Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Eye of the Beholder II: Key Encounters

The party meets the big boss.
Well it's official. Wisps are the most annoying bastards in any realm. I previously added them to my "most annoying enemies" list because of their appearances in Ultima V and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but they do an equal job of infuriating you here. Fast, agile, immune to at least some spells, they pound the lead characters round after round while most of your attacks completely miss them. They're too fast for any fancy footwork, since they come into the square already attacking. Oh, and they make the most grating, cacophonous sound, as if someone combined feedback from a microphone and static. I had to stop and rest after practically each one, and I think they respawned while I was sleeping.
A pretty light! Let's follow it!
Oh, but I'm ahead of myself. When I left off, I was trying to solve a lever puzzle. I appreciate my commenters' help with that. "Faith is the key" meant that I should trust that I could step on the last hole without falling down the hole; it's illusory once you press the button in the corridor (or an invisible shield falls over it, or whatever).

A few more wasps and one copper key brought me to the end of the level. The old man who greeted me upon entering the "test" appeared again and said I was almost done. He said that two choices lay before me, the left door leading to the "next trial" and the right leading to "almost certain death." He was lying: the opposite was true, with the left door severely damaging the party and teleporting them to the beginning of the level, surrounded by wasps, and the right going on to the next level.
Wait. Your right or my right?
This was one of several places where despite hitting upon the "right" path the first time, I saved and explored the others solely for the sake of map completion. It occurs to me that in some ways, full maps are contrary to actual role-playing, as most people would seek the shortest, safest path to a goal rather than exploring dangerous corridors for the hell of it.
Sorry guys, but I had to see what was down here.
The issue came up again shortly after entering the next level, when a plaque said, "the way through three is two, not four." I don't know what the "not four" part meant, but I soon came to an intersection with three doors and plaques marking them I, II, and III. Sure enough, "II" was the correct path, but I had to test the others, one of which launched a fireball at me and one of which released a gas spore.

There were a lot of gas spores on the level. They're puffy, flying things that look like beholders. They die in one hit of just about anything, but they explode when they do, so you need to hit them at range. It was very little problem to do so, and the creatures really didn't bother me.
Nailing a gas spore with a thrown dagger.
The other enemies on the level, flying snakes, were a bit more troublesome, mostly because they respawned like crazy, choking the narrow corridors and preventing passage for sometimes 10 minutes at a time. They also cause poison. Fortunately, they die quickly (individually) and are slow enough that you can kill them in fighting retreats or side-stepping without much trouble.
Evolution through natural selection clearly doesn't exist in the Forgotten Realms.
The level had a lot of puzzles involving magic mouths. The first mouth offered what I thought was a riddle: "When we have feasted, it is I who sings the praise / When we have hungered, it is I who breathes the pain." I was all set to answer STOMACH, but the damned thing didn't give me a chance to answer. It just blew a fireball at me. What the hell?

But later, there were eight more mouths along a long corridor. Each one wanted something and had to be satisfied to open the door at the end to the next level. These were the clues:

  • "One's refuse is another's gold. Your famine is my feast." This one wanted rations that had spoiled. There were some near the beginning of the game that I dumped a long time ago, but fortunately there was another set on this level.
  • "Items born of greed are what I need. One for each year, and one less to fear." I didn't understand this one until I found a hidden area on the same level, where a plaque said, "greed may be your downfall; give what you need not." Nearby was a triangular niche in the wall that would accept any item and turn it into a rock. The mouth wanted rocks. I'm not sure what "one for each year" meant, but I just fed it rocks until it had enough and closed. I think it was five.
  • "From the fiends from below, find the item with the hidden glow." This referenced an idol found on the previous level after killing a bunch of mantises.
  • "Nature's beauty is my meat. Tiny and red, 'tis such a treat!" I was scared when I read this one. On the earlier level, there had been a place with two gems inset in a wall. While I was fiddling with them, the wall opened and the gems disappeared. I worried that I was supposed to have gotten one of them. But I needn't have worried; the riddle referred to a ruby found elsewhere on the same level.
  • "I must have the blade which has eaten so much! I must have the one which I fear not to touch!" I tried feeding it several blades before it happily accepted a polearm I'd found on the same level. I reloaded and identified the polearm first, and it turned out it was cursed -2 polearm called "Leech."
  • "I am parched. I am dry! Give me liquid so I can cry!" I gave it a Potion of Vitality, but I suspect it would have taken any potion.
  • "No matter how parched, no matter if rolled, no matter if magic, no matter how old." This one wanted any paper, I think. I satisfied it with a "Flame Blade" scroll.

There was one other interesting encounter on the level involving a wounded priest who had been trying to pass the trials. He warned us to leave him alone and said he'd wait for one of the flying snakes to deliver him an "honorable death." The game gave me the option to leave or kill him. "Officially," I left, but I had to check out the alternative. If you try to kill him, he rises up and fights you. Once he's dead, a pressure plate is revealed beneath his body, and there's a bunch of treasure on the other side, including magic plate mail and three Spheres of Fire. But crossing the pressure plate closes the wall behind you and locks you in the area with no way out.
I like that the pile of treasure is visible behind him. Why isn't there an option that says, "Leave, but ask him to hand you that plate mail first"?
The level culminated with a visit by the visage of Dran Draggore, the "high priest and overlord of this realm." He congratulated me on my progress so far but said:
You have killed several of my minions and pillaged my temple. I did not invite you. You are beginning to upset me. You have come sooo far, but all for naught. Alas, now we must part. To insure that you meet your doom, I have sealed the door behind you. I'm afraid there is no way out. So stay awhile . . . stay forever!
Before we could call him out for plagiarizing Dr. Atombender, he disappeared. If he'd been smart, he would have sealed the door ahead of us. Sealing the one behind us meant that we could continue to the next level.

