Friday, August 31, 2012

Bloodwych: More than I Wanted to Chew (Final Rating)

Note that the ad tells a slightly different back story than the game manual.

Image Works (Mirrorsoft)
Anthony Taglione, Peter James, Philip Taglione
Released 1989 (UK); U.S. DOS version from 1991
Date Started: 29 July 2012
Date Abandoned; 31 August 2012
Total Hours: 21
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 27
Ranking at Time of Posting: 42/66 (64%)

All right, I'm going to spare us all and pull the plug. I'm prompted partly by an e-mail from a Bloodwych fan who estimates that I'm only about 20% through the game, mostly because "the Chaos Tower takes almost as long as all the other towers combined." I'm already into this game for 20 hours, and I honestly can't see putting another 80 into it. That would make my game time exceed even Rogue. You can't say I didn't give it a fair shake. The fan also told me that the rest of the five towers offer simply "more of the same," with some slightly more difficult puzzles. I've had enough of this unvarying gameplay.

Nothing significantly new happened since last time, so let's get to the GIMLET.

1. Game World. Bloodwych opens with the breathtakingly original plot of an evil sorcerer having taken over the land and summoning legions of demonic minions. The "world" in this case is the city/castle of Treidhadwyl, which is essentially a featureless dungeon. There is virtually no reference to the plot during the course of the game, making me wonder if the developers invented the back story after the game was developed. (Except for a final screen that I saw at the end of a YouTube video, it doesn't even appear that the word "Bloodwych" appears in-game.) The story is, in fact, such a carbon copy of Dungeon Master--right down to the champions being possessed or guided by the spirits of the exiled mages--that it nearly crosses the line from homage to plagiarism. I gave Dungeon Master a 6 in this category, but it had the whole order/chaos thing going on plus several in-game references to the plot. Score: 3.

Look at this screenshot from the ending. Shouldn't it be "THE Bloodwych ARE restored?" It's almost as if the game didn't know what "Bloodwych" was until the manual was written.

2. Character Creation and Development.  Like Dungeon Master (and I'm sorry to keep saying that, but it will happen again), you don't "create" your characters so much as simply select them. You don't even get the "reincarnation" option here, meaning you're stuck with the names and classes they start with. Leveling up is entirely within the class and seems to occur at odd intervals; it was maddeningly slow for the first half of my gameplay and more rapid after that; there is no progress meter or experience to indicate where you are in the leveling process. Leveling bestows attribute increases and an occasional new spell (the frequency of this is dependent on the class), but few choices on the part of the player. With different character choices, you'd have different levels of difficulty and perhaps some different tactics, but essentially the same game. Score: 3.

If I did have to play again, I'd play with Mr. Flay Sepulcrast. I understand he doesn't need to eat.

3. NPC Interaction. One improvement over Dungeon Master is that the game has NPCs, but they're not very good. You can theoretically ask any NPC, including monsters, about characters, objects, and lore, or trade with him or her. In practice, I never got them to tell me anything useful, and more than likely they'd start attacking me in the middle of the conversation, putting me at a tactical disadvantage. Except for the 16 potential starting characters, none of them even have names. I do have to give the game some credit for different disposition options (bragging, praising, insulting) and the ability to bribe and threaten NPCs, but in the end it doesn't amount to much. The interface was there for a decent NPC system, but the content wasn't. Score: 3.

...say the unidentifiable monsters just before attempting to slaughter me.

4. Encounters and Foes. Frustrating. The game doesn't bother to tell you the names of the monsters you fight, and I found the various humanoid monsters indistinguishable on visual inspection (my color-blindness might play a role here). Some of them cast spells, including an annoying "arc bolt" that goes around corners, but there's really no way to anticipate this until they start casting. There are no real "encounters" in the game, although I've taken to using this category to award points for puzzles, which is a kind-of encounter. Although these are basic, they do break the monotony a bit. Areas don't respawn, so there are no opportunities for grinding. Score: 3.

5. Magic and Combat. Combat is of the most basic sort. You wield weapons, enter "attack" mode, and start swinging. Your rear characters can't do much unless they have missile weapons, but if you're adept with the mouse, you can quickly swap positions to give lead characters a rest. There's a "defense" mode that you can theoretically use if you want to swap inventories or prepare spells, but I found that I usually died fairly quickly if I was trying to defend. Ultimately, the only viable combat technique is to use the terrain tactically to dance around your opponents and strike them at their flanks and rear. I found it tedious.

The magic system offers 32 spells grouped into four "schools." It's best to specialize in one or two schools because you can only get the higher-level spells after you've mastered some of the lower-level ones. I liked that you could adjust the power that you put into the spells, but overall I found them underwhelming. The buffing spells, even on high power, lasted only a couple of minutes, and you can only have one spell active at a time. Defensive spells take too long to prepare to be viable in the middle of combat. It never seemed to me that the offensive spells were doing much damage, even on max power. I never saw an enemy die from a spell, although I grant that I usually used them at the beginning of combat to soften them up. Finally, I didn't like that you were required to have two spells for the Moon Tower; since the game is linear and monsters don't respawn, failure to have the spells when you get to the right locations means that you have to start over. Score: 3.

