Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Quest for Glory II: A Knight without Armor in a Savage Land

Far be it for me to ignore such a suggestion.

I've already won Quest for Glory II, but I'm going to do something different. Rather than finish the series of posts as a mage, I'm going to cover the trials of Shapeir from the perspectives of the other two classes, then cover the rest of the game by looking at all three classes at once.

This is for a few reasons. First, I wanted to end my time with Quest for Glory II with three saved games, so I could explore all the class possibilities in Quest for Glory III. Second, I wanted to try a few things I hadn't tried in my first journey through Shapeir. Most important, the last third of the game (beginning once you leave Shapeir in the caravan) is very linear, with almost no player choices or RPG elements. Hence, blogging about it becomes straight story-telling unless I have something fun to do, like contrast the experiences of the different classes.

Gideon the fighter, after quite a bit of grinding.

Trickster is playing a fighter, so anything I say about the class's experiences will be a little redundant. I wouldn't have played this class at all except I decided I did want to end the game with a paladin, and I was disappointed when my mage character didn't achieve that status at the end despite having jacked up his "Honor" rating to heroic proportions by doing all kinds of honorable things, such as returning Omar's lost coin purse, giving lots of money to the beggar, and saying THANK YOU to everyone he encountered.

It turns out there are mysterious "paladin points" behind the scenes that go up when you do these things, and several others, but you can also lose them with a few actions. My mage character had lost an irrecoverable number when he accidentally disturbed, and then was forced to kill, the griffon. Okay, "accidentally" may be a bit of a fib. I couldn't believe there wasn't something more to do with him, so I kept screwing around before he finally woke up and attacked me. I think maybe it was throwing a rock at him that was the last straw.

I didn't want to replay as a mage again, and the thief can't become a paladin if he does all his thief stuff, so a fighter was my only choice.

The fighter offered a shorter game but, in some ways, a tougher one. Since I didn't have a fighter exported from the first game, I had to create one anew, and he started with significantly lower skills, attributes, and gold. This meant I had to do a lot more time grinding in the desert. When I started, I was appalled by how poorly he did even against the basest of foes, like brigands, but I was also a bit surprised by how quickly he improved. With no need to grind spells, I could concentrate all my time on fighting, dodging, and parrying.

There's just something more satisfying about doing this with a proper sword and shield.

Many of the puzzles in the Shapeir section of the game went the same way. There was no difference in how I defeated the Fire, Air, or Water Elementals, for instance, nor in how I dealt with the caged beast or freed the spirit of the tree. Since the fighter doesn't come with climbing skill or the "Levitate" spell, there's an alternate method for him to get the griffon's feather, by lifting a rock at the base of the cliff. His method of earning points is also a bit different, including points earned for every type of monster killed. And since he can't cast "Fetch" on the bellows, he has to arm-wrestle Issur with the bellows as the wager.

The biggest difference was with the Earth Elemental. You need fire to defeat him, and lacking the "Flame Dart" spell or the thief's option, I had to talk to Rakeesh and borrow his flaming sword. It turns out that Rakeesh did try to defeat the elemental on his own, but his bad leg prevented him from being victorious.

You protest just a bit too much, Uhura.

Rakeesh lent me his paladin sword, Soulforge, saying that even though I wasn't a paladin, it would flame for me because he would will it. With the sword in hand, I fought and dispersed the Elemental, then scooped up his remains in a cloth bag just as the mage did. I then had to make sure to return Soulforge to Uhura, and apparently if you wait too long for her to prompt you, you can't become a paladin.


The other major difference concerns the Eternal Order of Fighters, a pathetic and somewhat sinister guild. It has a plaque in the Adventurer's Guild, but my mage character never had anything to do with them. My fighter, on the other hand, was given a note by Uhura after they stuck it in the Adventurer's Guild door with a dagger: "Tomorrow night is your last night.  You'll get your final orders then." I was confused, but the next day another note, stuck to the door with a sword this time, instructed me to go to a particular street.

He's not my friend, I promise.

The street ended in an open wooden door. Inside, I found myself in darkness. I was bound, stripped of equipment, and shackled to a wall. The lights came on and a voice said that I had 10 seconds to retrieve my weapon.


