|NPC dialogue in this game inevitably ends in an exclamation point. I don't think there's a single exception.|
I recently emerged from the Grottos of Gahmos after 20 hours. Seeing the virtual sun and streets of Valvice was such a physical relief that it nearly approaches how I would feel if I'd just come out of 20 hours of real-life solitary confinement. Boom, subtitle justified.
Fate long ago crossed the line from "audacious" to "obscene" in its physical size, and the Grottos of Gahmos really drive it home. Each of the 7 levels used at least 1,500 squares. A couple of them had no special encounters--one had no treasures, even--just huge mazes from beginning to end. And the combats on some levels came literally every step. In both successful battles and reloads, my experience in this one dungeon alone must approximate the total number in all my RPG-playing so far.
I had finished Levels 1 and 2 when I last blogged. Some of the enemies had been tough--a few were able to kill my lower-HP characters in one hit--but basically I got through it. Level 3 is where the nightmare really began. It featured bafflingly hard enemies called "dracs" which always acted first in combat and immediately stoned or killed half my characters. I didn't have a chance against them. If I'd really tried and gotten really lucky in the first-round rolls, I could have maybe won 1 in 20 battles with them, and there must have been 50 parties of the damned things.
Dracs are difficult for another reason: they never seem to die from hit point loss alone. I've met a few other creatures like this. I can deal thousands and thousands of points of damage per round, and they remain standing. The only thing that kills them is a lucky "critical hit" or a special attack from one of my unique weapons, like stoning from the "Medustaff."
|The end of a typical first round against dracs.|
Now, mitigating this somewhat is the fact that most of the level is completely optional. The staircases up and down are at two ends of a fairly short corridor. Passages jut off from this main hallway and take you (via teleport) to the resting chambers of various named heroes--Etrin, Grendal, Bendarion, and so forth--where you can loot their most powerful artifacts. The dracs are found in those chambers. I could have continued my explorations downward and saved the cool weapons and armor for later.
The problem was, I wasn't 100% sure of the level's structure until I was already through most of it. In this game, so much depends upon obscure items and messages found on individual squares, that you can't blithely plow through an entire dungeon level and head for the down stairs. You'll miss the one clue that's vital to get through a lower level.
The difficulty associated with the dracs thus led me to experiment with a few of my other pre-combat options. Fleeing was always an option, of course, but it left the enemies on the screen and only really worked in a permanent sense if there was a door nearby. It turns out that Holy Scrolls--which I hadn't used at all before--destroy the entire enemy party before they can even act. But I'd only found about half a dozen in the game so far (I'm going to have to check and see if they're sold anywhere, now that I know what they do), so it wasn't a long-term solution.
|They are quite satisfying, however, in the short-term.|
The biggest surprise turned out to be the priest's "pray" ability, which will literally pray away the enemy party. That's not what the game says it does. It says, "a silver sphere appears and enables your party to escape unseen." But what it actually does is remove the enemy party from the map. I guess at higher levels, it works nearly all the time. At my priest's level (roughly 25 going into this), it only worked about 25% of the time. But fleeing worked more often. So with the dracs, I settled into a pattern of trying prayer, then fleeing if that didn't work. If they re-encountered me after fleeing, I tried prayer again. I had to reload a lot when neither option worked, but it got me through the level.
The rewards were worth it, or nearly so. I ended up with two weapons--a "Hulkhammer" and a "Vixhammer"--classified as "greater melee weapons," meaning they do damage to every enemy within range, in all groups, not just a single enemy or single group. Winwood finally gave up the "Ice Sword" he found early in the game. There were several nice pieces of armor, plus several potions that permanently increased attributes.
The rest of the dungeon served up some hard combats, rendered easier by my new weapons, but nothing again on the level of the dracs. I continued to make liberal use of "prayer," particularly when I encountered enemy spellcasters at range.
|Yeah, screw that.|
One thing I noticed, though, moving forward, is that my characters almost never go first in combat. I understand that order is influenced by both skill and dexterity. I had invested quite a few improvement slots in the +3 skill guild in Larvin, getting all my characters up above 45. I guess that wasn't enough. Frankly, given how hard I was finding the dungeon, and given the fact that several of my characters still had dozens of unused improvement slots, I should have gone back to the surface and done some more character development. Instead, I stubbornly persisted onward, using "Refresh" potions and "Rejuvenation" and "Vitamins" spells in place of proper sleep and food.
Level 4's major contribution was in the form of a small statue. Digging around the statue produced a brush to go along with the paint can I'd previously found. Why it had to be under a statue, I don't know, but that's par for the course with Fate, which revels in unnecessary details (e.g., all the nonsense with the Mongards and the Shade Ghosts and the Cavetrain).
Level 5 was a huge maze with enemies practically every step. They were curiously bipolar in difficulty: I might encounter 1 giant spider in one battle, and then 8 giant spiders, 9 evil frogs, 5 bane wizards, and 6 saurians in the next battle. There wasn't a single message, treasure, or special encounter except a couple of fountains and teleporters to the escape stairs. I was tempted.
|The next combat was one frog.|
Level 6, another huge maze, offered two types of vital special encounters. The first was with a series of eyes painted on the walls. The only productive thing I could find to do with them was to paint over them, but since the game so readily jumped at this solution, I figured it was correct. It later turned out that once every eye was painted over, a teleporter deactivated and allowed me access to the down stairs. I think there were 10 eyes on the level.
|This seems somewhat rude.|
The level also offered a bunch of gold plates on the wall that had something to do with jewels and a sequence. "Press as first the jewel at the right end of the lower line," for instance. I catalogued all of these for later.
