Saturday, December 29, 2018

Game 313: Black Crypt (1992)

           
Black Crypt
United States
Raven Software (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released in 1992 for Amiga
Date Started: 27 December 2018

Games of the Dungeon Master variety will never be my favorite of the CRPG subgenres. I like my RPGs to have meaningful NPC interactions, economies, more role-playing options, and less linearity. I prefer creative puzzles requiring some lateral thinking to purely mechanical puzzles. I want immersive stories rather than framing stories. If you've been with me through Dungeon Master, Chaos Strikes Back, Bloodwych, Captive, and the Eye of the Beholder series, you've heard all of my complaints before.

On the other hand, Dungeon Master clones rarely offer a bad experience. They particularly satisfy my need to map. And they do one thing very well--something that fewer of the Wizardry or Bard's Tale variants do, even into the early 1990s: they actually show enemies in the environment.

It's weird to think how long it took this feature to appear. You forgive its absence in Wizardry, when CRPGs were new and games had to ship on a single floppy. You got used to just stumbling on enemy parties while exploring featureless corridors. But as the years go by and the subsequent lineage of games--The Bard's Tale, Might and Magic, the entire Gold Box series--fails to give you any environmental indication of upcoming combats, it becomes less and less forgivable. I'm not looking for these games to adopt Dungeon Master's real-time combat system--just to show me when a party of dragons is 10 feet away. Fortunately, Might and Magic III and Fate: Gates of Dawn finally united the lineages in 1991, and actually being able to see your foes became the norm thereafter.

Black Crypt is a decent game in the Dungeon Master line. It preserves most of the things people like about Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder (it seems to draw primarily from the latter) and introduces a few new innovations besides. I'm curious what a true Dungeon Master fan thinks of it. I could see preferring Dungeon Master's action-based leveling systems to Crypt's reliance on more traditional experience points, and Crypt's spellbook-based magic is less creative than Dungeon Master's rune system. I'm enjoying it about as much as I enjoyed Dungeon Master the first time, but I suspect I'd enjoy a replay of Dungeon Master a little more than this.
         
A bit of opening narration explains why we find equipment everywhere.
        
The framing story, written as an eight-page novelette, hardly breaks any new ground. Estoroth Paingiver, a former student of the Cleric's Guild, went evil, raised abominations, summoned demons, et cetera, and attacked the land of Astera. (Hypothetical dialogue among the Cleric's Guild faculty: "Hey, do you suppose that 'Paingiver' fellow is going to be bad news?") Astera's four guilds united to face the threat and succeeded in banishing Estoroth to another dimension, but the guilds' four champions died in the process. The Black Crypt was raised to inter their bodies and enchanted weapons. Now, Estoroth seems to be in the process of tearing his way back through the dimensional barrier, so four new champions are needed to enter the Crypt and retrieve the magic weapons.
           
Creating the four characters.
          
The player creates four characters: a fighter, a cleric, a magician, and a druid. A pool of excess points is allocated among strength, intelligence, wisdom, and constitution. Names and portraits are chosen. Although some of the portraits are bestial or supernatural, they don't seem to have any impact on gameplay. The process is quick, and the player finds himself on Level 1 of the starting dungeon within a few minutes. Each character begins with a melee weapon suitable to his profession and a little bit of food.
         
Starting out. Right away, we find a shield and some food.
      
In defiance of any sensible rules of capitalism, the creators included 30 "cluebook" pages in the game manual. Each dungeon level is fully detailed. I'm avoiding these pages, naturally, but I glanced at them long enough to see that the Black Crypt is a whopping 28 levels, the largest occupying coordinates up to 40 x 40. Fortunately, there are a lot of small levels, too. The game adopts the "worm tunnel" approach to mapping (meaning that there's at least one square of "dead space" between adjacent walls), which also functionally shrinks the maps. Still, it's a big game.
          
Level 1 goes up to 26 x 21 but doesn't use anywhere near all those tiles.
        
The controls are okay. The game's primary strength is allowing you to map your own movement options. This is the first time I remember such a setting appearing, and I'm grateful for it. When you have to play with one hand on the keyboard and the other on the mouse, neither arrow keys nor the numberpad make for a comfortable configuration. I re-mapped movement to WASD, which works a lot better. But aside from this customization and the use of F1-F4 to swap between character inventories, there's no use of the keyboard. There are little annoyances like being able to enter a character's inventory with F1 but then having to right-click to get back out, or being able to enter the disk menu with ESC but then having to click on the appropriate option to leave. There are still no keyboard options for executing attacks, which is something I'm always hoping for in Dungeon Master games.

One particular issue is going to dog me until late in the game and then probably screw me up for the next Dungeon Master-style game. The creators made it so you click on the character portrait to execute the primary attack rather than the weapon. Since Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, and just about every other game does it the other way, I'm constantly clicking on weapons, which takes them out of the inventory slot so you can drop or trade them.

On the positive side, the inventory screens are well-organized. The lower-right corner has options for various containers: a backpack, a small chest, a large chest, a bag, and a quiver. You populate these spaces as you find the containers, then click on them to view their inventories. For wearable items, there are three screens, toggled by clicking the torso in the upper-right corner. The first has items of clothing, the second wearables like rings and belts, and the third the actual armor.
            
I face a locked door as I look at my fighter's inventory. He has a chest, a backpack, and a bag. I have the chest open, and I'm looking at the armor screen that shows the outer armor.
          
There's a food and water system, and I suspect it's going to be an annoyance until the cleric gets "Create Food." The mechanic really doesn't accomplish anything except impart a sense of urgency. If you want to explore carefully, you have to make a save, do your exploration and mapping, and then reload and cover the level faster, "for real." But it's worse than that because there's only one meter to track both food and water, but the game clearly considers them separately in non-visible statistics. When you find a fountain, you can't just gorge yourself on free water until the meter returns to its maximum because you need food, too. And if you don't eat but only drink, the characters will start losing points for hunger even though the meter is nowhere near the bottom.

