Sunday, March 31, 2013

Knights of Legend: The Agony and the Ecstasy

How do you like me now, bandits?

With the wisdom imparted from my first experiences at combat, I did a lot better in the next two quests. I implemented the reforms that I said I would, starting bu purchasing backup melee weapons for my archers, though one weapons store owner was racist against elves and wouldn't sell to them.

"Wisp" is a pejorative term for an elf? Who knew?

The simple act of buying a longsword for my archer illustrates the continuing absurdity of the game's interface. I want to have my archer equip his bow as his primary weapon, and put the longsword on his belt so that he can access it in combat when his arrows run out. The annoyances start the moment I buy the longsword, when the game insists on immediately equipping it as my primary weapon.

At this point, I need to select the character, click on the "equip" icon, wait a few seconds for the "outfitting your character" screen to load, select "weapon," from the slots on the right, click the "eye" icon to take a closer look at my weapon, click the "swap" button to put the sword on my belt, select the first "pocket" slot (where the longbow went) to find the bow, click in the "eye" icon again to view it, and click the "swap" icon to equip it. I'm reasonably sure that the process takes longer than it would take to physically equip a bow and longsword.

At last: everything where it's supposed to be.

Once in combat again, I made better use of the terrain, sent scouts forward to lead the enemies to me one-by-one, and only advanced my full party when I had a clear path to another defensible position. I kept better track of my arrows, used the archers sparingly, and marked each enemy I killed so I knew how many were left.

Establishing a killing ground at the end of a bridge. Since I anticipate that he's going to run forward two squares, my melee attackers in position 1 and 4 can target that square with slow, powerful attacks, intercepting him when he arrives. (Unless the game makes them go first, in which case they swing at empty air.)
I was surprised to see that enemies weren't in the same positions during my next assault on the bandit castle, so I had to do a more thorough job seeking them out. This--sending my scout through corridors and alleys to find every last bandit--was the most tedious part of the game.

Come out, come out, wherever you are!
In the end, I defeated all 12 of them without losing any of my characters. Among their loot, I found the Knights' Standard and gleefully headed back to town to resolve my first quest. It took about two hours total.

The end of a battle presents you with a certain number of "adventure points," gold, and equipment from your slain foes. I nearly left the excess weapons and armor rusting on the battlefield--I must have been thinking about Pool of Radiance or something--but boy am I glad I didn't. I made more money from selling the equipment than from the battle itself.

All of Aedd's quest rewards go into healing. It's like a vicious circle.
This money turned out to be vital for healing my wounded party members (health doesn't just regenerate on its own) and of course checking into the inn to save the game. This is the only game I know where you have to pay money so you can stop playing. I look forward to this conversation later this week:

  • Irene: "Chester, stop playing that stupid game and come to bed!"
  • Me: "I can't afford it!"
The innkeeper, grinning like a guy who knows he has me by short hairs.

For my second quest, I decided to try the "ruffians" who had stolen Stephanie's gavel, talisman of the alderman's guild. I didn't know exactly where they were, but when I asked people about RUFF, they directed me to "Johnathon," the racist weaponer, who told me that they had been following the River Passing into the Tantowyn woods. I consulted a map, headed off, and found their encampment along the river.

Hell, yeah, I'll partake!
The battlemap seemed smaller than the bandits' castle, with one great place to stage an ambush right at the beginning. I took down half of the eight ruffians there, then moved into the camp to find the rest.

A great place to engage the enemy. Three of my melee fighters can take him here, but none of his friends can come through.

In the process, I found the gavel in one of the buildings, which was a surprise. In the previous quest, I never found the standard as an object; I just acquired it after I'd defeated all of the bandits. This makes me wonder whether it's possible to complete a quest by sending a fast character into the map, finding the quest object, and fleeing.

The gavel looks oddly like a sword.

In this case, it wasn't necessary, and I killed all the ruffians again without losing any of my party members. I returned with it to Brettle. This quest time was maybe 90 minutes, though I accomplished it slowly while watching Netflix and doing other things, so it's hard to say for sure.

During the combat, I found a use for my Kelder's flying abilities. This ruffian wouldn't budge no matter what; he just kept shooting arrows at us. So I had the Kelder fly across the water to his back side, thus allowing more than two characters to engage him in melee combat.
When turning in both quest items, the quest givers gave me the passwords to their guilds: AKLOM for the knights and KYDAR for the aldermen. Presumably these will be useful in some other town.

Unless my next quest takes me to Chicago, I'm not sure how this is going to help.
In addition to the two quests, I had plenty of random encounters on the road and in the forests, usually by small parties of relatively easy foes like goblins and gremlins. The prospect if surviving one of the long quest battles only to be killed by a random encounter on the way back to town, before I could save, was mildly horrifying. I had to keep reminding myself that you can't actually "die" in the game, though losing all of your equipment and gold couldn't be much worse. What I wonder is whether you can lose quest items in such circumstances. That would suck.