The fifth level of the temple (since I blew the four horns) started with a bunch of teleporters and keys not worth recounting. It wasn't long before I discovered the first enemy: actual beholders. Anyone who thinks that dodging and waltzing and whatnot violates the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons combat needs to study the screenshot below.
Fortunately, the eye tyrants were slow and susceptible to ranged attacks down long corridors, side-stepping, and whatever the one is called where you lead him around a pillar. There were maybe eight beholders on the level, and I only really had problems with the first and the last.

There was one encounter with a beholder where he noted that we were "not acolytes of Darkmoon." A second encounter concerned a beholder stuck in a hole in the ceiling; we could help him or kill him. Helping him led him to just attack us once he was free.
But it was still the right thing to do.
Wisps were the second enemy. The first one I saw was true to his tradition; he tried to lead me onto a pressure plate that triggers fireballs. I saw the plate and declined to take the bait. He waited in the corridor patiently and is waiting there still. The other wisps I encountered on the same level just attacked me. "Bless" and "Prayer" helped a little, but nothing really changed until I had my front-rank characters put away their shields and dual-wield weapons instead. That effectively doubles their attacks, and if there's a penalty, it's not really noticeable. It occurred to me belatedly that "Haste" probably would have been a good idea, too.
Two attacks give us twice the chance to hit.
There was an area of illusory walls, but a map found on the previous level helped with those. About halfway through the level, Khelben Blackstaff contacted us telepathically and we related what we'd discovered. He reacted with alarm at the name "Dran Draggore" but was soon cut off.
The characters have figured out more than probably many of the players have.
At the end of the level, we met the illusion of a woman who noted that we are not "children of Darkmoon" and released two beholders at us. Owing to limited maneuvering space in this area, killing them took some serious effort and a couple reloads.
These two beholders sat like this for minutes and would, I think, have sat like this indefinitely. I think they were both trying to move into the center space at the same time. Unfortunately, moving forward broke their impasse.
Finally, we came to a pedestal with a carving cut out for a hand. Putting our hands on it gave us the mark of Darkmoon required by the magic mouth way back towards the beginning. A bolt of light knocked us out and we awoke in the lobby.
Thanks, Khelben. You sent us on a brief scouting mission, and now we're branded for life.
Miscellaneous notes:

  • I haven't found any more portal doors nor objects to use with them. I can't imagine that the game has that many unexplored levels left, so I suspect that the two portal doors I've already found are the only two, and the stone gem the only activator, allowing quick passage from the lower levels to the main area. Either that, or I've missed a ton of secret areas.
  • I like the way that the characters occasionally alert you to secret doors and traps and such, but occasionally it goes too far. If I'm not capable of watching my own compass to note the position of spinners, I shouldn't be playing this kind of game.
Why not just have a big spinning dial on the floor?
  • Most slain beholders drop femurs for some reason.
  • The levels haven't really been making any sense. The first level beyond the "four winds" door occupied 17 x 29 space (and was, I guess, adjacent to the upper level of the temple accessible from a different stairway). The second occupied 17 x 23. But the two above that were about 30 x 30 square. This place must look awfully weird form the outside.
  • So far, the game has reliably introduced one or two new monster types per level. To get a sense of how far into the game I am, I took a scan through the monsters in the manual that I haven't yet encountered: aerial servants, lesser basilisks, bulettes, frost giants, hell hounds (or were they in the forest?), mind flayers, and salamanders. That suggests three or four levels left to go. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which bulettes ("land sharks") and frost giants make an appearance.
  • Starling the Paladin hit Level 9 during this expedition and finally got one first-level cleric spell. Gaston hit ranger Level 8 and Shorn hit cleric Level 9.
  • The two levels I explored this session had a large number of magic items, including a +3 short sword, a +3 shield, a  +3 two-handed sword, +2 banded armor, +4 dragon skin armor, and a non-magical composite bow.
Below, I've offered some quick thoughts on the utility of the game's various spells so far. I'll update it at the end with the last spell level.

Time so far: 25 hours


Mage spells

1. Armor. Protects the target with the equivalent of scale male (AC6). Useless since it doesn't stack with actual armor.
1. Burning Hands. Only works from the front rank, limiting its utility, although it would be interesting to play the game with mages in the front rank. It does scale with the mage level, doing 21-23 at Level 10, perhaps making it worth swapping the mage briefly to the front rank if you can be fast about it. I think "Magic Missile," which can be cast from any rank (though may do less damage) is better.

1. Detect Magic. Turns magic items blue. I have one on hand and cast it when I have more than a couple unidentified objects. If they don't turn blue, I know I don't have to waste an "Improved Identify" on them.

1. Magic Missile. Very useful, as in most D&D adaptations. Grows in power as the caster levels; by Level 10, it does 10-25 points of damage.

1. Shield. Blocks "Magic Missile" and protects against missile weapons. I haven't run into any enemies that use either.

1. Shocking Grasp. Only does about as much as "Magic Missile" and you have to be in the front rank and make a successful melee attack. Not worth it.
My mage tries out a couple Level 1 spells against a cleric.
2. Blur. Makes it hard to hit the caster with an attack. Not really useful unless you have the mage in the front rank.

