Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Captive: Determinate Sentencing

Does this look like a ladder to you?

Since my last post, I have completed the rest of Base 2, Base 3, and maybe half of Base 4. I've gotten to the point where I guess I "get" the game. I still don't like it much, though I recognize that it's a decent representative of its particular genre. If Dungeon Master is your kind of game, I can't see why you wouldn't enjoy Captive.

The bases have progressively increased both navigation difficulty and combat difficulty. Base 2 introduced me to my first ladder, which I didn't recognize as such, leading me to plea for help last time. Once I had that straightened out, the rest of the base wasn't terribly difficult to navigate.

Base 3 introduced a lot more levels, with parts of each level not necessarily connected to each other, but accessible by a maze of ladders and an elevator. There were also several computer-controlled laser-beam barriers for which I needed to find the passwords elsewhere in the base. As with doors, it turned out that you can turn these on (by re-entering the password) when an enemy is standing in them to cause significant damage.

Slicing difficult "tornado-demons" with the laser.
Also starting on Base 3, I encountered floor pressure plates that automatically close the walls behind you. For each one, there's a switch that re-opens the wall. Sometimes the switch is near the pressure plate, but in many cases, it's levels away. It's always slightly unnerving when you don't know how to find the exit, the closest shop, a power outlet, or other places of relative safety.

These plates (or whatever they are) close the wall behind you. It might take a while to find your way back.
Base 4 introduced me to water areas that I need to cross with the anti-gravity device, flipping around and walking across the ceiling. This is also necessary to fight some enemies who float off the ground--although I was able to fire electricity at them from a normal position. Using the anti-gravity device consumes a lot of power, so it's important to tag the locations of power sockets so you can re-charge afterwards.

Fighting upside-down.

Base 4 also has some areas blocked off by fire. I'm not sure how to cross it; the game won't even let me step into it and suck up the damage. The anti-gravity device doesn't work for crossing fire, and the "fire shield" only seems to minimize damage caused by trying to walk into it.

Fire blocks a shop.
Monsters also became a lot more difficult in Bases 3 and 4. The game follows Dungeon Master's convention of not telling you their names, so you have to mentally make some up. Some examples:

"Two-headed dogs."

"Slurpees." (These guys suck.) I think I'm smashing them in this door.
"Langoliers." I hate these guys, too.
A lot of them were resistant to my thrown electricity (and there were fewer sockets in later bases anyway). My party died a lot, and I had to resort to tactics like ladder-scumming, trapping them in doors, trapping them in laser-beams, and the old "DM two-step." Such tricks seem more "mandatory" in this game than in Dungeon Master (and unlike Dungeon Master, killing enemies with doors does give you the associated experience). Even with these tactics, visits to shops for repairs were frequent.

Smashing "tornado demons" in an elevator door.
The enemies provided a decent dollop of experience. Skills require wildly different values to increase to the next level; moving from Level 4 to 5 in "robotics" might take 500 points, while Level 4 to 5 in "brawling" might only be 50. When every skill hits Level 9, a new skill becomes available; in order, these have been "swords," "handguns," "rifles," and finally "automatics"--and there's space for up to three more.

Zeam's skills about halfway through this session.
I've been continuing to invest in "brawling" and "swords" because my found equipment has lagged behind the acquisition of the skills. I found a bunch of brass knuckles and gauntlets on the early levels. Later, I started to encounter little things that look like daggers; I assume they use the "sword" skill. I've kept my lead characters equipped with these items. They frequently break, but I've found enough that I almost always have a backup.

Only in the fourth base did I finally found a shop selling handguns; I've yet to find any rifles or automatic weapons. I bought two magnums for my rear characters, but the game tells me their skill with handguns (currently 21) still isn't high enough to use them yet. I guess I shouldn't have wasted so many points on "brawling" and "swords" for the two rear guys.

I bought the best pistol and found that no one was skilled enough to use it. I guess I should have bought the Colt. Nice to know the manufacturer is still around in the 26th century. Also, "Colt" and "magnum" aren't mutually exclusive.
A commenter helped me understand the uses of "super balls" for my rear characters--thrown missile weapons that do a reasonable amount of damage, but if you accidentally miss the enemy, they'll likely come back and hit the party. Picking them up post-combat is about as annoying as picking up thrown missile weapons in Dungeon Master, but I guess they're worth it. Only late in the session did I discover that if a character has multiple superballs in his inventory, the game automatically re-equips them after you throw one. Handy.