That these are "level 1" suggests a potential for random combats to get harder later.
I didn't come close to "dying," though, and on the whole I like the random battles better than the quest battles. They're much shorter, and they don't make you funnel your characters through such restrictive terrain (though at the same time, they don't give you much ability to make use of the terrain, either). Perhaps they get more deadly later on, but right now they're contributing nicely to my bottom line, and I don't see any need yet to purchase the horses that I eschewed dwarves to acquire.

A screenshot from a random battle.
Three more thoughts on combat:

1. The combat maps are full of interesting terrain and structures that you never really get a chance to explore, especially since the combat ends upon slaying the last foe. I'm not really getting a sense of the totality of the battle map.

2. None of the foes so far are very distinguishable from each other. I can't really tell the difference between bandits and ruffians or ruffians and goblins in terms of their AI or the danger they pose to my party. Presumably this will change as I encounter enemies with special attacks and spells.

That all enemy health portraits feature the same muscular thing with hooves and horns doesn't help. I feel a bit sorry for this guy, incidentally.
3. I'm not really sure how my the injury system works post-battle. Each character has a "health" bar that turns red the more injuries he takes, but the specific injuries don't seem to remain active in between battles. In other words, if Coll takes a serious hit to the head in one battle, in the next battle his health meter will be a bit depleted, reflecting that wound, but his head is no longer injured. Since I've yet to carry a heavily-wounded character between combats, I don't know how this low-health-but-no-specific-injuries system affects the character's performance in combat.

When I finished with these first two quests, my characters all had 1,038 adventure points and an average of 907 gold pieces, and I decided it was time to spend a bit of both on training and magic.

This is a random screenshot of outdoor movement, because this section was just going to be a lot of text otherwise.
The magic system in the game is one of the most oddest I've seen, and some commenters have opined that it is unnecessary to play the game. Essentially, each spell consists of a five- or six-syllable "word of power," with the various syllables determining the race of the target, the statistic that you want to affect, the severity of the spell, the duration of the spell, and the specific "subclass" of the target. So a spell intended to severely damage the offensive skill of a hill giant at close range for a long time would be KUMKUTYONOA, where the various letters indicate:

  • KUM: Giant
  • KUT: Offensive skill
  • Y: Great
  • ON: Close range
  • O: Long time
  • A: Hill giant

A spell to heal a human a little bit at long range would be DAYNALYRTA:

  • DAY: Human
  • NA: Body
  • L: Moderate amount
  • YR: Long range
  • TA: Used for humans, elves, dwarves, and Kelder

This means that I have to have separate healing spells for each of the three races in my party--human, elf, and Kelder--as well as separate damage spells for every type of creature I want to hurt.

You purchase spells wholesale, but if you join a magical order, you're given the option to modify the syllables of certain spells that are the specialties of that order, turning a spell that does a little body damage to ogres into a spell that does a lot of body damage to cliff trolls, for instance. But I guess you can only join one order, so you have to be careful about choosing the one that specializes in the spells you plan to modify.

Purchasing spells from a sad-looking old man.

There are 29 creature subclasses, so I don't think the best strategy is to create random offensive spells and hope they come in handy; rather, spell creation (and modification) must be a process of careful planning based on what you know about your next quest. Whether offensive magic ever becomes useful, I could see defensive magic helping a lot. My two archers have been doing a lot of standing around and resting while the melee characters fight (so I don't waste their arrows), so I can't see any harm in having them spend some of their fatigue on spells that heal and boost the other party members.

The wizard in Brettle only had spells that could improve the health or fatigue of humans or elves at short or long ranges. Since my elves would be doing the casting (and staying out of the fighting) in most cases, I gave them spells to heal humans at long range to start. It appears that you can only cast these spells in combat, so my hopes that they would help spare the expense of healing at the temple are a bit ruined.

Spending my adventure points is a bit more complicated, and I could use some advice on it since it's not covered well in the manual. My understanding is that each town has a weapons trainer, where for a combination of gold and adventure points, you can increase your offensive and defensive scores with certain weapons. The cost seems to be 100 adventure points per skill point increase, plus around 200 gold pieces for each "session" in which you can train up to 5 points.

Each character started with proficiencies in certain weapons. For instance, Aedd, pictured below, has an offensive score of 12 and a defensive score of 5 with the mace. Reaching that equivalent with a different weapon would cost 1,700 adventure points--far more than I've achieved so far--so my natural predisposition is to stick with the weapons with which the characters are already proficient.

