Saturday, May 31, 2014

Lord of the Rings: Final Rating

Lord of the Rings, Vol. I
Interplay (developer), Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS, 1991 for Amiga, FM Towns, PC-98. Enhanced version re-released in 1993 for DOS on CD-ROM. A 1994 SNES title of the same name is an entirely different game.
Date Started: 12 May 2014
Date Ended: 27 May 2014
Total Hours: 36
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 49
Ranking at Time of Posting: 124/142 (87%)

Lord of the Rings, Vol. I ended up being a much better game than I expected, particularly given my ambivalence about the source material. When the game started, I was cynical about playing through a plot everyone already knows with characters everyone already knows. I felt that it would limit any sense of role-playing and make the departures from the source material feel a little jarring. That feeling never entirely went away, but I found it easier than expected to envision an alternate universe in which a slightly different Fellowship walked a slightly different path.

Two particular strengths of the game didn't become clear until after I'd won and I consulted some walkthroughs online, in particular a fantastic-but-anonymous map-by-map analysis found here. First, the game does a superb job avoiding "walking dead" scenarios by making sure you almost always have some item, skill, or spell that will allow you to solve a puzzle. The "climb" skill and a rope are redundant options in most areas, for instance, as are torches and the "Firefinger" or "Illuminate" spells. The final door in Dol Guldur can be bypassed with either of two keys or by casting the "Countermagic" spell. Any of several gems found on previous maps can be given to Arwen.

Second, the game world responds very well to the party's actions--so well, in fact, that I didn't notice it happening. Apparently, if you return to Bree after defeating the Black Riders at the river crossing, you get an entirely new set of dialogues and encounters, including a murder mystery and combats with human thugs in places where Nazgul had attacked before. There was a spirit I encountered in Moria that I only encountered because I'd freed it from a dungeon near the Old Forest. There were a ton of places in the game that responded only to the presence of a particular character, or a particular "lore" skill, or a particular item, and many encounters are dependent upon other encounters on previous maps. I was oblivious to almost all of it. When I breezed through Moria, I had no idea that having the "golden wheel" in my possession was automatically solving a lot of puzzles.

Without Aragorn in the party, this message wouldn't have come up, and it would have been harder to find an object nearby.
Two negatives also became clear, though. First, the game is absolutely full of bugs, including scripts that never run, dialogue spoken by the wrong person, dialogue that doesn't respond to the intended prompt, and areas that you can't access. (The author of the walkthrough above exhaustively analyzed the game's code.) It's a wonder that it's possible to finish the game.

More important is the problem that I mentioned early on: failure to walk and perform other actions on precisely the right set of pixels means missing a bunch of encounters. For instance, there was an entire dungeon beneath Bree that I missed because I didn't step on a patch of grass in a corner. I missed the tunnels leading to the spirit of Caradhras in Redhorn Pass because I didn't use "perception" in a random section of hallway (yes, an NPC mentioned there was a hidden lair somewhere, but come on). Some of these areas are cued by NPC dialogues, but many are not. Again, it's a strength of the game that I was able to win despite missing many such encounters, but overall, it's not a great approach to gameplay.

Having finished, I'm convinced that you could do a speed run through the game within a couple of hours. As far as I can tell, the only things absolutely required by the game are one ELBERETH or LUTHIEN (the latter available in Bilbo's house right at the beginning) to use on the Black Riders at the ford, either Gandalf with his wizard's staff or the golden wheel to get past the balrog in Moria, either a key or the "Countermagic" spell to get past a barrier in Dol Guldur, and either an "eagle gem" (which I never found) or the THORONDOR word of power at the endgame. Amidst all of this, you need at least some level of combat power to get past various fixed combats, including the last one, but you could probably accomplish most of that with the right party member selections. It would be interesting to attempt. One of you must do this.

Let's move on to the GIMLET:

1. Game World. While I may not like the use of a licensed title, no one can deny that Middle Earth is a good setting for a CRPG, with plenty of races, monsters, history, lore, magic, and other trappings of fantasy role-playing. The manual gives a nice overview of history, people, and places for those not familiar with the books. Much as I do when I try to read Tolkien, I got a bit lost in all of the names and historical references, even though I tried to look up as many terms as possible on the LOTR wiki. As I noted above, the game does a good job responding to the players' actions, and of course the party's place in the setting is very well-established. Score: 8.

Sauron looks pretty goofy in this game.
2. Character Creation and Development. One of the weaker areas given the adherence to the source material. You play with pre-rolled characters, with no choices for things like name, class, skills, and alignments. The only choice you can really make is the composition of the party, which makes a difference in how some encounters play out.

I don't love the game's approach to experience and development, which is extremely subtle and somewhat confusing. I was never sure exactly what actions contributed to character growth, or whether fighting all the extra combats was doing any good. To take an example, Pippin started the game with 50 dexterity, 8 strength, 15 endurance, 50 luck, 15 life, and 60 willpower. He finished with 52 dexterity, 9 strength, 24 endurance, 62 luck, 24 life, and 66 willpower. Clearly, some development occurred, but I didn't really notice when it did. I don't know what was from solving puzzles, what was from combat experience, and what was from special encounters that specifically raised statistics.

