Sunday, January 13, 2013

Curse of the Azure Bonds: Final Rating





Curse of the Azure Bonds 
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1989 for DOS, Apple II, and C64; 1990 for Amiga and Macintosh; 1991 for Atari ST and PC-98
Date Started: 25 December 2012
Date Ended: 7 January 2013
Total Hours: 21
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 60
Ranking at Time of Posting: 79/83 (95%)


So far in the history of CRPGs, we have only seen a handful of games with sequels. They include:

  • Ultima
  • Wizardry
  • The Bard's Tale
  • Phantasie
  • Questron (including Legacy of the Ancients)
  • Might & Magic
  • Shard of Spring/Demon's Winter
  • Pool of Radiance/Curse of the Azure Bonds

Which of these things is not like the other? It's Ultima. Every other franchise, so far, has featured essentially the same game engine between games, with perhaps some minor improvements in graphics, sound, and the interface. There have been variances in the quality of updating--Wizardry is indistinguishable from Wizardry V, while Might & Magic had some more significant changes--but generally speaking, each game in these series "feels" like it's part of the series. Ultima remains the curious exception throughout its history: they reinvented the game engine for every iteration (with the exception of the two Worlds of Ultima spinoffs from Ulima VI).

Naturally, then, the games in each franchise have very similar ratings. Wizardry I, II, III, and V are all within one point of each other. The variance between the two Might & Magic games is 2 points; the three Bards Tales are within 3 points; the Phantasies are exactly the same. It's to be expected. With the same (or almost the same) game engine, there are limited ways that a game can significantly improve (or screw up). We did see it in Demon's Winter, which had a significantly better story, less linearity, better NPCs, and more role-playing than Shard of Spring despite looking and feeling very similar.

I'm saying all of this to explain why I don't think my rating for Curse of the Azure Bonds is going to look much different than my rating for Pool of Radiance. Curse feels like what it is: a continuation of Pool. I'm writing what appears below without reviewing my Pool of Radiance final rating, but off the top of my head, there were a few interface elements I liked better in Curse but a better story and side-quests in Pool, and I'd be surprised if they don't end up with almost identical final scores.

1. Game World. This franchise is unique in that it takes place in a much larger game world with an enormously detailed history and lore, thanks to countless books, game manuals, magazine articles, modules, and other computer games. Each time you fire up a game set in the Forgotten Realms, you're amid a host of references and allusions to history, characters, and legends. There's nothing comparable to it in this era of CRPGs except perhaps the one BattleTech game.

I have to say, though, that I don't find the Forgotten Realms very compelling. It feels like there's too much in the setting--too many lands, too many races, too many monsters, too many gods. Every type of monster and mythology that could exist does exist; everything that could happen has happened; every plot twist has already been twisted. I was recently playing Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone which concerns a Githyanki general and a Slaad lord vying to see which one of them is going to lay waste to Faerûn. It's supposed to feel epic, but I wanted to tell them, "Guys, you're going to have to get in line behind about three thousand other arch-wizards, demons, gods' spawn, cult leaders, shadow druids, ancient lizard people, Drow matrons, disaffected half-breeds, dragon kings, fallen deities, and interlopers from other planes."

The Dalelands are only a small part of a much bigger world.
 
What the Realms lacks is a strong "core," like spice in Dune or the Force in Star Wars. Some of D&D's other settings have that core: Ravenloft's gothic horror, Dark Sun's dying earth, Planescape's "rules."

On the other hand, it's a good place to set a generic high-fantasy adventure, and once you're familiar with the way things work in the Realms, you can carry that knowledge to dozens of other games. Black dragons breathe acid, basilisks stun you, a platinum piece is worth 5 gold pieces, paladins are lawful good and can lay on hands, thieves can't wear metal armor, gnolls are evil, you can trust Elminster, and anything to do with Bane is bad--no matter whether you're playing Cures of the Azure Bonds, Eye of the Beholder, Neverwinter Nights, Baldur's Gate, or Icewind Dale.

I'm going to talk about the ties to the book at the end, but aside from Azure Bonds, the creators did a great job outlining the political situation of the area, the history of the Dalelands, and the nature of the various factions. With the possible exception of Tyranthraxus, it makes sense that these five power groups have entered into this uneasy alliance to bond the party for their own ends.

The game also does a good job evolving the world. When you first start playing, and you have all of the bonds on your arms, factions allied against Zhentil Keep treat you rudely and sometimes even attack you. (My party needed to be told about something called "long sleeves.") After you finish Zhentil Keep and lose the bond, those factions become friendly--but Zhent troops now have you on their "Wanted" list and attack on sight. After Silk made my ranger a Swanmay, several characters commented on it. River pirates remain cowed and stop attacking after you kill some of them. In a couple places, the game takes the convenient way out and simply blocks you from returning to places, but overall, it makes you feel like you're effecting permanent changes on the Dalelands. Score: 8.

2. Character Creation and Development. Curse did a good turn by introducing the paladin and ranger classes, and by introducing dual classes. The character system is otherwise indistinguishable from every other D&D game. As with Pool, I liked the ability to customize the icon. (We lost the character portraits, but they were goofy anyway.) My biggest complaint here is the lack of advancement. Imported characters from Pool of Radiance might only be able to advance three or four levels over the course of gameplay. The level caps ensured that my characters maxed well before the end of the game. There is no way to role-play alignments, classes, or races--the latter of which is a good thing, since the literal adaptation of first-edition rules means that you probably don't want anything but humans anyway. But for the few levels that you have, it feels good to get extra attacks and spells, higher backstab multipliers, and other benefits. Score: 6.

My winning mage was a victim of her own "Haste" spells.
 
3. NPC Interaction. There are about as many NPCs in Curse as in Pool, with the difference that many of the ones in this game were drawn from the Azure Bonds book. There are no dialogue options with NPCs, but the game does retain the "attitude" system, which sometimes works (rakshasa leave you alone if you're "haughty"), and there are frequently options other than dialogue.

I missed the hirelings from Pool of Radiance, and I wish there were more NPCs in this game that you could actually take into your party. But the few that do join you have interesting things to say about themselves and the environments. Score: 6.

