Saturday, October 28, 2017

Game 268: Legends (1987)

      
Legends
United States
Asgard Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for TI-99
Date Started: 19 October 2017    
      
You have gone 20 levels down and 20 levels back up in your search for the Amulet of Yendor, rising in the process from a scared serf to an invincible warlord. The quest item is tucked securely in your belt and the exit is in sight. Suddenly, a little Level 1 goblin appears in your path and growls. You're torn between annoyance and amusement. You faced hordes of these when you were a Level 1 adventurer, but you outgrew them a long time ago. Do I step around him or smack him across the room without breaking stride?, you wonder, knowing that by even considering the question, you're spending more time on this foe than he's worth.

You try to side-step him. He dives in front of your legs and trips you. You don't fall, but it takes a couple of seconds to right your balance. Now you're pissed. You're going to crush the little bastard's skull. You swing your mace at him but he dodges at the last second, chortling at you. You swing again; he jumps aside. You swear aloud. Fifteen steps from your destination, and you have to deal with this? You turn again towards the door, vowing to just ignore him, but now he runs up and jumps on your back, digging his claws into your neck. "Get off me," you bellow, twisting your body to and fro as his grubby nails pierce your flesh.
      
I'm going to be telling this analogy for a while, so here's the game's take on a giant cat.
    
Reeling backwards, you head for the nearest wall, intending to mangle your "opponent"--though you can't yet bring yourself to call him that---between its stones and your armor. Anticipating the satisfaction of the resulting crunch, you smile. But moments before you strike, he leaps away and into the shadows. With no way to check your momentum, you slam against the granite wall. The impact jars your armor and helm and you see stars. Shaking your head to clear it, you look around. The goblin is nowhere to be seen.

Well, at least he's--. Your thought is cut off as you abruptly notice a lack of weight on your belt. In panic you grab at your waist with your gauntleted hand. It comes up empty, confirming the worst. The Amulet of Yendor is gone. In the distance, you hear a goblin laughing. You have to be f&#*#@$ kidding me. You cast one last plaintive look towards the exit before heading back into the dungeon's shadows, girding yourself for a quest that's clearly going to take a lot longer than it should.

Legends is the CRPG equivalent of that goblin. That it's a TI-99 game meant that it was never going to be great, but it could have at least been fast. It didn't have to completely halt my momentum. It could have let me swat it out of the way with one entry. I would have been complimentary. I probably would have called it the "most complete RPG for the TI-99." I might not have been able to resist saying something like, "which is a little like being the best blues player in Millinocket, Maine." Adamantyr would have offered a spirited defense of the platform, and we would have been polite to him but no one would have really felt sincere about it. Then this entire entry would have gone completely unread until 2026, when Millinocket finally gets Internet access, and someone would feel it necessary to comment that old George Eastman strums a six-string down at the Blue Ox on Saturdays and is "not half bad."

But no. Legends has to be hard--and not in a satisfying, tactical way, but in the way where the dice rolls never go your way and you have to grind forever. My first foray out of the starting city, I got eaten by 5 "giant cats" without even once hitting them. Combats are so frequent and merciless that it was more than an hour before I could exit the city, win a single battle, and return to the city despite the city being only one square away from the battle.
       
An all-too-common message in the early game.
      
If you had a TI-99 in the 1980s and were interested in adventure games or RPGs at all, you probably knew about Asgard Software. The company sprang up in the years after Texas Instruments discontinued and disavowed its own machine. TI had famously discouraged third-party development for the platform during its life (1979-1984); afterwards, they didn't seem to care, but no major developer was interested in writing for a discontinued platform. The Maryland-based Asgard stepped in and satisfied the niche demand for TI-99 titles. Chief among these was the Tunnels of Doom Editor, written by Chicago Police Officer John Behnke, who spent untold hours decoding the 1982 game. The Editor allowed the creation of new modules, and Asgard published some of the best of these as Doom Games I (1987), II (1988), and III (1989). They also ported most of Infocom's text adventures to the TI-99 and offered a small portfolio of their own adventure titles.
       
This is the quality of graphic on the manual cover.
      
Legends (1987) and its sequel, Legends II (1989; subtitled The Sequel in case you're confused) are the only RPGs in Asgard's portfolio, although there's a sort of proto-action RPG called Old Dark Caves (1986?), written by Legends' author, Donn Granros. Granros is famous among TI-99 aficionados the way you'd be famous if you were the only competent RPG author for a cult platform.

