Dead" yet, and that spell carries a risk anyway, so each death requires a trip back to the temple in town--and the dead character gets no experience points from the battle.

This battle is a little tougher. The party is led by two kobold captains--I can brush them aside like ants--but includes five shamans. I know from experience trying to use CTRL-A against them that shamans cast "Paralyze," which not only removes each affected party member from combat but also kills your party if all members are affected. I can't treat them lightly. I'm not terrified of them, and I have no thoughts of fleeing, but I have to make sure my fighters target them and that I hit them with the best spells that I have.

The video shows the result. I target my fighters' attacks on the shamans, taking out most of them, and then eliminate the rest with a lightning bolt from my sorcerer. Fortunately, their speed is slow, so all my characters get an attack before they can start in with their spells. Once the shaman threat is dealt with, I CTRL-A the kobolds and move on.

This last one is much harder, and in fact I lose. I come just shy of losing my entire party. The combat takes place in Sarakin's Mine in Map A2. I've heard that some NPCs are hanging around in here, and while I don't need them, I figured I'd explore. The cave has yielded some decent experience--by the time the video begins I've mapped about half the cave and have amassed about 40,000 experience points from numerous fixed battles with groups of five wraiths each. Now I've come across a door labeled "Friends of Sarakin," and when I enter, I meet tougher undead.

This is the first time I've ever faced either mummies or grip reapers. They sound nasty, so I immediately sit up and prepare for the worst. I've surprised the monsters, which theoretically increases my chances of a successful (h)ide or (r)un. I briefly consider it. Hiding keeps you in the same square and I don't think it works on fixed encounters. Running returns you to the dungeon entrance. I've just cast "Lloyd's Beacon" outside the entrance to this room, so I know I can return if I need to, and I don't want to lose my experience.

Ultimately, I decide to attack. The grim reapers turn out to be the most dangerous enemy, and the game puts me in a bad position by starting them in the rear, where my melee fighters can't attack them. First, I check their spell resistances. I've found a "Storm Wand," which casts "Lightning Bolt," and I've given it to Valstaff, my character with the highest speed (and thus first in every combat). At 00:14, you can see me try it out on the creatures, with no effect to either the mummies or the reapers. Bollocks.

I start concentrating every missile attack I can on the reapers, but shots from three characters barely make a dent in one. They're slow, so they haven't had an attack yet (00:26). My sorcerer is up next. Knowing that "Lightning Bolt" doesn't work, I try "Fireball." I see a little success against the mummies but not the reapers (00:30).

Then it's the grim reapers' turns. Both cast "Fingers of Death" and immediately kill my paladin and barbarian (00:35). The two mummies in melee range are no pushovers either and do devastating damage to my knight and ninja. Last to go is Peta, my cleric, who would normally heal Harry Kari, but I need to at least try "Turn Undead." Not surprisingly on this level of undead, it doesn't work (00:42).

Early in the next round, my archer manages to kill one of the grim reapers, but the mummies continue to do heavy damage and hardly anything affects them. At 01:33, my sorcerer goes down, and if I can't bring him back, I lose my chance at escape from combat. Peta heals him, but then things get serious when my cleric is knocked unconscious (01:57). Although I kill the second reaper seconds later (02:06), I've still got four mummies on the board and no healers. After a moment's consideration, Glendower the sorcerer does the responsible thing and "Time Disorts" me out of combat. I exit the cave, "fly" to Middlegate, and raise my dead. While I'm there, I train Harry Kari up a level and donate at the temple to get the magic and force resistance that the priests confer. Then I cast "Lloyd's Beacon" to return to Sarakin's Mine and test myself against them again. With the priests' protections, the "Fingers of Death" spell bounces off me, but the mummies still overwhelm me through brute force. On a third visit, I have better odds and manage to defeat them:

Whew. This kind of battle is actually quite rare in the game right now. I usually face either enemies I can defeat without much trouble, or those that so clearly outclass me that I don't bother to retry.

