|As I fear I will become if I keep playing this game.|
Having sunk a few more hours into it, I can report that Mandragore is a uniquely weird game. It has the ineffably bizarre quality of a French circus crossed with the kind of puzzles we saw in ICON: The Quest for the Ring. It's not a very good RPG experience, but it's...something.
Given the backstory, I expected a high-fantasy theme, but in reality once you enter the castles, theme goes out the window and anything can happen. The first castle I explored--the one near the starting area--was the least bizarre. As I explored the rooms--usually having to force bars or open doors to get from one to the next--I met a series of creatures named after signs of the zodiac: Pisces, Aquarius, Leo, Capricorn, and so forth. When I used the ASK command on them, each spouted a few letters. Together, their phrases said: FRIENDS, YOU WILL FIND WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR BEHIND THE CUPBOARD.
Sure enough, one of the rooms had a cupboard, and using the OPEN command on it revealed a secret passageway. This took me to a room containing an object called "Master," which I could pick up. I had no idea what to with it, but later in my explorations, I found myself on top of the castle with an item labeled "Mark." Trying any number of things to interact with it, I dropped "Master" and received a "stanza" that indicated I had completed this castle.
There were combats in many of the rooms. It's frankly hard to tell what's an enemy and what's an NPC. The monster names are mostly nonsense. I have no idea if the game allows you to kill key NPCs and thus create a "walking dead" situation for yourself. If so, I might be in trouble. In any event, combat is no more interesting than I reported last time. You just type something like SYRELLA ATTACK AXE-MAN or GELTH SPELL GUARD. Sometimes you get lucky and the enemy dies in one hit; other times, it takes three or four, and the foe depletes your own hit points in the meantime.
I haven't noticed any significant variation in combat success based on whether my characters are armed or unarmed nor what statistics they have. (And yes, I do know that you have to specify the weapon when attacking.) The same goes for non-combat tasks. Theoretically, the thief should be best at DISARM and STEAL and the character with the highest strength should be best at BREAK. I suppose it's possible that they are, but if so, the variances are subtle, and in general--with the exception of spellcasting--every character can do pretty much every action.
Returning to town, I sold some of the treasures I'd found, bought a sword (which, as above, doesn't seem to do much), and restocked on food. The money ran out quickly and I found I didn't have enough to properly heal my characters. I thus resorted to STEALing medicine from one of the shops. I confess to some save-scumming in this endeavor, as getting caught (which seems to happen about 1 time in 5) causes you to lose all your gold and some of your items.
Having finished the first château, I set out to explore the rest of the land, which seems to be somewhere in the order of 100 x 150 tiles in size. Large lakes and mountain chains make systematic exploration difficult. After some time, I found myself in the far eastern edge of the land and entered a castle there.
The theme of this second castle was very different from the first. It had a large outdoor area with lots of trees. There was a fountain, but I couldn't find any way to interact with it. A variant of the bizarre French clown Pierrot appeared, telling me that "they've become mad." "They've" turned out to be some very large honeybees, each inexplicably given names like "Bertha," "Gina," and "Antoinette." I made my way through the lair, slashing and killing the bees, but mysteriously unable to do anything with the honey the left behind. (This account is beginning to sound like an LSD trip.)
Eventually, I reached the lair of the queen, who told me that her "vital fluid is leaking." I have no idea what that means and could find no mechanism to help her. Perhaps it's something I'll find in another castle. I sure hope it doesn't matter that I killed all those bees.
Wandering around some more, I entered a castle surrounded by a lake. There were far more NPCs in this castle than the previous ones--a woman, a princess, a juggler, and so forth. When questioned, each had something to say about numbers: "We depend on figures"; "Juggle with numbers"; "Everything is in the balance."
The inner parts of the castle featured a series of steps, and I started getting attacked by floating numbers and their goofily-named henchmen, like "rootus" and "dividus" and such.
The floating numbers, which couldn't be killed, were arranged like this in their various rooms:
1 2 3
1 2 3
At the end of a hallway, I found a number "4" that I could pick up. Dropping it in the blank square in the second row seemed to solve the dungeon and awarded me a glimpse of Stanza #3. I'm not exactly sure what the puzzle was. I guess if you ignore the fourth row with the 9 and 6, it's like a magic square, with the numbers adding up to 6 in all directions.
This "puzzle" illustrates the key problem with the game, however: the mechanics don't allow for enough different actions to make the puzzles challenging. The selection of commands is so limited that you're bound to figure things out just by bumbling around. Having picked up an item, for instance, the only thing you can do with it is to eat, trade, sell, or drop it--clearly only the latter is going to work as a puzzle solution.
As I finished this castle, my characters were crossing 1,000 experience points and made it to Level 2. I'm not sure precisely what leveling does for you, but I imagine it makes combat easier. I do like the way the game awards experience, for successful action--whether combat or non-combat. Unsuccessful actions, on the other hand, deplete the character's life points, and every once in a while--as I reported last time--everyone's life points drop for seemingly no reason.
Some miscellaneous notes:
- I'm supposed to be able to get food with the HUNT command, but it doesn't work anywhere that I try it.
- Similarly, the INSPECT command--which you would think would work in a lot of cases--never seems to apply to the objects I use them on. There's no command that allows you to simply look at an item on the screen to help suss out what it's for.
- Navigation in the castles is complicated. In stereotypical adventure game fashion, the rooms often don't maintain consistency in cardinal directions: going east from one brings you in the south of another. Even weirder, you can often go in directions that seem closed off on the screen, and at other times you can't travel in a direction that appears to have an obvious opening.
- Whether the game lets you kill key NPCs or not, it definitely has no compunction about letting you sell key quest items or drop them in the wrong place.
- I think I'm going to eventually have to buy this boat, but it's been out of my financial reach so far.
Not much else to do but continue to explore the rest of the 10 castles. I'm vaguely curious where the game is going with its themes and these post-castle "stanzas." The graphics, while not very advanced, have produce some interesting mise-en-scenes. But it fundamentally isn't challenging enough as an adventure game, and it lacks the mechanics to make it a good RPG. It's highly original--I'll give it that--but not really fun. I hope I can polish it off with one more posting.