4. Encounters and Foes. One thing I can say about the Forgotten Realms is that it has an interesting menagerie of creatures, and this game featured an awful lot of them--the manual lists about 40. The developers did a good job programming each monster's unique attacks, although as we discussed, the AI sometimes isn't up to par with these abilities. Having played about a billion hours in Forgotten Realms games, I didn't have to look up descriptions of my foes, but the manual did have them, with even an assessment of their relative difficulty levels (dogs are lowest, dracoliches highest).

 
(Just as an aside: it occurs to me that aside from the dracolich, there isn't a single undead in this game. That's a little unusual for a D&D game.)

The quality of the pre-combat and non-combat encounters was on par with Pool of Radiance, which makes it better than most of the games of the era. I liked the little choices: attack the dragon horde or talk with them; loot the crypts or restore them; punch the bartender or buy a drink; burn the trolls or watch them reassemble; help the rogue rakshasa prove that his comrades are cheating at gambling or just attack him; attack the hookah-smoking Drow or leave them alone. There were a dozen or so small but satisfying encounters along the roadways, including stopping an invading army, removing a displacer beast threat, and saving a farm from ettins. At the same time, though, I felt there were more cases in this game in which the choice was obvious, or the outcome was the same no matter what I chose. Score: 7.

5. Magic and Combat. I still think that the Gold Box system of combat is one of the best ever created. It has everything I like: a turn-based, tactical map; multiple attack and defense options; even some fun animations and sound. Magic is an integral part of the tactics of the game, and you need to carefully select spells to memorize and cast. Backstabbing and wiping out enemies with fireballs and lightning bolts literally never gets old.

Everything I could possibly say here is a rehash of what I said in my "Turn Based vs. Real Time" posting and my Pool of Radiance review, so I'll just conclude with the same thing I said about the first "Gold Box" game: "There are hardly any other games--ancient or modern--that achieve such a perfect blend of melee combat, spells, item use, morale, and (albeit limited) special abilities." That said, the AI limitations were more apparent in this game than its predecessor. Score: 7.

A tough beginning. These priests are capable of high-level spells and I need to damage them all quickly so they can't cast in the first round. There isn't enough space in this corridor to cast "Fireball" without hitting my own party. They're not lined up in the right way for "Lightning Bolt." "Stinking Cloud" would incapacitate maybe three of them. Since there are only five, I could try to have my party take them one-by-one in melee, but if they have better initiative, or I miss one of my attacks. at least two of my party members are getting "Hold Person" cast on them.

6. Equipment. Standard D&D fare, which is generally good. There was a wider variety of equipment in Curse than in Pool, including more rings, girdles, gauntlets, wands, and scrolls. As almost always happens, I was too conservative with my wands, and I ended the game with enough wand power to level a city. Every new map brought one or two equipment upgrades, and a few of them, like the Ring of Wizardry and the Girdle of Giant Strength, were unmitigatedly awesome. But we still don't see any detailed item descriptions, and where the heck are the helms and boots?

My ranger's final equipment list.

I must voice this complaint about this game and many others like it: all the good stuff appears in fixed locations. Why does it have to be this way? I think it would be far better if each reward cache had a random selection of the special items in the game. In the Fire Knives' hideout, you find a long sword +3 frost brand every single time. Why couldn't it occasionally be the Ring of Invisibility, or the long bow +3? It's not like there's a plot-related reason that the long sword has to be there. It would enhance replayability enormously if the items were mixed up. Score: 5.

7. Economy. Almost so bad the game might as well not have had one. Pool of Radiance had a glut in the economy, but at least you had to struggle a bit in the beginning. Curse of the Azure Bonds starts you with enough gold to buy everything in the equipment shop in Tilverton and still have enough left over for training. After that, battles and treasure hauls throw so many gold pieces, gems, and jewelry at you that you find yourself abandoning more than 90% of it--that isn't remotely an exaggeration--and you still have more than you know what to do with. The game did one thing better than Pool by including a magic shop, but even with that, I could have bought everything they stocked multiple times over. I don't understand how a game that does everything else so well could do this aspect so poorly. Score: 2.

There really isn't any point.

8. Quests. The main quest in Curse is more personal than in Pool, but it's still interesting. As with the previous game, there's a certain humility to it: your adventures take place in a small corner of the Realms, and you're basically determining the outcome of some factional strife, not saving the world.

I did like the quests in Pool better, though. The way the clerk fed them to the party, you felt like you were slowly accomplishing the revitalization of Phlan, not just hitting waypoints on the way to the final battle. Curse also doesn't have side-quests in the same way that Pool does, although it does have a few side-dungeons, including the memorable Beholder Corps. There is only one ending to the main quest, and not many quest-based role-playing choices along the way. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. No strong complaints. Once I figured out how to enable the Tandy sound, it was actually quite good. There's a certain graphical paucity to the dungeon corridors and rooms, but the monster portraits and icons are good enough. The keyboard controls were intuitive. The "Fix" command was a welcome addition, and I hope the next game straightens out some cumbersome aspects of the combat interface. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. As I discussed in my Dracandros posting, there is a refreshing nonlinearity to the gameplay. Although you have to do the Fire Knives first and Tyranthraxus last, you can do the three middle stages in any order, and intersperse those with the various optional dungeons and encounters. It doesn't have quite the same world-openness as Pool, but it's better than a lot of games.

Being too nonlinear comes with a price, and I found it in what seemed like excessive difficulty in some areas. But overall, I thought that the difficulty of the game was pitched very well. The pacing was also good; I felt it lasted exactly as long as it needed to.

As for whether it's "replayable," I'd have to say not very. By choosing a different route or different character classes, you might be able to alter the tactical challenge, but you'd have to be really into the game to want to do that. Score: 7.

The final score of 60 actually puts it 4 points below Pool of Radiance but still fairly high; only Ultima V, Pool, and The Dark Heart of Uukrul rank higher. That feels right. Fundamentally, I liked Pool of Radiance better for its story, quests, encounters, and a slightly better (if still bad) economy.

I don't know exactly what this ad is promising, but a teenaged me probably would have been disappointed.