Finally, I reached the last level: a maze of independent areas interconnected by teleporters. Most of the teleporters dump you back to the starting area, but with careful mapping you can find your way forward. I eventually reached an area with a hallway that I couldn't enter. Every time I tried, it eliminated all my spellpoints and knocked me back to an earlier square. I explored the area exhaustively, looking for buttons, secret doors, plates, or anything, but I found nothing. Eventually, I went back to the corridor and tried entering again, and it didn't give me any trouble. So I'm not sure what was going on there.
The corridor held a lot of treasures that were inferior to what I already had. At the end, I faced a wall panel with a bunch of jewels of different colors "in a geometrical arrangement." The game then asked me what order I wanted to press them. I knew this had something to do with the messages on the previous level, but the messages hadn't said anything about jewel color.
I was in the midst of writing a version of this posting that had me still stuck in the dungeon when I had to consult the manual for something to do with a spell, and I happened to notice this:
I think if a puzzle is going to refer to something in the manual, it ought to be a little more explicit, but I'll remember to go through the manual when I get stuck from now on. Based on the diagram, I was able to enter the colors in the right order and enter the chamber beyond.
|But where is he?! How is he positioned?!|
There, I found an archmage--the famous Mandrag--asleep. The only thing I could do was add him to my party. This meant giving up a character, so I reluctantly spun my assassin off into his own party and picked up Mandrag. One casting of "Rejuvenate" was enough to wake him up, at which point he thanked me and went into a long spiel about Thardan:
The key to breaking the force of Thardan is located in the city of Cassida, but we can't go there 'til we find Bergarac's heart! I was on a quest for this heart when I was ambushed by Thardan's army! I've heard that the heart might be somewhere in Katloch, but also that a magical key is required to open the magical crypt where it's located! This key, called "Opal Key," should be hidden somewhere in the Grottos but I don't know where! Would you like to help me? I"m reading your mind and I see that you're on the same quest as I am! Winwood's return isn't possible until Thardan's force is broken!"
I consulted my map of the Grottos and found only one area that I hadn't fully explored. Back on Level 1, there were a couple of pressure plates and an inactive teleporter. I reasoned that activating the teleporter would mean weighing down those plates, which required splitting my party into three. As I was making this happen, Mandrag piped up that he though he heard one of the myrmidons saying it was going to hide the key in a fountain. Sure enough, the newly-activated teleporter took me to an area of fountains, and searching one produced the Opal Key.
At last, I made my way to the surface, slept in a proper inn, and ate a few proper meals. I guess I'll keep Mandrag. I suspect I'll need him later, and in any event, he has excellent statistics and 5 spellbooks.
Mandrag's appearance is a bit odd and worthy of a side comment. Many of the NPCs in the game have had unconventional features. Earlier, I had a warlock named "Billy" who was listed as a female, but looked like....well, frankly a transvestite. I chalked that one up to bad art and made a dumb joke of it. But here comes Mandrag, who seems to have some kind of macrocephaly. Meanwhile, the rest of the art in the game is quite good, so I don't think we're seeing careless use of a brush. I think the graphics department deliberately made a bunch of NPC portraits--a lot of which the average player might never see--that represented a wide variety of human faces, some conventional and attractive, some unconventional or even representative of genetic disorders. I think it's an admirable effort.
When I entered the Grottos, I was just shy of 1 million piaster. I emerged with over 12 million piaster. I immediately bought a ship for 3 million, which appeared in the outdoor area near Valvice. I'm not even sure how to board it, but I'm not quite ready for that yet, since I have more intelligence to collect on this island, Katloch, and Thardan's "Forbidden Zone."
|This geography sounds confusing.|
I need to spend a while on character development, including visiting various guilds and spending my improvement slots, seeing if I can get better weapons for a few characters, and improving dexterity through conversation. I also forgot to finish the mini-quest where I have to ask the women in Herman's Wood how to use diamonds.
|My new ship is called "Katrina." She might set sail in time for the next post.|
My biggest problem right now is weight. The advanced weapons and armor I found in the dungeon are cool, but they weigh a ton. I had to divest Winwood of all potions and special items and only just barely got him under the amount where he starts having problems. No matter what I do, Toronar is overweight unless I have him give up Gord's Axe for something less awesome.
The manual says that carrying capacity is governed by strength, so I went to Laronnes and got 5 new strength points for each character, but it didn't make a bit of difference in carrying capacity. I'll be happy to hear spoilers if there's anything else I'm supposed to do to nudge up that number.
|In the meantime, I guess I'll be sleeping in the best rooms.|
- At one point, just because I was experimenting, I had Winwood drink a "Berserk" potion, which turned him into a "Berserker" class. This jacked his strength, dexterity, and skill up to 99 and seemed to give him infinite hit points, but it reduced his intelligence and wisdom to 1 and made him act automatically, out of my control, during combat. He always went first, but instead of using his Hulkhammer, he just did something that killed one enemy. I spent a long time trying to rest him out of the condition before I consulted the manual and realized I need to cast an archmage spell to revert him to normal.
|A typical combat action for a Berserker.|
- I would kill for a "passwall" or "teleport" spell in this game.
- I don't understand the rules on how many potions my characters can make. On some early level, I made 3 or 4 "Refresh" potions and then the game never let me make any more, not even after I'd rested and days had passed. I had the same issue with strength potions earlier.
- At this level of power, combat really comes down entirely to who gets to act first. If 3 of my characters can beat the enemies to the initiative, I can take down all but the hardest foes with some combination of melee weapons and spells.
Fate has its charm, but it's long past time for it to be over. I suspect that despite that, it won't be over yet for a long, long time.
Time so far: 111 hours