Trying to cast a spell in the middle of combat often results in something unpleasant.

6. Equipment. As you progress, you find better weapons, armor, shields, gloves, rings, wands, potions, arrows, and food. It happens often enough that you feel suitably rewarded on a regular basis, and with the exception of some melee weapons, you can generally tell what items are best. It doesn't appear that there's any randomization to the items. The paucity of arrows throughout the game is a major problem, though, rendering the rear two characters useless most of the time. Score: 3.

7. Economy. Like the NPC category, I give the game credit for having an economy. It just isn't well implemented. You find gold on some NPC corpses, and I like that you can sell equipment (sometimes!) and use the "alchemy" spell to convert unneeded equipment to gold. I just never found much to buy with the gold. The weapons and armor shops never had better stuff than I had found, and while the potion shop was useful, I only ever found one and it was buried in an inconvenient part of the main tower. Even with the requirement to buy spells from the fairy on leveling up, I quit the game with nearly the maximum of gold in my backpacks (99 per character). Score: 3.

8. Quests. The game has a main quest; it's just boring and derivative. It progresses in five stages, as you collect the various gems from the various towers, and I guess there's a slight feeling of progress on the way, but not much. No side quests, no choices on the main quest. Score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Universally horrible. Again, my color-blindness may be playing a role, but I found the graphics confusing, ugly, and pixelated. I would have preferred the wire frames of Wizardry. There was nothing special about the sound effects, and since they're inseparable from the obnoxiously repeating music track, I left the sound off. I discussed my problems with the interface in an earlier posting. I find the buttons too small and inconveniently located, and the game requires too many clicks to perform simple actions. The keyboard is only good for some movement and saving the game. Some simple improvements, such as keeping the spellbook open to the last spell you used, or allowing the number keys to select characters, would have been welcome, but alas. Score: 1.

10. Gameplay. The gameplay is extremely linear and it lasts far, far too long. The need to find a bunch of keys--many of them virtually hidden in back corners--to progress makes it too easy to become a "walking dead" if you accidentally overlook or abandon a key. I couldn't imagine a single reason to replay the game after winning it once. Score: 1.

The game is at least consistent in its badeness. I ranked 7/10 categories at exactly 3, with a total of 25. However, we have to talk for a second about the multiplayer aspect of the game, which is remarkably innovative and, frankly, belonged in a better game.

Bloodwych is not the first game to feature cooperative multiplayer mode. The first I can recall is Zyll from 1984, followed by Swords of Glass in 1986. I find it odd and amusing that the only cooperative multiplayer CRPGs so far are comparatively obscure and not very good otherwise. Although I didn't have anyone to play with, I have to applaud the innovation that went into this addition to the game, and I'll award 2 bonus points for a true final score of 27. This still puts it in the lower tier of games (35% at the time of this posting).

Nonetheless, the game has a small but devoted cult following, and in preparing for this posting, I was astonished to find message boards full of players eager to try again with different characters or such. I find it a little baffling, but to each his own. There are several projects in the works to port the game to a new engine, and to make additional game levels using the original engine.

In Dungeons and Desktops, Matt Barton seems to agree with me, noting that: "[C]ritics mustered little praise for the game. Although the story and multiplayer options were admirable, the graphics were dull compared to Dungeon Master's, and the soundtrack was lamentable." But some contemporary reviews, especially in Europe, seemed to rank it quite high. I wonder if the version issue doesn't make a huge difference here. The game was big on the Amiga, and I can actually see where the game might be fun while played with a joystick next to a friend or sibling. Enough people liked it to support an expansion pack in 1990 (only for the Amiga and Atari ST, so I will not be partaking).

I can't find any full-length plays online. It looks like a YouTube user named jamesthebe [careful; some NSFW content there] got started with one, but gave up after 14 videos. Another user named ToricoUK, however, posted only the ending (only 36 seconds).

I assume that's Zendick.

Now, if you're frustrated that I ended this game too soon, take heart: the developers followed up with Hexx: Heresy of the Wizard, published by Psygnosis in 1994, which Wikipedia says was "basically the same game with updated graphics, a slightly modified cast of champions, and a greatly expanded magic system." We also have The Four Crystals of Trazere (1992) from the same developers, and ostensibly set in the same universe.

