When we last closed, my party was in possession of three statues but had no idea where to go for the fourth. I looked at the map and reasoned that it was probably in Sundabar, the only named city I hadn't visited. It was located convenient to Ascore, where I assumed the final battle would take place, so it seemed a decent guess.
But Sundabar was weird. It was a regular 16 x 16 town with all the services and amenities, but hardly any special encounters. It had lots of places where it looked like a special encounter should be, so I figured the game was waiting for me to have accomplished other things before visiting. I had experienced the same kind of feeling when I visited many of the Death Knights of Krynn cities out of order.
So I returned to Secomber and Amanitas, who directed me to the Star Mounts in the middle of the High Forest.
As I reached the base of the mountain, I encountered a giant snake crushing a giant bird. The game asked whether I wanted to help. Nature sucks, you know, and snakes aren't necessarily less deserving of food than birds. I'm sure a druid would encourage me not to get involved. But I sighed and did what the game clearly wanted me to do and helped the bird. I hadn't saved in a while before this encounter, so I never found out what happened if you choose "Leave Alone." I'm actually quite curious.
|Isn't this scene on some country's flag?|
Helping the bird meant fighting several giant snakes and two shambling mounds. This wasn't my first combat against shambling mounds in the Gold Box series--there were scores of them in Curse of the Azure Bonds--but I think they're tougher here. I don't remember the Curse mounds being immune to "Fireball" and "Lightning Bolt," taking half-damage from physical attacks, having a -4 armor class, and killing characters with suffocation attacks after 4 rounds. Fighting them was brutal, and I had to reload twice after watching attack after attack hopelessly go "swish" while some hapless character suffocated to death.
As difficult as the shamblers were, I don't think they were so difficult that I deserved the reward they carried. Each had a set of +3 plate mail, a +1 shield, a +2 composite long bow, a Cloak of Displacement, and an Ioun Stone that increased my wisdom by 1. Every shambling mound in the game had all of these items, and there were lots more, so I suspect this was a bug somewhere.
|My fighter/thief's inventory at this point.|
In any event, the bird turned out to be a Aarakocra--basically a species of bird-men whose name exemplifies onomatopoeia. They told me of a human woman who has established a lair on the top of the Star Mounts and flies around on black dragons. They offered to take me to the place, and I accepted.
|Doesn't he look just a little like Sam Eagle?|
The woman in question turned out to be a sorceress named Ceptienne. Her introduction was rather clumsy and I still don't quite understand what her "deal" is. She is manifestly the character on the box cover and title screen of the game. (I know that image previously appeared on the cover of 1984's Book of Marvelous Magic, but I still think that Ceptienne was created to be that woman.) Her apparition greeted me shortly after I entered her fortress--basically a huge 16 x 16 maze with lots of one-way doors--and called us "worthy adversaries."
|I'm torn between mocking that armor and wondering where I can buy a set for Irene.|
As I explored her fortress, found secret doors, and killed a slew of harpies, ogres, hellhounds, and medusas, here proclamations became more desperate:
|Ceptienne's threats had the opposite effect than intended on the male party members.|
Her fortress held two battles with two black dragons each, and I was reminded how much I hate black dragons for having a breath attack--acid--that nothing counteracts. You just have to hope that they don't target the same character twice in a row. I had one reload, but I was packing pretty decent +2 and +3 gear by this point, and dragons never have as many hit points as I expect they will. It never seems right that I can fight them with Level 6 characters.
Eventually, I found my way to Ceptienne's sanctuary, and she attacked, all pretenses of civility gone by this point. I forgot to get a screenshot with her party, but I think it had harpies and a couple of medusas. I got lucky with the initiative rolls and was able to "Fireball" and "Ice Storm" her (using the last charge in the wand) during the first round, which killed all the harpies and the medusas. I think it was just a couple of physical attacks after that. She was dead and the fourth statue was in my hands. I can't help but think the creators shortchanged her story.
|"Visionless" hints at a greater depth to her story.|
We headed back to Sundbar, and things were a lot different. Zhent patrols, desperate to reclaim my statues, were patrolling the streets and shaking down townsfolk. As I made my way through the city and the far exit, Vaalgamon tried to stop me first with an illusion...