2. Detect Invisibility. Are there any invisible monsters in the game? Maybe aerial servants?

2. Invisibility. I was thinking it was useless because it only affects one party member, but I suppose it could be useful as a quick way to get enemies to stop targeting a low-hit point character. Unfortunately, you can't cast it on the two front characters and then painlessly let the rear characters fire their missile weapons, as enemies can still hit the front characters while trying to attack the second rank.

2. Improved Identify. Identifies items. Priceless. Both Dungeon Master and the first Eye of the Beholder should have had this.

2. Melf's Acid Arrow. Decent attack spell that, unlike its counterpart in the Infinity Engine games, levels with the caster. It does 8-16 by Level 10.

3. Dispel Magic. I haven't been hit with anything that it dispels, like "Hold." It's also supposed to dispel enemy buffing spells, but there's really no way to tell when they're active.

3. Fireball. Less useful than in the Gold Box games, as it only affects enemies in one 10 x 10 square, but still valuable to have for its 1d6 x mage level damage. The party, oddly, can't be damaged by this, even if the enemy is right in front of you.

3. Haste. Yeah, I should have been memorizing more of these. Halves the cool down rate for attacks. The spell makes me paranoid because it ages you in some games, but there's no penalty for that here. It lasts long enough that, between two mages, you could almost always have it active and still have slots for a couple of "Fireball" or "Lightning Bolt" spells. I suspect I'll use it a lot more from here on.

3. Hold Person. Works, but there's too much other good stuff at Level 3. Better to use the equivalent cleric spell.

3. Invisibility 10' Radius. I haven't been using it. I can imagine it's helpful if you just want to sneak past enemies, but the nature of the geography makes it hard to do that in this game. 

3. Lightning Bolt. As damaging as "Fireball." Enemies rarely line up behind each other, so you don't usually get the full effect of this. Thankfully, it doesn't bounce off walls and hit the party.

3. Vampiric Touch. Drains 1-6 points for every 2 levels of the mage. Works as advertised, but I think "Fireball," "Haste," and "Lightning Bolt" are the better investments, particularly since "Vampiric Touch" only works on one creature. San-Raal comes with it, but I otherwise haven't found it.

4. Fear. Rarely seems to work. When it does, it just drives them down the corridor. You still have to contend with them.

4. Ice Storm. Does 3-30 damage across up to 3 x 3 squares meaning that you can only cast it safely at range. Very nice for softening up targets down long corridors.

4. Improved Invisibility. Nobody has it yet, but it doesn't sound very useful. Just makes the targeted character harder to hit. I suppose I should add it to my buffing arsenal.

4. Remove Curse. Vital to keep around for the occasional cursed item. I typically do a series of "Detect Magic," "Improved Identify," and "Remove Curse" when I have a safe place to rest.

5. Cone of Cold. Nice fifth level spell that sends a 1d4+1 x caster level cone down three squares. My primary Level 5 spell.

5. Hold Monster. Useful but fails too often. I'd rather just blast them.

5. Wall of Force. Puts up a barrier and blocks enemies from moving. Could be useful for shaping combat terrain and preventing attacks from multiple sides. I just got it.
Memorizing spells in camp.
Cleric spells

1. Bless. Gives an attack bonus. The bonus isn't enough to be palpable in combat, but I suppose anything helps.
1. Cause Light Wounds. 1-8 points of damage and must be in the front rank. Waste of time.

1. Cure Light Wounds. 1-8 healing. Never goes out of style.

1. Detect Magic. As useful as the mage version.

1. Protection from Evil. Only works on one character. Better to save this level for healing and use the improved fourth-level version.

2. Aid. Gives attack bonus and extra hit points. Good buffing spell.

2. Flame Blade. Useless once you have your first magical weapon. You're not going to put the cleric in melee combat anyway.

2. Hold Person. Works well on the few human enemies.

2. Slow Poison. Slow it for what? There's no healer in the game. Either you have a scroll, potion, or spell to cure it permanently or you're screwed. Waste of space.
The various colors and lines around the character portraits indicate buffing spells in effect.
3. Create Food and Water. Vital to cast every once in a while, since there's hardly any food in the game.

3. Dispel Magic. So far, there's been no reason to use it.

3. Magical Vestment. Waste of time since it's not cumulative with actual armor.

3. Prayer. A more powerful "Bless." Good buffing spell.

3. Remove Paralysis. Absolutely vital at stages in the game. You want multiple copies ready at all times.

4. Cause Serious Wounds. Waste of time. Use this level for healing and buffing.

4. Cure Serious Wounds. Cures 3-17. Vital.

4. Neutralize Poison. A god-send when you finally get it. You get poisoned repeatedly in the game.

4. Protection from Evil, 10' Radius. Affects the entire party, so always best to have one on-hand for buffing.

5. Cause Critical Wounds. Inflicts 6-27, but you really need this slot for the reverse.

5. Cure Critical Wounds. Need as many as you can spare.

5. Flame Strike. Does 6-48 on a square. Works about as well as "Fireball" but can't be cast from a distance. I would only bother with it once I had a couple of "Cure Critical Wounds" memorized.

5. Raise Dead. Only if you're playing the game without reloading. As per D&D rules, doesn't work on elves, but doesn't seem to subtract the point of constitution that the description says it does. I still have several scrolls on hand before I need to waste a slot memorizing this.