I just noticed this instant that Aedd came with a crossbow skill. I guess I should buy one for times when I only have space for three melee fighters.

However, I understand from your comments that certain weapons can't be trained very far; that advanced trainers in certain weapons were planned for modules that were never made. What I don't know is what weapons are rendered useless by this system and which are good. I thus wouldn't mind a list of the specific weapons that are trainable to a high level. (I tried Googling it, but everything seemed to be buried amidst a bunch of other spoilers I didn't want to see.) In the meantime, the trainer in Brettle doesn't seem to focus on any of the weapons I already have, so I'll wait to get your advice or to travel to other towns before I train.

For my characters, the next quest is the recovery of a magic quill from some ghouls somewhere to the south. After that, I'll be moving on to a different city, I guess. However, I may intersperse some articles on other games amidst Knights of Legend postings, as I anticipate reaching a point soon where I'll only have a paragraph or two of material based on hours of gameplay.

I'll say this for the game: I have never felt such honest-to-god relief at the end of CRPG battles before. Remember my posting on the kobold battles in Pool of Radiance? This game is like experiencing that agony and ecstasy with every fight. This is both an extremely good thing and an extremely bad thing. This is, in fact, both an extremely good and extremely bad game.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Knights of Legend: The Sweet Taste of Victory

A first-time player has no idea what he's getting into when he says "yes" to this message.
From both the manual and the comments you've been giving me, I got the impression that combat in Knights of Legend is a complicated and often tedious affair, but I was thinking along the lines of Wizard's Crown, which at the time was the most complicated and lengthy combat system I'd ever seen, but still somewhat manageable.

Hoo boy.

My first Knights of Legend battle lasted so long that I couldn't finish it. I needed to be somewhere else; I needed my computer with me; I wasn't going to travel with the computer open; and DOSBox doesn't survive the closing and re-opening of a laptop (at least, not on my computer). I realized then that I would need a significant chunk of free time before I could play the game again--time which regrettably didn't arrive until today.

When you leave towns, the map changes to a larger overland map with a tiny flashing cursor indicating your location. As long as you're on a road, you can use the "Road" button to continue moving along the road without having to use the directional keys. This is one of exactly one ways in which the game makes playing it logistically easier.

Exploring the outdoors. I actually thought the road I was on was called "Mid-Morn Road" for a while.

There's a day/night cycle outside, and the game forces you to camp at night. I didn't notice any time passing when I was in town; it was always day.

I stopped off at a tower near the city, where an old dwarf named Fistan Stockhard (which, I'm obliged to note, would make a great porn name) reminisced about his times with the Duke's Highwaymen. He didn't have a lot to say, but it was fun to see the slight differences with which he greeted Coll, also a highwayman, and the female non-highwayman characters in the group.

A slight difference that didn't matter in the overall dialogue, but still it's the rare CRPG of the era that gives different dialogue responses for different character types.

This first combat occurred not long after leaving the tower, and it was with the bandits who stole the Standard of the Guild of Knights. I found them along a main road. I rather expected that their fortress would be annotated with some kind of icon, but instead I just got a message stating I had arrived at it while I was wandering along the path. Good thing I didn't deviate from the road.

Combat begins with a quick overview of your foes, and then you're launched into the tactical combat screen.

My party faces off against Zorro and his clones.

This game seems to combine just about every other tactical combat engine with is options. It has the multitude of actions from Wizard's Crown, a targeting system similar to Ultima V, the "line up each of your characters' actions, then watch them execute all at once" system introducted in Wizardry, an attention to individual body parts seen in Phantasie III, tactical use of the terrain seen in Ultimas IV and V, and the tedious square-by-square movement system seen in Paladin.

On top of all of these systems, though, it adds a few of its own contributions--primarily an action-selection system for which the term "torturous" was invented. Let's examine all of the things I need to do to move my character one square to the left:

  • Double-click on the "move" icon (fifth in a choice of 7 icons)
  • Click on the square adjacent where I want him to move.
  • Click the thumbs-up "confirm" icon.
  • Double-click on the icon representing the speed at which I want him to move (out of three options, or six for the Keldar, who can fly).
  • Review the combatant window to ensure that the game has it right.
  • Click the "Confirm" icon again.

Trust me: actually managing to move a square deserves an exclamation point in this game.

This is in notable contrast to literally any of the engines mentioned previously in which moving one square to the left required pressing the left arrow. The approach used in Knights of Legend would be slightly more tolerable if you could use the keyboard to select your options, but no, everything requires the mouse.

