Monday, October 29, 2018

Game 307: Legends of the Lost Realm (1989)

Legends of the Lost Realm
United States
Avalon Hill (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for Macintosh
Date Started: 26 October 2018

A few hours in to Legends of the Lost Realm, I'm trying to decide if the creators were just clueless or actually sadistic. Given that the developers never seem to have worked on another RPG before or after, I'm inclined towards the former, but I think I would find deliberate cruelty more forgivable. They basically started with the difficulty level of Wizardry, which featured permadeath, and then decided to make it harder.

Wizardry, for all its difficulty, did a good job balancing that difficulty with the occasional ray of hope. Sure, Level 1 characters got slaughtered so often that you had to replace your party about six times before you achieved any stability, but at least when you lost a combat, you only lost by a little. One fewer orc would have made the difference. The game didn't pit you against three vampires and a basilisk right out of the main gate. It didn't make you slowly die of hunger, thirst, and fatigue. When a character died, you probably couldn't afford to resurrect him, but you didn't have to pay extra gold for his burial. You didn't have to go into debt to buy your starting equipment. There wasn't a "tax man" roaming around who took a random percentage of your hard-earned gold. And Level 2 was maybe 5 battles away, not 50. All of those latter things are true of Legends of the Lost Realm.

Legends (subtitled A Gathering of Heroes in some places but not the title screen) takes place in the land of Tagor-Dal, a formerly peaceful kingdom that was conquered by neighboring Malakor 300 years ago. The characters are given as part of a Tagor-Dalian resistance, tasked with learning the forgotten ways of sword and sorcery, and with finding the last known remaining Staff of Power, which will hopefully throw off the Malakorian yoke. Legends of the Lost Realm II: Wilderlands, released the same year, is not a sequel but rather an expansion that requires the original game files. In it, the characters are able to explore an outdoor area to find two additional Staves of Power.
Exploring the hallways of the king's citadel.
The developers clearly played both Wizardry and The Bard's Tale, both of which featured permadeath and a clear distinction between saving the characters (back at a central location) and saving the party. The use of base and prestige classes comes from Wizardry, but the specific terms for the attributes, the spell names, the "review board," and the use of spell points rather than slots seem more inspired by The Bard's Tale. In either case, the developers deserve some credit for adding a lot of elements--the manual boasts that the game is "the most complete and accurate fantasy role-playing game every written"--although most of those elements just make the game more difficult and frustrating rather than adding enjoyment.

The player begins by creating a party of six characters (from a roster that can hold up to 30) from four base classes: fighter, thief, shaman, and magician. Later, they can switch to prestige classes of barbarian, samurai, blade master, monk, ninja, healer, enchanter, witch, and wizard. Attributes are strength, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, and luck, and although the values are technically from 3 to 18, the rolls are very generous and it's easy to get two or three attributes at 18 and the others only a few points lower. Characters start with one weapon, one piece of armor, and 25 gold pieces. The roster is seeded with an existing Level 4 fighter named "Pete" that a player like me is determined not to use he actually starts playing and experiences the difficulty of early-game combat.
Character creation. Don't be fooled by the equipment--that's still showing from when I clicked on "Pete."
The game starts in the barracks of the Citadel, the only place to save characters and store excess goods. Elsewhere on the main floor of the Citadel are a supply shop, an armory, a bank, a magic shop, several temples, and a "review board" for leveling and changing classes. In an interesting addition, you can buy items from the shops on credit, which is tracked in a "debt" statistic. You can pay off the debt at the bank, and if you don't do so within a reasonable amount of time, you start getting attacked by thugs hired by the stores to collect. (Theoretically, anyway; I haven't had it happen yet.)
Buying items in the armory. Apparently, it's not a problem if I don't have enough money.
Simply getting to these various locations is almost impossible at the first level because you keep running into enemies. "Retreat" almost always works when you do, but the game remembers the position and composition of enemy parties, so retreating doesn't help much. You'll still face the same party if you try to continue in that direction. It's easy to get boxed in a corridor by two parties at either end that you cannot defeat.

Enemies on the first level include wild dogs, thieves, fighters, archers, and magicians, and they almost always seem to attack in multiple groups with at least 9 total foes. Combat uses a Wizardry base but is a bit different overall. Using radial buttons, each character chooses whether to attack, hide, cast a spell, or use an item. Only the first three characters can attack with regular weapons. You click "Attack" to begin the round. Your attacks are threaded with the enemies' based on initiative rolls. But unlike Wizardry, you don't specify what enemy to attack or cast spells against until the action executes in the combat.
Setting combat options against a group I have no chance of defeating.
I tried just about every combination of spells and moves available. I went into debt to buy shields and helms. And I still couldn't survive even a single battle against any of the enemy parties that attack me on the first level. There are no easy combats with single fighters or three dogs. They're all overwhelmingly deadly.

