Friday, March 17, 2017

Tera: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Tera: La Cité des Crânes 
("Tera: The City of the Skulls")
Loriciels (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for DOS
Date Started: 8 October 2010
Date Ended: 16 March 2017
Total Hours: 22
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5) on a user-adjustable difficulty (0-9) of 4
Final Rating: 33
Ranking at Time of Posting: 164/248 (66%)

I'm not saying that spending another 9 hours on Tera was a great use of time, but I've done worse things on cold, snowy days next to a crackling fire. The game never outgrew its amateur execution, but I did ultimately become somewhat fond of the charming bizarreness of the thing, which persisted all the way to the end.

I was forced to start over after the last session because my DOSBox save states did not survive closing the program and re-opening it. (They just froze when I tried to load them.) However, commenter Buck's instructions on getting it to recognize mounted disk folders worked fine. Really, the comments were fantastically helpful overall, and I appreciate everyone pulling together to give this obscure title a shot.
A new character is rolled.
Having started over, I developed an appreciation for how much is randomized in each new game, including the positions of all buildings in the game world, the locations of NPCs, the interior maps (including all 8 levels of the City of Skulls), the name of the final villain, and the various words I needed to invoke.

The supposed "conflict" between magic, religion, and technology never really played a role in the game: those were just three different places that I had to go. Some research, prompted by a comment by Brain Breaker, suggests that the mysterious authors ("Ulysses" and "Lout") were thematically inspired by British science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s, including Michael Moorcock and Barrington Bayley. Arioch is one of the Lords of Chaos in Moorcock's "Elric" series. "Kronopolis" might reference Bayley's The Fall of Chronopolis, and the "twin planets" theme is found in Bayley's Empire of Two Worlds. Full summaries of these books are hard to find online, so we're probably missing a lot of references.
You have to plod through a lot of indistinguishable landscape at the beginning.
Tera takes place in several logical phases. The first is the exploration of the surface of Amarande. Among its mostly-barren 900 squares, you find about a dozen fixed locations (again, placed randomly for each new game): the capital city of Kronopolis, the Domain of Balgence, the Sanctuary of Mahalore, the City of Skulls, the Hamlet of the Door of Sands, the Temple of Seth, the Hermitage of the Rock of Ghouls, the Pyramid of Meduz, the Abbey of Montefontaine, and a spaceport. Of these locations, only the Temple of Seth and the City of Skulls can be "entered"; the rest just have NPCs sitting out front--or, in the case of the spaceport, a bunch of ships ready to take off. Some of the NPCs will join you; others will offer a hint of dialogue.
At the Sanctuary of Mahalore, an NPC tells me where I can find the good stuff.
There are supposedly 9 NPCs in the game, but I'm not sure it really matters which ones join you. The game is easy enough that it could probably be won with no NPCs. I mostly settled on the first three I came across.
Checking out the statistics for my fellow party members.
Aside from collecting hints and NPCs, the key goal during this first phase is to buy an initial stock of weapons and armor in Kronopolis and annotate the locations of the places you'll be revisiting--primarily the spaceport, the Temple of Seth, and the pyramid.