This game throws an additional ingredient into the mix by basing itself on a specific book and introducing NPCs from that book to the game. I'm not sure how well that worked. When Nameless, Olive Ruskettle, and Akabar Bel Akash appear, the game is clearly winking at you, and you feel out of the loop if you don't know who they are. But expecting the reader to go through a 400-page book seems a little unfair. I'm not subtracting points for it, but I'm glad that not many CRPGs are based directly on books. It was a weird decision, really; surely, even when the game was new, only a fraction of the game's players would have read Azure Bonds.

I was hoping that Scorpia would corroborate the slightly "left out" feeling in her review, but she didn't mention it at all instead, in a curiously ornery review in the September 1989 Computer Gaming World, she bemoans that little has changed since Pool of Radiance, "combat still predominates," and there isn't much actual role-playing. (I'm not sure what games in this era she was playing in which there was actual role-playing.)

Best of all, though, she complains that the die rolls seem to be weighted in favor of certain monsters and against the party, and she goes into a long example involving otyughs to prove it. I was beginning to think that she might need a long vacation away from her computer, but the review is supplemented with a memo from SSI porgrammer Scot Bayless who says that she's right. He explains that they included hit and damage modifiers based on the terrain and environment without necessarily being explicit about it in the game: "Like all good DMs, our authors bend the dice to suit the story."

I'll be back in the Realms, with this party, in less than a year with Secret of the Silver Blades--a game that few of you seem to like--and in 1991 with Pools of Darkness. Four games in four years sounds like a lot, especially by modern standards, and that's just the "Pool of Radiance" series. SSI knew they had something with the Gold Box engine, and in 1990, they also launched the Dragonlance Gold Box series with Champions of Krynn, followed by Death Knights of Krynn in 1991 and The Dark Queen of Krynn in 1992. The two "Savage Frontier" games appeared in 1991 and 1992 respectively, and the company used the engine in a non-D&D context with Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (1990) and a 1992 sequel. As much as I like the Gold Box engine, it'll be a miracle if I'm not thoroughly sick of it by the end of 1992.

The next game might be a bit of a surprise. I'm still trying to figure out the controls for Dragons of Flame. I just bought a game controller, which I've never used on a PC before, and I'm not sure how easy or hard it will be to get it to mimic a 1980s joystick. Dungeon Master: Chaos Strikes Back was never actually released for the PC, so I have to figure out whether to use a fan-made DOS port or learn another emulator. The next game might simply be the one that gives me the least grief.

74 comments:

  1. ""Stinking Cloud" would incapacitate maybe three of them". Another good thing about Stinking Cloud is that even if spell caster make their saving throws, they will still be coughing and thus unable to cast spells. Gotta love that spell. :-)

    Interesting comment about Scorpia complaining about those Otyughs. I actually had the excact same problem first time I played the DOS version of this game (I guess I didn't notice back in my Amiga days). I remember loading up the Otyughs in FRUA to check their stats, and I couldn't understand how they hit "every" time with a THAC0 of only 13. It was only years later when I read Scorpia's review that I understood.
    Since then Scorpia has been my favourite reviewer, even though she probably was retired by then. Unlike the Amiga "funny" reviewers of the same era, she actually completed the games she reviewed, and unlike the mentioned funnyboiz she was able to look past the graphics and checks from the publishers, and offer some insight into the game mechanics. Not all publishers liked her, as you will see in Might&Magic 3.

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    1. I like the style of Scorpia, though I read only her recently in the archived CGW. However I feel sometimes when reeding that time to time she did write down things which did not exist in the particular game.

      And she did not really retire, but well, afaik, after CGW changed hands, the new leadership was not fond of her, and with the change in PC game styles from adventure and rpg games to FPS games, she was laid off.

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    2. had no idea the monster in MM3 was named in "tribute" to her. love hearing trivia like this.

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    3. As a diehard collector of CGW back in the 80's-90's Scorpia was one of the highlights of every issue. I keep hoping to see her pop in here one day.

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    4. I must be in the minority in thinking that her writing in CGW is really bad. There's no questioning her proficiency in playing the games and getting at their inner workings, but I find her sentences awkward and her paragraphs unstructured, and I can't stand the way she freely mixes review material and spoiler material.

      A couple years ago, I read some of her articles on her new site, Scorpia's Gaming Lair (http://www.scorpia.com/), and I found them much better. She'd clearly matured as a writer. I don't know if she's ever released any personal information, but I suspect she was fairly young when she got started with CGW.

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    5. I meant to add that despite what seems like an unkind comment on her work, I would love to have her occasionally comment on my site. Her accumulation of lore alone would be invaluable.

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  2. Excellent use of the word "effecting.". 10 points!

    Also, you might be aware thay Bryan Fargo and the guys who created the original Wasteland are creating a true sequel (they did Fallout because they wanted to do a sequel but didn't have the rights at the time). They are spending a serious effort getting feedback from the fans who want the game. I mention this because I think you are someone who truly has the experience and background to know what makes crpgs good, what makes them not so good, and what makes them great. So if you have any interest, please head over to the wasteland 2 forums and weigh in on the development. I think it could help produce the highest GIMLET ever when you get to 2013 :-D

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  3. one thing to note about sequels and Ultimas difference is Ultima felt esseitally 'indy'. It was Garriotts game, his company, his everything. The other sequels coming out were from corporates. Companies need more cash? cough up a sequel.

    There was certainly laurel resting from everyone but Garriott as far as sequels go.

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  4. for chaos strikes back, try searching google for "return to chaos" its a remake of the original game, everythings the same except its made to run on a modern machine in windows.

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    1. While RTC is fun, I would strongly recommend against playing it in the context of reviewing Chaos Strikes Back, as it differs in some details from the original.

      CSBWin, however, is an exact translation of the ST original, the programmer has painstakingly reverse-engineered the code so the experience would not differ in the slightest.
      http://dmweb.free.fr/?q=node/851

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    2. Does this mean it does not have the "magic map" scroll? IIRC that was in the Amiga version only.
      If it's missing CSBWin it makes a brutal game even harder, as the mapping will be much more difficult without the "magic map".

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    3. That's correct. No magic map in CSBWin, while RTC does have it.

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    4. So RTC has the magic map. What other differences are there? Are they substantial?

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    5. It's lots of small differences: Damage calculation, monster behaviour, sleep/recovery times, player and (thrown) object behaviour. Nothing substantial in terms of content, but it does play differently.

