Sunday, March 12, 2017

Revisiting: Tera: La Cité des Crânes (1986)

He we go again.
Tera: La Cité des Crânes
"Tera: The City of Skulls"
Loriciels (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for DOS
Date Started: 8 October 2010
I recently forced myself to read over my entries from my first year of blogging. They make me cringe. I clearly had no idea what I was doing. There are the technical issues: I didn't justify margins or use captions correctly, and until November 2010, all my screen shots showed the DOSBox window title. But worse are the thematic issues. I was simply ignorant about games. I had only ever been exposed to Wizardry-style multi-character dungeon crawlers and Ultima-style iconographic games. Everything that differed from that mold filled me with angst and had me constantly threatening to quit. I knew nothing about the history of developers and companies, and didn't even bother exploring them in my entries. I had never played a non-English game and perhaps not even a non-American game.

In short, at the time I first encountered it, I was ill-equipped to play a game as bizarre as Tera. My coverage couldn't have possibly been more clueless and scant. When I abandoned it after what must have been far less than my stated 6-hour minimum, I hadn't even experienced enough to give it a GIMLET. Along with Alien Fires and Le Maître des Âmes, its row in my spreadsheet has been empty for over 6 years. This spring, we'll be rectifying that for all three.

I do forgive myself somewhat for falling on my face with Tera. The game has no obvious antecedent and draws from no clear CRPG tradition. Everything about it is inscrutable, including its origins. The only credits are given as "Ulysses" (director) and "Lout" (special effects). Loricels had never published a DOS title, and indeed the platform choice was unusual for a French game in the 1980s. The next year, they would publish a game called Karma using the same engine, although I'm uncertain if the original developers were involved.
The game seems to blend fantasy and sci-fi themes.
When I tried playing in 2010, I didn't have a manual, but one has surfaced in the intervening years. It doesn't clear up very much. The backstory--recapped in a series of opening screenshots--sets the game on neighboring planets called Amarande the Black and Alfol. Once prosperous and unified, the planets are now torn between three factions: scientists and their technology, the religion (transcendance) of priests and vestal virgins, and sorcerers based out of the City of Skulls.

The strife seems to be the work of a demon named Arioch and his unnamed ally. Followers of technology have entrenched themselves on Alfol, an inhospitable desert planet. The Pirates of Shaam menace the space between the two worlds. There are rumors that the priests have allied with telepathic beings made out of crystal who inhabit a parallel world called Meduz.
The introduction supposedly has a mini-game where you can practice space combat, but I couldn't get it to work.
The PCs are somehow meant to unite these disparate factions, starting (apparently) by plumbing the depths of the City of Skulls, collecting its treasure, and slaying Arioch. The introduction promises that superior beings of some kind will assist in this quest.
The villain is introduced.
The game begins with the player choosing to generate a new adventure. Each adventure randomizes aspects of the gameplay, including the specific layout of the maps, the locations of treasures, the locations of NPCs, and the specific clues players receive when talking with them. You can also set a difficulty level from 0 to 9 (I chose 4).

The player then creates the main character. You're assigned scores in strength, intelligence, and luck on a scale of 1-10 with no option to re-roll. You then have to split the strength score into endurance and agility, the intelligence score into willpower and charm, and the luck score into vitality and skill. When you're finished, the game gives you the ability to add 6 points to any combination of those skills.
Creating a character.
And suddenly you're in a rough, dark landscape with no clear idea where to go or what to do. It always seems to be night.
I go west.
The outdoor world of Amarande consists of a 30 x 30 grid that wraps around on itself. You move around with the 8,4,6,2 cluster on the numberpad. Each square has a static screen that looks the same no matter what direction you approach from. Most of them are just empty terrain, but some (as annotated on a mini-map with squares) contain buildings and wayposts. There are a few areas, represented by lines, with impassable mountains between squares.
Fallout: New Vegas was inspired directly by this game.
The two most important structures are the City of Skulls and Kronopolis, Amarande's capital. Only in Kronopolis can you purchase and sell equipment and visit a hospital to heal characters. There are a lot of other named buildings around, some enterable, some not, often with an NPC standing in front. The purpose of these NPCs generally seems to be to give you hints, but some you can lure into your party with the "seduce" command. Some of the hints I received include:
  • You will find TORN in the city of skulls
  • The men of MERENEN prevent access to the base
  • The office of MEDIAS is found on the base of Alfol
  • You will find ZAAR in Mahalore.
  • You will find THELIA at Balgence [I did!]
  • You will find KALEB under the City of Skulls
An NPC responds to an inquiry.
Commands are mostly single-letter instructions like (E)ntrer ("enter"), (M)onter ("climb"), and (P)rendre ("take"). A few commands have sub-menus. For instance, selecting (N)égocier ("talk") allows you to then choose to buy, sell, give, question, or beg. (H)alte brings up a sub-menu where you can consult the map, eat, sleep, and view character statistics.
An in-game help menu has the options.
If you choose the wrong command at the wrong time, the game may make fun of you with a message like "a little order and method, please" or will just ask you something like "combattre?" when there is no combat to be had. Other times, though, it uses the same question mark to confirm a valid action. The inconsistency is a little annoying.
The game disses me.
As I started a new game, my priority was to find Kronopolis so I could spend some of my 500 ducats on basic weapons and armor. I wasn't in a huge hurry because monsters don't seem to appear on any of the outdoor maps until you have a weapon to fight them (or perhaps they're triggered by your first visit to Kronopolis), and they're not very plentiful even after that.