A few more thoughts on the resting issue: Might & Magic II could have ramped up the tactical level by including more serious consequences to resting too often. Right now, there are only four, and none of them are consequential enough to worry about:

  1. You risk getting attacked in your sleep. Easily countered with the "Instant Keep" spell, and random attacks aren't that common anyway.
  2. You use a unit of food. But food is cheap and you can carry 40 units. If you could only carry five or six meals, or if each one cost a bundle, it would encourage the player to be a bit more sparing with how often he or she rests.
  3. You age a day, and once you hit 75 years of age, there's a chance your characters might die. My characters are all still 18, though (in contrast to the first game, when they aged four or five years in the first town alone), and I'm sure by the time they're in their 30s, I'll have the "Rejuvenate" spell. Making the aging faster, or eliminating the spell, would encourage more care in the passage of time.
  4. Your NPCs charge for their services. Right now, I'm paying 40 gold pieces per NPC per day, or about a twelfth of what I find in a typical battle. If NPCs charged more (and they do increase their fees as the levels go up), I guess that would make more of a difference.

I would have preferred if the game had really made you stop and think before hitting that "r" button--if it had encouraged to squeeze every step out of each day. Another alternative would have been to only heal half, or a quarter, of your hit points and spell points with each rest. I'm not trying to complain--it's exactly like Might & Magic I, after all, and I didn't complain there--but I sometimes miss the nail-biting nature of tactical combat in Wizardry.

To close for the night, let me recap what I've actually done today. I started exploring outdoors, mapping what I could, noting places that I had to return to or where combat proved impossible at my level. On Map C2, where Middlegate resides, I found Corak's Cave. I decided to explore it even though I knew I would have to come back once I had Corak's soul (the statue in Atlantium had said this). Sure enough, when I got to the chamber marked "Corak's Crypt," something took the "Admit 8" pass a zombie had given me in the dungeon below Sandsobar (see yesterday's posting).

At this point, I made the mistake of turning to have a look behind me, and when I faced the same direction again:

Lesson learned: next time, plow on forward. Now I have to return to Sandsobar and get another pass. But the visit to Corak's Cave was not in vain, as I did find "Lloyd, of Lloyd's Beacon fame," and was granted his extremely useful spell.

Also near Middlegate, I encountered this mysterious pegasus, and got a side quest to figure out his or her name.

Exploring outdoors is significantly different than in Might & Magic I, and I'll cover that in detail tomorrow. For now, I'll note that the graphics are much better, and the automap is rather lovely:

I think I'll take a screen shot of each map and assemble them together in one master map at the end.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Might & Magic II: An Urban Tour

Fresh air at last!

Damn you, readers. If it wasn't for you, I could be playing Might & Magic II at 2:00 in the morning instead of writing about it. I suppose I could use the break, though; otherwise, I'll be viewing these wall textures in my dreams.

Between last night and today, I visited all of the cities and their associated dungeons. I didn't finish all of them--some of the encounters were too hard--but I got 90% of the mapping and exploration done. Each of the cities was accessible from the others via teleportation services, so only in the last few minutes of gameplay tonight did I venture into the open air.

Each of the cities had a theme associated with its surrounding terrain. The walls and textures of the cities didn't change, unfortunately, so the changes were mostly reflected in the names of the stores and some of the creatures.

A quick tour:

Sandsobar had a desert theme. One section of town was labeled "The Slums," in which I found such enticing encounters as this:

I guess this is a "role-playing" option.

There was also this bit of graffiti on the wall. I couldn't really puzzle anything useful from it. The message written backwards ("Help me. 15,1") sounds like it should have been something, but I didn't find anything at those coordinates in either the town or the dungeon beneath it.

In the dungeon, a "master thief" taught pilfering to my rogue and theoretically boosted his thieving statistic, but I didn't notice any difference. None of the skills that say they boost an attribute actually show an increase in the attribute's statistic. It must happen behind the scenes. In one place, a zombie came out of nowhere and gave me a pass to Corak's Cavern:

"How did you get this?"

Tundara was the third town, with a snow theme. Messages on the walls told of strange disappearances and mutilations of townsfolk, and there was this ominous warning from a beggar:

Apparently, the snowbeast damages one's socioeconomic status.

The perimeter wall of the town was closed off until I found a secret door right next to an invisible barrier. A march around the perimeter took me to a button that turned off the barrier, and when I made the return trek, I came face-to-face with the snowbeast.

Or "beasts," as it happens.

I died in about six seconds, so I made a note to return when stronger. This encounter takes place in anti-magic zone, so there's no hope of using fireballs or other flame spells, nor any hope of healing downed characters.

