|The largest combat in the game so far.|
After a lackluster start, Gateway to the Savage Frontier became a massive treasure hunt for four magic statues that I would have to take to the ancient city of Ascore and somehow use to stop the invasion of the Zhentil forces. In the years since the fall of Ascore, the statues had been scattered across the Savage Frontier. As we closed the last posting, I had found the first one, in the Host Tower of the Arcane in Luskan.
Since then, I've collected all the others. In fact, I've won, but I'm going to split the postings, partly for the sake of length, and partly because I want to give the final combat a few more tries before I write it up the way I "won" it.
|Another one down.|
The game has provided a reasonably good Gold Box experience. I've been grousing about Gateway a bit, but it's important to keep in mind that it's only inferior compared to its predecessors. Without their legacy, it's quite good. It has an actual plot, for one thing, maps that are chock-full of encounters, and a tactical combat system that remains excellent nearly three decades later. I didn't have any problem convincing myself to fire up the emulator, nor to keep playing when I could have stopped a lot sooner and milked it for three or four entries. Moreover, it finally started to get challenging in this session, with several large, difficult combats and (it turns out) several ways to approach them.
As I closed last time, I had found some intelligence that the next statuette might be on the Kraken Cult-controlled Purple Rocks, another island somewhere west of the mainland. I was heading back to Tuern to try to find passage, but I needn't have bothered. A Kraken showed up to destroy my ship on the way back, and I found myself shipwrecked on--you guessed it--the Purple Rocks.
|This screenshot made me want to play Pirates! again.|
Purple Rocks was a half-map that had only a few encounters, including a boat over to the Kraken Cult fortress across the strait. In one house, a "town leader" told me that the Krakens had enslaved the town.
There were a couple of battles with Kraken guards allied with margoyles and otyughs. This would be a good time to point out that Gateway seems to fall in love with certain monster types and does its best to ensure that you encounter hordes of them for two or three maps in a row, then never again. Towards the beginning of the game, it was owlbears, soon to give way to margoyles. Otyughs and scrags were prominent in this section. Later, it was griffons and hellhounds. I got rather sick of all of them.
|Why humans are fighting alongside otyughs is never quite explained.|
Anyway, the battles gave me two pieces of paper with nonsense letters on them, and I don't mind telling you that I was stumped by the puzzle. I assumed they were cryptograms at first, but playing with that yielded no results, so I just put them away for later. As usually happens in the Gold Box games, the clues didn't really matter and I just made it through the ensuing map through brute force. Much later, I consulted a walkthrough, and it turns out I was supposed to lace the messages together, alternately taking one letter from each, and then reversing the order of the words. It would have given me some intelligence about how I could have intercepted the statue on the next island without exploring the whole thing.
Before I left Purple Rocks, I fought a battle with some pirates guarding a lighthouse. Afterwards, Broadside made a point that if the bad guys were guarding a lighthouse, maybe we should put out the light. This is one of many places where the game puts words in the mouths of your characters. I don't really like that, but as Quirkz pointed out in the comments to my last posting, it's rare that games even acknowledge your character names, let alone give them dialogue. He saw these quotes as a forerunner to the NPC "banter" that you get in the Infinity Engine games. Seen that way, it's not so bad.
|Cool off, Jaree-ra.|
A ferry took us over to the other island, which was also a half-map. Decoding the above message would have led me to a particular door, where I could have intercepted a small number of Kraken guards carrying the statue to a ship. (And dousing the light apparently gave me a little extra time to get there.) Instead, I almost immediately bumbled into a room where some guards set off an alarm. This apparently caused the Krakens to retreat and hole up in the southwest corner of their fortress. This was all invisible to me at the time--when I encountered the forces in the southwest room, I just assumed that's where they were all along.