At first, I took the waypoints to be buildings and wondered why I couldn't enter them. Later, I realized they had inscriptions that I could (L)ire. They say things like "you are now 18 west and 12 south of Kronopolis," but in all cases the game has it backwards and Kronopolis is in fact those coordinates from you. Am I mistranslating?
Anyway, I picked up NPCs named Thelia and Ymir along the way, the former standing outside the "Domaine de Balgence" and the second inside the Temple of Seth. My understanding is that there are 9 NPCs in the game: a mage, a warrior, a sorcerer, a merchant, a priest, a vestal virgin, a pilot, an adventurer, and a cyborg. Only 3 can be with you in the party at a time.
Ymir gives me a hint just before joining me.
I finally found my way to Kronopolis, the capital of Amarande, where I could enter and get a buy/sell menu.
Entering the capital.
I bought axes and leather armor for my lead character and Thelia. Later, when I got Ymir, I was a little richer and bought her a revolver. After we bought the weapons, we started to occasionally encounter minor monsters like spiders in the wilderness.
Purchasing items at the store in Kronopolis.
From Kronopolis, I kept searching until I at last found the City of Skulls. I entered and began to explore.
The outside of the City of Skulls.
Indoor mapping is utterly confounding in this game, and it took me a while to understand what's happening. You use the same 8, 4, 6, 2 numberpad cluster to move, but unlike moving outdoors, the game doesn't keep a consistent perspective in the dungeon. Moving right, left, and backwards both moves and turns you in the chosen direction. In other words, hitting the "6" key does the same thing that would require 6,6,8 in a game like Wizardry. There's no way to turn in place while staying in your current square.

Adding to the confusion: many squares look like you ought to be able to step forward. For instance, if you were facing the perspective below in a normal game, you'd probably map it as two squares: one with walls to the left and right and a second square with a wall ahead and doors to the left and right. In fact, there's only one square here. Although there are clearly walls to the left and right, functionally they don't exist. If I try to move ahead, I'll get an error, and if I try to move left or right, the game will act as if I'm walking through one of those doors.
There is only one "square" represented here.
Entering doors presents its own problems. There's an (O)uvrir command, but it took some time before I realized you have to use it after you've first tried walking through the door and get a message that the door is closed. At that point, you have a limited amount of time to then hit "O" and open the door you want to go through. The same process applies to using a key to open a locked door. (A key purchased in Kronopolis got me through most of the locked doors on the first level.)

Mapping was thus difficult, and I couldn't believe at first that I was doing it right, but later I found a map in a chest, and it matched up perfectly with what I created.
My own map of Level 1.
And the automap I found in a chest.
A few monsters popped up as I explored, and I killed them without much trouble. Combat isn't very sophisticated. Once you enter combat, you have options to make a mental attack, yell, dispel, cast a spell, make a melee attack, "chant," or shoot. This early in the game, pretty much only melee attacks and shooting do anything, although I haven't fully explored the other options and don't really know how they work (more on that below). One confounding thing I quickly noticed is that my two NPCs always miss in combat. Always. I don't know what I'm doing wrong.
A bunch of guys guarding a chest. The game is waiting for my combat option.