The skills system deserves a mention here. A few of the skills were absolutely essential--climb, jump, picklocks, read, and perception among them. Others, like charisma, detect traps, devices, boats, and sneak, were used occasionally. A few--bravado, hide, and riding--I found absolutely no use for at all. There were only a few places where characters could learn new skills.

In general, there wasn't enough opportunity to control character development in the game, and no character creation process at all. Score: 4.

3. NPC Interaction. Quite good. Middle Earth is a populous place, and the NPCs have a lot of lore, hints, and quests to impart. I always like games with a flexible keyword approach to dialogue. I was mortified to see from the walkthrough that I missed a lot of keywords that would have prompted dialogue. I mostly asked NPCs about things they cued me themselves in their greetings, or with NEWS. Apparently, I should have spent a lot more time asking about key characters and places in the environment.

Talking with NPCs imparts key bits of lore about the game world.

It's also cool that so many NPCs, including many not part of the canonical Fellowship, can join the party, including a few with ulterior agendas. There are only a few NPC encounters that offer any actual role-playing, unfortunately. Score: 6.

4. Encounters and Foes. The denizens of Middle Earth are a reasonably varied lot, but for the purposes of most combats, the variances boil down to attack prowess and hit points. No one has any special attacks, and enemy spellcasters don't even cast spells in combat. In other types of "encounters," the game does better, with a variety of places that you can push through with brawn or adopt a more subtle approach, like sneaking, casting a spell, or using a word of power. The sheer scope and variety of fixed encounters is almost exhausting, lending a lot to the game's replayability. Again, there aren't very many role-playing options in these scenarios, except to the extent of favoring one approach over another (e.g., skills vs. spells). Score: 6.

The game had only a few role-playing choices like this one.
5. Magic and Combat. Both were a little disappointing, as I covered a couple posts ago. Combat is a rote affair in which you depend on luck far more than tactics. "Tactics" are limited to maneuvering and maybe a couple of weapon-based options. There aren't really even any magic items to use in combat. There are only a couple of offensive spells, and they under-perform physical attacks. On the plus side, combats were relatively quick, and rare enough that I seldom groaned when the combat screen came up.

The party has surrounded the last enemy on the screen.
Magic is primarily useful for puzzle-solving. There are only 8 spells in the game, and I never found anyone with one of them ("Kingshand," a healing spell).

I don't know exactly where to include this, but there was a weird balance between combat and healing. There are a few items that you can buy or find that heal characters a small number of hit points, and can only be eaten once per day. For the most part, healing is a scripted event in this game, occurring when you enter certain areas or speak to certain people, usually without the game even making you aware of what's happened. This approach didn't cause me any particular problems--my characters usually had enough health when they needed it--but it's still very odd. Score: 3.

Glorfindel prepares to cast "Countermagic" to get past a barrier. Note how spells (which can be cast repeatedly) mix with words of power (which can be invoked only once each).
6. Equipment. The game adheres to Tokien's vision of Middle Earth, in which magic items are quite rare. Finding an enchanted weapon or suit of armor is a major event. This isn't inherently good or bad, but it's a different approach than seen in most RPGs.

I was underwhelmed by the inventory system in general. Characters are limited to wearing a suit of armor and wielding one weapon; many other items that feel like they should be equippable, like cloaks and rings, are actually just puzzle items. Throughout most of the game, my backpacks were bursting at the seams with various quest items or things that sounded like quest items, with the game offering no hints about what I needed to keep and what I could safely discard. I was constantly shuffling stuff around and trying to figure out what I could drop.

There were a number of utility items--shovels, picks, ropes, torches--for solving puzzles, and a small variety of foods and healing items. I still have no idea what all that athelas was for. Score: 3.

Pippin's late-game inventory. For some reason, I'm still carrying the gate key from the Shire to the Old Forest.
7.  Economy. Also fairly weak. There are no monetary rewards from quests or random combats; silver pennies only exist in a few defined cache locations. This would be annoying if there was more to spend money on, but there are only a few stores, and to the extent that they sell anything worth buying, they're usually quest items. One blacksmith shop in Bree is the exception. In general, money and shops do not play an important role in the game, or even any role at all in the second half. Score: 2.

8. Quests. The main quest to destroy the ring is pretty powerful stuff, but of course you don't get to do that in this game. To players unfamiliar with the source material, the main quest ends up becoming a little unclear--it's mostly just progress through the chapters. Fortunately, the game makes up for it with a great selection of side quests, some for personal gain, some to help others, and some both. These little diversions make up a huge part of the gameplay, and they're satisfyingly varied in their difficulty and use of skills and resources. Unfortunately, there are rarely any choices or role-playing options. Score: 5.

The main quest of this installment--to rescue the ring bearer from Dol Guldur--doesn't become clear until late in the game.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I found the graphics quite good--even beautiful in places. The sound in the 1990 version is nothing special, but the 1993 version has some wonderful recordings of monster growls and death screams, weapon actions, and environmental effects. I found the interface mostly intuitive but a little clunky, especially when it came to inventory and trading items between characters. I do like the redundant mouse and keyboard commands. In the 1993 version, I thought the animated clips from the Rashki film were out of place, and I'd rather have had the 1993 interface with the 1990 screens and animations. Score: 5.

