Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Game 91: Hillsfar (1989)


Hillsfar feels like an experiment in which SSI, makers of the "Gold Box" games, tried to determine if they could create another game in the same campaign setting, but featuring none of the gameplay elements that made the Gold Box series popular. Instead of a party game, we have a single-player game. Instead of tactical combat, we have action combat (and not much of that). Instead of exploration and mapping, we have mini-games. The game isn't entirely irredeemable--some of the mini-games are actually fun--but the overall experience is a bit bizarre.

Set just after Pool of Radiance and contemporaneously with Curse of the Azure Bonds (you can transfer characters back and forth between Curse), Hillsfar has an interesting premise. The corrupt city council has just been overthrown by a merchant-mage named Maalthiir who has proclaimed himself First Lord of Hillsfar. He has outlawed weapons and magic and enforces his edicts with a mercenary company called the Red Plumes.

The limited game world.

The city has come up peripherally in the previous two games; my party embarked from Hillsfar before arriving in Phlan in Pool, and in Curse, I encountered Red Plumes in Yulash (though they were mostly allies, since they were fighting against the Zhentarim). Hillsfar was also a visitable menu town in Curse.

The game begins with the player in camp outside Hillsfar, where you create or import your character, and is the only place where you can save your progress. (This swiftly becomes annoying.) The standard set of D&D races (human, dwarf, elf, half-elf, and halfling) and classes (fighter, mage, thief, cleric, and multi-classes) are available. The manual hints that the focus of the game is on thievery (since magic and weapons are outlawed in Hillsfar, there's naught else to do), so I chose a half-elf fighter/thief. It didn't take me much rolling to get 18s in both strength and dexterity.


My first task was to ride from camp to Hillsfar. The moment the horse-riding screen appeared, it all came back to me: I've played this game before! All at once, I remembered buying it at a shopping mall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire back in 1989 or 1990. I remember asking the clerk if it was anything like Pool of Radiance, and I remember him saying no, but--and this is suddenly crystal clear in my memory even though I didn't remember the game until today--excitedly adding, "You get to ride a horse!" Even as I bought the game, I remember thinking, "What's the big deal about riding a horse?" and then thinking it doubly so after I started playing it and actually riding the horse. I must not have gotten very far after that, because I don't remember any of the other elements except vaguely the lockpicks. But I definitely remember the side-scrolling screen in which you have to jump over obstacles on your horse.

So right away we have the game's first minigame: horseback riding. The terrain flies by as you trot or gallop along the track, jumping over logs, puddles, and haystacks, and ducking when an arrow appears. There's not much to it, except that later you can trade the horse for an upgrade at the trading post. I traded my initial horse for one named "Jumper," thinking he'd be good at jumping. No, it turns out he got that name because he randomly jumps in the middle of riding, often forcing you to land on an object and falter. I swiftly traded back. If you fall more than four times on one path, you die. It can get pretty tough, with multiple objects in a row that force you to carefully time your leaps.

Wouldn't a smart horseman just steer off this trail and on to the smooth grassland to his left?

Once you make the initial ride and arrive in Hillsfar, you get the main city map. It feels like a combination of The Bard's Tale and the game I just completed, Tangled Tales. As you move in the 3D screen on the left, you see your icon move about the city map on the right. As in Skara Brae, there are numerous random houses to enter as well as several special locations: pubs, guilds for each of the four classes, an arena, an archery range, magic shops, healers, sewers, a haunted mansion, a mage's tower, a book store, a cemetery, a bank, and Lord Maalthiir's Castle.

Despite the setup, "Lord Maalthiir" appears to play no role in the game.

As you wander the city, you're approached by random strangers offering to sell knock rings, healing potions, and information (almost always worthless), as well as the odd magician offering to show you a trick. Sometimes the "trick" is that a pile of gold appears (yay!); other times he teleports you to the arena, where you have to fight a battle.

This cost me 42 gold pieces.

Buildings come in two types: "menu" buildings, where you select from a number of options, and explorable buildings, where you search for treasure and avoid guards. The former turns into the latter during times when they're closed (the game has a day/night cycle). Chief among the "menu" buildings are pubs, where you can buy drinks, listen to gossip, gamble, buy a round for the house, get drunk and rolled by pickpockets, and other assorted actions, some specific to your class, many of which are necessary to get intelligence at certain stages of the plot. Guilds have fewer options (talk to the master, rest), as do shops.