BREAK CHAINS got me off the wall. A masked warrior with a scimitar entered. I dashed past him, grabbed my stuff, and entered combat. I had been grinding pretty hard by now, so before long, he was sprawled on the ground and voices were ordering me to "Kill him!"

Nice guild you belong to, buddy.

Mindful of my paladin aspirations, I simply said NO. Issur, the weapon store owner, entered the room, revealing himself as the head of the guild. He introduced me to Walid, the fighter I had declined to kill, and admitted me into the guild even though I'd disobeyed and failed. We partied long into the night, and I didn't wake up until mid-day the next day. "Somehow," the game notes, "this just isn't your idea of how a Hero should be."

The Companions would have these guys for lunch.

The next day, I departed for Raseir in the caravan as usual. We'll take a look at the thief next, then pick up with all three for the endgame. Short posting today because my week got hijacked with work stuff.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Quest for Glory II: Trial by Everything Else

The poet "Omar" recounts my victories against the elementals.

Quest for Glory II proceeds at such a leisurely pace, it's a bit like being on that vacation that the Katta promised me when they brought me to Shapeir in the first place. I defeated the Fire Elemental on Day 5 and hit the road for Raseir on Day 17, and in between, there were only a handful of scripted events, and a whole lot of me running around doing random things while I waited for them.

Occasionally, messages like this would alert me to things I needed to accomplish.

This structure has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, there's so much padding around the plot events that you'd have to screw up pretty badly to miss key elements and not achieve a perfect score. You can also spend a lot of time building your character and improving various skills (though this is of dubious importance for this game). On the negative side, it gets a bit boring at times, and you feel like you burn a lot of game time just running around making sure that you haven't missed anything.

Every day, I would get up and visit each of the key locations and NPCs, and make sure nothing new appeared and no one had anything new to say. If an elemental was attacking the town or some other plot event came up, I usually dealt with it quickly. Either way, I typically had the bulk of those 12 days to spend however I wanted. This might include:

  • Going to the Adventurer's Guild and practicing with Uhura.

Woman, please. I was "too good for you" by Day 3.

  • Heading out into the desert and fighting random creatures, taking care not to kill them all outright, but using the combats to practice spells, dodging, and parrying before finally dispatching them.
  • Finding a nice quiet place to cast spells over and over to improve my spell skills and overall magic score.
  • Re-talking with most NPCs, using the occasion to make sure I hadn't missed any major dialogue options, and also saying THANK YOU a lot (plus giving gold to the beggar) to improve my Honor rating.

It turns out that Rakeesh used to be the king of Tarna, but he gave the throne to his brother when he was lamed in battle against a demon.

The game does offer some options for speeding up these "in between" times. First, you can always go back to the inn and sleep the day away, but this is only a good option for players who have already won the game or who are using a walkthrough, lest you sleep through an elemental attack or some important message. Second, you can increase the "Game Time Scale" so that morning, afternoon, and evening come much faster. Finally, you can increase "Animation Speed" so you move through the game much faster (irrespective of the clock). They're all welcome options, but for me they didn't fully remove the sense that the game was dithering a bit.

I'll cover what I accomplished during these 12 days in several sections.

Grinding

I continue to like the development system in the Quest for Glory series, by which skills, attributes, and spell powers increase through use and exercise. Several games do this, but Quest for Glory manages to make it so damned satisfying, especially where you can call up your character sheet and see the improved skills annotated in a different color.

The results of a lot of grinding.

Last post, I indicated that I thought the combat system had improved since the first game, with three attack, parry, and dodge options (each) depending on the type of enemy and direction of attack. An anonymous commenter disagreed, saying that "the fastest and most effective way is just to smash [the] attack button as fast as you can." Corey Cole, the guy who actually wrote the program, disagreed, noting that dodging and parrying does not deplete stamina and increases the chance that your next attack will hit. He suggested that mashing "attack" is not, in fact, the best way.

They're both right. In the early game, when your weapon skill and attributes aren't particularly high, defending is a good strategy, primarily because it makes the occasional attack far more powerful. Once you have more than 125 strength and weapon skill, however, I've found that simply mashing the attack button is a near flawless key to victory, keeping the enemy on the ropes and slaying them before they can seriously counter. Most of the defending I've done since the Fire Elemental has been to practice those skills, not because I needed them.

I quickly dispatch a scorpion with the 7, 8, and 9 keys on the keyboard.
  
