Since the last post, I've completed at least one-quarter of the main quest by finding one of the four statuettes in the Host Tower of the Arcane in Luskan. (I keep wanting to spell that "Luksan," but that was Dargo's race in Farscape.) I'm finding Gateway to the Savage Frontier pleasant enough, but although it adds some more detail to the game world (as we'll discuss), it feels a lot more trite than the previous Gold Box games, and I fear it isn't destined to rank comparative well in the final tally.
Before I returned to finish up Luskan, I had some unfinished business in Yartar. I returned to the city after being reminded (in the process of composing my last post) that Amanitas had suggested I go there. Nothing happened at first, but when I tried to leave the city, I was attacked and captured by the Zhent General Vaalgamon. He taunted me and then said he would "leave the trivial task of killing [us] to [our] Kraken hosts!"
|I suspect you're going to wish you killed me yourself.|
In due order, with the help of my NPC friend, Krevish, I escaped my cell, fought through a host of lizard men and Kraken cultists, and escaped back to Yartar. On the way, I recovered a long sword +2 that had supposedly been stolen from my party before the game began. I also had to fight a couple of giant squids in chest-deep water. I think this is the first time in a Gold Box game that this has happened.
|They look ferocious, but they weren't so hard.|
At some point, I had found a dagger +1, too, so at this point 4 of my 7 characters had magic weapons. I figured this was enough to try taking on the margoyles in Luskan again. The basic setup of Luskan was that the city is ruled by five retired pirates, and I arrived in town just as they were receiving tributes from other ships' captains. I invaded all five of their estates, killed the pirates and their margoyle allies, and retrieved the proffered tributes. The final battle netted me a +1 sword that does cold damage, called the Sword of Icewind Dale. Neat to see an Icewind Dale reference 9 years before its titular game.
The rest of the city had a few random combats with scrags, or sea trolls, which I think I'm facing for the first time here.
I guess raiding the high captains' houses and fighting scrags was all optional. The core part of the Luskan was the Host Tower of the Arcane, shown here in a nice image:
I figured I was in for a long, multi-leveled fortress, but it turns out that all of the action in the host tower is on the ground level. There were some stairs that spiraled upwards, with increasingly difficult combats with owlbears along the way, but that just led to a dead end.
|I'm not sure I like the game putting stupid jokes in the mouths of my characters.|
In one room, I found some owlbears--this game is really heavy on owlbears; margoyles, too--torturing a chained mage named Brinshaar. I freed him and he joined my party as an NPC. He was occasionally useful, but he had terrible AI and more often than not wasted spells like "Hold Person" and "Charm Person" on owlbears and displacer beasts.
|I'm not sure I like the look of this guy...|
On the far side of a combat with some mages and displacer beasts, I found the first of the statuettes. Brinshaar took off at that point, only to show up again at the exit. He revealed himself as a Zhent agent--which I had suspected almost immediately--and attacked me with some displacer beasts.
|This didn't work out very well for him.|
I headed back to Neverwinter to level up, where my mage reached the most important milestone in the life of a mage:
Before I move on to the next map, I want to note that the developers of Gateway did six things to liven up the bland 3D world offered in between combats, journal entries, and cut scenes. All had been done to some degree by previous Gold Box titles, but I think these strategies reach their apex here.
First, they did a good job creating more detailed wall, ceiling, and floor textures throughout the maps. The engine still doesn't allow for monsters, encounters, or even furniture to appear in the environment, but at least we get arches, foliage, water, and the like.
Second, they stepped up the number of "atmospheric messages" that appear as you explore the game. I commented on the value of these messages in Disciples of Steel, which featured similarly bland and repetitive graphics. They really enhance the sense of playing a computer-based D&D module.
These atmospheric messages extend to combats. Just about every fixed combat is preceded by at least a paragraph of text explaining what's happening and adding some additional flavor to exploration.
|This is a lot more fun than just getting "attacked by scrags."|
Third, they increased the number of optional "side encounters" on each map that aren't technically necessary to the main quest. These aren't as likely to result in special experience rewards or even loot as in previous games, but there are more of them and like the atmospheric messages, they make the maps seem more like real places.
|Rescuing some women from pirates wasn't necessary, but it was fun.|
Fourth, they gave every shop its own name and customized signboard hanging outside. No more generic "weapons shops."