|I was very disappointed that this wasn't a real fight.|
...then with temptation, as a stone fountain offered to reward me with fabulous wealth if I would throw the statues into the well.
|Despite his protests, he collected his share of the gold.|
I had to see what happened if I gave up the statues. The answer was I got 9,142 experience points and 63,818 gold pieces--far more than I could carry, but probably less than I already had, with nothing to spend it on. The game immediately ended and directed me to a journal entry that related Vaalgamon's conquest of the Savage Frontier and the party's subsequent imprisonment: "Our riches have availed us nothing. We were hunted down, captured, and brought to this prison, where they keep us alive only out of a desire for revenge." I think this is the first time in the Gold Box series that the journal has been used to outline an alternate, "bad" ending.
Anyway, reloading, I did what I was supposed to do and refused the fountain. It turned into a giant stone golem and attacked me, but was no match for my Sword +3 of Stonecutting.
|This reminds me of the Fred Saberhagen "Sword" series. Anyone else read that? That would have made a good RPG setting.|
An illusion of a chasm and a combat with some fighters, harpies, and hellhounds blocked the remainder of the path, but I conquered both, exited the city to the west, and continued on to the final battles in Ascore.
Ascore was a ruin that showed signs of recent shoring-up by Vaalgamon's forces. As I wandered the hallways (the ruins took up only about half a standard game map), most of the battles were with skeletons and mummies, very easy to turn, making exploration a non-issue. One of the mummies did survive a turning long enough to hit Ghost and disease him, leading me to cast "Cure Disease" for what I think is the first time ever in a Gold Box game.
The map culminated at a door where Vaalgamon's voice taunted me and then, inexplicably, gave me a lot of detail about the encounters to come:
The voice wasn't kidding: the final area was unusual. It was basically a maze, but I had to navigate it while in the combat screen rather than in the usual exploration interface. Each section of the maze offered a combat, some very difficult, some laughably easy, but when the combats were over, the party didn't exit the combat screen. Instead, at least one character had to find his way to one of the combat screen exits (as if he was fleeing from battle), where we'd immediately be taken to another combat screen. You actually don't even need to win the combats, I discovered--you can just have a character immediately run for one of the exits, and your whole party follows, leaving the monsters behind.
|The party receives some instructions from the game, post-combat.|
There must have been about 10 separate maze segment/combat screens in all, though you don't need to hit all of them to make it to the exit. They started off quite easy with a horde of goblins who were incapable of even hitting me and only had 4 hit points each. I resisted the urge to waste spells on them and killed them all in melee combat.
Others alternated between easy (one had a single goblin, but I think that was just Vaalgamon smack-talking me) and quite hard (trolls, ettins, shambling mounds). Vaalgamon appeared in between each screen to taunt me.
|This man has played some Wizardry.|
Some maps I had found in Ascore purported to help with the maze, but after some bumbling around, I found that all I needed to do was follow the rightmost wall. This took me through 5 combats before depositing me in a room occupied by Vaalgamon himself--along with a bunch of wizards and 10 shambling mounds.
I would have died in this battle if the game hadn't slapped me in the face with the fact that I could just walk off the screen via a northern passageway instead of bothering to fight. It wasn't at all subtle. First, Vaalgamon himself accused me of trying to sneak out the "back gate," as if I was doing anything but finding my way there randomly.
Then, as we entered combat, the game gave me a nudge-nudge wink-wink with, "To the north, light pours through an opening to the outside." My party was in decent shape health-wise, but we had almost no spells by this point, so after a hard look at all the shambling mounds, I directed my party into the north hallway and out the door.
|My party does the sensible thing.|
Especially given the endgame narrative, the game doesn't seem to be designed for the party to win this final battle. Vaalgamon is pretty hard by himself: he's a mage, but he has some kind of protection against magic, so his spells can't be disrupted with "Fireball" or whatnot. He regenerates hit points every round and is somehow capable of casting multiple spells per round. But the bigger problem is the 10 shambling mounds, whose difficulties I described above. Fighting groups of 2 or 3 was hard enough. By this time, I had gotten a Wand of Defoliation somewhere, and it certainly helped, but it only affected one mound per round, and for only half his hit points or less.
