Wednesday, September 18, 2013

DarkSpyre: Mannaz Naudiz Sowilo

Two runes down, three to go.

DarkSpyre is the kind of game that's best in small doses--maybe one or two levels a day. I'll trust the word of those of you who say it gets plot-heavy at a later time, but so far it's just been one level after another, each offering new puzzle challenges, none terribly difficult when it comes to combat. I haven't experienced the slightest risk of death during my explorations, partly because once you see your hit points waning, you can just retreat to a safe area and strum a banjo for as long as it takes your health and magic to regenerate.

The major news is that "Gideon" is now a woman. I don't know precisely what happened. On some level, I found a rune with the "Odin" symbol, invoked it, and discovered I had breasts.

"Confused" is one way to put it.

In a comment on my first post, reader "K" alerted me that the rune names used in the game are actually drawn from the Elder Futhark alphabet. "Fehu," which gave me a random item, is said to mean "wealth." The rune of strength in the game is called "uruz," which means "aurochs," a type of early cattle beast. "Raido," which allows saving, means "journey" in the original. There is no "Odin" rune in Futhark, but the god Odin is said to be the creator of the runes in Norse mythology, so I suppose it makes sense that a "god rune" could change my sex.

Between becoming a woman and having to live with that scraggly red beard, I'm not sure I don't prefer the former. But for role-playing reasons, when I later found another Odin rune, I felt compelled to use it to change back. Unfortunately, it didn't work the second time. Instead, it increased my "power" attribute by one point.

Incidentally, it wasn't long before "Gideona" got her own version of a ridiculous helm. This one makes it look like she's eating her own hair.

It's been interesting to watch the levels unfold. The game doesn't number them, but it does start some of them (the thematic ones, anyway) with a little phrase or saying, like "Speak softly and cast with a big spellbook" or "This may be your final resting place." The game has offered a mix of puzzle-heavy levels--with multiple portals, pressure plates, keys, tokens, levers, movable walls, and such--and maze levels in which the only "puzzle" is to find the exit.

A level-beginning phrase. I'm sure the meaning will become clear.
The interesting thing is that I'm not sure the level order is fixed. At least twice, I've gone through the end-of-level portal to find myself on one level only to quit the game shortly thereafter, re-load, go through the portal again, and find myself on a completely different level than the first time. I don't know if this means that the game randomizes the level order or if it actually randomizes the selection of levels, so that each player faces a different set. If the latter, that adds an interesting twist to the gameplay mechanic.

I've learned a few things about items:

1. Weapons, shields, armor, and other items degrade and break with alarming frequency. Amulets, which I started to find on my fifth level, are particularly prone to shattering in combat, destroying whatever attribute or hit point bonus they conveyed.

Gideona's great shield shatters from the sting of a giant bee.

2. This makes it nearly impossible to "specialize" in any particular weapon type because you never know what weapon you'll be turning to in an emergency. Thus, in contrast to what I said last time, I've been trying to spread out my weapon skills.

My current skills (lower left). Projectile weapons take up too much inventory space, and "large" weapons cost too much in endurance, so I've been avoiding them.
3. I've been finding all kinds of mysterious random items: ferns, driftwood, eggs, rusty nails, horseshoes, something called the "Eye of Horus," and others. Thanks to K's intelligence that some of these are needed on later levels, I'm a bit paranoid about getting rid of them even though they seem to have no purpose and are taking up valuable inventory space.

4. Encumbrance affects speed. There was at least one puzzle that I had to doff my armor to speed past. This was also a mechanic found in Dungeon Master.

Early foes tended to be somewhat interchangeable melee creatures--gorillas, giant bees, eagle-men, giant bats, lizard men, wraiths, and so on--but more recently I'm encountering enemies with special attacks for whom it makes sense to more carefully plot range and spell attacks. These include giant balls of electricity that discharge lightning and slimes that cause poison.

In this brief GIF, you can see me fighting and killing a samurai. He shatters my Amulet of Protection at the beginning of the fight. I think it'll be fun to see him crushed by that rolling ball, so I lead him over to its path, but then he only survives one more blow after that.

Enemies flee when their hit points go too low, and I find it enormously satisfying to hurl an axe or dagger into their backs, or send my shield spinning at their heads, when they turn tail and run.

After conquering a few initial levels, I was told to "prepare to do battle for the rune of strength" and I entered a long, puzzle-heavy level that culminated in my finding the titular rune--one of five that the manual tells me that I'll have to find before the end.

There were three more levels between the rune of strength and the rune of agility. I'm now on the path to the rune of endurance, and I estimate that I'm one-quarter of the way through the game.