The second phase is the exploration of the City of Skulls. It has eight levels, including the surface. In my last posting, I had explored the top level but couldn't find the way down. You have to enter a particular door with a skull above it, and the odd nature of facing and movement, plus the random configuration of the walls, sometimes makes the door impossible to see head-on. 
Finding a ladder down, past a vampire.
After you get past this door, the other level transitions are via easily-visible ladders. Every dungeon level is 10 x 10, but about a third of the available squares on each level are unused. Each level has a chest containing a map to the level, so you can avoid manual mapping if you're willing to bumble about until you find it.
The map shows your position, doors, and locked doors.
The primary purposes of exploring the City of Skulls are to a) find treasures, including gold and magic items; b) find clues and hints; c) find keys to doors in both the City of Skulls and other dungeons; and d) fight monsters and level up. The treasure and messages are randomly placed, so you basically have to hit every room. I did note that most of the messages containing keywords and such were duplicated, which is a nice touch.
A pillar in the City of Skulls gives me the name of Arioch's ally.
And some scribbles on an altar tell me what to do with that name.
The monsters aren't very hard, at least not on the difficulty level I set (5 out of 10). Most die in a few hits from an axe or shots from a revolver. They die even more quickly once you can afford to outfit party members with "disintegrators." They do a fair amount of damage to party members, but if you carry a couple of elixirs or just head for the exit when your party is at half-health, you're fine, particularly since rooms respawn with monsters only rarely. Characters can't actually die--they just get knocked unconscious--so the only real danger is a full party death. Healing is free back in Kronopolis, though it does take a number of weeks. My lead character aged from 20 to 26 during the course of the game; I suppose if you were particularly inept, or playing on a harder difficulty setting, he could die of old age.
A couple of necromancers attempt to bar my way through their city.
Around Level 4 of the dungeon, you start encountering mystical creatures that don't respond to standard weapons. You need some special items, but by this point clues have told you what those items are. Demon-like creatures are damaged only by certain magic items, invoked in combat with the "chant" command. These include Gems of Fire, which you find in the dungeon. Vampires respond only to the "Cast a spell" command, which draws from...shoot, I forget. Maybe talismans? Spirits die from the "Dispel" action, which relies on rings. You can buy generic versions of these items in Kronopolis, but exploration gets you more powerful ones.
Fighting a vampire and...something...lurking in the background.
Leveling up causes one attribute to increase but oddly does not lead to increases in your hit points unless the vitality attribute goes up. Some skills seem to increase on leveling, but overall the leveling process doesn't make you feel notably more powerful.

Once you have 1,000 gold pieces, you can take a break from the City of Skulls and fly to the nearby planet of Alfol, accessible by entering the spaceport and simply (E)mbarking in a ship, which takes you to a transitional cacophony of light and sound as the ship enters hyperspace. Both there and back, you get attacked by the Pirates of Shaam, but defeating them is moronically simple. You mentally divide your viewport into 9 squares, like a tic-tac-toe grid, note the square in which the enemy seems to be approaching, and hold down the appropriate number on the keypad. A laser beam shoots from your ship and destroys the enemy. Even if you screw it up a few times, each enemy attack only drains 5 energy units from the ship, and you can buy more in the spaceports. You start with plenty.
This guy looks like he's headed for "3."
Alfol has a 10 x 10 outdoor map (with locations indistinguishable from Amarande) with one place to enter: the Bureau of Medias. It's a standard, one-level, 10 x 10 dungeon, with occasional squares that deliver radiation damage.
This is what happens when you have no EPA.
The only purpose is to find a desk where you can pay 1,000 gold pieces to get their support. That's it. I'm not even sure what it really did for me in the long run. Maybe increased one of my skills or something.
How do you like working in a building with radioactive waste in the hallways?
At some point, in the City of Skulls, you find the keywords to speak on the top of the Pyramid of Meduz and then in Meduz itself. The transition from Amarande to Meduz is accompanied by psychedelic colors and sounds, which is fun. Meduz is an alternate dimension occupied by telepathic crystalline beings. They respawn constantly, and they're not hard to kill with disintegrators, so it's a great place to grind if you need cash.
Aie, indeed.
Eventually, you find a pillar there, and invoking the word you found in the City of Skulls causes the game to say "MEDITATION" across the top. The first time I visited, I didn't understand what the game was telling me, and I left without finishing the task. More on this in a second.
What is that supposed to mean?
Back at the City of Skulls, you keep pressing downward until you find the demon Arioch and the name of his partner. Arioch is a demon prince. I can't remember if he responded to spells, chants, or dispels, but I know he did get damaged by shouting a keyword said to damage demons, but only if you have an "Orb of Time" in your possession. You only find two of these in the game, so defeating Arioch is a two-man job.
Arioch returns to chaos! He looked just like the guy below.
By the time that he's dead, you probably have the name of his colleague, so it's time to hit the Temple of Seth. Entering the Temple depends on a key that you find somewhere in the City of Skulls. It's just one floor, 10 x 10, and in the middle you find the Altar of Darkness. There, invoking the name of Arioch's ally (in my case, AMALORK) causes him to appear, and then he dies in a few utterances of the magic word.
Defeating Arioch's ally with a magic word.
In most games, this would be the end, but Tera told me that I had only accomplished 3 out of 4 tasks. I knew the missing one was back in Meduz, so I revisited. There are actually two pillars in the Meduz map, one of which gave me the "Meditation" message, and one of which did nothing. I went back to the second one and tried all the commands. "M," which usually stands for monter (climb), suddenly allowed me to meditate and increase my psychic score. Then, when I went back to the earlier pillar and invoked the keyword again, the game told me that "transcendence" was now becoming harmonious. It congratulated me on finishing the fourth task.
I guess I won?
Other notes on the game:

