Monday, December 31, 2012

Curse of the Azure Bonds: Behold

And, just like that, my day was gone.

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.

I can't even remember how much copper, silver, and electrum are worth. A platinum piece is worth 5 gold pieces, and the shopkeepers of the game fortunately convert everything to platinum. Although this makes sense logistically, in a world where the classic unit of currency is the "gold piece," it's funny how you don't end up carrying many of them.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Curse of the Azure Bonds: Factions

Chaos is sown in their passage.

The overriding theme of Curse of the Azure Bond is the party's relationship with various factions at work amidst the chaos of the Dalelands. The game manual gives a very good overview of these "power groups," but it's tough to get a full handle on things until you start playing. The key groups and their points of conflict are:

  • The Fire Knives hate King Azoun of Cormyr because he kicked them out of Cormyr. They've used their bonding technology to try to assassinate him twice, first with Alias (the heroine of the Azure Bonds novel) and then with my party.
  • The Zhentarim, a mercenary group in charge of Zhentil Keep, wants to take over the Dalelands and to that end has invaded the city of Teshwave, has allied with the city of Voonlar, is threatening Dagger Falls, and is fighting with the armies of Hillsfar (called the Red Plumes) in the ruins of Yulash.
  • Yulash, meanwhile, is also inhabited by the Cult of Moander,  the god of rot and corruption. Though he was banished to another realm by elves some time ago, his fanatical cultists have tried several times to restore him to Faerûn. Alias and her party were among their (failed) pawns, and my bonds are part of yet another attempt.
  • Elminster the Sage protects Shadowdale and has numerous enemies. The Zhentarim have designs on the city, and their Voonlar allies have attacked it several times. Dracandros, a Red Wizard of Thay, seems to be jealous of Elminster, going so far as to duplicate his sigil. Elminster is affiliated with the Harpers, a group of mostly good-aligned agents that oppose evil groups like the Zhentarim.
  • There is also a schism within the Zhentarim between the regular troops and mages, and the clerics led by Fzoul, a priest of Bane.
  • The Knights of Myth Drannor patrol the ruins of the ancient, powerful elven city, stopping anyone from getting in and anything from getting out. I encountered one of them fighting the Fire Knives for an unknown reason.

It is into this boiling cauldron that my party has been thrown, bonded to four of the five evil groups listed above plus Tyranthraxus, whose particular goals are unknown but who, like many of them, has an allegiance to Bane, the god of fear, hatred, and tyranny. Each of them wants to use me for their own purposes, but their alliance otherwise seems unstable and temporary. As I travel throughout the overland area, I see the evidence of the factions at work with and against each other. My Zhentarim sigil got me ill treatment in several towns (Red Plumes from Hillsfar overturned my drinks and attacked me), and I was barred from several inns. But in others, I was treated like royalty. Armies on the road are marching from one city to another.

How hard would it have been to wrap some cloth around our arms=?

Unfortunately, I can't really role-play the factions. Since the primary motivation of the game is revenge against those who have bonded me, I am by default against those five groups and in favor of whomever opposes them. That works out okay for my good-aligned party, but some stronger faction-joining options would have made a more interesting game. The only role-playing option I've encountered so far is a phalanx of soldiers heading from Voonlar to Teshwave, intending to invade. Going with "the enemy of my enemy's allies is my friend," I attacked and routed them.

This was a good role-playing choice since I had no idea how large the "army" was. (It turned out to be about 12 guys.)

As I started to note at the end of the last posting, the outdoor area consists of a dozen visitable areas with multiple routes among them. You don't actually move the party between them but rather specify a destination and a method of travel. In between any two areas, on any route, there's a chance of a fixed encounter. For instance, between Teshwave and Zhentil Keep by boat, you'll be attacked by river pirates (unless you've already fought them off once). Between Tilverton and Dagger Falls by wilderness, you encounter a group of displacer beasts who have recently eaten the mage in charge of training them.