Oh, there I go again. I'm trying my best to be polite about this, mostly because one of my oldest commenters, Adamantyr, is an enthusiastic TI-99 fan and he's helped me immeasurably on every TI-99 game I've ever played. (He has his own valuable summary of Legends and a bunch of TI-99 titles.) But for all its importance to this particular platform, Asgard was a low-rent company that sold minor games with no production values via catalog for a discontinued computer. We're not going to find genius here. We don't even find originality: Legends is a limited knockoff of Phantasie. That it begins with an unavoidable grind-fest is particularly unforgivable.

The backstory pioneers no new ground: The kingdom of Edonland (a portmanteau of "Ed" and "Donn," the two authors) used to be peaceful, but some wizard named Ashtar Creel (read: Nikademus) has stolen a spellbook and the Azure Amulet and used them to open a portal to the Land of the Dead, letting monsters roam freely. He has also created a group of Dark Knights (read: Black Knights) who terrorize the land. It is up to a party of four adventurers to stop them all.
    
As in Phantasie, you can encounter the Dark Knights wandering the landscape.
     
You have no choice but to play a party of four adventurers with fixed classes--a fighter, a ranger, a cleric, and a wizard--so during character creation, the only options are the characters' names and random rolls (1 to 20) for strength, intelligence, dexterity, constitution, charisma, hit points, and magic points. You start with a set of equipment sensible for your class.
   
A wizard's character sheet after a couple of levels.
     
Something odd happened to my characters. I originally created my own party, which you see in some of these screenshots led by "1 Stab" the fighter. But at some point, I must have accidentally restored the default party and not noticed. By the time I realized the names I was playing with weren't the ones I chose, I'd gained a couple of levels and didn't feel like starting over.

The game begins in Wizard's Rock, where the Adventurers' Guild offers various character utilities, including training, and you can sleep in the inn, visit a tavern for rumors, or buy potions in an alchemist's shop. (There's no standard equipment shop.)
      
Finally returning to the opening city after a successful expedition.
     
Whenever you leave Wizard's Rock, the game asks you to set a difficulty level between 1 and 6. The first time, I naively set it to 3 and got slaughtered. I soon learned that at the beginning, you want to leave it set at 1, maybe 2 if you want a gamble. The difficulty level does not affect the types of monsters you encounter, but it does affect their hit points, attack skill, and damage--as well as the experience and gold that you get from them.
    
A successful early combat.
     
Combat is relentless. If you don't immediately start moving (with the unintuitive ESDX cluster), you'll get attacked within a few seconds of leaving town. Running essentially never works. After combat, you have to be quick on the draw with the keyboard, because dithering around will almost certainly result in another attack within a few seconds. And the keyboard isn't very responsive, either. I don't know if this is an original problem or an emulator problem, but the game indicates that it's ready for you to start moving a second or two before it will actually register your keystrokes. So you pound away at "D," trying to move east, and nothing happens. You sit back and wonder what's wrong and within another couple of seconds, you're in combat again.

The types of enemies you encounter differ based on terrain. Relatively easy thugs, rats, "kobalds," and giant flies occupy the grassland near the city, for instance, while forests are likely to serve up more difficult foes like "mystical bears," stone golems, and dragons. The game suckered me with this, because I spent about 3 hours grinding on the grassland until my party made it to Level 3 and stopped dying all the time. I assumed they were finally ready to start exploring the larger world, headed briskly away from Wizard's Rock, and got slaughtered by three "plains dragons" the moment I entered my first forest square.
     
Compared to the grassland, the forest is full of terrors.
      
Combat begins with options to fight, threaten, greet, surrender, run, or change the party formation. Again, most of these are drawn from Phantasie. As I mentioned above, running hardly ever works. I also haven't had any success (at low levels) with threaten and greet, both of which give the monsters a free round of attacks when they fail.
      
Wouldn't regular bears have been difficult enough?
      
In combat, you have options to make a regular attack (which gets you multiple hits depending on level), put everything into a powerful but less-accurate "lunge," parry, or cast a spell. Again, these options are adapted from Phantasie, as is the little jumping animation that accompanies your attack. That's about all that the developers copied. Gone are any consideration of ranks, positions, or priority: characters can only attack one enemy at a time, everyone is in melee range, and there are no mass-damage spells.
     
Whatever kind of weapon he's holding, it doesn't look very efficient.
     
Even the spell list is mostly plagiarized from Phantasie, but greatly reduced. Wizards, rangers, and clerics each have a separate spell progression table, with selections like "Strength," "Dispel Magic," and "Turn Undead." A few spells, like "Firestorm" and "Healing" occur in multiple levels: "Firestorm1," "Firestorm2," and "Firestorm3," for instance. There are only 8 wizard spells, 8 cleric spells, and 6 ranger spells (most of them duplicated within the three lists), and you get a new one at every level. To cast them, you specify the spell number, so you have to memorize the spell reference card or have it close at hand. As in Phantasie, spell points deplete fast, and each caster might only be able to cast 5 or 6 useful spells between rests.

