Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dragon Sword: The First 10%

The first three levels--perhaps more--are called "Perion's Place." I do not yet know why.

I've spent about 7 hours mapping the first 3 dungeon levels in Dragon Sword, and the game has offered pretty much the same experience I expected after the first post. It's okay for a shareware title, but like many shareware titles, it has an inflated sense of its own value. The idea that in 1990, someone would be willing to play this game for 30 levels--3 times the size of Wizardry--is a bit staggering. I frankly wonder if anyone ever made it to the end.

The game continues to adhere closely to its Wizardry roots, but with a few crucial differences that seem small but greatly affect the quality of gameplay. First, by allowing you save and reload anywhere, the game jettisons Wizardry's permadeath and thus much of it's predecessor's tension. Second, Dragon Sword has far, far more random encounters. The average is an attack roughly every 10 actions, but with a lot of variance; it's not uncommon to have one every step for a few steps in a row. Moreover, there's a chance of a random encounter after every action, not just every step. They might come as you turn, check your inventory, or even save the game.

Because the random attacks are so frequent, they naturally have to be less difficult than Wizardry to give the player a fighting chance. Among the first three levels, there are enemies capable of spellcasting, sleeping, poison, paralysis, and instant-death, but they're rare and easy to blast out of existence with a "Fireball" in the first round. The rest of your foes don't have any special attacks and just pick (slowly) away at the characters' hit points. A party in Wizardry might be wiped out by a single unfortunate encounter with a pack of enemy mages. If a party in Dragon Sword dies, on the other hand, it'll be after a long process of getting nibbled to death by bats, rats, and spiders.

Assaulted by a motley party. Unlike Wizardry, there are no images of your foes.
  
A third major difference is in the existence of magic-recharging squares in the midst of the dungeon. In Wizardry, you always have to be worried about how far you're extending yourself into the dungeon, lest you find yourself too weakened and spell-depleted to make it back. Magic-rechargers mean that you only need to return to town for leveling up and occasionally buying new equipment.

In this last session, poison was my most hated foe. A poisoned character loses several hit points per action and will die very quickly unless healed. The danger diminished when my priest hit Level 6 and got "Cure Poison" as one of her spells. Even then, it costs so much in spell points that you want to avoid getting poisoned at all costs. I've learned to preemptively "Fireball" packs of scorpions, spiders, cobras, and rats, all of which are capable of poisoning on each hit.

Common enemies on Levels 1-2 are "tarantellas." No word on whether they're gay.
  
Figuring out the effects of spells has been somewhat fun. I figured "Friends," a Level 1 mage spell, would be like its D&D counterpart and improve prices at shops. Instead, you cast it on a pack of monsters, which causes each of them to "shake hands and leave." So far, no pack of monsters has "saved" against the spell, making it wonderfully effective, except you don't get experience from those monsters. "Open Wall" allows you to quickly move through dungeons, though at a high spell point cost. "Sanctuary" seems to prevent random encounters for around 10 actions. It's also clear that spells level with the character, so even first-level spells like "Sparks" are still viable options through the game, doing a couple dozen points' of damage at Level 8 where they did only a handful at Level 2. For every level increase, "Familiar" summons a stronger familiar.

I just got Level 4 spells before the end of this post. I look forward to seeing how they work. I have no idea what "Partial Cure" is about, since the cleric spell "Cure Poison" is one level lower and 3 points less.
  
Speaking of damage, the enemies are oddly low in hit points. A successful attack against one is almost always a fatal attack. If my mage casts "Fireball" on a stack of enemies, it almost always wipes them out. I assume this will change as I ascend and enemies get harder.

My summoned wolf kills a giant slug, who despite his name is a bit of a lightweight.
  
About one-third of the enemies defeated in the actual dungeon will drop chests. The process of disarming them works just as in Wizardry: you (E)xamine the chest for traps, are told what type of trap you face, type (D)isarm to remove it, and type the name of the trap. The one big difference is that disarming, at least with a thief, never seems to fail (except when I accidentally type POSION or something).

The only danger is that I will accidentally try to disarm a KINVES trap.
  
This is good because the thief otherwise seems a bit worthless. I have him in slot #4, meaning he can't attack in melee combat. Since there are no missile weapons in the game (at least, not that I've found), he has nothing to do unless someone ahead of him dies or falls under a "sleep" attack. I wonder if it wouldn't be better to get rid of him and put another cleric in that slot, casting "Untrap" whenever I encounter a chest.

Opening chests often rewards you with some piece of equipment, but as in The Bard's Tale series, usually it's something banal that just takes up space in your inventory. Every once in a while, you have to clear it out by (D)ropping unwanted stuff. On the plus side, the economy in this game seems strong. Every dungeon expedition gives me enough funds for some new upgrade, like a shield+1 or a plate mail +1. When I run out of weapons and armor to buy, there are always scroll versions of the most common spells, very useful for when spell points run out.

