Saturday, September 29, 2012

Magic Candle: Curse the Darkness

This is what we call a "bad sign."

If I wasn't going for a "candle" theme in all of my titles, I'd have called this one "Might, Magic, and Mushrooms," after the three tactics you need to master to defeat the Forces of Darkness (that's not my unnecessary capitalization; the game manual repeatedly uses the term). After the first few combats, you're pretty screwed if you try to rely solely on swords and arrows.

Mushrooms are the easiest to understand. There are 8 of them, but a few do things you need rarely, such as Drelin's increase in traveling speed, Loka's poison-curing ability, and Medicin's cure for disease. I burn through Sermins extremely quickly because everything you do in this game depletes energy, and the only real alternative to Sermin is to sleep all the time. For regular combat, there are four mushrooms that I have to juggle: Gonshi, Luffin, Mirget, and Nift. Intelligent use of these mushrooms makes or breaks a battle.

Nehor uses a Gonshi to get an edge in combat.

Nifts protect you against three physical attacks, and the simplest method of winning combat is to always have these in your system. They don't "stack," unfortunately, so if a single character gets hit more than three times in one round, you inevitably take damage. When my health is low, eating a Nift vies only for casting a "Shield" spell (depending on the enemy I'm facing) for priority.

Luffins increase accuracy and Mirgets increase strength--but only for one hit each. In combination, they ensure that a melee fighter does significant damage. Gonshi increase the number of combat movements by three times the normal number (although, oddly, it seems to work out to 5 a lot of the time). In a typical combat round, you might get one or two actions, so Luffins and Mirgets really have to be used with Gonshis to be effective. Without Gonshis, you waste one or two rounds just eating mushrooms. With the Gonshi, you can string things so that Action #1 is eating the Gonshi, Action #2 is eating the Mirget, Action #3 is eating the Luffin, and Actions #4 and #5 are attacking.

The neat thing is that the effects of Gonshi, Mirgets, and Luffins don't happen until you actually "use" them in combat. If you eat a Mirget, it won't go out of your system until you make a melee attack; simply shooting arrows will use up the Luffin but not the Mirget. More important, if you know a tough battle is coming up, you can load up on all the mushrooms before the battle starts and just dive right into combat during the first round instead of wasting valuable actions chomping the mushrooms. If it wasn't for the expense, I'd have a mushroom feast after every combat to prepare for the next one. I usually do, in fact, when I'm in dungeons. But the cost of mushrooms--roughly between 4 and 30 coins each, depending on type--encourages you to be economical. When you find a patch, it's a real bonanza.

Anticipating a tough battle, Giauz is hopped up on everything.

The magic system in The Magic Candle blends the "memorization" system of Dungeons & Dragons games with the "mana" system of many other games. There are 24 spells in the game, organized into 4 "books." You have to buy a book to have access to the spells within it. My wizard started with one book, and I've purchased two more since, so the only one I lack is the book of Zoxinn, which seems to be ultra-powerful, so it will likely appear later in the game.

Even after you purchase the spellbook, you have to "learn" the spells during rest periods. The time it takes to learn a spell depends on the power of the spell and your level of wizardry; currently, it takes Eflun only 13 minutes to learn "energy" (restores energy to a party member) or "pierce" (dispels magic fields) but 63 minutes to learn "resurrect." The time spent learning is time not spent sleeping, so generally after everyone wakes up fully rested, Eflun is exhausted from his studying and has to take a Sermin mushroom; it feels like this is the equivalent of college students taking amphetamines during finals week.

Eflun's spellbook with learning times and casting costs.
From your pool of learned spells, you then have to "recall" a specific spell to memory and finally cast it with the "magic" command. Each spell, as you can see, has an associated energy cost. Between that and learning in the first place, Eflun goes through a lot more Sermins than any other party member.

As with most games, I find that about one-fifth of the spells are useless. "Confuse" theoretically confuses monsters on patrol so they don't intercept and attack you, except a) usually you want this to happen for the experience; and b) it doesn't work on monsters directly in your path. "Energy" is obviated by cheap Sermin mushrooms; "Heal" by potions.

This is where "Pierce" comes in really handy.

But there are a few spells that are absolutely indispensable. "Pierce," "Repel," and "Walkwater" are necessary for dungeon navigation. In combat, "Shield" protects you from magic attacks and "Resurrect," if cast quickly, does what it suggests (since there's no other way that I know of to raise dead characters, the spell is vitally important). A few combat spells--"Fireball," "Fear," and "Shatter"--have saved the day for me more than once. I don't have any mass damage spells yet (those come with Zoxinn), and none of the spellbooks have any monster-summoning spells, which is too bad.