The droids can purchase and outfit themselves with a variety of "optics" and "dev-scapes." Both types of devices are mounted on the droid's "computer," and each droid can only have one active at a time. Each device consumes power while on, so it's best to leave them off unless you need them at the time.

I turned on all four droids' devices for this shot. From left to right, we have the shield, the anti-gravity device, the auto map, and the "visor."
They're sold by number (e.g., dev-scape I, dev-scape II), and for a while I thought the higher-numbered ones were just better versions of the lower-numbered ones. Now I realize they do entirely different things. By the end of this session, I'd bought several of them. Some of them, I can't quite figure out.

  • The shield seems to help reduce damage in combat.
  • The root finder provides some sort of compass. It's not very consistent in its directionality, though, so I think I'm missing something.
  • The anti-grav turns you upside down and has the droids walk on the ceiling. This is important for several reasons, and I doubt you can win the game without this device. The way it works is a bit weird, because it doesn't really invert the world. While you see everything upside down, the position of corridors and objects relative to your right and left remain the same as when you were right-side up. It's quite confusing.
  • The radar is another one I can't quite understand. It seems to always show me the same image.
  • The mapper provides a little automap of the current level. Thanks to an anonymous commenter, I know how to use it (I'm not sure I would have figured on my own that right-clicking centers on your position). It doesn't really show enough squares at a time to be a truly good auto-map; it doesn't move with you--you have to keep re-centering--and it constantly re-orients itself to show your facing direction on top. But it does help you figure out where there are major unexplored areas.
  • The fire shield presumably minimizes fire damage, something I haven't really encountered much. It doesn't allow you to walk through fire, which is one problem I had towards the end of this session.
  • The visor turns everything reddish and gives me a bunch of scanlines. I'm not sure what it's for.

What is this showing me?

I should probably buy more stuff. I have about 25,000 gold pieces, but I'm paranoid about needing it for repairs, so I've been reluctant to spend it--especially since the amount of gold available in the game seems mostly fixed.

The basic mission seems to be the same from base to base: find the combination to enter, buy some explosives, kill the scientist with the password to the computer containing the probe, get the probe from the computer, find the generator, plant the explosives, make your getaway. Base 3 varied a little by having two probes, which in turn found two new bases. I'm not sure how that is going to work if it keeps happening, since supposedly there's only 10 bases to explore before the end of the first mission. Are the other ones extras? Or do they eventually duplicate each other?

Getting a probe from Base 3. Where does the probe actually come from? It just appears next to the computer.
I've learned that it makes sense to get fully repaired and powered as the last act before leaving the base, so you start the next one in top form. While getting repaired, it also makes sense to sell any maps, passwords, and other messages since they disappear anyway and (for whatever reason) the shopkeepers pay a lot for them.

Yes, pay me lots of money for a worthless piece of paper. You can't take it with you.
A lot of miscellaneous notes:

  • Even when my droids are fully healed, they're down 2 hit points.
  • Most levels have maps that you can view to get a sense of the entire level. I haven't had to create my own maps--yet.

The current level, with the local automap turned on above it.

  • When enemies die, they explode into a red mist--even the robots. If you step forward quickly after they die, you see the mist around you, which is kind of disgusting. The interesting thing is that a couple times, I've come up a ladder into red mist. I suspect this game is like Chaos Strikes Back in that two entities can't occupy the same space, and if any enemy happens to be in the square above when you ascend a ladder, he automatically dies.
  • The outdoor areas on the planets are getting larger, making it harder to find the base entrance after landing--and harder to find the landing craft when running out of the exploding base at the end. There isn't much else to do in the outdoor areas except fight occasional dinosaurs and lizards.

Local denizens block my flight back to my lander.

  • What I took for "fire" in the outdoor areas turns out to be harmless grass that you can walk through just fine.

My color-blindness hurts me again.

  • The combination doors are just stupid. Yes, I found some dice that help me with the internal ones. The external ones are just trial and error. What's the point?
  • The sound in the game is pretty good. Combat sound effects vary depending on the type of weapon used and damage inflicted. There are decent environmental sounds for things like doors and elevators. I don't turn it off.
  • What good is the "sleep" button? I haven't run into any time-sensitive events yet, and sleeping doesn't cause the droids to heal.

I keep making three annoying mistakes:

  • Walking into walls. Sometimes it's because I'm panicking while fleeing enemies, but a lot of the time I just--I don't know--hit the "forward" key one time too many when strolling down a corridor. Running into the wall does a couple points of damage.
  • Buying or repairing stuff in shops means putting your stack of gold in the shopkeeper's hand so he can deduct the costs from it. I keep accidentally leaving it there. Fortunately, he still has it when you return later.