      RTC is clearly superior in terms of presentation, with better sounds and more colorful graphics. But for that reason, it might be prudent to treat it as a separate sofware that was initially released in 2001.

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    6. No vote was asked for, but I hereby throw in a request for CSBWin, based on this information. :)

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    7. I've downloaded it and I'm messing with it. I can't figure out any way (if there is one) to import from the DOS version of DM, but otherwise it seems to run okay.

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    8. Never mind--I figured it out. I think the import worked okay. That's if the game is SUPPOSED to start me in the middle of a dark room, without any weapons, surrounded by worms.

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    9. Yup, that sounds about right. ;)

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    10. Yes, that's right. This game is brutal from the get go!

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  5. Looked up the Otyughs comment from SSI. The area was in a sewer and was "slippery" which translated into -2 to hit for the party and +2 to hit for the monsters. That's why the lady was getting hit too often. I suppose the big hint that the party was going to have trouble standing upright in the sewers escaped her.

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  6. I guess it's a case of "each to their own", but I have always preferred fixed equipment drops to random ones, particularly if they make thematic sense, such as when the boss you just fought drops the cool weapon he was wielding in the fight. It always bothers me when a wolf drops gold pieces and a sword, or a kobold has a full suit of plate armor, where were they keeping them! Same for the thieves, it makes more sense for them to have weapons in their chest than wands or scrolls or plate armor, they are thieves after all (although if they just sold that +3 longsword instead of guarding it they would have so much money they could happily retire to the Forgotten Realms equivalent of the Bahamas!)

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    1. I agree with you completely on fixed equipment for particular foes, and equipment that makes sense in context. But a lot of the stuff you find is in chests or hoards, and I don't see why that couldn't be a little randomized.

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    2. Because, in a computer game people will save and reload before opening chests with random loot.

      If you never bother with archery, a +3 longbow is going to just be sold off for gold (or perhaps encourages you to try it out once).

      The better option would be for it to tailor it to your party's weapons- if it is time for a +3 weapon, then make it of the type one of the party members is currently wielding (that is preferably not already +3 or better).

      In tabletop D&D, you can have a bit more fun- some DMs prefer to give out the strange as the magic rewards rather than weapons/armor. It can force players to have to think about what to do with a Decanter of Endless Water, a bottle of Sovreign Glue, an Immovable Rod, and a Ring of Free Action (but the results could be hilarious or deadly).

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    3. Point, though in a good game carefully laying out the gear can help with game balance to improve the game (As opposed to Boarderlands or Torchlite where you throw away 95% of the randomly generated trash, and get sick of sorting through it)

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    4. Borderlands and Torchlight I think are a very different case- the entire game is highly randomized and supposed to be different each time you play it. Diablo also has the same thing with hunting through dozens or hundreds of random dropped items for the occasional actually useful one.

      It works, in a sense of giving the player a reason to explore and keep playing- but unless the designers supply something else to do, it will still eventually grow old on players.

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    5. Kellandros: True. On the other hand, The Last Story shows item drops spinning around like a slot machine, and it really cheapens it for me, and it means I keep getting Kahki Bullets, which you use to make green dye for the dress-up part of the game (Don't judge me!), when I already HAVE the green dye, so you might have just as well given me the sell value of the dye, or set it to give me a different type of dye item.

      Note: The Last Story is a JRPG, which is about the furthest thing from a Rogulike yet developed. (Try to name a CRPG subgenre further from it, please)

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    6. Canageek:
      That is an interesting question.

      In terms of gameplay, my mind jumps to Majora's Mask [N64] (but it is more action/adventure than RPG). Everything is pre-defined and scheduled, you have a strict time limit for play (but with infinite retries), and there are almost no random items or events (plus respawning monsters).


      But what are some things that define Roguelike?
      - single player
      - turn based
      - large random world layout
      - able to alter world geography
      - random equipment
      - perma-death
      - limited non-combat NPC interaction
      - single main quest with linear progression

      So that gives a list of multi-player or multi-character, real-time, with predefined/prerendered environments, limited upgrade items or no items at all, easy continues, heavy dialog options, and lots of side quests.

      That leads me towards Mass Effect (or most Bioware games). It doesn't quite cover my full list, but hits most of them to some degree.

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    7. Mass Effect would be a good contender, but I'd argue that it borrows from the best of western and Japanese RPGs anyway. Certainly the complex story telling seems to be in the Final Fantasy tradition, then merged with WRPG freedom, and Action RPG combat.

      Also: 'able to alter world geography' seems out of place, as there are a lot of RLs that don't have that. Also Nethack 3.4.3 does not have linear progression.

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  7. As usual, an excellent review.

    In pen-and-paper D&D, I believe helms are considered as simply part of the armor, so this would be another case of staying true to the rules.

    One big difference between Pools and CotAB that you didn't mention was how it treated the wilderness area. When I played CotAB, I remember missing the wilderness map and having to travel only the paths. Also, I thought it would have been interesting to have more than "menu cities," such as, as you say, have more things to do with your money.

    I don't think that Secret of the Silver Blades is god-awful. But I think it definitely is not as good as the other three in the series. I relaxed after I realized there were sections of the game I didn't have to map on graph paper. (I assume you already know what I mean since you've played it before.)

    Your articles on CotAB have inspired me to take up this series again -- I was going through the 4 games but stopped some time midway through Pools of Darkness. And by the way I'm looking Pools of Darkness a LOT. :)

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    1. rotgrub: Nah, while Helms are USUALLY part of the armour magic helms have been around for a while.

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    2. I covered the differences in overland travel in my second posting, but only briefly.

      If I've played SSB before, I don't remember it. What happens to wilderness travel in the next two games?

      Good luck with your own journey!

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    3. There is no overland travel in SSB.

      They added a new feature to do maps larger than 16x16 squares (I think some are 40x20 or so). Those are the 'wilderness' areas connecting between places. There are a lot of blocked passages outside of the main hub that you open up through progression as short-cuts back.