The first couple of levels were moderately-sized, going into the 20s on both axes. Combats were infrequent--maybe 15 enemies total on the two levels--and there were really only two types of enemies: giant worms, and giant worms capable of casting some kind of "Magic Missile"-like spell. Many of the classic Dungeon Master tricks work here, including attacking and then darting away before the enemy can respond, backpedaling down a corridor as you fire missile weapons, "waltzing," and so forth. The famous "combat waltz" itself (check the glossary) seems a little harder here, it might just be a matter of getting used to a new game's timing. Crypt keeps one annoying characteristic of Eye of the Beholder in which once an enemy casts a spell, you're frozen until the animation completes.
            
The animation for the worms has them opening and closing their mouths. I only ever got screenshots when their maws were closed.
         
What you can't do--and this was a serious shock--is smash enemies in doors. That's such a longstanding trait of Dungeon Master-style games that not including it borders on sacrilegious. I'm not sure if enemies can fall victim to other environmental effects or not. I haven't encountered any others yet.

Killing enemies rewards you with traditional experience points, and levels increase automatically. I got to Level 4 on the first two levels. Leveling increases hit points and spell power, but otherwise there aren't any choices. Attributes are increased by occasionally finding items that do so.
          
My druid levels up.
         
Each spellcaster comes with Level 1 spells for their classes. Further levels must be found in spellbooks; you don't get them upon leveling up. There are only 5 levels and only 4 spells per level. You can "prepare" up to four spells and then cast them by clicking on them in the slate. I find the system a bit easier than both Dungeon Master, where you had to remember runes in the middle of combat, and Eye of the Beholder, where you had to fiddle around with that little book. You also frequently find scrolls with multiple spells that can be cast in lieu of learning them.

Among the first two levels, I experienced a variety of navigation puzzles and other mechanisms that I'm sure will last throughout the game. These include:
         
  • "Alcoves" with treasure stashed in them. These go back to Dungeon Master. Items can appear on the floor, too.
           
I apparently found the Ogreblade here.
         
  • Messages in plaques on the wall. Some can only be read after the druid casts "Read Rune."
  • Scrolls that give you hints. But some of them are "false scrolls" and should be ignored. You can reveal these by casting the cleric's "Reveal Truth," which causes false scrolls to dissolve. 
         
This turned out to be a "false" scroll, but I think I could have figured that out.
         
  • Locked doors that only open with certain keys.
  • Pressure plates that open walls.
  • Spinners. There's an obvious "transition" animation when you step on them, though, so it's hard to get fooled.
  • Force fields that require you to cast "Dispel" to pass them. You don't have this spell at the outset, so you have to rely on found scrolls.
  • Teleporters. They also have a clear "transition" animation.
  • Buttons or switches that open secret doors or make pillars disappear.
  • Buttons or switches that activate teleporters
  • Buttons or switches that change the destinations of teleporters.
          
It's hard to tell what this will do.
        
  • Holes in the floor. Falling through them takes you to a lower level and causes damage.
  • One-way walls.
  • "Glyphs" in the middle of corridors that serve as traps. You have to cast "Remove Trap" on them.
          
Dispelling a glyph trap with a scroll.
          
  • Walls that open and close on a cycle.
  • Doors that won't open until you pass a copy-protection exercise.
          
The "copy protection" riddle breaks the illusion a bit.
         
The second level had a two-headed ogre who is impossible to defeat with regular weapons (they don't even hit him). A message on the first level warns you about him: "The one below is his own twin. Only a magic blade will pierce his skin." This refers to an "Ogreblade" on the first level, though you have to get there via a teleporter on the second. (A "false" scroll warns you not to pick up the Ogreblade.) Until you find it, exploring the second level is tough because the ogre is constantly chasing you and pounding you to goo every time you pause for a few seconds. Once you have the sword, it doesn't take long to kill him, and he drops the key necessary for the next level.
         
The ogre kills us as we try to crush him in the door. Apparently, you can't do that in this game.
        
Miscellaneous notes:
             
  • The opening theme, which you can hear at the beginning of this video, is catchy. I found myself chair-dancing to it. It's credited to Ken Schilder, who stayed with Raven and is credited on a couple dozen other titles. But it always surprises me that composers so often went with rock and techno themes for title music, when an older style would better fit the setting. There's a "special topics" post in here some day.
  • The fighter has an ability, activated by clicking on his "glyph" in the inventory screen, that tells your current coordinates. The glyphs are otherwise used to activate class-specific objects.
           
Checking my position.
         
  • A lot of the game's messages are delivered as scrolling text at the bottom. It's annoying and hard to screen-capture.
  • The manual brags about making use of the Amiga's "halfbrite" mode that apparently allows for more colors than normal. The Wikipedia page on the mode shows two photographs, and they look exactly the same to me. This is why I don't talk about graphics that much.
  • A trait that I wish the game hadn't adopted from its predecessors: I have no idea about the relative damage on different weapons. On the first two levels alone, I'm juggling hammers, warhammers, axes, and swords. Should I keep the Ogreblade--is it effective against non-ogres?--or dump it for a more conventional weapon? No clue. If the cluebook had that information, I wouldn't be able to help but look at it.
  • There's an auto-map, available with the magic user's "Wizard Sight," but it shows so little detail that I can't imagine not making my own maps.
            
Level 3 is patrolled by invisible enemies and a (true) scroll on the level warns you not to try to engage them until you've found the "Mask of Truesight" on a lower level. (A false scroll on the same level encourages you to attack the unseen enemies after removing all of your weapons and clothing.) Other than a couple of other locked doors, there wasn't anything to do on the level, so I pressed on to Level 4.
         
This message wasn't kidding.
         
