|I have that question about a lot of gods.|
Yulash was a bloody nightmare. There were way too many random encounters, and I actually had to spread the playing that makes up this entry over three days because I got sick of combat every 45 seconds.
The back story in the manual indicated that the forces of Zhentil Keep and Hillsfar (the latter called the Red Plumes) were at war over Yulash, and indeed when we arrived we found a falling-down city with squads of Zhentarim and Red Plumes at every street corner. The Red Plumes seemed to have the upper hand for the moment, as they greeted us and had cordoned off a "safe" section of the city. I had the option to be rude to them and thus make an enemy of everyone in the city, but I was nice and got permission to use their barracks to rest and heal.
|Moander in the flesh.|
Our purpose for being in Yulash was to find the cultists of Moander, one of the three remaining holders of our bonds. According to the Forgotten Realms wiki, the elves battled and sealed Moander (the god of rot and corruption) from the material plane some centuries ago, but since then, his cultists have been trying fervently to bring him back. The unwitting participation of Alias and her party in one of these resurrections makes up a major part of the plot of Azure Bonds, the novel on which the game was partly based. Alias and her friends were able to destroy the god's avatar, and the cultists were back to square one. Apparently, that's where my party comes in.
Exploring the city of Yulash was a test of patience. Every three or four steps, we encountered:
- Cultists of Moander, who generally shied away and fled (I later found out why).
- Zhentarim warriors, mages, and priests, who were just as difficult, if not more so, as in Zhentil Keep. The mages were mostly immune to magic, making it hard to damage them before they could cast spells.
|A typical Zhent squad.|
- Packs of Red Plumes. They were generally friendly, but some of them had clearly been scarred by the war and saw my party as a threat.
- Looters, who either fought us or picked our pockets.
|There were a few light role-playing options here.|
- Plant-based creatures such as shambling mounds and vegepygmies. The vegepygmies were a joke, but the shamblers were tough melee creatures, immune to many magical attacks, and prone to multiple attacks per round against my party. I found that "Hold Monster" worked tolerably well against them, but we only had two or three of those memorized at any given time.
- Some kind of pit or wall trap, some of which my party members were able to detect and avoid.
|I knew I had a thief for a reason.|
Late in the map, we encountered a group of shambling mounds dragging the body of a priest but gingerly avoiding a wand that he carried. After we killed them, the wand turned out to be a "Wand of Defoliation." It's an unusual item for D&D in that it a) required no identification, and b) casts a spell that otherwise doesn't exist in the mage or priest grimoires.
After probably the longest time I've ever spent mapping a 16 x 16 area, I found the entrance to the "Pit of Moander." As with the Tilverton sewers, the developers took what normally would have been one 16 x 16 square and made two 8 x 16 levels on top of each other. The moment we entered, a cultist, after calling us "the chosen ones," conveniently collapsed the entrance behind us. The cultists otherwise stayed out of our way for the initial explorations.
|My party starts to question their careers as adventurers.|
We soon came across two NPCs finishing off some cultists and shambling mounds. They were Alias and Dragonbait, the primary protagonist of Azure Bonds and her saurian companion. They joined us for the rest of our time in the pit.
|I didn't realize until they joined that the game doesn't otherwise provide NPCs like Pool of Radiance's hirelings.|
There was a bit of discussion a few weeks ago on whether I should read Azure Bonds before or after playing the game. There doesn't seem to have been any good way to do it. The book undoubtedly spoils aspects of the game, but the game also spoils the book. In a journal entry in the game, Alias talks about her history and the fact that she's a construct given false memories by her creator--a major plot twist of the book. Alias's creators had bonded her the same way that my party was bonded, but they weren't exactly the same organizations. We shared the Fire Knives and the cult of Moander, but her other bonders were an evil mage named Cassana, a lich named Zrie Prakis, and a beholder-looking demon named Phalse.