The automap is a particularly welcome feature in the 1993 version.
10. Gameplay. The game is linear in that you have to progress across the 7 map areas in a specific order, but nonlinear in the sense that you can backtrack to previous areas at any time until you get to the final area. This allows for many replay possibilities, such as booking it for Rivendell immediately, collecting the more powerful party members, and then exploring the Shire, the Old Forest, and Bree. There are even plot rewards for returning to previous areas.

The difficulty was pitched almost perfectly. I did a lot of reloading to save party members, but it wasn't strictly necessary. I rarely felt things were too easy or too hard.

I think maybe it lasted just a smidge too long. Trying to track down all the different encounters on each map wore me out by the end, and I just ran through the last map. But in general the pacing isn't bad. In particular, the difficulty and complexity ramp up nicely between the Shire and Moria. Score: 7.

That gives a final score of 49, a very respectable rating that puts the game in my top 20. (This applies to the 1993 CD version, anyway; the real 1990 version would score 1 point lower for "interface" and 2 points lower for sound, putting the rating at 46.)

The engine for the game is quite good, particularly if the inventory issues were fixed and combat improved with some additional tactics, so it surprises me that it wasn't used in more games. I think it could have been like an early Infinity Engine, popular across a variety of settings. But the early 1990s were not an RPG-heavy time for Interplay; the only other RPG title the company developed for personal computers between 1990 and 1994 was Lord of the Rings, Vol. II.

This ad was in the October 1990 issue of CGW, and the first review didn't come out until April 1991. What was up with review schedules back then?

In a rare reversal, I seem to like the game more than most contemporary and modern reviewers. Charles Ardai's review in the April 1991 Computer Gaming World focuses mostly on how the game diverges from the source material, and is thus likely to be troublesome to Tolkien fans. He barely remarks on game mechanics at all, except to note the "tedious" movement on the huge landscape, and I was disappointed that he didn't comment on the variety of side-quests and special encounters. I would have thought the overall engine--continuously moving, top-down, with attractive graphics--would have been remarkable for 1990. He concludes that it is "a bright and enjoyable and perfectly harmless game" but that it is "not special enough to carry the Tolkien name."

In a brief review in a larger "survey" of CRPGs on the market in October 1991, Scorpia seemed to like it better, though like me she noted that "many things can be found only by stepping on the right spot, which makes for a lot of hoofing." She also notes (though doesn't exactly complain about) divergences from the source material.

MobyGames has summaries of other reviews of the game from the era, with none scoring higher than 75 on a 100-point scale. On modern blogs and boards, the game gets hardly any more affection, with most people confusing it with the SNES title (or other Lord of the Rings licensed titles).

Well, I'm happy to say that once I understood the game, I liked it. I look forward to checking out the sequel in 1992, though it's too bad that the third edition was never released, and I'll never get to stand on the edge of the chasm in Mount Doom and (U)se the ring to toss it into the lava.

Next up: a diversion to the 1983 conclusion to the Dunjonquest series, Gateway to Apshai!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lord of the Rings: Won!

The rest of the game consisted of two areas--Lorien and Dol Guldur--and I confess that I rushed them a bit. There were just a few too many encounters and puzzles.

When we exited Moria, almost immediately Frodo got whisked away by the Witch-King through some unclear mechanism. Someone remarked that he was probably taken to "Dol Guldur." Sam also disappeared. I assume if someone else had been carrying the Ring, that person would have been taken instead. I gave the leadership to Aragorn and continued onward.

"One of you remarks" is the game's lazy way of not plugging in a text string variable based on who's currently in the party.

Lorien consisted of a fortified inner area surrounded by a bunch of minor encounters in the fringes. To get into Lorien proper and see Galadriel, I had to get past Haldir at the gates. Just trying to walk by him led to my party being pumped full of arrows. Arwen had assured me that her token would do the trick, but I couldn't get that to work. Haldir suggested that if we were there on behest of some elven lord, that would be enough, and he let me by when I said ELROND.

Not the best security system.

It took me a while to find Galadriel's hut among the trees. She said I could leave whenever I wanted via a ship on an eastern shore, but she suggested I wander around and collect five objects of power first: a crown of elanor, a scabbard, a silver horn, an elfstone, and the light of Earendil's star.

The game's version of Galadriel. I think Cate Blanchett is prettier.

Much of the rest of the map consisted of wandering around talking to NPCs about these various objects and trying to find them. I eventually got them all (the "star" was found by filling a bottle of water by moonlight, the horn was buried in a ruin, etc.), but I have no idea what they did. Not even a walkthrough really helped. They didn't seem to raise my stats, I couldn't wield them, and I didn't employ them anywhere during the rest of the game.

Given their lack of utility, I feel particularly bad about the crown of elanor. I found an elf maiden who had made one, but she said she was waiting to give it to Legolas (I guess if I'd brought him with me, the dialogue would have been very different). She said if she gave it to me, she would be "fated to never know love!" and asked if I'd take it from her and deny her love forever. I felt bad saying yes.