The mage, it turns out, is also a pretty lousy combatant if he relies on magic. Even at high levels, "Flame Dart" and "Force Bolt" under-perform dagger attacks, and I never found that "Dazzle" or "Calm" were doing anything useful. "Zap" had a non-zero but also somewhat limited effect on the power of dagger attacks.
  
Then again, I suppose you could argue that if I was really role-playing a mage, I'd stay out of combat. It's barely necessary in this game at all--useful only for gold (which you hardly need) and getting past the occasional (very rare) enemy who appears while you're going between desert locations. In the first game, even mages needed to sell troll's beard and cheetaur claws to the healer to achieve a perfect score; in this one, selling ghoul claws and scorpions' tails yields nothing but (mostly unneeded) cash.

Very quickly, I got to the point where my dagger-wielding mage could defeat large packs of jackalmen without breaking a sweat. Screw you, Blogger spellcheck. "Jackalmen" is a word.

Opportunities for grinding vary among skills. You can improve most spells (and overall magic) just by casting them anywhere, whether you have a legitimate purpose or not. "Open" and "Fetch" increase even when cast on blank walls and "Calm" and "Dazzle" go up even when you're the only one on the screen. On the other hand, to cast "Levitate" at all, you have to be at a place where it makes sense to levitate, such as next to the griffon's cliff or an open window in the city.

In grinding, I neglected "Throwing" mostly because I forgot about it, and I never found any place to grind "Climbing." Again, they're not mage skills, so I don't feel crippled for this deficiency.

Messing Around

I thought you could only reach Raseir (Shapeir's sister city) through plot developments, but an anonymous commenter insisted that you could ride your saurus there, and commenter Joe Pranevich supplied the directions. Even so, it took so long that I was prepared to accuse Joe of trolling me. But with plenty of waterskins and the "Animation Speed" cranked up to maximum, I eventually blew through the 200+ screens necessary to reach the other city, fighting lots of combats along the way.

Wow. It actually exists!

When I finally got there, the guards refused to let me in because I didn't have a visa, and they didn't take kindly to my attempt to bribe.


Fortunately, my faithful saurus remained with me and instantly returned to Shapeir with GO HOME. Handy, that.

A few other discoveries:

  • Centimes (worth only 1/100 of a gold dinar) were so overloading me that I had to spend some time getting rid of them. The game lets you DROP or GIVE them to the beggar only one at a time, so clearly that wasn't going to do when I had like 1200 of them. Finally, I found that if I BARGAINed with the food merchants, they'd sell me 5 rations for 90 centimes. I did this like 10 times, then dropped all the excess rations.

Note how overloaded I am. All those centimes make up 12 of those excess pounds.

  • In general, the economy is broken in this game. The first Quest for Glory ended before you could get so rich that healing and mana potions were no longer a good investment. In this game, I never had to save up for anything, and I ended with over 500 dinars even though I stopped bothering to collect them from slain enemies by the halfway mark. Health, mana, and vigor pills are nice, but you don't need that many of them. The one thing that I thought I was "saving" for--the pin "fit for a Sultan"--turned out to be a red herring. The game ultimately wouldn't let me buy it but instead awarded it to me as a gift.

What am I supposed to do with these dinars now? TAKE MY MONEY!

  • I never found a use for the poison cure pills. Scorpions did damage to me and sometimes killed me with special attacks, but they never poisoned me.
  • Every morning and every evening, you can sit down in the inn and get a home-cooked meal from Shema. Not only does this save on rations, the meals sound absolutely delicious. I don't think I've ever seen food so well-described in a game.

I think I might head to the local Lebanese place tonight.

  • You cannot re-visit WIT after passing the initiation.

Dammit, I want to ASK ABOUT AD AVIS.


The Actual Plot

Here's what happened in the game's main quest. To recap previous events, Dark Magic is threatening Shapeir. The Emir of its sister city, Raseir, vanished after he was deposed in a coup, and the new authoritarian government has expelled the Katta and instituted martial law. In Shapeir, elementals have started to appear and attack the city. I defeated the first one, the Fire Elemental, on Day 5, as recounted in the last entry.

On Day 7, Omar the poet appeared in the Plaza of the Fountain and recited a moving verse about paladins:

I'm not sure the first half really goes with the typical paladin's "lawful" alignment.