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  8. Re the Forgotten Realms setting, it's always been my impression that it was never meant to be a coherent world--that it was designed as a repository for pretty much any fantasy thing you could come up with. Got an idea for a fantasy analogue for a real-world culture that doesn't merit an entire world of its own? Or some new monster culture? A new god? A new kind of magic? You're in luck! There's always room in Toril! I kind of like that capaciousness, though I think it would pretty quickly break down into pure gibberish if you tried to actually place all these different aspects of the world in context. As compared to the likes of Krynn and Athas, which seem designed to be more stable.

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    1. I think that is what it evolved into. Ed Greenwood sent boxes and boxes of his own stuff to TSR, and the earlier boxed sets feel a lot more coherent then later material.

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    2. This is definitely true. The 1st Edition boxed set for the Forgotten Realms is definitely the way the world should have stayed. I think TSR just started tacking things onto the world because of it's popularity.

      "What's that? A world based on middle-eastern mythology? We'll stick it somewhere in the Realms! If we make it a setting of it's own, it might fail, but with the Realms wrapped around it, how could it possibly fail?" -- Something someone at TSR probably said.

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    3. That would make sense. "Not being a coherent world" doesn't jive with all of the novels and histories set within it. Why spend all that time developing lore for something that isn't supposed to hold together?

      I suspect, like the two geeks say, that the ultimate confused pastiche of the FR is more a consequence than an intention.

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  9. You write, "Ultima… reinvented the game engine for every iteration (with the exception of the two Worlds of Ultima spinoffs from Ulima VI)." I think you're overlooking Serpent Isle, which used essentially the same engine as its predecessor Ultima VII.

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    1. The two games used the same engine, hence "Ultima VII: The Black Gate" and "Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle" to give their full titles. Both games are regarded as one in The Age of Armageddon trilogy.

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    2. You're both sort-of right. Ultima VII, Part 2: The Serpent Isle is fundamentally a "new" game, and any other company would have called it Ultima VIII. Origin didn't because of the reason Wingnut says: they had a rule about developing a new engine for each iteration (which, in turn, justifies my original comment).

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  10. I think Ultima III to V used the same game engine, though they implemented a lot of other functionality.

    And in terms of gameplay, from IV to VII they changed to a more gradual improvement than what changed between I-IV.

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    1. There are huge differences between ultima 3,4 and 5.. only the general shape of the interface stayed the same. Among other things, from 3 to 4, the size of the overworld increased by a factor of 16 (huge), combat was now flee-able, the magic system completely revamped and the reagent system was introduced, 2D dungeon rooms and custom battlefields were introduced, NPC conversations were introduced, the ability (and necessity) of recruiting NPCs were introduced... big, big changes to the engine.

      From 4 to 5, you got a completely revamped combat system with targetable enemies and individual item drops per corpse, night and day cycles, NPCs with schedules, multi-story town/castle maps, movable/searchable objects on all maps, movable moongates... 4 to 5 isn't quite the change that 3 to 4 was, but definitely a whole new engine nonetheless.

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    2. Yes, I agree with 'nym: they're only the same "engine" in a superficial way, in that they all have iconographic interfaces.

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  11. And a few other notes:
    The Buck Rogers games had their setting in DnD, in wikipedia there is even an entry on it. I assume the CRPGs were created to promote the settings.

    One Gold Box game you forgot about, is Spelljammer. Probably not as good as the classic series, but it is an interesting setting nonetheless.

    I think their are many games in between to not to get bored with Gold Box games:)
    On the other hand the next one is not a CRPG, more than that Dragons of Flame is a really bad game in every way.

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    1. I'm not sure you mean about Buck Rogers having a "setting in DnD." You mean that the games used the same rules, not that they were literally in the same game worlds, right?

      I didn't realize that Spelljammer is considered a Gold Box title.

      I may have to skip Dragons of Flame. I can't seem to get the controls to work correctly no matter what I do.

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  12. Don't forget The World of Greyhawk. That was THE D&D world back in the day. Forgotten Realms gained popularity as the first legitimate alternative to Greyhawk when most players had become played out on that world.

    Forgotten Realms has done a wonderful job in replacing and now supplanting Greyhawk as the standard world. I love how you make the point about any arch-villain needing to get in line though. Someone is always up to something nefarious....but if you look back at the history of Earth I think you'll find the same can be said!

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    1. If you want to explore the World of Greyhawk, there are quite a few of the classic modules converted to FRUA available for download.

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    2. I don't know. It seems like most of Earth's villains were sufficient conquering a more limited territory, and even then mostly for the purpose of expanding an empire, installing a system of governance, or personal enrichment--not just to "lay waste" or "cover the world in darkness." And even then, they weren't operating at the same time.

      I didn't forget Greyhawk in my list of campaign settings. I just couldn't find a strong core to it. It seems to me (and this is someone who never played tabletop D&D there) that it's as generic high fantasy as the Forgotten Realms, just smaller.

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    3. Greyhawk was the default for the longest time- it was what people consider the classical fantasy world in D&D terms. Remeber, each of these worlds started out as one person's personal world for play. Greyhawk started as the vision of the founders of D&D- a world of small kingdoms, questing knights, and a more 70s view of fantasy.

      Since I only got involved tangentially in D&D around the early 90s, I first was exposed to Dragonlance, then Forgotten Realms. Those 2 eclipsed Greyhawk, at least in terms of tie-in novels and PC games.

      Forgotten Realms was the high-magic world- powerful high-level wizards run many kingdoms outright, artifacts show up repeatedly and run amok, and the gods like to interfere directly in mortal business.

      Dragonlance was going for a feel of world changing events and heroes of epic ballads. They ended up with 3 main time periods, each marked by large changes to the world and the gods. Change may have been the driving theme even- money was in steel coins, instead of precious metals. Old treasure hordes weren't instant wealth, and part of the reward was uncovering lost history and secrets of power. Death and logistics tended to be handwaved for narrative convenience.

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  13. Dear CRPG addict,

    Your review is spot on as usual. I really can't say much more. Great fun on the battlefield, but in the end, every game ended up being the same. I would always remember where the frost brand sword, and the dust would be. I would seek out Silk and remember what to say to priests of Bane in the Zhentil Keep.

    I personally played most the gold box games and never got tired of its tactical engine. What got me was that all of the games had one ending and one method of achieveing the ending, no matter the details of individual games.

    Thanks
    JJ

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  14. I read an article in Retro Gamer a few years ago about SSI and the deal they had struck with TSR.