It's the explorable buildings--including dungeons, caves, and sewers--that form the core of the game. They all work the same way. From the moment you enter, you have a timed status bar indicating how long you can run around and open chests before the guards show up. Although every building has some graphical features beyond chests--tables, people sitting in chairs, beds, and some items I can't identify--the only items with which you can really interact are chests.

I have no idea what the things to my southeast and northwest are supposed to be.

When you approach a chest, sometimes you find that it's unlocked and immediately reveals its treasure. But this is rare. More commonly, you find a locked chest, at which point you have the option to a) pick it with lockpicks; b) force it with your strength; c) try to pick it with some random object (this has never worked for me); d) use a "knock ring" (a ring that casts the "knock" spell); or e) use a Chime of Opening (an artifact I have not found). Items b) through d) are all on the same sub-menu, but using lockpicks brings up the lockpicking mini-game.

I guess non-thieves can only try to force it open or use knock rings.

I confess that I like the mini-game even though I suck at it. I think it's superior to both Oblivion's and Skyrim's (the only other lockpicking mini-games I'm familiar with). You have to study the patterns on the lock carefully and then choose the right sequence of picks to press down on the tumblers, one at a time. You start with 10 picks, each of which can be rotated, so there are 20 total combinations.

I was well into the game before I realized you can just pause the mini-game, take your sweet time studying the pattern, and then un-pause it to choose the sequence of picks. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. (Doing it without pausing, I only completed the lockpicking four or five times out of several dozen trying.) But even with pausing, it's difficult; the time limit is extremely short.

A rare successful lockpicking.

Even as a thief, then, I've generally opened chests by forcing the lock or using expensive knock rings. This carries a risk of setitng off a poison, sleep, or dart trap, but forcing works about 75% of the time, and when it doesn't, you can just try again. Chests have gold, healing potions, knock rings, Rods of Blasting (I was never able to use them; I think they're only for mages), and occasionally quest items or information.

Sleep traps suck. Time is short as it is.

Once the status bar gets down to about 30%--well before you've finished exploring the oddly enormous interiors of the buildings--guards start to appear, chasing you all around the maze. Every time they touch you, the status bar accelerates its decline. If they touch you while the status bar is at 0, they'll take all the gold you found and throw you out of the building--and sometimes toss you into the arena, where you have to fight for your life. Fortunately, when the guards appear, so do scattered scrolls of paralysis which freeze the guards for a time. When the status bar gets down to around 20%, you get a message saying "You can now find the exit," at which point a set of previously-hidden stairs appears somewhere in the maze. If you can find it before the guards catch you, you get to keep whatever you found.

Two things mitigate this whole process: First, even if the guards catch you and evict you, you still get to keep any quest items or knowledge that you found in the maze. Second, many buildings have secret areas in which the guards can't follow. There, you can take your time opening the chests (which usually have more gold than the main areas) and mosey on to the exit when you're ready.

You just have to keep hitting walls until you find them.

But complicating exploration are random teleportation traps that throw you about the level; one of the chests in each building has a "lever" that turns these off.


The "buildings" dynamic above applies to all buildings in the game, from random houses to quest locations to sewers. Notice anything missing? Monsters, maybe? In most CRPGs, when you enter haunted mansions, mages towers, ruins, or sewers, you fight things, right? Not in Hillsfar. You don't even have a weapon or armor (remember, weapons are outlawed). The only place you fight in the game is in the arena, and barring getting thrown there by guards, I'm not sure that fighting in the arena is mandatory for all classes. This is a rare CRPG that you can "win" without fighting a single battle.


You can choose to fight in the arena for money, and there are quests in the fighter's and thief's tracks, at least, that require it. Combat is all action, with commands to block left, right, and forward; and to attack left, right, and down. You fight with quarterstaffs against a succession of foes, including orcs, minotaurs, and lizard men. I haven't been able to get very good at watching for attacks and effectively blocking them. Essentially, I've found that if I can hit my foe once, I can often trap him in a sequence of attacks that ultimately knocks him out. If you choose to fight in the arena and lose, you get tossed out with 1 hit point. If you're in the arena because the guards threw you there and you lose, you die. It's one of the few ways to die in the game.


