Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Chaos in Andromeda, and in Gameplay

The one time in the game that there's "no doubt" about something.
     
Well, I'm in an uncomfortable position with Chaos in Andromeda. I haven't won it, don't know if I can win it, don't know how much longer it will take even if I can, don't know if I care beyond a vague desire to be the only one online to fully document the thing.

There's a nucleus of a decent adventure/RPG hybrid in Andromeda. The adventure game puzzles are based more on inventory than logic, but the RPG side is better developed than the typical hybrid. Attributes and leveling truly do matter, and there are a lot of in-game ways to develop the character.
      
My statistics at Level 9.
     
Since I began, all gameplay has been on the same map, or structures accessible from it, which makes the game world rather small. But you do so much backtracking that it seems bigger. In some ways, it reminds me of the two Legends of Murder titles, where you criss-cross small areas, hunting down items and clues, unlocking new sub-areas as the plot progresses.

Unfortunately, there are too many problems with the game. These include:

1. Inventory woes. You have limited inventory space; there's no way to tell which items are going to turn out to be vital; and once you drop an item, it's gone forever. By the third or fourth hour, every time you find a new item, you're agonizing over what to keep and what to discard. Discard the wrong thing and you're in a "walking dead" situation.

These aren't the only inventory problems. Items that you read are one-use items. Their text shows up on the screen and then the item disappears. It's easy enough in the modern era to take a screenshot, if you know to do that, but back when the game was new, players must have had to take a lot of handwritten notes.
     
I'm glad I captured this, because the list disappeared after I read it.
     
Generally speaking, I found that if you can "use" an item and it disappears after you use it, there's no point hanging onto it. These include a lot of attribute-boosting items, such as spinach that increases strength, combs and lotions that increase charisma, and books that increase intelligence. Some of these items are at fixed locations but others you acquire randomly in successful combats (if you have a free slot). I'm not sure this is universally true, though. In particular, there was one scroll and one potion that are probably supposed to be used at specific locations. I got sick of carrying them around and said "screw it."
       
Some of my equipment. I've been carrying the scalpel, tree plank, needle, energy saw, linder device, and "rose of reunion" for hours. There's no clear use for any of it.
         
Perhaps the worst issue is the inability to see items on the map. You have to walk into the right pixel and see a message that "there is something here." It's extremely easy, even when you're being thorough, to miss those specific pixels.

Finally, to make things worse, NPCs routinely steal from you, forcing you to chase them down and kill them to get your vital equipment back. If you miss the theft message, you're out of luck permanently.

2. Combat difficulty. As we discussed last time, you can either let the game duke it out on the main screen, or you can go to the combat screen and target specific parts of your enemy's body while shielding particular parts of yours. I did the latter for most of the game before I realized that autocombat on the main screen was both faster and more successful.
     
Killing an enemy on the combat screen. This turned out to be inefficient.
     
Although you level rapidly and get an extra attribute point per level, the game seems to scale enemy difficulty with you. Now that I'm Level 12, I keep running into enemy tanks who kill me in single combat even when I'm starting at max hit points.
       
This confusing message comes up a lot during auto-combat.
       
On a related note, it's virtually impossible to distinguish NPCs from enemies until they get next to you. They use the same icons (which are barely distinguishable anyway) and color. I have no idea why some attack and some don't. It's not uncommon to enter a room in which 3 icons rush to attack and 3 wander around randomly. There's actually an entire class of NPC who rushes up to you and won't leave you alone, but refuses to attack unless you force the issue by changing your "mood."

3. A nonsensical story. I really don't know what's happening in the plot. NPCs offer brief, cryptic statements that make it hard to tell what their motivations are or what side they're on. Every other word is some bit of futuristic jargon that you have to turn to the manual to translate. Most of the time, when an enemy is attacking me, I have no idea why he's attacking me. Am I supposed to be following my original mission or sympathizing with the rebels? Who knows. Both sides try to kill me regardless.
       
A typical sentence from an NPC. "Twacka" means "hideout." To get there, I have to go through the "beckes," meaning "caves."
       
The screen shot of Koranis 12 that I offered in the last entry turned out to be what I think is the entirety of the game world. I explored everything but the bit to the southwest, on the other side of the mountain. Everything that I accomplished was in service of getting to a series of caves where (I think) the rebellion is hiding.