    When TSR announced that they were seeking a computer games company to create an official adaptation of Advenced Dungeons & Dragons, they had received many pitches and ideas from several companies.

    The reason why SSI won was because they proposed that the same game engine be used for a series of RPG games. Why come out with a single "Dungeons & Dragons" game when you can sell many different games based around D&D? All the other companies had proposed a single game.

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  15. Just to add to your point, Addict: Richard Garriot made a point of not assigning a new number for every new Ultima game, until there was a dramatic change to the game. So that is why Ultima VII had sequels using essentially the same engine before Ultima VIII came out.

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  16. With Scorpia's complaing about the lack of role-playing in the game, I suspect she's playing pen & paper RPGs, and thus she misses it.

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  17. My other issue with the Forgotten Realms setting is it is a bit too much 'Fantasy wish fullfillment' for it's creator. Elminster is one of the biggest Gary Stus I've ever come across and if he isn't an Author Avatar as well, I'll eat my hat :P

    I still enjoy the computer games...it just pushes my buttons now and then.

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    1. Yeahhhh, apparently he was originally supposed to be a narrator and wise old sage who didn't get involved. Then people kept asking to see more of him.

      I blame all of us for E.

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  18. In regards to this statement:
    "When Nameless, Olive Ruskettle, and Akabar Bel Akash appear, the game is clearly winking at you, and you feel out of the loop if you don't know who they are. But expecting the reader to go through a 400-page book seems a little unfair."

    As someone who has never read the book, I don't think this is necessarily true. All the characters are integrated into the story in just the right way that you don't notice this. Until you mentioned it, I didn't even know these people were in that book.

    I never felt out of the loop...they had as much background and information about them as most other NPCs in these games. I think your opinion of this might be slighted because you read the book. And I mentioned several posts back that you might want to consider *not* reading the book because it might reveal something that you did not want to know.



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    1. Perhaps. Maybe if I wasn't astutely aware that there was more to the story, the limited information imparted on the NPCs would have made more sense.

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  19. just wanted to say i love the box art and ad pics. not of this specific game but overall for your blog. i enjoy that kind of stuff

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  20. No one cares a rat's backside about the fate of the Gadfly, but I thought I would fill people in as to why I haven't been buzzing about your ears of late. My wife is again in the hospital, drawing ever closer to death's door. She should be coming home this time, hopefully, but the time is coming way too soon when she won't be coming home again. I've been spending most of my time with her in the hospital, but I have been reading your blog, O Chet, just not commenting.

    If anyone cares, my ife is dying because when she was younger she had Hodgekin's lymphoma and was treated with massive amounts of radiation and chemo. This basically destroyed her heart and lungs. It helped her and killed her- she's dying and she's 41, so the treatment gave her 2 1/2 decades. She's had 2 heart valve replacements, and her lungs barely work. This is just the trimmings of the tree- I could fill a book with her OTHER cancer, her stroke, her heart infections, etc. I've had only 10 years of life with her and I've been watching her slowly fall apart for 6 of them. I won't have her much longer.

    TL;DR: To hell with you, my wife is dying and it's killing me.

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    1. My apologies, that TL;DR is way harsher than I meant it to be. It was supposed to be a slightly irreverent way to say goodbye and make fun of TL;DR's in general. Instead, I- well, I let my feelings get away from me. I don't FEEL 'to hell with you' toward Chet or ANY of you readers out there at all. Again, I actually thought it would actually be a little funny... but man, I let my circumstances get under my skin a little too much there and my apologies.

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    2. Don't worry about the TL;DR - at least when I read it I thought the intent had been like that.

      I don't really know what to say to your situation - words seem poor, you know? I would say good luck, but it sounds like it's too late for that. I hope you and your wife can at least share some more good moments and that the end is at least peaceful. You have my heartfelt sympathy - whatever good that is :(

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    3. My brother is in chemo now, and was in radiation last year, so I feel your pain.

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    4. Your words ARE nice and they do help- human contact, even if only through text on a computer monitor, is all we have in the end. So I do thank you, if even for only the small effort it took to smack your fingertips onto your keyboards and form words in our shared language. Shared joy is joy multiplied, shared pain is pain diminished (bonus credit- who out there can tell me where that is paraphrased from? Free hint: it IS a book).

      I am not gone, you won't be leave of the Gadfly that easily barring my own exit from this mortal coil through means unbeknownst (heart attack, bus attack, etc), so when I say goodbye know only that it means goodbye to this small square of text.

      Goodbye.

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  21. I just got done rereading your Pool of Radiance posts and I'm going to post of question here because I think it applies to both games and this one is more recent.

    When you get EXP for treasure do you only get it for gold or do you also get it for item values? Do you have to pick up the gold or sell the item to get it?

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    1. You get experience immediately upon winning a combat or finding a treasure cache. You could decline to pick it up, and you'd still get all the experience. I'm guessing it does factor item value into the experience rewards, but as with gold you don't have to pick the items up, and you certainly don't have to sell them.

      To be honest, I'm not sure there's a direct relationship between the value of treasure and the amount of experience. The experience rewards for both combat and treasure may have been programmed on an individual basis.

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  22. I'm playing through CotAB right now - currently in Zhentil Keep, and have just encountered Dexam the beholder. My experience with old PC games is different from many of your other commenters and from yourself.

    I never had a PC or home computer of any kind growing up - we bought our first one the summer before my senior year of college. So, I've been going back and checking out these classic old games without ever having known about them the first time around.

    I played a lot of text adventures for awhile, dabbled in Wizardry and Ultima titles (it must be said - I do have limits on just how much graphical /auditory crudeness I can handle. I can't really get into any Ultima before IV, and don't really stop minding it until VI) and then picked up a copy of the Forgotten Realms Archives 2-CD collection from Interplay.

    Back then, I still had a partition with Win 98SE on it, so really all you needed was MoSlo4Biz and the game and you could run the Gold Box titles fine. I worked my way through PoR and then transferred the characters to CotAB, but at some point my playing was interrupted.