The Tundara dungeon had a lot of useful messages (more on that in a minute), but also a memorable encounter with 200 killer cadavers:

Since killer cadavers explode, doing damage to the entire party, and I don't have any kind of party-heal spell, this battle is going to have to wait until later. I didn't even come close to winning.

Vulcania had a lava theme going. In the center of town were four statues that each had part of a message. The entire thing spelled out: "Water, fire, earth, and air. All have a king within their lair. They hold the talons you need to find to save Cron before its time."

One wonders what the townsfolk think of these statues.

The dungeon had a host of bubbling lava pits, which you only have to wander into once to be reminded to keep a "levitation" spell active while exploring dungeons. At one point, the came had me encounter a "lumbering giant singing a ballad." By staying to listen, everyone's endurance increased by 10 points. The first game also had places where you could achieve a one-time increase in each statistic.

I also rescued some more NPCs in the dungeon, including a ninja named Harry Kari (nice cultural sensitivity there). Since I didn't have a ninja in my party but did have two knights, I booted the knight NPC, signed up Harry, and immediately equipped him with a Naginata +4 that I had been saving just for that purpose. You are wondering what a Naginata is, and I am happy to show you, courtesy of Wikipedia.

It looks like it hurts.

The last town was Atlantium, which had a Greco-Roman theme. The most notable thing about the city was how expensive everything was: 4,000 for healing, 50,000 for the black key, 50,000 to join the mage's guild, and so on. I got most of my characters the hero/heroine skill, which supposedly boosts all statistics.

There were more statues in Atlantium, and they indicated that the game features class-specific quests. Paladins have to slay a dragon in the Forbidden Forest; ninjas have to slay a villain named Dawn; barbarians must slay a barbarian chieftain named Brutal Bruno, and so on. I think this is the first game to offer such class-specific quests unless you count that small dungeon in Demon's Winter.

And apparently I can resurrect Corak.

Atlantium's dungeon was impossible at my level--which, by the way, only rose once in four towns. I think the game made it easy to get up to Level 7 because that's where you were expected to start if you imported characters from the first game.

A few notes common to each town:

  • Each of the towns boasted a locksmith that sold a different colored key. I bought them all except the black one in Atlantium, which cost 50,000 gold. I have no idea what they do.
  • The shop in each town sold a different colored arena ticket, although not every town had an arena: only Middlegate, Sandsobar, and Atlantium. It appears the difficulty is tied to the color or level of the ticket and not to the town. I was able to win the first three battles but no the last two levels yet. According to a message I found, I need to win the highest level (black) to achieve an audience with the queen.
  • The taverns in each town had unusual selections of drinks and food. I don't know why I would want to pay 5000 gold pieces for a meal of "pickled pixie brains," but I figured I'd better try them all in case I'd miss something otherwise. From a note I got in the Vulcania dungeon, I suspect that having the meal of deep-fried troll liver got me access to two NPCs: Thund R. the barbarian (yes, seriously--we need to have a talk about this in a minute) and Ariel the sorceress, who were said to like the dish.

I can't think of anything less appealing than "cream of kobold."

  • There were dozens of messages in the dungeons that I don't really understand, but I'm sure I will eventually. Among other things, I recorded the castles and locations of three strange-sounding devices: J-26 fluxers, M-27 radicons, and A-1 todilors. There were clues to the locations of more NPCs (although I can't imagine needing them), various spells, and the four elemental discs I need to get the four talons. There were some coordinates concerning the locations of various people in history.

  • If you donate enough money at temples, you get all buffing spells cast on you at once, at levels beyond the capabilities of your characters. This is a good way to prepare for a tough battle, although the amount of money you have to donate before it happens varies--I think I was out more than 3,000 gold once.

Yesterday, I talked about crazed dwarves and how much I hated them. Well, it turns out that they're only one of several types of creatures that do massive damage in the process of suicide-bombing you. The others include crazed natives (yes, they're back), mad peasants, and the aforementioned killer cadavers. Basically, my party needs to have well over 100 hit points before I can survive encountering parties of these bastards.

I want to know why they don't damage their own party members.

The game is fond of luring you with a false sense of security. You'll have explored 90% of a dungeon, facing nothing more serious than parties of six orcs, and then suddenly you blunder into a random encounter with oh, how about fire-breathing earth wyrms that do 65 points of damage per character per round?