In 1993, Anthony Taglione gave an interview to an obscure U.K. gaming magazine called SynTax, in which he was frank about Bloodwych's origins in Dungeon Master. Recalling his time at a university in the late 1980s:

It just so happened that Dungeon Master appeared around this time on the ST and what a product that was! Three weeks later we'd played it to death, even taking just a party of short people. My own record is twelve hours with just two characters. I was talking with Mirrorsoft at the time and suggested that I could do a DM conversion for them on the C64. They ummed and arred a lot and Pete carried on drawing screens until they finally said 'Yes!' and I said 'No!  We've got a better design and it'll be two-player-simultaneous'. They said 'Ok but we want ST and Amiga as well'.

Throughout the rest of the article, he really does come off as a talented programmer, and I look forward to trying his later offerings.

For now, though, it's time to move on. I've decided to kick The Magic Candle down the list a bit and tackle it in December. Next up is Star Saga: Two!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bloodwych: Inexplicably Still Eating

This was supposed to have been my clue to remove a blue gem from the Serpent Tower.

Continuing to play Bloodwych is a bit like eating something abominable--circus  peanuts, say, or those awful wasabi snack mixes they have at some bars--for no other reason than a bowl of it is sitting in front of you. In a meta-cognitive way, I'm fascinated by my refusal to give up on it. Two days ago, I thought it was just the drugs. Now, I don't know. I only know that some part of my brain wants to continue playing it. I think it's the same part that continues to click on links on Reddit when it's 3:00 A.M. and the rest of my brain is screaming, "WHY did you click another link?! It's time to GO TO BED! Seriously, just get up right now--NOW--and GO TO BED! AAAARGH! You just clicked on ANOTHER one! Are you trying to kill us?!" Only in the case of Bloodwych, my brain is screaming about The Magic Candle.

This was almost your last Bloodwych screen shot before The Magic Candle welcome screen.

Since my last posting, I've encountered about 12 moments in which I thought I simply couldn't progress any further--delighting the more rational half of my brain--only to discover a solution just as I was about to quit. I was about to give up on finding the gem needed for the Moon Tower when I finally discovered it back in the Serpent Tower. On Level 2 of the Moon Tower, I discovered the only way I hadn't gone was through a locked door for which I didn't have the key. I was about to give up when I remembered that Helm said "magelock" was needed in the Moon Tower. Sure enough, it worked on the door that no key would unlock (usually, doors that respond to "magelock" also respond to generic keys). Another impassable door was opened by a key that was practically invisible on the floor next to a pillar. I had the perfect excuse there, but no, I just had to go and search one last time.

The bronze key here is so invisible (just above my cursor) that I couldn't remember why I took this screenshot and I nearly deleted it.
As I progress, I'm naturally encountering tougher monsters, and they're getting wise to the bob-and-weave trick. They like to wait until I'm at the end of a narrow corridor to pounce on me, or to outflank me in multiple groups. It annoys me that I can't tell what any of them are called. They are getting graphically more interesting.

And terrifying.

Also as I progress, the game is starting to make things interesting with more complicated puzzles. "Interesting," mind you, in the same way that Wichita is more interesting on Friday night than Thursday. But you take what you can get. Many of these puzzles involve spinners, and while I normally see them as a trite and tiresome dungeon-crawling clich├ęs, I have to admit that Bloodwych does them right. In most games, spinners occur at spots where it's immediately apparent that you've stepped on them by the screen going all wonky. You just have to consult your compass to navigate them. Bloodwych, on the other hand, strategically places them at spots in which the surrounding area looks same from both directions, and then compounds the difficulty by having the compass only last a few turns after you cast it. Clever bastards.

A lot of the puzzles involve buttons and pressure plates that lower walls and pillars. Here's a complex example from the Moon Tower, Level 3, combining pressure plates, pits, a spinner, and anti-magic zones.

The pit at point (1) is unavoidable. You have to have the "levitate" spell when you reach this point to get over it. If you don't have it, you're rather screwed, because monsters don't respawn, so there's no opportunity to grind and level up to acquire it. Helm alluded to this in a comment a few days ago. It seems a little unfair on the part of the game.

Crossing point (1) puts you on pressure plate (2) even if you're levitating, which closes the southern door. At this point, you need to exit the room via the northern door.  Unfortunately, squares (9) are all anti-magic squares, which kill the levitation spell.

"Levitate" fails just when I most need it.
To get through, you need to step on pressure plate (4), which lowers pillar (8), allowing you to get around to pressure plate (7), which lowers the pillar south of (6) (I forgot to number it). Pillar (6) itself is lowered by pressure plate (5). Complicating things is the spinner at (3), which keeps making you go in the wrong direction. Once all of the pillars are lowered, you can edge around to the pressure plate between (6) and (9), which at last closes the pit at (10). I'm not saying it's going to compete with Myst for puzzle difficulty, but it was the most complex thing so far and thus a welcome surprise.