Remember the annoying gigglers in Dungeon Master? Well, Level 4 of this game has similar creatures who steal your stuff. Worse, they teleport away after stealing it, so you can't chase them. I hope they turn up later in the level, or I'm out of shields.
           
Level 4 also has these monsters that walk on the ceiling.
          
In the end, I suspect I'm going to find that the game is too long and too confining. I mean this not just in terms of physical space but also in character development. To require that the player have four specific classes and offer so few options in both creation and development largely means that every player arrives at the same place with essentially the same party. But for now, it's fun enough, and with a dungeon crawler, you don't waste a lot of time puzzling over your next move. It's always the next unexplored square.

Time so far: 3 hours


Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Legends of the Lost Realm: Summary and Rating

         
Legends of the Lost Realm
United States
Avalon Hill (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for Macintosh
Date Started: 26 October 2018
Date Ended: 24 December 2018
Total Hours: 32
Difficulty: Hard (4/5) 
Final Rating: 27
Ranking at Time of Posting: 146/314 (46%)

Legends of the Lost Realm is a Macintosh-only game from 1989, based heavily on themes from Wizardry (1981), The Bard's Tale (1985), and perhaps Might and Magic (1987), with some survival elements inspired by the Alternate Reality series (1985-1987). Six characters, initially drawn from fighter, thief, shaman, and magician classes, explore the large castle of Tagor-Dal, with the ultimate goal of finding one of the Staves of Power, necessary to overcome the conquering nation of Malokor. A first-person exploration window (in which you cannot see enemy parties) is navigated with a mostly point-and-click interface. Combat is turned-based, with a complex magic and skill system that makes good use of the various character classes. Combat difficulty, experience point rewards, and the economy are all terribly imbalanced, making for an extremely difficult early game. Five sequels-cum-expansion packs were intended, but only one was ever produced.

***

When I wrapped up my last entry on Legends of the Lost Realm, I was actually quite motivated to keep going. I seemed to have gotten over a hump and I was looking forward to finding out how the puzzle map would be used in gameplay.
            
Entering The Catacombs. I didn't last long here.
        
A few things happened after that to sap my interest in continuing. First, the difficulty curve returned in a big way. Once I finished the four towers, the only two major places left to explore were the Catacombs, accessible from the magic shop, and the Great Tower at the center of the map. In both cases, enemy parties encountered on the first level so far outclassed my own party that I would have had to grind for hours to defeat them.

I started to grind anyway, but it was getting a lot longer. Some of the enemy parties in the Great Tower serve up significant experience rewards, but the combats are long. For instance, there's a fixed combat with 80 bats in one hallway, and it reliably delivers about 1,000 experience points. The bats hardly ever hit, so it's easy enough to restore what little damage they cause. But I can only reliably kill 2 or 3 per combat round, so it takes over 30 rounds--and almost as many minutes--to defeat this one party.
          
The beginning of a long, boring session.
       
The same is true of more deadly parties, like the dozens of fighters and archers that attacked in another hallway of the Great Tower. Even if I leveled up two or three times, I'd have no luck against this group. The only hope of defeating such large, powerful parties is to acquire mass-damage spells. Mages never get those until they change classes to wizards, and even then they don't get them until character Level 4. That's a lot of grinding.
           
One of the Great Tower groups I had no chance against.
         
But even then, I was prepared to give it a shot. Unfortunately, I ran into my third problem: the emulator keeps crashing. Sometimes it crashes while I'm just walking down the hallway, which is bad enough, but sometimes it crashes after I've saved and quit the game, after I've selected "Shut Down." That's worse. And in those cases, when I restart, even though I saved and quit the game, because the Mac didn't "shut down" properly, everything reverts to the way it was before the previous session. Is this really how a Mac worked? You'd save stuff but it wouldn't really save unless you held its precious little hand and read it a story when it was time to go to bed? What kind of sadistic machine was this?

I don't know whether to blame the emulator for in-game crashes or not. They usually happen right after I notice that the game's fixed encounters have stopped appearing, so that sounds more like a game problem. Either way, getting anywhere in this game is hard enough without having to flip a coin at the end of a multi-hour session and hope your progress is saved. The last crash came just after I'd done enough grinding to level up and change my thief to a ninja. Losing that progress deflated me enough that I decided to throw in the towel. I slept on it for a couple of days just to be sure.
           
Ninjas in the Great Tower often attack "from behind," screwing up the character order and imperiling spellcasters.
          
I couldn't find any walkthroughs for the game, but someone did take the time to make a wiki. It shows that the Catacombs would have been two levels, the first another maze of holes for which I would have needed to find a bunch more 50-foot rope. The Catacombs would have led to three other areas of one level each: the Goblin Galleries, the Troll Tunnels, and The Lair. Each would have delivered items or clues necessary for various Great Tower levels.

The Great Tower is 11 levels. The first level--the only one I explored--is broken into four sections, each accessible from a different entrance on the town level. Each "approach" requires the party to defeat a guardian (samurai, mountain giant, enchanter, and high wizard), and each requires a different object from the four corner towers to be in the party's possession.
         
Whoops. I never found the ring, so I need to enter a different way.
        
The other levels promise a maze of staircases, teleporters, and various navigation obstacles. The map puzzle would have come into play on Level 7, which is largely open and requires the party to walk a particular path. I had the pieces assembled slightly wrong, but I think that would have become clear when I actually got to the level, partly because I would have known the starting point, and partly because there is a small walled area that would have rendered some configurations impossible.

The game apparently culminates with a fight against a dragon on Level 11, after which the party finds the Staff of Life. The endgame screen--and boy, would this have been disappointing--suggests sequel material that never arrived.
           
The entire game is basically just a test to prove your worthiness.
         
Altogether, I imagine it would have taken me another 40-50 hours to finish the game, and I would have still been blogging about it in February. That just wasn't in the cards this holiday season.