Some would find this very frustrating, but I think it's part of the challenge of the game. You have to constantly weight the odds and decide whether to gamble another 10 squares in the dungeon before returning to the surface, or whether to play it save and map the rest of the dungeon on another trip. Decide wrong, and everything you've achieved in the last 40 minutes disappears.

I continue to get valuable equipment upgrades almost constantly. The game identifies your findings immediately--if you find a fire sabre +5, it's listed as such when you pick it up--none of this "unidentified weapon" nonsense that other games give you. But there's still an "identify" option in the shops; this selection tells you more about the item, such as its specific powers and charges, and who can equip it. Here, for instance, I was delighted to find that my ray gun, in addition to casting the "energy blast spell" (sorcerer spell 1-3), also boosts the accuracy of anyone that wields it. I wouldn't have thought to equip it otherwise.

So I'm still having a lot of fun. I just wish the game took itself more seriously. I don't have any problem with humor, but there's a difference between humor and goofiness, and Might & Magic II leans a bit too far towards the latter. I increase my endurance by listening to a singing ogre. We have NPCs named Thund R., Harry Kari, Sir Kill, Jed I, and Spaz Twit. A zombie, for no apparent reason, gives me an admission ticket to Corak's Cave. I fight armies of cripples. The tavern leaves the "h" out of "roasted pheasant" (ho, ho). A statue references wizards named Ybmug and Yekop (read them backwards). Add this to the nonsensical existence of clues written randomly on dungeon walls, and you have a game that makes it hard to suspend disbelief and just enjoy it. It's always stopping to say, "Hey! This is just a game! And look how clever we are!"

If you don't groan reading this, you didn't grow up in the 1980s.

That doesn't make it not fun--it's still probably the best game I've played so far in this blog--it's just not quite as fun as if it took the world it created seriously and populated it with more realistic and interesting NPCs

Oh, I almost forgot. I donated at each of the temples and got a "Fe Farthing," which I tossed into the fountain in Middlegate and was rewarded (somehow) with a castle key.

Is it a key to a fabulous castle, or is the key itself...oh, never mind.

With this, my only active quest ends and I have no specific direction except to follow my dungeon clues and look into some of the class-specific quests. I look forward to seeing what the surface of Cron has to offer.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Might & Magic II: Packed with Stuff

A "swamp dog" would be a good name for a cocktail.

Since I last wrote, all I've really done is explore the 16 x 16 dungeon beneath Middlegate, and I have so much stuff to tell you, I hardly know where to begin. Let me try to organize it as best I can.

1. The Plot

Aside from finding a few cryptic messages in the dungeons, I don't know that I did much to advance the main quest. As in Might & Magic I, I don't really have any idea what the main quest is. But I did ultimately find the wizard's golden goblet in the lair of some goblins, and when I returned it to him, he was suitably grateful: just scattered our reward money on the floor?

Nordon then sent me on to his sister, Nordonna, who had another problem to deal with:

Um...where are you?

Drog and Hyron turned out to be the "children" that the tavern tale indicated were at coordinates 0,15. I slew the kobolds and released them from their shackles.

"You're welc...hey! Come back here!"

When I returned to Nordonna, she told me that I could hire her sons at the inn. More important, she gave me another quest: to visit all the towns, donate at the temples, and return to the Feldecarb Fountain in Middlegate. I found this when I was exploring the town. The fountain asks if I want to "flick a farthing," and when I say yes, it says, "Fool! You have no farthing to flick!" Presumably donating at the temples gets me a farthing. I don't know if that is has anything to do with the main quest, but I was going to visit each of the towns in order anyway, so it squares with my existing plan.

Meanwhile, I picked up Drog (a barbarian) and Sir Hyron (a knight) at the inn, rounding out my party with eight members. The more members you have, the less experience each member gets, but this limitation is far outweighed by the value of having a couple more fighters near the front ranks. Now my archer and robber can hang back and snipe enemies with arrows while hardy fighters take the brunt of the attacks.

Disappointingly (to me), a return visit to Nordon has him ask me to retrieve the golden goblet again from the goblins in the dungeon. You can keep re-doing this quest indefinitely (but not Nordonna's). I'd rather have the sense that I was making permanent changes to the game world.

2. The Party

All my characters are about Level 8 at this point. I understand that Level 7 is the maximum level that characters imported from Might & Magic I can achieve. So the gameplay so far has basically just been to get my characters into fighting shape.

