Sunday, August 19, 2018

Game 301: Dungeons of Kairn (1989)

The "Holy Bubbles" spell destroys another dragon.
          
Dungeons of Kairn
United States
Independently developed and distributed as shareware
Released in 1989 for DOS
Date Started: 8 August 2018
Date Ended: 18 August 2018
Total Hours: 14
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 33
Ranking at time of posting: 201/305 (66%)

Dungeons of Kairn is a competently-programmed shareware game--or, at least, shareware demo--that draws inspiration from several other popular 1980s titles. Most shareware games of the era seem like a "dumbing down" of better commercial titles, but Kairn is less that than a welcome simplification. Most of what the developers cut was fat. They left a lean core that may lack some flavor of other titles but never leaves you chewing on gristle. [Nailed that metaphor.] At the same time, though, they ramped up the difficulty, and I ended the experience conflicted about whether I wanted more or was glad that it was over.

The story breaks no new ground. The land of Kairn is under threat from the evil mage Inshanis of the Isle of Mysterion. He plans to collect eight ancient artifacts and sacrifice them to the dark gods, unleashing terrible evil. He already has five. The remaining three are hidden in various dungeons in Kairn. King Gelfman of Hamlin has organized a band of adventurers to retrieve the other three artifacts, then confront Inshanis on his island.
            
Character creation.
           
The player controls five characters drawn from the standard races (human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, and hobbit). Classes are fighter, rogue, thief, ranger, bard, cleric, magician, sorcerer, monk, and ninja, distinguished by their natural abilities in the game's various skills: gambling, trading, bows, runes, unarmed combat, handheld arms, pick locks, disarm traps, and identify items. During character creation, you roll attributes on a scale of 100, and you have the ability to adjust the base scores from a pool of bonus points. The attribute list really bulks up the mental traits: strength, agility, constitution, intuition, wisdom, presence, memory, and reasoning. Attributes determine the starting hit points and spell points for the various classes.
             
Skills and inventory for my fighter, late in the game.
            
Gameplay begins in a menu town--there are ultimately three of these on the map--where you can buy equipment, buy healing services, train, rest, and gamble at blackjack.
               
In town. The first two options are both shops.
            
Movement outside is in an iconographic perspective, switching to first-person for dungeons. In both places, combat comes upon the party frequently. In combat, the interface changes to a tactical grid, with the party on the right and the enemies usually starting some distance away on the left.
         
Stepping outside for the first time.
                             
Combat seems to be inspired largely by the mid-1980s SSI titles such as Wizard's Crown (1985), although I think it may have reached our developers through the simpler Shard of Spring (1986) instead of directly. Shard boiled down Crown's convoluted logistics into a few basic attack and spell options, which is what we see here. Kairn also has characters level up by experience (Shard) rather than by spending it directly on skills (Crown).
         
Ghouls and spellcasters menace my party.
                 
In any event, Kairn doesn't feature any special encounters or puzzles, and it doesn't have much of a story, so combat is where the game really lives. In between battles, hit points and spell points regenerate fast enough that you can usually arrive at the next combat in good shape. Thus, you're mostly looking to survive one fight at a time, and the game is balanced accordingly. From your first party of goblins and skeletons to your last vampire lord, there are no throwaway battles in this game. Every one is an honest fight to the death. Key to victory are spells--if I had to play again, I wouldn't have a single non-spellcaster--because even at high levels, characters whiff most melee attacks. Also, as we'll see, you're usually struggling to keep characters out of melee range.
          
Encounters are heavy with undead: most battles feature at least a few. They include skeletons, zombies, mummies, wights, wraiths, ghosts, specters, ghouls, and vampires, and they have most of their Dungeons & Dragons special attacks, including disease, attribute drains, and level drains. It's like playing Pool of Radiance's Valhigen Graveyard for an entire game. When you're not assailed by these menaces, you usually have a few spellcasters in the enemy party. Just about every battle, you're desperately trying to stun, sleep, silence, turn, or fireball enemies before they can reach you--and you usually fail. A bad fight against some specters in a Gold Box game might have you reloading rather than accepting the level drain, but here, if you get out of a tough combat with three characters dead and two with 50% constitution drains, you might actually count yourself lucky.
         