5. Slay Living. Enemies almost always save against it, taking a little damage instead. If I wanted a damage spell, I'd rather spend the slot on "Flame Strike," which affects multiple enemies at about the same damage level.
5. True Seeing. Says it dispels illusory walls, invisible monsters, items, and magical effects. Other than illusory walls, I haven't noted any of these features in the game, and illusory walls aren't that hard to find on their own. On the other hand, it sounds like this might be the solution to a puzzle later.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Deathlord: Summary and Rating

Independently developed; Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released in 1987 for Apple II and Commodore 64
Date Started: 3 June 2017
Date Ended: 25 January 2018
Total hours: 36
Difficulty: 4/5 (Hard)
Final Rating: 40
Ranking at Time of Posting: 232/282 (82%)

At the end of the last Deathlord session, I was debating whether to explore the new continent or return to the old one and grind first. I ultimately decided on a compromise: I returned to the old one long enough to get everyone enough experience for their next levels (most were already there), then sailed back to the new continent.
Enemies on the high seas are deadly, as I later found out.
I soon discovered a town called Clearview (at least, that's the name of its prison). It was another huge town that required about an hour of running around, smashing doors, searching for secret doors, and talking to people. I was perturbed that the weapons shop didn't sell anything better than what I already had.

NPC dialogue didn't offer a lot that was new, but it did offer that "there's a word in the dungeon" and "there's a dungeon in the canyon northwest of here." Since the bulk of the game seems to be about finding the seven words and six items that will defeat the Deathlord, that was welcome news. I'd been asking about WORDS and ITEMS constantly and didn't have any clues until now.
"It is an obscenity spraypainted by a teenager."
Annoyingly, the new continent uses a different color and style for its poison tiles. I couldn't find any way to the dungeon without crossing poison, so I sailed my ship around the coast until I located it. 

The dungeon was uniquely constructed. I didn't understand half of what was happening while I was in it, but a map I found online later made it clear. It consists of four levels. The center part of each level is nothing but an 11 x 11 map of up and down staircases: all down on the first level, all up on the fourth, and a mix in between. To even get out of this central area means walking five steps to a wall, all the while you're transitioning levels. Fortunately, the druid's (or whatever's) ichihan spell lets you know what level you're on. Every time I cast it, I want sushi, because Ichiban is the best sushi restaurant in Bangor, Maine.
Arriving in the "stair dungeon."
Around this central area is a double ring of square rooms, connected by illusory doors. You have to find a path through the illusory doors--some of which actually teleport you to other levels but to positions that look exactly like the ones you vacated! There are other staircases other than the one in the middle. Some rooms hold treasure pots.

Unique, yes. Very craftily constructed. But can you imagine how long it would take to explore and map this thing by hand? You have to test every wall for illusory doors. You have to cast ichihan every time you go through a secret door to make sure you haven't changed levels. Periodically, you have to return to the central area and get tossed to a new level before you could finish mapping the old one.

And after all that, the corridor that leads to the "word" is in a place that completely breaks the pattern--an illusory door to the north in a place that by the configuration of the rest of the dungeon should have no space at all. At the end of this corridor is a door that leads to a group of "vapor demons," creatures far harder than anything else in the dungeon, with the ability to paralyze characters and cast mass-damage spells. I lost Poniteru and Kuriboshi, whose hit points remain stubbornly in the single digits, in the first wave of attacks.
These bastards.
By this time, I was so frustrated with the game that I was already making decisions as if I wasn't going to keep playing. First, I was looking at an online map, having failed to find the word in hours of exploring because I missed that errant corridor on Level 3. That's another thing: most games, if they were going to do something so indecent, would at least do it on the bottom level where you'd expect to find the big treasure. I spent a lot of time on the bottom level for that reason. But no, it's on Level 3.
Andrew Schultz's map of the dungeon level in question.
Second, rather than turn around with my tail between my legs yet again, I insisted on plowing through the vapor demons. But to do so, I had to capture save states essentially every combat round, reloading if the round went bad. Friends, there's no coming back from that kind of cheating. But I made it through the room and recorded the word: it's chijoku, meaning "disgrace," which I thought was rather fitting.
My mood was dark as I returned to the surface and boarded my boat. At this point, the game or the universe in general gave me a way out. In the middle of the sea, I got attacked by some dragon serpents, and my entire party was wiped out. I reloaded the last save state, and was surprised to see I hadn't made one since leaving the dungeon. Here's the problem: the game saves the world state separately from the party state, and in the game's world state, there was no ship waiting for me on the outside. Since Clearview doesn't sell boats, I was effectively marooned. Maybe pirate ships occasionally come along and you can steal them? I don't know. I circled around for a while and didn't find any.

The only "out" the game gives you in such circumstances is to "disperse" the party from the main menu, which puts them back on the roster but undoes all their work. Upon reconstituting them, I found myself outside Kawa at the game's beginning again. My characters all have their levels and gold, but I don't think they have any of their accomplishments. The Emperor has regressed to demanding "news on whoever is responsible for these outrages!"
Here we go again.
In viewing the map of the last dungeon, I had inadvertently educated myself about the sheer size of the game world. The maps on GameFaqs (supplied, of course, by Andrew Schultz), show a total of 15 continents and archipelagos, all insanely far away from each other. Amidst these landmasses are 23 cities and towns (including palaces) and 20 dungeons and ruins, comprising 125 dungeon levels. Is there a larger permadeath game? In 36 hours, I explored less than a fifth of it--cheating. I don't think we've heard so far (in the comments) from anyone who won the game legitimately. I would love to know how you did it. I could easily see buying this game in 1987 and not winning until 1994.
This map, courtesy of Andrew Schultz, shows the real spacing between continents.
At the same time, I hold a growing admiration for the game's chutzpah (what's that in Japanese? Daitan?), and part of me does want to keep going and properly document it, including some of the crazy-looking levels. But if I'm going to start over, it's not going to be now. I'm going to have to give it some space. Also, I think I need to replace two of my characters; my genkai and my mahotsukai have such low constitutions that they only get 1 or 2 hit points per level. They could be Level 20, and they'd still be vulnerable to some of the mass-damage spells that enemies throw at us.