Oddly, the hirelings seem to both train and heal for free, which makes me wonder if a good strategy would be to create a single character of your own and then populate the rest of the party with hirelings (presuming there are that many). I'm not interested in doing that just to save some gold, but it's an intriguing thought.

Glendower lacks energy blast, eagle eye, Lloyd's beacon, protection from magic, acid stream, lightning bolt, and wizard eye.

My two spellcasters already have spell level 4 out of 9, which strikes me as a lot of advancement this early in the game. This is mitigated, though, by the fact that neither clerics nor sorcerers get all of the potential spells when they achieve new levels. They get some of them, and the rest they either have to achieve as quest rewards (I got "eagle eye" from Nordon) or purchase from a temple or the mage's guild. The guilds in Middlegate only had a few of them.

At first, I was astonished to see that Lloyd's Beacon, a powerful teleportation spell that I remember from Might & Magic VI, is only a second-level spell here! But then again, you have to find it. I suspect I'll need to get it from Lloyd himself, whose location was offered in a clue in the Middlegate dungeon: "Lloyd, of Lloyd's Beacon fame, was last seen in Corak's Cave at 7,11." I have no idea where Corak's Cave is, but I'm sure this spell will be a true reward when I find it.

Believe it or not, I did manage to get out of the dungeon after this. I had to resurrect 5 out of 6 characters, but I made it.

My characters have died a lot, both from tough enemies (see below), but also because my useless thief (do I ever get any other kind?) keeps setting off exploding traps. Aelfric reminded me that it was important to buy a thief's pick from the shop...

Item D.

...and I did so, but even after that, he only succeeds about half the time (which I guess makes sense given that his "thievery" skill is 50%. What is particularly annoying is that when you fail to disarm a trap, and it goes off, the trap remains active. It's not unusual for me to get hit three or four times by the same trap before I finally disarm it.

These priests and I became bosom buddies.

Still, we're making progress. I suffer full-party death in about 30% of my expeditions right now, as opposed to about 60% when I first started playing. Of course, I have yet to explore the great outdoors.

3. The Dungeon

My map of Middlegate dungeon.

For a dungeon of only 256 squares, Middlegate sure does pack a lot in it. There were two signposts, nine messages scrawled on the walls, the golden goblet, the captive NPCs, some buried treasure, 13 secret doors, and at least 29 squares with fixed encounters. There was one small zone of darkness and one 4 x 4 anti-magic zone with an encounter in each square.

An automap of the same dungeon.

I insisted on mapping it even though the cartography skill creates an automap for me. I could have relied on the automap to see where I still needed to explore, and just written down the messages. I may do this eventually, but for now it's just fun creating the maps. The automap, of course, doesn't note special encounters or messages or even secret doors.

The messages came in two types: 1) signposts, like this one...

...and 2) messages on the walls, like this one...

There were nine such wall-scrawlings, and eight of them seemed to be clues of some sort. I'm going to reproduce them below because I'm sure they're germane to the main plot:

  • "Green interleave. One letter after another, 2-1-3-4." This seems to have something to do with how I arrange mysterious messages that I'll undoubtedly find in other dungeons, just like in the first game (see item 3 in this posting).
  • "Seek Earth Encasement at 14,1 in the proper plane. Do walk about first." Earth Encasement is a Level 7 cleric spell that "encases the target in a field of earth, inflicting 40 points of damage per combat round."
  • "Win the blackest of battles, and you are halfway to an audience with Queen Lamanda." Lamanda is the current (failing) queen, and I suspect "blackest of battles" has to do with the Arena. I forgot to mention this yesterday, but the Arena is a section of Middlegate where, if you enter with a ticket, you fight some random group of monsters. The blacksmith's shop in the town sells green tickets, so I'm guessing I have to find a black ticket somewhere.

Even at Level 2, the old misers weren't much of a challenge.

  • "The moon phase of Cron lasts 60 days." Duly noted, though I'm not sure where that will come in handy.
  • "There are only 180 days per year." Ditto.
  • "Lloyd, of Lloyd's Beacon fame, was last seen in Corak's Cave at 7,11." I'm sure I'll need to find him to get the spell. I don't know where Corak's Cave is yet.
  • "Castle Pinehurst keeps a multitude of J-26 Fluxers at 7,6." No idea. Something about the time travel that the manual insists I will have to engage in?
  • "The water disc rests at 15,0 within Castle Xabran." I'm not sure why I'll need the water disc, but I'm guessing there's a disc for each element.
  • "Lord Haart's famous ancestor, the Long One, hangs out in the 8th century in E2 at 5,4." Also no idea, but I'm guessing by the time I have to time-travel, I'll know why.