As for equipment, I assume I get upgrades at some point in the game. Maybe I have to find them in dungeons. None of the enemies I've fought so far have dropped weapons or armor, just gold.
       
A spell is successful against a "thug."
     
The problem with combat isn't just its difficulty. It lasts a long time. A simple fight against an easy enemy, like three "huge flies," can easily stretch to 5 minutes as both sides mostly miss and you have to sit and watch all the attack messages. Without streaming television to watch at the same time, I'd find this title horrendously boring.

Adamantyr's site indicates that the game world comprises 15 screens. You start in the far northeast and have to walk to the various dungeons, fighting untold hordes of enemies in between. Although there are scattered inns (just as in Phantasie) where you can rest and recharge, only Wizard's Rock has a temple and a full complement of services, making its far-flung location particularly annoying. Even worse is the fact that while you can save anywhere, saving outside Wizard's Rock forces you to quit after saving, and when you reload the party is back in Wizard's Rock. That means that each expedition away from town has to be made with no saving until you're ready to return.
      
This inn is located in a part of the landscape that there's no reason to visit.
     
In about 5 hours of gameplay, I haven't even been able to get to the point where I can survive a trip to a dungeon, let alone explore its interior. I suspect I'll have to grind around Wizard's Rock until everyone's Level 8 and has all their spells before I can survive an extended expedition. Complicating things is the fact that, just like Phantasie, your characters are always under-funded for training. Everyone's ready to move to Level 4 at this point, but I don't have enough money for even one of them. This discourages me from purchasing potions, including a useful "Stealth" potion that temporarily eliminates enemy encounters.
       
The first level wasn't so bad, but costs more than double between levels.
      
Training is otherwise quite useful, increasing hit points, spell points, and combat skill. The results are palpable. They just take a long time to arrive. I might have to grind for another 5 hours before I can even leave the starting area.
      
A rumor at the tavern. I never would have suspected!
     
At this point the only thing I'm really holding out hope for is that the dungeons are interesting. Judging by what Adamantyr says on his site, the game seems to have adopted Phantasie's encounter system in dungeons, by which interesting things pop up as you peek into rooms. I'll give it long enough to explore at least one dungeon. But seriously, 1987 games need to start sitting down, shutting up, and stop fouling my momentum.

Time so far: 5 hours

****

Sorry for having three active games at the same time. I'm getting some help from German readers on Die Drachen von Laas, but they need time to play, and I need time to analyze, compile, and comment on their experiences.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Game 267: Twilight: 2000 (1991)

     
Twilight: 2000
United States
Paragon (developer); Microprose (publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS
Date Started: 16 October 2017

Until firing it up, I thought Twilight: 2000 was going to be an RPG about vampires. I don't know where I got that idea, except for the obvious mental connection to Stephanie Meyer's Twilight, which I have neither seen nor read. Instead, the setting is apocalyptic. This makes it fairly original. We've see plenty of post-apocalyptic games, but this might be the first set during an apocalypse.
    
The manual (drawing from the materials from GDW's tabletop RPG) outlines a detailed and realistic set of scenarios by which tensions flare between NATO and Warsaw Pact nations over the reunification of Germany and other lingering Cold War issues. (The scenario was written in 1984, I should mention, before the Cold War ended, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, and Germany was reunified peacefully.) At the same time, war breaks out between China and the Soviet Union over border issues. Tensions flare to skirmishes which flare to all-out war. Nuclear exchanges occur, but with no side committing to complete nuclear annihilation. As a result, economies collapse, millions die in famines, and civilizations slowly unravel, with military commanders and units acting largely independently of any civilian authority.
      
Stock footage from planes and tanks sets up the scenario when you start the game.
     
France, which withdraws from NATO early in the alternate history, comes out relatively unscathed, but most of central Europe is a mess. Military units, cut off from any consistent central authority, become marauders or "go native" and help local populations with life-sustaining tasks like farming. Nations dissolve into fiefdoms.

One such fiefdom is in northern Poland, where an evil ex-police official named Baron Czarny has come to power with the support of his Black Legion. The player commands a party of 20 (!) rogue military veterans who come together in Krakow to support the city and oppose Czarny.

I want to pause here and note how odd this main quest is from an American perspective (and, of course, Americans made up the bulk of those who purchased this game). In the pre-Internet era of 1991, Poland was a far-off, barely-understood nation that kids made jokes about without having the faintest idea why. If you knew anything about it, it was a) that it had been invaded by Hitler, and b) the Pope came from there. But the developers chose it, and approximated realistic geography, instead of setting the game in a more familiar place like Germany or Italy, and players probably picked up a few things about the nation while playing.
   