When he left, he accidentally left his leather coin purse behind. I picked it up and returned it to him when he performed in the Katta's Tail Inn on Day 11. Given that I had about 600 dinars at that point, there was absolutely zero temptation to steal it.

The Air Elemental appeared on Day 8, and when it did, it occurred to me that unlike every other elemental, I didn't know what to do to weaken or capture it.

Do you remember when we were really humming?

Swallowing my disgust, I visited Keapon Laffin again and through a bunch of idiotic verse and puns, discerned that I needed something related to dirt or mud to weaken it. He sold me a pot of "Fooler's Earth" that would do the trick. At the same time, he indicated that the Dervish in the desert was in need of a hero--more on that below.

That left the need for something to capture it in. I figured my waterskin would do for the Water Elemental and an empty pot for the Earth Elemental (though I was wrong about that), but I had no idea on the Air Elemental. I wandered around the city for a while, talking to people, before I finally saw the solution above the door of the blacksmith's shop:


I had to wait until nightfall, but a "Fetch" spell soon had it in my hands.

I went back to the Palace Plaza, where the Air Elemental was hanging around, and set about defeating it. It took a lot of tries. Throwing the pot of dirt at the creature just sent the pot spinning harmlessly away.

This is what I get for not grinding my "Throwing" skill.

I tried using "Levitate" to hover over it and drop the dirt in, but it never moved under me while I was levitating (and while levitating, you can only move up and down). Finally, I just walked into the middle of the damned twister, took the damage, and dropped the dirt. This weakened it enough that I could USE BELLOWS and suck it up, though I'm not sure that's how bellows work.


This on Day 9:

Any reason I'm not at this meeting, given that I'm the one doing all the work?

Day 12 brought the Earth Elemental. He was perhaps the easiest of the elementals to defeat. NPCs had alerted me that he was vulnerable to fire, which of course I had in the form of "Flame Dart." A conversation with Rakeesh revealed what must be the fighter's option: Rakeesh has a magic flaming sword which normally only works for paladins, but which he could "will" to work for an average fighter. As I was a mage, though, he wasn't interested in helping me.

Thanks for nothing, then.

As a mage, of course, I had far more resources than the pitiful fighter, and I was able to reduce the Earth Elemental to a heap of dirt with a few castings of "Flame Dart." 


When I went to GATHER him, the game put him in a cloth bag I'd forgotten I even had. I had expected it to go into an empty pot.

After I defeated the Earth Elemental, I figured I had a key element to solve the "woman-tree" quest I'd stumbled upon several days prior. Asking Aziza the Enchantress about the mysterious woman-shaped tree in the desert produced a heartbreaking story about a beautiful healer who had to suffer the unwanted attentions of numerous men while pursuing her professional trade. Eventually, she was kidnapped by a man who lured her into the desert with a ruse about a dying man, and she was raped by a group of brigands.

Okay, technically Aziza "wouldn't say" what happened to her, but my guess is they didn't force her to play the shoe in Monopoly.

The woman escaped the brigands but was pursued and nearly captured. In desperation, she called out for help, and a djinn heard her cry and turned her into a tree. I guess that worked, though if I were a djinn, I might have, I don't know, buried the bandits in sand or teleported the woman to Columbia Medical School in 2014 or something.

Aziza outlined what I needed to do to free her spirit: give her a gift of kindness, a gift of magic, and a gift of love. The gift of kindness would be "what you would give to someone who has been in the desert for far too long" followed by telling her about myself to remind her of what it means to be human. The gift of magic would be something I'd gained through hardship, and "something from which a plant can gain strengh," followed by telling her how I acquired it.

Every visit to Aziza prior to capturing the Earth Elemental led to her saying that I didn't yet have a suitable gift of magic, but after I had the beast safely sewn up in my cloth bag, she said I was ready, and told me to say the woman's name, "Julanar," as the final step of the ritual.

Wow. Whatever language this is, it makes efficient use of its root syllables.

With the necessary resources in hand, I returned to the desert and visited the poor tree. A combination of GIVE WATER, TELL ABOUT SELF, GIVE EARTH, and TELL ABOUT EARTH ELEMENTAL brought me most of the way there. At each stage, the tree gained color, turned to face me, and finally blossomed.

Wait a minute. Hold on. I was never remotely afraid of the Earth Elemental.