Fixing a droid. There's a better-than-average chance I'll forget to take that pile of gold before I leave.

  • Many of the walls have little cubicles that, when opened, reveal gold or other goodies. But many of them also open nearby walls and release enemies to attack. I keep opening the panels and getting into fights with the released enemies, then forgetting to take the goodies after the enemies are dead.

One thing that I particularly don't like about Captive is that it seems to be determinate--a closed system--when it comes to both the economy and experience. None of the bases, unlike Dungeon Master, seem to have areas where creatures respawn, meaning that both the amount of experience and gold are fixed. I guess technically you could land on random planets and fight outdoor enemies for both experience and gold, but you don't get very much for this. I rather prefer games where I can grind if it turns out I made a mistake with my finances or my allocation of skill points.

In determinate games, it's hard to feel like leveling and character development aren't something of an illusion. In reality, you get just enough skill and equipment in each base to have a modest chance of successfully completing the next one. You're not growing in any real sense.

Anyway, I'm about one-third done, so I guess I'll try to see it to the end. ROT-13'd hints on anything I have wrong, or anything I haven't been doing, are welcome.


  1. Does the regular shield device protect all of your party members or just the droid that has it equipped? If it only protects the droid that has it equipped, I would guess the fire shields work the same way. Perhaps each droid in your party needs to have a fire shield equipped in order to walk through fire.

    1. You can never walk through fires, but sometimes you can turn them off via a hidden switch.

      Regular shield covers the entire party, and is supremely helpful (esp. in multiples, as they stack), but it cannot block flamethrower type attacks. This is what the fire shield is for.

  2. You're not alone in feeling that way. I hate it when there's a finite amount of encounters/loot/XP in an RPG. Where's the fun in that? It's basically forcing you to min/max certain skills or abilities. Usually, primitive games would not have much of a difference in RP choices, thus making customization redundant and you end up making the same type of character(s) in every playthrough; thereby seriously reducing the game's replay value.

    Also, it's kinda strange to see Gold Coins still being the currency-of-choice in the far future. And being stored in a medieval leather bag. Do the droids carry the bag in side-sling style? Hang-around-neck-&-choke-themselves-style? Has a secret compartment in their chest that locks up valuables?

    And I couldn't relate to it back then because Mortal Kombat was released much later but... why does the storekeeper look like Raiden?

    1. The Padishah Emperor Ron Paul IV put the galactic federation on gold standard.

    2. I'm with you on the limited XP/loot. It doesn't really feel like you've got much choice in the matter, then. If you're lucky, you get to choose which order you do your limited adventures in, but it really does make it feel like your advancement is solely due to your progression along the main path. At that point I feel like I'm playing an action/adventure game with RPG bits in it.

    3. Pretty sure Bender would have a stash of gold coins.

      I kinda like limited xp/loot, because I hate that I could theoretically break the game by grinding infinitely on snails, goblins or children.

    4. Games with deterministic exp rewards can be done well. Witness Baldur's Gate 2. It's possible to grind on random monster spawns but the experience rewards are very low. BG2 works well, in my opinion, because the areas you visit a) do not scale to your level, b) can be visited in almost any order, and c) are mostly optional.

    5. I believe this is basically correct except for a bug which causes a one-shot random encounter to spawn repeatedly. You don't get that much experience but a few scrolls/magic items that makes it good to farm for gold.

    6. Finite limits are only used because designers don't have enough of a math background. Early RPG designers (Before writers got involved) were really good at this: They used a linear scale for XP at low level, to quickly get you to the fun part of the game, then an exponential scale after that, so you didn't burn through the fun parts of the game and they can avoid level caps (or at least ones you will hit.) You can do similar tricks with item prices if you are good at math.

      A game that really annoys me for limited items is Fallout 3. Nukacola Quantum are finite, only placed or randomly found in vending machines (once each), and there is a quest for them, so why would you ever drink one?
      Worse: Fat Boys. Finite ammo for a weapon. Really GOOD weapon, but I'm always scared I'll need them later, so don't use them now. If they randomly dropped, but rarely, I could much more easily justify using them on enemies with tons of HP, which would make those combats less draggy and more fun.

    7. Same here. Every time I get a Fat Boy, I'd hum this little ditty by MC Hammer (can't touch this, doo-doo-doo-doo, DUNK, doo-doo-doo-doo, can't touch this) and store it at my house with absolutely no intention of ever using it.

