Thursday, June 19, 2014

Dragonflight: Balancing Average with Average

The game honors Richard Garriott.

With the statue above, the developers of Dragonflight continue to pay tribute to the people who influenced them and their work, including Gary Gygax, father of RPGs, Anne McCaffrey, who contributed the game's title, and Lord British, from whom the developers seem to have taken many of the game's elements.

The more I play the game, the more I feel a strong influence from Ultima III and Ultima IV. The iconographic town and wilderness explorations are the most obvious visual cues. The combat screen is basically a side-view version of the tile-based combat window we first saw in Ultima III, where you could only attack enemies in your line of fire and couldn't move on the diagonal. There are thematic similarities, including detailed back stories, a karma meter, shrines, and the importance of leaving fleeing enemies alone. The approach to dungeons is nearly identical, with a mixture of first-person corridors and third-person rooms, chests in the hallways, secret doors, and--most annoying--traps that you cannot detect or avoid.

Of course, I love the Ultima series, so these comparisons are mostly favorable. Where Dragonflight suffers is in the way it departs from the Ultima games, and this is primarily in a lack of real content. I've explored entire cities where I only found one important piece of information, compared to the pages of dialogue notes I took on every Ultima visit. The Dragonflight world is also much larger. I won't be able to count all the squares until I have a ship, but based on a quick sample of movement and comparison to my positions on the world map, I would estimate that the world comprises around 500 x 750 tiles, in comparison of Ultima IV's 256 x 256. "Larger" translates mostly to "emptier," though. It took me hours of poking around just to find a couple of cities and dungeons.

Actually finding things to enter is a cause for celebration in this game.

Combat eventually got a little boring in Ultima IV. It's happened here much quicker. I now audibly groan every time I enter a dungeon room and find large groups of enemies. There simply aren't enough tactics associated with combat, especially where you cannot switch spells in the middle of combat, use any items during combat, or attack from more than two directions. There aren't even any obstacles in the terrain to help funnel enemies. 

I think there's a ratio between length and the variety of tactics that helps determine the quality of a game's approach to combat. Quest for Glory and Lord of the Rings had hardly any combat tactics, but I never shouted, "Oh, for @%*#'s sake!" when an enemy appeared, because combat lasted less than two minutes in both games. The multi-hour tactical battles of Sword of Aragon also held my interest because there were so many tactics and strategies associated with them. Knights of Legend also had very long combats that were still somewhat fun (although wandering around looking for enemies wasn't so much fun) because of the tactical and strategic options. But I completely lack patience for long (or even moderate-length) combats with only a few tactics.

Here, the only real tactics come in preparation for combat, which makes it doubly important to listen at room doors before entering. Only by learning that you're about to face 9 skeletons, for instance, do you know that it might be a good idea to switch spells to "Dispel Undead" and maybe spend some time healing characters. If facing really tough enemies, like balrons, it might be a good idea to chug a "strength" or "speed" potion first, although I remain paranoid about actually using potions, since some are plot items. The number of enemies is also important because only 4 appear on the screen at the time; the others enter in the lower-right corner as their colleagues are slain. Knowing the number allows me to position my characters in anticipation of new enemies appearing in the lower-right.

Since the last post, I've spent a lot of time just wandering the continent. I found a city called Port Pylon at the tip of a dragon's foot, and they had ships for sale, but well out of my price range.
 
I hope "charter" means "buy." I've been expecting that when I finally get a ship, I can sail it around at will.

The ruler of the city, Duke Drahnreb Sualc-Son IV ("Bernhard" and "Claus" are backwards in there) refused to see me because I "have nothing of importance to report." Elsewhere, a guy wanted a piece of jewelry to give his wife. Fortunately, I had a pearl necklace that I gave him. He rewarded me with a "piece of information" that makes no sense yet: "Today we'll not sail to Dorithannon, but my father was still doing business with the large island. He told me that there would be a route to the southern half."