Gold is really only necessary to keep up a stock of healing potions and knock rings, both of which cost around 250 apiece (you can buy them in stores or from random sellers on the street) and are the only real "inventory" items in the game. You get a reasonable amount of gold from chests but most of it from solving quests for your guild. Because of that, I haven't had to spend a lot of time looting random houses.

Once you understand horseback riding, town exploration, tavern options, building exploration, and arena combat, you essentially have everything you need to win the game. Quests are just combinations of running around buildings--some of them accessible only by horseback in the environs around the city--visiting taverns for intelligence, and walking around the city. Because of that, the game gets boring pretty quickly.

Plenty of people have questioned the game's CRPG credentials, and it's not hard to see why. It has barely any combat (and no equipping of weapons and armor) or inventory. It has experience and levels, but experience rises so little in the course of the game that you never really level up. You have hit points, but you deplete most of them on traps. At the same time, though, it's one of the few games to date in which the choice of class (if not race and sex) actually matters, which would make it very replayable if it wasn't so fundamentally boring.

As a fighter/thief, I could have joined either guild, but I chose the thieves' guild first. I'm pretty sure you can only get quests from one guild per character, as once I joined the thieves' guild, the fighters' guildmaster was never "in."

Note the misplaced apostrophe.

The thieves' guildmaster, Swipe, set me on a series of quests to join and advance in the guild. All of them were a mixture of collecting intelligence from stores or taverns and then exploring various buildings for quest items. For instance, my introductory quests steps were to:

1. Visit the magic shop and ask about poison fungus. The owner told me I could find it in the sewers.


2. Go into the sewers and open chests (everything appears in a chest, no matter how nonsensical) until I found the fungus.


3. Return the fungus to the guildmaster.

Some of his quests took me outside the city proper, to nearby buildings and ruins, but all indoor exploration in Hillsfar is essentially the same, so there's nothing uniquely exciting about any of the ruins. Some of them have different textures, but all have the same chests, traps, and guards, and none of them have any combats, NPCs, or special encounters.

The outdoor map. Each of the pathways requires a horseback journey.

After the introductory quests to get the fungus and a potion, I had a series of interrelated quests to ultimately obtain a magical amulet. I had to break into the clerics' guild and the castle to solve it, and again you'd think that such places would be interesting, but they're not. They're just like every other building in the game.

Collecting intelligence on the amulet's location from a bar.

And finding the next step on the scavenger hunt in the sewers.

After returning the amulet to the guildmaster, another series of quests had me infiltrating another group of thieves, the Grey Wolves, who were a little too ostentatious in their methods, and were thus attracting unwelcome attention from the Red Plumes. In order to get in, I had to find one of their members who had been arrested and made to fight in the arena. This required me to battle my way through the ranks until I faced him, which was one of the more difficult parts of the game for me, as I never got particularly good at arena combat. To preserve every victory, I had to take a horse out of Hillsfar and back to my camp to save.


I also had to prove myself on the archery range to attract the attention of the Grey Wolves' recruiter. This involved yet another minigame. You face several targets and have to control an agitated cursor while carefully timing your release to hit a swaying or rotating target. It took me a long time to score enough points to get the attention of the gang.

If you try to hit the woman on the right, she holds up a shield at the last minute and then sticks out her tongue at you.

Once I got recruited, I did a couple of jobs for the Grey Wolves, buying time for Swipe to gather his forces and raid their hideout and eliminate them. Once he did, he rewarded me with 20,000 gold pieces and used his Ring of Wishes to give me 9 more hit points. Then he gave me a heck of a surprise:


I thought I was just getting started, but apparently I already won! The game does let me keep playing after this--a rarity for the era--but there are no more quests from the thieves' guild, and it doesn't look like I can join any other guilds. I'm curious if his comment about the Harpers actually means anything if I were to bring this character into Curse of the Azure Bonds.