I finally gave in and added Pete to the party, and this allowed me to defeat a few groups, but my non-Pete characters were still vulnerable. I spent all of my money healing them at temples until I had no more money (you can't heal or raise on credit), and one by one they died, and then finally Pete died.

It's tempting to clear dead characters off your roster, but here the game introduces a new level of sadism: you have to pay to get rid of a dead character, with the cost shared among the characters who have money. And if that isn't enough, every once in a while a "tax man" approaches the party, and if he thinks a particular character has too much gold, he takes something like 20%. Why would anyone add such an obnoxious element to a game? Did they not think it was "complete and accurate" without him?

With the corridors so deadly, I haven't even been able to map the first level yet, but a map provided in the manual helps me fill in the holes. In addition to the shops I've described, there are four towers: the Magicians' Keep, the Tower of War, the Thieves' Tower, and the Tower of Pain. Each presumably has multiple levels. Each has a courtyard guarded by one high-level foe who gives you a chance to turn back when you enter. A message in a hallway on Level 1 tells me that "sixteen may be found, four in each corner tower." However, there's at least one more area accessible via the magic shop, and perhaps others beyond that.
Every major square has something fierce guarding it.
If I can survive for more than 15 minutes, the game promises some interesting elements to come. It supports dual- and multi-classing as well as completely changing classes. The prestige classes sound a lot cooler than their Wizardry counterparts, each with special abilities, such as berserking for the barbarian, critical and dual-wielding for the samurai and ninja, and the ability to cure poison and disease without spells for the healer. Blade masters can sharpen everyone's weapons for extra damage. Thieves can try to pilfer enemy gold during combat. NPCs can join the party and assist in combat.
No first-person blobber would be complete without messages scrawled on the walls.
A lot of character types have special skills, both combat and non-combat, that can be "cast" like spells; for instance, the samurai can "cast" ARROW to make arrows, barbarians can HUNT for food, and thieves can CLIMB walls. Sorcerers can create their own spells by combining effects from the included spells. You can add modifiers to spell names to double their effects (and cost) or to force the character to wait until the end of the round to cast it.

But enjoying all of this requires that I get my characters to at least Level 4 or 5, and with Level 2 requiring 1,000 experience points, each successful battle delivering about 50 points, and my losing almost every battle, that seems like a long way off. I will be happy to take liberal hints from any player who has successfully gotten anywhere in this game.

Time so far: 3 hours

Just a quick update on a piece of data. I've been aware of Jimmy Maher's 2011 research into the true publication date of the original Akalabeth for some years, but I realize that I misread the article and a key comment from Richard Garriott at the end of it. I thought that when the dust cleared, it still turned out that Akalabeth was hand-published at ComputerLand in 1979 but later picked up for distribution by California Pacific Computing in 1980. Now, having just reread the article, I see that I was wrong. Garriott defends 1979 as the date that he wrote the game, but it doesn't seem to have hit store shelves, even in the hand-packaged version, until the summer of 1980. I've updated the dates in my entries and spreadsheets accordingly. These changes make the entire Dunjonquest series rise to extra prominence, and I should probably do a retrospective on that series at some point, giving more time to Temple of Apshai than I did originally.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: Walk into My Parlour

At least he's up front about it.
We're 9 entries and over 50 hours into Crusaders of the Dark Savant, so it's probably time for a macro-level check-in. This is the situation as I understand it.

The party has arrived on the planet of Lost Guardia following their unsuccessful quest for the Cosmic Forge in Wizardry VI. "Lost" Guardia, long kept secret by the efforts of the Lords of the Cosmic Circle, has recently been rediscovered, and now a bunch of factions are vying for control of the planet and searching for an uber-powerful artifact called the Astral Dominae, created by a "scientific genius" named Phoonzang. The factions given in the backstory include the titular Dark Savant and his alien allies, the spider-like T'Rang; a pachyderm race called the Umpani; a robot agent of the Lords of the Cosmic Circle named Aletheides; and a mysterious female descendant of Phoonzang named Vi Domina, who is either the Dark Savant's ally or his prisoner.