This was the game's hint on this puzzle.
A few other things I think I've neglected to cover so far:

  • I had my archer/assassin in a melee position for a while, and I noted that he makes backstabs when the enemy's back is turned. He's not as useless as I thought.
  • You can easily tell the worth of a bit of armor by its effect on your armor class, but weapons are more difficult to evaluate. I assumed a mithril axe was better than a regular axe, of course, but then I found a "troll axe" and wasn't sure whether to dump my mithral axe or not. Tracking and averaging hit point damages seems like a little too much investment. I've also found a couple of wands and rings that I'm  not sure what they do. In these things, it shares another similarity with Dungeon Master.

Equipping a new weapon. Note the armor class ranking below my inventory.

  • The number of points required to cast a spell decreases with each casting. Late yesterday, I finally got the "alchemy" spell and was able to convert unneeded equipment into piles of gold--no more rude shopkeepers. It started off requiring 15 spell points but after about 20 castings, it was down to 8.
  • As I said above, monsters don't respawn. Or, if they do, it takes a long, long time. Dungeon Master had a few areas with constant respawns where you could grind.
  • The game is inconsistent about whether foes can open doors. The best I can figure, they can open wooden doors but not metal doors and grates. This gives me some breathing room if I want to prepare some spells to fire off when the door opens. It's not a big exploit because they can step in the doorway quite easily and block you from closing it.
The party steels itself for the monsters beyond.
  • There are no "extra" areas. Virtually every room and corridor must be traversed to get to your objectives, which means that the game is almost completely linear.

Another gem recovered. Now to find the resurrection chamber.

Plot-wise, my word-count-to-playing-hours ratio is quite low. In about six hours of game time since the last posting, I ascended the Moon Tower and found the Moon Crystal. There were other illusory walls and button/pressure plate puzzles on the way. Not much else to say about it except that unless the last three towers are exceptionally easy, I'm about 40% done. I'm not going to spend all of the long weekend on this, though, so one way or another I'll wrap up this game by Saturday.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bloodwych: Dead Ends

Nowhere left to go.

Shortly after the last time I blogged, I ran into a literal dead end with Bloodwych. Even after retracing my steps twice and sketching a crude map of the dungeon, I could only find one door I hadn't opened, and I couldn't find a key for that door.

I broke down and looked at an online map offered by a gentleman named Alan Chapman at one of the few online resources for Bloodwych. I'm glad I did, because that dead-end pictured above is actually supposed to be a set of stairs. This is apparently a well-known bug in the game (reader Leszek Wronski alluded to it on my first posting), called the "Welcome Back! bug" after a sign at the top of a nearby set of stairs. Owing to a certain dearth of solid material on Bloodwych online, it took me a while to solve. Someone had created a patch, but it only runs on 32-bit machines unless you use DOSBox, in which case you also need another file. I don't normally supply tech support on this blog, but for future readers who might come across this entry while having the same problem: you want to find the fix file called WBFIX.EXE somewhere online (it actually came with the version of Bloodwych I downloaded) and another file called CWSDPMI.EXE. Open DOSBox, run the latter first, then the former.

All of this raises the question about why I struggled so hard to fix a game I didn't really like when I had a perfect excuse to stop playing. The truth is, I took to heart the "RTFM" exchanges from back in March. The guy had a point. I bailed on the second two Bard's Tale games way too soon. I may not finish Bloodwych--it's extremely long and repetitive--but I want to make sure I fully explore it before I come to that decision.

Yesterday was an odd day. I've had a serious back pain problem for a few days, and since I didn't have to go anywhere yesterday, I loaded up on pain medication. In addition to doing a great job on my back, the medication made me disoriented and yet oddly obsessive about the task in front of me. I ended up playing Bloodwych for roughly 12 hours straight. I had nightmares about the game when I went to bed, and today I can't remember half of what I did.

Despite the investment of time, I didn't get very far: I explored one tower and recovered one of the five crystals I need to defeat Zendick. Halfway through the day, I began to seriously regret not mapping the levels, but I persisted in not mapping until the end. If I continue playing, I think I'll have to change my mind about this, as the levels are extremely complex, and missing a single item can cripple your progress.

20% done!

Character leveling was also very slow. When I began yesterday's gameplay, all four of my characters were Level 3. When I finished, three were Level 5 and one was Level 6. I can't imagine how slow it goes if you're playing in tandem with another player/party. I hate to keep comparing this game to Dungeon Master, but I miss the other game's leveling system, where you leveled up fairly regularly based on what skills you used rather than your starting class.

I do confess to some enjoyment of the equipment-based leveling. I like multi-character games in which there are several things to buy and wield, so that every hour or so, you find an upgraded pair of gloves, armor, a shield, or a weapon. Unlike in Dungeon Master, statistics make it immediately apparent how each item relates to the others.

Finding mithril plate is cool, even if it's a bit odd that my mage can wear it.