Now all of this would be tedious enough if combat took place on a map the size of an Ultima V room, but the combat maps are enormous, and it could easily take half an hour to mince your way from one end to the other even if you didn't have to fight anyone along the way. Making things even worse is that you start without knowing anything about the direction of your foe, so you could easily spend the better part of an hour just wandering around, looking for the enemy you're supposed to fight.

Combat begins. Where do I go?

Fortunately, my first battle included just enough map information (visible from only two characters) that suggested that the foes would be found to the west. I started moving my party that way only to encounter yet another annoying feature: after you line up all of the movement options, characters move in order of their initiatives. If the lead characters don't move first, the rear characters end up bumping into them and wasting their movement for the round.

Flashbacks to Ultima IV dungeon room navigation here, though that was a lot quicker.

When you finally encounter a foe, the available options really explode. You have four basic options: attack, fire a missile weapon, attack with fists, and use magic. Each has numerous sub-options. After choosing "attack," for instance, you next choose the type of attack: berzerk, hack, thrust, and slash. Each has different advantages and disadvantages in terms of speed, damage, accuracy, and available defense options during the same round. Then you choose the area of the body for which you'll be aiming: high, medium, or low. The decision here has something to do with what area of the opponent is least lightly armored, and which areas are already injured. Finally, you select your method of defense in the same round: panic, stand, back up, dodge, duck, or jump. Again, these options are based partly on the consequences on fatigue and partly on what you anticipate the enemy is going to do.

Targeting a foe. Attack options include do nothing, berserk, hack, thrust, and slash.

Fortunately, Season 5 of Mad Men just arrived on Netflix, so I'll have something to do while spending 90 minutes fighting every group of five goblins.

Stamina, rather than health, is the most important attribute in combat. You don't even get a health meter--just an icon showing blood where you've been injured. Various actions eat up different amounts of stamina--sprinting or hacking in heavy armor takes more than walking and thrusting in light armor--and this is further affected by the wounds you've taken. A bleeding character might lose stamina with every step. You can rest or walk slowly to try to recover it in between individual foes. If the stamina meter turns completely red, the character collapses and apparently doesn't revive for that combat.

Coll has a chest wound but most of his stamina (note the small amount of red at the top of the meter).

The interesting thing is that characters can't die. They can only fall unconscious. If all of them fall unconscious in a single battle, the enemies loot your bodies, but you eventually wake up and can limp back to town. Wounds don't automatically heal or anything--you still need to find a healer or you'll be at a disadvantage in the next combat.

In my first attempt on this map, I started moving west and found myself in a narrow corridor in which my characters had to proceed single-file. Owing to the movement problem I discussed a minute ago, that was a bit complicated to line up. As I emerged on the other side, I found myself facing my first bandit foe, and it was some effort to exit the corridor and slowly move my characters into position where more than one could attack him at once. I killed him after about three rounds, but my fighter suffered some wounds in the process. I continued moving up the path to the second encounter, at which point I had to quit the game so I could go to work.

The second time, I decided to get my party into formation at the mouth of the other end of the corridor and see if he would come to me. After several rounds of resting, I realized that wasn't happening, so I gingerly sent one of my characters down the hallway to see if I could catch their attention and lead them to my other characters. This was part strategy, but it was actually less time-consuming than sending all six of my party members down the corridor together.

Resting while waiting for enemies to walk into my ambush.

This basically worked, though I had to travel a lot farther than I expected to find my first foe: there wasn't one sitting just outside the corridor as the first time. Hela, my Ghor tigress, found one bandit and sprinted back to her colleagues, leading him behind her.

No! Don't chase me, Mr. Bandit!

She got to the exit just in time to collapse from exhaustion; I wasn't paying enough attention to her fatigue meter. The hapless bandit found himself beset by three melee fighters and two ranged attackers, but it still took me three rounds to kill him.

Note Hela's spent body just south of Coll.

20 minutes into the battle, I'd killed 1/12 of my foes, and I was down one fighter from my own stupidity. I resisted the urge to start over and started to move everyone through the tunnel.

Before long, I found another chokepoint of sorts at the northern end of a double-wide bridge leading into the bandits' castle. I decided to try to exploit it the same way by sending my Kendar (who can fly up to three squares at a time) down the corridor while the rest of my truncated party lingered outside. These bandits had bows, so it didn't work quite as well: I had to hide the characters around the mouth and then converge in a couple of rounds when the bandits got close enough that they could see them and start shooting. Fortunately, my own archers turned out to be extremely adept, killing several of them in one blow.

A nice arrow shot from Yder the Elf.

At this point, I was about 45 minutes into the combat, and I was getting a little sick of it, so I decided to just charge forward and see what happened.

The party ever-so-slowly moves across the bridge.