The way the manual describes it, you create 20 characters, each with a unique background and set of skills, drawn from dozens of possibilities. From this party, you'll assemble squads of 4 to go out on various missions, strengthening the overall party and improving your home base, before taking on Czarny himself.

This is just the sort of game that, based on the description, I'd be very excited to play--if I didn't already have plenty of experience with Paragon's attempts to make anything fun out of one of GDW's properties. The warning bells start with the game manual, in which 25 of the 106 pages consist of errata--changes to the game made after the first 81 pages were written. The changes include the removal of equipment, skills, combat options, and sometimes entire interface screens.
        
The errata file makes it clear that "Interrogation" is the only necessary skill in the game.
         
If that isn't enough, the "readme" file that comes with the game documents another 10-12 pages of errata. One of them makes it clear that the only necessary skill in the game is "interrogation." But I don't know how well to trust that because it also lists 16 skills that "have been removed from the game," and those skills are still, in fact, in the game. Or, at least, they're present during character creation.

With my anticipation thus dampened, I went into the very long character creation process. As with MegaTraveller 2, I think the developers intended that the computer version could be used to create tabletop characters. There are six attributes--strength, education, constitution, charisma, agility, and intelligence---each of which governs 6 to 12 skills. Skills include expected things like heavy weapons, rifles, medical, interrogation, lockpicking, computers, stealth, and a variety of different types of aircraft and vehicles; but they also include such esoteric selections as geology, metallurgy, SCUBA, forgery, farming, fishing, and knowledge of any of a couple dozen languages.
      
Some of the game's many skills. I suspect most will turn out to be useless.
     
The manual says that it bolds the ones that are useful in the game, but half of those are on the list that were "removed" according to the errata, and the one skill that the errata says is essential, interrogation, is not bolded. So I don't know what to believe.

I manually created 8 characters, each favoring a particular set of skills, including at least one weapon. With no way to keep track of so many characters, I based them (and named them) on common archetypes. Thus, "Cagney" the ex-cop has skills with things like pistols, interrogation, persuasion, observation, forgery, and tracking. "Brown," the farmer, has all the rural and industrial skills: horsemanship, farming, fishing, foraging, and so forth. "Maverick" is the pilot. "Quinn" is the doctor-scientist. I've got a couple of combat heavies called "Matrix" and "Dutch" and an engineer named "Kaylee." The rest I auto-generated and just gave alphabetical names. You can start with less than 20, but you end up with less equipment and a chance that someone won't have that one skill that you really need, so there's no major advantage.
     
Part of my completed party.
     
Manual generation takes a long time and includes options I can't imagine a CRPG of even today's complexity making full use of. You start with a name and sex and then select a portrait from 15 choices for each sex. Then you choose a nationality from 9 options: Britain, Canada, Germany, Denmark, the United States, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (they used to be one country, kids!), and the U.S.S.R. But it gets better. If you select Canada, Britain, Czechoslovakia, or U.S.S.R., you then choose the character's regional or cultural origin; for instance, Anglo-Canadian or French-Canadian for Canada. For the U.S.S.R., you get 18 sub-options: one for each of the 16 republics plus Chuvash and Tartar. Your selection confers one or two language skills from a list of more than 30.
     
Irish readers, how do you feel about being a sub-category of "Britain"?
  
Then you go to attributes. You can choose the "allocation" method where you divide a pool among the 6 attributes as you'd like, or the "random" method where the game rolls the dice. The "random" method is vastly superior, since with the "allocation" method you only get 32 points, and "random" routinely serves up totals in the 40s. You just have to keep re-rolling until you get the numbers you want. Holding out for at least 6s in everything means that most paths will be open to you.
     
Probably the best set of stats that I got among dozens of tries.
     
You start by allocating 4 points to a random selection of skills that are supposed to represent your hobbies. They include things that the game says will mostly be unused, like fishing, swimming, and motorcycles.

You then move on to your career choices. It starts with three major divisions--education, civilian and military--and branches out significantly from there depending on your choices and attributes. You can even back out of one path and start down another, for instance going to undergraduate school and working as an engineer before joining the Air Force. Usually at some point in your background, war breaks out and you end up with experience in some branch of the military. Various skill selections accompany your choices, and in between terms you get a chance to make further improvements to those "hobby" skills.
        
Various nonmilitary career options. Some have prerequisites for attributes, education, or prior careers.
      
