|A frustrating jumping puzzle on Level 2. You have to hit just the right combination of keys to bounce up to the platform above. Without save states, I'd never have the patience.|
Xanadu hasn't beaten me yet, but it already has me annoyed with the idea that it might beat me. I often get this feeling in "closed system" RPGs; Xanadu makes it worse by throwing in some additional logistics.
An RPG is a "closed system" when it has a fixed number of encounters (and treasure) that never respawn. They are relatively rare in the genre. Looking over my list, I can only identify a few for sure--Beyond Zork, the Stuart Smith series, Legends of Murder: Stonedale Castle, Dungeons of Avalon, Captive, Dusk of the Gods. There are many that I don't remember for sure, but almost always they belong to adventure/RPG hybrids in which character development and accumulation of wealth are a minor part of the game.
At best, closed systems ensure that no character, upon reaching any particular milestone (including the endgame) is better than any other character. Consider a game in which a character levels up at a consistent rate and there are no character choices to make when leveling. Such a game is really an illusory RPG, because while the character might technically improve, the fact that he improves at a consistent, predictable rate with no input from the player means that this variable is already "controlled for" by the game developer. It may as well not exist. Success will come down probably to manual reaction.
At worst, closed systems can ensure that a player's choices doom him to having a weak character at particular milestones. This often occurs when there's an inter-relationship between variables. Consider a game in which there are a fixed number of monsters. The character finds gold at the end of every battle and can use this gold to purchase healing potions to restore hit points. In such a case, gold and hit points are really just two sides of one variable. The less gold you have, the fewer hit points you can pay to restore over the course of the game. The fewer hit points that you lose, the more gold you have for other purposes. Grinding to gain more gold is not an option. The unskilled or unlucky player thus ends up with less wealth than the skilled or lucky player and thus has worse equipment throughout the game. Because he has worse equipment, he loses more hit points, must pay for more potions, and is doomed to this continual downward spiral until he gets crushed by the endgame boss. I don't like such games, but I can handle them. After all, I'm not a bad CRPG player.
Xanadu is this sort of game, but worse. First, it has the inter-relationship with gold that I describe above. Because there's a fixed number of enemies in the game, there's a fixed amount of gold. You have to be careful how you spend it. Fight poorly and you have to spend too much restoring hit points. Goof around too much and you have to spend it restoring food. It's almost impossible to know the optimal time to buy a weapon or shield, since you might find an upgrade at any moment in one of the dungeons and thus have wasted the gold you spent on it (although you can sell it back for about half). Unlock a door that you didn't really need to unlock, and you've just wasted a $300 key. The cost of items, healing, everything is dependent on your charisma score, and I suspect that new players who don't jack up the charisma are dooming themselves to chronic under-funding.
Perhaps worse is the way the game allocates experience based on particular weapons and armor. This would be a fun dynamic if various weapons were almost as good as each other or there were special versions of some of the "lower" weapons. In a typical Dungeons & Dragons game, for instance, a short sword isn't so much worse than a long sword that it wouldn't make sense to specialize in a short sword for role-playing reasons. You might eventually find a short sword of fire +3 or something, so your skill with the weapon remains relevant throughout the game. Here, on the other hand, each weapon upgrade is so manifestly better than the previous that it feels like all the experience you've accumulated on "lower" weapons has been wasted. But of course you can't move to a higher weapon until you've gained enough gold or skill using the lower weapons to find or purchase one. Then you immediately start to feel like you're wasting experience that could be applied to the next upgrade.
It's possible that I'm all angsty about this for no reason, that just playing steadily and sensibly will serve me fine, and that although the resources are fixed, there's still plenty to go around. It's possible, but I suspect not. I suspect that to take a successful character through Xanadu, you need to have enough prior experience to plot an optimal route through combats and equipment upgrades. I don't have enough time for that. So I'm just going to keep playing, doing the best I can, until I can't go any further, and if that means the game beats me, then it beats me.