Some of the levels have been clever. I've gotten into the habit of casting "Magic Map" upon arrival at each level. I suppose it's cheating, but I've been screenshotting the maps and keeping the image open while I play, just so I have a general sense of the lay of the land and I don't have to trace my own maps. Anyway, at least half of them have some kind of gimmick to the pattern of the walls. Perhaps most interesting was this dragon-themed level:

The part that makes the body of the dragon is actually the negative space on the level; the explorable space is the outer regions. At the base of the tail was a series of skull messages that together made a little poem:

In his mouth is the key that you seek
Beware that the great wyrm breathes fire
The quest is not for the meek
Beware his terrible ire
Though you enter 'neath the dragon's wing
'Ware the flick of his perilous tail
To the door in his grasp you must bring
a key. Death to the world if you fail.

I began at the X where the wing meets the body and had to navigate around first to the mouth, where I had to avoid a bunch of fire traps to get a key that opened a door leading to the exit. It wasn't a terribly hard level, but it was a fun theme. Another level was made to look like a gravestone, complete with grass growing at its base.

I don't know what "J. G." refers to. None of the listed developers have those initials.

Despite its occasional cleverness, I can't say I really like the game. The levels have the same length and tedium of Knights of Legend battles, and once one is over, I usually want to take a break. A typical level might require me to circle it multiple times, testing what happens in one part of the level when I hit a lever in another, or meticulously testing every teleporter. The game has absolutely no compunction about putting you in "walking dead" scenarios for no offense worse than wandering into the wrong place at the wrong time, or moving a wall in such a way that it blocks the only exit. On one level, I needed to roll a ball onto a pressure plate, but I accidentally rolled it the wrong way first, got it stuck in a corner, and had no choice but to re-load (losing 25 minutes of progress) to continue.

Much more so than Dungeon Master, this game is primarily "about" its mazes and puzzles. The enemies haven't been numerous enough or difficult enough to make them the primary challenge. I just wish more of the puzzles relied on intelligence and logic and less on trial and error. Here's a quick gallery of some of the game's puzzle mechanics:

This message meant what it said. When I entered the teleporter, I ended up in the small room to the left, with no way out--but I needed to activate a pressure plate in that room. The solution was to push a movable wall into the teleporter, which appeared in the room on top of the plate.

"But in the Latin alphabet, 'Jehova' begins with an 'I.'"

This long north-south corridor had fireballs coming down on both sides. The trick was to figure out their pattern and zig-zag my way down to the bottom, where a lever turned them off.

I had to trap an enemy in this room to keep the pressure plate active. This took me forever.

Electrical balls blocked me from moving these blocks out of the way. Fortunately, I found the "zap-away" spell on this same level. Oh, and I'm "miraged" into a lizard man in this screen shot. I thought if they didn't see me as the PC, the balls might move away on their own.

A few other notes:

  • As I suspected after the first three levels, each level offers a chalice of Ambrosia (raising max hit points and spell points) and a "raido" rune, allowing you to save. I've been trying to save the raidos for use before trying difficult puzzles rather than simply using them right away. Diamonds, when liquified, provide additional Ambrosia potions.
  • Like Dungeon Master, this game gives no clue as to the relative damage done by weapons, though it's less of a problem because you don't often have more than a handful of intact weapons to choose from.
  • The game does offer some clues as to the relative value of armor. You can see a "protection" score that lists your overall armor class on an ordinal scale from "unarmored" to "invincible," with stops like "safe-guarded," "mighty," and "steel-plated" along the way. Thankfully, the manual lists them all. Oddly, my character is already at the highest level, wearing a Spartan helm, "shell mail," and a great shield. I've found numerous helms in the game, but all seem to weigh 2kg and all offer the same level of protection, so I just settled on the one that looked the best.
  • If you save and quit the game and reload, the game often changes the color palette of the dungeon level you're on.

I wanted to get a video together for this post, but I've got a bad cold and my voice doesn't sound very good right now, so perhaps later in the week. I think we're going to continue to see a number of side-trips, and perhaps an early start on Dragon Lord, before I get to the end.


  1. Sorry to hear about the cold. Hope it passes soon!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Sorry, forgot to ROT13, just in case...

      I think the developers got some negative feedback about the dead-ending puzzles too.

      In The Summoning, there is always a pressure plate that would reset the puzzle.

      As for armor, you can get to "Invincible" quite early in the game. Ohg bayl bar frg bs zntvpny nezbe (naq jrncba) jvyy or vaqrfgehpgvoyr gung pna or sbhaq nyzbfg ng gur raq bs gur tnzr.