If there's one thing I'm disappointed not to have experienced, it's the specialty classes. Only towards the end of my last session did I finally start getting upgrade options; specifically, my shaman could change to a healer and my thief could change to a monk or ninja. My fighters would have received the options to change to barbarian, blademaster, or samurai at Level 9, and my magician could have become a witch, wizard, or enchanter (and possibly a sorcerer; this class is mentioned on the spell cards but not in the manual or on the "change class" screen).

Around this time, I would have started to regret keeping "Pete," who at some point I rechristened "Gideon." The game allows you to dual-class or move to a specialty class but not both. As a fighter/mage, Pete would have started to lose some of his utility, and I'd definitely be wishing for a new pure spellcaster. I probably would have changed my thief to a monk or ninja, moved him to the front rank, dumped Pete, and created a new magician, hoping to grind him quickly to higher levels.
          
My thief can switch to a more useful class.
         
The specialty classes are done better here than in most games that offer them. First, the characters retain the skills of their previous classes when they switch, so you don't necessarily want to jump to a specialty class right away. Perhaps you want to ensure that the shaman gets the full suite of shaman spells before he becomes a healer. Second, the specialists really specialize. The healer is good only at healing, for instance. Every single spell on his list either heals or cures a condition. The blademaster is all about the blade: he can reforge it, identify it, even sharpen other party members' blades, but don't put anything else in his hand.

Choosing among the mage specialists would have tied me in knots, which is why I would have wanted a second one. The raw magician is mostly about exploration-based magic. His compass, light, detection, and auto map spells get more powerful but that's about it. He has mass-effect spells that are supposed to weaken enemy parties (e.g., "Impede," "Sap Strength," "Slow"), but I never really saw much effect from them. For any mass-damage spells, you need a witch or wizard. The wizard particularly specializes in elemental magic ("Fire Protection," "Storm Winds," "Summon a Fire Elemental"), but the witch is what you want against undead. The enchanter specializes in summoning as well as spells that enchant items. The sorcerer (if it exists) doesn't come with any spells: he writes his own, based on the effects, strengths, and targets of the other classes' spells. But you can't turn him into an omnipotent juggernaut because each spell he creates subtracts from his maximum spell points. That's clever.

I suspect that in the end, I would have concluded that all of this specialization is mostly wasted in a game where the enemies aren't very memorable and the combat system isn't very good. I also suspect that the system was scaled for the many planned expansions (see below), and that in a normal first-game campaign, characters would have a tough time hitting the cap of even a single class. Still, Legends deserves high marks in the "character creation and development" category.

While we're talking about marks, here's my best-guess GIMLET:

  • 2 points for the game world. The boilerplate evil-wizard framing story hardly gets referenced in-game. You don't even get to defeat the evil wizard; you just get one step closer.
             
Alas, you only get to get 1/7 of the way to assembling the equipment you need to "cleanse the land of the evil of Malokor." Not quite as epic.
          
  • 5 points for character creation and development. There isn't much to the creation process, and as we've seen, rewards are uneven. But the dual- and specialty class systems coupled with with class skills offer a rare level of customization and class-specific role-playing.
  • 0 points for no NPC interactions. Anything that technically might count as an "NPC" is really more of an "encounter," and even if I were to give 1 point for these quasi-NPCs, I would immediately subtract it for the tax man.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are nothing special, but they do have the standard set of special actions and defenses. Other "encounters" are mostly puzzles, and mostly of the navigation sort, which are my least favorite. People who like those puzzles and use terms like "level design" will perhaps add a couple of points here.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. The Wizardry base basically works, but the game is a bit too stingy with its spells to offer the tactical depth of Wizardry
          
I still never figured out what this was about.
         
  • 4 points for equipment. Speaking of stingy. On the positive side, the game offers a lot of equipment slots. On the negative, in 32 hours I basically finished with the equipment I bought in the first three hours. You find a baffling variety of items that seem to have no use, and the characters' backpacks are far too small. I'm giving it an extra point, though, because screenshots from the wiki suggest there was better stuff to come.
  • 3 points for the economy. The system is more complex at the beginning, when you're trying to outfit the party and pay for character deaths and retrievals. By the 20th hour, however, most of my money was getting stolen by thieves and otherwise simply going to resurrections and healing. It would have been nice if there had been some high-value items in the shops.
  • 2 points for a main quest but no side quests, alternate endings, or role-playing decisions.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The black and white textures are fine, but they're just textures. By 1989, I should be seeing useful things in the environment. There are a sparse and unremarkable number of sound effects. I never got used to the interface. Like most Mac games, it involved too much clicking. There are some keyboard backups, but they mostly involving having to hold down multiple keys, which reduces the convenience of the keyboard. There are far too many poorly-documented or undocumented commands.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It gets some credit for mild nonlinearity and replayability (with different classes), but overall it's too unbalanced, too difficult, and too long. The food, drink, and sleep system is particularly obnoxious.
          
That gives us a final score of 27. I note that the best elements are mechanical (except for the interface); the worst are thematic. The creators, who bragged in the manual that the game represents "the most complete and accurate fantasy role-playing game ever written," made a better engine than they did a game.

Dennis Owens reviewed Legends in the June 1990 Computer Gaming World. Like me, he criticized the sparse graphics, early-game difficulty, and some poorly-documented controls. Unlike me, he was in love with little touches like the ability to create arrows from sticks and feathers (you have to have a samurai to do this, and anyway it's really not that hard or expensive to just buy arrows). Given a lack of any information in the manual about the quest, the encounters, the puzzles, and so forth, I would suspect that Owens didn't get very far, though I thought it was CGW's policy to require reviewers to finish the game.