The destinations themselves consist of three types:

  • "Menu cities" in which you can visit stores, inns, bars, training halls, and temples, but only by menu.
  • Full cities containing one or more 16 x 16 maps that you can explore, all as part of the main quest
  • Menu cities with ruins nearby that you can explore via the "Search Area" command. These ruins are largely generic areas with random encounters and not important to the main plot.

Phlan, the setting of the last game, is much reduced in this one.

I was delighted to see that I could travel as far as Phlan, but it turned out to be a menu city. The option to explore the ruins took me to a set of generic ruins and not the same maps as in the original game. Still, there was a fun set of "tavern tales" in the Phlan bar, including the city clerk's depression with no new commissions to hand out. I was also pleased to see that the buccaneer base and the Zhent outpost to the west of Phlan were still in ruins.

Since I left Tilverton, I've been keeping a spreadsheet with every combination of starting point, destination, and route. There are almost 100 total, and I intend to travel every one to make sure I don't miss something important.

In terms of progressing on the main plot, there's an area called the "Standing Stone" (a monument commemorating an elven-human peace accord) where I encounter a mysterious robed man. Apparently, he gives hints as to the best faction to tackle next. But I was late finding the Standing Stone and I made an independent decision to take on the Zhentarim after the Fire Knives. My rationale is that fighters are easier than mages (like the Red Wizard of Thay) or clerics (like the cultists of Moander). Little did I know that the Zhentarim has plenty of mages and clerics--as well as gryphons, manticores, minotaurs, a medusa, and a beholder--in its employ.

Zhentil Keep was a powder keg from the moment I entered. Citizens scurried away from me on the street, whispering about a halflling who had been spreading rumors about me. Groups of mages, clerics, and fighters attacked me openly in the street. Several times, my bonds compelled me to attack them, but as they were priests of the evil god Bane, I didn't mind. I'm still a little unclear why the priest leader of the Zhentarim was compelling me to kill his own people, but it probably had something to do with the previously-mentioned schism.

Nothing like compelling me to do something I would have done anyway.

Pressing forward, I eventually encountered the halfling, Olive Rustkettle (another of Alias's companions from the book), who led me into the base of the Fzoul, the Zhent leader, who had captured the sage Dimswart. I'm not entirely sure why she was going through the city ahead of my arrival, telling everyone about me.

When I rescued the sage, he told me a lot more about my bonds (as he did for Alias in the book), including the identity of the high priestess of Moander (Mogion) and the Red Wizard. He suggested that Fzoul had me bonded so that he could make use of a cache of good-aligned weapons (how this works if I chose evil characters is unexplained). Most important, he told me that to defeat Tyranthraxus, I would need three magical artifacts: the Amulet of Lathander, the Helm of Dragons, and the Gauntlet of Moander.

I've played too many CRPGs to trust women in hooded cloaks, but the game left me with no choice.

I found that the base was sealed shut, but a mysterious hooded woman kept showing up and offering to lead me out, and finally I had to accept. She led me to a series of caverns and to her master, a beholder named Dexam, part of a faction of priests and beholders that serve Bane. Although technically allied with Fzoul and the Zhentarim, when Fzoul showed up and demanded that the beholder release me, the beholder blasted him with a disintegration ray and my Zhent bonds disappeared.

The enemy of my enemy did not, in this case, turn out to be my friend.

Dexam left me to his minions, whom I defeated and began looking for a way out. What I was beginning to grasp in the city itself became very clear in the caverns: I was here way too soon. My exploration of the caverns was a long series of deaths and reloads, with no way to escape until after the final battle (even one level-up would have helped). Every enemy I encountered had at least one cleric or priest, and battles with them are like quick-draw gunfights in the Old West, but with "Hold Person" spells instead of guns. If they got the drop on me, I'd have two or three characters frozen instantly, with almost no way to recover at that point. Winning even the random combats was a furious process of "Hold Person" and "Fireball." Some of the battles featured Drow warriors (no idea what they were doing here) with -7 armor class and high magic resistance, and thus virtually undamageable. I'd slay their minions in a couple of minutes and then spend the next 10 desperately trying to deal any damage to them as they took down my party members one by one.