Roland attacks!
You don't get much feedback as you lose hit points. You have to keep checking your character sheet. Party members who get to 0 fall unconscious but don't die. If you drag them back to the hospital in Kronopolis, they can heal with a bit of rest, and this process seems to be free.

My lead character hit Level 2 after a couple of combats, but his hit points didn't seem to increase, so I'm not sure about the advantages to leveling.
Roland levels up.
There are quite a few treasure chests in the City of Skulls, most of them trapped, containing gold and items. I learned the hard way that if the chest contains gold, you get it automatically, but if it contains items, you have to (P)rendre them after opening the chest. Opened chests don't disappear from the environment, making them useful map markers.

In the midst of my exploration, I encountered this guy, who didn't seem interested in fighting. In fact, he gave me a hint.
If only I could figure out how to get "under."
There are a lot of things I don't understand about the game, including:

  • When you enter certain wilderness areas, a jaunty little tune plays, as if to indicate you've entered a place of some significance. But nothing seems to happen there. What is the meaning of this tune?
  • Are there secret doors? If so, I haven't found any.
  • Why do my two NPCs, one equipped with an axe, one with a revolver, always miss in combat?
  • The character screen shows only the statistics and inventory for my lead character. How can I view the other characters? Every key I press on this screen simply shuts it down.
  • What is the significance of the row of heads at the bottom of that screen?
  • I guess there's no way to "equip" weapons and armor. How does the game decide what you're wearing when you have two armor items, and how does it decide what you're wielding when you have two weapons?
  • How does the magic system work? The manual doesn't list any spells. How am I supposed to know what to enter after I hit (I)nvoquer?
  • The "stop" menu has options to eat and sleep, but there doesn't seem to be any place to buy food, and in any event neither command seems to do anything. What are they for?
  • Is there any way to heal characters without going all the way back to Kronopolis's hospital?
  • What in the world is this graph, obtained from the "stop" menu and then "help," trying to show me?
My only consolation is that this French commenter didn't understand half these things either.

I close this session about to return to Kronopolis to heal after my second expedition to the City of Skulls. Having mapped the whole level, I'm not sure what to do next, but a comment suggests I might need to find a way to face each and every wall to find a particular symbol. That commenter was unable to find it.

I've already gotten a lot further than I did in 2010, but I can see why I abandoned the game quickly, and even now, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to get much further. I can't get the game to save, for one thing--it won't recognize anything I mount in drive A--so I've been relying on save states in the DOSBox version I downloaded to play Martian Dreams. This is not a stable situation. Another problem is more internal: barring another sweep through the outer world and the City of Skulls, I'm not sure what else to do.

But I definitely don't want to make the mistake of giving it up too quickly again. An association of former students of the Lycée Français de Tananarive, a school in Madagascar, says that they named themselves after the game. Clearly, someone found it memorable.


  1. About the graph: feels like the "boss key" feature found in early Sierra games, but I'm not sure.

    1. Certainly looks like it, not that those screens would had ever fooled anyone with even the slightest knowledge of what programs their employers were using for work.

    2. That's a riot. Nethack had something like that, too. I think you're probably right, considering that the graph is different every time and the x-axis says "arbitrary data."

    3. To be fair, many employers back in the days knows nuts about all this "newfangled" computer stuff and hired computer staff (see what I did there?) to create databases and tax audit programs to computerise their pen-and-paper hard records. So, those graphs would still work to throw those bosses off.

  2. I can confirm the game has the coordinates backwards as you correctly translated the French meaning, so your caption 'Lies!' is justified. :)

  3. Here the four abjectives.

    According to this forum

    From the source code :

    - Invoke a specific name on Meduz (to go to Meduz, climb on the pyramid and invoke someone else)
    - Get media support (explore a base on Alfol to find the media office, and give them 1000 ducats)
    - Kill Arioch (you have to find him and be strong enough)
    - Killing a friend of Arioch (after discovered his name, and invoked him in front of the altar of darkness)

    1. The source code helps, even though it's reverse-engineered so a bit hard to read. Apparently the game generates four semi-random words at the start, which are the key to completing the tasks. (All four words and every hint you can receive is saved verbatim in the save game file, if you feel like cheating.)