It's not quite as good as "Paralyze," but he won't attack for two rounds.

There are a couple of things you can do at the beginning of combat to prepare yourself. The "Vision" spell lets you see what enemies await you in dungeon rooms, so you can prepare accordingly. "Assess" tells you the strengths and weaknesses of the enemies you face. Outdoors, "Locate" shows you all the enemy patrols in the area.

I love that I have to cast a spell to do this instead of just,  you know, peeking in the door.

The final decision you make in combat is the deployment of party members and weapons. Each combat starts with a "pre-round" in which you scatter your party members about the combat field--but only for a few rows on your side of the screen. Thus, you have to judge the distance to the enemies (accounting for whether you have Gonshis in your system or not) and make a decision about which party member should attack which enemy, and whether it's best to charge across the battlefield with a sword or axe or to use a bow or magic.

Readying my party members for battle. Nehor, my best archer, is poised to take out a spellcaster. Sakar (with the axe) is going to charge one of the tough cyclopses and hopefully clear him out so that Giauz (above him) can drop down and shoot the other spellcaster with his bow. Min and Rexor are going to concentrate their arrows on another cyclops.

The game cycles through your characters in order, but you can change the order. Very often, for instance, I'll have a melee enemy protecting a spellcasting enemy some distance away. I'll adjust the order so a melee fighter has a chance to chop down the melee enemy before my archer starts firing at the spellcaster on the other side of the battlefield.

Successful attacks have a chance of raising the associated skill (I'm not sure if this is random or somehow accumulated). I cheer when it happens. It saves money on training.

Combat itself is a constant process of watching shield levels, Nift levels, stamina (hit points), energy levels, remaining spells, remaining arrows, weapon wear and tear, and other logistics, and making deployment, mushroom-eating, and spell decisions accordingly. It's rare that I can't keep ahead of physical attacks with Nifts and potions, but high-level spellcasters can wear down shields very quickly (and paralyze you regardless of whether you have a shield). For this reason, I usually concentrate attacks on spellcasters until they're dead. An exception is cyclopses, which have a way of concentrating all of their ranged physical attacks (they hurl boulders) on my wizard, wiping him out in one round regardless of his number of Nifts. The "Disappear" spell helps with this, but I often forget to memorize it.

Eflun's going to need to eat another Nift pretty soon.

One tactic involves surrounding enemies so they can't dodge. Enemies can dodge ranged attacks perpendicular to the attack and melee attacks parallel to the attacks. If you can block them on either side, you can stop them from making a successful dodge no matter how high their agility or how low your dexterity.

The mongor has nowhere to go as Nehor takes his shot

All in all, I like the logistics of combat in this game, but while they might be a little more advanced than, say, Demon's Winter or Ultima V, let's not kid ourselves: it's not Pool of Radiance. There are hardly any buffing spells (just mushrooms), no variance in the types of attacks, no sneak attacks, no monster-summoning, no initiative rolls. Enemies occur in progressive ranks of difficulty, but rarely are they different enough that you have to craft a special battle plan for specific foes. Because it takes so long to cross the battlefield, combat also lasts a long time, and when I'm trying to accomplish a specific objective, it wears on my patience a little.

I just want to say that these enemies look pretty weird.

In plot terms, the game is fairly slow-going, and I don't feel like I've accomplished as much as I'd have liked by now. After the round of professional development I chronicled last time, I got side-tracked by the dungeon Meardom (below the castle), since I had enough charisma to speak to the character who would open it, but it soon became clear that I was out of my league. I left and got back on track.

If you'll recall, my primary goal right now is to get access to the vault containing the Zirvanad, which details how to restore the Magic Candle. To get into the vault, I need a key carried by a white wolf that only responds to hoyam essence. The dwarves had hoyam essence but would only give it to me if I returned the Hammer of Thorin, which had been stolen by orcs and buried with their slain king, Chambur, in the dungeon Vocha. An NPC had suggested that, for some reason, I visit the desert Island of Kuskunn before heading to Vocha. I took his advice. There, I found a temple to a sun god. Another NPC had said that the temple inscriptions would be too small to read with the naked eye, but I had purchased a lens for Min to use, and using it, I found a four-word phrase needed to awaken the god when I encountered him.