They weren't very hard--just a group of fighters and otyughs, arranged at the outset in a way that made them vulnerable to "Fireball." If you're going to give players clues to how they can make the mission easy, then doing it without the clues ought to at least be hard.
|The only thing hard about this battle was not accidentally catching my own characters in the "Fireball" blast radius. Man, I miss the "center" command.|
After the battle, I got the second stone, and the warrior Jagaerda bid me farewell. She had been pretty useless in the first place, with her AI leading her to run around ineffectually in the rear of the party. I should have given her a bow.
Without much trouble, a boat took us back to Neverwinter, where I had to figure out the next place to go. I decided to head to Secomber, where the mage Amanitas had indicated he'd be. Before I did, however, I returned to Silverymoon, keen to spend some of my accumulated riches on those Gauntlets of Dexterity.
The austerity with which I'd begun the game had by now devolved into the usual Gold Box insanity. My characters were leaving coins on the ground after most battles because they couldn't carry any more, and by the time I got back to Silverymoon, I had more than 100 gems and around 75 pieces of jewelry, each of which might be appraised for thousands of gold pieces. I was not only able to buy the Gauntlets of Dexterity, I was able to buy a pair for each character, including my NPC fighter. (THe Gauntlets raise your dexterity by 1.) Even after sinking much of the rest into Potions of Invisibility, Potions of Speed, Potions of Extra Healing, and +1 arrows, I still had plenty left.
In contrast to the plenty I was suddenly experiencing economically, none of my characters had increased a level in about 5 maps and wouldn't for about 3 more. The game is maddeningly uneven in this area. My two clerics and mage had already maxed their levels at the end of the last post. My fighter/thief, paladin, and ranger had a couple more levels before hitting their max--but they would only level up 1 more time during the second two-thirds of the game.
On to Secomber! The city was at the south of the game map, in contrast to Silverymoon at the north, so I made my way there by cutting straight through the heart. This took me through a large forested area labeled on my map as the "High Forest," and it's here that the Savage Frontier best earned its name. I had multiple encounters with ettins, hill giants, and giant snakes--the sort of beasts that you'd expect to live in a place called the "Savage Frontier."
|I thought the graphics for the ettins were pretty good.|
|And the area had lots of uses for "Snake Charm!"|
Secomber was a pathetic map, just one-quarter the size of a normal game map. It had an inn, an armorer, a boat rental place (signs warned of danger on the roads), and a fixed combat with some gnolls. The only purpose to the city seemed to be to visit Amanitas in his house.
|Erek doesn't seem to realize that, owing to my having done the maps out-of-order, I've never met him.|
In a babbling, absent-minded way, Amanitas suggested I go to the city of Llorkh next. It lay east of Secomber. To get there, I would have to pass through the city of Loudwater. I looked up Amanitas on the Forgotten Realms wiki later, and it turns out he has a bunch of lore attached to him from one D&D module--1987's "The Shattered Statue"--and two D&D sourcebooks: The Savage Empire (1988) and Lords of Darkness (1989).
Loudwater was a standard 16 x 16 map with a bunch of services. The city is divided in half by a river, and you have to cross a bridge to get from the west to the east. It was on this bridge that the Zhent general Vaalgamon set up the army of fighters and manticores that introduced this posting. The manticores are capable of multiple ranged attacks per round, and the fighters are no pushovers. I was unprepared for the battle the first time and they slaughtered me.
|Things go poorly.|
But I was exhilarated because Gateway hadn't provided any seriously challenging combats so far. In the entire game, I don't think there was a single battle that I had to buff for. I reloaded and got it together with "Prayer," "Bless," "Enlarge," and "Mirror Image," then re-engaged. I won the second time, but mostly because my mage managed to get a "Fireball" off early in the round, followed by a blast of the Wand of Ice Storm from my thief. This killed the manticores before they could fire their quills or whatever. I took care of the fighters slowly with multiple castings of "Hold Person" from my two clerics.
|One thing about the Gold Box games that never gets old.|
I was amused later to discover that you're not really "supposed" to fight this huge battle. Instead, you're supposed to cross the river via a back way (through an inn), and pick off the various enemies in smaller encounters on side-streets and back alleys, then fight a much-reduced force on the bridge. Oh, well. I liked the big combat, and I got all the side encounters anyway.