So...does that count as "winning," or do I need to play all four of the other classes first? Either way, I'm going to play a mage for a little while to see how gameplay differs and perhaps shoot a video. But you might see the GIMLET already in my next posting.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Game 90: The Wizard's Castle (1980)


Wizard's Castle is similar to Dunjonquest in that when I originally blogged about it in 2010, I didn't quite give it the attention that it deserved. I wrote about it as part of my "backtracking" series--a group of games that I covered very quickly in the spring of 2010, after I realized that Wikipedia's list wasn't comprehensive and I'd missed a bunch of games. Because of that, I didn't give the game an official number, didn't try to win it, and didn't bother to rank it in my GIMLET sheet. I'm returning to it now to make these corrections.

Wizard's Castle is a landmark game in its own way. It's often called a "roguelike," but it's not, really. (And it doesn't appear on Wikipedia's list of them.) Instead, it's the progenitor of a small line of games that include Amulet of Yendor (1985), Leygref's Castle (1986), Mission: Mainframe (1987), and Bones: The Game of the Haunted Mansion (1991). The games are "roguelike" in their permadeath and bare-bones graphics, but little else. The key feature of the Wizard's Castle variants is the organization of the multi-leveled dungeon into discrete rooms, in which the player finds treasure, items, special encounters, or enemies. (And only one of these possibilities in each room.) There are a fixed and equal number of rooms per square level, with no corridors between them, and enemies do not pursue you from room to room.

The original game doesn't even keep a map on the screen. You have to keep checking where you are with the (M)ap command. At initial levels, the command helpfully lists the encounters you'll find in each of the level's 64 rooms, so it's relatively easy to avoid encounters with monsters. On higher levels, you see question marks in place of those annotations, and you need a flare or lamp to see the contents of the rooms adjacent to you.

A Wizard's Castle level, arranged into 64 rooms. The letters represent various encounters. "G" is gold; "P" is a magic pool; "C" is a chest; and "M" is a monster.

An analogous screenshot from Leygref's Castle (1986)

And from Mission Mainframe (1987)

The quest of Wizard's Castle has to do with the retrieval of the Orb of Zot (also called the Orb of Power) from the depths of a dungeon in the Kindgdom of N'Dic. The player can choose between an elf, dwarf, man, or hobbit PC, each of which has certain default starting attributes, supplemented at the player's discretion from a pool of 8 points. You then allocate 60 gold pieces to a choice of armor, weapons, and flares before heading into the dungeon.


The dungeon has 8 levels with 64 rooms per level, most with some encounter or object. The levels wrap, so if you go east from the eighth column, you end up in the first column, and if you drop into a sinkhole on the eighth level, you end up on the first level. The game supports a fairly limited selection of commands: Movement, drinking from pools, viewing the map, lightning a flare or lamp, opening chests or books, gazing into orbs, and teleporting with a runestaff.

I don't suppose it was possible to find a game developer in the 1970s who just hated Lord of the Rings.

Combat is a very rote affair which only gives you options to attack, retreat, bribe, or (for characters with intelligence above 15) cast one of three spells: web, fireball, and death. Spells deplete your attributes, though, and the "death" spell runs a high risk of killing the player. There are no "hit points" in the game; instead, monsters directly damage your attributes (most often strength), and you die if any of them fall to 0.

A quick combat with a kobold.

Killing monsters does not result in any experience or level increases, but you still have to do it because one of the creatures in the dungeon carries the "runestaff," an artifact that allows you to teleport. You need the runestaff to teleport into the room containing the Orb of Zot, which is disguised on the map as a "warp" room. Since warp rooms normally teleport you randomly throughout the dungeon, it's a bit annoying to have to test each one if it contains the Orb. If you find a crystal ball, gazing into it has a chance of showing you the correct location of the Orb, but it can also deplete your strength.

Gold plays a strong role throughout the game because you occasionally encounter vendors who will sell you weapon and armor upgrades, flares, and potions that increase your attributes (18 is the maximum for any of them). You also find artifacts that prevent various bad conditions, like blindness or a book stuck to your hands by super glue, from ruining your adventure.


Although death is relatively frequent and random...


...the game is winnable with just a little patience. Because of the randomization of the dungeon, it's entirely possible to find the runestaff and the square containing the Orb of Zot among the first levels, with only a handful of combats in between the outset and victory. But even without such luck, if you maneuver carefully on the first levels, making intelligent use of magic pools, finding treasures and chests, and using your gold to increase your attributes, you can have a strong character in just a few minutes, then begin systematically taking on monsters and testing warp locations for the Orb. A character with 18 strength and dexterity is very hard to beat, even by the game's tougher monsters.

