|Rumors are all that remain of dragons.|
In my last posting, Raifield linked me to a Matt Barton interview with Rebecca "Burger" Heineman, programmer on The Bard's Tale series and Dragon Wars. She describes the origin of this game's name, which was originally going to be The Bard's Tale IV, amidst a dispute with Electronic Arts. EA held the rights to the "Bard's Tale" title but not the code, and Interplay didn't want to publish the new game through EA.
They said, "Oh, you want to use the name? Publish through us." Push came to shove, and that's when Brian came to me and said, "Okay, we're calling it Dragon Wars." I looked him dead in the eye and said, "You do know there's no dragons in the story?" "Well, it's Dragon Wars now."
So I had to come up with, at the last minute, a story that had a dragon in it, and put little quips every now and then that said there were dragon wars in the past. But since the game was only a month or two away from shipping, I couldn't re-do the actual ending of the game to make a battle of the dragons. So, it's a running joke that we shipped a game called Dragon Wars with hardly any dragons in it.
I can't help but think that it might have been easier to pull an alternate name out of the air (The Beast from the Pit, Purgatory) than to spend a lot of time inserting dragons into a finished game that didn't otherwise have them, but in any event, if not for the article, I wouldn't have realized that the dragon lore was a last-minute addition. So far, at least, the game handles it very well. I still haven't found any dragons, but I have found enough journal entries to justify the title.
|Most lore is through journal entries, but occasionally something like this happens.|
Solid attention to lore and story--introduced slowly through the journal entries rather than all-at-once through the manual--is one of four major things to separate Dragon Wars from The Bard's Tale and to make it a fundamentally better game. The beginning of the manual only told me that I was on the island of Dilmun and Namtar's laws had forced me penniless into Purgatory. During the course of the game since then, I've learned that:
- The island wasn't always this way. Namtar, formerly a king's sorcerer, overthrew King Drake of Kingshome and continues to use the king's armies to conquer the lands.
- Dilmun is actually a series of islands connected by bridges.
- Before Namtar, Dilmun was a bunch of independent city-states that were frequently at war. But none was ever able to conquer the others because they all kept captive dragons as a kind of "nuclear option." It's a bit of a mystery why these cities didn't release their dragons when Namtar rose to power in Kingshome and started conquering the land.
|One of the conquered and ruined cities|
- Namtar has conquered or destroyed all of the cities on the island except for Byzanople (nice portmanteau). It remains free and is currently under siege. There's also a rumor of a free city called "Freeport" in some eastern islands. (No word about whether it contains the fabled treasure of El-El-Bin.)
- It is uncertain whether Namtar is a demon or a man.
- Namtar uses a secret police called the "Stosstrupen." (A name adopted directly from the German for "thrust troops," an alternate name used for Nazi stormtroopers.)
|Honest folk flee, but criminals don't?|
- The Temple of the Sun felll very quickly to Namtar, and an ex-priest suspects the high priest, Mystalvision, betrayed the temple.
The second major addition to Dragon Wars is the usage of skills, adapted from Wasteland. I've had to re-learn the dynamic, by which every time the game gives you some kind of message about the environment, you want to pause and consider whether a particular skill would help in this scenario. Some examples include:
- Using the "swim" ability was the way to get out of Purgatory from the harbor exit.
- Using my "bandage" ability when I encountered an injured solider got me some lore about the goddess Irkalla.
- Using my "tracking" ability when I encountered messages about strange beasts or parties having passed through the area allowed me to automatically follow their trails.
- Using my "strength" attribute on a stone allowed me to lift it and find a set of stairs beneath
- Using my "town lore" ability when I got a brief message in a town square gave me a longer journal entry about the dragon that had been kept there. (In general, though, I've been disappointed about how rarely town lore, cave lore, and forest lore have told me anything about towns, caves, and forests.)
I have no doubt that I've missed plenty of opportunities to use skills and find additional treasures and experience, but that only enhances the replayability of the game. It's neat that none of these things were especially necessary to progress in the game, but all were welcome enhancements.
The third major improvement is an open, relatively nonlinear game world. In my first posting, I fretted about leaving Purgatory before exploring the passage to the underworld. I needn't have worried. So far, the game has let me backtrack to every area already visited, and it turns out there are multiple entrances to and exits from the underworld. The places you visit are interesting, with multiple encounters and discoveries, but more important they're thematically consistent. I've often praised the Might & Magic series for its open approach to world exploration, but when you get down to it, many of its locations and encounters are really goofy and incompatible with each other. This game (at least so far) doesn't experience those problems.
The final distinction lies in the quality of roleplaying choices, which occur on a meta level, through a general approach rather than in simple dialogue or individual selection of actions. See my discussion below of the slave camp for a little elaboration.
|When you find yourself fighting escaped slaves, you're probably on the wrong side of the moral line.|
I've played quite a bit of the game since my first posting. It kept me occupied throughout an entire nine-hour flight home from South America the other night, when I probably should have been trying to sleep. These are the major areas that I explored:
1. Magan Underworld. Before I realized I'd be able to visit whenever I wanted, I felt it was necessary to go here before leaving Purgatory. I soon found myself significantly outclassed by the denizens, but I pressed forward, running from battles when necessary, helped considerably by a magic-recharging pool. The area contained multiple exits, some treasure in locked chests (glad I took lockpicking as a skill), and the fabled pit from which Namtar received the designation "The Beast from the Pit."
|Given that he was spawned in a pit, I'm going to have to go with "demon" on the whole human/demon question.|
There was a weird bit here where I accidentally stumbled onto a chasm (I didn't even know what it was from the graphic) and the game said I simply floated above it and rewarded me with 5 skill points for my bravery.
