Occasionally, I review some past blog entry--usually when someone comments on it--and I have trouble remembering playing the game or even writing the entry. But I suspect that I'll always remember late June, 2013. I was doing some work in Trinidad, staying in a Hyatt right on the waterfront in Port of Spain. Every evening that week, I retired to a patio bar, watched the sunset over the Caribbean, drank a few gimlets, and played an obscure 1980s shareware game called The Land on my laptop. Sometimes, it's not a bad life that I lead.
The Land was based on Stephen Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a series that I've tried to read twice but haven't been able to enjoy. The game had a number of bugs, one of which made it impossible to win after I'd invested about a dozen hours in it. In frustration with both the mechanics and the setting, I prematurely wrote a final rating and gave up on the first game I hadn't won since Bloodwych a year earlier.
Then the author, Mike Riley, came along like a deus ex machina. He fixed the bug that prevented me from winning, gave me a personalized copy, and offered a number of comments on my posts. His last-minute editing allowed me to offer a "won!" posting the next day. More important, he took notes based on my postings, went back to the source code, and produced a new version in September 2013. You can download it from the RogueBasin page. In short, he was a gentleman developer.
|A screenshot from The Land. This game looks similar and uses almost identical mechanics.|
Mike came through again with Quest for the Unicorn. The official site only allows downloading of the Linux/Unix version, which has been continually updated through around 2010, and a "hardcore" version for roguelike fans, replacing the graphic interface with ASCII characters, that Mike started offering in 2010. I didn't want to play the "HC" version, which was really a 2010 game, and I didn't want to mess around with a Linux emulator. Fortunately, Mike still had the last DOS version and was kind enough to e-mail it to me. I'm playing version 2.0, technically from 1995, though most of the files still bear a 1990 date stamp. I'm reasonably confident that I'm getting a 1990 experience.
Quest for the Unicorn is Mike's second RPG. It uses the same engine as The Land but in a more generic, Dungeons & Dragons-influenced way. In some ways, this is too bad; the Covenant-inspired classes like "Loresraat" and "Bloodguard" were fun to learn and role-play even if I didn't understand the source material very well; Quest for the Unicorn's standard selection of races (human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, hobbit), classes (fighter, paladin, ranger, cleric, druid, mage, monk), and attributes (the standard D&D six) are less interesting. On the other hand, I feel on firmer ground with Unicorn and won't have to spend so much time looking up terms on half-completed wikis.
Character creation in Unicorn is actually reasonably similar to Moria: you select name, sex, race, class, and attributes (everything starts at 10; you adjust based on a pool of 20 points), and the game tells you where you stand in a variety of abilities like melee attack, missile attack, searching, disarming, and magic. There are also a variety of specific skills (e.g., scouting, edged weapons, lore, healing, boats) that can be increased through training and leveling.
|My first character, a paladin.|
In look and feel, the game is a cross between something like Ultima and a roguelike, with a third-person, iconographic interface, a tile-based world that's slowly revealed as you explore, and a variety of one-letter keyboard commands for things like (i)nventory, (g)et an item, and (l)ight a torch. Like The Land, it's not quite a "roguelike," as it has graphics and no permadeath, but it does show its roguelike influences.
I don't know much of what the plot is about. The manual has been "lost to the ages," according to Mike, but the basic theme is that "all the unicorns have disappeared from the land and it is up to you to find out what happened to them." He also offered that of the game's 60+ dungeons, only about 5 are actually necessary to the main quest. The plot was modeled on a D&D campaign that Mike created in the 1980s.
|The opening area. The city of Radon is to the south and a dungeon entrance is to the north. The forest outside the dungeon offers good hunting opportunities.|
The character starts outside the city of Radon with absolutely no inventory, 250 gold, and no food, and he gets hungry almost immediately, so the first order of business is to enter the city and find someone selling food. After that, you can start to explore and talk to the denizens. If Radon is any indication of the rest of the game, the indoor areas are huge, just as they were in The Land--nearly 100 x 100 tiles.
|A bit of the opening town. Note the shopkeepers in the upper-left corners of each building, and the partly-filled automap in the lower-right.|
The city contains a large array of shops, including those selling weapons, armor, rations, magical jewelry, scrolls, magic items, and potions. There's a temple, several inns, a library, and a university where you can pay for training in the game's various skills. Magic items and training are extremely expensive, so it's clear that gold will never run out of value.
|I'm a long way from being able to afford any of this cool stuff.|
There's a "travel agency" that sells passage to 8 cities and sells ships for $10,000. A "cavalier's guild" tells me that I haven't proven myself worthy yet.