The first step on the road to winning.

Once you have the runestaff, you can start avoiding monsters and just systematically test "W" locations until one of them sends you only one square away instead of entire levels away. That's the location of the Orb of Zot. There are a lot of levels and squares to test, so you can try to take a chance on gazing into crystal orbs to find the location. There's only a chance that they're correct, and the orbs can sap your strength, but perhaps it's better than taking the time to work through every level.

This time, fortunately, it was accurate.
 
Once you have a bead on the Orb, you can use the runestaff to teleport there and acquire it.
 
Why am I even including screen shots? I should just print the text.
 
After I found the Orb and got back to the entrance, it took me a while to figure out that the way to exit is to go (N)orth from this square rather than (U)p. Since going north from the top row usually wraps you to the bottom row, it was a little counter-intuitive, and I nearly used (Q)uit instead, which would have been a monitor-smasher.


Winning took me about 7 tries and about 2 hours. The game manual stresses its replayability, since the dungeon is randomized every time. I can't say it wasn't a fun diversion. The "flares" addition gives it a nice edge, and there's real tension--especially after you find the runestaff or the Orb--as you slowly creep along, trying to find your way to the next goal without encountering too many nasty foes. The game throws little atmospheric notes at you--"You hear a faint rustling noise!"; "You smell a minotaur frying!"; "You hear a scream!"--as you move along.

In a GIMLET, I'd give it:

  • 1 for the game world. There isn't much there.
  • 3 for character creation and development. It's surprisingly rewarding to use a variety of tactics to get your attributes to the maximum.
  • 0 for NPC interaction. There aren't any.
  • 2 for encounters and foes. The enemies aren't anything special; they're just distinguished by name. But the various books, orbs, chests, treasures, and such do provide "encounters," and while you can't role-play them, they are tactical in nature.
  • 2 for magic and combat. There aren't many options in combat, and to me the disadvantages of spells outweigh the advantages. But there is a sort of meta-tactical dynamic to the game as you plot your route through the various combats and encounters. Rather than take on two monsters at once, for instance, you might want to hit a monster, then a chest, then use the accumulated gold to buy a strength upgrade, then take the second monster.
  • 2 for equipment. There are various pieces and special items, and keeping enough gold to buy a backup weapon or armor if a dragon destroys one is part of the tactics of the game.
  • 3 for economy. You need gold to replace destroyed weapons, buy flares, and buy attribute upgrades. There aren't many huge hauls in the game, so like everything else, plotting a method to accumulate gold with minimum risk is part of the strategy.
  • 1 for the quest. There's not much to it.
  • 1 for graphics, sound, and interface. There aren't any graphics and sound, and while the keyboard commands are intuitive enough, having to constantly call up the map was a little annoying.
  • 4 for the gameplay. It's brief, brisk, challenging but not too challenging, and replayable.

The final score of 19 is perfectly respectable for the 1970s. The lineage of Wizard's Castle came to an end 20 years ago, and it's hard to detect its influence on other CRPGs, so it was worth investigating this small, stunted branch on the CRPG family tree.

The original Recreational Computing instructions.

The story of Wizard Castle's development is interesting, and is covered by Matt Barton in a 2007 article at Armchair Arcade. Briefly, the author, Joseph Power, had been inspired by a 1970s mainframe game called HOBBIT and wanted to program his own. [Later edit: As this comment notes, and the Armchair Arcade also covers, the ur-example of this type of "grid" game seems to be an all-text, mainframe-based Star Trek that dates back to at least 1971.] Lacking a computer on which to do it, he got permission from the owner of an East Lansing, Michigan store, New Dimensions in Computing, to write the program on their Exidy Sorcerer (a short-lived PC from 1978) when there wasn't a customer using it. Consideration for the store's kindness led to the designation of the kingdom as N'DIC.

Some of the game's code. It took 340 lines (numbered up to 3,390) and fit in 16KB of memory.