  • One you hit the "E" key on the spaceport screen, you're committed to flying all the way to Alfol and back, ready or not. There's no way to escape from it. I originally went there too soon and had to reload.
  • Level-up notifications tend to happen randomly, long after your last combat. Either the game delays it, or you get experience just for wandering into new squares.
  • The word "Tera" never appears in the game. I'm not sure what it's supposed to apply to.
  • After killing the final demon, you can invoke and kill him again.
  • The game is so punishing with a shrieking tone when you do something wrong that it's a struggle not to turn off the sound. It has quite a few sound effects, but they're of the primitive bloopish variety. I never understood why a little tune played when I entered some areas and not others.
  • The number of enemies shown on a screen during a particular combat doesn't seem to have anything to do with the combat's difficulty. You can't target particular enemies nor can you tell which enemy is damaging you. They don't even disappear one by one as you kill them.
Fighting three enemies is indistinguishable from fighting one.
  • If you move continually east or west in the outdoor maps, you'll wrap around on yourself after 30 moves (Amarande) or 10 (Alfol). But if you go continually north or south, the game nudges you one square to the east or west after you pass a certain coordinate. Moving continually north or south will eventually bring you to every square on the map.
  • After I won, I started a new game at a difficulty level of 9. I couldn't get any NPC to join the party. I made it to Kronopolis and bought an axe, revolver, and cuirass, but then I died in two rounds in a random combat against a tarantula.
Reconciling what happened with the back story, I guess my party brought the various conflicting forces of Amarande back into harmony: transcendence by doing some kind of meditation thing; sorcery by ending the corrupting influence of Arioch and his ally; and technology by...buying them off? I don't know. When I returned to Amarande from Meduz after completing the fourth task, I got the screen at the top of this entry, which reads:
Arioch and Amalork are returned to chaos...for how long? The future will tell. Amarande owes you a lot, o brave and righteous adventurers. The three forces are unified and harmony reigns again on the world, thanks to you.
Then you get a score. I'm not sure what it's based on, but I'll bet the difficulty has something to do with it.

In a quick GIMLET, Tera earns:

  • 5 points for the game world. Reasonably detailed in the backstory and certainly more original than the typical RPG, Tera has you exploring some truly odd places. There isn't quite enough content in the game to do right by the story, but in the end the accomplishments make sense in light of the backstory.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. A fairly basic creation process coupled with leveling that I barely noticed.
  • 4 points for NPCs, who are valuable for both their hints and their ability to join the party.
One NPC tells me how to find another.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. Figuring out the types of attacks that worked against the different monsters was an original mechanic, and it gets credit for mixing different types of combat even if none of it is very sophisticated.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. There's really only one effective action you can take against each of the game's monsters; no real "tactics" in combat. The magic system is mostly limited to item use.
  • 3 points for equipment. You only get a couple of weapon and armor upgrades, and you have to find a few magic items to beat certain foes. Not much to the system.
A character drinks a healing potion.
  • 4 points for the economy. It remains relevant throughout the game. You're usually saving up for the next equipment upgrade ("space armor" costs the most), and you can splurge on healing elixirs in between. I like that you can just buy maps and keys for a couple of the key areas in the game.
A map of Meduz can be purchased from the store rather than found.
  • 2 points for a main quest with several stages.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The sound is pretty bad. The graphics are better described as "outré" than "good," but they're at least a bit different from the norm. The all-keyboard interface works great once you memorize the French terms, although I don't like the way that the game kept changing what certain keys do in certain locations (i.e., try to "enter" the spaceport and suddenly find yourself "embarking" on an interplanetary adventure).
  • 5 points for gameplay. Once you figure out its conventions, it doesn't drag. It's hard to complain about a difficulty level that you can adjust yourself. There's even a bit of non-linearity in the way you can approach the quest stages, as well as some replayability tied to the randomness and difficulty settings.
That gives us a final score of 33, still a bit below my "recommended" threshold, but not by as much as I would have thought going into it. If you had told me back in 2010 that I'd not only master Tera but actually come to like it a bit, I would have called you an imbécile.
Of the authors of Tera, going by the handles "Ulysses" and "Lout," we seem to know nothing. There is some evidence that they intended Tera to be a series, as the title page of the manual suggests that "La Cité des Crânes" is only the première époque.