For instance, Cagney started off in an education role as an undergraduate, which earned her computer, instruction, persuasion, and various engineering skills (she changed majors a lot). From there, she went on to law school, which conferred observation, persuasion, and interrogation skills. Instead of practicing as an attorney (which is an option), she went into federal law enforcement (pistol, interrogation, observation, stealth, computer) for three terms. War didn't break out until she was 37 and starting to lose attributes. Despite her age, she was drafted and joined the Army, where basic training conferred rifle, unarmed melee, swimming, wheeled vehicle, and thrown weapon skills. She joined the medical branch (medical, wheeled vehicle), got promoted to sergeant, and starts the game at the age of 41.
     
Cagney's final skill list.
    
Matrix (who I made German, since Austrian wasn't an option) started in the National Military Academy for the Army and immediately developed skills in rifles, heavy weapons, and combat engineering. (I had him focus on vehicles for all his hobbies.) From there, he went to basic training, with its associated skills, and directly into the Special Forces as an officer, which brought various weapons skills plus leadership, persuasion, and the like. He's currently 33 and a captain.

The number of combinations are near-infinite. There are six basic educational paths, twenty-three civilian jobs, and four military branches, each with a handful of arms. A medical character could start as an undergraduate, then go to graduate school, then medical school, then practice for a couple of terms as a physician--or she could head right to the medical corps of the Army. You can start as an entertainer, turn to crime when society collapses, get sent to prison, get drafted from there to the Marine infantry.

Once each character's career finishes, he or she can spend accumulated money on a selection of weapons, armor, and other useful equipment. They typically already come with several grenades and armor items. I made a big mistake here, the consequences of which I didn't fully realize until later in the game. Primarily, I didn't realize that as you scroll from left to right, what you see is the first item in the item's category, and you have to scroll up and down to see the rest of the items. I missed key items like tracked vehicle tools, antibiotics, snow shoes, Geiger counters, and other things. You really want to spend all your money during this phase.
     
Buying my starting items.
      
Once you have your party and deploy them, you begin in your "office" in Krakow. You click on the various icons in the office to accomplish tasks.
      
Didn't anyone in 1990 anticipate dual monitors?
     
The computer shows you your current status; the map indicates what territories you and Baron Czarny control; the radio communicates with your intelligence officer to get the next quest; the file has drawers for game operations and party management; and the lamp takes you out of the office and on to the mission.
    
Choosing which characters are part of the party.
   
For the first mission, the intelligence officer reported that one of Czarny's raids has left the city of Zator in crucial need of medical supplies. The city of Skawina is willing to donate some, but my team has to go pick them up and deliver them.
      
       
After leaving the office, you can visit the store room to get equipped. All the items that you have your characters purchase at the ends of their careers get dumped here, again something I didn't realize until I started playing. I was woefully short on equipment.
   
    
Then it's off to the motor pool to select the vehicle for the mission, which was easy enough for the first one because I didn't have any vehicles yet.
      
The motor pool later, after I'd acquired one vehicle.
      
I headed out the door and began walking to Skawina. The main interface shows an oblique view of a single character representing the entire party. Icons at the bottom, activated with the SPACE bar or the function keys, allow you to find food, handle game operations, radio back to base, check the character sheets, enter combat, talk to NPCs, pick up items, use items, check the map, and use the "observation" skill to gaze far off in various directions.
      
Paragon needs to find a happy medium between the tiny characters of MegaTraveller and the ultra-zoomed in perspective of Twilight: 2000.
    
Each map has a number of buildings that you can enter, but most are empty. You see furniture, but there's no way to interact with it, not even an "open" command for chests and wardrobes and whatnot. I'm guessing there isn't much reason to go inside places unless your quest object is there.

It took me a long time to figure out how to get around. The game map is divided into a number of small, discrete squares. It takes a long time--like, 10 minutes real-time--to cross each one, and there are about 20 of them in between Krakow and Skawina. So instead you use a kind of "fast-travel" by clicking on your destination and letting the computer take you there. When I did that, the computer told me the trip had taken 12 hours on foot but would have been faster if I'd equipped everyone with snowshoes. I hadn't even seen snowshoes as an option when was purchasing equipment, so this was my first clue that I'd missed something.
       
The smallest-scale game map.
      
Skawina had far fewer buildings than Krakow. It had a large building that the legend tagged as a hospital, so I figured the medical supplies must be there, but I searched it and didn't find anything.
       
This hospital isn't big on privacy.
     
I thus started searching the smaller houses. Soon I realized that if you look at the zoomed-in game map, you actually see a tiny flashing light where your quest objective is. In this case, it was in a house to the south of the hospital.
       
If the create is so small that I can hand-carry it for 30 miles, is it really enough to save a city?
      
I picked up the medical supplies and then used the fast travel option to get to Zator, over a day to the north, receiving the same admonishment about snow shoes along the way. Zator also had only a small number of buildings, and this time I was primed to look for the little flashing pixel.
    