Could you just . . . I don't know . . . make another one?

Galadriel also had me meet her at her magic mirror, where we saw a vision of Frodo being held by the Witch-King at Dol Guldur. She said that even though the chief Nazgul had Frodo and the Ring, all was not lost, because he was waiting for an army from Mordor to come escort him. She told me I could recruit any of her commanders and suggested I explore a cave nearby for some assistance. I ended up recruiting Celeborn and someone named Malkir.

The caves were the ones that connected to Moria, and it turns out I couldn't have exited this way from the mines, as I would have eventually found myself against a locked door that I needed Galadriel's key to open. Anyway, in the mines, I found a statue of a giant eagle, which I freed (somehow) by giving it a set of wings I'd found in a nearby cave. The eagle gave me a word of power--THORONDOR--that turned out to be crucial for the endgame.

The Fellowship at last encounters Middle Earth's "aquila-ex-machina."

I also found the entrance to the other side of Redhorn Pass, assuming that from this side, I could clear the snow blockage and wander all the way back to the Shire if I wanted. But I came up against the same snowdrift and couldn't get by. After I won, I consulted a walkthrough, and it turns out I needed to use the "perception" skill at some random place in the corridor to find an offshoot tunnel, where I would defeat the spirit of Caradhras and banish the cold. Oh, well.

When I felt I was ready, I got a bunch of lembas from Galadriel and boarded a boat that took me across the lake and to the environs of Dol Guldur, which I guess is the tower in Mirkwood that Gandalf visits in The Hobbit. All of this is only in the game, of course; in the book, Frodo never gets captured by the Witch-King and the rescue mission is unnecessary. 

Wait. I have to ride in that?

Near where I arrived in the last map, I found a structure with a bunch of imprisoned animals. At the top was a wizard claiming to be Radagast the Brown, but a brown bird chirping in a nearby cage made me suspicious. I ended up attacking "Radagast," who revealed himself as a werewolf. Once I killed him, I freed the real Radagast, who told me that it was his spirit who had been in all of those birds I'd been encountering throughout the game. He joined my party.

My suspicions paid off.

Shortly after that, I found Gollum wandering along a road. The game suggested I try to capture him, and after a bit of experimenting and reloading, I found that the way to do that was with a rope. His main contribution was to suggest I avoid Sauron's forces on the road and enter a hedge maze instead. From everything I read post-game, this is exactly what I was supposed to do. But I wanted to see what happened if I kept walking down the road, and I somehow missed tripping a game-ending encounter and managed to just walk up to the fortress, avoiding a long and annoying hedge maze.

Gollum tries, and fails, to provide some useful advice.
The front gates were guarded by a force of Nazgul and Olog-hai, which I couldn't defeat without losing a bunch of people, so I sought another entrance. I eventually found one by a standing stone. Gollum ditched me as I entered.

As I later discovered, I missed a ton of stuff in the lower levels of Dol Guldur, including a bunch of combats and traps, a couple of NPCs who would have joined the party, and the chance to rescue Sam. Instead, I just pushed upwards, assuming that the final encounter would be at the top of the tower. There were some minor battles and encounters along the way, but for the most part I made it to the top in quick order. The only puzzle I had to pass was a force field on a stairway. I used "Countermagic" to get by, but apparently I could have used some keys (which I never found) instead.

A penultimate battle with a group of sorcerers was reasonably difficult.

In the final room, the Witch-King was preparing to take off with Frodo in a sack. I invoked THORONDOR and summoned the giant eagles, which prevented him from flying away. He turned and attacked the party, but he was alone, so it wasn't a tough combat. Satisfyingly, Merry was the one to make the killing blow.

He did it with an arrow instead of a sword, but let's not split hairs.

The long end sequence started with a clip from the cartoon in which Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo. It seemed a little out of place. I guess maybe in the game's version of the story, after rescuing Frodo, we wandered outside, and the riverbank encounter happened as in the book. In that case, the game ended just before the climactic battle with the Uruk-hai, including Boromir's death. I'm curious if the next game begins with that.

There followed a series of screens that told the fate of some of the people and places. The forces of Dol Guldur tried to invade Lorien three times during the War of the Ring, but they failed each time, and Galadriel eventually destroyed the fortress.

The game also recounts the fight between elves and orcs in the Woodland Realm, ruled by Legolas's father, but ends by noting "all of this is yet to occur." It also notes that Sauron is amassing his forces and moving west, but that "Sauron is not the only one who wants the Ring." The cut scenes end with a shot of Gollum saying "precious."

