|Slowly revealing the "Blackwater Swamp" map.|
We might regard games that have main quests as existing along a continuum. At one extreme would be something like Wizardry or Dungeon Master: your objective lies at the bottom of a dungeon, and you proceed in a linear manner to it. Somewhere in the middle would be Baldur's Gate or Oblivion in which the main quest proceeds in a series of fixed steps, and you always know where to go for the next one, but you have a lot of room to maneuver in the meantime.
Might & Magic would be the other extreme of the scale. Yes, there's a vague main quest (reach the "inner sanctum"), but the game starts you with no sense of how to achieve it--or even, really, what "it" is--and leaves you to make your way there through exploration. Technically, to beat Might & Magic, you need nothing more than to hit a handful of squares and find a handful of objects, then proceed to the inner sanctum. The difficulty is in exhaustively exploring each map to make sure that you find all of those encounters and objects, and in games with open exploration, many players adopt what commenter Steve calls the "lawnmower" approach, simply going back and forth along the rows and columns of a map until you've hit every encounter.
|A freshly-mowed Might & Magic II automap.|
Crusaders of Khazan is definitely on Might & Magic's end of the continuum. It isn't quite as vague about the nature of the main quest: I must encounter and, I suspect, kill both Empress Lerotra'hh and her wizard, Khara Khang. But I still have to hit multiple waypoints to this goal, and those waypoints could be anywhere in the game's 6,144 outdoor squares or who-knows-how-many indoor squares. Hence, I've started at the bottom of the map and I've been slowly mowing my way north, experiencing each encounter as I arrive, annotating a few for later return when I'm stronger.
A couple of posts ago, I talked about how Crusaders of Khazan feels a lot like playing a gamebook--what Tunnels & Trolls calls a "solo adventure"--with a computer interface tacked on. A particular encounter illustrates this dynamic quite well. I'm walking along through a dangerous swamp, using a map provided by an NPC to help keep me on a safe path (though I'll doubtless explore even the "unsafe" squares eventually), when I come to a cave:
Imagine how this encounter would play out in a game like Skyrim. Instead of text describing a scum-covered pond, a group of small caves, and one large cave opening, you'd come across this scene in beautiful graphics, and instead of making a textual choice to "go on" or "investigate the cave," you'd just move your character appropriately. Khazan has therefore made two substitutions: text for graphics, and a textual choice for actual player movement.
Clearly, the first substitution is forgivable. I'm not saying that in 1990, it would have been impossible to graphically depict the swamp, pond, and caves--I think Ultima VI could have done it--but it certainly isn't possible with Khazan's game engine. Some graphical description is necessary to give a sense of flavor. But Khazan's engine does allow the player to willfully move his party on top of town and dungeon entrances, so it's odd to render that choice as a textual one instead of a movement one.
The reason soon becomes clear, though: there is no actual cave map on which to move the characters. The entire cave plays out as a text adventure. It continues:
The game also features an inventory dynamic by which you can light torches, so again we have a text option for something that most games would accomplish through the regular game mechanics.
Now it's getting worse. The text is actually simulating combat with the hydra I've discovered in the cave, rather than using the game's regular combat system. Only after a few pages of this do we enter a proper combat screen to finish the encounter.
I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, these types of encounters add more content to the game than might have been possible otherwise. After all, it takes time and money--not to mention disk space--to build dungeon maps and to depict events graphically. On the other hand, replacing actual gameplay with large chunks of gamebook text does feel a little lazy. It's not often clear why the developers even chose one path over the other. The encounters on the isle of Thorn, for instance, take place on an entirely superfluous city map and could have been handled with the same menu-based approach.
Either way, I guess it's an original approach. This is probably the largest amount of text we've seen in a CRPG to date, even counting the Gold Box games and all of their journal text. It is a welcome change, at least, to see text on screen instead of having to page through an accompanying book.
When I closed last time, I had been captured by some orcs, was stripped of weapons and armor, and was forced to work in their sulfur mines. After several months of game time in which my party toiled as slaves, a fortuitous cave-in killed most of the guards and afforded me the chance to explore the dungeon freely and escape.
|I never found out what the "blue flames" were about. When I walked into them, they didn't take me anywhere.|
The map pissed me off. In about 8 squares, I got a message that I was exposed to sulfur gas and lost most of my hit points. If my hit points were already low, my characters died and I had to reload. There was no way to anticipate or avoid these traps, so it was just a bunch of trial and error, like that awful mine level in Wizardry IV.