The CGW review is the only one I've been able to find so far, suggesting the game didn't make much of a splash. The "sequel" from the same year, subtitled The Wilderlands, is really just an expansion pack that lets the party exit the Catacombs into a wilderness area, where they can try to find a second piece of the staff. The manual suggests that future installments would have been called The Necropolis, The Ocean of Dreams, Malakor, and Black Sorcerers, and like The Wilderlands, they would have allowed adventuring directly from the castle hub. One wonders if the developers were inspired by Alternate Reality (given the dedication to food, fatigue, and environmental factors, probably). But not only did Avalon Hill drop the series after 1989, they never published another RPG again.
            
The "Wilderlands" used the same box and just added a sticker.
          
Lead design on Legends is credited to David Cooke and Charles Collins, neither of whom have any prior or subsequent video game credits that I can find. It's possible that they developed the game independently and then shopped it to Avalon Hill, as both the RPG-only and Mac-only genres are rare for the publisher and Cooke and Collins aren't credited on any other Avalon Hill games (some of the other staff are). Unless we hear from someone involved, we'll never know. The developers' names are both quite common, and I couldn't find any obvious candidates to contact.

Pulling away from Legends of the Lost Realm is a little disappointing, but probably necessary for sanity's sake. Unfortunately, this doesn't bring us much closer to the end of 1989 because it elevates to the list another long, difficult Mac game: Theldrow.

***

A year or two ago, when I started calling my final entries "Summary and Rating" instead of just "final rating," I did so because I intended to put a single-paragraph game summary after the header information. My idea was that people who didn't want to read an entire series of entries on a game could get a quick snapshot from the final entry. Unfortunately, I forgot about the "summary" part almost immediately, until now. You can see my first attempt in this entry, and eventually I'm going to try to go back and add summaries to other multi-post games. Single-entry games will remain as they are.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Game 312: The Seventh Link (1989)

                 
The Seventh Link
Canada
Oblique Triad (developer and publisher)
Released 1989 for Tandy Color Computer 3
Date Started: 16 December 2018

Our last Color Computer RPG is a slick one. Just look at those graphics. I didn't have any idea the machine was capable of that. It's an Ultima clone, sure, but that's never a negative thing when the developer clones the right parts of Ultima. Here, as we'll see, it's a bit of a mixed bag.

The game takes place on the world of Elira, where a fantasy setting meets a science fiction backstory. "Ancient" documents tell of a desperate expedition fleeing a doomed Earth, hoping to find a new world on which to settle. Arriving in Elira's star system, the crew was dismayed to find that its planets were still in the throes of creation from cosmic dust. They figured they could put themselves in hibernation for a billion years, but it would take at least 3 billion for Elira to form, develop an atmosphere, grow life, and so forth. One of the engineers had an idea: he would take the ship's energy source, a contained black hole, and seed it at the center of the slowly-coalescing planet, causing it to form faster while the crew slept.

Half a billion years later, the crew awoke to find a lush Eden. They named it Elira after the captain's daughter. Something went wrong with the cryo-chamber of one crewmember, "Simmons," who awoke with an altered biochemistry, including rock-like black skin and red eyes. He went insane and destroyed half the ship before fleeing for the planet and becoming the ancestor of orcs or something. The rest of the crew descended and formed a new civilization, their descendants regressing to technological primitivism within a few generations. There are suggestions that the crew set up teleporters to other planets in the system, called Dulfan, Selenia, and Kallios. There is talk of an evil being or force called The Power that has mostly enslaved the giants.

Unfortunately, the black hole at the core of the planet is a ticking time bomb, its containment system destined to degrade and fail after about 2,000 years--a time rapidly approaching. There are suggestions in the historical record that the original crew seeded the world with energy packs to recharge the system, ransoming the planet for another era. Cue character creation, etc. I have to say, the story seems pretty fresh, although one of you is going to ruin it for me by telling me it was taken directly from some novel or something. I like little touches, like the suggestion that "orcs" are named such because when the crew encountered them, they gave them a name from Earth literature.
              
Character creation occurs while you watch a sample party frolic around the screen.
         
In creation, the player chooses between human, dwarf, elder, and giant races, and I'm not sure whether some of these are supposed to be native to the planet or if all of them somehow sprouted from the human settlers. Classes are fighter, thief, cleric, druid, magic user, ranger, paladin, and sage. You spread a pool of points among strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, and constitution.

Mechanically, the game is basically Ultima III. You navigate with an easily-memorized set of keyboard commands like (T)alk, (A)ttack, (C)ast, and (E)nter, and there's an option to type your own command if you have a good reason. NPCs have one line of text to offer with no dialogue options. Combat switches to a tactical screen in which enemies and characters take turns attacking, casting, and so forth. Dungeons switch to a first-person view. There are graphical and thematic borrowings from Ultima IV and V, including the little icon animations and the list of classes (replace thief and sage with tinker and shepherd, and you basically have the Ultima IV set). The title screen shows a little vignette of characters entering and exiting towns and ships, fighting monsters, and so forth, just like Ultima III and IV. Also borrowed from Ultima III is the system of determining spell points from attributes, the specific formula based on class (e.g., intelligence for the magic user, half wisdom for the paladin). There is, finally, an Ultima-like quality to the detailed monster descriptions offered by the manual.
          
This feels familiar.
          
Like the hero of Ultima IV, the character here starts alone, on a plain outside a castle, with limited food, gold, and equipment. Later, he'll get NPCs to join his quest, but he's weak at the beginning, especially if he went against type like I did and created a giant magic user.

It's a promising start, but some oddities become clear once we enter the castle and start poking around. Some games announce their names by telling you that you're "Entering Trinsic" when you enter. Some have "M I N O C" written in the walls. A few, you have to determine the name from NPCs. Here, none of those strategies are in play. Maybe the towns just don't have any names.