The "gift of love" was the hardest part. I tried giving her flowers, but that didn't work. Neither did KISS. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out HUG.

When I did that and said her name, she rustled and dropped the "Fruit of Compassion." She didn't change back into a woman; Aziza had warned me that this wouldn't happen until another person "frees her with the power of True Love." (Why couldn't this be me? I love wood!) This calls up a faint memory, and I suspect we'll be hearing about Julanar again. In all, it was a touching story and a great side-quest, although it could have been a little more challenging with less explicit hints from Aziza.

Back on Day 8, Keapon Laffin had told me that the Dervish was in need of a hero. I visited him then, only to find that he wanted me to "dispel" a "caged beast" and that the alchemist, Harik, would know how to do it. Well, I had already talked to Harik about the "Dispel Potion," only to find that in addition to the griffon feathers (which I had), I also needed the "Fruit of Compassion." Since I didn't get that until I freed the spirit of the tree, I couldn't act on the Dervish's quest until Day 12. With the feather and the fruit, though, I had the alchemist whip up a couple of "Dispel" potions.

It turned out I only needed one. I'm not sure why the game bothered with three.

Harik warned me that I needed to mix a bit of the beast's hair to the potion before administering it (what if it's a bald beast?). Following the Dervish's directions, I found, caged in the middle of the desert, a beast that looked more like a griffon than the game's actual griffon. Distracting it with GIVE FOOD and GIVE WATER, I managed to pluck a bit of its hair and add it to the potion, although not without some misadventures first:

Casting "Open" on the cage door was apparently a bad idea.

Upon drinking the "Dispel" potion, the former beast turned into a man and revealed himself as "Al Scurva," the former apprentice of the wizard Ad Avis. I think this is the first place in which the wizard is named, although he's one of the unnamed portraits in the WIT. (Aside: doesn't his name mean "to a bird"?) Al Scurva warned me not to go near Ad Avis "unless you have some spell of protection or are very quick."

Note the left-hand side of the screen. This is a hint.

Al Scurva indicated that Ad Avis was planning some big ritual that would probably destroy everything, and as a consequence, he blinked out of Shapeir as soon as he finished his monologue.

I spent a while wandering around Shapeir, typing ASK ABOUT AD AVIS to everyone who would listen, but no one had anything particularly valuable to say.

You're what we call "slow on the uptake," aren't you, Aziza?
  
On Day 14, the last of the elementals--Water--finally appeared in the Plaza of the Fountain. I knew that his weakness was air, but I didn't think I had any item that exemplified air except . . . wait . . . the Air Elemental encased in the bellows! Defeating the Water Elemental was a simple matter of USE BELLOWS to release the Air Elemental and force the Water Elemental out of the fountain, then DROP WATERSKIN to suck it up. I'm not sure why this didn't result in me having to capture the Air Elemental again, but I'm not complaining.

Elementals. So predictable.

It was fun wandering around the city after capturing each elemental. The various NPCs all reacted suitably, praising my heroism and thanking me for my service to Shapeir.

Is that sarcasm? That sounds like sarcasm.

I thought your people specialized in flying carpets.
Well, if I don't continue to solve all your problems on my own, that will be about three days.

I was also financially rewarded for my slaying of the various elementals. The first time, Rakeesh gave me 50 dinars (given to him by the Sultan) for slaying the Fire Elemental; the other times, Omar the Poet gave the rewards to me. I guess he and the Sultan must be friends or something.

Thanks, "Omar."

On Day 16, Aziza summoned me to her house again to talk about disturbing signs from Raseir. As we talked, my faithful saurus came barging through the door with a "Gronk." Instead of freaking out and throwing us out, Aziza divined there was something special about the saurus and used her magic to reveal his true nature: Emir Arus al-Din, the deposed and absent former ruler of Raseir.


Aziza said that she'd take care of the Emir while I went to Raseir (presumably on the back of a different saurus) as part of a caravan leaving the next day. The game didn't give me a chance to use one of my other "Dispel" potions on the beast.

That night, we had one more poetry recital from Omar.