The races native to Guardia are not mentioned in the backstory as being contenders for the Astral Dominae, but they clearly have a stake in what happens to the planet. They include the Ratkin, the orclike Gorn; the technologically-advanced, humanlike Helazoid (the race's representatives, all female so far, fly around on air cars), and two competing religious factions: the Danes and the Munks. Actually, the Munks are split into two factions: benevolent residents of the temple at Munkharama, and hostile Forest Munks.
I keep fighting them, but I don't yet know what their story is.
Depending on the ending to Wizardry VI, the party could have arrived on Guardia in the company of Aletheides (as mine did), the Dark Savant, or the dragon Bela, an ally of the Umpani. So far, I've heard nothing from Aletheides since he dropped me off, and I get the impression that no matter how you start the game, you're free to take any direction that you want.

The party started near New City, a cosmopolitan town in which most of the races have embassies. The Dark Savant has taken over most of it, and his troopers patrol the streets and can be found scattered around the planet. From New City, the party can take any number of forest paths to the various factions' territories. I've gone to the areas controlled by the Munks, Gorn, Dane, and now the T'Rang. Each has offered a series of puzzles and combats, culminating in treasure chests in which I apparently was supposed to find pieces of maps. Sometimes, those maps have been gone because I spent a bit too long building my characters. I'll have to recover the missing ones from NPCs later, I guess. I don't know what the maps are for or how they relate to the Astral Dominae, of which I've heard nothing since the game began.

Fully fleshed-out plots are rare even in 1992, so I hesitate to criticize any game that offers one, but I've found the plot of this one silly and unsatisfying so far, and I suspect there isn't going to be much of a payoff when it comes to this Astral Dominae and whatnot. I'll be happy if I'm wrong. In the meantime, most of my enjoyment of the game has come from the combat mechanics, the character development system, and the many small encounters that pepper each map. The variety of monsters, with their special attacks and defenses, come together with the variety of spells to create fun tactical situations. While it's true that you can rest after most combats, you only get a small amount of restoration from each 8-hour rest period, and a number of small factors discourage you from resting many times in quick succession. So even though individual combats play the greatest role in the game's difficulty curve, the accumulation of many combats plays some role. Anyway, despite what may have been excessive negativity in my entries regarding the plot and the interminable text sequences, I am enjoying the game overall.
Starting a new area.
When I left off, I had finished closing a loop to the northwest of New City. I had just discovered the city of Nyctalinth, occupied by the T'Rang. I figured I might as well explore it next since I was already there.

Nyctalinth turned out to be my favorite area of the game so far. It had some interesting lore, and the T'Rang are original, and satisfyingly alien, without being (as so many of David Bradley's additions are) overly goofy. The city had once been occupied by a native race, apparently now extinct, with only their buildings and cemeteries left as a testament to their existence. The T'Rang took over the area when they came to the planet; there's a large landing field for their spacecraft at the north side of the city. They turned the old temple into breeding grounds for the giant insects that they eat.

As I entered the area, a T'Rang approached me and said that the "watchers" had told him that I was coming, and that I could "enter, but be wary" as the T'Rang "do not like [my] kind." He recommended that I hasten to the "high chamber" where "H'Jenn-Ra T'Rang awaits."

As is normal for the game, I ended up attacking and killing a lot of wandering T'Rang while I tried to find the "high chamber." The ruins were also swarming with Savant troopers (which made sense, given their alliance), Ratkin, and Danes, many times attacking in very large packs of four or five groups apiece.
A typical T'Rang group in this area. The "elders" are capable of "Death" spells.
Following the right wall, I first came to an "observation control center" in which Savant guardians were messing with some equipment. The game, speaking from the understanding of the characters and not the players, coyly describes what are clearly computers as "shimmering boxes" and such. On one of them I was able to read some text ("SERVER: 023@41A2 HOST: Black Ship Command. Remote Access Terminated Memory Purge Complete"), but the guardians hastily shut down the others before attacking me. I believe it was here that I first met a Savant Controller, capable of numerous psionic attacks and spells, including those that cause party members to go insane.

When the dust cleared, the game mused for a while from the perspective of my characters encountering these strange machines:
It is a thing altogether different from your world and what you have known, for these entities seem to wield a power unknown to you, a power that seems to defy the laws of nature itself, a power to weave abstract mathematical thought into a reality composed of new unfathomable dimensions, tempering the energy of the spheres as if it were but a weight of common steel. And yet, for all their magicks, still do they walk and bleed and die as mere mortal men, and seem driven by the same hungers of conquest and domination that has ruled life since times primordial. How very strange.
Whenever I think I'm enjoying the game, I picture someone who, having wrote that text, sat back at his terminal with a satisfied smile on his face, content in his contribution to the project for another day, and I have to take a break and play something else for a while.