    8. Yeah. I'd finish IE titles with inventories full of magic arrows, potions and scrolls. These days I try to do a better job of burning consumables.

    9. Witcher 3 feels like one of the first times this has really been done *right* to me. The main quest is doable without grinding, but presents enough challenge that you'll probably want to explore the secondary opportunities, which are fun in their own right. You can grind infinitely for XP and craftables, but the rewards are quite low so you're largely encouraged to continue on once you finish an area except if you want to practice your personal combat skills. On the other hand, all of your limited use items replenish whenever you rest at the nominal cost of basic alchemical ingredients, so you're encouraged to employ a playstyle that makes use of them heavily.

  3. A finite amount of character development forces you to make meaningful choices, instead of maximising everything, Of course there should be enough that the game can be won with a variety of choices.

  4. It certainly feels/reads like the game has won you over partly.
    I love your use of vocabulary here, you know, "computer-controlled laser beam barriers" and so on... That shows how much variety there is in CRPGs. From Arthurian legend to anti-grav devices for robots... No other genre has this kind of variety (Adventures have thematic variety, but their gameplay is often very much alike).

  5. I may misremember, but I think it was possible to turn off the fires somehow. Probably hidden buttons or things like that. Fbzr phcobneqf unir ohggbaf gung nera'g ivfvoyr hagvy lbh gel cerffvat gurz.

    I never tried mapping in Captive. As you can see from the in-game maps, using the old maze trick of following the right wall works... most of the time.

    1. I'm still in the middle of the base, it's likely I'll find something to turn off the fires later, then.

  6. Your color-blindness might have messed with you on the ladders, too. The ends of the bars are fairly bright red, and look like handles, at least retrospectively.

    With that red signal, I would probably have spent some time trying to figure out how to do something with them; if it's just a click or something, I'm sure I would have puzzled it out. I'm not sure whether I'd have twigged to "ladder" easily, but "this is a meaningful thing" would definitely have registered.

    1. I think maybe the issue was more that I wasn't expecting ladders. I was expecting staircases.

  7. Yup, that looks exactly like a ladder to me.

  8. Root-finder brings you home.

    Visor helps with one thing you haven't yet encountered, and one thing you have.

    Radar detects enemies, as well as something else. You can pick the direction it's aimed at with the teeny-tiny buttons.

    Of Magnums: The basic version requires Handguns 17 to use, and each level of improvement raises the requirement by one, up to Magnum Super which requires 24. Incidentally, 24 is always the highest skill requirement for the best version of a given weapon (though having more skill still helps - this is just to use it without penalties). The magnum is very effective and you'll love it when you finally get it online.

    Raising melee skills for back rank droids isn't a complete waste, as you still get stat increases from it, and melee skills are cheaper to raise than firearm skills.

    Finally, I agree that the front doors are a dumb waste of time and a poor design decision :(. If they have a point, I guess it's to prevent people from speedrunning their way past dinosaurs and into the base too easily. Still, I think the dice should have worked on the front doors the way they work on every other door.

  9. Extra planet probes are simply spares in case the player fails to find one, or accidentally destroys it with electricity or squashes it under a rising wall. You can use them to sequence-break (doing base 5 before base 4 for example) but you have to complete every base anyway so there's little reason to.

    The sleep option greatly speeds up time. There are a few narrow situations where this is useful.

    1. For all I know, then, I AM doing Base 5 before Base 4. Is there any way to tell? Either way, thanks for the clarification.

    2. On the starmap, when you've clicked on the landmass, it says something like "Planet Butre Land-Lev0". The number after "Lev" is the base's number from 0 to 9.

  10. Is it possible to remap the colors green to something you'll see as different from red in the emulator palette? You can do something like that in DOSBOX's CGA and EGA modes (don't know of anything of the sort for VGA), and it might save you some hassle.

    1. The SVN builds of DOSBox support shaders, which would result, somewhat, in different colors being displayed. That would assume that there IS a shader out there for those with color-blindness and Google hasn't found me anything yet.

    2. Captive actually comes with a built-in palette editing function, in the options menu. I'm not sure why; I haven't seen it in any game before or since apart from Knightmare, another Tony Crowther DM clone that uses the same engine.

    3. Every time I try something like that, it just makes everything look silly. If I re-mapped red to bright blue, so I could see the little dots at the ends of the ladder, it would work fine for the ladder, but then I'd be seeing enemies explode into blue blood.

