|If only this were true.|
Ever since I started Disciples of Steel, people have been warning me about a "time limit" that the game imposes--supposedly, you have to have your act together (and I'm not entirely sure what that entails) by a certain date, or the forces of darkness sweep over the world or something. Aware of this, I've been apprehensive with every month that passes. But after this last, long--so very long--session, I have the opposite problem: all the time in the world, and nothing to do with it.
In my last post, you learned how I had started to reach the end of the rulers' questlines, usually getting control of their kingdoms--and the ability to set tax rates and raise armies--in the process. On a monthly basis, I started getting notices about the amount of money my taxes were raising in each city.
|Nice of them to bring it to me in the dungeon.|
The ends of the rest of the questlines were relatively swift. The elf king had me rescue his kidnapped daughter from a set of caves only a few steps from the city, then kill a demon called a "Sethnor." When I was done with the latter quest, he warned me that a wizard who survived the Battle of Unthar, "once the weakest but now the father of lies," was preparing to march his army from the Isle of Kulm, north of Rathadon. He named the wizard as "Variz" and said that the elves would be with me when the time came. This will be important in a minute.
I then turned my attention to Constantium's last quest: kill a dragon menacing the countryside from a cave. I'm including the screen shot of the exterior just to give another sense of the ubiquitous "flavor text" that the game throws at you:
The dragon was easy. He attacked me without backup, and a single "Power Word: Stun" kept him immobile long enough for me to kill him with melee weapons.
|Thaddeus prepares to stun the dragon.|
I returned to Pallasade with the dragon's body. Like the elf king, the ruler of Constantium declined to hand over his kingdom. But he did warn me that an evil army was gathering and that he'd be on my side when the time came.
Up next was Denias. The king told me that his regent in the nearby city of Warig was in rebellion, and I'd need to assassinate him. I had tried the "assassination" mechanic before--you walk up to the palace, right-click on the party, and choose "assassinate," which brings you to a large battle inside the palace--but when I was far weaker. This time, I was able to win with a bit of effort. The battle featured a lot of strong guards and mages, but the battlefield was sectioned off into several rooms, so it was easy to clear one room at a time and then lure enemies individually around corners and through doors.
|Killing the reagent.|
It turned out that this same map is used for all palace attacks, and I had several more to fight before the end of this session.
In any event, when I returned to Cartha, the king abdicated and gave me the kingdom to control. As was my normal routine by the time, I set a tax rate of 5% but didn't raise any armies just yet.
My final set of quests, before heading into Rathadon itself, was for Serbia. There, the king had me overthrow a Rathadon outpost (involving another palace battle) on the western side of the land. As with Constantium, he didn't hand me the kingdom but he did promise aid against Variz.
At this point, I wasn't entirely sure what to do next. Rathadon had its own questline, but since the king was so manifestly evil, it didn't feel right to follow it. But lacking other ideas, I decided to visit Krighton Krigg and see if he asked me to do anything terribly objectionable.
"My orcs speak constantly of the power of the man who lives under the fire," Krigg said, and demanded that I go find out who his orcs are talking about. I had a pretty good idea that this person was the previously-named Variz, indicating that while Krigg might be evil, he isn't the Big Bad of the game. Thus, I journeyed to the volcanic island to the northwest of Rathadon (by now, I'm using the priest's "Teleport" to move just about everywhere). Here, upon discovery of a cave, the game warned me that I had discovered "the source of all evil that walks the face of Lanathor."
|What is it with evil guys and volcanoes?|
I'll pause here to note that throughout these adventures, as well as a couple of side-dungeons that I explored on a lark, my characters continued to steadily improve. Thanks to potions that increased my spellcasters' primary attributes, I unlocked a set of powerful spells, like "Ice Storm," "Deathstrike," "Destruct," "Mass Invisibility," and "Wrath of God"--the latter of which we're going to have to talk about in a minute.
|The best treasure cache in the game.|
Every time my party members accumulated 1,000 or more experience points, I spent a few minutes on skill improvements. My knight, armed with a "+20 Sly Sword" taken from a Death Knight and wearing a set of Boots of Speed, had become an unstoppable killing machine, absolutely mowing through enemies. (The "Sly Sword" is probably a reference to that ridiculous contraption in The Sword and the Sorcerer . The creators of the game missed an opportunity by not making it a ranged weapon.) Because of this, she started getting more experience than anyone else per battle, which I then channeled back into even better statistics. By the time she had "edged," "armor," "body," and "dodge" skills above 300, I think she could have won most battles by herself.