And the next morning, I was among a caravan of sauruses on their way--officially, this time--to the city several hundred leagues to the west. This marks a major break in the game; the rest of it takes place in Raseir and its environs. In case it wasn't clear, I've already won, but I think perhaps I'm going to delay the rest of the story, both to give Trickster a chance to catch up in the narrative, but also to explore a few things I didn't get to experience in Shapeir. Wow, this post was long, wasn't it?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Ring of Darkness: Won! (With Final Rating)

Becoming the bearer of the Ring of Darkness doesn't exactly feel like "winning."

The Ring of Darkness
Wintersoft (developer and publisher)
Released 1982 for Dragon 32, 1983 for ZX Spectrum, 1985 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 19 July 2014
Date Ended: 22 July 2014
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 25
Ranking at Time of Posting: 55/151 (36%)

I ended the last post wondering whether Ring of Darkness had an original bone in its body. It turns out that it really doesn't. It lifted almost everything from Ultima, including the basic plot outline, the names of most of its monsters, the types of equipment, and just its overall ideas of how such a game should work. It is an RPG made by people who seem to have played only one other RPG, and didn't realize that its quirks were specific to that game, and not universal conventions of the genre.

Ring of Darkness takes place in four main chapters, all of which have direct mirrors in Ultima. In the first, you're just trying to get your character competent, stocked with food, and capable of withstanding more than a few minutes in the wilderness. In the second, you do a series of quests for regional kings, some involving visiting signposts and similar special locations, some involving killing specific monsters in the dungeons. Four of the kings reward you with rings of silver, bronze, gold, and copper--direct analogs of the colored gems you receive from the Ultima kings.


Ultimately--and I found this out only through trial and error--you have to descend to the 10th level of one of the dungeons and slay a "gorn," at which point your class changes to "gorn-slayer"--this game's analog to achieving the "space ace" credential in Ultima.  In the third act, just as in Ultima, you kill the hapless jester for his key, slay all the guards that attack you in consequence, and rescue Princess Xandra from her cell. (Just like in Ultima, the same princess is present in all cities.) Instead of giving you a time machine, she directs you to a special dungeon called "Xandra's Quest."

Leading Princess Xandra out of her cell.

There, where Ultima had you battle Mondain, losing almost all your hit points, before you could approach his gem, Ring of Darkness has you battle "Gron," a servant of the "Evil One," before you can get past him and take Shedir, the One Ring.

I teach classes for a couple of universities, and I often catch my students plagiarizing from their sources by copying text directly but using a thesaurus to change a few words here and there to avoid exact phrase-matching in Google or TurnItIn. This game does something similar with its monster list. Ultima's gelatinous cube becomes a "jelly cube"; an invisible seeker becomes an "invisible slayer" (with a separate "seeker" monster type, no less); a balron becomes a balrog and a zorn a "gorn." But the developers didn't even bother to find alternate names for some of the others, like the "tangler" and the gremlin who steals a bunch of your food with each successful attack.

Aside from its blatant plagiarism, Ring of Darkness does do its job by serving a basic, primal CRPG need: fight monsters, improve the character, amass gold, buy better equipment, fight more monsters. As you increase in levels, better equipment becomes available at shops. (I can't remember if Ultima did this, or if the equipment was entirely dependent on geography and gold.) Again, just like in Ultima, the best armor was a "reflection suit" and the best weapon was a "blaster," though we went past a "light sword" on the way. In transportation terms, a high level results in the ability to buy a "hovercraft," although Ring of Darkness's doesn't come with lasers.

Let's look at a few quirks specific to this game:

  • The entire game has exactly one dungeon level map. The 24 x 19 map is used for all levels of all dungeons. The locations of secret doors and traps remain unchanged. The only things that change are the locations of up and down ladders and randomly-placed barriers.

The only dungeon map you'll ever need.

  • The game offers some additional spells that Ultima doesn't have, and without exception I never found a single use for them. This includes "Bridge," "Remove," and "Create." Since spells only work in dungeons, I cannot for the life of me figure out what "Bridge" would have done. Throughout the game, I only used "Up Ladder" and "Down Ladder" to make dungeon navigation easier.
  • Some enemies, including all sea creatures and "hidden archers," can only be damaged by ranged weapons, which you don't get until you reach Level 4.
  • Wilderness encounters are useless throughout the entire game. In the early stages, they're too deadly; in the latter ones, they take up too much time for too little reward. The game has a moronically simple method for determining how many enemies you face in each "stack"--either one, or once, twice, or three times your current level. When I hit Level 10, I would either meet 1, 10, 20, or 30 "evil rangers" in a single stack. Spending 30 moves killing an entire stack one-by-one would have been an absurd waste of time, and you spend most of the game brushing by wilderness encounters like annoying gnats.