A character's constitution is drained by a ghost.
         
On the party's side are fewer tactics than the Gold Box but still enough to keep things fun. Every character can wield a bow to snipe at enemies from afar. Melee attacks are less useful but sometimes save the day when they (rarely) connect. Most tactics come from the use of spells, and here I'm relatively sure that the developers were inspired by Phantasie (1985) for the multiple spell "levels" in each library.

Early in the game, the magician's "Sleep I" helps against some enemies and the cleric's "Repel Undead I" has a chance of dealing with skeletons and zombies. As you get more spell points, you start to rely a lot on "Stun I," "Silence," and "Stun II." "Repel Undead II" comes about mid-game and seems like a godsend, though it doesn't always work. In-combat healing spells are also key. Late in the game, I found I relied a lot on the mage's 'Haste II," which lets the party act twice per round. The mage gets mass-damage spells like "Fireball" and "Ice-Ball," but their range is nowhere as powerful as their Gold Box counterparts; usually you can hit two or three enemies at the most.
              
Targeting a "Fireball" on some evil clerics.
                     
The key difficulty is that the characters don't have that many spell points. In a given combat, you might be able to cast one powerful spell and one minor spell, and then you're out. Granted, I didn't do a good job bolstering the characters' primary spellcasting attributes to their maximums the way the manual advises, and thus, at Level 9, my cleric and mage had maximum points in their teens instead of their 30s. Still, even with optimization, spellcasters run out of juice fast.
               
The mage's spell list. I never got enough spell points for the bottom three rows.
             
Thankfully, there are a lot of scrolls, wands, rings, and potions to supplement your magic abilities, and finding and identifying these are major keys to success. They last a long time, too. I had a "Wand of Fire(ball)" that served my mage for at least 50 castings.
           
Equipment upgrades help a little but not much. Characters can wield two-handed weapons or one-handed weapons plus shields, armor, helms, cloaks, belts, and boots with few class restrictions. You don't have to switch between melee and missile weapons; instead, you equip both and activate them with different keys. Everything you find in the dungeon is unknown, so you spend a lot of time swapping equipment to the character with the highest "Identify Item" skill. Magic weapons and armor have pluses in 5-point increments (the highest I found was +25).
            
Transferring items between characters. That "Wand of Life" saved my butt more times than I can count.
            
             
Gold is mostly important for resurrections and other healing spells, but you find quite a bit in dungeons and the blackjack games offer decent odds. I'm not sure what the "gambling" skill does, since as far as I can tell the game uses regular casino rules and probabilities.
             
This particular hand did not go my way.
                          
Dungeons use basic textures and offer a trap system clearly drawn from Wizardry (1981), where my thief was about as useless as my rogue was here--meaning I spent more time curing poison and disease from traps than from actual encounters. There are no navigation obstacles like spinners or teleporters and no special encounters.

Finding a ladder down.
           
As long as you have "vellum and quill" to use, the game keeps an automap for you. The levels are a small 12 x 12, but so packed with battles (there's a fixed one behind almost every door, plus a random one maybe every 20 moves) that they take a lot longer than you'd expect.
               
About to set off a trap.
             
With combat so naturally difficult, leveling is extremely rewarding. Random attributes and skills increase with each level. More important, you can cast new spells as soon as you have enough points for them (i.e., they're not dependent on level), so every level increase gives you a few new tactics. But throughout the game, I felt chronically under-powered. I was running into enemies who would only respond to "Repel Undead III" before I even had "Repel Undead II," for instance. Again, better attention during character creation might have mitigated this, as would grinding.
           
Leveling up.
               
I spent most of the game's 14 hours alternately loving its tactical challenge and feeling exhausted and frustrated with it. More than once, I ended a game session for the day because I ran into a tough random battle while trying to return to town or something. But every time I thought I was sick of it, I'd increase another level and start integrating my new options, and that would hold me for another few hours.

Unfortunately, the game ends prematurely. The demo version of the game only offers the first dungeon. None of the others are visible as you wander the land. The necromancer's castle is there on an island, but there's no way to get to it. Meanwhile, I'm not sure which of the several plausible items I found in the dungeon are the "artifact": candidates are the Mace of the Dead, the Wand of Death, and the Bard's Flute.
            
