|That's more like it.|
Disciples of Steel continues to put me through its paces, and for the last week or so, I've only opened it when I felt like getting slapped around. I'd try a battle or two in between bouts of other games, and if I won with no character deaths, I'd save, and if I didn't, I'd just shut it down.
Ever so slowly, things have been changing. A week ago, I lost 5 battles in 6, but yesterday I managed to win 3 in a row. (This is all around the starting area, you understand.) In a weird and masochistic way, it's been fun to watch the tables ever-so-slowly turn as my party members' equipment and statistics incrementally increase.
Part of the reason for my growing success has been figuring out where to wander for random combats. Not all terrain is created equal. Right around the starting area, there's a forest to the south that serves up eminently winnable encounters with giant bats. This is a good place to go for a "sure thing," at least as far as experience goes, but the bats don't drop much in the way of loot. For more money and equipment, I want to roam the mountains to the east of Farnus, where ogres, jabberlings, wolfmen, gnolls, and orcs roam. Unfortunately, it's easy to run into a pack of these humanoids who are well above my level. Late in the game, I realized I could find smaller numbers of beastfolk in the ruins nearer the city. The plains southeast of the city generates hopeless combats with panthers. I needed to avoid this area entirely.
|Finally making some headway against the bats in the tower.|
At the end of maybe 10 hours of fighting random combats, I finally felt strong enough to start pursuing the game's quests. I began by returning to Teal and trying to defeat the bats at the top of the tower, a quest the pirate king had given me. It was a lesson in cold reality. The difficult enemies here weren't just "giant bats," which I had been fighting in the forest south of Farnus--they were "gargantuan bats," capable of killing characters in one attack round. I didn't last long. Humbled, I returned to Farnus and ground some more. At the end of another 3-4 hours, I tried again and came close enough that I was encouraged. After a few reloads, I was able to successfully defeat the bats and turn in the quest.
The pirate king now wants me to bring him the head of a medusa on the southeast of his island. I feel comfortable saying that this one is out of my league.
|You know, I'll just come back later.|
I thus turned to the third Farnus quest, having to do with killing the leader of some orc raiders beneath Lone Mountain and returning with his bones. The area was close enough to a city that, at worst, I could move my grinding to new environs. So after securing a save near Farnus, I crossed the bridge and hit the road. The trip was uneventful to the city of Border Town, where I stopped to make sure it had all the amenities I needed. Like all towns so far, it had a palace (the regent didn't want to see me), a tavern, a weapons shop, and an armor shop. Again, I think the game could have been a lot simpler if they'd just made each town a menu town since there are no wandering NPCs or otherwise anything to do between the buildings.
Lone Mountain was up the road and offered a cave entrance, which I took. As we saw last time, entering a dungeon transitions the game to a 3-D, first-person interface with decent accompanying graphics and little atmospheric messages as you explore.
|Showing is better than telling, but telling is better than nothing.|
An automapper keeps track of your progress. Where you designate a "leader" while exploring outside, you designate a "point man" for the inside (Wizard's Crown used the latter term exclusively, I think). So far, I haven't found any chests or traps--perhaps I will in later dungeons. I stopped and hit "search" a few times every time I got a special message, but I never found anything this way. One cell had a note: "Captured 1-14-1012"; the game starts in June 1034. Since the Battle of Unthar was only supposed to be 12 years ago, I guess this probably doesn't refer to the missing warrior Ustfa Nelor.
|A decent automapper prevents me from having to map--which isn't to say I won't.|
Giant bats and orcs patrolled the corridors. The bats weren't very difficult, but it's impossible to run from them or parlay with them. After I won a large battle with the orcs (and hauled 75 pieces of equipment back to Border Town for sale), I discovered that if I "threatened" random orc parties, they'd get scared and the game offered me the option to let them run away. I generally said "yes" so I could increase my chances of meeting the orc leader at full health. I suspect I can return to these caves and grind any time I want.
After some exploration, I encountered a pack of orcs led by a "snakewoman." They were actually easier than the random parties. When it was over, I kept the snakewoman's bones in case she was the leader.
Later, in a dining hall, I ran into another orc party celebrating after a successful raid on Farnus. They were led by a "wolf warrior." This must be the leader, I thought. Killing him took a couple of reloads and a successful casting (by my illusionist) of "Stun" so he'd stay frozen while I killed his minions.
|The Gold Box games would force me to read the Adventurer's Journal for this text.|
Since it appeared I had explored the entire dungeon, I took the bones of the wolf warrior and the snake woman back to Lord Krassus in Farnus.