Manticores can shoot their barbs and get about 8 attacks per round. When I had finally dealt with them (with fireballs, mostly), all the while fending off "Hold Person" from the priest, I still had to deal with the Drow. This battle took me about seven tries to win.

The random encounters seemed near-endless, and for a while I worried that they were. The only thing keeping me alive was finding a corner to rest and re-memorize in after every battle or two, and these rest periods carried a high risk of another random combat. Eventually, though, they did end. The whole experience served to remind me that some of the most angst-filled moments I have in CRPGs are when I'm stuck in areas and I don't know when I'll next be able to level up, identify my equipment, and otherwise reach a "stable" position. The expedition-and-return model is so common to CRPGs that it's jarring when games break it by making it unclear when you'll be able to "return" or simply not featuring returns at all (e.g., the entire roguelike sub-genre).

One of 20-25 identical battles in the caves. I don't know where I'd be without "Fireball."

The caves culminated in a major battle against Dexam the Beholder, his hooded assistant--who turned out to be a medusa--and a pack of minotaurs. Since medusas have the ability to gaze my characters to stone, and beholders have death rays and disintegration rays, the battle was essentially a question of whether my saving throws would keep me alive long enough for my fireballs (including a necklace of fireballs that I gave to a cleric) to clear out the minotaurs so that my fighters could reach the beholder and medusa. Even with "Haste," "Bless," "Prayer," and "Protection from Evil" active, it was nearly impossible, and the video below shows how my lower-level party was really out of their league in this battle. (It also illustrates a little about combat, sound, and graphics in the game.)

Nonetheless, perseverance and luck did the trick, and I killed the enemy and got the Amulet of Lathander from the beholder's corpse.

When I emerged from the caverns, Olive took Dimswart away, and I caught yet another glimpse of Princess Nacacia eloping with Gharri of Gond.

Zhentil Keep had descended into full chaos, and I was unable to re-enter the city to finish mapping the unexplored areas. Also, I keep getting attacked by random parties of Zhentarim on the road. But I no longer have drinks spilled on me in pubs, so there's an improvement.

The Zhents weren't happy that I turned their city into 1990s Sarajevo.

A few notes:

  • I've had to get used to the idea that large experience rewards are normal and don't mean that I'm going to level up on my next visit to the training hall. Every time I see a 4,000 or 5,000 experience reward, I assume that someone must have leveled up, but no, it takes a dozen of these now.
  • The economy is as bad as in Pool of Radiance, and already I'm not bothering to loot enemies after combat. The one good thing is that the game offered a magic shop in Zhentil Keep that sold absurdly expensive gear, like wands of magic missiles for 15,000 gold or potions of speed for 2,000. They also had magic arrows and Darts of the Hornet's Next. But then again, every random battle with mages on the street produced Bracers of AC 6 that sold for 9,000 gold. And it seems like the shop is inaccessible now anyway. Gold encumbers, so I try to keep every character with just enough to pay for his next level-up and nothing more.

This was briefly cool.

  • Hillsfar, a visitable menu town in Curse, was the subject of its own single-character game, Hillsfar, released the same year. I guess it technically game before Curse, since you can import characters from it, so I should have probably played it first.
  • I have two major complaints about the interface: the game remembers neither memorized spells nor targeted enemies. This makes re-memorizing cast spells and combat (especially ranged combat) more annoying than it needs to be. I wonder if this is ever corrected.
  • I really dislike wilderness combats, mostly because the game starts the party about 17 miles from the enemy, and you have to waste a few rounds just getting into position.
  • The game has a funny reaction if you order milk in a bar.