The game also follows Dungeon Master's tradition of telling you nothing about the foes you face--not even their names. Some are easily identifiable, of course--a dragon, a giant crab, a skeleton, and beholders among them--but I have no idea what some the humanoids are supposed to be.

Some of the foes encountered yesterday.

The culmination of the day was the achievement of the Serpent Crystal at the top of the Serpent Tower. Fighting my way to the top wasn't easy. First off, I rescind what I said yesterday about bobbing-and-weaving during combat as "quasi-cheating." When I said that, I was still capable of winning combats without resorting to such tactics. As I soon realized, simply standing face-to-face with most monsters is a death sentence, no matter how well-equipped you are, and no matter what tactics you use. The game seems to assume that you'll use guerilla-style combat to win most battles, and it occasionally has some fun with you by designing the levels in such a way that such combat is impossible. The entire top level was like that, with lots of  linear corridors, dead ends, and enemies coming from multiple directions. Surviving it took a lot of work, and yet I can't say it was "satisfying" work, because it relied on lots of luck and reloading rather than any real "tactics."

This wasn't nice.

When I left the Serpent Tower, I had a key to the Moon Tower, and thus settled on it as the next port of call. I took a 20-minute video illustrating various gameplay elements.

For those of you who don't like to watch narrated video, the major sections are:

1. Some introductory stuff and a tour of the interface.

2. Combat against a couple groups of beholders, illustrating the bob-and-weave method, how the resurrection room works, and what happens when you die.

3. Trying to sell excess items to shopkeepers. This process has been very frustrating, and they usually insult me rather than buy anything. I'm looking forward to getting the "alchemy" spell, which automatically converts extra items to gold. Gold is important because you need it to purchase new spells from the spell fairy every time you level up, and to buy potions from the occasional (actually, only one so far) potion shop.

4. Dispelling some illusory walls.

The only accessible room in the Moon Tower has a couple of gem-shaped receptacles on the walls, and I assume I need to fill these before I can progress forward. Unfortunately, I don't have any gems to put in them. Clearly, I overlooked them somewhere in the main tower or Serpent Tower, meaning I have to retrace my steps (and probably map this time) if I want to keep playing. I am seriously considering quitting on it, motivated primarily by Trudodyr's report that nothing really changes.

There are two lessons that I've learned the hard way:

1. Both "archers/assassins" and "adventurers" are kind of worthless. They both have lousy spell points (less than half of the mage) and also do lousy in combat (my fighter routinely scores hits in the 40-60 range while my adventurer rarely gets above 15). If I was starting over, I'd play with two fighters and two mages.

2. The CPU speed determines how quickly hit points, vitality, and spell points regenerate, but it also determines how quickly you get hungry. I used up all my food and was still starving before I thought to lower the DOSBox speed from the default of 3000 cycles to a more reasonable 700-800.

On the subject of dead ends, I've found through some of my research that Mirrorsoft, the company that produced Bloodwych (through its label, Image Works), has an interesting history. Headquartered in London, the company was a subsidiary of The Daily Mirror, a daily tabloid published since 1903. Mirrorsoft was founded as an educational software publisher, but its educational offerings were soon outstripped by its games, of which it published more than 50 between 1983 and 1991. Most are action games; Bloodwych is the only CRPG.

Mirrorsoft appears to have been the U.K. distributor for Dungeon Master, which partly explains the similarity in interface, although the company doesn't seem to have any ties to the specific developers. The developers of Bloodwych are collectively credited as TAG and seem to be Peter James and brothers Anthony Taglione and Philip Taglione. They created the original world of Trazere, in which Bloodwych and The Four Crystals of Tazere (AKA Legend) are set.

Bloodwych might have been better known if not for a financial scandal and collapse of Mirrorosoft following the death of Ian Robert Maxwell in 1991. Maxwell owned The Mirror, Mirrorsoft, several Scottish newspapers, several book companies (including Macmillan), and The New York Daily News. He was the Rubert Murdoch of his day. In 1991, however, he died under mysterious circumstances when he fell off his yacht off the Canary Islands. After his death, a former Israeli Mossad officer claimed that Maxwell had been an agent for the service, even while he served in the British parliament.

More important for our purposes, it came to light that he'd been embezzling money from his companies' pension funds and that his companies were under water in debt. By 1992, the media empire had collapsed, its subsidiaries sold to pay off debts. Mirrorsoft was sold to Acclaim Entertainment, which had its own credibility issues and went out of business in 2004. Taglione and James had just begun work on The Four Crystals of Trazere when Mirrorsoft collapsed, and apparently it wasn't far enough along to be part of the Acclaim deal. Instead, they pitched it to Mindscape, and it was accepted. I'll be playing that game in a couple of years.

Tomorrow, I'll make a decision whether to continue with Bloodwych or move on. There don't really seem to be any walkthroughs or full-length LPs online, so I have an urge to finish it just to document the ending. On the other hand, it really is excruciatingly boring, repetitive, and linear.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bloodwych: We All Have to Take a Bite

Stir 'em up and slather them on rye bread, and you have...a Bloodwych.