A big part of the game involves the accumulation of lore from various NPCs, much as you do in Ultima or The Land. As in Mike's previous game, the game itself keeps track of what you've learned so you don't have to write anything down. The library lets you pay to seek out specific lore. Mike indicates that the lore is the key to knowing which dungeons are necessary to the game.
|A bit of lore from an NPC.|
|And my accumulated lore from all interactions so far.|
In the northwest of the city is a big castle, and I assumed I'd find some NPC inside who would give me a first quest, but there was no one special. So after I mapped the entire city and bought some leather armor, a shield, and a dagger, I decided to head out into the wilds and start making more money.
|The game's approach to inventory assigns specific slots for each item, plus a large pack.|
For a while, I couldn't break the pattern of constantly starving to death. You get hungry fast in this game--every three or four steps--so you have to have a mega supply of food to navigate the wilds. (I assume that when I get a mount, food consumption will be reduced.) I couldn't find enough random encounters to make enough money to keep up with my appetite. Eventually, I realized that if I stood in the forest and kept (h)unting, I'd replenish rations in a faster pace than I was eating them, and find some random combats, too.
Combat in the game is the same as The Land. Outdoors, you're taken to a larger area map in which you fight the foe on a tactical terrain. In dungeons, you don't get the larger map unless you face a group of enemies or you have a party yourself. At this stage of the game, combat is basically just ramming into the enemy until one of you is dead; later, it will become slightly more complex with ranged weapons, magic items, and spells.
|Fighting a giant spider in an outdoor combat screen.|
There's a dungeon near the first city, and I've been trying to explore it, but I can't stay alive longer than a few fights. I started grinding on the surface, but I've been noticing that the "maximum experience" available from all enemies on the first level of the dungeon (which it tells you every time you enter) keeps going up as my levels do, suggesting that the dungeons scale to the character level. If that's the case, the only real point in grinding is for gold.
|The dungeon resets every time I enter. Sometimes, I find myself surrounded by enemies, like this.|
In the first few hours of gameplay, I managed to get up to Level 5. I had a lot of deaths and reloads in the first three levels, but I'm starting to stabilize a bit. By next time, I should be able to tell you more about the game's content.
A few other notes for now:
- (S)earching a wall in a city always produces a secret door right next to where you search unless there's already a door in an adjacent square. This makes it easy to move through the city methodically, but it's a bit weird.
|Maybe my character is building doors in all these walls?|
- The game is heavily customizable. When you run the setup program, you can set not only the graphics adapter and sound but also whether you always go to the special combat screen, whether the game remembers dungeon levels while you're still in the dungeon, and the maximum level of all dungeons. The default to the latter is 10, but I changed it to 2 to make things move a bit more briskly.
- The gambling game called "die square" was broken in The Land; it offered such favorable odds that you could make hundreds of thousands of gold pieces in a half hour. This game removes "die square" and offers only "dragon dice," a slot-machine-style game that features much less favorable odds.
|A losing proposition.|
- As you level up in the game, your skills increase randomly. (I think so, at least; I suppose it's possible that it's partly based on what skills you've used, but that seems awfully advanced.) This was one of my least favorite parts of The Land, too; I would prefer to be able to manually set my skill development.
- NPCs appear in dungeons and offer the same lore if you (t)alk to them as in towns. Monsters don't seem to attack them. The character can walk on top of NPCs but monsters can't, which means NPCs can serve as useful shields if you're trying to get away from monsters. This is particularly helpful given the fact that monsters can move and attack in the same action, so if you have one right next to you and you're trying to flee, you get attacked with every step.
|An NPC helpfully blocks an ant as I make my way back to the stairs.|
- The game offers the ability to (J)immy a door shut, but monsters seem capable of opening them anyway.
|The character finishes giving himself a false sense of security.|
I don't know how much I'm going to enjoy alternating between two games with very similar gameplay (Moria and Quest for the Unicorn), so you may see me add a third game to the mix unless I can win one of these two within a few days. It's nice to be playing a game that no one has talked about online before.
(Yes, this is a new thing that you'll see from now on):
Time so far: 3 hours
Reload count: 11