You can't really see it in this static shot, but it's in the center building in the north row. The pixel representing me is on the street.
     
I entered the house and encountered my first NPC: a uniformed man. The game adopts MegaTraveller 2's convention by which you have to "hail" an NPC to get him to stop walking, after which you can talk to him. Unfortunately, when I tried, we had a communication barrier: he spoke Polish and none of my party members did. Stupid oversight, given that we're in Poland. I guess if I'd remembered to take a hand-held radio on the mission, there's a way I could have had a Polish-speaking character sent to me, replacing someone in the party, but as it was I had to go back and get him.
      
Maybe giving Polish skills to my character named "Dutch" was too confusing.
      
I returned to HQ and swapped out Matrix for Dutch, who speaks Polish, and returned to the NPC. He gratefully took the supplies and said that, in reward, a Humvee was waiting for us in the center of town.
     
We honestly couldn't have pantomimed this?
     
We found the vehicle and entered, at which point the interface switched to a real-time 3D driving view. This was unexpected and impressive. I haven't played enough with it to see the effects of crashing it into buildings and whatnot, but you certainly get around a lot faster than on foot.
  
I careen through the snow trying to align myself on the road.
   
Within 30 minutes, I was back at the base, where I had to maneuver the vehicle into the garage to finish the quest. One quest down!
    
An animation shows the car going into the bay. From what I can tell, those buildings in the background correspond to Krakow's real skyline, with one of the towers of St. Mary's Basilica at the highest point and the Church of Saints Peter and Paul with the pointy roof to its left.
    
Miscellaneous notes:

  • The game manual says that you need to eat and rest every 8 hours, and indeed there are options for fishing, foraging, hunting, and sleeping on the "necessities" menu. But I ignored this for the first quest and nothing ill seems to have happened.
  • For all the problems I have with their games, Paragon is one of the only developers of the era offering detailed item descriptions in-game.
   
      
  • Navigating is a little hard because the map screen shows north as straight up, but the main game screen has north to the upper-left.
  • Some of the buildings are annoying because they have back entrances that are obscured by the front-facing perspective. Fortunately, I read the manual and saw that the "V" key toggles the exteriors of buildings on and off so you can see the doors.
      
The "V" key removes the building's structure so I can see the back door.
     
Having experienced a basic sense of the game--though no combat yet--I started over with a new party (but keeping the same names and basic profiles) so I could properly equip them. I also created a couple characters who spent years and years in undergraduate school learning languages so I could call on them if I really do run into someone in Poland who only speaks Scottish Gaelic.

I'm also going to check out an add-on for the game that came out in 1992 called "The Colonel"; it supposedly embeds more graphics and sound into the main game.
      
Quitting the game gets you the 1991 equivalent of an ad for DLCs.
    
I leave this first session with a slightly positive reaction. The production values on the game are quite good, and the character creation process is more fun than even MegaTraveller. But I worry that Twilight: 2000 will end up delivering the same problems as other GDW games, including too much reliance on a limited skill set and no character development. The manual mentions nothing about skills increasing after creation, and I don't even see a mechanism for it (i.e., no "training center" or something). This omission, which seems to be a chronic issue with GDW games, calls into question its very status as an RPG.

*****

Time so far: 4 hours

Monday, October 23, 2017

Game 266: Die Drachen von Laas (1991)

The graphic, with no title, precedes the "title" screen, which also starts the text narrative.
    
Die Drachen von Laas
Germany
ATTIC Entertainment Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS, Amiga, Atari ST
Date Started: 14 October 2017
    
Apparently, ATTIC Entertainment and its Realms of Arkania series are destined to be a big part of my life as I roll into the 1990s. Their contributions to the genre begin here, with Die Drachen von Laas ("The Dragons of Laas"), a rare RPG/text adventure hybrid that I'm able to play, slowly, thanks to some wonderfully helpful commenters (from this entry). It was apparently written in 1989 but took some time to publish.

It's good to see a text adventure in 1991. I wish it was more of a genre today. With the time and money you'd save on graphics and sound, and no longer limited by storage capacity, you could tell some truly epic interactive stories with text alone--stories with incredibly complex dependencies and deep role-playing--and you could make it available on mobile devices with virtually no loss of gameplay quality. Maybe this genre actually exists and I don't know about it? MobyGames does list at least a dozen text adventures, including some text/RPG hybrids, in the last decade. Names like Highlands, Deep Waters (2017), Choice of Alexandria (2016), and Fallen London (2009). I should investigate them.
       
The title screen of the DOS version.
     
