Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dark Heart of Uukrul: Magic, Gear, and Combat

Irene and I are on an extended tropical vacation, and she's all but threatened to garrote me in my sleep if she catches me on my computer. These weeks, I'm trying to finish up The Dark Heart of Uukrul furtively, during times that she's in the shower or sleeping. I apologize for the sparse postings; I should be back to a normal schedule by the week of Thanksgiving.

The Dark Heart of Uukrul has done a good job not annoying me with combat. Even the best combat systems start to get repetitive towards the end. (Or, in the case of The Bard's Tale II and III, after about 30 minutes.) You find yourself groaning every time the combat screen loads. I loved the tactical system in The Pool of Radiance, but all the random outdoor battles made me want to quit and reload rather than fight them. Overland travel in The Magic Candle is so torturous because of the repetitive combats that I used "teleport" constantly to escape them.

Uukrul does a better job of offering combats that really count. There are random ones, to be sure, but they don't happen with such regularity that you want to ragequit the game. (There's even a priest spell called MORPETH that reduces the frequency of random encounters, but I don't find them frequent enough to bother with it.) Instead, the game keeps offering unique combats with new creatures whose strengths and weaknesses I have to assess anew almost every time. The experience rewards have been such that I haven't had to "grind" much; I think I've only had to fight 15-20 times between character levels.

I like it when games give you little combat introductions like these before throwing you into the combat screen. As we progress, we'll start to see more role-playing choices at moments like this, too.
Although I talked a lot about the combat, magic, and equipment systems an early posting on the game, now that I'm most of the way through the game (I think), I want to cover them in more detail.

First, enemies don't identify until you get up on them. "Armed man" could be a Samurai or a Ronin, the latter of which is somewhat more difficult. In this, the game is not dissimilar to Wizardry. You have to assess the probability that you're facing a particular foe before you start blasting through high-level spell points.

I've identified one "armed man" as a samurai because he's right next to Invictia, but the other two remain unknown.

There are two halves to each combat round: a movement phase in which you position your characters, and a combat phase in which you execute attacks and spells. I found it a little odd at first, but eventually I got used to it. My chief annoyance in the movement phase is my chief annoyance in the entire game: while your characters only get one movement, enemies get multiple moves, and very often, they get to move last. You'll painstakingly line up your PCs for the combat phase, and just before it begins, the monsters will dance out of melee range. I spend a lot of time trying to back enemies into corners and walls, surrounding them with multiple PCs, so they don't have any "safe" squares to turn to.

Trying to maneuver around a pair of floating eyes. These things are disgusting. At least beholders are floating eyes encased in some kind of body.
The lack of any ranged weapons (save scrolls and wands) is a bit annoying, but including them would have overbalanced the combat in favor of the party. What I dislike more is the inability to attack on the diagonal; it really would have sped up combat.

Notice on my character screens how the health bar has three shaded sections. If hit points dip to the middle section, the character becomes "weak" and his combat probabilities suffer a bit. If they dip to the lowest bar, the character is "critical," and can't do anything but move. Getting characters out of the "critical" phase is the number one priority when it happens, but fortunately my mage and priest have both single-character and full-party healing spells. If they were to both go into the "critical" range, the only solution is to use a healing salve (if I have one) or flee to a sanctuary to rest.

Other conditions are common to CRPGs. Characters become "hungry" or "starving" if you run out of food, "stunned" from a particularly tough blow, and "poisoned" and "plagued" by various enemies. These are chiefly a problem at the beginning of the game, before you find spells to create food and cure these various conditions.

I don't like to flee from combat in CRPGs, but this one has a reasonably good system for fleeing: you have to maneuver at least one of your characters to a door first. Like many games, choosing to flee gives the enemies one more round to swat at you. Oddly, enemies from which you flee disappear just as if you'd defeated them, with the exception of enemies that hold critical objects you have to find. Enemies can flee, too. In many games, if enemies flee, you lose the experience points--and perhaps the equipment--from the fight. That doesn't happen here, which is good. I think intimidating a foe from the battlefield should count as much as killing him.

As I said before, the game features an auto-combat system, but I found myself using it far more often at the beginning of the game than now. There are two major problems with auto-combat. The first is that the mage casts spells indiscriminately. The major reason for using auto-combat is for the game to sweep through low-level encounters while I do something more productive, like blogging. But since the encounters are low-level, I'd rather my mage didn't waste spell points on them. The second problem is the opposite: the priest never casts any prayers in auto-combat, meaning she doesn't get much experience at the end.

While we're talking about magic...