The adventure side of the game progressed in the usual manner where Item A is necessary to get Item B to get Item C, and so on. Thus, the password that I retrieved from the weather computer allowed me to access a compound in the southeast. I had to find some tweezers in one of the buildings in the compound, then use them to fish a "guest pass" out of a mail slot, then use the pass to enter the basement of the compound, where I found a bunch of futuristic technology, but never fully understood who ran it or what it was for. For some reason I destroyed a CPU center by throwing ashes into an air vent.
     
This feels like a major quest solved, but I have no idea what it actually did for me.
     
I used a fishing rod to catch a fish, which I gave to a hapless fisherman in exchange for some pincers, which I used along with some copper wire to repair a broken control panel. A blanket thrown over a camera shielded me from capture, allowing me to access a room where I bribed an NPC for a keycard to access the rest of the rooms on the level. (This NPC, by the way, attacks you if you get one square away from him. If you kill him, you don't find the keycard on his body, so you're in a walking dead situation and don't even know it. You have to offer him money from two squares away for it to work.)
      
Bribing an NPC from one square away. I would have never thought to do this. I got the hint from Alex.
     
One of the other rooms had a safe with a pair of mountain boots, allowing me to walk over the rubble on a mountain path and enter the lair of . . . I guess one of the rebel leaders? There were some documents about the rebellion, including the names of some rebel agents.
     
Of course it is.
     
My helpful commenter Alex was invaluable through this process, helping me with puzzles that I misinterpreted or items that I missed. But even he could only take me so far.

Enemies attacked more-or-less randomly, often respawning the moment I was out of sight of their original locations. My character leveled rapidly and got some inventory upgrades, including a "torc-helmet" and some leather gloves. At maybe Level 5, he got the psi power of "Illusion," and at 10 he got "Retunation," which creates a kind of mind shield. Neither proved to be the solution to any puzzle or obstacle that I found.
     
The Danish developer taught me some English. I didn't know that "illude" was a word. It means "trick." I still don't think it's used right here.
     
One particular inventory item is worthy of recollection. In the northern part of the map is a circle of stones around a stone slab. Walking up to the slab takes you to an underground tomb, guarded by two warriors. The moment you try to enter the tomb, about 8 red drones launch at you out of nowhere. If they get next to you, they self-destruct and kill you. You have to dive into the caves quickly before they reach you.

In the caves, I had to kill one of the guards to get past him, then use a lever to pry open the sarcophagus within and steal the Sword of Freedom. I guess it's probably the best weapon in the game, although I didn't notice a huge improvement over the spear I had been wielding earlier.
      
"Thornblower" is apparently a famous rebel slain in an earlier era.
    
Meanwhile, the 8 drones don't disappear. They wander the map until they acquire you, then zoom up to you and explode. I had to buy a series of my own droids and send them one-by-one to engage the red balls and take the hits.
    
Another droid sacrifices his life for mine.
     
The culmination of my explorations was to learn about the hidden entrance to the rebels' caves in the mountains. I followed the directions and entered.
     
Navigating a hidden mountain path.
     
I had been led to believe that by wearing something called a "Star-Ribbon," the rebels wouldn't attack me, but that wasn't true at all. I've spent a couple hours trying to make any progress in the caverns, but the enemies are so hard that I have to wait and heal after every battle (if I win), and new enemies respawn constantly. The caves have a bunch more of those red droids that kill you in one hit. Fortunately, there's a guy in the caverns who sells droids that you can send against them, but the whole process is annoying and slow-going.
     
A red droid kills me for the billionth time.
      
Limping through the area, I found a set of blueprints with symbols too small to see, "some kind of control room" where I couldn't do anything, and a couple of chemical vats. An NPC near the vats says that they're full of "eufaeum," an effective chemical weapon, but that CAMASC (my employers) are producing 10 times the volume that the rebels are. I remember seeing those vats in the compound. Maybe I'm supposed to destroy them? If so, I don't know with what.

I went back and forth about quitting the game (making this my final entry) several times. I got closest when, trying to pick up yet another inventory item, I finally got rid of the "weather report" I'd obtained near the close of my previous session, 10 hours ago. It wasn't but 15 minutes later that some rebel intelligence officer asked me for it.

I'll give it a little while longer, but this is not going to be a four-entry game.

Time so far: 14 hours

32 comments:

  1. If it's any consolidation, I really enjoy reading about these games that few people know and that are virtually undocumented. You're creating something really unique.