Some of the game's expensive options. I wonder what a "Wand of Spells" does.
  
The game has a few regrettable bugs. Occasionally, at the end of a victorious combat, you get the "game over" screen, as if you lost. It also frequently freezes in the middle of combat, forcing a quit and a reload. If you have to reload a game, it doesn't remember any spells you had active at the time; if you're unlucky to have to reload with low spell points, you might not be able to cast "Light," which is necessary to find your way around.

The endgame screen comes up when every party member is killed...or whenever the game feels like it.
  
The first level of the dungeon was labeled "Perion's Place" and it begins with an eerie voice that says, "Welcome...Welcome to my domain." The player has the option to pull a rope or not, and it took a bit of experimentation before I realized that the rope is actually a light switch that turns on a permanent "Light" spell for the level. The large level had only one "encounter" in which I found the already-looted remains of a previous party. There was also a message in one room that said "The Black Mage lives behind a wall of darkness."

My map of Level 1.
  
Level 2 introduced spinners, which I hate, but also a couple of squares that restore 1-4 magic points every time you step in them. These were very welcome and allowed me to keep exploring without having to return to the town. (There is no "resting" in the game, so the only way to restore magic is to step in these special squares or the fountain in town; the only way to restore hit points is to first restore magic, then cast "Heal.") But the process of restoration takes a while because you have to keep walking through the square and fighting random encounters every 5-7 moves. I'd get almost restored, then have to fight a few battles that knocked my hit points and spell points back down. It took maybe 15 minutes each time to finally "top off."

My map of Level 2. The two exclamation points mark spell-recharging areas.
  
Level 2 had a couple of messages:

  • "The best kept secrets are often enshrouded in darkness."
  • "A dark wand, an ebony dagger, a ring of mithral, staff of stone, golden armor, slayer of dragons..."

Thanks for the tip.

So far, I don't know what any of these messages mean. They don't seem to be helping at all with the puzzles on the town level.

Level 3 introduced more spinners, an area darkness, a ton of secret doors and one-way doors, and a number of squares that cause you to immediately teleport to another area of the dungeon. Two messages advised me to step on every square and to try the fountain in town, both of which I'd already figured out. There was also a "statue of a decrepit old man" whose "eyes seem to follow you around the room," but I couldn't think of anything to do there. "Cure Stone" doesn't work except on your own party members.

Level 3.

None of the levels offered anything that felt like a fixed encounter. All were labeled "Perion's Place," as is Level 4, so I've been assuming I'll encounter "Perion" at some point. I suspect that the messages I'm accumulating in the dungeons will be important for some key level, and that in intervals throughout the 30-level dungeon, I'll get the passwords necessary to unlock the three password-protected areas back in town.

Navigating the levels is a little disappointing in places. You'll have an entire area sectioned off from the rest, with a sequence of rooms or long corridors that seem to be leading to something, but when you get there, it's just an empty room. Secret doors, more often than not, lead to empty areas.

Unlike Wizardry, the levels (so far) offer no shortcuts back to town. Getting from town to the ladder to Level 3 is 138 moves (less if I use "Open Wall," but that's expensive), which brings around 14 random encounters along the way. I assume things will get faster when I reach Level 10 and get Level 5 spells, including "Teleport" (mage) and "Teleport to Stairs" (cleric).

At this point, all my characters are Level 9, and my two spellcasters are capable of Level 4 spells. Each level-up brings increases in some random attributes, but the max attribute score remains 18. I suspect that within a few more levels, all of my attributes for all characters will be 18. With each level-up, my monk's armor class goes down, but despite this he still seems to get hit quite often.

My current cleric character.

There are some intriguing elements in Dragon Sword, but I cannot possibly imagine spending the 60-80 hours that I estimate it will take to map the additional 27 levels and win the game. It isn't the size of the levels (441 squares vs. Wizardry's 400) as much as the frequency of random battles that makes the game a bit tedious. However, in a series of comments on my first Dragon Sword posting, developers Tim Musa and Brian Tieman gave me a bit of an "out": apparently, in the unregistered version, the game is only playable through the 7 levels of "Perion's Place," and they're having trouble recovering a registered copy. If that's the case, I think I can stick it out for those 7 levels.

31 comments:

  1. Treasures of Tarmin is on the list... guess the Mattel Aquarius is a computer after all. I look forward to reading your snark on this one. :)

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  3. Poor rogues seem to be borderline useless in games from this era. Too weak to be a fighter, but no spells, and often no ranged weapons, means they're not doing anything except accompanying you to open the chests, if there's any value at all. In The Bard's Tale I always decided they were useless and either had other characters try to pick the lock or burned the spell points on a Trap Zap, rather than waste a slot solely for the chance at more easily gained treasure. I often wonder how that would go down in a real party, and can only imagine a rogue claiming a sixth of the loot for hanging back, playing it safe, and doing nothing except open traps once the fight is over would hear some grumbling from the rest of the crew.