The map culminated in the chambers of the orc leader, Lord Foo. He was wearing something called an "illstone" around his neck, and he demanded a second one from me that I'd found while exploring the corridors. I refused and braced for a fight, but instead someone named "Jonas Revenant" strode in, alluded to a history with Lord Foo, and engaged him in a magical combat that led to them both vanishing. It was a very weird encounter, perhaps alluding to Tunnels & Trolls lore that I've just never experienced.
|No idea what the "mood ring" comment was about.|
Anyway, it left me alone to loot Lord Foo's treasure room, where I found a "Death Wand" that I assume will come in handy. I had to fight some parties of guards on the way out, and in the process I freed the rest of the slaves. I was a bit startled that there was no place where I found all the weapons and armor the orcs had stolen from me during my capture. Most other games featuring a "prison episode" have a handy chest or NPC who gives everything back to you. Not this one. I had to return to a town and re-equip. Fortunately, the orcs didn't steal any of my gold.
After my escape, I continued to methodically work my way north, exploring each map in its entirety. Sometimes, I explore a map by columns, sometimes by rows, sometimes by "boxing in," but ultimately I hit every square. Some of the more interesting encounters along my paths have been:
- An encounter with a "Navastri Demon" in the middle of a desert. It took me a couple of reloads to defeat him, and even then the best I could do was one party member dead (I resurrected him with a magic gem). When defeated, the demon gave me a poem that seemed to refer to a mountain spire I previously tried to explore but left for later when I couldn't win all the combats.
|This one isn't going my way.|
- A duel between a human mage and an orc mage. The only option the game gave me were to help the human mage or leave; it annoyed me a bit that there was no option to help the orc. Anyway, helping the human led to him revealing himself as RADAMANTHIS the Rogue, and he indicated he could reward me if I would pay for his blessing at the Money Gods' temple in Khosht, further up the coast.
- An elven village that had been destroyed in an orc raid, and all the children kidnapped. I had previously freed them from the sulfur mines, so there wasn't anything else to do but burn the dead.
- On a mountain peak, the statue of a demon. It had gems for eyes and one of them had been stolen. The demon indicated that a dragon had stolen the gem and bade me retrieve it from the dragon's horde. This went along with a hint I received somewhere that I should "travel beyond the Axridge Mountains" (where the statue was) before seeking the dragon in the part of the map known as the Sump.
|I'm not sure that agreeing to help the demon was a great role-playing choice.|
- A group of bandits in the process of stealing some sheep from some ogre farmers. I defeated the bandits. The ogres thanked me for not being racist and taught me two languages: "foulspeak" and "gobble." I haven't talked much about the game's approach to languages because I haven't really experienced it tangibly. There are 19 total languages listed in the game manual, and among my characters I speak 9 of them. I've learned them during a couple of encounters and by paying a teacher in Gull. I know they effect how encounters play out, but so far I haven't had any encounters were I seemed to suffer for not knowing the language. Anyway, the ogres also gave me a "Red Ogre Amulet" that will apparently help me when I have to deal with ogres in the future.
- Two stone giants messing around by crashing into each other. They attacked as I approached. They turned out to be guarding the entrance to a magic pool which raised some of my attributes.
Unfortunately, I'm experiencing a problem that may have also been caused by my visit to the magic pool: most of my characaters' attributes are well below their maximums. Linn, for instance, only has 15 of her 23 IQ and 14 of her 15 dexterity. Meanwhile, her constitution is always one or two points below the maximum, even after I rest. Usually, resting restores attributes, but it's not working here. The characters also don't seem to be cursed, poisoned, or suffering from any other ill effects. I'm not sure how this happened or what to do to make it go away, but it's affecting both my wizard's and my rogue's abilities to cast spells. I'm hoping the problem resolves the next time I level up.
|Every character has at least some stats below maximum. For Gideon, it's dexterity and charisma.|
I'm getting the impression that I'm not exactly gripping my readers with my discussions of this game, and frankly I'm feeling a bit lackluster about it myself. Part of me likes the process of methodically exploring and experiencing the game's varied encounters, but the encounters just aren't integrated well into the rest of the gameplay, and many of the outcomes seem arbitrary. I'm going to push to wrap it up this weekend even though I have about half the maps left to explore. If I don't, I'll probably still move on to a different game that generates a little more discussion.
Speaking of discussion, I've temporarily had to disable anonymous postings. For some reason, in the past week I've received dozens of blogspam entries, usually of the variety where there's some generic text and then a link to a suspicious web site. Each one of them generates an e-mail, and I have to then visit the post and verify that the spam filter caught the junk, or delete it if it didn't. These tend to occur in waves, so after a few days I'll lift the restriction and allow anonymous comments again. It's really too bad that there are so many people trying to make a living within the fringes of other people's work rather than doing anything productive themselves. I think I literally respect criminals more than people who earn their money via cybersquatting, site spoofing, re-hosting blog posts on their own ad-filled sites (there are no less than 40 sites that copy my posts word-for-word with no attribution), and trying to generate traffic by spam.