There are NPCs, and they give you a line of dialogue with hints and lore, but there aren't many of them. There are a fair number of icons, sure, but most of them are just guards, who say "Move Along!," and most of the rest just ignore you. (In particular, any NPC that moves around inevitably ignores you; only stationary NPCs have anything to say.) In the castle, there is no sign of King Edfax II, "the philosopher king," nor his son Prince Ferdino.
          
Buying at the weapon shop. I'll need some NPC companions before I can use any of these.
          
The castle does have a weapon shop, an armor shop, a healer, and a food shop. One advantage to creating a magic-user is that I can't really upgrade from the cloth armor and dagger I started with, thus saving my gold for other things. 

If there's one aspect of Ultima you definitely don't want cloned, it's Ultima II's tyrannical attitude towards food. Unfortunately, that's what we get here. My starting 100 meals didn't last long enough to even explore the castle. The bakery sells meals for 1 gold piece each, and it appears that's where most of my money (at least in the early game) is destined to go. Unfortunately, you can't steal food the way you can in Ultima II.
            
I feel like 100 cakes ought to last me the better part of a year.
         
The Seventh Link takes an Ultima-esque approach to hiding key NPCs. To find the one who says "The magic user's guild is below us," you need to wander around the outside perimeter of the castle's walls, around to the rear, taking care not to blunder out of the castle map and back to the world map. A lot of other NPCs are behind locked doors; it's clear that I'm going to need a lot of keys to finish exploring the castle.
          
This game adopts the simple NPC interactions of the pre-IV Ultimas.
           
I find my way in the castle's wall network, where a sign alerts me to "DRINK at pools of Earth-sprung water." I hope this will be a source of free healing, but every time I try it, including at the pool right next to the sign, the game just says, "Blech-Salt!" and nothing happens.
           
"Not this Earth-sprung water. Other Earth-sprung water."
         
There's a room full of chests, and after a momentary pause in which I remember that I'm not on the Quest of the Avatar, I plunder them. It helps my financial situation temporarily. But unlike Ultima III, this game remembers the state of its towns when you exit and return. Plundered chests remain plundered and unlocked doors remain unlocked.
            
Ain't no ankh cross in the middle of this screen.
         
I find some ladders going down and explore a bit of the maze-like basement. I eventually find a hidden guild. If it's the "mage's guild," it weirdly just sells torches and keys. I buy two keys--all I can really afford--and expend them opening a couple of doors to find an NPC who tells me to seek a wise knight in the hidden islands far to the southwest.
           
Who's manning that counter to the north of the usurious healer? That answer will have to wait until I have enough keys.
           
By now, my food is running out again, and it's clear I need a lot more money for keys. I decide to head outside and start grinding. There are several problems with this goal. First, random enemies are not copious. There's no standing on bridges to make trolls appear every five turns. You can find skeletons, orcs, fighters, and "wolf dogs," but you have to really hunt for them.
            
Blasting some skeletons with "Ring of Fire." Great, now I'm going to have that Johnny Cash song, which really isn't that good when you think about it, stuck in my head for the rest of the day.
          
The second problem is that my cloth-wearing mage isn't really up to the challenge of grinding even if there were a lot of enemies. Some of those enemies attack in packs of six. Three seems to be the average. Now, my mage is capable of a few handy spells. "Ring of Fire" does minor damage to multiple enemies, "Magic Missile" does moderate damage to a single enemy, and "Shield" offers a little protection. The game manual only lists 15 spells, five each for the magic user, cleric, and druid. It promises that you will find more on scrolls. My magic user only started with three of the five listed in the manual, and you have to figure out which spells map to which keys.

Anyway, I can cast maybe four of these spells before my points are exhausted. Spell points and hit points regenerate as you walk around, but very slowly.
            
Damned wolf-dogs don't even leave any gold.
           
The third problem is that grinding isn't very rewarding. For the post-combat treasure system, The Seventh Link draws from Ultima V, which only came out the previous year. Enemies drop individual chests on the field of combat, and you walk around opening them before you leave combat. Most of the time, they leave only blood splatters (and unlike Ultima V, you can't search those hoping to find sacks). When they do leave chests, the chests may contain items like torches instead of gold. When they have gold, they typically only contain 10-20 gold pieces, and they run a risk of damaging you with acid or poison traps. Poison traps are basically an instant reload at this stage because the condition costs 500 gold pieces to cure.
            
Four skeletons, one chest.

Sure glad I opened that chest!
             
I started poking around the map, thinking perhaps I'd find a dungeon with treasure chests and easier grinding. A map comes with the game, but it fails to depict a lot of features, particularly water. On the map below, you can basically only explore the top third at the outset. Mountains and rivers prevent you from moving south along the western isthmus. I found only one other town, far to the northeast, and no dungeons, but I have to mess around the mountains some more. I kept getting too far afield and dying. From what I explored, I suspect the overall world map is 150 x 300, and of course there are other worlds.
               
The map of the world of Elira.
            
Thus I leave you a few hours into The Seventh Link, on the brink of starving, desperately trying to find orcs so I can make money, usually dying even when I find them, and hardly making any money even when I survive. Something's gotta give.

Time so far: 3 hours

*****

When I got frustrated with The Seventh Link, I started fiddling with the master game list (including the upcoming list), looking for things to prune. First, 2010 has been added, which I guess is the opposite of "pruning."

I decided to reject Terradyne (1992), from Bit Brother software. The game is basically an updated version of Stone Mist (1991), which I tried to play but couldn't get very far because of bugs. Terradyne itself is a little buggy, with an excruciating control scheme. It also seems to be the exact same game as Dragons Shard (yes, the official title omits an apostrophe) from the same year, to the extent that even the opening narrations are the same. Since Dragons Shard seems to be a more mature version, I'll leave that on the list, but I don't otherwise need to experience basically the same game three times.
             
The opening of Terradyne . . .

. . . versus the opening of Dragons Shard.
             