Sailing from there to the Isles of Ice, I made my way to Vocha.

All dungeons require a passphrase to enter, but the orcs in the jail in Port Avur had given it to me.

Vocha wasn't terribly large--six small levels--and yet it took me a long time. I wasted a lot of time not realizing that you can camp in dungeon rooms after you clear them; I kept retreating to the surface to fix weapons and memorize spells (I needed a lot of "pierce" spells, which dispel magic barriers, and "waterwalking" spells for this one). Anyway, I ultimately found Chambur's (curiously unguarded) burial chamber and the Hammer.

Desecrating an orc tomb.

Equally important, I found a sleeping god who, awakened by the chants from his temple, increased my maximum stats.

Not to question thee, oh mighty god, but you couldn't have done better on the agility?

There were two fountains in the dungeon that subsequently raised my actual strength and dexterity stats to their new maximums. I still need to find agility and speed fountains.

This was a significant upgrade.

To get out of the dungeon and back to the mainland, I tried a teleportal chamber for the first time. A wandering wizard had told me that the combination from Vocha to Shendy was three spheres, and from there to Uberion (the starting area) was two pyramids and a cube. I can see I'll be making use of this method of traveling a lot. Better than waiting for a boat.

Teleportaling off the Isle of Shendy

Returning to Soldain with the hammer, I pleased the dwarves and was given the hoyam essence.

For wading through days of combat with horrific legions of evil and returning their priceless artifact, I got a bottle of perfume.

Now I need to find out where this white wolf hangs around. Somewhere near Phaleng, in the north, as I understand it. Judging by the map, I've explored only about 15% of the territory in the game so far.

The game map with the (rough) area I've already explored highlighted.

Some other notes:

  • Pressing "Q" while in a dungeon room causes the game to crash. I can't tell you how many times I accidentally did that after winning a battle. There was lots of swearing.

  • I found an elven maiden on the Isle of Shendy, but I didn't know what to say to her.

She wanted to know what song I wanted her to play, but "Play that Funky Music, Elf Girl" wasn't the right answer.

  • The economy is pretty good in this game, and by good, I mean difficult. Because mushrooms, spellbooks, armor, and traveling objects (pyramids, spheres, and cubes) are expensive, I really feel rewarded when I find a cache of treasure. Gems are the best way to make money, it seems--either buying them from wandering dwarves and selling them at a markup, or finding them in dungeons.

One emerald buys almost 50 Nifts.

  • One of my biggest annoyances is running out of arrows while in dungeons. Even if I load up every character with 99 of them (the maximum) before heading out, I inevitably go dry before I've finished exploring.

Min, usually only mostly useless in combat, is now entirely useless.

  • You can be ambushed while walking through dungeon corridors. I'm not sure if these ambushes are random or fixed. Sometimes my elf, with his "hunting" skill, senses them, but usually I'm taken by surprise. When ambushed, the enemy gets a round of attacks first, so this is one of the reasons I like to be loaded up on mushrooms at all times while in dungeons.

Bargs come out of nowhere.

  • There are pools in dungeons that, if you drop a pearl into them, show you a map of the level. I find them mostly useless--the levels aren't that big to begin with--so I usually just sell the pearls.

Maybe if the map stayed with you, it would be helpful, but you only see it for a minute.

Finally, I made a long video (posted to my YouTube account) illustrating various aspects of gameplay, including combat. Enjoy if that's your sort of thing:

Someone warned me that this game would last a long time, and they weren't kidding. I'm not bored yet, though! By the next time I post, I should have some more solid news on the main quest.


  1. Very interesting. I vaguely recall playing a spinoff of this game "Keys to Maramon" but it's. . . completely different.

  2. Regarding your spam bot problem, I guess the novelty of being popular enough to get so many of them wears thin after a while.

    Regarding the book, would it be possible to get a signed copy directly from the author? If so how much more work to get you to sign it?

    Go ahead and delete this comment if you don't want to get inundated with such requests.

    1. Well, it's just one at this point, so I think we can do it. When I get back to New England, I'll see if she has any physical copies left. Send me your address and I'll see what I can do.

    2. Well now I feel stupid because I cant find your email address on this blogger site... I must be missing something exceedingly obvious.

    3. It's buried in the side-bar.

  3. I am very entertained by the implication that the only way to achieve victory in this time-sensitive battle against the Forces of Darkness is by adventurers that haven't had a good night's sleep in weeks and are hopped up on eight different types of hallucagenic mushrooms, tripping out of their gourd, mumlbling to themselves "I am invincible, I can not die!" and "it's just a flesh wound" and perhaps once in a while "Gotta go fast!"