Also on the south coast was a castle called Scatterbone, where the king gave me a quest to find a potion that would dispel an evil imp always buzzing around his head. (There was a reasonably fun series of animations to accompany this, in which the imp flew around, sparred at the king's head, ducked behind his back, and popped up between the points of his crown.) I tried all the potions I had, but to no avail.

That would be my expression, too.

Far on the other side of the continent, at the tip of the dragon's tail, there was a city called Luthag that seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever, including a shop that--for reasons I can't begin to understand--sells gold pieces at a cost of 3 gold pieces for every 1 gold piece. If you hear me complain later in the game that the economy is broken, remind me that I can always go buy gold.

I also don't know what the hat and cloak are for, but I bought them for my characters anyway.

My quest for the elven queen had talked about finding caves full of treasures, including the elves' sphere, in the dragon's tail or the curve of its neck, which I assumed to be features on the continent. Nonetheless, I couldn't find any caves or dungeons in those locations, although the true "tip" of the tail is a bunch of islands that I can't yet reach.

My current quest has become about collecting enough gold to purchase a ship. Fortunately, I have two unexplored dungeons to work on. One is in the middle of a desert to the south of the continent; the other is a series of mountains on the far west. I'm in that dungeon right now, but I'm out of keys. I've run into so many locked doors that I think before I go further, I need to return to that store in Luthag to buy more keys, lest I miss any major plot items. I'm also--again--running low on food.

This dungeon has a lot of goofy magic mouths.

The dungeon is trickier than most, involving lots of traps, secret doors, teleporters, and magic mouths. One of the latter had a riddle for me, asking who is the "best and mightiest of all wizards." I tried several names from the game manual to no avail.

I find the traps absolutely enraging, since there's no way to do anything about them. Those that cause your weapons to disappear, or that cause the chest to disappear, are particularly unforgivable. Even if I reload after experiencing them, more often than not, the same trap is still active. Oddly, the traps don't seem to apply to specific chests. Instead, the game gets it in its head that the next chest I'll open will have a "disappearing chest" trap, and there's nothing to do about it. The only way I've found to make it go away is to trigger the trap, then go find other chests and open them until I find one with contents I can live without, then reload and go open that chest and let it fall victim to the trap. At that point, the original chest is usually clear, or at least has a different trap.

Why am I taking so much damage just walking through a secret door?!

This is a short post representing about 5 hours of gameplay, most of it just wandering around the continent and battling my way to the fourth level of the current dungeon. I'm ready for the game to be over, but I don't suspect I'm close.

Aside from the traps, Dragonflight doesn't do anything horrid, but neither does it do anything particularly well. There's nothing I look forward to, nor anything I dread, when I fire up the game and start playing. Most games destined for a middle-ranking position on my GIMLET balance good and bad elements, but Dragonflight just balances average and average elements. This makes playing it a somewhat joyless affair, and I can only bring myself to do it for a couple of hours, even when watching Netflix alongside it. Nonetheless, I will continue. I don't want the game to beat me, and I am mildly interested in how the plot resolves.

I will, however, probably intersperse posts on other games in the meantime. As for those next games, there's been a bit of a bloodbath on the list. After some investigation, I've rejected FallThru and Lord of the Balrogs as RPGs. I've also declined to play Knight Quest because it seems like just an extension of Eamon, which I've already covered. If I do every update and remake of Eamon, I'll have to do Eamon II, Super Eamon, and various Windows ports, and none of them have more than a couple of associated adventures.

Objections welcome, but assuming there are none, I'm next going to take a look at King's Bounty (1990) and Maze Master (1983).


36 comments:

  1. Maybe I should play this. I always liked the Ultima tile-based style, but was always put off by the Ultima's Avatar morality system, excessive game length, and stupid goofy silliness. On the other hand, I hate empty ghost towns. I won Faery Tale Adventure on Amiga and ever since I have been haunted by the spectre of vast uninhabited pixel wastelands, where the dozen NPCs in the entire game have one line of dialog each.