  3. I am/was/is always reading your blog, just posting sometimes and anonymously.

    Same crpgaddict as you ) Please keep going, i can re-live games without playing them, i.e. experience best moments of game not by playing but by reading about them.


    Also impressed how you manage some games that i couldnt. Like Dark heart of Uukrul.

  4. There are three types of levels - completely fixed plot-relevant (like the rune of strength), randomly generated (the ones without puzzles) and (semi)randomly picked from a number of fixed sets, that depend on the part of the game you are in.

    1. I like the idea that everyone who plays faces a different game. I just can't imagine wanting to replay this one.

    2. Yep, it does overstay its welcome. Though it's somewhat strange to hear such a complaint from a person, who put 200+ hours into Nethack and intends to play it again in a different version ;)

    3. I have thought of that in regards to myself. I can sink tons of hours into a select few games yet barely get into most. I think the games I can put more time in are more challenging and the ones I get bored by the time put in are less so. This is probably why this game is wearing on our dear addict more so that a game like nethack where he gets the feeling of achievement from overcoming something difficult.

    4. I didn't get BORED at any point in NetHack, though. I don't find the gameplay in DarkSpyre particularly interesting.

    5. I guess that much. The question is why it is so - on the surface it seems like DarkSpyre actually offers more gameplay variety then NetHack.
      (personally I find them both equally boring and frustrating, though for somewhat different reasons)

    6. Oh, I don't agree. NetHack offered far more variety in just about everything, including equipment and monsters. And what DarkSpyre does offer just isn't the type of thing I particularly enjoy in games.

      It seems to me that you can view a game's "size" on two broad dimensions: the physical game world, and the amount of content within it. In decreasing order, I prefer:

      1. Big world, lots of content
      2. Small world, lots of content
      3. Small world, little content (at least it's over fast)
      4. Big world, little content

      Almost all the games I've abandoned prematurely have been #4, including Faery Tale Adventure, Bard's Tale III, and Bloodwych. I'm not saying I'm going to abandon this one, but it definitely tends towards 4.

    7. I don't mean this sort of variety, that's content. What I mean is that NetHack is essentially comprised of three major mechanics: character development, combat and exploration. DarkSpyre adds puzzles to the mix, so in theory that makes it more varied mechanically. But the lack of content variety may outweight it, I agree.

      There are guvegl avar levels total (ROT13 in case you consider that a spoiler). Since, I guess, you're around level 15 now, and already bored, it's totally possible you won't make it ;)

  5. "The major news is that "Gideon" is now a woman."

    This happened in my real life. My friend Michael was "re-made" and he/she is now a woman. What a shock. It's nice to see these events are possible even in this game :)

    1. It occurred to me that this is possibly a bug that switched graphics - seems even more possible if level palettes change after a reload!

    2. No, it was definitely tied to the "Odin" rune. I looked it up after it happened. Apparently, the rune sometimes affects attributes, sometimes switches sex.

      I'll bet a lot of transgendered people wish it was so easy as invoking a rune.

    3. I can confirm that it is not a bug as well.

      This also happens in The Summoning. Rather fresh in my memory, since I just played it again couple of years back.

      Also, I think my character transformed from Orlando Bloom to Beyonce.

    4. Isn't there a girdle of masculinity/femininity in Baldur's Gate?

      Just imagine how much that'd go for on ebay.

      I think it'd be quite educational to wear one for a couple days.

    5. My best friend from high school came out as trans to me....two days ago I think. Haven't talked to hir in ages, so it was rather sudden. That is going to take a bit of getting used to. Man, I have got to save up some money so I can go back to Ontario and hit up a gaming con with my old friends.

  6. Man needs sun?

    mannaz naudiz wunjō-gebō-laguz

    1. I thought it was an appropriate sentiment for someone spending the final days of summer hunched over his computer playing DarkSpyre.

    2. It's the sentiment I feel working 10 hours a day in an office with no windows. I also have the Chicago Winter to look forward to.

      Like most humans I have an over inflated sense of the import of my words. So I was mildly disappointed you didn't comment on my proposed traditional Irish cure to your cold.

      I'll just be over here crying, until your next post.

    3. Ha! I somehow overlooked that. (Or I thought you were just repeating what I said.) From now on, I'm calling my gimlets "joy gift water."

  7. I did feel like DarkSpyre was one of the only CRPGs ever where I wanted slightly more combat. It definitely would have been easier for my dumb young self to make more progress if a few of the more trial-and-error/dead-man-walking puzzles had been replaced with monsters.


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