In 1987, Loriciels published Karma, an even more obscure title, which seems to use the Tera engine and tells a story of similar themes; whether Ulysses and Lout were involved is unknown. The art seems quite different, evoking a classical Japanese (not anime/manga) style. I haven't been able to find a manual for it yet.
Tera's "sequel."
Tera once again shows that French RPGs of the period are mostly self-referential. They have few clear antecedents and mostly play by their own rules. I suspect the developers of Les Templiers d'Orven and Tyrann played Wizardry, but even those games depart from their inspiration in significant ways. I couldn't even begin to guess what Tera's authors had played, if anything. This originality creates a steep learning curve--sometimes an impassable one, in the case of Fer & Flamme--but having forced myself to reach the end of both Tera and Mandragore, I'm glad that I did. I'll have to remember that in 1987 when Karma, L'Anneau de Zengara, Le Maître des Ames, and Omega: Planete Invisible inevitably give me trouble.


  1. Thanks for coming back to this. I'm not motivated to play it, though I am interested in reading about it. By the by, you missed a golden opportunity here with the red screaming faces to say something about gaming Trolls under the picture labelled "The map shows your position, doors, and locked doors." :)

  2. It looks like a bunch of times Arioch got auto-corrected as Antioch. Unless I'm really confused, and there were two bad guys?

    1. No, i was just watching the Ken Burns Civil War series recently.

  3. Well, felicitations on getting through another weird French RPG. Some nerdy stuff from the source code:

    Score = (ExpPoints / (Days - 4000)) * (1 + Difficulty) * (1 + (Difficulty + 3) DIV 4) * 120;

    Days is the age of the main character in days, starting at 7300 days (20 years).
    DIV is division with the result rounded down.

    Random words are generated by randomly picking one syllable each from the following groups:

    Group 1: EL, A, HA
    Group 2: KHY, MA, KHA, RAH, THY, TOH
    Group 3: HAM, HAAR, LORK, RMA, LU

    1. Hakhyhaar sounds like last words of someone dying from lung cancer.

    2. Sounds more like a lost sibling from Drakkhen to me.

    3. I'm just glad Arioch's partner wasn't "Hamaham."

    4. Dammit Moon Moon.

      (Explanation: I picked this saying up from Mara. At one point, a 'make your werewolf name generator' was going around Tumblr. Simple roll in two columns and put them together thing. Well, it seems that Moon was in both columns, so you could generated Moon Moon, which it was decided was the derpiest of all possible werewolves.

  4. A few years ago, I made the mistake of reading the entire Elric series. It was like a shriveled penis was stuck in its mother's basement writing its life's work. Top 3 worst things I've ever read in my life. The only consolation was that everyone died in the end. They all deserved it, imo.