    Yeah, King's Bounty! I hope it passes the RPG credentials test. It's a fun game, and the boardgame is also quite fun. It should be played regardless, because it's awesome. It's another game that benefits from turning the DOSbox CPU waaaay down, otherwise the animations cycle far too fast and look spastic. It's a bit nethack-y in that it's replayable because the initial conditions change every game. Be sure to read all of the documentation, the story of the game is all in there. If you just play the game you'll be kind of lost and not know who any of the characters are. :/

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    1. As we'll discus, KB is almost an RPG under my definitions. There's character advancement of a sort, with leadership and spell ability increasing throughout the game. Combat definitely depends on underlying attributes. But there's no inventory system, and frankly it's hard to regard a game as an RPG when the protagonist never appears on-screen. I'm going to post about it anyway.

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    2. Actually, the protagonist does appear.
      http://analogmedium.com/blog/2008/07/SEGA-kingsbounty.gif

      Just... never on the battle screen,

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    3. Hurrah! It's being played anyway!

      Well, actually there *is* an inventory. And the protagonist is a field general of sorts, not a real "hands-on" type like other heroes. It can be argued that the location of the party is represented by the hero's picture.

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  2. Is there a haggle skill? Cos the shopkeeper selling a gold piece for 3 would give you an indication of the value for money your haggling is getting.

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  3. ok there doesnt seem to be a haggle skill. Maybe that gold ratio tells you how bad the prices are in each store?

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  4. I am almost disappointed we did not get a FallThru post. The description on MobyGames certainly SOUNDS like a cRPG:

    Utilizing a rich back story FallThru is a interactive-text role playing game played in turns or alone. The player can communicate, trade and earn money in the ultimate goal of leveling their character up enough to finish the quest.

    It seems like such a unique beast, but it is also supposedly a very long game with a very large game world. And without graphics, I suspect we would get bored of an extended playthrough by Chet.

    Which of the cRPG definitions does FallThru miss? I haven't played the game and am just curious.

    Also, I am glad to see Moria is back on the list! My one and only contribution of value to this forum.

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    1. I guess I need to take another look at FallThru. When I read the manual and started up the game, I couldn't find any evidence of leveling or other character development--just inventory. I got the impression it was a bit like Zork and similar text adventures. But I must have missed something.

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  5. And actually, the next two games are both "spiritual successors" and should be quite fun to read about for that alone. King's Bounty is a spiritual successor to Heroes of Might and Magic (and later got its own series proper), while Maze Master is an early project by the maker of the Bard's Tale.

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    1. Wouldn't that be the other way around? HoMM is the spiritual successor. King's Bounty is the predecessor, not counting the excellent revival series it received.

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  6. From your description, I'm guessing the reason the next chest you open has the same trap has to do with how the random number generator is handled. Computers can't actually generate true random numbers. The random number generator function accepts a seed value, and uses that value to generate all random numbers going forward (until a new seed is used). The same seed value will always generate the same sequence of values. So, when you open a different chest first, the game will still use the same random number to determine the trap type. Then, when you go back to the first chest, the next number in the sequence of values will be used instead.

    There are certainly ways around this, but you often see this sort of thing in earlier games, when developers didn't really know any better.

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    1. Some of the worst offenders were CIV's I through III and after years of playing V I'm quite confident that it still has the same issues with random generator as it's predecessor but at least combat is no longer absolute random affair of who gets a better see for rolls on next reload ...

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    2. Many a spear was thrown through my tanks' 105mm cannon, destroying it utterly.

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    3. Sometimes they mess around with it deliberately, to stop reload-cheating. Sometimes they don't bother. And sometimes they just get it wrong.

      As for spearmen defeating tanks in Civ, I always think of the 1000-year old spearman unit as being still called spearmen, but upgraded with some modern weaponry, just not up to modern standards. They can easily have some RPGs with them.