Since the last post, I restarted with a new character. Professor Gaijin's helpful links to the game's documentation allowed me to see how I could allocate my skill points better. First, I knew I needed to beef up my charisma to conserve on gold. Dexterity only affects how quickly you open chests. Since opening chests too fast is actually a bad thing--chests block enemies from getting to you--I could set that to the minimum level necessary. I also decided to minimize my intelligence and rely on brawn rather than spells for this character.
|This shop lies right at the entrance to the first level. The problem? If you have any money to spend at this point, you haven't spent it on attributes, which seems like a bad idea.|
As I replayed the first level, I tried to leave at least some enemies on the map so I could later grind against them with new weapons and armor. I also declined to pick up the magic gloves (which increase your skill with the current weapon) and magic rods (which increase your skill with the current spell) until later, when I had better weapons and spells.
- Apropos of nothing, I just happened to notice that my name is only one letter away from "Cheater." Screw you, dad.
- At Level 2, it costs $304 to do a full HP restoration of 4,000. That's $1 for 13 hit points. Simply waiting around for 10 seconds consumes 4 food units and restores 4 hit points. Since food costs $1 for 10 units, that's $1 for 10 hit points. Staying at the inn costs exactly $1 for 10 hit points. Thus, all healing options are about equal.
- I assume most people know this, or have looked it up on Wikipedia, but "Xanadu" was the name of Kublai Khan's summer capital in Yuan Dynasty China from 1271-1294 (the site is now in Mongolia). It is mentioned in the famous Coleridge poem "Kubla Khan" (1816), was the name of Charles Foster Kane's estate in Citizen Kane, and was the name of an awful Olivia Newton John film of 1980. I can't see what any of these things have to do with the game.
- Technically, you have three "lives" in the game, tied to three elixirs that the king gives you at the beginning. I don't know if you can find any more. I don't think you lose anything from dying and getting resurrected by an elixir, but I've just been reloading when I die.
|I was no match for these ravens in the first room of a castle on Level 2.|
- The translation of the manual, which is full of fun tortured English ("Make your agent who adventure for you...Go to the castle first and see the king for greetings") still says absolutely nothing about the game world or backstory.
- In the last post, I showed a screen shot of a "boss-level" encounter with a kraken. I frankly don't know how I got there. When I restarted, the castle leading to that encounter was blocked by a fire elemental that I couldn't beat until I had the "Douse" spell. I never got it in the previous game, so I don't know how I bypassed him to get to the kraken.
Since the last post, I haven't accomplished much more than in the first one. I've explored a bit more of Level 2, which has an abundance of locked doors, causing me to invest much of my money in keys. Navigating it is much harder than Level 1, as it has a bunch of pillars that you can climb down but not up, plus some weird teleportation puzzle that I'll try to describe next time when I understand it better.
|Trying to decide whether to waste a key opening this locked door.|
If there is a next time. Honestly, I find this kind of RPG pretty boring and frustrating. I suppose to some players, watching their GCLM climb up ladders, fall down pits, and bump and grind against little monsters is the height of entertainment, but I can't play more than 15 minutes at a time without starting to crave a deeper story or more combat tactics. I can't help but contrast its basic approach with Gateway to the Savage Frontier, which not only offers an actual story, but also ensures that there's virtually no way to permanently screw up. If I decide my party composition is bad, or someone dies permanently, I can swap in a new character at any time and then engage in as many wilderness combats as I want to buff him up. I don't have to worry that I spent too much on healing to afford the Gauntlets of Dexterity, since respawning encounters mean I can make as much gold as I have the time and patience to make.
Xanadu, in contrast, makes me feel like I've done something wrong even when I win a combat. I routinely kill my sessions without saving just because I'm not sure what I've accomplished in the last 15 minutes except depleting food, depleting hit points, and killing enemies that I should have saved for the next weapon. This is more like a job than a game.