A few notes before I wrap up:

  • Sam's "spider sword" only hummed in one location where it was pretty obvious I was going to be attacked by spiders. It didn't give me any warning in dozens of other locations where I was attacked.
  • Durin's Axe turned out to be a decent axe, but probably not worth all the trouble to find it.
  • At the end of the game, I still had a ton of mystifying items in my inventory, including a spiritcharm, all that mithril I mined in Moria, the elanor crown, Galadriel's token, Tinalin's cape, the scabbard, the silver horn, the Horn of Gondor, the elfstone, the Smith Ring which a smith in Lorien had turned into "reforge-ring," a black key, Arwen's token, and the leaf belt. Without exception, I have no idea what these items are for.
  • However, I obviously didn't hit every encounter on the maps. Moreover, it became clear that some of these items have a passive effect, with certain encounters triggering differently or not triggering at all, and others are alternate solutions to puzzles I solved a different way. In general, the game was quite good about this, allowing multiple combinations of skills, spells, and items to solve its puzzles.
  • I had a repeated problem with the interface when it came to the book paragraphs. Every so often, I'd walk into a square that triggered a paragraph, but since I was holding down one of the movement keys when I entered the square, the game immediately sensed the keypress as a desire to close out of the book. I had to mince around and reload a couple of times to be sure I could actually read the text before it disappeared.
  • For the record, my party upon exiting Moria was Frodo (leader and Ringbearer), Sam, Pippin, Merry, Gimli, Druin, Aragorn, Glorfindel, and Boromir. My party upon winning the game was lacking Frodo and Sam, but with the addition of Malkir and Radagast. (Celeborn and Gollum joined briefly but left.)

Although I rushed the end stages a bit, I really found myself enjoying the game by the end. I look forward to writing the GIMLET.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Lord of the Rings: You Shall not Pass!

The party crosses a bridge deep beneath Moria.

Most of this session was taken up by the Mines of Moria, an extremely large, multi-leveled dungeon with numerous passages up and down, stairways, holes in ceilings and floors, teleporters, and other navigation tricks among its 13 levels (6 up, 6 down, plus the main floor). Since the main floor contained both the entrance and the exit, most of the rest of the dungeon was entirely optional, useful mostly for a side-quest to find Durin's Axe.

Outside Rivendell, I had a few places to explore before Moria. There were a handful of barrows full of restless undead who bowed to Aragorn (some reference to the dead men of Dunharrow?) and wanted our help to destroy a magic ring, which "wights of Sauron" were using to capture and hold the dead spirits. It wasn't a lot of effort, but then again it didn't give me any reward.

It's almost like people think I'm good for nothing but destroying rings..

There was also a second passage into the mountains, labeled "Redhorn Pass" which I understand is translated as "Caradhras" in Elvish and was the pass that the Fellowship tried to cross before nearly getting buried in snow. In the game, it seems more like a dungeon, but in any event after some time in a winding corridor, you come up against a snow drift and can't continue.

I guess this was predictable if you know the source material.

Arriving at Moria, there's a little cinematic where Gandalf tries to open the door with a variety of passwords before he realizes the "friend" riddle. The process is mimicked in the game by using the MELLON word of power. The gates open, there's a brief fight with some tentacles coming out of the water, and then the Fellowship is in the mines. Incidentally, Bill the pony gets killed by the tentacles in the animated film. I'm reliably assured this doesn't happen in the book. What was Ralph Bakshi's problem?

Both Moria and the pass, it must be said, are remarkably close to Rivendell. I realize the game was trying to economize on time and space, but it's odd to find these places just a quick walk down the road.

Exploring Moria took a long time. Corridors slope up and down, so sometimes it's not obvious when the party moves between levels (though Gimil usually makes a comment). Orcs, trolls, Uruk-hai, and Olog-hai frequently attack. Some of the ways up and down are in non-obvious places (e.g., you have to move around a room until you get a message that there's a hole going down), and there were an awful lot of encounters and puzzles to solve, almost all geared towards (ultimately) finding Durin's Axe. A player that doesn't care about all that could just run through the first level and be across the Bridge of Khazad-dum in a few minutes. I wanted to explore the whole thing and started out with a "right wall" pattern but gave it up for a "one level at a time" pattern when the former strategy put me in a (long) endless loop.

The dungeon featured a lot of pits and bridges that crossed chasms, some filled with lava. I learned early on that you really don't want to get too close.

There were a couple of scenes that mimicked events in the book (which, of course, I know only from the way they were translated to the Jackson films). The part where Gandalf says "I have no memory of this place" and Pippin makes a huge racket occur in the same room.

This is not, unlike the film, the same room where the Fellowship finds the book detailing Balin's ill-fated attempt to reclaim the mines. That takes place in the top level of the dungeon, where a cut scene from the film shows Gandalf reading the book and learning of Balin's death.

After the party reads the book, some orcs attack:

The game's version of the epic battle in Balin's tomb.

After the battle, the player is encouraged to hustle out the door. If he doesn't, the party gets overwhelmed by orcs, and the game ends. But the Fellowship only needs to leave the room; they don't need to keep running all the way to Khazad-dum. This is another place in which the game removes the book's sense of urgency.

Throughout the mines, I kept finding a brown bird that was screaming Gandalf's name and occasionally provided me with a bit of advice. I had encountered the same bird in the Shire and the Old Forest. I'm not sure if he exists in the books. During one journal entry, he was about to tell Gandalf his name but he got cut off. Does he have something to do with Radagast?

The power turned out to be the KHAZAD word of power.

Finally, there was a fun encounter where I ran into a vein of mithril ore and had the opportunity to mine it. If I only mined four or five pieces, everything was all right, but if I mined more, my party went crazy with lust for mithril, abandoned the quest, and kept mining until orcs came along and killed us.