      The four hints generated by these words:

      1. "invoquer ___ en haut de la pyramide"
      2. "invoquer ___ sur MEDUZ"
      3. "IL se nomme ___"
      4. "pour LE vaincre: crier ___"

      My guess is that you have to summon Arioch using his name (hint #3) at the altar of darkness, then chant the word in hint #4 in combat to weaken him.

  4. If you still need it, here's how you can get the saves to work in Dosbox:

    mount -t floppy a
    mount -t floppy b

    - Start the game in A:
    - Select "2" when promted for the number of floppy drives
    - Select "B" as the drive letter for save games

    1. Sorry, the directories behind the mount commands got lost:

      mount -t floppy a [Game directory]
      mount -t floppy b [An empty directory]

    2. Thanks. I'll give it a try. My save states don't work, so fixing this issue is the only way I'll be able to move forward with the game.

    3. Looking at the source code, it seems to check that the save disc doesn't contain, so it might be enough just to have A: point at an empty directory. But the method above works pretty well for me.

    4. You do not need to mount two directories, I have created a directory called "B" in the game folder then I did "mount -t floppy b [path to "B"]". When asked how many drives I have I entered 2 and then selected the B drive. It works fine for me.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. The purpose of these NPCs generally seems to be to give you hints, but some you can lure into your party with the "seduce" command.

    It's true that séduire can mean "seduce", but I think "charm" or "tempt" is the more correct translation here. It's one of those words -- not quite a "false friend" -- where the French version doesn't always have the sexual connotation that the English word does.

    1. "Seduce" doesn't always have a sexual connotation in English either. It is often used in the meaning of "tempt", as in the famous line "Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force".

    2. Hmm, it almost seems to me that passive-voice constructions ("X was seduced by Y") are more likely to be free of sexual connotations than active-voice constructions ("X seduced Y"). Perhaps abstractions, cities ("seduced by Paris"), and other non-procreative entities can only seduce in the passive voice.

  7. Well, whoever made this game must have been into Michael Moorcock. Arioch was the main demon in the classic Elric stories, and summoning him at an "altar of darkness" is also more or less from those tales. Names like Kronopolis and the City of Skulls also have a vaguely Morcockian ring to them, as does the generally weird atmosphere that this game seems to have. I also went back and checked out your earlier attempt, and saw a mention of "Sun Raa", probably a reference to the psychedelic/cosmic jazz musician. So yeah, pretty cool stuff overall. I could somehow picture a Richard Pinhas or Christian Vander coming up with something like this, if they had decided to give computer programming a go...

    1. Very interesting. I don't know much about Moorcock, but is there anything else in his stories that might have influenced the backstory of Tera? Multiple planets? Clashes between technology and magic?

    2. Just answered my own question with a little Googling. Moorcock was a frequent collaborator of Barrington Bayley, whose books include The Fall of Chronopolis. Another of his books is Empire of Two Worlds, in which one of the worlds is described as dry and lifeless.

      I think we have a couple of French fans of British sci-fi here.

    3. Moorcock influence sounds likely to me--possibly direct, possibly indirect (there's a lot of knockoff Moorcock out there, and some quite good)--but I also wonder whether there's substantial influence from the French science-fiction / fantasy comics scene. Not my area of expertise at all--someone more knowledgeable want to chime in?--but that sort of quirky mash-up science-fantasy in a lonely, philosophical place is what I think of when I think of the genre.

    4. the heads on the walls of the Cité des Crânes remind me of stuff by comic artist Philippe Druillet, and his works are mostly fantasy/sf

    5. By Christian Vander do you mean the Magma drummer? Could we have a game fully in Kobaian? :D

    6. The City of Skulls might be a D&D reference. In the world of Greyhawk, that's a nickname for Dorakaa, capitol of the empire of Iuz the Evil, a half-demon demigod.

      Also definitely a French comics vibe going on here, Tera wouldn't be out of place in an issue of Metal Hurlant.

    7. It could be a d&d influence, or it could be them being influenced by the same source. Moorcock was one of the largest single fantasy influences​ on d&d: The Vecna artifacts, the fact the fundamental conflict in early d&d was law vs chaos, the way the planes were set up....

  8. Some more answers from the reverse-engineered source code:

    > When you enter certain wilderness areas, a jaunty little tune plays, as if to indicate you've entered a place of some significance. But nothing seems to happen there. What is the meaning of this tune?