Hmm. I guess I must have missed something. I returned to the dungeon and explored a lot more. It turned out I missed stairs up and stairs down in a central part of the dungeon. Fortunately, I didn't waste time with them just yet. In the northwest part of the first level, I found an obvious "hole" in the map that indicated a secret area. You find secret doors in this game just by walking into them. I passed through several until I found myself face-to-face with Ortak, the orc leader.
|He doesn't look very much like an orc.|
After getting thoroughly thrashed five times in a row, I decided that the problem was I hadn't been investing enough in the "body" skill, which directly affects hit points. Too many blows to the head were killing me instantly. I spent a few hours grinding in the hallways of the dungeon against orcs, jabberlings, and bats, and I invested every skill point into "Body" until most of my characters had upwards of 80-100 points in the skill (some of my spellcasters could only get up to 50-60, but I also invested a lot more points in their magic skills).
My ensuing successful battle (after two failed tries) with Ortak should allow me to illustrate the game's approach to combat. In the description below, I'm going to mention a number of points of confusion. In some cases, it's possible I missed something in the manual, but in general, the manual is awful when it comes to game mechanics. The combat section--the most complicated part of the game--takes up only two pages!
An encounter begins with the ability to fight, parley, or run. If you parley, you get options to bribe, threaten, beg for mercy, or be amicable. I've had success with threatening, as we've seen, but not being amicable. I haven't bothered to try the others.
Assuming things don't go well, the tactical combat screen launches. The initial positioning of the party and enemies doesn't always make a lot of sense. The party's formation is defined by the player, but since you can never really anticipate the locations of enemies, the formation is somewhat arbitrary. I tried to put a fighter in each corner and that's about the best I could do.
|Combat begins with enemies scattered randomly.|
Enemies can be scattered all over the place. In a Gold Box game, if you're traveling north down a corridor and run into an encounter, you can be sure that all of the enemies will be in front of you in the corridor. Not here. Once combat starts, they can be in front, back, or all sides.
Characters and enemies act in order of a pre-combat initiative roll. Again, there are some mysteries here because I find that sometimes, some of my characters don't get to act at all in the first round. If the enemy has surprised you, they get a free round, which is often fatal to me. I haven't surprised any enemies yet.
Someone said in a recent post that it's a good idea to let enemies come to you. Not in this game. I find that enemies usually have quite a bit of movement, so if you wait or guard, they'll have plenty of time to charge up to you and get in a few swings. It's not a good idea to waste your first round doing nothing. (In Gold Box games, the "guard" command lets you get a free swing at any enemy who approaches, but here it just marginally increases your defense.)
When it's the character's turn, he can do a lot of things:
- Move, up to the maximum of his movement points.
- Cast a spell. You choose the spell and determine how many points you want to channel into it. You can blow your entire spell point reserve on a single massive casting of something like "Magic Bolt" if you want. I think this is pretty cool.
|My magician channels 10 magic points into "Magic Bolt."|
- Equip or unequip items; this does not eat up any movement points.
- Spend experience points on statistics. Yes, you can do this in the middle of combat.
- View the character sheet.
- Perform first aid on himself.
- Look around the battlefield. This costs nothing.
- End his turn by "guarding": improving defense against enemies who might attack in the next round.
- Fire a missile weapon.
- Try to hide, which can be used for a surprise attack in the next round.
- Postpone any action until the end of the round.
- Search the area. I have no idea what this does in combat.
- Take any items dropped by enemies. I'm not sure why you'd do this in combat unless you thought you were going to lose and you wanted to pick up some items before fleeing.
- End the round by aiming, which improves chances of hitting an enemy the next round. You don't have to specify a particular enemy when aiming.
- Lock a door, if you happen to be standing next to one. This will cut off some of the enemies from the battlefield until you're ready to deal with them. Naturally, only dungeons supply environments with such doors.
|I could lock that upper door and keep some enemies out of the fight for a while.|
- Change the direction that he's facing. I think this just improves defense against enemies attacking from that direction.
- Change the location that he targets on enemies. This is probably an important setting that I haven't explored enough. By default, it's set to "head," which is always the lowest-hit point area of any foe, so that often makes sense. On the other hand, the head is probably the hardest area to hit. Viewing the enemy tells you what armor he has on his head, arms, legs, and chest, and it would probably be a good idea to change the setting to an unarmored area.
Attacks sometimes do critical damage, in which case you get a gruesome descriptive message about what you're doing to the poor creature. The same thing can happen to you.
The direction from which you attack matters. Enemies' armor class is lower if you attack from the sides or rear. Naturally, I try to maneuver my thief, who has a high "backstab" skill, to the rear. So far, I've never seen any confirmation that he's successfully backstabbed, but I do get a lot of messages saying he attacked from the rear, so perhaps that's all you get.
|Note that I "struck from the flank."|
When a character is active, you see the number of spells he can cast that round and the number of attacks he can make. Once you've attacked as many times as you have available under "atts pos," it changes to "ltd att pos," which I assume means something like "limited attack possible." I almost never hit when it says this, so I've learned that even if I have movement points left, it's better spending the rest of them guarding, aiming, or administering first aid than to try to attack when it says this.