    I've periodically gone back and tried to get going again, but the archived copies of the savegames/installation that have migrated with me across 3 additional PCs were corrupted or not working properly. I couldn't get it working. And I really didn't want to start over - much as you mentioned in another post, possibly the first post in the blog, I'd become attached to these fairly empty husks simply by virtue of seeing them through battles, watching them level up, improve their stats and achieve more goals. Just like with pen-and-paper AD&D. If I could play with that crew, i was just going to move on to something else.

    Well, lately I've picked up a bunch of new old games from gog.com (like the M&M 6-pack) and I started playing M&M 3 (had never explored that series before) and was having a blast and thought - you know, it's really a shame I haven't been able to get my Gold Box party running again. I didn't know if it was a save path issue with DOSBox/Dfend or what, but all seemed lost. I could run the games, but not with my characters.

    I'd wasted tons of time in the past working on it but decided I'd give myself an hour to try to make it work one more time. This time, instead of using my files that were on my HD, though, I dug through my old DVD backups and found the original files for both games. I installed from the FRA CDs and then did a couple of tests to be sure which real directory the game was using for saves, and then moved my save files over into them.

    Success! I lost most of my CotAB progress - the saves I'd burned to disc 8 years ago were made in Tilverton, so I had to re-do the Fire Knives and the Dracolich cave, but damn - I was happy just to have my characters back. So yeah - playing this one through now. Not sure if I will then move on to SotSB or go back to M&M3 (which hooked me really fastt).

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  23. Note that Wizard's Crown had a 1987 sequel, The Eternal Dagger, which I believe used a slightly updated version of the game engine. Just to add another data point. I've read that it wasn't as good as the original, though.

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  24. Over the last few months I've played through CotAB and I've nearly finished PoR, and I'm surprised at their relative ratings here. I felt like Curse was clearly the better game, and the one I'd be most likely to play again. I love the blog -- it inspired me to play PoR in the first place -- so I really wanted to add my perspective.

    Looking at the GIMLET rating, I agree that PoR should slightly win out on "Quests" and "Gameplay" as it was more open-ended and practically built on side quests. Curse was great too, but PoR did this really well.

    I'd give CotAB an extra point for "Character Creation and Development". More classes, dual-classing, deeper spellbooks. It adds a layer of depth over the basic Fighter/Thief/Cleric/Magic-User and limited spellbooks of PoR. (And I'm not sure complaining of how few levels imported characters gain is entirely fair. Just create new characters.)

    I was surprised to see PoR receive a higher score for "Encounters and Foes" than CotAB. I'd definitely have it the other way around. PoR felt stuffed with repetitive battles of hacking through 30 Kobolds, or 30 Goblins, or 30 Orcs, or human melee fighters. Curse, on the other hand, is full of enemy spell casters, dragons, beholders, magic immunie rakshasa, and other creatures that do more than melee and die in 1-2 hits. PoR does have more undead, but I'd still count that as an advantage for CotAB since level draining is just not much fun in my opinion.

    The previous two paragraphs are also why I'd rate CotAB higher in "Magic and Combat" than the other way around. Curse brings a deeper spellbook, multiple attacks, and more interesting enemies. Playing Curse I actually spent time trying to setup a huge backstab in most fights to take down a dangerous opponent, where in PoR it was rarely worth thinking about. Through large portions of PoR I rarely bothered with spells as I just used the sweep to grind through large mobs. I'd be comfortable scoring CotAB 2 points higher in this category.

    I'm not sure PoR deserves a higher economy score than CotAB. PoR does start you out poor, but that doesn't really last that long. But Curse offers a magic shop with a few options. I'd slightly favor Curse, but it's probably a tie.

    And I think CotAB has a strong case for getting an extra point for "Graphics, Sound, and Inputs" too. The Fix feature is huge, and you also don't have to hit 'm' before moving/attacking. And there's a nice collection of new monster icons.

    All put together I'd have CotAB come out 3 or so points higher than PoR rather than 5 points behind.

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    1. I understand your reasoning for wanting to award extra points for some of the elements you mention, but keep in mind that the GIMLET is only a 10-point scale and has to account for a wide range of variety. Adding the "paladin" class is not enough, in my opinion, to qualify a game for a 10% jump along the scale. Champions of Krynn had to include MANY more classes, more class strengths and weaknesses, in-class ranks, and spells tied to the phases of the moon to qualify for extra credit above the POR template.

      "Encounters and foes" includes both encounters AND foes. POR had many more encounters where the player had to make a role-playing choice. I prize these above almost anything else. If I was designing the GIMLET today, I'd probably make it its own category.

      "And I'm not sure complaining of how few levels imported characters gain is entirely fair. Just create new characters." That removes a lot of fun with the series. I think it's a perfectly valid criticism that imported characters have almost nowhere to develop. If imported characters could rise 5 levels and newly-made ones could rise 6, it would be a trivial factor. But 3 vs. 6 is a huge difference.

      I'm going to stop there because I'm not generally interested in getting into debates about small differences in my GIMLET scores. Again, remember that the GIMLET is an attempt to quantify my SUBJECTIVE experience with the game, not to create an "objective" rating scale, which I think is impossible. Subjectively, I enjoyed POR considerably more than CotAB and the final score reflects that.

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    2. Sure, I didn't mean to try to start a debate about objective GIMLET scores. I just wanted to offer my alternate opinion that CotAB is the better game and explain why I thought so. It's hard to not do that through the lense of your GIMLET score and where mine would be different.

      Nitpicking the numbers probably came across more confrontational than I intended. I just felt that CotAB deserved more credit for its strengths And I think this blog is so great that I wanted to add that to the public record. :)

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    3. Necrotizing this comment.

      I'm actually making progress through Curse right now too. I have Zhentil keep left, and then the finale. But I have to say, for me, combat is getting repetitive far more quickly than it did in PoR. As Addict pointed out in P3, much of the combat feels like a Hold Person, pistols at dawn standoff. I find that in Curse, the outcome of combat seems to mostly revolve around how lucky I get with my saving throws, often necessitating a reload. Everything else is often trivially easy.

      This doesn't compare favorably to Pool of Radiance, which I felt had a far more varied array of tactical situations. Crowd control vs damage was a more nuanced decision for Magic Users since more enemies were susceptible to crowd control. There were more enemies you were afraid of getting near with their XP draining effects. Or enemies that could dictate where you wanted to stand even after they were killed, like preventing trolls from standing back up. The highlight of my playthrough of Pool of Radiance was when a Vampire charmed one of my fighters, and after eventually slaying the Vampire, and his minions, and most of my guys had fallen, the remaining two party members I controlled had to strike down their dear friend. I sincerely doubt I'll see anything of the like in the remainder of Curse.