Octavianus has reached Level 8 as a cleric and essentially serves all my cleric-based needs now. Cesario is on the cusp of reaching Level 9--one more combat should do it. When he does, I'm going to flip him to a mage. When Octavianus hits Level 9, he'll get his fighter abilities back and will be considerably more useful. Goldeneye, the ranger, just got her first druid spells. I'll experiment with "Entangle," "Faerie Fire," and "Invisibility to Animals" eventually, but right now I'm happy to take "Detect Magic" duties off Viola's hands so Viola can memorize another "Magic Missile" instead.

None of these sound like they'd make better use of a combat round than simply having Goldeneye attack.

Next, I'm going to finish exploring the overland travel routes and then decide whether I want to take on the Red Wizard next or the Cult of Moander. The game suggests the wizard would make the most sense, but I hear he has dragons.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Curse of the Azure Bonds: Tyranthraxus Again!

Found in the Fire Knives' hideout. Who ever could they be talking about?

I was a little disappointed last year when a commenter spoiled the fact that Tyranthraxus returns as the main (or at least a main) villain in Curse of the Azure Bonds, but it turns out he wasn't spoiling much: the game gives it away in the first act. I'm pretty sure the sigil above shows up somewhere in Pool of Radiance, but if that wasn't enough of a hint, there are multiple references throughout the Tilverton sewers and Fire Knives hideout to Tyranthraxus, including this explicit one, found on a piece of paper clutched in a burned Fire Knife's hand:

Compared to Pool of Radiance, the beginning stages of Curse of the Azure Bonds are fast-paced and frenetic. Where the first game gave you time to explore the city, get used to the interface, and slowly engage the evil monsters residing in Old Phlan, Curse launches you into a series of difficult combats as you fight to escape the sewers of Tilverton, while a war between the Fire Knives and several foes rages around you.

Before we begin, I should note that we've had a change of cast, for three primary reasons:

1. In the comments in the last posting, Tristan and Malor successfully convinced me that a fighter/thief would be a better character than a straight thief, even if he can never advance his fighter levels past 9. The rationale is that being a fighter at all (even if he was only level 1) gives him a huge advantage in the equipment he can carry and wield. The disadvantage, aside from wasting half his experience after Level 9, is that dwarves can't achieve higher than 17 dexterity. Karnov, my level 7 fighter/level 8 thief from Pool of Radiance, rejoined the party. In keeping with a more-thief like tradition, I'm going to clad him only in leather or studded leather.

2. I began to regret the elf magic user. I wasn't thinking long game with that. I'd have had to dump him in Secret of the Silver Blades in favor of a human, since he wouldn't have been able to advance. I took a peek at the Silver Blades manual, and it appears that magic users start level 9. I would have had to sacrifice two levels for no advantage except for the role-playing satisfaction of having an elf in this game. And really, how does that affect my playing experience? What do I know about role-playing elves anyway?

3. That left me with a superfluous fighter. I don't really need four melee characters, and a plain fighter is almost entirely useless in this game. He has no advantages that a paladin or ranger does not have. Octavianus was capable of dualing to a cleric, but I felt I really need another mage more than another cleric, and Koren (my cleric) wasn't capable of dualing to a mage (she only had 13 intelligence), so I decided I couldn't keep them both.

I didn't have a lot of images for this section, so I thought I'd throw in a random shot of battle against trolls and crocodiles.
Dropping Octavianus, my lead character from Pool, would have been painful for legacy reasons (plus, he had really good statistics all around), so I dualed him to a cleric, which means he starts over at Level 1 and will be able to access his fighter abilities again when he hits Level 9 as a cleric (that might not take so long; he rose to Level 6 in the opening area alone). Koren, who had lousy attributes other than strength and wisdom, hit the road. Yorsh, the elven mage, I also sent packing. A human brother and sister, Viola and Cesario, joined the group. Cesario is a cleric who will later dual to a mage when Octavianus gets competent. Viola is a straight mage.