Morkin 2 (1992) was listed by MobyGames as an RPG when I first compiled my list, but it no longer is, and indeed I don't see anything RPG about it. It's a simple shareware strategy game where a couple of wizards duel with spells.

Crossfire (1992) turns out to be a MUD, which I've generally kept off the list. The commenter who first recommended it told me that I could set up my own server and play it like a single-player RPG, but as we've seen with other MUDs played that way (Neverwinter Nights, Operation: Overkill), this always produces an unsatisfying experience. The bigger problem is that the MUD has been in continuous development since 1992, and I don't see any way from the site to experience the original version.

Finally, I moved TaskMaker (1989) to 1993. The 1993 version, by Storm Impact, is an update of the original version, by XOR. The update feels more like a 1993 game than a 1989 game, and it's the only one I can find. My commenters are eager little beavers, and I suspect one of them will manage to dig up the 1989 version, so this change might not be permanent. Maybe if you have the 1989 version, you could wait until after I close the year to offer it to me, so it goes on the "clean up" list instead of forestalling the Great Reunification we've all been anticipating.


Thursday, December 20, 2018

Legends of the Lost Realm: The Four Towers

The party emerges victorious from the fourth and final tower.
            
A few days ago, I was happy. I had put another 5 hours into Legends of the Lost Realm, but I was stuck, legitimately stuck, and nothing I could find online would help me out of it. I was on the second floor of the Magicians' Tower and I'd only found one of four map pieces. I couldn't figure out how to get into two large, closed off areas of the tower. A teleporter in a central room had led me to one area, but it only ever led to the same destination. I had bonked my head against every wall and found no secret doors. I had the perfect excuse just to wrap things up and move on.

Then yesterday, in the shower, my dumb brain had to go and say, "I wonder if the direction you enter the teleporter makes a difference." I wasn't even consciously thinking about the frigging game. What made my subconscious think that I actually wanted the puzzle solved? And why wasn't it working on any of the financial issues I'd already given it? What do I even keep it around for?

Sure enough, that was the answer. And thus this entry ends not with a GIMLET. You may rightly ask why I don't just quit anyway if I dislike the game so much, but I have two ready answers for that:

1. It's not so much the game I dislike as the persistence of 1989.

2. I don't want to bail on two Mac games in a row. Moreover, while I may not like Legends, at least I get it (mostly), while I'm not sure the same will be true of Taskmaker or Theldrow--also both Mac games--coming up.

Then again, my comment boards for Legends aren't exactly filled with fans clamoring for the latest entry. Maybe if no one steps up to defend the game here, I'll pull the plug.

Since our last outing, I have completed the four corner towers. I had finished the Tower of War last time and had just started the Thieves' Tower. I then finished the Thieves' Tower, the Magicians' Tower, and the Tower of Pain. I finished collecting all of the map pieces. All towers were two levels, and all levels were 20 x 20 (but some of them were more 20 x 20 than others). All had an encounter on the first level that provided experience rewards to the class represented by the tower, and all had an encounter on the second level that indicated I had "completed" the tower and provided an even greater reward. Each tower offered four pieces of a map or puzzle; more on that in a bit.
          
Level 1 of the Thieves' Tower and the four map pieces I found there.
            
Level 1 of the Thieves' Tower consisted of a bunch of small rooms with locked doors between them--doors that I had to pick open, and which reset every time I left and returned. Each lockpicking expends one "spell point," so there was a functional cap to how long I could explore the level before I had to leave to recharge. (You can recharge by sleeping, but the easier way is to pay the magic shop owner, a theme that goes back to The Bard's Tale.) Occasionally, thieves would drop "Lock Blasters" (which allow you to pick without using a point) and "Thieves' Stones" (which restore a few spell points) after random combats, extending my time.

Another common post-combat loot item was a 50-foot rope. In a grievous mistake,  I didn't realize I needed more than one of these--and thus stopped collecting them after I had one. This turned out to be a big problem when I reached Level 2 of the tower, which consisted of several sections connected by holes in the ceilings and floors. The thief can CLIMB up into a ceiling hole and then lower a rope for the rest of the party. For floor holes, he just has to lower the rope. Either way, the rope remains with the hole after you use it--you can't pick it up again. I thus could have used about 10 ropes trying to explore this area. You can go through the floor holes without a rope, but you take a lot of damage.

Let me pause here to explore one of the game's mysteries. The equipment shop sells ropes in 10, 20, 30, and 40 foot lengths, but if you try to use any of them at a hole, it says that they're not long enough. You need at least 50 feet. That alone is pretty crazy; unless these dungeons have cathedral ceilings, 10 feet should be more than enough. But even if you accept the weird length requirements, all of the store's ropes are useless. Only the 50-foot ropes that you find, relying on random chance, get you to where you want to go.
           
How is that remotely possible?
            
Maybe. I can't help but think there must be a way to combine, say, a 10-foot rope and a 40-foot rope into a 50-foot rope. It seems crazy that you can't, the same way that it seems crazy that you can't combine small stacks of arrows into larger stacks. But I can't find any explicit instructions for doing so, and I've tried COMMAND-clicking and COMMAND-OPTION-clicking and such to no avail.

Anyway, by grinding thief battles on the first level, I finally found enough ropes to explore the second. The holes eventually led to a large maze-like area with lots of traps, and neither my thief's "Remove Trap" ability nor my magician's "Zap Trap" spell did any good. I just had to eat the damage and cast healing spells. Eventually I got to the "completion" square and left. There are three doors on the first level that I still haven't unlocked, as the game says my thief's level is not high enough to pick them.
         
Trying to pick a lock in the dark.
         
The first level of the Magicians' Tower consisted of a bunch of equally-sized rooms with unavoidable traps that caused electrical, fire, cold, and wind damage; fights with magicians and wizards; and the occasional message. Of the puzzle, I learned that "four [pieces] should be found in this tower" (that's true of every tower), that "the blank must be used more than once," that I should "beware the false pieces," and that "Cirinik's puzzle has but one solution."