At the end of the combat, a fighter named Rishpal approached my party and said he was disgusted with the way Lord Vaalgamon fled the field and let his minions take all the damage. He offered to join my party to get revenge. For once in my life, I declined to acquiesce to such an obvious trap and told him to get lost. Apparently, if I'd taken him, it would have later turned out that he was a spy.
I left Loudwater and headed over to Llorkh. Not three steps into the city, I fell into a trap and found myself in an arena. Guards roughed us up and took the two statues. General Vaalgamon appeared and said he'd spare our lives if we could survive the arena combats.
|How about I decide for myself what's "too many to resist"?|
What followed were three combats, with no rest in between, against ogres, hellhounds, and griffons. It wasn't quite as exciting as the triple no-rest combats with the kobolds in Pool of Radiance, but it was still pretty good. I really started to warm up to the game's increased challenge at this point. It wasn't too challenging, I hasten to add, since I won the combats without having to re-load. But two of my characters were knocked unconscious, so that's something.
After the combats, we were tossed into a cell, which we escaped in due order. We went around freeing the other imprisoned arena combatants, including a half-orc named Muthtur who joined the party.
When Vaalgamon left, he apparently didn't take the two statues with him, because I found them--along with a third--after a tough combat with another bunch of fighters and griffons. The game had decided that griffons were its thing by this point, and I don't think there was a map in the rest of the game that didn't have them.
The rest of Llorkh wasn't that interesting. There were scattered combats with Zhent fighters, griffons, and whatnot. There was some backstory about the city having been stolen from the dwarves by Zhent forces, but it never went anywhere. (Although there were some acknowledgements that I had a dwarf in my party, which was nice.) The map was really only notable for an encounter with a medusa. It was prefaced in the usual way, with my party finding "statues" of warriors and townsfolk.
|Any experienced adventurer knows what this means.|
I should mention that just about every city has featured a little "variety shop" selling flasks of holy water, flaming oil, and mirrors. You'd think I would have bothered to outfit my party with mirrors for just an inevitability--medusas are, after all, listed among the creatures in the bestiary--but I hadn't. So in the ensuing battle, I ended up reloading about 4 times before I finally got the jump on her and defeated her before she could turn a character to stone.
The encounter availed me hardly anything. A lot of fixed combats in this game offer no particular treasure or loot after them, or even significant experience.
This medusa battle was far from the only one in the game. There were at least four more, and I think three of them had two medusas in each combat. Did I ever bother to get a set of mirrors? Of course not. After every medusa battle, I said to myself, "Well, surely THAT one was the last medusa battle in the game." When my reload count seems awfully high for a relatively easy game, you'll know why. As to why I didn't just suck up the stoning and pay for healing, most of the combats took place on maps with no temples. In Llorkh, the only temple was the Temple of Bane.
I'll save the rest of the story for next time, but for now let's have some miscellaneous notes:
- The developers introduced battles against margoyles like this about 50 times:
|We get it. They blend with the wall. You're not being clever.|
- This game does a better job than previous Gold Box titles in alerting you when a major battle is about to happen:
- The game is way too liberal with safe places to rest. There should have been one safe place per map. It would have made the entire game more challenging and tactical.
- It occurred to me that my perception of how strong or valuable a character is as a fighter is highly correlated to his icon. I keep thinking of Broadside as doing more damage than everyone else because he has a two-handed weapon in his icon, despite the fact that I equipped him with a long sword ages ago.
Coming up next: the exciting conclusion to the game, or the really lame one, depending on whether I have any success re-attempting the final battle before then. You'll see what I'm talking about.
Time so far: 19 hours
Reload count: 11
Reload count: 11