There are 60 mage spells, separated into five "Arkanas" (fire, frost, protection, healing, and knowledge), and 21 priest spells, separated into four gods (Ufthu, Drutho, Golthur, and Fshofth). Within each Arkana or God, there are six levels or "rings": iron, copper, silver, gold, platinum, and crystal. For mages, the rings are very rigid: if you don't have the ring, you can't cast the spell. For priests, it's a little more flexible; there's a chance of casting high-level prayers even with a low-level ring, but it's a small chance, and you risk having your god smite you for your arrogance.

Prufrock casts a "tempest of chaos" spell, which stuns enemies and lowers their attack abilities.
You get new rings by visiting the wizard's circle or the gods' altars after you've done some adventuring. I think the chances of getting a new ring are partly based on how often you've used that Arkana or god and partly based on your overall character level. I'm highest in the Arkanas and gods I use most often, but I've eventually received some progression in all of them, even when I've barely used them at all. In this, the game mirrors the way it distributes experience points after combat: the most points go to the characters who did the most during combat, but everybody gets something.

Contemplate for a moment the significance of this religious symbol.What was nailed to the lower crosspiece?

Although it seems like there are a lot more mage spells, many of them are really just intensified versions of the same spell. For instance, the basic "fire" spell AMRAS, which does a blast of fire. At the copper level, you get something called AMRASMUR, which does the same thing, but stronger. This proceeds through the other levels as AMRASAKIM, AMRASLAZAR, and AMRASTEL. These suffixes hold throughout all the spells, with MUR, AKIM, LAZAR, and TEL indicating progressively higher levels, although not every spell has a variant in every level. The end result is that at high level, when you have all of the possibilities, you have to make a decision about how many spell points you want to sink into a particular spell. If I think the enemy just needs a little nudge, I might use AMRASMUR, whereas if I really want to blast him, I'll spend the points on AMRASTEL.

HELASTEL heals all characters completely but requires a ton of spell points.
Priest spells (called "prayers" more properly), on the other hand, seem to scale with the priest's level. I find that RALKOR ("divine arrow") does much more damage now than it did at the beginning, and SIRDHE heals a lot more. Prayers have the disadvantage of often failing (or even causing damage to the priest trying to cast them) just when you need them most, although this is becoming less frequent as I achieve higher levels.

I should note that you have to type the name of the spell or prayer every time you want to cast it, which I guess is a bit of a copy protection device. The game is fairly forgiving about misspellings; it gives you another chance. It's less forgiving about trying to cast a spell when you don't have enough points: in that case, you waste the combat round. What's particularly annoying about this is that it's not really clear how many points each spell requires to cast.

For mages, the crystal ring level grants access to one final, ultra-powerful spell. The manual doesn't tell you what the spells do, just their names, but the crystal-level spell in the "knowledge" Arkana, CYQIEQARAQK, grants a little insight into the properties of the other crystal-level spells. Right now, "knowledge" is the only Arkana in which I have the crystal level, but I cast the spell, and I'm looking forward to seeing what "Ceaseless Healing," "Furnace of the Great Mystic," and "Cacophonous Oblivion" all do.

This sounds pretty cool.

Some priest spells work best, or at least better, at altars. Each of the four gods has a main altar back in the beginning area, where I need to visit periodically (via the helpful teleporters) to get new rings. There are also generic altars scattered throughout the dungeon that work for all gods. Frankly, though, I don't find that these altars come along often enough to be very useful. Usually, I find it easier to return to a teleporter (one of which is rarely far away) and go to the original altars than to use one of the random altars. Probably the most useful spell at an altar is TULAR, which creates food. Food isn't very expensive, but purchasing it at the shop only allows me to buy 500 meals at a time, so I have to return frequently. I'm not sure there's a maximum to what you can pray for at altars, but I've been in the thousands.

Priests have one advantage in combat that mages don't have: they can summon elementals. This failed so often at the beginning of the game, that I frankly forgot that it was an option and didn't start using it again until recently. Elementals add a fifth melee party member (who acts on his own) to your side, and some of them are relatively powerful. They have made the difference several times in tough combats. Unfortunately, they appear in random places on the battlefield, and it often takes them too long to maneuver into position to do any good.

Note my elemental in the upper left. It'll be at least three rounds before he can engage the fire drake.

As with most games, there are spells here that are mostly worthless, although the "suffix" system for mage spells and the automatic scaling for priest spells helps ameliorate this. Notably, enemies seem to have extraordinary luck striking my characters no matter how many AC-reducing spells I use; I don't find that enemies flee often enough when I use "Fear" or "Terror" to make them worth a combat round; a fire spell that burns everyone immediately adjacent to the caster is swiftly obviated by a more powerful spell that burns everyone up to two squares away from the caster; and I never really seen any visible effects of the prayers HOLNAK and DROM, which are supposed to increase combat ability and strength, respectively. There is one prayer, KUURAOTH, that seems to be plot-related and has only one use in the game. There's another called BYNDU whose use I've utterly been unable to figure out. This is the description:

Ah, Drutho, grant me the power;
Make fast the beckoning sign,
To craw forth opponents unto my presence,
And bind them beside me, to stay as I will.