The program proved so popular with teenaged customers that the store sold several of the machines based on it. After an aborted attempt to have the game published commercially through the software division of Kilobaud magazine, Powers eventually published the source code in the July/August 1980 issue of Recreational Computing. From there, it was ported to a host of other platforms, including the DOS version I played. Barton's article also includes an interview the a programmer going by the handle "Derelict" who created a Windows version with better graphics but the same basic gameplay.


Unfortunately, Joseph Power joins a selection of other programmers from the same era who didn't stay in the CRPG game beyond their original creations. I suspect they didn't find it financially viable. They were unfortunate enough to have gotten into the game while personal computing was a rare hobby, and they missed--by inches--the era in which ownership of microcomputers would explode and game developing could be a lucrative enterprise.

Because my ill-formed "DOS Only" rule when I began my blog, my first posting was on Akalabeth. With this posting on Wizard's Castle, I have caught up on all the commercially-released RPGs, for any platform, that preceded it. (At least, all the ones that I can identify.) It's been an interesting tour, and perhaps it's better that I made it with a few years of blogging and game-playing experience, rather than right at the outset of my blog, when I didn't have the same sense of history. I'll still try to pick up some additional games from the early 1980s that I missed on my first pass, but for now we'll return to the "present" with Keef the Thief.

*****

Further reading: Check out my my posts on two games that "adapted" The Wizard's Castle: The Yendor's Castle (1986) and Leygref's Castle (1986).

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Tangled Tales: Won! (with Final Rating)

The closest you get to a victory screen before getting dumped to the DOS prompt.

Tangled Tales
ORIGIN Systems (developer and publisher)
Gary Scott Smith, Alex Duong Nghiem
Released 1989 for DOS, Apple II, and Commodore 64
Date Started: 20 February 2013
Date Ended: 23 February 2013
Total Hours: 15
Difficulty: Moderate-Easy (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 38
Ranking at Time of Posting: 63/87 (72%)

Before it ended, Tangled Tales got a little harder and a lot sillier. I don't think the final valley could have been more ludicrous if the developers had actually been on drugs. To give a little snippet: dodging giant lizards capable of casting "Teleport," "wabbit hunters" with rifles, giant gorillas called "banana peelers" capable of casting "Paralyze," and polar bears capable of breathing fire, I find my way down a rabbit hole where I got a carrot from a female rabbit. Then I ice-skated across a glacier and used a "Time Disortion" spell to help an Eskimo catch some fish so he would agree to let me use his kayak. In the kayak, I met a talking penguin who needed a bow-tie, but fortunately I had purchased one at a tailor shop. At the penguin's advice, I built a snowman named Snookie north of the Eskimo's igloo and outfitted it with a corncob pipe, two button eyes, and a carrot nose. The snowman helped me win a snowball fight against some yetis so I could get past them into a cave and free a Time Lord named Azersun from an hourglass by blowing a silver flute. Azersun took me back in time where I evaded a man-eating plant to get a pot o' gold from a pyramid for a leprechaun so she would return a stolen diploma to a witch doctor so he would lift a lycanthropy curse from the valley.

This may be the most absurd screen shot ever taken in a CRPG.

If all of this sounds harmless, keep in mind that it took me hours to figure it all out. More so than the first valley, the second two required NPCs to be recruited, items to be found, and puzzles to be solved in a relatively precise order. There were no individual puzzles: everything was joined in one giant machine. Since I didn't know the precise order of places to go and things to do, I ended up havin to backtrack a lot. I'd be curious to see Trickster's take on this one, because it felt a lot more like an adventure game than an RPG. This was exacerbated by combats that give you no experience and very little need for gold. I eventually learned to avoid most combats with the "Detect Monster" spell.

Or maybe this one.

In a comment on my last posting, Gamma Leak alluded to a quote from Scorpia in the August 1989 issue of Computer Gaming World:

Solving many of the puzzles is more a matter of having the right people in the party than anything else, which reduces the main character to [a] spectator at many crucial points in the game. A little less reliance on all these NPCs would have been better.

Maxwell gets in some final jive before taking off.

I didn't feel that way, yet, at the end of my last posting, but I definitely did by the end of the game. NPCs bailed me out of situation after situation, each one sashaying into the sunset once their destinies had been fulfilled. I would have appreciated alternate solutions to many of the puzzles that only NPCs could solve.

It's just way to hard to choose among them.