Laas concerns two young adventurers named Smirga the Warrior (a girl) and Aszhanti the Magician (a boy). [Edit: I guess they're both boys. I don't know why I thought Smirga was a girl.] They hail from a small village named Hyllok and hope to become the most successful adventurers in the kingdom of Laas. In their quest, they are somehow destined to come across the titular dragons.

There is thus no character creation. Attributes are health, strength, fame, magic skill, hunger, and thirst, with health, hunger, and thirst rising and falling throughout the game and the others constituting the bulk of what we would call "character development." As both characters start as "milkboys" in strength, as "unskilled" (Smirga) and "charlatan" (Aszhanti) in magic skill, and as "nobodies" in fame, they clearly have a long way to go.
     
From the DOS version, the "character sheet" for the two characters, followed by the inventory screen (we have nothing).
     
While the two characters do travel together (if there's a way to separate them, I haven't found it yet), they act independently, and you switch between them with a single key. The game's textual perspective changes depending upon which character is active. For instance, at the beginning, if you walk north to Aszhanti's house, the paragraph begins "this is my parents' house" if Aszhanti is active and "this is Aszhanti's parents' house" if Smirga is active.

The game isn't fully textual. Some areas have a graphic associated with them that you can turn on or off with the flick of a key. At least this is true of the Amiga version. I'm not sure if the DOS version has no graphics or if the versions I'm finding just don't work, but either way they don't come up. On the Amiga version, the graphics are nice but usually get in the way of the text. 

Text adventures succeed or die on the strength of their parsers, and from what I can tell, Laas provides a strong one. (I still had lots of problems, I hasten to add, but I think they stem from my lack of German skills rather than issues with the parser.) Like Quest for Glory, it offers so many verbs and synonyms that the manual doesn't bother to document them all, trusting that unless the player is deliberately arcane in his word choice (PILFER THE GASLIGHT), he'll hit upon the right combination. There's nothing more annoying in a text game--particularly one in a foreign language--than pedantry, but fortunately Laas doesn't seem to care if you type NIMM LAMPE or NIMM DIE LAMPE.
     
Just a shot from the manual to break up all the text.
     
Verbs that work include KAUFE (buy), FRAGE (ask), LEG (put), SAGE (say), OFFNE (open), BETRITT (enter), SIEH (look at), KLETTERE (climb), SCHLAFE (sleep), and NIMM (take). (I think these are all first-person form, but someone correct me if I'm wrong.) The parser supports complex and compound sentences, including the German equivalents of ENTER THE HOUSE AND GREET MY PARENTS, PUT EVERYTHING EXCEPT THE LAMP IN THE BAG, or PICK UP THE SWORD, THE SHIELD, AND THE HELM, AND PUT ON THE HELM. (Naturally, as someone whose German is limited to kindergarten and schadenfreude, I'm stepping things out with less complex sentences.) If the manual is to be trusted, it even accepts modifiers to verbs like "quickly" or "quietly" so you can WALK NORTH RAPIDLY or CAREFULLY CLIMB THE LADDER.

The game offers shortcuts for a lot of common commands. Various function keys bring up a description of the current area, the characters' attributes, and inventories, for example. Directions are a breeze because the game accepts abbreviations, and with the exception of OST, they're all the same as the identical directions in English.
     
The center of the village.
      
As the game begins, the two friends meet at the town square at dawn, vowing that this is the day that they'll embark. They plan to say goodbye to their parents, grab their equipment, and go.
     
With the first rays of sunlight falling over the flat, shingled roofs of Hyllok, the ground of the village square is dimly lit. The heavy, wooden bucket hanging on a finger-thick rope above the well vibrates loudly between the posts, clattering. The large wooden palisade that surrounds the plaza casts long, threatening shadows over the ground and the houses of Hyllok. The dense ground fog, which wanders slowly outside the village on the meadows, now shines in the first sunlight of the morning and finally dissolves. The morning dew sparkles silver in a tuft of grass next to us and I watch a spider spinning a new web between the long, swaying stalks. Now the sun rises, and their rays form a bright cone of light before our feet.

Smirga pokes around with a stick in the crevices of the paving stones, as she slowly rises to speak: "So now it's time. It's a strange feeling to leave home and not know what's coming."

"Yes," I murmur, nodding at her. "Do you really think that we are mature enough to undertake such a journey?"

"Please, not again!" Smirga complains as she stands up. With her hands on her hips, she now stands in front of me, blinking in the sun. "We agreed! Let us finally setout before today's day is over again. It will probably take a while to convince our parents and pack our backpacks. Besides, I should still go to Foroll, the blacksmith, and pick up my new dagger as well as the sword."

"Oh, yes," I say, jumping up. "I must also briefly go to Mygra."

"What more do you want with that charlatan?" Smirga asks, squinting her eyes a little, her hands still resting on her hips.