I've learned the hard way to be cautious about making proclamations on a game's overall quality too soon. It's sometimes easy to judge a game harshly when you're simply unfamiliar with it. My early posts on Dungeon Master and Wasteland, for instance, show little of the fondness that I would ultimately come to have for the games.

Thus, I was careful to invest at least six hours into Bloodwych before coming to this conclusion: it kind-of sucks.

The primary problem is the interface. There are too many buttons to click that are too small, and the overall arrangement of screen elements makes miserable use of real estate. For instance, to cast a "magic missile" spell, I have to:

  1. Double-click the "suit" icon for the character who's going to cast the spell. This can be tricky because if you accidentally jiggle the mouse during the click--something fairly easy with a Trackpad--you end up moving the character's position.
  2. Click small arrows to turn to the correct spell page (the game doesn't bother to take you to the last page you used; you always start at the beginning of the book).
  3. Double-click on the right spell. Spells are shown only by rune, so you have to memorize the correct runes or position for the spell you want.
  4. Click very small up and down arrows to adjust the spell's power.
  5. Click one of two "star" icons to cast it.

Try finding this arrow while playing with a Trackpad on a plane. Q: why didn't The Addict get a posting done earlier today? A: Turbulence.

Needless to say, trying to do this in combat while monsters are attacking you is quite impossible. Almost all the combat spells I've cast, I've lined up ahead of time. (More on this in a second.)

As another example, take the process of buying an item for a shopkeeper:

  1. Double-click the character that you want to communicate with (I've been assuming the one with the highest charisma is best).
  2. Click "Communicate."
  3. Click a down arrow that's very easy to overlook.
  4. Click "Trading."
  5. Click "Purchase."
  6. Wait until the NPC offers to sell something.
  7. Click on the inventory on the opposite side of the screen.
  8. Add gold to the free inventory slot, clicking as many times as necessary to stack the amount of gold you want to offer.
  9. Return to the left side of the screen and click "Offer."

Going through the cumbersome process of buying potions.

Equally onerous is the process, while in combat and taking damage, of shifting the focus between characters so you can track hit point and vitality levels. Dungeon Master at least had the decency to show everyone's status bars on the same screen.

I know you're sick of hearing me talk about keyboard shortcuts, but come on. Would it have been so hard to at least map each of the characters to one of the function keys so you can quickly switch between them? Why can't the space bar activate the "attack" button?

Ah, well. Moving  on. Since my first posting, I've collected a group of four party members--one of each major class--explored a good chunk of the starting dungeon, and leveled my characters up to Level 3. A few notes from my explorations:

  • Thus far, the dungeon hasn't been complex enough to bother mapping. Occasionally, a button will open a wall and allow me to re-visit an earlier area, but generally, the path through the levels is very linear, requiring me to find and use the right keys on the right doors. There are two types of keys in the game--common, generic keys that open a variety of doors, and special colored keys that open specific doors. The spell "magelock" seems to obviate the former, but I have a stash anyway.
  • You can try to talk with monsters just like any NPC. So far, I haven't found any purpose to doing so.

Funny, you don't look like me in my underwear in front of my ninth-grade homeroom.

  • Like many other games, Bloodwych requires you to feed your characters, monitoring their hunger level with a status bar. So far, food has been plentiful.
  • Banners on the wall give you hints. Banners outside shops tell you the prices of the goods that the shopkeeper offers.

"Slime" is actually a healing potion.
  • There are spinners in the dungeon. Always love those. Also pit traps. I haven't yet acquired the "levitate" spell that will let me avoid them.

The party avoids a large hole in the floor.
  • I've found two shops: a weapon and armor shop near the entrance, and a potion shop some ways into the dungeon. I accidentally killed the owner of the former, so I have nowhere to sell my weapons. In a helpful hint-filled comment, Inzimus Doto Zulen suggests I'll be able to convert items to gold with the "alchemy" spell when I get hold of it.
  • A lot of treasures are found within little alcoves or on the floor, but often the items are so small I don't really see them. I've adopted the habit of clicking on even empty-looking alcoves to make sure I haven't overlooked a pixel or two.
  • There have been a few button "puzzles," if they can be called that--basically, buttons on the wall that open sections of the wall. The "puzzle" part is just wandering around until you figure out what just opened.

Most of the game revolves around combat. As I indicated last time, it lacks the finesse of Dungeon Master. There are no special attacks, and you do not click combat options for each character. Instead, you choose a general posture--attack or defend--and the characters act accordingly. If you have spells queued up when you enter combat, your characters will cast them automatically. After that, it's all melee. But only the front two characters can engage in melee, meaning my two rear characters often have nothing to do. I've equipped them both with bows, but arrows are few and far between and they generally exhaust their meager supply in the first combat after I find any.