I'll just summarize the plot quickly before heading on to the rating.

The answer to the drought in the second valley had to do with obtaining a magic carpet from an imp (I needed to wake up a djinn to fight him first) and use it to get to a giant's castle in the clouds. There, I rescued a woman named Veronica and returned her to her beloved Charles. (The two ran off to start a bakery and showed up in the third valley.) But more important, I had my elven minstrel Jenny read a book of poetry to the giant, causing him to cry so copiously that water poured down into the valley below. I suspect the salinity of giant's tears makes the water unsuitable for crop-growing, but whatever.

This sounds a bit familiar...

For the third mission, Eldritch sent me to another valley to find a spell to strengthen the portals that connected the three valleys. That's where I had the nutty adventures recounted above. There were actually two maps of the valley, one in the past and one in the present, and I had to toggle between them with the help of the Time Lord. Once lycanthropy was cured, Charles, who had been infected, gave me a magic map that allowed me to get through the foyer of a wizards' college.


The final area tested my knowledge of all of the spells I'd acquired throughout the game. I had to use "Time Distortion" to get past the wizards' bouncers; prove that I had "Awaken," "Cure Paralysis," and "Energy Blast" (the latter by using it to char a steak); and answer some questions about the effects of "Recall," "Reflection," and "Gnighton."

The answer was a "thimble." I don't really want to explain why.

After that, I was given access to a couple of tomes that filled in my knowledge of any spell I hadn't otherwise picked up, including "Strengthen Portal." I cast this last spell on the three valley portals, returned to Eldritch, and won the game.


Eldritch gave me a final ability increase, which was kind of silly since the game dumped me to the DOS prompt immediately after I spoke to him.

A bold plan for an apprentice who was playing pranks and just had his spellbook wiped a few days ago.

By the end of the game, I had 19 spells, but I barely used the ones I acquired in the second half of the game. Part of the problem is that the character has so few spell points, and the "Continual" ones deplete so quickly, that if you want to make robust use of the spells, you have to rest constantly. Other spells just aren't very useful. "Recall," for instance, allows you to return to the location of a dropped object, but none of the maps are really big enough to make such a useful-sounding spell very necessary.
 
My final spell list.
A quick GIMLET:

1. The game world is reasonably well described in the manual and wizard's journal, and though small, it certainly has some interesting features. The setting is less "fantasy" and more "fairy tale" (which I suppose goes with the title), featuring elves, dwarves, talking snowmen, cloud giants, leprechauns, werewolves, witch doctors, talking rabbits, nymphs, Eskimos, and Vietnamese martial arts experts, all within the space of three valleys. Yes, it was very original, but no, I didn't like it. Score: 5.
2. Character Creation and Development. Although you always play a wizard, character creation does allow for some customization of attributes. You could make a very brawny wizard (more effective in melee combat) or a very brainy one (with more spell power).  "Development" occurs in between stages of the story, with three level-ups (but functionally only two, since the last happens moments before the game quits) and the acquisition of additional spells. I'm not a fan of plot-driven level-ups; I'd rather have gotten experience and levels from slaying monsters. Score: 3.
 
My final character sheet.
 
3.  NPCs. If they weren't so goofy, they'd be some of the best NPCs we've seen in CRPGs so far. You have a selection of dialogue topics for both party NPCs and other NPCs, and they contribute significantly to the atmosphere of the game. Some are absolutely necessary for solving quests and others provide helpful advice. They have unique characteristics and are extremely memorable. I just wish they hadn't been so silly. Score: 7.

I mean, come on.

4. Encounters and Foes. Enemies in the game were varied and a bit nonsensical, especially toward the end. But their unique strengths, weaknesses, and spells drove the only real tactics in combat. A few of them were completely unbeatable and required intelligent use of spells to avoid, which is an interesting departure from the normal CRPG trope of having to kill the evil wizard. The other "encounters" came in the form of puzzles, but I didn't think they were good puzzles. As I mentioned above, they involved less intelligence and creativity and more luck of having been to one place, and gotten an item there, before going to the next place. Because all possible actions are listed under the "Action" button, you never have to think logically about how a certain item might effect a certain outcome, as you do when puzzles depend on typing commands or manipulating inventory. Score: 4.
 