    1. Having read it all the Elric Series is pretty great up until after the first ending. It's a bit dated, but has some neat (for the time) concepts such as Elric being not quite a hero that has put himself into debt to Arioch (whose not exactly evil, just an agent of change and destruction.) Elric is really like a villain out of some Conan story mixed with a bit of the wizards/elves of LotR, a creature/man with great power but knowing that his kind will soon be gone as the world becomes more mundane. The later Elric stuff is indeed a bit masturbatory and out there (filling in the before the fall of Melnibone and the nature of the lords of chaos as humans from the future was pretty cringe inducing), so I'm assuming that's the stuff you read.

      It was pretty influential on early D&D and I could certainly see it being a staple of Euro Fantasy readers in the 70's and into the 80's.

    2. I bought one of the Elric books ages ago, probably because it's mentioned in an early D&D book as an inspiration. I've picked it up a couple of times but never made it very far. Wasn't sure if it was too dated, or not that engaging, or if I just wasn't giving it enough chance. This isn't encouraging, but I should probably give it another shot one of these days, regardless. It seems like an interesting enough premise.

    3. "Top 3 worst things I've ever read in my life."
      You aren't very well read.

    4. I've only read the early Elric books, and they are pretty good. However, I've read a number of later Elric books, and one of the Hawkwind novels, and while they aren't the worst things I've read, nor even the worst published novels I've read, they sure aren't good. Massive retcons about what was going on in earlier books, just to make things fit the symbolism he has created and obsessed over. Interesting characters in a dying age replaced with paragraphs and paragraphs about the nature of the universe and the eternal conflict of The Runesword and The Black Gem and the nature of reality.

      If you want to read really good Micheal Moorcock, I recommend going for Corum, "The Swords Trilogy". Mostly self-contained, a minimal of his self-indulgent symbolism and a bit more approachable then Elric due to a quite likeable main character.

    5. 1. The Book Of Dead Names
      2. Self-Help Book Of Finding Help From Others
      3. Quentin Tarantion's Nursery Rhymes For Toddlers

  5. Very glad you finished this, I was looking forward to reading about it. I really only wanted to look into the savegame issue but started playing and enjoying the game (at least a bit). Usually I don't play games this old.

    I encountered two demons on level 8, one I ran into and one appeared when I entered ARIOCH for fun at an altar on that level. I defeated neither of them so it might have been the same one. Also, I think I've only found one Orb of Time. C'est n'est pas juste.

    Good to hear Meduz only has one level, so I might finish this myself. Wouldn't have gone through eight levels of that for sure!

    1. Made it. I'm surprised you had so little trouble with the demons. I levelled up to 18 and equipped everyone with stones (which hit demons in my game), but only two characters ever hit and they hit rarely. It took about 12 hits to slay the demon. I managed it on the second try with both of them, but I must have typed the secret word a hundred times.

    2. Hah, nice work. That's definitely worth a proper rpg 'achievement' token.

    3. What difficulty level were you using, Buck?

    4. I played at 3. Most combats weren't that hard, so maybe I just had a bad combination of attributes.

  6. Karma's manual (and the game) is available for download on this page :

  7. Thank you for the review! I am stuck in the first level of the city of skulls (a corridor with only 2 locked doors). Is there a specific sequence of commands to unlock a door with a key?

    1. To the best of my recollection, you just have to open the door wit the key in your possession. But there's one key sold at the shop in the city that you may have to buy, if you don't already have it.

    2. Thank you for your reply. I have the key from the shop. Typically when a door is closed you need to press 'o' to open it. When a door is locked, do you also just need to press 'o' and the program automatically uses the right key?

  8. You wrote: "The word "Tera" never appears in the game. I'm not sure what it's supposed to apply to."

    "Tera" reminds me of Terah, a character in the Genesis. Terah was father of three sons, that settled in three separate lands, and gave rise to three different nations: Chaldea (today southern Iraq), Aram (today central Syria), and Israel.

    Could Tera be a progenitor of the three planet civilizations? There is an assonance between "Aram" and "Amarande", too.

    The name of the demon Arioch is also the name of another character in the "History of Terah's Family". He was an evil king.

    1. That's very intriguing! There could definitely be some connections here, either directly or through the works of the sci-fi authors I mentioned.


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