Ha! Kind of how I feel in real life about heroin!

I met the balrog twice, once in a throne room and later on the bridge. In both cases, I just had to use Gandalf's staff to send him away.

As I said, much of the experience in the mines is finding Durin's Axe. I'm not going to recount every step, but in general, to find the weapon, I had to defeat an evil spirit on one level, find a treasure chest with various quest items on another, and find a word of power (SIGN OF THE SEVEN) on a third. I then had to navigate down to the bottom level, solve a maze, use "perception" in a very non-obvious place to find a hole in the ceiling, walk through a very non-obvious hidden door, use Durin's Pick on a statue, recite two pieces of lore learned elsewhere in the dungeon, give three items to three ghosts, and finally use the word of power. It took bloody forever. (Oddly, there was no place to explicitly use Galadriel's token or the golden wheel, even though I'd been assured that I needed both.) This axe had better be awesome.

There were, surprisingly, two exits from Moria. One was on a lower level. I'm not sure where it led ultimately, but I wanted to do the canonical thing and experience the balrog on the bridge. (Though it later occurred to me that I probably could have kept Gandalf if I'd gone out the other way.) Khazad-dum was anti-climactic. For one thing, the bridge itself was very short:

When I got to the other side, I got three paragraphs about the balrog chasing me, each concluding with the phrase "you are doomed." But I again used Gandalf's staff, and a clip from the film showed Gandalf defeating the balrog and falling to his own "death."

You can't really tell what's going on here, but it was the best shot I got.

I had to fight three Uruks at the exit, but after that I was on my way to Lothlorien.

In general, it was a pretty satisfying dungeon crawl. The enemies weren't so frequent as to be annoying, but they were frequent enough to pose a real danger. (There were a couple of healing places in the dungeon, but not many.) The inventory and skill puzzles were fair. I found some nice mithril/magic armor upgrades. And I liked the varied textures for caverns, hallways, water, lava, and so forth, making the whole dungeon very interesting and evocative.

Finding some quest items from behind Durin's throne.

I haven't talked about combat in a lot of detail in these posts, but there's not much to it. When enemies appear, the party enters combat mode. You still have access to the same commands, including all inventory commands, but each character has to act in turn.

Unless armed with a bow or casting a spell, characters must be in combat range to attack. Owing to the weird nature of the party formation, and how the party somewhat haphazardly follows the lead character, party members might be in a helpful or unhelpful arrangement when combat begins. It's particularly tough in narrow corridors when some characters might end up blocking others from engaging. Some characters have to waste their turn moving into a better position, and they may find they can't get close enough to attack at all until someone else moves. I really wish the game had allowed setting up a combat formation.

A combat with trolls and Nazgul. Note how the game has started the party in the same formation in which they were walking. It will take a while to  untangle them and get them all in melee range.
As far as attacking goes, there's usually only one "attack" option in which the character swings his chosen weapon. If the character has a skill in that weapon, there might be a more powerful second option, such as "aim" for bows and "swing" for axes. If there's more than one enemy in range, you choose which one you want to attack, but there's no easy way to correspond the list of enemies to the actual icons on the screen. If the blow connects--which it usually does--it might be deflected by the enemy's armor, or it might do a number of damage points dependent on the weapon and the character's strength. Wounded enemies are annotated with an *, and wounded enemies near death are annotated with a !. These annotations provide some help in deciding who to target.

Gandalf decides whether to target the Uruk, the Uruk, the Uruk, or the Uruk.

Enemies don't seem to exhibit much of a preference in their own targeting. They don't go for the weakest Fellowship member, or the closest. They just seem to attack anyone in range at random. As I noted previously, when a character drops below 6 hit points, he falls unconscious and dies within a few rounds if you can't wrap up combat before then.

You can try to flee from combat by simply moving off the active screen, but I find that if combat is dangerous enough that I feel compelled to flee, the enemy almost always kills a few characters before I can get everyone off the screen. If a character is so wounded that I need to remove him from danger, it's easy enough just to have him back away from the melee without fleeing entirely.

I thought the combat system might turn more tactical with the introduction of spells, but it didn't at all. There are only three offensive spells--"Winterchill," "Firefinger," and "Vincecrush." I only have the first two, and without exception they do less damage than an effective attack. Worse, they directly deplete the caster's life points. As far as I'm concerned, spells are only useful for solving puzzles, not for offensive combat. There are no defensive or buffing spells in the game. Now that I've lost Gandalf, I have no spells at all except "Countermagic."

My guess is that I'll finish the game in one or two more postings. I look forward to the last couple areas, but I'm also mostly ready for the game to be over.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Lord of the Rings: I Will Take the Ring to Mordor!

On the way to Rivendell, the party finds three petrified trolls.

Lots of plot since the last post. I finished up with Bree and its environs, explored the ruins of Weathertop, made my way to Rivendell, destroyed the Black Riders at the river, attended Elrond's council, and set off again with most of the canonical Fellowship, with numerous encounters, combats, and treasures along the way.