Fifth, we have a lot more illustrated cut scenes in between the maps.
Finally, the developers made more interesting shapes with the terrain than in previous games. Luskan is supposed to be an archipelago city, with bridges and causeways leading to various items, and this is depicted well on the map. The designers didn't feel like they needed to fill in every box in the 16 x 16 grid. Maps are more compact, but they also have a better ratio of encounters to empty space.
All of these features help compensate a bit for the game's primary weakness: a bland story that doesn't seem to be going anywhere original.
Moving on, I decided to explore the islands next, for no other reason that they were west of my current position and I knew that the final battles would be in the east. I caught a boat to the island of Tuern from Luskan. In a rare example of time mattering in a Gold Box game, I had to enter the terminal at exactly 08:00.
Tuern was a small town surrounded by ruins and chasms (but contained on the same 16 x 16 map). I'm a little confused about where it is, as I couldn't find it on the online maps of the Realms that I consulted. In any event, the king told me that the island had recently been struck by a meteor, and many adventurers had been coming through hoping to find the ore. I added myself to this quest.
The "outdoor" area was full of pirates, "northmen," fire giants, and efreets--the Sword of Icewind Dale, wielded by a fighter under the effect of "Enlarge," helped a lot with the latter two. After a lot of fighting and mapping, I had the meteorite ore in my possession.
|Pirates and a fire giant.|
I had remembered that a smith back in Neverwinter offered to make weapons out of exotic ore, so I took the ship back to the mainland and visited him. He turned it into a long sword +3 that does double damage against stone-based creatures. This helped with the margoyles later on.
|More use of time elements.|
The final map I explored was the isle of Gundarlun, accessible from Tuern. I guess the main quest of the island involved rescuing the king's daughter, Jagaerda, from some pirates. The problem is, owing to the way I mapped, I rescued the girl--a Valkyrie-looking fighter--before getting the request from her father, so I suspect I missed some associated journal entries. She joined my party.
|My party acts like they've heard of her despite missing the encounter that would have given this quest.|
In reward, the king told me that I could probably find the statuette at the Purple Rocks, a set of islands ruled by the Kraken Society. I needed to head back to Tuern to find passage. This is where I closed this session.
Now it's time for some hate. What does the Addict despise more than anything else in a CRPG? Hitting level caps too early! In this case, I'm starting to hit them way too early, with everyone at Level 6. I must have at least half the game to go, and my two clerics and mage have not only hit their caps, they probably have enough to immediately go to Level 7 in the sequel. My ranger has one more level to go; my paladin and fighter can get two more. Not providing enough leveling "space" is an unforgivable sin in an RPG, and it's going to hit this game hard in the "character development" category.
- The economy loosened up pretty fast. I'm no longer suffering for training gold, and I've begun to amass a stockpile of gems and jewelry to sell later for those Gauntlets of Dexterity (and other magic items). A lot of the battles are delivering thousands of silver pieces, which are weighty to carry.
|And so it begins.|
- As is the norm for Gold Box games, there are a fixed number of "random" combats per map. Defeat a handful of "northmen" in Tuern or pirates in Gundarlun and the map is effectively "clear."
- It sure would be nice if you could purchase arrows more than 10 at a time and darts more than 4 at a time. My mage goes through about 40 darts per combat. Getting her re-stocked means purchasing them in groups of 4 until my inventory is "overloaded," then going into the inventory and "joining" all the darts into one stack, and then purchasing more, repeating the cycle until I get bored with it.
- I thought I remembered fighters and paladins getting a second attack at around Level 4 or 5, but I'm level 6 and still swinging only once per round.
- Also in combat-related news, I've never seen my characters miss so often in a Gold Box game. Around 60% of my attacks just go "swish." Combats tend to be fairly easy in this game, so I'm not exactly complaining, but I'd rather have had harder monsters that were easier to hit.
- I can't figure out any way to center "Fireball." The "Center" command used by Death Knights of Krynn doesn't appear here, and the old space-bar trick doesn't work.
Gateway has the advantage of the Gold Box engine, which I still love, but it isn't as interesting or challenging as previous titles, and it might be my least favorite so far. Unless you're all really enjoying the detailed discussion of individual game maps, I might push forward to the end this week.
Time so far: 13 hours
Reload count: 4
Reload count: 4