Thus, I'm technically wrapping things up now, but I'll keep open the possibility of returning to the game once I finish catching up on 1988/1989, perhaps dipping into it periodically. If I do start playing again, I'm going to try my best to adhere to its intended rules.

For now, the provisional GIMLET:

1. Game World. The brief backstory offers nothing that we haven't heard before (evil warlord taking over), and the pseudo-Japanese coating really adds nothing to the gameplay. On the other hand, the world does really feel like a world, and I appreciate the permanency of the world state. There were signs of a growing plot within the game itself rather than just in the background materials. Score: 4.
2. Character Creation and Development. Both are about as extensive and rewarding as an AD&D game of the era, which makes sense given the game's dedication to AD&D spells and classes, albeit (as commenters pointed out) with RuneQuest's attributes. By starting the characters so weak and inept in the first place, the developers left a lot of room for them to grow. So far, there haven't been any class- or race-based encounters or role-playing options. Score: 5.
3. NPC Interaction. The creators adopted a system about halfway between Ultima II and Ultima IV, where NPCs have a stock dialogue line or two, but you can also "inquire" about specific keywords. The lack of clear NPC names, the cumbersome system for interacting with them (there are multiple "talk" commands), and the rarity of responses to keywords all make the system less enjoyable than the later Ultima titles. Score: 4.
You'd call this "role playing" if the nature of the game didn't basically require you to smash every door and talk to every NPC.
4. Encounters and Foes. The impressive bestiary offers about as much diversity in strengths and weaknesses as a Gold Box title. Learning them, and how to counter and exploit them, is a highlight of the game. I didn't find many non-combat encounters or puzzles, although perhaps more would have surfaced as the game went on. The quantity of encounters is particularly satisfying. Dungeons were often frustrating for other reasons, but I rarely felt that they had too many enemies. Walking between towns on the surface, you might face one or two combats, but not enough that you want to scream. And yet there are a few obvious places for grinding. Score: 5.

5. Magic and Combat. A highlight, and I'm sorry I didn't get deep enough into the game to devote an entry solely to this topic. Fusing a Wizardry approach with an Ultima interface and a Dungeons and Dragons spell set was a brilliant idea. D&D offers a great selection of offensive and defensive spells, spawning numerous tactical options. Unlike Wizardry, the game supports pre-combat buffing. There are original spells that assist extrication from combat when necessary. Combats last long enough to be interesting but not so long that they get frustrating and boring.

Finally, I thought the number of spell points and rate of regeneration was near-perfectly balanced. In too many games, the mage quickly becomes a worthless contributor because he runs out of spell points. In too many others, his pool is so great that he can spam his most powerful attacks the entire game. Deathlord puts the fulcrum at just the right place. And if I'd kept leveling, I would have found a "Mark/Recall" spell and one that makes it easy to escape dungeons.

There are weaknesses to the system, such as the inability to target specific enemies, no tactics for fighting classes, nothing special for thieves to do, and no utility for missile weapons. But overall, I enjoyed the system. Score: 6.

6. Equipment. Perhaps the most disappointing category. You can only carry one primary weapon and one suit of armor at a time. You rarely find upgrades, either in shops or as loot, and when you do, there's no easy way to evaluate items' relative strength. In most games, you could compare armor items by wearing them and noting the effects on armor class, but here once you choose to take an item, you lose what you already had, so there's no method of comparison. This is true even if you can't technically wear the new item because of class restrictions! I also didn't find many items to "use." Score: 2.
Arriving on a new continent to find the same old stuff was a disappointment.
7. Economy. I felt it was a bit too generous. I always had plenty of gold for training, equipment, food, and bribes, and I probably could have afforded a new boat on a regular basis. On the other hand, I cheated on the permadeath, and a player playing straight would have had to pay for resurrection a lot more than I did. Even so, I think the developers could have done more with the economy by offering better equipment and, for gods' sake, "restoration." Maybe there would have been more to buy on the other islands. Score: 4.

8. Quests. One main quest with multiple parts. I didn't experience any side-quests, though there are plenty of side areas. Perhaps too many. I'm not sure anyone wants to explore a 10-level dungeon for no reason. I don't get the impression that there were any choices or alternate outcomes to the main quest. Score: 4.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The iconographic graphics are functional but were never beautiful, and the lack of monster graphics puts the game at near-roguelike status. Sound is also unimpressive. The keyboard interface, on the other hand, works great. I particularly appreciate the ability to bring up a list of valid options with the ? key when casting spells. My only problems were from my own muscle memory; I kept pressing "T" to talk instead of "O" (for "orate"). One thing I didn't cover is the availability of macros to streamline common commands. So instead of having to press (C)ast and then select the healer and then type (or select) NASU, you can string these together in a macro and activate them from a single key. On the negative side, the lack of an automap is only forgivable because of the game's year. Score: 4.
In a game where all the spell names are in Japanese, I'm grateful not to have to type them out.
10. Gameplay. The game gets points for nonlinearity, particularly after the party gets a ship. Since you can buy a ship and don't have to wait for the emperor to give it to you, I suppose you could theoretically explore the game in any order. I also recognize a bit of replayability given the many optional dungeons. But the game is simply too big--as I said in the first posting, the mechanics and content aren't deep enough to support an epic size--and is particularly too big for permadeath.

