I managed to burn an entire day of playing on something that wasn't even part of the main quest: Oxam's Tower. Yes, Stu spoiled the end of it, but if hadn't known to use the Dust of Disappearance at the final beholder battle going into it, I sure would have know after the first attempt.
The game features a number of side quests, and I thought I'd explore some of them before continuing on with the main quest. Almost every town gives you the ability to "Search Area," and if the town isn't a fully-mapped town that's part of the main quest (i.e., Yulash, Zhentil Keep, and either Hap or Haptooth depending on who's saying), you generally get some kind of generic cave or ruin.
|This message appears at the beginning of many of them.|
I started mapping these caves with great fidelity before I realized that none of the encounters in them are place-specific. They are, instead, time-specific. For instance, in the caverns outside Shadowdale, after some random encounters, I ran into a couple of Drow trying to kidnap a woman. They got away, but a few encounters later, I saw them again and killed a few. Then there were a couple more random encounters, and the Drow threw a black dragon at me. After that, I rescued the girl and got some treasure from her father. Another set of ruins had some cultists of Moander--uber-fanatics who had broken away from the already-fanatical cult--who threw priests, shambling mounds, something called "vegapygmies" at me before attacking me with a giant blob labeled a "Bit O' Moander."
|My first dragon fight in a Gold Box game.|
The thing is, you could stand right next to the entry way, keep hitting "(L)ook," and you'd still get all these encounters. Without leaving the entry area in the ruins near Ashabenford, I got the following encounters in order, at spaced intervals:
Incidentally, it feels like a big deal that my party faced its first dragon (followed fairly quickly by a dracolich). But they were pushovers! They had like 48 hit points. Two magic missiles and a couple of successful melee attacks killed them. Granted, they had some tough breath attacks, and my party wouldn't have survived intact for more than two rounds, but the fact that they didn't last more than two rounds is a bit of a problem. I maintain what I said in a posting over a year ago: Skyrim is the first (and, so far, only) game that has made me feel like, wow, I'm really fighting a dragon!
It's too bad that the encounters are random in the incidental caves, because here the developers have shown a willingness to go outside the 16 x 16 grid that dominates the other game maps, and to make truly interesting geographies in the dungeons.
|The ruins near Voonlar. Too bad all this mapping was a waste of time.|
The side-quest near Dagger Falls bucks the trend, though, by offering many place-specific encounters on multiple levels. When I first searched, I found a magic shop, which made me happy. I worried that the one in Zhentil Keep (to which I cannot return) was the only one, and I'd have nowhere to blow the oodles of money I'm making. Now I can purchase unlimited wands of magic missile, which are a pretty good item. They're not very powerful, but they give my spellcasters something to do if they get struck during a combat round, or if they run out of spells. Magic missile always casts instantly and is a sure hit.
|If I'd actually collected all the gold so far in the game, I could probably afford 20 of them. As it is, I bought 4.|
Anyway, after leaving the shop, you have the option to explore the nearby ruins of Oxam's Tower. As with Zhentil Keep, I entered this area well before my characters were ready. I had heard about the ruins in Zhentil Keep--Dexam the beholder had made some comments about allies there--and indeed, it was filled with many of the same monsters: Zhentil fighters, priests, and mages, Dark Elves, manticores, gryphons, minotaurs, ogres, medusas, and beholders. I had to retreat from the ruins numerous times, return to town, avail myself of the temple's "stone-to-flesh" and "raise dead" services.
|I assume he was going to say, "The beholder corps is mother; the beholder corps is father."|
Eventually, I came to an area that suggested the allies of Bane had convened a meeting to discuss "the fate of adventurers." A little "checklist" I found at the scene suggested that efreeti, vampires, liches, Drow, and rakshasa had all been invited to meet with the beholders, but only the latter two accepted. I had to fight through some battles with Drow Lords (very tough to hit) and rakshasa, who cast damaging spells and are immune to magic themselves. A key tactic in battles against rakshasa is to have every PC target a different rakshasa and hope they can score a hit before they cast spells. (For those of you not versed in D&D rules, if a spellcaster is hit during a combat round, he or she cannot cast spells during the round.)