    1. Hey, this isn't some dumb action movie where, even though the entire world is at stake, the hero has enough time to stop for a drink, a shag, and a good night's sleep. My characters don't linger over "elevensies." These PCs knew what they were signing up for: permanent damage to their health and psyches, 999 days of raw punishment, a constant state of near-delirium, and an inability to ever hold a normal relationship again. All in the name of saving the world.

    2. ... because our lives weren't bad enough as it is.... and I think I just tasted magenta...

  4. You may be able to reduce animation time by either increasing Dosbox cycle (Ctrl +F12) or frameskip (Ctrl +F8)

    1. Yes, that works, as does turning off the sound. I was complaining about it more from the perspective of the 1989 player who didn't have those options.

  5. that article brought me here. :) great blog, a very enjoyable and interesting read.

    1. Glad to have you with us, Shlominus. I assume you mean the Der Standard article?

  6. Excellent post.

    Some comments:
    I found the Energy spell to be quite useful, since it means one character can energize another.

    I never talked to the orcs in Port Avur, so there must be an alternative way (which I don't remember now) of getting the pass phrase to the orc dungeon.

    1. I realized after I posted this that "Energy" restores more than it costs, so if a character casting it on himself gets a net benefit--except the time it takes to memorize the spell. I could also see it being useful in combat, where you don't want to waste a fighter's turn eating a Sermin but you don't mind wasting a mage's turn giving him a jolt.

  7. Lots of interesting mechanics in this game. Thanks for putting in the hard yards!

  8. Hi! While it seems the combat isn't quite is refined as Pool of Radiance, the rest of the game seems a lot more complex than Pool of Radiance... almost to the point of unpleasant micromanagement. What do you think?

    1. No, I wouldn't go that far, although I might by the end of the game. I find that all the logistics keep you engaged. It makes the prospect of taking a long journey a somewhat daunting one, because you have to wonder, "Do I have enough food? Do I have enough mushrooms? Will I be able to get to a town before I need more?" It creates a more palpable tension during gameplay than in, say, Ultima IV, where you're pretty confident you can cross the entire game map at any time. (That game had food, but it was so cheap and you could carry so much it was a non-issue.)

    2. Thanks for your insights! I'll be interested to see if your opinion changes or not. Magic Candle may have to end up on my personal (and seemingly insurmountable) backlog.

    3. @Gamma Leak: Ahh! IT IS 'L'! Just wanted to say I love your avatar, MAN!... starting to watch 'Death Note'... again...

  9. How does it compare to its sequels in hours of gameplay and feature set?

  10. "For wading through days of combat with horrific legions of evil and returning their priceless artifact, I got a bottle of perfume." Oooh, you are turning into quite the funny guy! You got a nice smile out of me with this one. An arrow shot straight down the hallway of my sense of humor, so to mangle aphorisms. I like your writing all around, even your driest and most lifeless prose, so when you toss gems my way it really makes the sun shine.

    "These PCs knew what they were signing up for: permanent damage to their health and psyches, 999 days of raw punishment, a constant state of near-delirium, and an inability to ever hold a normal relationship again." Frodo, et al, had NOTHING on your guys. He was able to hold near-normal conversations even toward the end- your characters are mumbling at and stumbling over each other on their best days.

    "Earlier today, I wandered into a sleeping god's chambers, but because I hadn't written down the chants correctly, I couldn't wake him up. No game developer would dare do something like this today. Skyrim probably wouldn't even let you into the dungeon containing the chamber until you already had the chants." This is the biggest difference, I think, between games from the days of olde and the games of today. Never ye mind the differences in graphics, that's nothing about gameplay. But yes, these days you don't need to write down a bloody thing to win an entire game of complexity because the game does all the hand-holding. I sort of miss the olden thyme games for that- but I don't know how well I would be able to play them any more. I doubt, had I started playing this game without your example, have done anywhere NEAR as well, simply because I wouldn't have been writing everything down, nor making that bloody encyclopedia zirvanidadia.

    Simply put, you rock.

    1. Always glad to get positive feedback from you, William. I don't think our nostalgia for the days when we had to take notes is universal, but I hold it anyway.

      But, William, I have to correct you: I'm a jazz man. I don't "rock." I SWING.


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