I also found a cave where a mysterious voice told me about Namtar, including that to defeat him, I'd need to find the Sword of Freedom and reconcile a dispute between two gods of the underworld, Irkalla and Nergal. There was a little island I couldn't reach, even with the swim skill, but it seems to have something to do with Irkalla, and I guess I'll need to return and try other things.
|I never said I was a worshipper!|
2. The Slave Camp. A camp of escaped slaves was just outside Purgatory's walls. When I first entered, I got a message saying that the ex-slaves were suspicious of me and wanted me to leave, but I wanted to explore the area first. As I walked along, a bunch of them attacked me, and after I defeated them, I got a message making me feel worse than I ever have from a CRPG, with the possible exception of the outcome of a major roleplaying choice in Quest for Glory V.
The camp is deserted. Apparently everyone who lived here was slain in your recent battle. You notice signs of habitation, but whoever lived here was dirt poor. It’s unlikely you’ll find anything of worth in the camp. Glancing back at the pile of bodies left in your wake, and then at the bucolic scene of the camp, you sense there was probably a better way of handling this situation. The man who confronted you seemed a lot like yourself. Maybe he mistook you for authority from Purgatory, and only sought to defend himself. This was probably a time for words, rather than swords.
|You can get further with a sword and a kind word than you can with just a sword.|
Remembering a near-identical scenario from Wasteland in which I kept playing (and felt bad about it), I reloaded, thought about it, and applied the "bureaucracy" skill when I first entered the camp. This allowed me to explore the area without violence, which turned out to be vital for a few encounters that followed, including some lore about Dilmun, Namtar, and dragons. There was one mystery in this area: a wizard's tower where the wizard kept throwing me out the moment I entered. I expect I need to return later after getting some item or finishing some other encounter. Finally, it was in this area that I picked up my second NPC: a thief-ish guy named Louie.
|What if I simply don't respect his privacy?|
3. Tars Ruins. These were the ruins of one of the cities that Namtar sacked. It was here that I got the opening screen shot about the dragon that had been kept in the city's square, and I got some good equipment from a party of evil adventurers in the city's ruins.
|I fear I spoiled their merriment a bit. Perhaps my only complaint is that the game doesn't offer any kind of friendlier option on this screen, like talking.|
In a secret area, I found the "broken arms" of a statue, probably something to do with the "master of high magic" described above.
|Finding a bunch of gold and some new spells in the ruins.|
4. Slave Estate. A weird area. The succession of journal entries suggested that it had been owned by an aristocrat named Mog, who was an aspiring sculptor. The problem was, he sucked at sculpting, so he somehow acquired an "apprentice," who turned out to be a demon capable of turning creatures to stone with its gaze. After that, the quality of the sculptures naturally rose considerably.
|This is a bit of a trope in CRPGs, isn't it? How often is a message like this a good sign?|
But the demon eventually froze Mog himself and took over the estate. I ended up killing it, wielding mirrors for defense. I tried to think of a way to turn the statues back to flesh, or if the area had anything to do with the "stone arms" I'd discovered previously, but nothing came to me.
There were some small outdoor areas and bridge areas in between these indoor maps. I've currently crossed one of the bridges and am exploring the city of Phoebus, a "heavily militarized city," of which the game gave me this ominous (and funny) introduction:
The walls of this city are of bright marble that seem to glow with an inner light. The streets are paved and clean, and there is no sign of poverty or disorder. The horse carts run on time. You can’t shake the feeling something is about to go tragically wrong.
|The papers I got in the gladiatorial ring in Purgatory turned out to be useful. But he also wanted a bunch of gold, so I ended up killing him anyway.|
As I've progressed, I've found fewer magic-recharging pools, but this is ameliorated through the acquisition of dozens of "dragon stones," which provide single-use recharging capabilities. I suspect there are a fixed number in the game, and I hope they don't turn out to be absolutely crucial in volume at some point, because I've been using them very liberally.
In these explorations, I've had to break my normal reloading rules. There is apparently a way to resurrect dead characters, but I haven't found it yet, and the loss of a single character is devastating enough (though rarely occurring) that I don't think I'd be able to continue if I kept playing. As it happens, I accidentally saved after the death of one NPC (Louie), meaning I'll either have to dump him or find the resurrection method.
|I'm just throwing in this cool picture here.|
The game's approach to leveling is a bit odd, but not unwelcome. Leveling doesn't give you any hit point or spell point increases; the only advantage seems to be two extra points to spend on attributes and skills. Keep in mind that you get 50 points at the outset of the game, so characters really change very little. Development comes more in the acquisition of spells and equipment (my focus for the next posting). I suspect that part of the reason for the slow leveling is that the developers wanted to pursue the reality, rather than an illusion, of an open game world. In this way, the game is more truly open than, say, Might & Magic, where you could theoretically go anywhere from the first square, but had a .0001% chance of surviving any place but the opening town.
In my next posting, I'll talk more about combat, magic, and equipment, since I've now acquired spells in all of the different magic classes. I'm having a great time with the game, and if Ms. Heineman does stop by, I sure hope she reads these postings instead of my coverage of The Bard's Tale III.