So I entered the "source of evil" pretty confident. Between my last post and this moment, I had been playing for maybe another 6 or 7 hours.
I spent the next 20 hours of feverish gameplay in this single dungeon. It was big enough to make up an entire game by itself. There were random encounters every few steps, and though I did my best to evade most of them, I ended up having to fight a pitched battle every 5 minutes or so. About 1 in 6 combats--particularly those with giants--killed a character and forced me to reload. The prevalence of random encounters was exacerbated by the need to turn and face every wall to look for secret doors, since these were plentiful (although towards the end, my ranger got high enough in the "perception" skill that he started finding them automatically). I did gain thousands of experience points, which was good, but the expedition cost me almost two game months. Throughout this entire long, painful process, I wasn't even entirely sure that I needed to be there.
Early in the dungeon, a voice whispered to me that Variz "will attack before the year is out," which turned out not to be true, as I entered the dungeon in December and left in February, and there was no attack in between. Soon after, in a large area with multiple jail cells, I found the body of legendary warrior Ustfa Nelor.
|Or "Uthor Nelor" as only this one screen has it.|
He had written in blood on the wall, "Only in unity will you find Variz," which turned out to be the password to a couple of places later. In a nearby alcove, I found a sword that a voice told me was capable of defeating Variz. I assume it was Nelor's sword.
|CyHagan is the witch from the game's intro screen who prompted the re-establishment of the Disciples of Steel in the first place. She has otherwise been absent from the game until now.|
Those were the only major plot-based encounters for a long time. For over a dozen hours after this, I just fought wave after wave of giants, elementals, demons, and Rathadon forces (don't know what they were doing here since the king didn't seem to be aware of Variz). Several hallways had traps every step. There was a whole area of undead encounters that never led to anything important, and rooms full of guards and demons that turned out to be dead ends.
At some point, my priestess's "karma" skill got high enough that she got a new spell: "Wrath of God." To call this spell "overpowered" doesn't go far enough. When cast at maximum power, it simply kills every enemy in the battle--on-screen, off-screen, hiding in corners, whatever. Only the fact that spell points take so long to regenerate keeps this one spell from completely breaking the game. I used it liberally on giants, who I otherwise had to micro-manage with multiple castings of "Power Word: Stun" to survive, and my priestess started to overtake my knight as the party's primary experience-hogger.
|"Wrath of God" works its way methodically through the enemies.|
Eventually, things started to get weird, and I'm sure there were bugs involved. I found a passage that opened into the negative space between and outside the dungeon's walls. This area, probably not meant to be explored, allowed me to approach stariways from angles unintended by the developers, which took me to similar areas on other levels. I got lost in this vast emptiness for a while, and while there were no fixed encounters here, the random encounters never stopped.
|I don't think stairways are supposed to work this way.|
Before we get to the end of the dungeon, we have to talk about another bug: occasionally, the monster pictured on the encounter screen (and fought on the subsequent combat screen) doesn't match the textual description. For instance, the description might say that you face "numerous undead," but instead you get attacked by a handful of trolls. Here's an obvious example:
This bug may be behind my inability to get to the endgame. Eventually, through multiple secret doors, twisty passages, and fixed combats, I made my way to a nondescript room that the game informed me was "Variz's quarters." Variz said: "Welcome, Disciples. You have managed to succeed where others have failed. But let it be known I refuse to give up, and only I shall leave this room alive!" The game then informed met hat "Variz and his minions attack."