Permadeath might even be forgiven if the variability of difficulty wasn't so high. There's nothing more infuriating than having no problem with three levels of a four-level dungeon, only to suddenly encounter an enemy 10 times as deadly as anything that preceded him. If I were to start over, playing with permadeath, I think I'd have to force myself to grind up to Level 10 before entering a dungeon, thus ensuring that I had the equivalents of "cure poison," "cure paralysis," and "cure moderate wounds." The difficulty is so problematic that it subtracts from the positive things I would otherwise say in this category. Score: 2.

That gives us a final score of 40, which sounds low until you reflect that less than 20% of the games I've played through 1991 have broken 40. With a less punishing difficulty, a better approach to NPC dialogue, and a more robust equipment system, Deathlord could have been near-50-point game and in the top 10%. 
There's no way "1 chance to save" wasn't supposed to be a joke.
Scorpia generally agreed with my assessment in the April 1988 Computer Gaming World, although I'm impressed to see that she finished it, apparently by frequently backing up the scenario disk. She complains about permadeath, a "bland" ending, omissions and errors in the manual, mapping difficulty, and the shallow use of Japanese themes. ("No attempt has been made to draw on the rich folklore and mythology of Japan . . . Rather, the authors have created a compendium of standard CRPG features glossed over with a tinge of pseudo-Orientalism by pasting Japanese names on as much as they could.") She had particular venom for a dungeon full of doors--"one of the most idiotic dungeons ever"--which I didn't explore. Overall, she branded it "a mediocre effort at best" and "a game for the serious player to avoid."

The highest review numerically (89/100) comes from the March 1989 Advanced Computer Entertainment. It's one of those reviews that makes you wonder if the reviewer really played the game. Since over half the review is dedicated to character creation, I suspect not much. He doesn't mention permadeath (or difficulty) at all, only passingly mentions the Japanese themes, and saves his criticism for the combat system--the main criticism being that it's done via menu rather than by showing the characters in their positions (thus showing a lack of experience with anything except perhaps Ultima III and IV). At the end, he suggests that with Ultima V on its way to the Commodore 64, there's not much reason to buy Deathlord except the lower cost.

The ACE reviewer wasn't the only one to see Deathlord primarily as an Ultima competitor. Multiple sources (including the November 1992 Computer Gaming World) report that Richard Garriott was "furious" at Electronic Arts for publishing such a blatant Ultima ripoff. Origin dumped EA as its distributor and included a unflattering pirate in Ultima VI named after Trip Hawkins, EA's president. Ironically, Garriott sold Origin to EA in 1992 and accepted a vice presidency there, but I'm sure that $30 million causes "water under the bridge" to take on a new prominence in your daily vocabulary.

Perhaps even more ironically, EA's purchase of Origin marked the last time Origin made a decent RPG (if we assume that Ultima VII: Part Two and Ultima Underworld II were already well in development at the time of purchase). I don't know much about the other genres in which they've worked, but when it comes to RPGs, EA's history is pretty abysmal. Their first in-house effort was the idiotic Fountain of Dreams (1990), and the universally-panned Ultima VIII (1994) and IX (1999) were developed under their watch. Moreover, half the time that they publish another developer's game, they make a hash of it, whether insisting on a comedy theme for Keef the Thief (1989), destroying the intended scope of Richard Seaborne's Escape from Hell (1990), or insisting on a last-minute Japanese theme for Deathlord.

Deathlord's two primary authors, Al Escudero and David Wong, had some excellent ideas. They were smart enough to take the best elements of the most popular titles at the time. No other game of the era fuses an Ultima interface with Wizardry combat and Dungeons & Dragons spells. At the hands of a better publisher, they might have gotten some sage advice, like "lose the permadeath and cut it down a bit," instead of "translate everything to Japanese." In a November 2012 interview by Crooked Bee on RPG Codex, Escudero says that he was "quite upset" at EA's insistence on the Japanese skin and the quick turn-around:
I had a game I had crafted over a year and a half, and I needed to convert to an entirely different style at the 11th hour and wasn't given sufficient time to do the new style justice. It felt like a hack to me, and I hated doing it. If I'd had a few months, time to do reading on Japanese culture and myths, time to craft a tale that tapped into their rich mythology, I feel I could have done a far better job.
It's too bad we didn't see the game as originally written with a Norse theme; we would have encountered draugr for the first time here in 1987. He also laments making the game so hard--"If I knew then what I know now, I would not have made the game save on death"--and thinks the difficulty might have been responsible for poor sales. The low sales and poor reviews probably killed an intended sequel in which the heroes would have had to resurrect the titular Deathlord to restore the "natural order."

Escudero later found some work with SSI, and we'll see him again with Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace (1992). Later, he formed a company dedicated to online games and was, like Origin, purchased by EA. Today, he serves as chief product officer for a company that makes mobile games. David Wong joined EA Canada in the 1990s and has worked on numerous racing and sports games, but never another RPG. Incidentally, it was in writing this paragraph that I discovered that both developers were Canadian and have thus listed the game accordingly in the master list.

With this wrap-up, I finally end my second pass through 1987. It's time for a transition posting and to re-consider "Game of the Year." Braminar fans, prepare your arguments.