The funny thing is, I could have accomplished all of the above from the initial loading screen of my last saved game. When the game first loads, you get full functionality to add and delete characters before embarking on the continued adventures. I nearly did that, but that would have meant that Viola, Cesario, and Karnov technically don't have the azure bonds! I'm sure the game would have just retconned it for me, but I couldn't handle the paradox, so I restarted and played the initial Tilverton encounters again before continuing where I left off with the guild and sewers. Not mapping Tilverton had felt wrong, so I took the opportunity on the new outing.

The initial loading screen. I suppose you could replace every single character at any point in the game, leading to a Ship of Theseus problem.

With the limited amount there is to do in Tilverton, I still managed to accomplish more on my second outing than the first. I discovered that punching the barkeep or refusing to leave the bar puts you in a brawl with 8 low-level fighters. Drinking something other than lemonade gets you a series of "tavern tales" that flesh out the back story of Princess Nacacia, her lover Gharri, and her father, King Azoun, who is coming to Cormyr to find her.

A clue!

While my party was in town, the Fire Knives (a group of assassins) kidnapped the princess from the tavern and dragged her through the sewers to their hidden lair beneath Tilverton. Her lover Gharri, wielding a hammer and several high-level priest spells, charged to the rescue. At the same time, the Fire Knives started engaging the thieves' guild for the territory beneath the city and my party fled into the sewers after their compelled attack on the king's carriage (which turned out to have an impostor named Giogi of Wyvernspur). Thus, the Fire Knives were beset on multiple sides as I made my way through the opening maps. I frequently came across the remnants of battles between Fire Knives and the thieves, or Gharri, or some random knight from Myth Drannor. There were also signs of other incursions: bodies of mysterious cultists in green, and entire rooms that had been incinerated by fire.

I wasn't clear which of the Fire Knives' many enemies were responsible for this.

These opening areas preceded in three stages: the thieves' guild hideout, the sewers, and the Fire Knives' hideout. The hideout was actually the right half of the city of Tilverton, but with the transition between the two areas via cutscene (there appears to be no way to return to Tlilverton proper having left). The sewers area was composed of two 5 x 16 maps and one 6 x 16 map, which together make up a standard 16 x 16 grid area. The hideout was just a regular 16 x 16 area. Already, though, the game seems to be having fun with the standard map area and coordinates.

Tilverton, with the thieves' guild area on the right in yellow.

The sewers. These three areas are technically stacked on top of each other, not side-by-side.

The Fire Knives' hideout.

Throughout the three areas, there were some interesting encounters. A few highlights:

1. The sewers held several packs of otyughs--large, tentacled omnivores that live in filth--and neo-otyughs, their larger cousins. I was curious about their origins, but it appears that they were created specifically for D&D. Anyway, they really pack a punch, hitting multiple times with every attack. Each of my combats with them exhausted my spells and hit points, and usually left one or two of my characters unconscious (fortunately, there were plenty of safe places to rest in the sewers). I wouldn't have thought them intelligent, but one of the groups contacted my party telepathically and asked me to get them some balls of dung from another group in the sewers. The experience rewards were significant.

An interesting side-quest with some role-playing options.

This combat against them did not go very well.

2. There was a hidden thieves' guild training hall in the sewers, thankfully. Since I had just dualed Octavianus back to Level 1, he would have been wasting all his accumulated experience if I couldn't periodically train him up (you stop accumulating new experience just shy of your current level plus two).

3. Several areas of trolls. They were no easier than in Pools. One of them even made a reference to the famous Pools encounter:

Why are trolls always throwing things?

4. This game has stepped up the number of random, non-combat encounters. Each map has exhibited some level of them so far, including:

  • Random clips of conversation on the streets of Tilverton
  • Pieces of trolls occasionally encountered in the sewers. You can watch them regenerate and then fight trolls or burn them before they have a chance.
  • Random shouts heard through the Fire Knives' hideout.
  • A stuffed figure of King Azoun used as a knife-throwing target, encountered randomly in the hideout.