It sounds like maybe it's a "charm" spell, but it never does anything even when it seems to successfully cast.

There are some unique spells in the game that are worth highlighting. The "protection" spell SILAMEKSH that keeps you from taking damage from physical blows for a few rounds, much like the NIFT mushrooms in The Magic Candle. RESEN and its more powerful version RESENTEL negate all magic from enemy spellcasters. AROMIR creates a healing poition; sort-of a healing spell you can pocket for later use. The whole NGOS series, which translates monster writing, might be unique to this game, as are the ALTIS spell and HOYAMOQ prayer, both of which slowly force open secret doors. There are a pair of odd but slightly awesome mage spells called SATOR and ROTAS which first establish a psychic link to an enemy spellcaster and then siphon his spell points. Theoretically, it's a great way for a mage to recharge his points, but I just got it, so I haven't had mmuch of a chance to experiment.

An extremely useful weapon that, apparently, someone just dropped.
Enemies can cast a lot of the same spells the characters can cast, including healing, which often makes for a long combat. Fortunately, the AI isn't overwhelmingly clever here.

A few words about items. The game does a pretty good job rewarding you occasionally with magic weapons, armor, scrolls, potions, and other items, and the shops sell enough of these things that you usually have some kind of financial goal, which I like.

The types of weapons you can use depend on strength, which fortunately increases with levels.
The identification system is pretty awful, though. Sagarais, in between making snarky comments about the things I bring him...


...might tell me that a weapon is a "Glaive of Fire." Great. That doesn't tell me anything about how much damage it does, what kind of damage, or how much strength I need to wield it. My method of assessing the relative value of weapons is how much they sell for. (Armor is a little easier, since you can see the effects on armor class.) His comments are slightly more useful when it comes to magic items and plot-related items.

Essentially, it replicates the priest's "summon elemental" power but never fails.

The odd thing is that weapons don't seem to improve a lot on bare hands. My paladin armed with a "soul cleaver" does maybe 70-90 points of damage when he strikes, but if his weapon breaks, he does maybe 50-70 with his bare hands. Weapons do continue to break with alarming frequency...

... rendered more alarming now because the smith is incapable of reforging magical weapons. If my "soul cleaver" breaks, I'm out about 5000 gold pieces.

At least he's polite about it.

I think I'm very close to the end of the game, if I could just get some playing time in between all this vacationing I'm supposed to be doing. I actually have the Dark Heart of Uukrul in my hands, having found enough stone hearts to open the container where it was kept. I now need to find some way to smash it in his presence and then fight a final battle with him.

I'm hoping I can clear it all up over the weekend to start Hero's Quest with Trickster on Monday.


  1. "Contemplate for a moment the significance of this religious symbol.What was nailed to the lower crosspiece?"

    You're liable to find out first-hand if your wife catches you gaming on your vacation.

    1. You'd have to bisect it first. I'm shuddering now.

      Also you made me laugh out loud.

      Also: How do we know that something was crucified on it? The resemblance could be coincidental. Or it could have been a non-human creature.

  2. CRPG Addict indeed. I thought it was just a name until now. Enjoy your vacation and try not to let the CRPG withdrawal symptoms consume you. We'll wait until you're done.

  3. A quick Google suggests you're not alone in not knowing what Byndu does, but from reading the description... have you tried seeing if it summons a random encounter, or prevents enemies from fleeing?

  4. Huzzah, enjoy your vacation, go fishing for me or eat a crab or something!

  5. Yeah, Byndu ("Bind You"?) sounds like a hold person/prevent fleeing spell.

    1. Enemies don't flee consistently enough that it's easy to test the theory, but I guess it's the only thing that makes sense. It definitely doesn't "hold" them in the traditional sense; they're still able to attack.

  6. I'm very glad it was merely a vacation, and not Sandy-related power issues, that caused your blogging difficulties.

    Question: Do you prefer it when spell effects are explicitly stated in the game docs, or when it's somewhat vague?

    1. Good question. I don't know that I have a preference. I guess it is kind of fun when you have to figure out what a spell does, at least in the context of the right game. I really can't think of many other games that do this, however. This game and Ultima III are the only ones that come to mind.

  7. Should the BYNDU description read as "craw forth," or "draw forth?" Methinks the latter, but I guess you never know sometimes. ;)

    1. That's funny. I pasted that directly from the manual that came with my version of the game, so either it was a mistake in the original or, more likely, a error copying it into a text file.