What happened was I encountered four bandits in a courtyard with a pool in the middle. One sniped at me from bow slits in a tower that I couldn't reach. The others alternately fired at me and engaged me in melee combat. Aedd, my Dark Guard, soon went down. I killed two of the bandits but a third unexpectedly moved into position to engage my lightly-armored ranged characters. Changing from a ranged weapon to a melee weapon takes at least two rounds, and I didn't have backup melee weapons anyway, so I just had them flee while my melee characters tried to engage him from behind. He died in a few hits.

Another character goes down.

About this time, I started to understand the "foresight" system, which I'll describe below, and my tactics started to improve. Two more bandits who wandered into the courtyard from side-passages fell to my blows. But by now, my Kelder was suffering from serious wounds and getting fatigued quickly, my two archers had run out of arrows (I guess you only get about 20 per combat), and I'd only killed slightly more than half my foes. I rested for a while before heading down an east passage. Logistics of movement were rendered a bit easier with only four characters.

Moro's fatigue meter is almost entirely red--which is bad. Time to rest.

The bandit in the next fight took forever to go down, and Moro collapsed from exhaustion during it. I now had four enemies left to be taken on by three characters, one of whom was wounded and two of whom had no weapons. In the next two fights, which took place in a narrow passage next to small buildings, my unarmed attacks (principally headbutts) were surprisingly effective, and the foes went down.

This feels like fighting dirty.

More than 90 minutes now.

The next bandit who came along dodged every attack I made and knocked out Onia, one of my martial arts experts. I eventually killed him, leaving Coll, my highwayman with a serious chest wound, and Yder, my elf with no weapon and wounds to his chest and leg, to try to finish off the last two foes.

Yder attempts a headbutt.

They failed. Coll went down in the next attack and Yder's feeble headbutts couldn't overcome the bandit. The bandits looted my party of their gold but mostly left their weapons and armor.

Two hours and nothing to show for it.

Hey! I don't even have a dwarf!

I'm not really bitter, though. It was a good learning experience in which I made lots of obvious mistakes. Towards the end, when there was still a chance I might pull off an unexpected victory, there were moments when it was almost exhilarating.

The best combat innovation in Knights of Legend is the foresight/intelligence system by which characters can assess what their foes are going to do. The character's foresight determines the order in which he or she plans his or her moves. This is different than the order in which the moves are actually executed, which is determined by quickness. Characters with high foresight plan later in combat, after all or most of the enemies have planned their moves.

Characters with high intelligence can estimate the enemy's likely methods of attack and defense. (Unfortunately, they have to be able to target the enemies to do this, so it's limited to melee enemies right next to you or ranged enemies if you still have some arrows.) If the character is correct, it's a huge boon for him and any character who plans his moves after this point.

As an example, take a look at this screenshot, featuring a bandit next to two melee characters (to his right) and two ranged attackers (to his left). One of the ranged attackers has figured out (by his body language, I guess) that in the round to come, the bandit plans to attack by thrusting at the head of the character directly to his right. Moreover, he's poised to duck to avoid any melee attacks directed at him.

Assuming my other characters haven't planned their attacks yet, I now have a good idea what to do. Both melee characters should avoid attacking his head, to start. In fact,  leg attack would be a good idea, since he's planning to duck right into it. Coll, the character he's planning to attack, should adopt a "backing up" or "duck" defense to avoid the thrust. If Coll is already injured, I should have him decline to attack and put all his efforts into defense. Meanwhile, Moro, the other melee character, can put all his effort into attacking since the enemy isn't planning to attack him at all.

Here's another one. This guy, who has a wounded left arm, is planning to make a slash attack at Coll, the character to his immediate right, aiming at the center of his torso. He plans to defend by standing still and taking the brunt of the blow on his armor (this is different than doing nothing). Since he doesn't plan to move, I should use a powerful attack, probably directed at his center to increase the chances of incapacitating his already-injured arm. Meanwhile, Coll should plan to dodge by backstepping. Moro, again, can do nothing for his defense and put everything into the attack.

And a third. The foe below is on the far left of the screen, and he's running to engage my characters in melee combat. Since he's running, there's a good chance he'll go first in the round to come, meaning he'll land in the square to his right--next to my melee characters--before anyone else goes. This means that Coll and Moro can target the empty square that he's planning to run into--and they should use their slowest, most powerful attacks.

That worked out pretty well.

This system is fascinating, and it introduces a tactical level I've never considered in a turn-based RPG. Now that I understand it better, I think I'll be in better shape when I return.

Some other notes on combat:

  • The game features a "fog of war" by which you can't see enemies around obstacles. The neat thing is that when the enemy moves, you can see the fog of war from his perspective, and you know which of your characters he can see and target.

The bandit fails to see my party lurking on either side of the bridge exit.