    If there's any way to help you with Drachen von Laas, just say so.

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    1. I feel the same way - it's these unusual games that you slog though that I enjoy reading about the most.

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    2. Echoing the appreciation for soldiering through some of these weird ones. Wish that there were more hidden gems to discover rather than oddities to endure though. Don't burn yourself out!

      I am a sucker for RPGs with inventory puzzles and it makes me sad to see one where the cardinal sins of limited inventory and permanent inventory discards turn a favorite mechanic into a game breaker. This one seems like it has some of the ingredients to make an interesting game if only they knew what to do with them.

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  2. Ugh, there is a pretty good album by Polish black metal act Mgła, its title seems to sum up playing this game pretty accurately: "Exercises in futility".

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  3. To me, the unforgivable sin of an RPG or adventure game is letting you save your game in a position where you will have to start over from the beginning. I think there are few, if any, game design flaws that are worse than this.

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    1. This philosophy has only become the dominant one relatively recently in the history of computer adventure and roleplaying games. It used to be just expected that if you didn't figure out how to do things in the right order, you'd have to start from scratch—and that shift happened well after 1991.

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    2. I always got annoyed by the Sierra games that did that. King's Quest was particularly bad.

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    3. I LOATHED Infocom games for that very reason - they LOVED 'walking dead' scenarios... and I have ALWAYS thought that was TERRIBLE program design. And I speak as a guy who bought a Vic-20 off the SHELF back in 1982... I've been playing computer games a VERY long time and that thing right there- in ANY game, the walking dead scenario - is SUCH HORRIBLE game design. Again, LOATHED it when coming across it in ANY game and I wish, I wish so hard, we lived in a present where the first guy that TRIED that got bitch-slapped so hard he lost teeth... and no one EVER tried it again.

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    4. Virtually no Infocom (the primary exception being Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy, which deliberately set them up because Douglas Adams thought it was funny) included walking dead scenarios on purpose.

      In the earliest games, such scenarios were the result of them being essentially amateur productions with no single design team that were cleaned up (and, in the case of Zork, converted from one game into three) for commercial release.

      Later ones were oversights, caused by the designers not anticipating you doing something particularly stupid, or else thought that a given puzzle element was clearly obvious when it wasn't.

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    5. I generally agree with Kurisu's sentiment, but I can forgive WD moments in some of the shorter adventure games of the 1980s, particularly since once you figure out the solutions to the game's puzzles, it takes virtually no time to win. I think Beyond Zork took me 30 minutes with my final character.

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    6. I always liked Morrowind's take on the walking dead scenario. Tell the player immediately and give them a choice as to whether or not to continue.

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    7. Every single Sierra game from the text-parser era had walking dead scenarios, even the beloved Quest for Glory series had walking deads in the first two installments, though they must less egregious than the Space Quest or King's Quest ones.

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    8. I believe there's also a way to multi-class in Quest for Glory III that winds up preventing you from receiving a critical item, halting your progress indefinitely.

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    9. I don't have a huge problem with dead ends that are unequivocally there by design. Even the early Lucasfilm adventures prior to Loom had a few. But the scenarios on this RPG seem to be the result of sloppy, rather than accurate but unforgiving, design.

      Having to drop something which _might_ later turn out to be a quest item, just because you run out of (limited) inventory space - having been keeping objects whose usefulness you've been unsure of all along - and then being unable to backtrack and recover it, is faulty design. Not being able to loot an item that you can otherwise buy from that same NPC is faulty design. Trading items with an NPC but not obtaining the item they offered because you didn't have an extra free inventory slot prior to trading (and yet the exchange is registered as having taken place) is faulty design.

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    10. Raifield, I agree with you on Morrowind's approach as a Walking Dead scenario done right. And that's before crafty players discover that they're not really in a Walking Dead scenario, that there's a second, subtler way to beat the game.

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    11. I'm not sure Walking Dead even applies to Morrowind. You may not complete the main quest, but with most of the game world still open to you you're not really stuck.

      You may even see it as a roleplaying choice. Screw the prophecy, I write my own destiny ;)

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    12. The "walking dead" variation that you see in poorly designed console RPGs is where you can save inside a dungeon that you can't leave until you complete it. If you have too few resources/strength to do that, you might have to start over.