I won't reprint all the dungeon messages as I play the game, but this gives a good sense of the variety. One important thing, though, for those of you thinking about playing: the messages only show up when you're facing the correct wall. There were at least two on the south side of east-west corridors--walls that you would otherwise have no reason to turn and look at. Thus, in exploring the dungeons, I have to make sure I face all four directions on each square to make sure I don't miss a clue.

My only real complaint is that the messages sort of break the role-playing immersion. First, the coordinates violate the fourth wall; do the citizens of Cron really think in terms of map squares and 16 x 16 coordinates? Second, who went around writing all of these messages on the wall in the first place, and how are they so informed about the secret locations of major treasures and people?

4. Enemies

Might & Magic II throws a large variety of creatures at you, almost all of them unique to the game. Part of the fun of the game--just like in NetHack--is learning all of their strengths, weaknesses, and special attacks; learning which creatures to heartily engage, and which to run from in numb horror.

No way am I fleeing from a cat.

I have a new hated enemy, even worse than the jugglers I mentioned yesterday: crazed dwarves. A funny thing happened when I first encountered a party of them. My blood chilled, and I immediately hit the "run" command, hoping to flee to safety. It was not to be:

Crazed dwarves have a special attack called "frenzy," which damages every single one of your party members--significantly--while simultaneously killing the dwarf. If I encounter a party of more than three of them, I might as well shut down and restart.

The mystery is how I knew, instinctively, that they were bad news. I just Googled them, and they seem only to appear in this game, not the first one or any subsequent ones. My best guess is that I did play Might & Magic II once before, probably when it was new, and while I don't remember any of the plot or gameplay, I still have a knee-jerk reaction to this enemy. If you ever read a newspaper article about a bald man running away, screaming, from an LPA convention, that's probably me.

Crazed dwarves aren't the only tough foe, though. You remember how I felt about sprites. Well, Might & Magic II has...drum roll...

Because ordinary sprites weren't enough of a pain in the ass.

Fortunately, their "curse" spell doesn't seem quite as effective as the regular sprites in I.

We should also talk about the number of enemies. In one place in the dungeon, I rounded a corner and was faced with a cave full of bats:

That's 60 creatures in one encounter. I wonder what the maximum is. I suspect I will find out.

Surprisingly, I'm already making use of CTRL-A, an auto-battle command. When you hold down this key combination, every character makes his best attack (or blocks if he or she is not in attack range). It's a way to quickly deal with low-level monsters--or even with high level monsters if you want to apply brute force tactics. I would give a lot for The Bard's Tale III to have this option.

5. Gear

In my review of the first game, I gave it a high score in the "equipment" category for the wide variety of stuff you could find, use, and wield. It just gets better in II. First, with eight characters to outfit, almost every major encounter yields an equipment upgrade.

Some of the weapons have spells attached to them. My archer is currently equipped with a "voltage bow," which not only shoots some damaging arrows but also casts the "lightning bolt" spell.

Technically, though, it should be an Amperage Bow.

There are also a lot of bits of equipment that cast a single spell. Magic herbs to increase spell points, healing herbs to restore hit points, flares to take the place of the "light" spell, rope & hooks to move you forward one square like the "jump" spell, attribute-boosting potions, sextants to stand in for "location," and so on. My only complaint is that these items don't work in anti-magic zones any more than spells do.

Unlike many games, the blacksmith's shop continues to be useful after Level 1. In addition to the generic selection of low-level gear that he sells, there's an option for "today's specials," with five items that change every day. Sometimes they're slings and short swords, but sometimes he has +4 weapons and armor. You can never tell.

It says a lot about the game that I can get this much material out of a single 256-square dungeon crawl. The Might & Magic games are just packed with stuff. Practically ever corridor has a clue, a special encounter, or a quest item. Every house in the city has a quest, or a skill to learn, or an NPC, or some other reason for the house to exist. Again, contrast this to The Bard's Tale games, which have dozens of houses, only about four of which have anything interesting in them. You never feel like you're just slogging along in Might & Magic; you're always finding interesting things.

Onward to the next city!