      I even miss how Pool of Radiance had an actual city that felt like a real place, full of multiple bars, general stores, gem dealers, and individual trainers you had to go find. And even it's side areas were far more inspired that Curse's optional dungeons which re-use so much of the same map layouts.

      My opinion may change as I come to the close of Curse, but I'm finding it a huge let down after Pool of Radiance. Far less immersive, far fewer little touches, and far lazier gameplay events that drive the story.

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  25. Yeah, maybe I'm in the minority here, but I just don't get it. The graveyard in PoR is outstanding, but it is the exception to the hoards of featureless orckoboldgoblinthieves that make up too much of the game. And I'd argue that it is the part most similar to CotAB in having strong, deadly enemies that you have to focus on and deal with as quickly as possible.

    The Hold Person thing is a real issue (is it that different than Charm Person or level drain though?), but it does at least provide some shape to the fight where there are enemies you have to prioritize and make sacrifices to stop. You do have to make some saving throws, but the challenge is to use your party's abilities to take as few of them as possible. Do your warriors take the time to cut open a hole through the front line, run around their fighters and suffer attacks of opportunity, or switch to less powerful ranged weapons to disable a caster for that round? Do your casters try to create openings for your warriors, try to get lucky with a mass damage spell, or do you put a Magic Missle on that one enemy cleric that no one else will be able to get to in time?

    Where's that tension with 30 orcs? For some reason I seem to enjoy this much less than most people, but it feels like a one dimensional process of lining up and hacking away. And there's much more depth when the enemy fighters take multiple hits to kill as they do in most of CotAB. Why bother the planning to setup a backstab or casting a spell on something that will die in one hit?

    I wonder if my better reaction to CotAB is that I know my way around the game pretty well now, and that allows me to avoid lots of repetitive combats from exploration. Maybe that keeps it from feeling as stale, and I'd feel differently if I had to face 2x or 3x more encounters?

    Anyway, the games have different approaches and it's interesting to discuss the pros and cons of each.

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    1. So I'm rapidly closing in on the end. Only Myth Drannor left!

      I'm finding my criticism of CotAB reducing to two main categories. Their implementation of status effects mostly falls into the "Dead Immediately" or "Die After One More Hit". It's incredibly boring, and just a saving throw roll off. Playing Baldur's Gate lately really helped illustrate this. Sleep, Hold Person and Entangle all behave differently in that game. And none of them subject you to a one hit kill.

      My second criticism is in the overall structure of the game. The main quest areas are amazing. I love how the game kicks off with the Fire Knives. And then the three main story dungeons I've hit after that have been great. But so far only the optional dungeon in Dagger Fall has been any good among the off story dungeons. So, I guess when CotAB is good, it's better than PoR, but when it's bad, it's the most dull plodding thing ever.

      But also, as far as the over all structure goes, I think I'd have liked a bit more direction? I followed the clues to Hap straight from Tilverton, and struggled mightily through it. It was only afterwards I began exploring some of the optional areas, and realized I probably should have done those first. Probably several if not all of them, before tackling any of the main story areas. Because they are so effortless after you've levelled and geared up from even one main story dungeon. And that is something I think PoR handled much better, putting clear, level appropriate goals in front of you each step of the way. And no area in PoR was as dull as CotAB's optional areas, which constitute at least half of the game.

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    2. I pretty much agree. I think the immediate death stuff is poorly designed, and I think the game would be better if those attacks were downgraded to just extremely dangerous. (And it's silly that you can kill an armored 100 HP figher with a dart from several feet away just because he's Helpless.)

      But I personally still prefer it to hoards of enemies that aren't particularly dangerous at all, which is how too much of PoR felt. At least I have something to strategize about even if there's too much unlucky lethality.

      And I agree that outside of combat PoR is the better game in large part because most of the CotAB's side quests are weak. But CotAB is still pretty good.

      I think the character development and combat is slightly more important to me than the rest, especially when it comes to replays.

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    3. It seems to me your major sticking point with PoR that keeps coming up is the combat against hoards of mostly greenskins? It certainly was obnoxious at times. But I think it was also well used at times. Zhentil Keep comes to mind, when you must face waves of fighters, until eventually you face the commander of the keep. The game offers you no time to rest and recharge either! It played out very well thematically and mechanically, and wouldn't have worked if they weren't willing to throw hoards at you.

      But perhaps it was an over used gimmick. I'm also aware that PoR scales your encounters to the strength of your party. So a party min-maxed to hell and back will constantly encounter insane hoards of low level enemies right off the bat. PoR might have been better served throwing in the occasional tougher enemy, than just more of the same. As for my own playthrough, I found the quantity of enemies in the average encounter very manageable.

      I guess it depends what is more obnoxious for you personally. On the one hand, you have a saving throw roll off which often requires reloading the game, an odious task in these Gold Box games. On the other hand you have tedious drawn out hoard battles where your victory is almost assurred, and it's just a matter of going through the motions.

      Which actually brings me to my latest play session, where I finally went back and defeated the Beholder Corps. What a let down. I tried it once regular, and got stomped as quickly as you'd expect. So out comes the Dust of Dissappearance. What followed was over an hour of slowly hacking away at a hoard where victory is almost assurred. It was the most anticlimactic thing I've ever seen in a game. They didn't advance on me, run, or anything. They'd only melee if I walked right up to them, which allowed me to easily chip away at the edges putting the least heroes at risk. I was constantly afraid that the dust would wear off, but about halfway through I realized it never would. It was worse than anything from PoR. And supposedly it's the only way to actually beat that encounter. Even the intended way. So it's not like I broke the game.

      Although I am reminded of one last saving grace of PoR which Curse almost entirely lacks. The Parlay system. For me, once combat in a certain area got too tedious, I'd often worked out the correct paylay responses to avoid it. I find 95% of the time, Curse never offers you the chance to Parlay, Advance, Flee, or anything. Only in Yulash was that regularly an option, going from memory.

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