  8. BYNDU forces enemies to move close to priest.

    1. Came across this today looking to see if anyone had any weapons math on Uuukrul as I'm playing again. :)

      I can confirm. If your priest successfully invokes Byndu, then there is a high probability that any movement the enemies make during the movement phase is toward your priest. I used this quite successfully in some circumstances, sticking my priest in the corner next to my magician and luring enemies in closer for a nice taste of Kunlazar. :)

    2. Very good. Thanks for clearing up this old mystery!

  9. I just realized that you're getting close to Don't Go Alone! I'll warn you ahead of time that there isn't much to it, really, but I have a bizarre nostalgic love for that game and am interested to see your comments on it.

    1. I look forward to it. It's the only horror CRPG that I know. But it's going to get postponed a little because of Hero's Quest.

    2. You may not classify them as horror but I'd suggest that the following all have some fairly strong horror elements (if not mechanics): The Ravenloft games; Death Knights of Krynn; Diablo; Planescape: Torment; Vampire: Bloodlines.

    3. Fair enough. I haven't really played any of them except Diablo. It's still only a few games out of thousands.

    4. Which suits me fine, as I can't play actually scary games like Deep Space or Amnesia.

      ...Wait a sec, did you just say you hadn't played Torment?

      Man, forget every other game on the list and play it!

      I reckon for every 12 games you progress, you should put up a poll for us to vote for an out of sequence game for you to review.

    5. I'm reluctant to say this, but I STARTED Torment a number of years ago, but I stopped playing after a few hours because I didn't really like it. I think I was expecting something nearly identical to Baldur's Gate but in a different setting, and it wasn't really anything like that. Only years after I abandoned it did I start to hear all the high praise heaped on the game, and I thought I should try it again, but I never did.

    6. I had the same experience. For whatever reason I kept playing (and frowning). At some point I realised I wasn't playing the next BG, got used to the slightly different presentation and controls and fell in love.

    7. I too have never played torment. I have a list of games that I'd consider playing along with Chet; Torment would be on that list, along with the rest of the Infinity Engine games. Also the Fallout series, Castle of the Windows (Though I don't expect Chet to like it, it is very basic) and probably a few others. FFVII possibly.

    8. Castle of the Winds has an elegance to its simplicity and it only takes a few hours to play through. You could almost call it a Rogue-lite :)

      I feel like it'd be a good rpg to recommend for a kid.

    9. That is when I played the first one off a demo CD. I returned a number of years later and beat it quite easily. I've installed it inside my Windows XP VM that I need for some chemistry software, as it is a 16-bit application.

  10. Yeah, I would say based on the description, that BYNDU teleports the enemy to a square adjacent to the caster, and then won't let it leave, solving your problem of the game taking too long to let your characters close distance on the battlefield. If you haven't noticed the spell having any effect - can I hazard a guess that you've only tried casting it on enemies who are already adjacent?


    1. It actually doesn't let you target specific enemies, so I assume whatever it does, it applies to all of them. But no, nobody moves when it's cast. If it keeps enemies from fleeing, the effect is extremely subtle.

    2. There is a history in CRPGS of buggy spells that do nothing. FF6 apparently had one that could corrupt and destroy your game. I wonder if that spell was one of those?

    3. You are not talking of a spell per say, but here is the glitch at the bottom of this page:

      Also, I'm back. I just wanted to take a break and let some posts build up just so I could burn through them all in a sitting. What euphoria!

  11. Just a wish for pleasant times from the resident gadfly. If things go as normal not only will you not notice this comment but no one else will either. Still, my computer is broken and my OS disk is missing so I am limited to Android Tablet computing. Luckily, as a gadfly, my work can be easily done fom a virtual touchscreen keyboard. Buzz buzz buzz. Virtual keyboards need cursor keys- my thick Dutch fingers are useless for careful onscreen editing. Good luck vacationing and do NOT let your wife garrotte you! Too much.

    1. william: I'll MAIL you a linux install CD or DVD if you want.

  12. Speaking of Hero's Quest, have you picked out a class yet? It seems Trickster has selected Fighter. I wanted to pick the odd one out if you end up picking Mage or Thief.

    1. I'm going to go with a thief. I'm debating whether to invest some points into magic or just solve it as a straight thief.

  13. "There are a pair of odd but slightly awesome mage spells called SATOR and ROTAS which first establish a psychic link to an enemy spellcaster..."

    Interesting. An allusion to this:


    Which is a Roman word puzzle (perhaps with religous associations; occasionally found carved in ruins throughout Europe) that somehow ended up getting absorbed into western occult lore as a powerful spell of some sort.

    1. I KNEW those words rang a bell when I was typing them. Thanks for the input, Tomsk!


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