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    4. I rather thought the seed would re-generate upon reload, but alas, it must save it as part of the saved game. So even reloading and trying again doesn't prevent these absurd, potentially game-breaking traps.

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    5. Yeah, I was going to suggest trying to save and reload, or restart the game entirely to try to reseed the generator. I assume there's only one RNG, so any call to it should change the next chest trap. I'm sure combat makes a lot of calls to it, as well as the calculation for damage received when walking through a secret door. Not ideal solutions, but if there's only one chest remaining in the dungeon...

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    6. I would expect nothing less from a 1000-year-old spearman.

      The bugger's probably some kinda Highlander-type immortal.

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  7. What? I strongly object to the exclusion of Fallthru!

    What was the rationale? Consider its GIMLET potential:
    Fallthru has a lovely game world with lots of exploration. Admittedly, there's no starting characterization, though your gameplay choices define your character to some extent. There's plenty of NPC interactions. You accumulate equipment and engage in combat. There's an excellent economy. Your quest is to escape from the realm, which leads to a variety of subquests as you go along. It's a lot of fun (or at least I thought so).

    Don't be put off by the (lack of) graphics! That's not even a GIMLET criterion!

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    1. Err, I guess I forgot GSI does include graphics and sound. Anyway, better no graphics than lousy ones...

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    2. I'll look at it again. The manual didn't give any hint of character development.

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    3. Character development is somewhat limited. (IIRC) The only visible stat that increases is your level. The accumulation of gear and lore is more important.

      It's not like Zork where you pick up items to solve puzzles with them; it's like a CRPG where you pick up items to do murder to things with them or haul them back to town as loot.

      Spoiler: There's an important invisible stat as well.

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    4. If you tackle FallThru, I'm willing to do simultaneous blogging with you (I need a good way to revive my play-all-the-text-adventures project).

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    5. That would be cool. I've added it back to the list after King's Bounty and Maze Master (and of course Dragonflight), so we're probably looking at a couple of weeks. Longer if Trickster gets started on Quest for Glory II in the middle of it.

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  8. The "best and mightiest of all wizards" question could be another real-world homage or a reference to another set of books. I would try some names like Merlin, Gygax, and Gandalf.

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    1. Or the name of one of Chet's wizards in the group.

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    2. I'm going to spoil this because first, it doesn't even matter. Answering the riddle just gets you into a passage that you can get to from another direction. Second, its not really fair.

      The answer is DRAGON. Stupid, right? If anything, it should be DRAGONS.

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  9. Even though I suggested it myself, I'm a little surprised you kept Corporation on the list. It looks very much like Xenomorph which you rejected because it was more an action-adventure. The characters do seem to have stats though, but I have a feeling that they're not very important.

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    1. I kept it on the list for exactly the reason you say: it has attributes and character development where Xenomorph didn't.

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    2. MeikelKatzengreisJune 21, 2014 at 10:29 AM

      Judging by the Mobygames screenshots and description, Corporation looks like a FPS/RPG hybrid, similar to the System Shock or Deus Ex series. I'm curious what the Addict has to say about it. :)

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  10. I'm glad you decided to continue playing Dragonflight :-). As I only looked into the game one or two times, I'm not able to give you tips from personal playing experience. In case you need maps and tips (in German only), you could still visit http://thethalionsource.w4f.eu/Tests/dfmaps.htm.

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    1. Turn off images on your webbrowser Chet, at the end of this web you can find few spoiler-pictures from end cedit. Nothing big but always...

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    2. Gerry, thanks for offering the assistance and maintaining the site. I wasn't planning to look unless I get stuck, but at the very least I'll read it over when I finish.

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  11. "I also don't know what the hat and cloak are for, but I bought them for my characters anyway."

    I don't know about Dragonflight, but in Amberstar and Ambermoon those are the weakest pieces of helmet/armor - wearable by all classes.

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    1. They don't seem to adjust armor rating at all in this game.

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