"Magic!" I rept, and smacked Smirga lightly on the side. "Come on. let's go."
   
I made only a couple of changes to that text from what Google Translate produced. So far, the translation has been easy and clear. But slow. Zardas did me a great service by extracting the text from the game into a notepad. I brought it into Word (201 pages) and cleaned up the extra line breaks and whatnot. When I encounter the text in-game I have to find it in my Word file, copy and paste it into Google translate, and then copy the result back into Word.

Following the narrative above, I head north into Azhanti's parents' house, where we are welcomed by Sklar and Phira and given some food. I successfully enter my first command with NIMM EI (take egg) but immediately run into a problem with NIMM BROTCHEN (take the bread roll); the game replies "Das habe ich nun nicht verstaden" ("I do not understand that"). After some investigation, I realize that characters that simply look similar aren't going to do it: I need the diacriticals and everything. Fortunately, the game has remapped my keyboard to a typical German keyboard (among other things, Y and Z are swapped), where an ö is mapped to the semicolon. Thus, I soon have successfully typed NIMM BRÖTCHEN and I have the bread roll.

Meanwhile, mom is asking what's wrong because clearly something's up. I quite literally translate "tell Phira that we are going" (SAG PHIRA DASS WIR GEHEN), and damned if it doesn't work. She says something like, "My God, children. That is far too dangerous--to be left at the mercy of Laas." I relate the same to Sklar, my dad, and he's more practical: "I've been thinking for a long time that you two will not last forever in our little Hyllok. I was the same when I was your age. What can I say? Go on your adventure, and when you've had enough, just come back home."

North from the main house, in Aszhanti's room, is a piece of paper with an unsuccessful attempt at a spell. Reading it (LESSE PAPIER) produces the credits for the game, which I'm guessing is a bit of a joke. We make an unproductive visit to the henhouse. Asking for money produces nothing ("you have your allowance for this month!"), so we leave. For some reason, Sklar accompanies us back out to the town plaza.
     
This reminds me how a paper with the credits for Zork was found in a mailbox near the starting area.
    
West of the plaza is Smirga's parents' house, and I switch to her when we enter. Her mother, Agima, is cleaning, and her father, Har, asks what we're doing up so early. They have the exact same quotes when we inform them of our imminent departure. We head up to Smirga's room, which is a mess, decorated with the skins of beasts she's already hunted. The game makes a point of saying there's a chest of drawers in here, and I can open it, but no combination of commands I can divine will allow me to successfully search or look inside it. Downstairs, we snag a salami from the pantry.
      
Smirga's house.
      
In the southwest of the town square is a smithy where the smith, Foroll, wants 7 "Gerfs" for some weapons. I'm not sure where to get the money just yet. Next to the smithy is the house of Mygra the sorcerer. He asks what we want. I try asking for spells but he just ignores me.

Mapping is clearly going to be a pain. The game's squares exist at different scales and thus don't arrange neatly around each other. For instance, from the central square, I can go north into Aszhanti's parents' house and then east into the henhouse. Or from the plaza I can go east to the main entrance of town and then north to "hill country." Both the henhouse and "hill country" are one square north and one square east of the plaza, but clearly I'm moving a greater distance if I go east then north than if I go north then east.

East of the village square is the exit and the beginning of our adventure:
    
In front of us lie infinitely wide hilly meadows, the up and down of which resemble the waves of the sea. The lush green meadows are littered with colorful flowers and here and there one can see bushes and narrow trees, whose branches swing from the wind. A large flock of birds sweeps across our heads to the west, and their chirping mixes with the sounds coming from Hyllok. I turn around and see the village square and the surrounding houses. The gravel road we are on leads straight further east. "Where shall we go now?" I ask.
     
Almost immediately, we were attacked by a raubfliege, which I guess translates to something like "monstrous fly." The game asks me what weapon Smirga should wield: "hands or flee?" I say hands. It then asks what spell Aszhanti should use, but offers only "nothing" for an option. Over the next few rounds, Smirga bats at the fly with her fists while Aszhanti just stands there. It takes about 12 rounds, but we win! Albeit with hit points reduced to 12 and 9 from the original 20 each.
      
My unlikely victory over the fly.
     
Clearly, I needed to accomplish more back in the village with the smith and the mage, and perhaps there was more to find in the houses. My major weakness here is clear: a lack of understanding of the right verbs and nouns for my own inputs. Despite the examples the manual offers, I'm not hitting upon the right combination of words to search for things and ask for things. I'll be grateful for examples from my German-speaking readers, but honestly, this would be a great occasion for someone else to play the game and write about it, and I just comment on the summary. Any takers? Otherwise, we're in for a long slog.

Time so far: 4 hours