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    13. I guess another walking dead variation is the RPG that's designed around it--like the earlier Fire Emblem games, where the tension is between taking time to level your characters up and thus risk exhausting and losing them forever or plowing ahead as fast as possible and place yourself in an impossible scenario through overreach.

      That would also be the reason why I never finished any of the early Fire Emblem games.

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  4. Best feature of games like this: Uninstall

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  5. You've just experienced what was given to anyone playing copied games in 80's and 90's not that having a manual helps much in this case.

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  6. All that screen estate taken up by unfilled character slots gives me the eye twitch.

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    1. A lot of games had small displays to boost performance rather than as an aesthetic decision. What else could go there?

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    2. Without having played the game, I do not know what information a player most wants access to on the main screen. I'm sure Chet could provide a better suggestion than 'nothing'.

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    3. I agree. You don't have the robots active for long enough to justify all that space. I also can't imagine a scenario in which you'd need more than one active at the same time. If I was redesigning the window, I'd rmove the right two slots, line up the action icons vertically along the far-right side, then expand the game window into the extra space.

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  7. Dead ends also happened to be the *ONLY* flaw in SSI´s unsurpassed Five Star Series. (The 5 Star Series is for TBS what the Gold Box Series is for RPG.)

    Fantasy General -which has RPG elements, so you might consider including it in your project-, has a rather long campaign, and the player simply has to KNOW -but the manual doesn´t really tell him-, that he can´t afford to lose more than 1-2 units in any given scenario, and that he NEVER can afford to lose a highly experienced unit. So he can win a scenario, but 20 hours later he will discover that losses that occurred an eternity ago have actually doomed him.

    So the most important hint if you decide to include Fantasy General in your playing list: If your losses in any given scenario are above negligible, even if you win the scenario, replay it instead of moving on. The game lets you continue after Pyrrhic Victories, but you can´t afford them and will (much) later run into a wall!

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    1. Yeah, that's why I hated Fantasy General, despite it being a member of that rare abused genre, the fantasy wargame. I couldn't stand that you were meant not just to win every scenario, but win with zero losses. Why, why, why?

      I gave up on the whole 5 Star series when I figured out that they're not actually wargames, they're puzzle games. You're supposed to play the scenario once, when there is almost no chance to win "correctly". You then play a couple more times before you figure out the "trick" for that scenario. You then move on to the next one. Ugh.

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    2. That depends on personal experience. Playing Japanese TRPGs, I have no problem with zero losses style gameplay.

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    3. My OCD wouldn't allow losses in a game with experience and permadeath anyway. :)

      For me, the real dealbreaker was the turn limit. Win by N turns, or automatically lose even if you crushed the enemy with zero losses and have 4/5 objectives. No time for proper strategy, it's always just rush, rush, rush.

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    4. Yeah, that was the other thing that bothered me - the strict time limits on scenarios, otherwise you don't get the major victory. Don't get the major victory, you can forget about being on the path to win, or the enemy forces will be much stronger in the next scenario. Just a relentless whip, causing this constant sensation of being late, taking all the fun out of playing the game.

      A JRPG is one thing, a wargame is expected to have attrition of both sides. If the game is designed such that you can't afford any losses, that's a poorly designed wargame. I guess it's kind of silly to take six characters through the dungeon for 10 levels with no losses, but that's the paradigm that was established long ago with RPGs and kind of late to change it now.

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    5. Fantasy General is my favourite game from GoG (out of 39 so far), and my favourite Fantasy Strategy Game, ever.

      1. It´s cute.
      2. Rules are logical, but not over-complicated.
      3. Intuitive Interface.
      4. Replayability is endless, thanks to 4 very different starting characters, different campaign paths, random scenarios...

      But this is the rare game that is harder than advertised: Easy is Normal, Normal is Hard, and Hard is Nearly Impossible...

      I find walking the tightrope between avoiding losses, getting as many objectives as possible and finishing early fun, though...

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  8. I'm really enjoying this one! There's something really strange about it, all the details are so bizarre and off-kilter, but have a weird internal consistency, like it's a normal RPG from a parallel universe.
    It reminds me a lot of the works of Andi Hagen- their adventure-RPGs (like Ramble Planet or Void Pyramid) have this same kind of jarring strangeness (in a good way!).

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  9. Thanks for another great blog. This is equal to when many years ago I´d buy computer video games magazines. very entertaining.

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