If anyone reading this has won Castle of Tharoggad, I would appreciate a hint (or outright spoiler) as to what to do on the final level to win.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

On a Tangential Topic

I just finished Middle Earth: Shadow of War after about 100 hours, and I would like to congratulate the game on having the absolute most pointless final act and worst ending of any commercial RPG that I have experienced. Ever.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Eye of the Beholder II: Hexapodal Hoedown

A nice action shot from this session.
It's surprising how much relief is occasioned from the simple act of finding a key. In the Eye of the Beholder games, progress is almost always blocked somewhere by a locked door, and finding the right key tells you that at least one more path is now open--that you aren't about to hit a dead end. Sometimes I think I have a surplus of keys and figure that the game must have purposefully seeded extras just in case you miss one, but then I inevitably find a door for which a key is necessary. As I write this entry, I'm down to one--a stray skull key.

Not every key fits every lock. So far in the game, I've encountered locks that require grey keys, copper keys, spider keys, Darkmoon keys, bone keys, and mantis keys. There are also non-key items that functionally act like keys, including the stone object used for the teleportation door and (as we'll see) four horns. A very small percentage of locks can be picked, and since any "surplus" of keys always turns out to be illusory, I figure that any lock that can be picked must be picked to explore the full game. A small percentage of doors can also be forced.
My lead character sorts through some of her keys.
As I wrapped up last time, I had finished with D-4. I used the teleportation door to return to the main level, rest, and see what happened when I resurrected Amber, the scout Khelben had sent me here to rescue. She turned out to be a neutral-good female elf thief/mage, not a useless class, but not really adding anything to the party. She has the highest charisma in the game, but I'm pretty sure that's the most useless statistic. I preferred my pure mage. Thus, I reloaded and kept my original configuration. I guess Khelben can resurrect her when we get back if he really wants to.
A 17 intelligence coupled with 18 dexterity keeps Amber alert.
Side note: Either it's possible to resurrect an individual from bones alone, which seems unlikely, or the "bones" are just an abstraction and I'm actually carrying a decaying corpse in my backpack.

After my side-trip, I headed back down to D-4 and from there to D-5. This turned out to be the lowest level of the dungeon unless something else opens up later. It was a small level, occupying only 20 x 12 coordinates, with about 130 used squares. There were no secret doors that I could find.
It's THEM!
The corridors were crawling with giant ants capable of poisoning my characters, but I had plenty of scrolls and potions for that, plus the ants died in a hit or two. They kept respawning, but at least there was a reason for the respawning: two locations where I encountered holes in the wall too small for the party, but apparently big enough for the giant ants living in the area.
What do I keep a dwarf around for if not for this?
The floors here teemed with treasure, including entire sets of equipment atop the bones of their slain owners. San-Raal worked overtime with "Detect Magic," "Improved Identify," and "Remove Curse." I didn't find much that was useful, though, except a couple magic knives for throwing and some new keys.
There have been about five cursed items in the game so far.
There were messages that some jars had smashed and some black, tar-like substance had leaked out, but I never figured out what that was about. Maybe the previous inhabitants had been making some kind of syrup that attracted the ants.
. . . filled with some kind of syrup or liquid.
One of the keys I'd found on D-5 opened a new corridor on D-4. A niche on the wall here held the fourth "wind horn." A series of staircases from here led back up to D-2, where a button opened the way back to the small "spider area" I showed last time.

At this point, the only unexplored path I had marked was a corridor on D+1 where I needed some kind of mark or brand to pass. However, I also had four horns that I thought would have some use at a main-level mural depicting the four winds. Sure enough, blowing the four horns brought the wall down and opened a new pathway upwards.
The new area was difficult enough that it felt like everything up to this point had been some kind of prelude. The main enemies were "mantis warriors," who almost always hit, cause paralysis when they hit, and are fast. There was no maneuvering dance that remotely saved me from harm.
The terrifyingly-fast new foe.
The only thing that saved me was the fact that paralyzed characters don't lose their place in formation, so rear characters still can't be hit by enemies in the front. Every time I had to face a mantis warrior head-on, my front characters would inevitably get paralyzed in the first round, leaving my rear characters to kill them with missiles and spells, hopefully before their front-rank colleagues were killed. I couldn't help but imagine a real party in this situation, propping up their stiffened friends and using them as shields. I soon learned to fill my Level 3 cleric spell slots with "Remove Paralysis."

The game didn't introduce this terrifying new enemy slowly, either. When the level opened, I faced a puzzle consisting of light pads that zapped my party every time I stepped on a lit one. I could only suck up damage from one of them before the second had a chance of killing my lowest-HP characters. These pads plugged the corridors to the north and south and filled a room to the east.
Some of them occasionally blinked off for a couple of seconds. Through much trial, error, and reloading, I mapped a semi-reliable path from the beginning to the east side of the room, crossing nine pads that alternated on/off states. (Semi-reliable because it was virtually impossible to avoid getting zapped at least once.) Upon reaching the other side, however, an invisible wall opened and four mantis warriors blocked the way forward. I couldn't backpedal into the deadly light pads, I couldn't move forward because of the warriors, and I couldn't stand still because I got zapped every time the pad blinked back on.
I had to concentrate too much on combat to take a screenshot. Here's the aftermath.
After several failed attempts, I was able to defeat the warriors by buffing, crossing the pads, launching my deadliest spells as soon as the wall opened, hopefully killing one, stepping forwards amidst the others, and finishing them off before everyone was killed. It was a difficult challenge, but pleasingly so. I don't mind combats that force you to reload three or four times. More than that starts to become a bit sadistic. Later in the level, long corridors and fighting retreats made the mantises a little easier.