  • Enemies don't seem to be subject to the same rules about switching weapons as party members. My bandit foes went smoothly from bows to scimitars in a single round, without having to drop one weapon and equip the other first.
  • You can flee from combat at any point. There's a chance that you'll drop your equipped weapons as you do. I love the little icon that manages to convey a character running away in desperation, discarding his sword behind him.
  • Kelden can fly over obstacles and water. I haven't really exploited that yet
  • Enemies are dumb enough to walk into obstacles or fire their bows when they have no available targets.
  • The "body parts" system is more complicated than I described above, but I haven't figured it out yet. I gather that incapacitated arms and legs affect the character's ability to use certain weapons, run, and do other actions that would naturally require them.
  • My colorblindness is hurting me again. I can't tell what the heck the icons are supposed to be. Both my characters and my foes just look like speckled blobs to me. I find it hard to distinguish my characters from the cobblestone walkways and the bandits from the grass and trees.
  • There's no way to view your character sheet in the midst of combat to remind you of your stats and items.
  • There is, of course, no way to save in the middle of combat, nor immediately afterwards. (Short of cheating with a DOSBox version with save states, which I'm not going to explore.) You have to get back to a town and pay to stay at an inn.

There are a few things I don't understand yet, and I wouldn't mind discussion on these:

1. Is there any purpose to the unarmed options (punch, kick, headbutt) except as something to do if the character has lost his or her weapons?

2. If I can target an enemy with multiple melee fighters, does it make more sense to have them target the same place (head, body, legs) or to spread out the attacks?

3. If I sheath my weapons before fleeing, do I lose nothing from the action?

Even though this posting has been fairly detailed, I'm going to have to do a step-by-step combat posting later on, when I understand all the options a little better, and when I have magic to include in the discussion.

From this one experience, I can understand why players have a love/hate relationship with the combat system. It is at once stupid and brilliant, tedious and invigorating. What makes it particularly annoying is that it could have been unquestionably great with just a few additions, like mapping the buttons to the keyboard, setting an "active character," making the maps a little smaller, and the ability to set a destination point instead of forcing the player to specify the direction of movement every round.

My take-aways from my first experience are to keep a closer eye on my stamina bar, make sure the archers have backup melee weapons, make better use of the environment, and don't waste all of my arrows early on, especially when I'm fighting a single enemy in range of several melee attackers. I might even go back to the drawing board for the characters, paying closer attention to foresight and intelligence (and perhaps getting a dwarf).

For those of you wondering at my post title, I did manage to win one combat. In a re-load, I was attacked shortly after leaving town by a single goblin.

He went down in two rounds without doing any damage to my characters, and I was able to loot 42 gold pieces and a mace from his body. After the two hour ordeal above, this victory--any victory--sure tasted sweet.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Game 94: Knights of Legend (1989)

Knights of Legend has already delivered a gameplaying experience I haven't felt since I played Wizard's Crown almost three years ago: party-creation angst. Most games have a standard selection of races and classes, similar enough to each other that you don't have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to fill your six slots. Even though I hadn't played Might & Magic, Ultima III, The Bard's Tale in ages--or Sentinel Worlds and Star Command at all--I was still able to create parties in less than an hour.

Knights of Legend, however, left me practically paralyzed with indecision for most of the day. Unlike most games where classes are available to all or most races and sexes, in this game, race and sex determine the available classes. For your 6 party members, you choose from 12 human male classes, 4 human female classes, 6 elven classes (males and females are the same), 8 dwarven classes (only males available), and 3 Kelden classes (also only males). That's 33 choices. It takes 34 pages of the 157-page manual just to describe them all. And the descriptions aren't just straightforward run-downs of attributes, strengths, and weaknesses ("the barbarian is a strong fighter skilled in heavy armor and two-handed weapons, but not magic"); no, it's all couched in terms of some old codger's recollections in a bar.

The "Dark Guard": one of the more interesting-sounding classes in the game.

There are tables with average statistics, weapon proficiencies, and such later on, but it still took me forever to get through it and put together what seems like a decent party.

Knights of Legend takes place in Ashtalarea, a duchy of the kingdom of Sondar. Ashtalarea is a peninsula, separated from the rest of the kingdom by a mountain range. It is a relatively generic high-fantasy region of men and dwarves and elves fighting orcs and goblins and ogres, with each conforming to the standard Tolkien mold. There is one original race: the Kelders, peaceful winged humanoids who live in the mountains but have recently been moving in to the cities of men.

The plot revolves around a sorcerer named Pildar who lives in a "Dark Tower" on an island in a lake. About 60 years prior to the game, he raised an army of orcs, trolls, ogres, and evil men and sent them to pillage and slay the cities and villages of men, elves, and dwarves. Eventually, the duke's forces, led by a legendary knight named Seggallion, were victorious. Pildar retreated to his tower. Years went by. As the game begins, Pildar has become active again. Duke Fuquan has left his seat of Brettle for a dukes' council and has gone missing. Seggallion is nowhere to be found.