      I might not be able to see many variances in color, but I can tell when color looks WRONG. I'd rather just live with the handicap.

    4. Okay, those aren't even creatures living on planet Earth. Does it matter if they do not have red blood?

    5. A lot of Earth species have blood in colors like green, blue, yellow, white, whatever. So let's not be hemoglobin-centric.

      And just so this isn't a one-line comment:

      In this game, "Brawling" and "Robotics" are crucial skills, and ballistic weapons are still a very big deal in the future (and some are still called Magnums). That sounds suspiciously derivative of Traveller. (What a shocker ... )

      Also, the idea of different skills requiring different point expenditures is pretty reasonable. If going up a skill level represents such-and-such a statistical improvement in your chance of succeeding at related tasks, then clearly Hyperdrive Engineering takes more effort per level than Shotgun. AFAIK, the first RPG to do that kind of thing consistently was GURPS 3e, although some games did it on a less consistent basis before that (usually with a spot rule like "Engineering is worth double points").

    6. Octopuses have blue blood.
      Also: Aren't a lot of what you are fighting robots? That might not be blood; I've seen red hydraulic fluid before.

      Finally: Ah, traveller. Where you measure computer power in tons.

  11. One thing I'm curious about, given all the Dungeon Master comparisons:

    I never think of DM as a combat-heavy game (though it has its moments); I think of it primarily as a game focused on puzzles / riddles and exploration. But it seems like combat is much more of a focus in Captive, and I wonder if they're really meant for similar audiences after all.

    Then again, it's been a few years since my last replay of DM, and I've never played Captive, so I could be mistaken. Hence the question...

    1. Captive is much more combat-focused than DM - it pretty much has to be, since a generative algorithm that creates DM-level puzzles out of whole cloth would be nothing short of a miracle. They're still mechanically similar and very much in the same genre of games (after all, as the story goes, the author was tasked by his little brother to "make a game like DM").

    2. We all have different bases of comparison. It's been few years since I played it, but the combat in DM stands out in my mind more than other aspects. Yes, it's rich on navigation puzzles, but other types of RPGs are far more steeped in true puzzles and riddles, and as for "exploration"...I'm just not sure how much a confined dungeon could be seen to exemplify that aspect of RPG playing.

      I see DM games as being about very tightly-controlled environments with highly linear paths full of obstacles, both monster and otherwise. Playing the games has almost nothing to do with plot and role-playing and almost everything to do with game mechanics.

      If you're a lover of DM-style games, you can appreciate the nuances between, Dungeon Master and Captive, but if you set them against, say, Ultima VI or Quest for Glory, DM and Captive become virtually indistinguishable.

    3. "Yes, [Dungeon Master's] rich on navigation puzzles, but other types of RPGs are far more steeped in true puzzles and riddles ..."

      Out of curiosity, how would you define a "true puzzle"? The distinction is lost on me.

    4. I don't know why I said "true." A more diverse set of puzzles and riddles is what I was going for. Dungeon Master's confined corridors only allow for puzzles of a particular type. Games that take place in more expansive environments can support a much wider variety of puzzles. You have a partial map and a couple of clues and need to find an artifact. Someone has committed murder and you have to use logic and evidence to identify the culprit. You have to read a couple of books to find obscure clues to find the right combination to open a door. You must identify the location of a star system using mythological references to constellations. Games like Ultima VI, The Magic Candle, the Infinity Engine games, the Elder Scrolls games, and so forth are capable of all these things AND STILL allow for navigation puzzles.

      Figuring out how to weight down pressure plates is briefly fun but doesn't sustain me for a 10-level game. If that's not true for you, cool.

    5. That all makes sense (and by "exploration" I meant the DM emphasis on making players visit and examine every square of every map, move beyond puzzle points to find solutions farther into the dungeon, etc. I suppose you could just call it "mapping," but it's a major aspect of gameplay, at any rate.)

      I find DM-style puzzles much closer to the Wizardry style than to Ultima's, but in some ways I think of the puzzles the Addict describes as being a graft from the adventure game genre. (I mean that in the most positive possible sense--I'm more of an Ultima than a Wizardry or Dungeon Master guy myself, though I appreciate them all.) That is, would we have Ultima VI puzzles without Zork and King's Quest?

      Or maybe puzzles based around worldbuilding and social interaction arise independently in multiple genres. (Certainly Ultima pioneered the "conversations for everyone!" feature.) I don't know, but I'd be curious to see someone trace puzzle type lineage cross-genre.


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