I don't know where I got the idea, but I had this impression that Dragonbait turned out to be an accidental tourist from the Dragonlance universe, but he's not. He's just a member of a rarely-seen Forgotten Realms race called Saurials. In a campaign setting in which the most dedicated elves, halflings, and dwarves aren't allowed to be paladins, a miniature dinosaur somehow lacks any such restrictions.
|I hope Mazzy Fentan never finds out about this.|
They were both mostly useless. In battle, they hung back and used missile weapons exclusively and weren't very good with them. But they did have a few comments about the area as we explored, including the odd deference with which the cultists were treating me.
|They needed me alive.|
A journal entry found in the hands of a dead Zhentil Keep messenger suggested that the cult had betrayed the alliance of the five groups that bonded us; in fact, the cultists were clearly planning to kill the party before the other bonders could make use of us. We finally encountered Mogion, the high priestess of Moander, in her temple. She invoked the bonds to freeze us (and, conveniently, summoned plants to ensnare Alias and Dragonbait) until she completed a ritual that somehow used the party's life force to open a gate for Moander to cross into the plane.
|Only Level 10, and I'm already killing a god.|
The ritual fortunately caused the bonds to fade, so the party attacked the cultists and three "Bits o' Moander" that managed to make it through the portal. The bits had plantlike characteristics--they seemed to just be large shambling mounds--and were thus vulnerable to the Wand of Defoliation. It was a tough battle, but we were ultimately victorious. The cultists had a good treasure cache behind the altar, including a map to a secret exit.
Unfortunately, my victory put the entire base on high alert, and we had to wade through several combats, with no safe resting places, all the way back to the exit. There, we encountered a group of priests, mages, and shambling mounds much tougher than the "boss" battle we had fought earlier. It took me three tries to win.
|Like so many occasions, this one calls for a fireball.|
Alias and Dragonbait took their leave upon exiting, and apparently Zhentil Keep won the war despite my having turned their city into a chaotic ruin.
We returned to a town and prepared to assail the final enemy whose whereabouts we knew: the mage Dracandros, somewhere around the village of Hap.
In Pool of Radiance, I extensively praised the combat system, and I still think it's one of the better ones I've encountered in CRPGs. The same basic mechanics hold through all of the Gold Box games, which is a definite positive about playing them.
That said, there are a few subtle differences between the earlier game and Curse of the Azure Bonds. It isn't the mechanics that have changed so much as the enemies. A game with higher-level foes requires more complex programming of special attacks. Pool of Radiance mostly had enemies who simply swung weapons or shot arrows, with a rare magic user or priest capable of low-level spells. Curse has enemies with a greater variety of spells, resistances, and special attacks. The party members, of course, have the same things, as well as a greater variety of magic items to use. These new variables significantly ramp up the tactical challenge. In the screen above, for instance, I'm facing 10 visible cultists, all of whom have the ability to cast "Hold Person." I have to figure out how to remove their threat early in the round before they can start casting, which involves weighing the possibility that my spells will fail and deciding exactly what gambles to take. Tactical questions might include:
- If the enemy has archers, should my mage cast "Fireball" and run the risk of getting hit with an arrow while she prepares the spell, or should she cast something like "Stinking Cloud" or "Magic Missile" that goes instantly?
- Should I use my priest to cast "Hold Person" on as may cultists as possible, or should he delay to the end of the round to cast "Dispel Magic" on any party member held by a priest's spell?
- The cultists are all lined up and perfect fodder for a lightning bolt. But to get in place, my mage will have to run away from an enemy adjacent to her and thus run the risk of getting attacked while fleeing. She'll also be in a very vulnerable position after the lightning bolt. Is it worth it?
- Should my fighters start attacking the cultists in the front row, and reduce the number of cultists who can cast spells in the first round? Or should they delay until my priests have held a number of them, so they can take them down in one blow?
Naturally, I regard greater tactical complexity as a positive. But it also comes with some negatives. Simply put, there are times in which the game's AI is not up to the new variables it has to juggle. As we saw in the beholder battles in the comments to my last posting, enemies are too dumb to follow you around a corner. Enemies with special attacks, like the medusa's petrifying gaze, don't use them after they've moved in a round. Spellcasters always burn their best spells right away, even if they don't have a viable target. If you stop a spellcaster from casting during a round, he'll grab his melee weapon and charge your front ranks no matter how ill-equipped he is as a melee fighter. Enemies never heal each other, or themselves, never use the wands, potions, or other special items you find on their bodies after battle, and only rarely effectively use buffing spells. These deficiencies weren't as stark in Pool of Radiance simply because hardly any foes had such options.
I'll post more extensively about combat later, but one more note for now: I don't know what it is, but all my healing spells suck. I have three levels: "Cure Light Wounds," "Cure Serious Wounds," and "Cure Critical Wounds," but I'll be damned if I can see any difference in their effects. The highest is supposed to heal 6-27 hit points, but I don't think I've ever seen it go higher than 10. Similarly, my "Potions of Extra Healing" routinely heal only 1-4 hit points. That makes them essentially useless in combat.