A repetitive level.
             
The battles weren't too hard except that wizards inevitably cast "Fireball" every round, so I had to prioritize attacking them and try to clear them out as quickly as possible.
              
Killing the wizards is the top priority.
       
The second level had a central room with the teleporter described above. In its passages, I found an iron key and a Cap of Mind Shielding. I had to kill the game at one point when I faced a battle with three green slimes. They resisted every magical attack, and every physical attack just caused them to divide and create more slimes. I couldn't run away, either. It was pretty infuriating. But eventually I reached the end of the level and the mage in my group got enough experience to make a level.
             
It didn't take long for the slimes to get out of control.
            
The final tower was, for some reason, called the Tower of Pain. It was aspected to the shaman class. It wasn't too hard except that my characters kept dying suddenly for no reason. I have no idea what was happening, but I'd be wandering down a hallway at full hit points, then I'd go through a door, and with no intervening message or anything, one of the characters would suddenly just die. I had to keep zipping out of the keep to get resurrected.
            
This was actually the answer. Didn't we see the same "riddle" in another RPG?
           
To even enter the keep, I had to fight battles with shaman guardians, and shamans were frequent random encounters inside as well. Shamans are tough foes because they keep casting "Dancing Blades" every round, and two rounds of the spell are enough to kill at least a couple of characters. Usually, I could kill the shaman in the first round, but if I faced a couple of them, or I got unlucky, it was off to the temple at the end of the battle. I should mention that there isn't much to spend money on, so I don't really mind all the resurrections.

The Tower of Pain had a lot of messages. "Only those who solve Cirinik's puzzle can conquer the moving walls," one said. "The Great Tower must be conquered in four steps," I learned, and "the second step is the teleport maze." Another suggested that I "take the path of least resistance." One message was maddening because it cut off: "The greatest resistance presents the greatest challenge, and the greatest--" What? The message didn't continue.
            
Level 2 of the Tower of Pain was mostly 4 x 4 rooms.
            
Both the Tower of War and the Magician's Keep provided special items to their respective classes--the Gauntlets of Ogre Strength and the Cap of Mind Shielding. The Thieves' Tower may have such an artifact behind one of the locked doors. I'm pretty sure I explored every inch of the Tower of Pain and didn't find anything for the cleric.

Last time, I talked about the experience imbalances and how all the experience awarded in the Tower of War obliterated anything I'd earned through combat. Well, the situation changed in the other three towers, but not necessarily for the better. Where the Tower of War gave a lot of experience to fighters and only a little to the other classes, the other three towers gave experience only to their specific classes, and that was only enough for one level-up. In eight hours of gameplay, then, my thief, mage, and shaman only leveled up once and my three fighters didn't level up at all. It's feast or famine with this game.
          
Why only mages?
          
At this point, I've found all 16 pieces of the map puzzle, and as per the clues, I know that some of the pieces are "false" and the blank is used multiple times to make up for those false pieces. Given those parameters, I started to get to work on it.

I'm assuming the pieces are meant to be arranged 4 x 4. Every piece shows a 5 x 5 grid, so if you arranged them 4 x 4, you'd get a standard 20 x 20 dungeon level. I could be wrong, but if there's no 4 x 4 restriction, the number of variations is much higher and I would say impossible to deduce. Even with that restriction, there are a lot of possibilities. Here's one:

In this configuration, the three pieces to the right are "false" pieces.


A3 and A4 are clearly end pieces, to they're a "must," and the A4, B4, and C4 all have to go together because no other configuration continues their lines. Same with B2 and C2. I also like this configuration because it ensures that no row or column is completely blank. But note that B1 and D2 are completely interchangeable (and either could be replaced with the pair in column F). A2 is superfluous; I could move A3 into its spot and replace A3 with a blank. Unless I get more clues, I'm not sure how to solve it. Then again, I'm also not even sure what the puzzle is for.

Miscellaneous notes:
           
  • An oddity that only an experienced RPG mapper would comment on: stairwells take up two tiles instead of just one.
           
This stairwell doesn't look 20 feet deep.
            
  • The game's copy protection is really annoying me. Because it's so hard to read the codes in the manual, I decided to record each answer in a text file every time I had to look it up, assuming that the game would eventually re-use some of the same codes. Days later, I have 53 entries in the text file and do you know how many times the game has asked for a code I already recorded? Once. I don't think it picks a random code so much as cycles through all of them. At least Pool of Radiance had the decency to only ever ask you for like six possibilities on its codewheel.
  • Mystery items in the general store: bottles of oil (ostensibly to refill lanterns, except that they cost as much as new lanterns), blow torches, crow bars, pick tools, dynamite, pieces of string, pieces of wire, and I suppose any of the ropes since they're never long enough. I've tried all of them in various scenarios, and they do nothing. Pieces of wire don't help with lockpicking, dynamite doesn't create a hole in the wall, etc.
  • The icons across the top of the party indicate whether certain spells are active, just like in Crusaders of the Dark Savant. In this game, though, each icon has multiple purposes. The shield indicates whether any of the "Group Shield" spells are active. The eye lights up with both "Detect Traps" and "Detect Secret Doors" and perhaps others. The torch blazes when both magical and physical light sources are active. The circle contains the magic "Compass." The "X" changes to represent a summoned creature, NPC, or other addition to the party, none of which I've been able to explore yet.
  • No prestige class is available yet.
           
I'm not sure about next steps. I figured that the four corner towers would take about half the game and the central tower would take the other half, but there are way too many spell levels left, without even considering class changes, for me to be anywhere near halfway through the game.

In addition to the central tower, there's an underground to explore--the first level of every tower had one or two pits. To explore this area, I'll need to find more rope. There's also the dungeon attached to the magic shop.

Time so far: 28 hours