|Rakshasas are adapted from demons in Hindu mythology. I thought the D&D versions all had tiger features, but according to the wiki, they can have the heads of any animal.|
The toughest battle before the final one was with a group of three beholders. They have death rays, petrification rays, and disintegration rays, plus a bevy of spells, and they can use all of them during the same combat round. Success was a matter of buffing my party with "Bless" (improves chances to hit by 1), "Prayer" (also improves chances to hit, improves saving throws, reduces chances of monsters to hit), "Protection from Evil" (improves armor class and saving throws), "Strength" (raises strength to 18/00), and "Haste" (doubles movement and melee attacks) first, then making intelligent use of the thief's backstab abilities to take down at least two of the beasts in the first round. After that, it was simple reliance on my saving throws to keep the party alive long enough to kill the last one. (I go to a temple after deaths and stonings, but I reload after disintegrations; I don't want to have to start from scratch with a new character.)
|Trying to take on three beholders.|
The video below shows the battle and a bunch of gameplay afterwards. I didn't narrate it, so I'll comment below on some of the gameplay elements. If you don't care about the video, the story continues after the ****s.
At the beginning, you see me casting the buffing spells on my party. "Strength" is particularly important, turning my ranger who normally has 16 strength into a much more effective fighter. Battle actually begins at 00:50. That pause you see at the beginning is me cursing because my fighter/thief, Karnov, gets to go first. He can only backstab when another character has attacked from the opposite angle first, so having him go first is useless. I choose to "delay" his action even though that almost certainly means I'll face multiple beholder attacks.
The first beholder to attack targets Bolingbroke, the paladin, and all his rays are ineffective. That's one down. But then at 00:57, one of them turns my mage to stone. Then the third starts attacking. I assume my party won't survive this one, but his attacks, including a "Fear" spell, are also ineffective, so I suddenly realize that I'm likely to win. Octavianus goes and softens one up for Karnov's backstab while Bolingbroke and Cesario take on the one on the far right. At 01:15, Karnov gets his chance again, and boy is it successful--two successful backstabs in a row, for 52 and 72 damage! (Those of you who convinced me to keep a fighter/thief, thanks!) Because of the "Haste," he even gets another attack on the beholder above him. A few more melee attacks later, and the battle is over.
At 01:45, you see the post-battle screens. It's my general policy to take gems and jewelry but not coins (they weigh the characters down), and since that's what the beholders dropped, I "share" them among my party members. Now it's time to get out of the caves and heal Viola. (Example of a character sheet at 02:08.)
As I leave the caves, you can see examples of the different wall textures in this dungeon, from a finished "fortress" look to a rougher "cave" look. They put a reasonable amount of work into these graphics, and I don't know why they couldn't have spent more time on things like furniture and banners that would actually be in the scene.
When you're trying to flee a dungeon to get healed, nothing's more annoying than random encounters, and that's what I face with some minotaurs at 02:41. For some reason, these "side-quest dungeons" have a habit of starting combat while the monsters are some distance away, so I either have to charge up to them or wait for them to come to me. Since minotaurs have no ranged attack, I do a hybrid, sending my melee fighters up to "guard" and wait for the monsters. But there are a lot of them, so I decide to weaken them with Cesario's "Fireball" at 03:15. You can see some other examples of spellcasting and melee attacks throughout the battle. Note that monsters can "guard," too, and consequently they get a few free hits.
At 04:34, you see one of the more annoying parts of the game. After combat is finished, you still have to give an action to each of your characters who have not already done something that round. So I have to "guard" four or five times before the battle is actually over. I suppose I could use this time to heal characters and whatnot, but that would only make sense if I knew I'd be facing another fight, with no pause, immediately afterwards.
There's another random combat, with otyughs, before I finally get out. At 06:17, you can see the overland travel map. I head to Shadowdale as the nearest town with a temple. I heal Viola at 06:44. You can see me rest and "fix," then head to the store. I use the options to pool gold, appraise and sell gems, and then "share" the wealth, making sure that everyone has at least 200 platinum pieces (1,000 gold) before heading to the training hall, where training costs 1,000. Karnov and Cesario both level up, and Cesario gets a new spell. After that, I re-memorize my spells, scribe a few new ones from scrolls, and rest.
|How do beholders sit at a conference table? (Incidentally, my options here were "Flee in Panic" and "Throw Caution to the Wind.")|
On my return to the tower, I had one last major battle left to fight, and boy was it a tough one. Did it look like I had trouble with those three beholders? How do you think I fared against 15 of them? Plus a 10 rakshasa, a 10 Drow lords, and a bunch of high-level priests?
|If you're a CRPG character, this is when your life starts flashing before your eyes.|
The answer was about 7 seconds. Any one of these groups, in half their numbers, would be more than capable of killing me. If you think mass-damage spells would do it, think again: beholders and rakshasa are immune to magic.
