|Navigating Dragon Sword's interminable dungeons is complicated by "jumper squares."|
For nearly three months, Dragon Sword has been at the center of a ludicrous amount of angst. At first, I decided I was going to quit it early, after I experienced all it had to offer, because the purpose of my blog is to have fun. Then I decided I needed to win it, no matter how many endless hours of mapping it took, because the purpose of my blog is (at least in part) to catalog moments in RPG history that everyone else has overlooked. I wrote a post about the next dungeon, then shelved it. I wrote a "final rating" post, then shelved that. I kept playing. I wrote an absurdly long post explaining the core dilemma in the context of the history of my blog, which has evolved from a fairly trivial review of games that I was always ready to quit, to a more in-depth review of games I generally force myself to play to the end.
The simple fact is that if I quit Dragon Sword, it will be the first time I've deliberately quit a game in almost two and a half years. There were a couple others that I thought I quit when I couldn't make any more progress (Drakkhen, Expedition Amazon), only to come back with a "won!" posting after the final rating. There was one for which I didn't technically see the winning screen (Dragonflight) but got one step away before a game-breaking bug prevented me, and there was one that I was forced to quit mid-game because of a bug. (That was Legend of Faerghail, and we are going to have to come back to it eventually because I had a fantastic correspondence with one of the authors over the summer, and I promised him I'd do something with all the information he gave me.)
It actually gets a bit worse than that. Bloodwych may be the last game I deliberately quit, but plenty of other people have won it, and I was still able to show the end-of-game screenshot from someone else's video. Even if I didn't win, I could still discuss winning. To find a game that I quit without even being able to talk about the ending, we have to go all the way back to Scavengers of the Mutant World in June 2011. Thus, the decision about whether to quit Dragon Sword is non-trivial. It is, in many ways, a decision about the soul of The CRPG Addict.
|Hell would be another 30 dungeon levels.|
I summarized my core dilemma with Bloodwych in August 2012:
Continuing to play Bloodwych is a bit like eating something abominable--circus peanuts, say, or those awful wasabi snack mixes they have at some bars--for no other reason than a bowl of it is sitting in front of you. In a meta-cognitive way, I'm fascinated by my refusal to give up on it.
The same statement could apply equally well to this game. Both are simply too long, too slow, and too repetitive. Dragon Sword does a great job replicating the Wizardry aesthetic, but with bigger dungeon levels, three times the number of dungeon levels, and three to four times the number of random encounters, it vastly overstays its welcome.
As a refresher, Dragon Sword is a shareware Wizardry clone from 1990 in which a group of 6 adventurers (I have a fighter, barbarian, monk, thief, cleric, and magic user) seek to stop the tyranny of the dragon Oijngate. They start out in the town of Bralka, from which at least four separate dungeons are available. You have to explore them in a specific order, with passwords to each found in the previous dungeons. Perion's Place had five levels, followed by Galt's Domain with seven, followed by the "s**t hole" with four, followed by the Tower O' Fun with at least three. That's 19 out of 30. I assume the Tower has at least a few more. Throughout the explorations, I've been finding keys, and I suspect when I have the right set, it will open the area in the center of Bralka, and there will be a final large dungeon leading to the dragon.
|The rare fixed encounter. Each dungeon has a boss. This one was named "Frank."|
There are very, very few fixed encounters in the dungeon levels--maybe two or three per dungeon. Random encounters happen with maddening frequency. The game introduces dozens of new monsters per dungeon and only keeps them around for a couple levels before abandoning them for harder varieties. I'm mildly interested in seeing how the developers are going to keep this up. They've already burned through most of the D&D monster manual and classic mythology. In the current dungeon, I'm encountering playing cards (e.g., jack o'clubs, ace o'spades), chess pieces (black pawns, white bishops), and completely nonsensical creatures (tic-tac-toes, stupid steps). Pretty soon, they're just going to have to start drawing last names at random from the Naperville phone directory.
|A typical enemy party in current exploration.|
Combat is almost exactly like Wizardry except that the spells are original to the game. For a while, character development and spell acquisition were enough to keep things mildly interesting, but my mage and cleric acquired their final spell levels several dungeon levels ago, leaving only increases in hit points and spell points to look forward to. The "s**t hole" had so many undead capable of draining levels that I actually went backwards for a while, but I've caught back up since then. At this point, "Protection from Spells" from the cleric and some mass damage spell from the mage are necessary in almost every combat, meaning that it's important to know the way back to the nearest set of recharging squares.
|Early in the game, attributes increase randomly by 1 at each level-up, but by now, all my attributes are 18.|
I've taken to only saving the game in those squares. Almost nothing in the game is dependent on actually visiting squares; rather, almost everything is dependent on mapping and finding the cryptic messages. Even if I lose a lot of experience upon party death, I still have the maps. I can just reload from the safe zone and stake off in an unmapped direction. The game essentially forces you to take this attitude because it frequently freezes or brings the party to the "game over" screen randomly.
Like most Wizardry derivatives, Dragon Sword confounds navigation with dark squares, spinners, teleporters, and "jumper" squares. The difference between the last two is that the latter notifies you that you've been teleported and the former doesn't. In some dungeons, like the one below, teleporters are so common that you pretty much have to check your coordinates with the "Locate" spell after every step. This level was also insidious in that a message frequently came up that said, "You've been teleported!" when I had not, in fact, been teleported. "A trickster tried and true will sometimes lie to you," another message explained.
|"TP#" indicates that it's a teleportation square; "#TP" is the destination square.|
Here's another one. Notice all those "Js"? Those are jumper squares. Imagine how much of a pain it was to map this level when the "J" squares randomly teleport you every time you step on them.
The game has secret doors, but it also has a lot of squares that are inaccessible without the "Open Wall" spell. Some of these areas hide key encounters and messages. This is one of the few games in which that type of spell is a necessity rather than just a navigation aid.
Most of the levels feature riddles of some sort, usually just an obvious password, like this one:
|In case you can't figure out, the password it's hinting is "MAP."|
A lot of them seem to set up things that never materialize. For instance, on Level 2 of the "s**t hole," there were two areas shaped like temples. The first held a message that read, "Death, it is true, will soon come to you, but you can stay its falling hand, by issuing a curt, staying command." The other temple had a message that simply read "ENVRE." I assume the latter is supposed to be the "staying command," but either way I never found any encounter that required the use of the password. Another message suggested that there was something called a "no jumper ring" to be found--presumably something that keeps the jump squares from activating--but I never encountered such a thing. It's possible, of course, that I missed something in both cases.
Then we have this one. I don't know if it's trying some reverse psychology or what.
And this was just a blatant lie:
On my current level, there are a couple of dozen rows of alcoves, each with a single word that makes up a longer sentence, promising to set up some kind of chess piece-related riddle. The level also has an annoying gimmick by which you can see through (but not walk through) walls, making navigation very difficult because it's hard to tell what's an open wall, what's a closed wall, and what's a door. I may just let the "Light" spell expire and map if it was all dark, because it's giving me a headache.
|The "Fun" part must be meant sarcastically.|
By completing a level or two per week while I was dithering about whether to continue the game, I guess I made the decision. I'm two-thirds finished with it at this point, so I might as well go the distance (though don't expect me to do it all at once). I just wish the authors had tweaked it a bit: fewer levels, encounters less often, and leveling better paced throughout the game. If I could just skip to the endgame, even by cheating, I would, but I can't see a way to do that.
I probably won't post again on Dragon Sword until I've won, but if my other posts seem to be slow, it's because this game is still taking up some background time. MegaTraveller or Treasure of Tarmin next, depending on my mood tomorrow.