The land of Ashtalarea. The game starts in the far center-east.
When I read "Seggallion," something clicked, and I searched through my notes of past Ultima games. Sure enough, "Lord Seggallion" was a retired pirate captain who lived on the island of Farthing, south of Jhelom. I got a spyglass from him. That doesn't seem much like this guy, but the Codex of Ultima Wisdom indicates that he shows up again in Ultima VI and is clearly the same character as in Knights of Legend, having accidentally traveled to Britannia via moongate. I almost wish I hadn't read that spoiler.

The manual, I should say, is slightly heartbreaking. It opens with a page titled "The Making of Knights of Legend," which describes how four friends spent six years developing the game and its complex combat system before they were able, through an old buddy who worked at Origin Systems, to attract the attention of Richard Garriott. The combat system is so meticulously planned, the land and its denizens so thoroughly and carefully described in the pages, you can just tell it was a labor of love for the developers. Right on the first page of the manual proper, it glows that "once you've explored Ashtalarea, separate Knights of Legend modules will take you to the nearby lands of Salynn, Barnidor, Tsadith, and Astrikan." Of course, we know now that the game flopped, none of those other modules were ever made, and Ashtalarea was never heard from again.

Creating my first character

Back to the characters. Each class has an "average" score in each of 7 attributes: strength, quickness, size, health, foresight, charisma, and intellect (all on a scale of 0 to 100). These come together in various ways to determine three other statistics: health, balance, endurance, and "body points." It became reasonably clear from reading the materials that I'd want a couple of tanks, a couple of ranged fighters, at least one scout, and at least one mage. I came up with the list below--but I've just gotten started, so I welcome comments. Everyone got a four-letter name because that's as many as you see on the game screen. [Edit: Apparently, the manual is wrong and you can have five letters.]

The designated lead character.

  • Coll, a human male "Duke's Highwayman." The class seemed like the standard "knight errant" type, good with heavy armor and weapons.
  • Hela, a human female "Ghor Tigress." One of a legendary race of female warriors from a matriarchal society. Struck me as a good balance between strength and speed.
  • Aedd, a human male "Dark Guard." The Dark Guards were servants of the evil wizard Sildar before seeing the error of their ways. Now shunned by most of the inhabitants of the land, they work towards redemption. The stats for this class seem average, but I liked the idea of this kind of character.
  • Moro, a Kelden male "Far Seeker." A winged race that lives in the mountains, the Kelden have three varieties. The "Cliff Guards" seemed like warriors; the "Rock Rangers" more like scouts; and the one I chose somewhere in between.
  • Onia, an elf female of the "Melod" clan. A wild race known for music and dancing. Decent stats put her in the ranged fighter or scout category.
  • Yder, an elf male of the "Pyar" clan. A breed of "rogue elves" known for their intermingling with humans. The best intelligence that I could find.

The proud but, for the moment, pantsless party.

If you look at the statistics tables in the book, you might think that my choices above are a bit off, but it didn't take me long to see that the book's assessment of average statistics was way off. The Pyar elf, for instance, is supposed to have an average intelligence of 66, but in my rolls, I never got anything less than an 85, and I got more than 100 twice. Similar, the Duke's Highwayman is supposed to have an average strength of 66, but I never got anything less than a 78 and ended up with an 85. The number "66" shows up so often in the manual, in fact, my hypothesis is that someone stuck it in there as placeholders and forgot to change them to the actual values.

I eschewed dwarves on Petrus's recommendation, the rationale being they cannot ride horses, apparently making wilderness travel a lot more complicated.

The game allows you to painstakingly change your icon.

I should mention that the game comes with a portrait editor, allowing you to customize each character, pixel by pixel. This seemed like a lot of work, but I might play with it later.

This is what we call a "bad sign."

With the characters created, I started to explore the city of Brettle, home of Duke Fuquan, whose butler told me that he's been off to the dukes' council for a while, and he's starting to get worried. There are two weapons shops, a bow shop, an armor shop, two inns, a temple, a stable, a tavern, a training barracks, and a wizard's tower in town, along with several houses.

Wandering the town.

I was pleased to see that the game, like 2400 A.D., adopts the traditional Ultima approach to dialogue, where you type keywords. Sometimes, those keywords will become apparent from the NPC's introductory statements; sometimes, you'll get fed those words by other NPCs. They don't respond to NAME, HEALTH, and JOB, but almost everyone has something to say about "duke," "Seggallion," or "Pildar." As in the Ultima games, four letters (SEGG, PILD) seems like enough to prompt the response. None of The Magic Candle's nonsense where asking about THE LAST UNICORN gives you a different response than LAST UNICORN.