The problem is, the portrait shows a storm giant, and that's what I got in the ensuing battle: a single storm giant. I killed him without too much trouble and nothing happened. I tried re-loading the game and re-entering the chamber, but the same thing happened.
I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd fought Variz and his minions anyway. Would that have been the end of the game? If so, what was all the kingdom-conquering and army-building about?
In my case, I returned to the surface discouraged and returned to the king of Rathadon. His reaction was simply, "a wizard!" I'm not sure if the game thinks I defeated the wizard or if I completed the quest just by discovering that the man in the dungeon was a wizard. Either way, Krighton Krigg gave me 60 experience points.
This ended his questline. When I asked for another quest, he said that after consulting his seers, I needed to "leave his palace and never return" or he would kill me.
|That's gratitude for you.|
At this point, the only thing I could think to do was attack and conquer Rathadon. I decided to try it by building an army back in Farnus. Thanks to my adventures in the dungeon, I had about 350,000 copper pieces among my party members and another 200,000 back in the vault. (It turns out, by the way, that the Disciples of Steel guilds and the castles all share the same vault.)
Raising an army took more of this sum than I would have believed. It took 1,000 just to define the army and about 75,000 more to staff it with 50 "veteran" soldiers and 40 "elite" soldiers. Equipping the troops with weapons, bows, armor, and mounts took almost another 100,000. Nearly 2/3 of my wealth was gone when I finished this one army, and the game informed me that I would need a monthly outlay of almost 30,000 copper just to maintain the force.
|Buying mounts for the "Army of Chet."|
When I was done, I chose to take my new elite force on the road with me. On the way to Rathadon, I tried to enter the dwarf city just to see what would happen, and it told me that they refused entry. I guess I can't be too offended by that.
Upon reaching Rathadon, I chose to attack the capital city. The game warned me that if I was defeated, the Disciples would be killed. I acknowledged this. What followed was strategic game map not unlike Sword of Aragon but with far fewer options. I was given a choice of placement for my one army, after which the enemy armies started appearing. And appearing. And appearing. Yeah, it turned out that Rathadon had about 30 units to my one.
|At least there are some convenient crucifixes.|
I barely got to explore the army combat options before my force was wiped out. Clearly, attacking with 90 soldiers wasn't going to win the day and my current gold reserves weren't going to cut it.
I don't quite blame the game on the gold issue. I stopped bothering to take equipment for sale a long time ago, which undoubtedly has contributed to my financial straits. I also haven't been exploiting the mage's "Lead to Gold" spell, which generates the equivalent of 2,000 copper with every maximum casting. Some of the wealth is clearly meant to come from taxation, which I've probably been setting a bit too low.
I clearly wasn't going to take over Rathadon with an army for a long time, so I did it the easier way: I dumped my army at the nearest friendly garrison, returned to Rathadon, and attacked the palace with just my party. A single casting of "Wrath of God" killed everyone except Krighton Krigg himself, and he went down with a few melee rounds.
But taking over the capital didn't reward me with any endgame text. I also conquered Rathadon's secondary city, Devil's Way, but also got nothing.
So what now? Does the bug that failed to produce the battle with Variz mean that I can't win the game? Or is he still going to attack, eventually, and I just need to find something to do until that date? (To check the obvious, I forced my party to wait until one year had passed since the beginning of the game--which is harder than it sounds--but nothing happened.) I wouldn't mind explicit spoilers on this one. It's going to be horribly disappointing if I got all this way into the game and can't win because of a bug.
In the meantime, some commentary on various encounters:
|I couldn't help but think how disappointed David Bradley would be playing this game.|
|Here's another one where the text writer didn't communicate well with the graphic artist.|
|Just some awesome flavor text.|
|I'm not sure this guy really understand what it means to be a "skeleton." Seriously, this is what happens when, unlike in Dungeons & Dragons, monsters have no obvious immunities.|
This whole time, I've been worrying that Disciples of Steel would screw up an excellent set of game mechanics with a nonsensical, confusing, or buggy endgame. It's now appearing that, more likely than not, that is the case. I guess by next time we'll know for sure.