Character inventory with a few precious, precious arrows.

At first, I found combat extremely difficult and I died a lot. I had to keep returning to a resurrection room found near the entrance, similar to Dungeon Master's shrine alcoves.

As I got some experience, I realized that the game mechanics allow you to cheat a bit. Your opponent has to be facing you to damage you, so if you're in a big enough room and you're agile enough with the keyboard, you can dance around your opponent, hitting him from the side and rear before he has time to turn and face you. Even when the geography of the area makes this impossible, you can engage in hit and run tactics by darting forward, letting your characters strike a few blows, and then retreating to safety. Once I mastered these quasi-cheating tactics, progress became much more swift.

My characters pummel some kind of humanoid creature.

Leveling up happens when you sleep, and depending on the class, characters may be able to purchase new spells. Apparently, they're sold to me by the spell fairy.

I have very little sense of the size of the game or how far I've progressed in it. The manual suggests that I've started in a dungeon called Treihadwyl, and that I'll eventually need to retrieve four crystals from four towers before confronting Zendick in a fifth tower. So far, I haven't found any crystals, so I'm guessing I have a long way to go. I'm going to give it a few more hours to see if anything interesting develops. For those of you who seem to like this game, I have to echo what William said in a comment a few days ago: what do you see in it?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Game 74: Bloodwych (1989)

I honestly don't know what this is, but it's the closest we get to a title screen.

In July, I attended ReaderCon in Burlington, Massachusetts, where every year they feature a "bad prose competition." They mostly draw their passages from science fiction and fantasy, but I wish I could convince them to include some selections from CRPGs. The Bloodwych manual introduces the game with all of the literary skill of a seven-year-old describing the plot of a movie to his mom:

You are one of the Bloodwych. You must take on the persona of one of the last sixteen champions of Trazere. You must first explore Treidwyl, recruiting more champions, and gathering items to aid your task. Once you are prepared you must get the four crystals of storing from the towers. Take them to the fifth tower and there destroy Zendick, and banish the Lord of Entropy to the realm of chaos. To do this you will have to defeat the agents of Zendick. The Lord of Entropy has transformed many of the citizens of Trazere into weird monsters, and twisted the minds of many into those of psychotic killers. Some of these citizens may aid you, but many will try to destroy you. Good luck in your mission, and remember the spirit of the Bloodwych is always with you.

Well. Glad we cleared that up. I think we're going to have our own "bad prose" competition on The CRPG Addict fairly soon.

Bloodwych's aspirations to be Dungeon Master are blatant from the outset. Where the earlier game began with a novelette by writer Nancy Holder, Bloodwych begins with a tract written by whatever Image Works intern displayed the greatest knowledge of Saturday morning cartoons. In it, we learn that there was once a "secret order of psychic mages" called...wait for it...the Bloodwych. Ruling from the city of Treihadwyl, they governed the land of Trazere in justice and peace. But one of them--you saw this coming--craved more power. This wizard, named Zendick, overthrew the Grand Dragon of the Bloodwych, cast his fellow mages into the astral plane, and summoned monsters to roam the once-peaceful streets. Now he seeks to summon the Lord of Entropy to unmake the universe so he can remake it in his own image. But somewhere in the astral plane, a couple of the Bloodwych have gotten their minds together and possessed one of the Champions of Trazere and are impelling him to recruit followers to defeat Zendick.

Thus, the game also copies Dungeon Master's odd framing device in which the on-screen characters are really being controlled or possessed by an off-screen mage. And, like the former game, you start by selecting pre-defined characters rather than rolling your own. There are 16 possible initial characters among four classes--fighters, mages, adventurers, and archers/assassins--with various inventories of items and spells, and various attributes of strength, intelligence, and charisma.

"Ulrich Sternaxe" sounds a lot like another name I've been hearing lately...

The characters are amusingly odd, including ones that look like an orc, a jawa, Wonder Woman, a lizard, and a skeleton. I nearly went with "Baldrick the Dung" who, despite his name and what appears to be a scrotum on his forehead...

...had the highest charisma, but ultimately I setteled with "Eleanor of Avalon," who seemed like a well-rounded character. Whomever you choose, it appears that the other PCs are wandering around the starting area. Within moments after starting, I met the second guy in the top row, an orc-looking fighter named Astroth, and added him to my party.

Navigation and commands are also extremely similar to Dungeon Master, as you can see from the screenshots below, both offering battles with skeletons. The interface elements are in different locations, but both offer icons for moving and turning, combat and defense, and arranging party members information. There are status bars for each character's health, stamina, and magic.

Bloodwych has notably worse graphics and (at first glance) less complexity in combat tactics. You cannot assign individual fight commands to each character, for instance; you can only instruct everyone to fight. You also can't see each statuses for all characters; only one at a time.