The evil wizard's castle is south of me, but I can't get there. Also, my fighter got 20 spell points somehow, but no list appears when he tries to cast.
                       
The developers promised the rest of the dungeons in the full, registered version, but that version doesn't appear to exist online, and I can't seem to locate the developers. Moreover, at least one message board avers that they never even created the full version; that the demo is the only version.

In the demo, very little evolves in terms of the plot. You do find a number of scrolls that, when translated by a character with a high "Rune" skill, offer a single line of text. (There are echoes of Phantasie in this system.) Some of them seem intended to be strung together, but I was never able to determine the exact order. For instance, one scroll says "In the heart of the forest," but I don't know if this continues on "Seek ye the dead mace" or "Undead are like the plague," or some other one.
               
Lore sentences appear for a few seconds after you translate a scroll, then disappear.
             
The manual says bluntly that you'll need a dwarf with the "Delver's Amulet" and a ranger with the "Ranger's Amulet" to win. I had both characters and eventually found both items, but I never saw that they did anything notable for me.

While the 14 hours I played seems long enough for a complete game, I know that there were more serious monsters to be found even in the demo version; the monster file lists various types of giants and dragons that I never encountered. I assume they would have appeared outdoors if I'd leveled up more, as the game scales outdoor encounters with your level.

Based on what I experienced, I give it:
             
  • 2 points for the game world, largely irrelevant during gameplay
  • 5 points for character creation and development, as described. I'd also emphasize that I didn't play many of the classes, which might create a different experience and offer more options.
              
A late-game character.
            
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes, all for the foes. Though unoriginal in their selections, the developers still did a good job of programming each enemy type to uses their strengths and weaknesses. Humans sometimes flee (if you've killed enough of their fellows), for instance, while undead never do.
  • 5 points for magic and combat, as described. I would have liked more consideration of terrain, more melee options, and perhaps a quick combat system, but it's reasonably good as it stands.
  • 5 points for a good selection of equipment.
  • 4 points for a robust economy, although a simplistic one.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no side quests.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Neither graphics nor sound are anything to cheer, but the keyboard interface and movement system work great, excepting a couple of non-intuitive commands, such as "I" for "Use" and "Y" for "Identify."
  • 4 points for gameplay. Though linear, it offers a strong challenge for its modest length, and I see some replayability in the use of different character options.
            
That gives us a final score of 33, right below my "recommended" threshold, but I'd point out that it does best in what I consider the core mechanics of an RPG: character development, inventory, and combat. This makes it a satisfying mechanical experience if not much of an emotional one.

The developers are given in the game materials as Michael W. Lawrence and David E. King (with addresses in Lexington, Kentucky and North Charleston, South Carolina), but I gather from external materials that Lawrence was the primary author. I played version 1.1 of the demo, but he released a later version, 1.2, which adds a few classes (including barbarians and paladins) and introduces an initiative system in combat. While the copyright screen says 1988, the version history that accompanies the game makes it clear that the first version came out in April 1989.
                
If I'd sent the $19, I'm not sure that the satisfaction of supporting the "shareware concept" would have been enough.
                
Lawrence is (slightly) better known for 1994's The Aethra Chronicles: Volume One - "Celystra's Bane", which expands a bit on the Kairn base. The list of attributes, level names, some of the classes, and some of the skills seem to be the same, and there are some clear similarities in combat. Aethra has a bigger game world, more advanced controls, and better graphics. Screenshots also suggest a more complex story with special encounters.

I'd love to get confirmation either way on whether Dungeons of Kairn was ever finished--and have a chance to finish it myself--so anyone with intelligence, please reply. Otherwise, it's time to check in with Citadel of Vras before beginning the first major commercial title in several months: Wizardry VII.

27 comments:

  1. How disappointing, if this wasn't finished. Seems like quite a decent little game.

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  2. I note your fighter has handheld arms, which is unusual - most people have arm-held hands.

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    Replies
    1. Congratulations! You have taken one of the successful conclusions to the cosmic forge/internet.

      Delete
    2. It does explain why melee attacks usually miss.