Taking time to kill 13 bandits is more trouble than it's worth.

  • Trying to open a chest in a dungeon (they start to show up on Level 2) has a chance of generating a monster appropriate to the level.
  • The "transport" shops in towns, which are oddly labeled "smith," offer an option for selling equipment but then bark at you that they don't buy second-hand mules and such. Why offer it, then?
 
Throughout the entire game, despite using it everywhere I could think of, I found no function for the (S)teal command.

I spent an insane amount of time on the game. For a while, I couldn't figure out how to get to some key locations I could see on the other sides of mountains (it turns out you have to buy a hovercraft and fly it down a particular river pass). In desperation, I actually tried mapping the game. Have you ever tried mapping a tile-based iconographic game? I discovered it was something like 84 x 110 in size, but I kept missing tiles and screwing up the proportions, so eventually I abandoned it.

A partial, but mistake-ridden, world map.

Character development throughout the game is mostly through the accumulation of hit points. In the last post, I said that delving dungeons rarely rewards you with more hit points than you lose fighting monsters. This is true in the early game, but as you get better equipment, you can often come out ahead. This is good, because you can only spend a maximum of 50 gold pieces per transaction with the kings, netting you 125 hit points each, or about one-fifth of the amount of damage done in a single attack by a balrog. It really is extremely annoying to stand in front of the king and type (T)ransact, (G)old, and "50" hundreds of times in a row.

Hit points are awarded upon leaving dungeons based on the number and level of enemies you killed.

Eventually, you get to the point where you get tens of thousands of hit points (from a starting 250) and can delve to the bottoms of dungeons and shrug off attacks from balrogs, gorns, and other fearsome creatures, including a "mind reaper" who does direct and (as far as I can tell) irrecoverable damage to your intelligence.

As I said, the game comes to an end after you perform the quests for the four kings that give you rings, descend to Level 10 of any of the dungeons and kill a gorn, thus becoming a "gorn slayer," and then rescue the princess from one of the castles. She tells you to go to the special dungeon, Xandra's Quest. Earlier in the game, this is just a regular dungeon, but if you visit after hearing from the princess, you get a special cut screen where you unlock it with the four rings. This is a direct parallel to a screen in Ultima where you put the four gems into the time machine.


You then get a bit of text:

Five hundred years ago the Evil Sage called forth the Darkling Ring. T'was then the Wizards forged the Four to seal it from the minds of men. Five hundred years has darkness slept in is tomb of stone. Yet now strange forces come to play . . . and SHEDIR stirs again.

You must enter the Gate of Mist. A sense of evil and foreboding surrounds you. Then the mists begin to clear . . . 

You're taken to a chamber with the ring on a pedestal on the far side. An evil minion of the Dark One called Gron leaps to his feet and intercepts you as you try to reach it.

Mondain tries to stop me from reaching his gem.

Gron is a tough customer. At the beginning of the battle, he does over 1,000 hit points damage per hit and you do less than 100 to him. Spells only make him stronger, so you need to fight in melee combat. As the battle wears on--dozens of (A)ttacks--the ratios slowly even out, then reverse, and finally he falls to the ground , and the game says, "Gron is DEAD!! Or is he??"

Well, of course he isn't. He springs back to life immediately, and you have to kill him again. You have to kill him about eight times before he stays down long enough for you to maneuver around him to the ring and (G)et it.

Even then, the game isn't done screwing with you. You get a message that "AHHHHG! It's HOT!" and half your remaining hit points burn away. This happens several times before, just when you're on the brink of death, the game allows you to take the ring and the end-game screens appear.

The penultimate screen has you telepathically contacted by the "people of Ringworld" who charge you with returning the ring to their planet "from whence it was taken by the Evil One," promising that this story will be told in Ring of Darkness Part 2. This game was made in 1984; it's titled Return of the Ring, and it wasn't on my master list until now. Judging from screenshots, it's a text adventure rather than an Ultima-style RPG, but I'll check it out to see if it has RPG elements.

In its last act, the game manages to draw from Tolkien and Larry Niven as well as Richard Garriott.