A response to my asking about PILD. "Innocent until proven guilty" is apparently not a key concept here.

The dialogue ties neatly to itself and the lore presented in the manual. For instance, the manual describes how, during the War of Darkness, Seggallion made one blunder when he was convinced to lead his army's strength into a valley, leaving on a small, elite unit called the Old Guard to hold Shellar Ridge. Once the enemy saw Seggallion leave, they swarmed the ridge, slew most of the forces, but left the members of the Old Guard alive, chopping off their hands. Exploring the town, I ran into two NPCs who referred to "Seggallion's folly" and also a man named Stephen of Craymore, clearly a member of the Old Guard, who had no hands. He was happy to talk a little about Shellar Ridge.

Asking a knight about a past battle.
The interface is a bit annoying, though. With the exception of selecting characters, which can be done with the number keys, everything is done by clicking on icons. What's more, you need two clicks to execute each command: one to select the icon, and the other to actually DO it. There are no keyboard shortcuts the way that Tangled Tales, which used a similar interface, offered. Talking involves clicking twice on the "mouth" icon, typing the keywoard, hitting ENTER, reading the text, clicking on the "Continue" icon, and then, if you have more to ask, double-clicking on the mouth again.

In a weapon shop. The icons at the bottom of the screen are, in order: leave the shop, check out my character portrait, listen to what Endle has to say; ask Endle a question, look at the items he has for sale, sell items I already possess, and forge an item with an ingot (which I don't have yet).

In my "The Perfect CRPG: Difficulty" posting, I talked about how there should be some difficulty or cost associated with saving the game. I praised series like Might & Magic, in which you can only save in limited locations and wondered aloud whether there were any games that forced you to pay something--gold or experience--to save the game.

I should be careful what I wish for. Knights of Legend introduces both of these features: you can only save at inns, and each character has to fork over 50 to 100 gold pieces for the privilege. Now this would have been delightfully difficult except Origin had to go and screw it up. The particular character you want to save has to be the one with the gold in his possession, and there's no way to trade gold between characters! Isn't that the most absurd nonsense? I got myself into a situation where one of my characters bought so much armor, he didn't have enough gold to rest and save. Fortunately, new armor sells for its original purchase price, so I got around it by having one character buy some armor, give it to the broke character, and have him sell it. Even with this work-around, saving is expensive enough that I'm definitely not going to be doing it willy-nilly.

All of my characters started with weapons--some of them with both a melee weapon and a bow--but they were all naked, so my first order of business was to purchase some armor. I haven't worked it all out yet, but this isn't a game where you can just purchase the armor with the best protection as soon as you can afford it. It's much more complicated. Every suit of armor has an associated weight, and if the bearer isn't up to carrying that much weight, strength-wise, it quickly exhausts him in combat. For both that reason and for economic ones, I outfitted my fighters in medium-strength "cuirbolli" and my two elves in lightweight leather.

Purchasing armor.

You buy separate items of armor for head, body, legs, hands, and feet, and you have separate equipment slots for a necklace or pendant, ring, belt, and six pockets. Adding yet another factor, for optimum weight distribution, each piece of armor must be "fitted" to the character--a process that costs another 10-20% on top of the purchase price of the item. Lots of logistics in this game.

Reviewing my highwayman's equipment. There aren't many "paper doll" games around just yet; before this one, I can only recall Drakkhen and Galdregon's Domain.
Wandering around Brettle and talking with the various NPCs, I soon found myself the recipient of three separate quests:

1. Some bandits have stolen the Guild of Knights' standard and have taken it to their fortress north of the city.

2. Some ghouls stole a magic quill from a witch named Hegissa and fled into the forest to the south.

3. Some "ruffians" broke into the home of Stephanie, stole a gavel, and took it to the woods of Tantowyn. The gavel is an "ancient symbol of the Aldermen's Guild." Everything has a guild around here.

All seem relatively straightforward, and I've decided to tackle the bandits first, since a) from the description, they're relatively close; and b) they're not ghouls.

Pildar seems to get blamed for everything that goes wrong around here.

I don't have enough money left for horses, so we're walking right now.

Soon, my friend.

There's a lot of things I'm still confused about--I'm saving a full reading of the manual for when I'm a little more familiar with the game--but I'm looking forward to checking out the storied combat system, which has prompted various reviewers to different hyperbolic extremes. Of the two reviews on MobyGames, one contains the phrase "best role-playing game I've ever played" and the other is titled "Gaming hell." By next time, I should have a sense of how I feel.