In Bree, I made another loop around town but still never got any satisfaction on the sub-plot of Bill Ferny, the horse thief. Then again, I read about him in the Lord of the Rings wiki, and it appears he's a reasonably significant character in the book, so perhaps the references were just book lore. I also asked everyone about GANDALF and didn't get much, except the blacksmith suggested that Gandalf had told him to help Shirefolk, and he gave me a magic shield when I told him my real name.

At the same blacksmith, I spent most of my wealth on chain mail and shields for my characters. When I returned to the wilds and faced those wargs again, I kicked their asses clear across Eriador. Having Aragorn in the party helped a lot, but the upgraded equipment helped more.

That's right! How does it feel?

A few notes from the Bree area:

  • South of the city was the Forsaken Inn. It was run by a dwarf named Orin, and some random dwarf on the road from the Shire had told me to seek Orin and tell him Nuri, Borri, and Falin were looking for him. I fed Orin those names and got some stories associated with them. While we were talking, black riders arrived and Orin told me to run to a secret passage under one of the inn's beds.
  • There was a reasonably large dungeon under the bed, but little in it except some spider attacks and dwarf sarcophagi that made references to minor characters and battles in Tolkien's books. In one room, a row of green skulls sat on a shelf next to a ghost. I didn't know what to do here, but later I found a green skull for sale in a shop, bought it, returned to the dungeon, used it in the room, and got directions to a treasure that turned out to be "Galadriel's token." There was some note with it that suggested that I would need both it and the Golden Wheel (which I found under Sharkey's Shipping previously) to find Durin's Axe.

  • The game's approach to healing is odd. For most of it, I've been regenerating a couple of points at a time by munching on rations and mushrooms. I have a metric ton of athelas, picked up from various places, but I can't seem to actually use it directly. Then, around Bree, I encountered two healers who were happy to heal me to full health for free just from wandering into their shops. One of them complained that his athelas root was old, but he wouldn't take any of the athelas I had. This sudden free and plentiful healing, right when my party got a lot more powerful anyway, made the map much easier.
  • Despite this, I still wasn't able to keep my party alive when facing random Nazgul attacks. Five of them attacked me when I reached Weathertop, which technically happened in the book, but I couldn't even successfully flee without at least a couple of my characters dying.

On the other hand, this didn't happen in the book.

  • Aside from the Nazgul attack, which I ended up just walking around, Weathertop was notable for a very large cavernous dungeon and a set of crypts beneath it. The dungeon was necessary for two reasons that I could see. First, it held a piece of what turned out to be Aragorn's sword, Anduril. Second, I encountered a ghost of heartbroken man named Thaldred, whose lover was slain by the forces of the Witch King. He wanted a token that proved a "maiden's love." The token that Rose gave to Sam did the trick, and he gave me the LUTHIEN word of power for the second time.

Thanks, ghost friend, but this ground has been pretty well trod by now.
  • In the Weathertop caverns, I encountered my first trolls. They look a bit different than Peter Jackson imagined them.

  • There were a lot of encounters with unnamed humans, dwarfs, and hobbits on the road. They all had a little bit of lore to impart.
  • This guy makes me feel less guilty about using his name.

Calm down, man. It's not like the game offers a "knock" command.
Eventually, I got sick of being attacked by Nazgul and just moved on to the next map even though I hadn't fully explored the Bree area.

Frodo prepares to reverse-Moses the Nazgul.

Almost immediately on arrival in the Rivendell environs, I found another cave, again full of trolls, and again found the LUTHIEN word of power. The game really wanted me to have this one. The reason soon became clear when I met up with Glorfindel by the river. He put Frodo on a horse and sent him ahead, but the nine black riders caught up with me. The game showed a cartoon sequence from the film and then gave me one action to bellow LUTHIEN and drown the black riders in the river. In the Jackson films, Arwen is with Frodo and invokes the power; I didn't realize this wasn't canonical.

I always feel bad for the horses.

After they were defeated, the game noted that their cloaks had been left behind, snagged on rocks and whatnot. I spent a while wandering around collecting them even though my inventory was nearing its breaking point. Glorfindel had just joined my party, which helped a bit.

At Rivendell, which looked like a small mansion rather than a huge keep, I was allowed to explore freely. I met Bilbo, who went through his quasi-Gollum metamorphosis when I showed him the ring, then gave me Sting and mithril armor (I equipped both to Frodo). He joined my party briefly but left it after the Council. In a library, I read through dozens of pages of text of local lore, most of it having to do with the maps I'd already explored. I guess some players must head right for Rivendell, then backtrack to the Old Forest and Bree?

Blah, blah, blah. I found the Smith's Ring ages ago.

There were also--finally!--a number of trainers who offered skills to the various members of the party. The manual outlined the possibility of acquiring or buying new skills, but I hadn't met anyone willing to teach or sell them to me. Then, suddenly, Rivendell produced three of them.

I was finally able to get rid of a ton of inventory items. The game suggested I give a nice gem or piece of jewelry as a gift to Arwen. I did, and she rewarded me with her token (she told me to show it to Galadriel) but also an increase in "luck" points. I gave her a few more gems and the luck points continued to go up even though I didn't get any more tokens.