Random notes like this add considerable atmosphere to the game.

5. I found some decent magical equipment, none of which I used until I could identify it at a shop later. Last time, I made fun of the large selection of obscure pole-arms included in the game, so it was somewhat ironic that my first magical two-handed weapon was a glaive-guisarme +1. Also among the items were two different-colored "Ioun Stones" that increase various statistics when held.

A nice haul from the thieves' guild.

6. There was evidence in the Fire Knives' hideout that they were the ones to do the tattoo work:

Combat was harrowing at times, but fun. The creators have continued to do a good job with the blend of random encounters and fixed encounters. When I first entered the areas and started getting random encounters, I girded myself for a long slog against multiple packs of 6 Fire Knives and such. But the developers wisely put a cap on random encounters, so that after you've experienced five or six of them, you don't get any more. Pool of Radiance did something similar, at least in most areas. Throughout the combats, I noticed the significantly greater difficulty in Curse, and at times my party felt like it was back at Level 1 in the ruins of Old Phlan again, missing most of their attacks, causing 3-5 hit points per hit, receiving blows almost every time the enemy swung.

Oh, how I love it when enemies are arranged like this, and I have "Fireball."
The final battle was with the Fire Knife leader and his minions in a large room, where they had Princess Nacacia and Giogi captive. She broke free, brained the leader so he couldn't invoke my bonds, and the battle was joined.
The first time I blundered into the room, my hit points and spells were low, and I died. The second time, I availed myself of some mysterious magical dust that I found in the thieves' guild, and boy did it make the battle go easier! At the end, Princess Nacacia held a knife to his throat and demanded he release my bonds.

Moments later, King Azoun and his guard burst in. Nacacia stopped them from killing me, explaining that the compulsion wasn't my fault, but the King still banned me from Cormyr lands, including Tilverton. Nacacia, meanwhile, escaped again with Gharri.

That night, I had a bad dream in which the remaining four controllers of my bonds taunted me.

That didn't work out so well for the "Flamed One" last time.

And with that, it appears that the linear part of the game came to an end. In a departure from Pool of Radiance, I no longer have an overland map through which I can wander freely, but rather a map of the various cities of the region, to which I can choose to travel by wilderness, trail, or boat. Each method of travel between each two cities seems to carry the chance of some kind of special encounter. I'll cover this next time, though.

The world broadens extensively after the opening area.

Now I have to find and defeat my other four "masters," and since the game world has opened up, it appears that I'll be able to do them in any order. This is what I know about them:

  • The one with the moon that the sage in Tilverton thought belonged to Elminster of Shadowdale actually doesn't. A man in a bar in Shadowdale warned me that Elminster would be fairly irked if he found that someone was claiming to have been bonded by him. He suggested the real owner was a Red Wizard of Thay who has a tower to the south. There are rumors of a red wizard gathering dragons in the south, so this might be the same guy. A note in the Fire Knives' hideout indicated that he's "insane."
  • The hand with the mouth belongs to the cultists of the dead god Moander. They are operating out of Yulash.
  • The ornate Z belongs to the Zhentarim in Zhentil Keep. It appears they've been preparing troops for war.
  • The flaming symbol is Tyranthraxus's. I don't know where to find him.

Before I go, I want to mention that I have started reading the Azure Bonds book, and I can already see how different parts of the game allude to it. For instance, this entry in the thieves' guild "guest book" refers to one of the main characters of the book:

The book also gives a lot of context about the political and martial events of the area. I'd like to finish it before I keep playing. To be fair to the game, it's not strictly necessary to read the book; the adventurer's journal does an excellent job recounting the various personalities and factions in the region. But you do need the book to understand a lot of the little references.

I wonder if the book explains who this guy is.

I'm going to wander the roads a bit, then probably hit Zhentil Keep first. I have a particular dislike for them after the events of Pool of Radiance, and there was some tavern tale that they have had "trouble from an ex-councilman from Phlan."