      Delete
  3. It sounds like you had a rocky time with Kairn between its tough battles and the abrupt end. I'm impressed you had the stones to see it through, for as much game as there was.

    Looking forward to another Wizardry deep dive. I came to that series through 8 (which barely counts without Bradley, but I enjoyed it) and the PS2 Japanese-developed spin-off Tale of the Forsaken Land (which almost certainly doesn't count), so the recaps are always enlightening.

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  4. Wizardry 7 is (along with Darkands) my favorite RPG of all time and I am guessing it will be right up your alley too. Please make sure you play with roland emulation ( unlike you did for Ultima Underworld) and enjoy over 120 hours of maybe the last Hardcore oldschool RPG upwards of 1992 until probably Baldurs Gate

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    Replies
    1. "Music on with Roland emulation" and "play the Amiga version" must be two of the most requested things around here.

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    2. Their for sure the funniest given how many times the addict. has replied back that it doesn't make a difference if the music he has turned off is Roland, pc speaker or my grand mother throat singing.

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    3. Your grandma legit throat sings?

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    4. I don't remember Wizardry VII having much music, except for the intro, combat fanfare, advancement screen, and the occasional bit of throat singing.

      Anyway, that glorious cheesy Soundblaster sound is part of the attraction.

      Delete
    5. I'd say the Realms of Arkania trilogy counts as "hardcore oldschool" for sure (and I'm very curious how Chet will feel about it - its first game is coming up soon™), but I don't think it ever gained much traction outside of Germany.

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    6. I bought the trilogy as a kid but found it so hard to get into I never played much of any of them.

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    7. I have to say I don't recall Wiz 7 having much music either. Granted, I probably only played the first quarter of the game. Even with comprehensive guides, it was too big for me.

      For that reason I am quite looking forward to reading about it and seeing what-all I missed out on.

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    8. I did play UU with that setup. I just turned the music off for most of the game.

      So far, W7 doesn't seem to have traditional "background" music, but it does play short tunes in various places, usually slowing down the gameplay. There doesn't seem to be an "off" switch, though.

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    9. You should be able to set the music device to "None" in the configuration (main menu).

      And in the German CD-ROM version at least I managed to speed up combats by a large factor by switching off sound and setting delays very low. Not sure if that is possible in all versions.

      I'm sure you did, but in any case, stay away from the horrible Gold version, which doesn't look any better and has bugs (e.g. broken diplomacy).

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    10. I checked, setting the relevant sound level to 0 does the trick.

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    11. You know, that should have occurred to me a lot sooner.

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    12. I just tried it. Setting it to 0 does turn it off, but I don't notice that it speeds up encounters, unfortunately.

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    13. I just checked my Wiz7 configuration, music is set to "none" and "volume 0" and then it does speed things up. The major thing is getting rid of the tune before and after encounters, as there are so so so many.

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    14. Addendum, echoing Buck: delay 5. For trivial combat rounds, you can also hold down the spacebar to have delay 0 and make the combat messages flash by until you reach the next round.

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    15. I don't know why I'm not getting the same results. I set music to "None," but there's still a delay where it WOULD have played. And for me, SPACE doesn't speed things up much in combat because the regular sound effects still play.

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    16. Here's my config: https://imgur.com/a/Ml6zcxi

      You can reach the configuration both from the main menu and from the game, maybe that makes a difference?

      Delete
  5. Aethra Chronicles is one of my favorite shareware rpgs along with the Spiderweb Software oeuvre. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

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  6. 1. The attributes on a 1-100 scale, magic bonuses by increment of +5 and many spelles were taken straight from Rolemaster RPG.

    2. I was expecting something more of a place called "Sally's back alley"

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for letting me know about Rolemaster. I'd never heard of it. Disciples of Steel did things the same way and I wonder if they were influenced by it.

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    2. I was trying to find this out, and found something that might amuse you. A google search for "Disciples Of Steel" results in a "CRPG Addict List" suggestion, at least for me.

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    3. Aethra Chronicles was also based on Rolemaster (I thought it was a unique CRPG in that regard).
      I'm disappointed that no full version of this game seems to be available, as it sounds more interesting than all the Ultima clones that have appeared on this blog.
      I guess the Ultima fans were just more creative?

      Delete

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