Is she prettier than Liv Tyler? Discuss.

I had been carrying the signet ring of the slain ranger Hawkeye since the Shire. In Elrond's house, I met his girlfriend, who asked me to bury it in the tombs beneath Rivendell, which I did happily. Some spirit spoke up and suggested that in "the city of the dead," I should ask the former king of his past.

There was a decent role-playing choice here. I didn't explore what happened if I said "no."

Later, the smith took two parts of Aragorn's sword that I'd been carrying since the Shire and forged Anduril. (In the book, aren't all of the pieces already at Rivendell? And is it reforged this early in the story?) I finally sucked it up and dropped the excess shovels, torches, and other equipment I'd been carrying, too. I hope none of it is needed later.

Aragorn can be a bit of a pretentious douche, can't he?

Much like LUTHIEN, the game really wanted me to learn the word for "friend," presumably because it's needed to get into Moria. There were two places that I learned it in Rivendell, and all my party members got it, meaning I can now invoke it more than a dozen times. Anyway, it turns out that the word is MELLON. Really? I always thought Gandalf was saying something like "BELL-OCK" in the film. This is definitely not a word you want to mix up with English, lest the elves launch a campaign against Gallagher for smashing so many friends with a sledgehammer.

Dare I hope that GOURD means "enemy"?

I found Gimli and his father, Gloin, hanging out in some caverns beneath Rivendell and got Gimli to join me. Gloin had a lot to say about Moria, which I assume is about to occupy a big part of my life. 

A bit of Gloin's intel, which lasted for several paragraphs.

I had everyone else, but it took me forever to find Gandalf. He turned out to be hanging around some rocks in the northeast corner of the map, and the moment I met him, he didn't even squeak a hello before announcing it was time for the Council. 

Nice to see you, too.

Back in Rivendell, Boromir showed up and the meeting commenced, highlighted by a three-minute clip from the animated film. It was interesting to see how differently it proceeded from the Jackson film, with the discussion much more civil, Boromir not antagonistic at all to Aragorn, and Frodo rather calmly announcing that he'll take the ring to Mordor. In the latter point, I thought the Jackson film was much more dramatic and moving.

The council meets in the Bakshi film insert.

When it was over, Gandalf automatically joined the party. Elrond wanted proof that the black riders were gone, which is where their cloaks came in handy. He then gave me some more athelas; honestly, what am I supposed to do with this stuff? Boromir was hanging around, but I'd finally reached 10 companions and the game wouldn't let me add any more. Reluctantly, I dismissed the pony in favor of another fighter. Boromir came with the Horn of Gondor, which I assume we'll have to use at some point.

It wasn't until I departed Rivendell that I realized I never found Legolas anywhere. I thought maybe his presence in Rivendell was another Jackson modification, but I looked at the wiki and, no, he should have been at the council. Maybe his place in this game is usurped by Glorfindel.

A few other miscellaneous notes:

  • Even though I'm not overly attached to the source material, I've had a difficult time keeping anyone but Frodo in the lead. You can designate anyone as the "leader," and that person usually ends up in the thick of combat, so it would make more sense to make it Aragorn or Druin. You can also make any character the ring-bearer, but I've also had difficulty using anyone but Frodo for that. It just seems wrong.
  • While it's satisfying to have my party of 10 pound on enemies, I'm left lukewarm by the game's approach to combat overall. There are very few tactics associated with it except movement and attacking. Perhaps that will change now that I have some spells.
  • Much as Sting glows blue when orcs are near, Sam's "spider sword" hums when spiders are near.

Of course, the fact that the room is full of spider webs was also a bit of a warning.

  • Speaking of spells, Gandalf came with "Illuminate," "Unlock," "Firefinger," "Animalspeak," and "Countermagic."  Glorfindel came with just "Countermagic."
  •  In terms of Words of Power, between my party members, I have 5 HELP HELPs, 4 BOMBADILs, 2 ELBERETHs (Aragorn came with one), 1 ANGMAR, 15 LUTHIENs, 1 BEREN, and 17 MELLONs. I assume at least one MELLON is needed to enter Moria, but I have no idea what BEREN or ANGMAR does, nor whether HELP HELP, BOMBADIL, or LUTHIEN ever serve any purpose again.
  • Gimli's portrait shows him wearing a hat that makes him look like a total doofus.

Howdy, pilgrim. 1620 was quite a year, wasn't it?

  • Every once in a while, my party seems to get an extra round in combat. I'm not sure why.
  • My list of notes and hints has grown huge. I keep solving areas and then realizing I had some hint that would have let me solve it faster.
  • Okay, read this and tell me once and for all, are orcs and goblins the same thing? Then why does Gandalf say that Saruman has been "breeding orcs with goblin-men"?

In related news: I give in. I have a couple of airplane trips next week, and I'm going to force myself to read the book. It's silly to keep having to ask all of you to fill in the plot points, and I'm often confused by the wiki.

I find myself wondering how long the game will last. I assume it goes at least to Lothlorien, because I've received several hints as to what to do there. I also wonder what the sequel looks like, with (presumably) the Fellowship broken up. We'll find out eventually. On to Moria!