At first, these "downgrades" from Dungeon Master had me longing for the earlier game, but slowly I started to encounter some of Bloodwych's unique charms. To start, there are actual NPCs and a dialogue system. As you encounter NPCs wandering around the dungeon, you can ask questions about locations and objects, and even recruit them to the party (at least, according to the manual, on the first level).

Slightly more advanced than "NAME! JOB! HEALTH!"

Second, the game has keyboard commands for movement, the lack of which was one of the things that bothered me most about Dungeon Master [Later edit: I misremembered; Dungeon Master had keyboard commands for movement. What bothered me was the lack of keyboard commands for other functions, like accessing inventory--something that hasn't changed in Bloodwych.] However, what it gains from these it loses from extremely small and numerous icons. This is not a game you can play on an airplane with your laptop's trackpad.

Third, you collect gold in the game, and the manual promises some sort of economy--again, something I found lacking in Dungeon Master.

Unfortunately, there are a number of things I already don't like. The sound, for instance. As far as I can tell, there isn't any--only music. The music is a relentlessly repeating passacaglia in some minor key that had me reaching for the mute button after only a few minutes. Neither combats nor opening doors produce any sound. I think it's a platform issue. I watched a quick YouTube video showing a C64 version with markedly worse graphics but some rudimentary sound.

In addition to the combat, the spell system is also significantly dumbed down from Dungeon Master. While spells do seem to be composed of a selection of runes, you can't choose them individually or experiment; you have to "know" the whole spell. You can, however, adjust the power of the spell before casting.

I haven't figured out what "magelock" does yet, but I suspect it locks doors.

In gameplay terms, I've explored the first level, killed a bunch of nameless monsters (like Dungeon Master, you don't get any clues as to the names of your foes), and collected a lot of treasure from bodies and alcoves. I've collected one NPC, but I know where there are more hanging around, and after I have a chance to evaluate them, I'll round out my party with four. I haven't seen any obvious level progression yet.

Fighting some guy who's not even facing me.

Much has been made in various online reviews about the two-player option in the game, which I admit is somewhat impressive. Two players can play cooperatively via a split-screen view in which the parties can see each other, fight the same monsters, trade equipment, and whatnot.

Two parties view each other with a skeleton in between.

The two players share the same keyboard: movement keys for the top party are on the right side and for the bottom party on the left side. Unfortunately, I can't figure out how to set it up so it recognizes a second mouse. I'd try harder, but I don't have anyone to play with anyway. That sounded sadder than I intended.

Before I go, I want to hypothesize the conversation that must have occurred amongst this group of mages.

Mage Leader: Well, we're a group of good mages who are going to rule the land in peace and justice. What shall we call ourselves?

Zendick: How about the BLOODwych?! Bwu-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Mage 2 (whispering to Mage 3): Do you think we're going to have problems with him later?

Hold On; I'm Coming

I got a call earlier this month that could have been a lot worse.

I have this contract to write two books for the federal government. It's nothing exciting; "technical manuals" would perhaps be a better term. Anyway, I'm a bit overdue on the contract: I was supposed to turn in the products in April.

One Monday morning in early August, my phone rang and I found myself talking to my contract manager. She didn't sound happy.

"Can you give me a firm deadline on the books?"

"I'm really sorry," I explained. "When I gave my original time estimate, I was only thinking about the writing. The research and data preparation took me a lot longer than I thought. I think I can finish them by the end of the month. I've been working on them as much as I can."

She was still cold: "I'd like to think that, but then I see that..."

In the space between words, I went into a mild panic. In my mind, I could hear her finishing the rest of the sentence: " maintain a blog in which you play dozens of hours of video games a month. We've decided to revoke your contract and give it to someone who cares more about the United States of America."

But she didn't say that. She said, "I see that you just took a job teaching adjunct classes for [a university]. Why are you taking on more work when you're four months behind on your contracts?" She had been sniffing around my LinkedIn profile.

I was so relieved that she hadn't found out about my blog that I couldn't think of anything to say but the truth: "I have trouble saying 'no' to things."

"Good," she said. "Here's something you can't say 'no' to: Turn in the first book by next Monday and the second by the following Monday, or you'll be in default of your contract."

I tried to protest the injustice of not saying anything to me for months, and then suddenly giving me 14 days to finish, but it was to no avail. (Well, it was to some avail; I bargained her up to 21 days.) So, this month, Bloodwych took a back seat to saving one-third of my annual income.

I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't turn in the second book yesterday with literally moments to spare. I've been playing since then, I have half a posting ready, and I expect to get the full thing out tonight.

I didn't want to start my first Bloodwych entry with excuses and an apology, so I offer them here. I'm sorry I've been gone so long. I'll catch up on my playing and on your e-mails as soon as I can. Thanks for sticking around!