Other encounters on the level included:

  • When I first arrived on the level, some vision "welcomed" me and said I'd be facing a "test of faith" on the level.
The #$%@ are you?
  • A magic mouth that demanded three bones. Fortunately, I'd been annotating assorted skulls and femurs on my map, and I knew where to get some. I fed them to the mouth and got a bone key.
The magic mouth enjoys its calcium.
  • A long, dead-end corridor with plaques that read "What can be trusted?" and "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." I never figured out what these were talking about.
  • A neutral-good male half-elf fighter/cleric named Tanglor. He was sleeping in one of the rooms and indicated that he was also there for the "test." Since I already had two clerics and didn't need another fighter, I declined to take him, although his wisdom (16) was better than Shorn's (13). What kind of pure cleric has a wisdom of 13?
Also, he was kind of an arrogant ass.
  • A mantis warrior was bleeding and dying on the ground. I had options to heal, kill, or leave it. I chose to heal it and it attacked me, the bastard, forcing me to kill it.
As  deontologist, I was still comfortable with my choice.
  • I come to a t-intersection and was automatically turned to face a couple of mantises to the west. One threw a "sphere-like" object at me; it was in fact a "glass sphere," which strikes like a fireball. Stepping to the left quickly allowed me to avoid it.
But of course it filled me with shame at how badly I was abusing the game engine.
  • A room full of mantis warrior eggs. It had treasure at the end, but walking to the end caused them all to hatch at once, dooming the party. I had to slash the eggs and kill their inhabitants one at a time.
What gives it away?
  • In a mystery that still bothers me, a hall contained a button, a pit, and a second button on the other side of the pit. Pressing the first button opened a second pit in front of the first. To solve the puzzle, I had to fire a missile down the corridor to activate the second button, closing the first pit but opening the second, then hit the first button to close the second pit. This procedure opened up a secret door on the other side of the first pit, which led into a 10 x 10 room, which had . . . nothing. No treasures, no more secret doors, just nothing at all. I can only imagine I'll get teleported to this little room later or something and thus be glad that I opened the way out.
I love the party comments.
The "trial" level.
Moving up from this level via a staircase, I groaned when I heard buzzing in the distance. Giant wasps are never fun. Here, they're capable of both paralyzing and poisoning characters. I found they died quickly from "Fireball" and "Ice Storm." Between those and the "Remove Paralysis" and "Neutralize Poison" spells I need to cure their effects, this game is really getting its mileage out of spell levels 3 and 4.
Of course, my second mage spent his slots on "Lightning Bolt."
Like the ants, the wasps had an excuse for respawning--a nest hidden in the walls. I can understand letting this happen in a distant sub-basement, but on the second floor? The clerics in this place are a disgrace.
Shooting weapons or fireballs in there doesn't do anything.
My characters entered the game with 172,234 experience points and currently have 272,646. That's been enough to get my fighter/thief one level each in his classes, my mage one level, and my ranger/cleric one level in cleric only. My paladin hasn't gone up at all and won't for another 30,000 experience points. It's almost impossible to imagine reaching the 1.5 million experience points that the paladin needs for Level 13 (theoretically possible in the game). I wonder which is true: a) enemies are about to get a lot harder; b) most players end the game well before the level caps; or c) this is a 200-hour game and I've barely begun.

Four random notes on game/D&D rules:
  • Identifying an item with "Improved Identify" requires that the wizard hold it in one hand while he casts the spell. But to cast the spell, he has to have a free hand. Thus, I don't see how you can identify two-handed weapons.
  • I was going to comment that the rule that characters only get 1 HP restoration from 24 hours' rest is kind of stupid. Then I thought about it and realized that resting for 2 months to go from death's door to perfect health is probably about accurate. In much later AD&D-based games like Baldur's Gate, one night's rest restores all hit points, I think. Did AD&D rules change, or did the game adaptations change?
  • The paladin gets a few spells starting at Level 9, but the ranger never gets any. I guess the developers didn't want to bother with druid spells.
  • Back when she had the Ring of Wizardry which gave her two additional Level 4 spells, I had my mage memorize four iterations of "Ice Storm." After she lost the ring, she can still memorize those four spells, with the game saying that she has "-2 out of 0" spells to memorize. If I clear the four spells and try to select new ones, I'm sure this will go away and she'll only be able to memorize 2.
As I wrap up, I'm stuck on a lever/door puzzle on the bee level. There's a 3 x 3 room with levers in each corner. A doorway to the south leads to a hallway with four closed doors. Each lever seems to open one door. The problem is, each lever also opens a pit in front of another lever, and no pattern seems to allow you to flip all of them without blocking yourself by a pit at some point. The most I've gotten is three.

Down the corridor a ways, there's a button on one wall that doesn't seem to do anything. I'm sure opening the final door involves some combination of levers and the button, but I'm not getting it. A sign in the room says "faith is the key." No idea how that helps. (There's no obvious way to make a "faith-based" pattern, like a cross, in the order of the levers.) This is the first puzzle in the game to seriously challenge me, so in that sense, it's somewhat welcome.
I'm grateful for the comment. I haven't otherwise been looking at floor moldings very carefully.
If I can rise another level or two by the next entry, I'll try to analyze combat and spells in more detail. Certainly, the spells most useful in Eye of the Beholder are a bit different from those in the Gold Box series.

Time so far: 18 hours