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    1. I should mention that when he gets a chance to fight (because one of his colleagues has been put to sleep), the rogue ends up being a reasonably good fighter here. I'd say that it's worth eliminating one of the other fighters, letting the rogue take his spot, and getting another mage except that the rogue has horrible AC and takes damage in combat much faster.

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    2. Now that we have the code I can say that Thieves should *always* disarm traps provided you give the correct trap type. Other classes should have a 20% chance of success. Abilities do not matter when disarming traps.

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  4. Given the developers' struggle with spelling, I'd expect "Partial Cure" to cure the whole party.

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    1. But- that doesn't make ANY sense at all. Not being able to spell a word means nothing when compared to knowing what a word means. I bet a good 99% of the people who can't spell a particular word still knows what it means...

      Unless you KNEW that, and were saying what you said in an effort to- I don't get it. I don't understand!

      Now I'm going to spend the next week fixating on this and trying to figure out what on Earth you are trying to say.

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    2. Well, if you read the comments on the previous post, you'll see that that's exactly the kind of mistakes they were making - "palette" instead of "palate", "tarantella" instead of "tarantula" etc. Using "partial" for "party" fits this logic perfectly, in my opinion.
      (although I'm not a native English speaker so maybe I'm wrong)

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    3. tarentella is a "legit" d+d monster so that -might- not have been a spelling mistake...

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    4. "Partial Cure" turns out to be just a healing spell, notable because it's cast by the mage rather than the priest. Otherwise nothing terribly exotic unless I'm missing something.

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    5. Mightn't it just be a cute alternative name to Tarantula, especially as the Tarantella is the dance that getting bitten by the Tarantula supposedly made you do? I mean there's a pretty direct link.

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    6. "Given the developers' struggle with spelling, I'd expect "Partial Cure" to cure the whole party."

      Mmm... "Party-all Cure"?

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    7. It's probably just 'Partial Cure' as opposed to 'Total Cure' or 'Full Cure' or something, because it only restores some hit points. I think folks are just getting hung up on the use of the word 'cure' instead of 'heal'.

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    8. I played *A LOT* of D&D in my day. I can't prove it, but Tarantella is not a mis-spelling. Just about every thing else is, though. The only thing worse than my spelling is my typing...

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    9. My apologies for assuming that was an error.

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    10. can't believe noone looked this up for Brian:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Dungeons_%26_Dragons_monsters_%281977%E2%80%9399%29

      Tarantella confirmed as sub-class of spider in Basic D&D

      oh, to be 12 again

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  5. You mention waiting till level 10 to get level 5 spells, and then in the next paragraph say your level 9 spellcasters can cast level 5 spells.

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  6. The fact that you can summon Familiars in this game reminds me of Zero no TsukaiMa, imagine if she had been a higher level when she did the summoning ritual... I can imagine her wandering aimlessly around a dimly lit dungeon summoning creatures to fight.

    I was surprised to see the term "Familiar" used in an rpg, is it d&d cannon, or is it unique to this game?

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    1. Familiars have been associated with Magic/Witchcraft since at least 16thC in European culture and D&D draws extensively on European mythology. Find Familiar was in the original AD&D books and the earliest AD&D game to feature the spell was Baldur's Gate 2 IIRC.

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  7. Yep. D&D has 'em.

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  8. Familiars, that is!

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    1. Not in Gold Box, which otherwise faithfully recreates the rules of D&D.

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    2. In those days of d+d using familiars in battle was suicidal. If they had put them in the gold box games, they would have to put in puzzles that made use of their abiliites and as a few people have recently taught us the number of encounters they could put in an area was limited :)

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    3. Well, you have them on Bioware's NWN in 2002, earlier than "Familiar of Zero" manga by 2 years (may its author RIP). The author also included Albion in his comic.

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    4. Familiars in Gold Box games probably would have been best implemented as inventory items. In BG2 you can pick up your familiar to preserve it when not actively controlling it.

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    5. I remember that in BG2, it also conferred some benefits to the player: extra hit points, an increased ability score, or something like it.

      I also remember that any player could get a familiar using an exploit. I believe it worked by pausing the game, right-clicking on a potion to consume it, and then swapping the potion with a "Find Familiar" spell scroll before un-pausing.

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    6. If you import your character from BG 1 you can have a +1 for each from stat increasing books but vanilla BG 1 only offered 3 of the books, the rest came with the optional addon packs.
      Don't recall that BG 2 would had offered any extra stats when starting with a new character though but there is way to increase them in throne of bhaal.

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  9. The creature on the end game graphic looks suspiciously like the Bacardi rum bat logo.

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    1. Ha! Great call. Not "suspiciously like"--it's exactly the Bacardi bat, maybe stretched out slightly so that it's a bit wider. Tim or Brian?

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    2. Not even stretched it's just missing the border and background from the original logo.

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