    That's just meaningless incidental music.

    > Is there any way to heal characters without going all the way back to Kronopolis's hospital?

    It looks like there should be a place/places where you can use the invoke command to pray to "le seigneur des ombres" (the game won't ask for a magic word there).

    Unfortunately most code regarding combat, equipment and stats seems to be missing from the archive, or at least I can't find it, so I can't offer any help with your other questions.

    1. Equipment, some messages, etc. are in data files in the game folder, not part of the source code.

      It's supposed to be "invoquer le seigneur des ombresilés," "summon the Lord of Shadows."

    2. Couldn't find the combat code either, but when playing around with the game my characters Ymir and Thelia hit occasionally with an epee. Him never hit anything.

      Levelling seems to add skills (see screenshot of your character at level 2, with "pouvoir PSY niv 1"). I levelled a few times and didn't notice anything else so far.

    3. Somehow, I had the idea that one o the NPCs taught me that, but your way makes more sense.

  9. "I had never played a non-English game and perhaps not even a non-American game."

    Somewhere, in the lifeless, frozen North, a single icy tear rolls down BioWare's cheek.

    1. I knew even writing that that I'd better put "North" in there or someone would mention it.

    2. Sometimes I wonder if you leave bait for your commentators and trick them into piling onto things like this. Then they leave sated, too gorged on themselves to toothcomb over the rest of your post.

      Also, you misspelled mini-map. Min-map.

  10. In case anyone is interested, I found some gameplay footage, where the person recording admits that he has no idea what he's doing:

    The game has terrible sound, but they all did back then. I'm impressed by their use of scaling to draw the graphical elements at different sizes.

    Regarding the row of faces: I see those faces over some doors/buildings. Is this a coincidence?

    Is this the earliest RPG with Bioware-style parties? (i.e., a cast of distinct predefined NPCs, only a subset of whom can be in your party at any given time). Dungeon Master sort of does it, and is newer than this game I think.

    1. Pretty sure that Ultima IV would fit that critera, and that's a year older.

  11. Is it weird that I really enjoy the entries that involve being mystified by European RPGs and their bespoke rulesets? I suffered a fair few number of them growing up with an Atari ST, and it's edifying to see them elucidated upon like this.

  12. Oh my gosh. Someone playing Tera.

    First of all, let me apologize in the name of all my compatriots for this game. All its difficulty comes from its obfuscation. In old times, I got involved in it, but never beat it.

    Some hints related to the questions you have :

    During the mini-game of shaam pirates, hit the keys of the numpad. You will see a white line going from your spaceship to a point in the screen. The shaams can hit you at 9 different positions (one by numpad key). To kill one of them, hit the corresponding key when it is nearest to you. As I remember, you have only one hit chance per shaam.

    Creating a male character gives you a bonus on Force (strength). Creating a female character gives you a bonus on Charme (charisma). Hello sexism !

    The "Séduire" (seduce) command, to have a NPC join your team, is based on charisma skill. Seducing a person of your sex implies to give him/her some money (250 ducats or something).

    There is no "spell" as meant in other RPG, but only regular attacks based on magic.

    Here are the attack types and their corresponding base skill (based on what I understood from the game)

    Attaque mentale (mental attack) - Volonté (willpower)
    Crier (cry) - Not really an attack, but may be useful later
    Dissiper (dissipate) - ??
    Jeter un sort (cast a spell) - Intelligence
    Lutter (fight) - Force
    Psalmodier (chant/mumble) - Intelligence (not sure)
    Tirer (Fire) - Habileté (accuracy)

    You definitely can see the characteristics of your NPCs. Use the command "Halte - Sonder". I wouldn't know how to translate it in english, but it means making a psychic/mental analysis of your NPCs. It does not always work, and is based on your PSY powers and/or your willpower.

    This command may help to have your NPCs kill monsters. (As far as I remember, I did not rely on my NPCs during fights).

    You can buy élixir (potions) at kronopolis, then drink them, to have some healing in the middle of a fight.

    The "cité des crânes" is not the only interesting place. You may have found a sort of spatioport. Use the command "E". Usually, it means "Entrer" (enter), but in the spatioport, it means "Embarquer" (embark). You will then be able to go to MEDUZ or ALFOL.

    Good luck. I will follow your progression with interest/nostalgy/mercy/empathy.


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