It would be a mega-geek achievement to win this battle without the Dust of Disappearance, but unless someone proves otherwise, I'm going to assume it isn't possible. The only way I could see that you'd come close is to get your entire party around the corner and use the primitive pathfinding AI to draw them to you one-by-one. But even then, you'd have to be extremely lucky to kill each of the enemies that turn the corner before they launch a few death rays or spells at you. With 15 beholders, I can't see how you'd avoid having your party slowly bled away.
|Viola uses the Dust of Disappearance.|
Even with the dust, it's pretty hard. The dust keeps enemies from casting spells on you or attacking at range, but they're still perfectly capable of hitting you with melee attacks, and the Drow lords in particular pack a wallop. I won with a lot of buffing spells, including "Haste," lots of backstabbing, and by weakening the Drow lords significantly with "Fireball" and "Ice Storm" before I engaged them in melee (they often, but not always, resist spells). Without their spells, the rakshasa were comparatively easy. It would have been easier with ranged weapons, but when I reached this area, I barely had any ammo.
My reward was almost 80,000 experience points per character and a huge cache of equipment, most of which turned out to be worse than I already had. I think some long swords +10 would have been in order after that battle, but the best weapon I have at this point is a +3.
|The result of the beholder battle. This is enough experience to get you from Level 1 to almost Level 6, but it's not enough to get even halfway between Level 8 and Level 9.|
After I returned to town, rested, trained, identified equipment, and so on, I discovered that five of my six characters are one level away from their max levels, and my sixth is at her max level. This even though two of the characters--Octavianus the fighter/cleric and Cesario the cleric/mage--dualed back to Level 1 earlier in the game. (They've both exceeded their earlier levels, meaning Octavianus got his fighter abilities back and Cesario got his cleric spells back.) Thus, the main point of the beholder battle--experience--was hardly necessary, and I'll likely spend most of the rest of the game with no way to advance. I hate that, but I brought it on myself with all of this grinding in these optional areas.
So it's back on the main quest for now, with my next stop at Yulash.
Some other notes:
- Although you can heal unconscious characters in combat, they never get up and continue fighting. They don't revive until you leave the combat screen. I don't know if they get experience for the combat when this happens.
- In the wilderness between Ashabenford and Shadowdale, I ran into some Knights of Myth Drannor who thanked me for helping their colleague in the Fire Knife hideout and told me that Tyranthraxus has set up camp in the ruins of Myth Drannor. Since I can't seem to access them right now, that must be where the final battles take place.
|I've almost finished cataloging all of these random encounters between cities.|
- Theoretically, the "(F)ix" command should be a shortcut for selecting the various healing spells, resting long enough to memorize them, casting them on the party members that need them, and then re-resting to memorize the original spells. But it clearly doesn't work this way because random encounters are very rare (though possible) during "Fix" even in places where they're extremely common while trying to rest and memorize other spells.
- I'm beginning to worry a little about the effects of aging. Between all the travel, resting, and my frequent use of "Haste" spells, my party has aged about 4 years since the beginning of the game. The manual doesn't have anything to say about it, but I wonder if anything happens when they get "too old." I'm not so much worried about it in this game as in Secret of the Silver Blades and Pools of Darkness.
- I already said this in another context, but after making fun of the exhaustive selection of pole-arms available in this game (there are 15 of them, from bardiche to voulge), I had a moment where my paladin had to choose between a guisarme-voulge +2 and a bill-guisarme +2.
|Meanwhile, I've yet to find a single magic two-handed sword.|
- Another example of the game's fastidiousness to D&D rules is the inclusion of all coinage types. In a game where I almost never bother to collect the treasure after battle because there's no possible use for so much of it, I can't stress enough how much of a waste of time it would be to pick up electrum or copper pieces. I may end up giving the game a 0 in the "economy" category for featuring so much money that they might as well have left it out entirely.