Still, I'm sure that winning the battle is possible. I have this idea that the Wand of Ice Storm might affect the mounds, if the party keeps it long enough. I was out of Potions of Speed by the time I got here, but they'd certainly assist, along with Potions of Invisibility to keep the mages from targeting you during the first round. A couple of "Fireballs," maybe coupled with the Necklace of Missiles, would take care of all the mages except Vaalgamon himself. "Stinking Cloud" might work against the shamblers (I'm always under-valuing that spell). The problem is that you have to save before entering the maze, so every attempt at the final battle means first slogging through the half a dozen rooms/combats before him. I tried it a couple of times (after winning) but failed both times. Just as I was contemplating trudging all the way back to Silverymoon to get more magic items, I accidentally saved over my pre-maze save with a post-game save. My most recent save before that was back in Sundbar, so I don't know if I want to go through the trouble. If you've won the battle against Vaalgamon, I'd be happy to hear how you did it, as well as how it affected the post-game text below.
The ending was narrated in a long series of text screens. Having won the "coward's" way, I ran out the exit and into an ancient plaza, "surrounded by great pyramids." Vaalgamon and his allies rushed out behind me but were grabbed from beneath the ground by the hands of undead and dragged screaming to their dooms.
My party celebrated for a moment and then happened to notice that armies were approaching from all directions. "From the north, twin columns of orcs seem to stretch to the horizon." Trolls amassed to the west, and a "great mass" of mercenaries to the south. From the east, "a broad column of soldiers in full armor, black horses marching in perfect order across the forbidden sands."
My NPC Kervish chose this moment to straighten up, whip off his glasses, shed his dorky persona, and announce himself as an agent of the Lords' Alliance, a partnership of cities that includes Waterdeep, Neverwinter, and Silverymoon.
Under his instruction, Broadside ran to the top of a pyramid and placed the four statuettes on an altar. A fifth statue arose from a hiding place, "and the entire structure begins to glow!"
Blinding flashes of light "lance through the ancient stones in all directions." Apparently, the light served as a beacon to a bunch of ferocious monsters--the game is unspecific but an image shows dragons and worms--who rose up behind the invading armies and slaughtered them.
The game ended with my party's triumphant return to Yartar, where I was allowed to keep playing. I rested, re-memorized spells, identified and sold some equipment, and saved the game for the sequel. I also apparently used the story of my victory to chat up women in bars.
|"Oh, yeah, I totally killed Vaalgamon."|
I don't know if I exactly like what the game did in the final area, but it was at least original. Overall, I feel like Gateway distinguished itself best in the final third, with some memorably difficult combats, an interesting use of the combat engine for maze exploration (in no previous game has the configuration of the wall patterns mattered slightly in combat), and the longest, most verbose set of victory screens that we've seen so far.
I hate to make you wait three days for the GIMLET, but this post is already getting pretty long and we have a few things to talk about, particularly if I'm able to win that final battle for real.
Let's talk about some items on the upcoming list:
1. Shadow Keep (1991). I got a Mac emulator--Basilisk II--downloaded and working with some effort, but it appears that just about any game offered for download, including Shadow Keep, is in ".sit" format, which requires something called StuffIt Extractor to unpack. I've downloaded two versions, and all they do is crash the moment I start them up after screwing up my file associations. If someone has the software and wants to unpack the game for me, I'll play it; otherwise, I've had it up to here with sites that force me to download whatever archiving program the creator happens to favor for some nobody-cares mega-dork reason. [Edit: readers contributed several solutions to this one. Thank you!]
2. Dungeon Quest (1985). I don't know why it's listed as Dungeon Quest everywhere, because the title screen calls it The Dungeon Masters Assistant (that isn't a typo; the game's name has no apostrophe). The "game" is some kid's programming lark, has no story or main quest, and while it technically meets my definitions of an RPG, it simply isn't worth spending time on. Since it also freezes and crashes at just about everything, I'm listing it as "NP" on technical grounds. In a strict sense, I could probably suffer its glitches long enough to get some kind of posting out, but it wouldn't enrich anyone's life for me to do so.