One of the game's several unbeatable monsters. I had to cast "Monster Detection" and "Time Distortion" to skirt my way around him.
 
5. Magic and Combat. The non-magic side of combat is hardly worth mentioning. You hit "attack" and the game tells you when your enemies are slain or when you take damage. You don't see attack rolls or damages, and you can't control the actions of NPC characters. Tactics come entirely from the use of spells, and there are some tactical decisions to make about when to use various continual or noncontinual spells. This aspect of the game would have been better with more spell points to work with; the 170 I had by the end of the game would support 6 or 7 noncontinual spells in between sleeping, and less if I was in a dungeon and needed to keep "Light" active. I also felt that many of the spells appeared too late in the game, long past the point where I really needed them. Score: 4.
 
The adventurers take on Elmer Fudd.
 
6. Equipment. One of the lousier parts of the game. Aside from all the puzzle-based inventory, you find a small selection of weapons, armor, and shields during the course of the game, a lot of which the wizard can't equip. There are no statistics associated with them, so you have to guess on your own whether the "big axe" is a better weapon than the "+2 dagger." I went through almost a dozen re-loads trying to defeat a "Blue Knight" only to find that my reward was a sword and armor I had to give to an NPC. And the system of assigning weapons and armor to NPCs is rather silly, with them asking you for them upon rests. Score: 2.
 
My massive equipment list from the end of the game. Why can I use a "big axe" but not a sword?
 
7. Economy. You get gold from slaying some monsters. There are a handful of quest items to buy, but otherwise you spend most of it healing and resurrecting NPCs. I never saved up the 900+ gold pieces to learn the secrets of the universe from Esmeralda, but I suppose that qualifies as a long-term financial goal that keeps money from becoming completely useless. Score: 4.

8. Quests. There are three "chapters" in the game, together forming a main quest. Although there appear to be side-quests, ultimately none of them are optional. There's only one outcome to each scenario and to the game as a whole, so no opportunities for role-playing. Score: 2.

Eldritch gives the game's final quest.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. My version has no sound, but the graphics are pretty and with enough detail to make interesting vistas and character portraits. The interface was reasonably good. Every clickable icon has an associated keyboard shortcut, making gameplay relatively smooth. Score: 4.
 
A decent-looking dragon. This was another unbeatable foe, by the way. Fortunately, I had a book of extremely boring stories.
 
10. Gameplay. Regrettably linear. The valleys are too small to support open exploration, and although it appears you can hit the dungeons in each scenario in any order, you really need to proceed in a specific order to solve all of the puzzles. I didn't appreciate all the backtracking I needed to do, though it wasn't terrible because the distances were so small. I can't see any reason to replay it once you know the puzzle solutions. If combat had been more tactical, it would be interesting to see how characters of different starting attributes performed, but alas...
 
The pacing is okay. I didn't feel like the game dragged on too long. And it did a reasonably good job easing into the difficulty, with the first valley very easy and the next two progressively harder, though it never got very hard. Score: 3.
 
The game subtly clues me to the existence of a secret door.
 
The final score of 38 puts it close to Drakkhen, another game whose innovations I admired but which had enough flaws in the gameplay to edge it into the "thumbs down" category. Tangled Tales has an interesting interface, a great approach to NPCs, and a rare blend of RPG and adventure game elements. I just wish they had been employed in a more serious game in which combat had more purpose and deeper tactics.
 
Scorpia also gave a mixed review. She seemed intrigued by the hybrid design, but ultimately found it negative: "Just imagine doing Zork (although the puzzles here are generally much easier) with unpleasant critters wandering all over the place." She noted the uselessness of combat, the fact that more NPCs means more monsters, the "pretty" graphics, and the inconsequential nature of death.


Tangled Tales is one of many ORIGIN games that feel like side-projects in between Ultimas. We've seen a few others on the blog so far--Autoduel, Moebius, 2400 A.D., and Times of Lore--and I haven't really liked any of them. I keep hearing good things about Knights of Legend from the same year, and I guess that game uses many of the same interface elements of Tangled Tales. Perhaps that's the "more serious game" that I was just hoping for. I'll be checking it out in just a few games. For now, it's on to Keef the Thief, a game about which I know extremely little except that its title doesn't fill me with promise.