Looking at the enemy also tells you a lot of useful information, including the current health level, the direction he's facing, what he's doing that round (moving, attacking, etc.), what he's equipped with, and his overall attitude. When it says that the enemy is "apprehensive" or "panicking," that's a good sign for you.
|Checking out a jabberling.|
Both characters and enemies have hit points allocated to legs, arms, body, and head. Each body part also has its own armor class, affected by what you're wearing, your "armor" skill, and your "body" skill. I haven't figured out all the rules yet, but it seems that you automatically die if you lose all your "head" points. Losing all your body, arm, or leg points seems to just stun you or render you unconscious, although if the damage is egregiously over the maximum, it seems to kill you.
In the character list, you see the lowest number of hit points the character has on any body part. When the character is at maximum hit points, this is always the head.
I haven't determined why sometimes you take a wound that "bleeds" and sometimes you don't. Whatever the cause, if you get a bleeding wound, you lose hit points every round until its bandaged. Characters can try to bandage themselves during combat, or the character with the highest "first aid" skill can just take care of everyone after combat. Hit points regenerate pretty quickly as you walk around. I try to avoid multiple combats in quick succession.
|Staunching wounds post-combat.|
As you start to overcome the enemies, the weaker ones will attempt to flee, and the game sometimes gives you the option to let them surrender. I like that it's an option here, not just an automatic thing as in the Gold Box games. If an enemy surrenders, you still get his gold and equipment at the end of combat; you just lose out on the experience points from killing him.
Once the battle is done, you get to pick through your enemies' stuff. Literally everything they were carrying--all equipment, even their bones--are lootable. At the beginning, when victories were few and far between, I took everything I could, but a battle with 10 orcs might leave behind 80 items, and it overloads the party fast. I've now learned just to pick out the valuable items.
|The battle with Ortak left m e with some pretty awesome gear to pick up, but I'm not taking all 83 items.|
The many combat options in Disciples of Steel make it one of the most tactics-heavy games in the chronology so far, surpassed perhaps only by Knights of Legend and Wizard's Crown. Then again, more isn't always better. It's easy to get overwhelmed with too many options and end up relying on only a few of them as blunt instruments. One of the things I like about the Gold Box games is how they balance complexity and simplicity to create a system whose options you almost always use to the fullest extent.
I haven't found a lot of sure recipes for victory here. Perhaps my favorite tactic is to have my illusionist cast "Stun" on the strongest enemy--it almost always works--and take him out of the action for a few turns while I mop up his minions. The way the game randomly scatters enemies at the outset makes it hard to make tactical use of terrain or to keep archers and spellcasters out of melee range.
|My illusionist prepares to "stun" the orc leader for the next few rounds.|
In future posts, I'm going to talk a lot more about the equipment, skills, and magic side of things. (Magic, of course, adds another complex layer to combat tactics.) For now, several miscellaneous notes:
- There is no option to use an item in combat, or even outside combat. I don't think this game has any potions, wands, or scrolls. [Edit: I was wrong about that. You can use items in combat by going into your inventory, and the game does have potions, at least.]
- For the longest time, I had all my characters equipped with their starting robes because their armor class seemed to be much higher than the various leather cuirasses and studded leather armors I was finding. Much later, I realized that when you loot equipment from a battlefield, it's routinely at 10-20% of its maximum quality. Once I had my blacksmith fix some of those pieces of armor, they quickly outperformed robes. I'll have more on the repair system next time.
|Octavianus prepares to fix a leather skirt.|
- Fixing items takes 2 minutes for every 1% that you repair. In a game that has a time limit, this worries me a bit. But it's also pretty expensive if you have the shops do it.
- There are a lot of cities I haven't visited, and it occurs to me that I should probably try to get their Level 1 quests before spending too much time trying to please Krassus or the pirate king with their Level 4-5 quests. Overall, it's tough to know in what order to approach the quests.
- Despite low skills in "edged" weapons and not being melee fighters in the first place, I find that my mage and illusionist are remarkably effective with their daggers. They seem to hit more times than my warriors do despite having half the skill. I don't know how to explain this.
- So far, I've mostly just spent gold on ship passage and food and water. I'm reluctant to spend a lot on equipment because it's so expensive and I've been able to find equipment upgrades. It's taken me over 15 hours of play to amass 20,000 copper pieces, and a single regular long sword costs 20% of that.
- Pricing in the game is kind of weird. A regular long sword is more expensive than a +5 short bow.
- I realized late in the game that there's an "info" button in the shops that gives you some NPC dialogue about the game world. Oddly, the tavern, where you'd expect a button like this, has nothing. You can just buy food and drink there.
- Movement in dungeons is really sluggish even with the CPU cycles cranked up.
I still see a lot of analogs to Wizard's Crown, and I'm 100% sure that the creators were making a deliberate homage to that game. But in the nature of the geography, the towns, the quest system, and even the way you can view some enemy actions in combat, I wonder if they weren't also exposed to Knights of Legend. The first-person dungeon crawling and the parley options provide a Gold Box vibe as well.
Hopefully, the major grinding is over and I can progress rapidly with the plot. If not, you'll still see some more 1980s games interspersed with my Disciples play.