As I mentioned in my first post, if I was a young RPG player in the U.K. in the early 1980s, computer stores bereft of any offerings for my platforms, I would have greeted Ring of Darkness like the holy grail. Even in 2014, aside from occasional moments in which my mouth was agape at its blatant thefts from Richard Garriott, I didn't hate it. It offers just enough character development to give you an occasional shot in the arm, and by not making you go into outer space and fight TIE fighters (I assume the developers didn't know how to program it or couldn't fit it), it actually has a more sensible plot than Ultima. In a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 3 points for a bare-bones game world.
  • 3 points for a character creation and development process that offers a few options and does make your character feel notably stronger as time passes, though the different "classes" don't seem to have any point (again, something it shares with Ultima).

My main character, late in the game. Some kind of mind reaper has irreversibly drained my intelligence.
  
  • 1 point for extremely limited NPC interaction with kings, the jester, and the princess.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The various creatures, most stolen from Ultima, are distinguishable mostly by how hard they hit. Some of them have special attacks: jelly cubes dissolve armor, gremlins steal food, and mind reapers drain intelligence.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. The "purchased spells" magic system is nothing new, and combat offers few tactics, though once you have a ranged weapon, you can try to use chests and pits to your advantage, as enemies won't cross either.

Keeping an object or pit between you and the enemy is really the only "tactic." Unfortunately, there aren't many such objects.

  • 2 points for equipment, including transportation options.
  • 3 points for an economy that's vital in the first third, but you soon amass much more gold than you need. Having the king only accept donations in 50-gold-piece increments really puts a damper on what you can do with 20,000 gold pieces.
  • 3 points for having a main quest with steps the player (in part) has to puzzle out.

Solving part of the main quest by killing a jelly cube.

  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. The sound actually isn't bad for 1982, the graphics serviceable. The keyboard mostly makes sense except for the QWOP movement keys, though I got used to them surprisingly fast.
  • 4 points for gameplay, which is open, mostly non-linear, challenging without being too frustrating, and over before long. I wouldn't call it "replayable" in any way.

That gives us a final score of 25, not bad at all for the year, though still under-performing Ultima by 9 points.

At no time in the game does this happen.

Do I subtract points for being such an obvious (but unlicensed) copy of Ultima? I guess not. I've never docked points for such a reason. I'm just a little surprised that no other reviewer has noted it. Dragon 32 and ZX Spectrum reviews of the time were generally positive (links to samples) but don't say a word about Ultima; in fact, the only suggestion I've found that anyone noticed the connection is an incredulous Reddit poster. I suppose the easy answer is that Ultima didn't make it to European PCs until long after Ring of Darkness was published, and the game just never gained enough traction for anyone to remember it years later.

There was some discussion on my last post about whether the developers directly copied the Ultima source code. Without knowing much about programming, and how the code might translate from the Apple II to the Dragon 32, my guess is they didn't. I'm certain they played it. I suspect they had, or had access to, an Apple II and continually referenced the game as they developed Ring of Darkness. But I also suspect they wrote their own code rather than directly copy Ultima's. Things work just differently enough in Rings to suggest they were working around things they didn't otherwise know how to program.

Since I've tossed around words like "ripoff" and "copy" and "plagiarism," though, I want to make it clear that we don't really know what happened. This is still in the Dark Ages of RPGs. For all we know, Humphreys and Briskham got permission from Richard Garriott to use Ultima. Perhaps they licensed the "look and feel," just like Questron would famously do in 1984. The developers certainly did something unimaginative, but unless we hear from either them or Garriott, we don't know whether they committed a tort.

Wintersoft was located in Enfield, Middlesex, founded by John F. Humphreys and David A. Briskham, both credited as the developers of Ring of Darkness. I can only find evidence of four games from the company: Ring of Darkness (1982), Return of the Ring (1984), Operation Gremlin (1984), and Juxtaposition: Barons of Ceti V (1985). MobyGames doesn't have any of them. Judging by screenshots, it's possible that all of the latter three are pure text adventures, which makes Ring of Darkness the odd one out.

I made an effort to locate both Humphreys and Briskham, but their names are more common than you might expect, and I couldn't trace any of the potential matches back to Wintersoft. It's probably for the best: it would have been an uncomfortable conversation.

Let's see if we can finish Quest for Glory II and a couple others before the end of the month.