Moving on, I found the T'Rang landing zone to the north, and in an office a "T'Rang Portbook," which I gather is some kind of flight log, though written in a code. In a security office, I gathered several cylinders called "finger rods" that turned out to be the keys to unlocking several areas.

I next came to the "high chamber," where pointing T'Rang funneled us into a square in which, through a grate, we met the bulbous, drooling leader of the race, H'Jenn-Ra T'Rang. She (I'm guessing) said that she would "test" us by sending us with a message to "Shritis." The message was to "strike," and we would get to this Shritis by using something called the "Anthracax."
The Anthracax turned out to be a teleportation device in a nearby chamber, which took me to an area that was at first unknown, but later turned out to be the interior of the T'Rang embassy in New City, which I had otherwise been unable to enter. Shritis greeted us in a room outside the teleporter. Not being a particular fan of the T'Rang, I tried to botch the mission by giving him different orders ("KILL YOURSELF") or by saying nothing at all, but I could neither get past the Shritis or H'Jenn-Ra T'Rang's guards back in Nyctalinth until I resolved the issue.
I tried.
The order to STRIKE apparently meant to strike the Umpani, as Shritis was delighted at the chance to destroy the "nosy Umpani toads." He asked if we'd help, and I again said no, and this time he let us go. Searching his chambers, I found a chest with a dead Savant trooper and a "control card" inside. This control card let us into another New City building I'd been previously unable to enter. Inside were a bunch of Savant troopers operating computers. They attacked, and when I killed them I was able to type stuff at one of the computer terminals, but I didn't have anything in particular to type, and nothing obvious seemed to produce any result.
We warped back to Nyctalinth, where H'Jenn-Ra-T'Rang gave us another quest to "find the place of the rat men" and bring a "map of the boat" from "behind a rack of six spears." He gave me some cryptic clues that indicated the six spears would pose a number puzzle whose solution would either be 534261 or 534612.

Continuing around, I looted an armory for a bunch of "shock rods," which I think are the same polearms used by Savant Troopers, plus some "mystery ray." ("It makes you wonder about the intelligence of these creatures to have to go to so much trouble just to make something that a broadsword could easily accomplish with a few good swipes.") Southwest, I found a church--which the T'Rang had converted to pens for their insects--and beyond that a large cemetery with gravestones for the race that used to live in the area.
An amusing note after we killed all the beetles.
A shovel found in the first room of the cemetery seems specifically intended to dig up the graves.  Most just have rotting bodies, but one offered an undead combat, and another produced some jewelry and an artifact called "Ymnu's Paw." A force field prevented my entry to the cemetery's western section.

In the south of the cemetery are two small rooms. There was a jeweled staff in one of them, but a ghost appeared through the wall and stole it just as I was approaching, moving it to the other room. Every time I entered the room with the staff, the ghost showed up and took it to the other one. While I was pondering this puzzle, I dug at a grave and it opened up a hole that dropped the party into caves beneath the city.
This is what we get for all standing together in a blob.
So far, I've been completing one entry per faction area, but I'm afraid that isn't possible this time. I'm stuck in those caves, which form a large, windy map full of fights with giant bugs, including these horrid things called "cave thraxes" that have like a million hit points. It's been very hard to rest without interruption in these tunnels.
I wonder what this thing is in its adult phase.
Passage in one area is blocked by "large gooey balls" that mire us in syrup and force us to turn back. A couple of other areas have spores that release deadly gas when you step on them. So far, I can't find any way out of the caves, but it occurs to me that I haven't tried "Levitate" at either location. When I do get out, I still have a bit of Nyctalinth left to explore.
Some writer enjoyed himself during this section.
Random notes:
  • This noise constantly drones in the background as I play the game. I've heard it on YouTube videos, too, so it's not just my configuration. What is it supposed to be? Why would they include such an obnoxious cacophony?
  • A commenter suggested that I need to read, not "use," the maps I've been finding. (You "use" the area map, so you can see the source of my confusion.) They don't actually offer maps, and frankly I'm not sure why I got the idea that they were maps since they don't actually say "map" in the item name. Instead, they seem to offer cryptic hints about how to get through the associated areas. For instance, the "temple" document (or whatever) talks about the importance of finding the statue of Phoonzang to move forward and finding the various stones in the water around the statue. I feel like I solved the area without the document, so maybe they're not all necessary.
Some of the text on the "Crypt" document.

  • Only a few times in this game have I encountered any arrows or sling stones for my missile weapons, even at places that sell weapons. I feel like it would be a bad idea to invest too much in those skills.
  • Leveling has slowed a lot but hasn't entirely stopped. Everyone is Level 12 or 13.
I have absolutely no idea what percentage of the game I've played at this point. I still have to find the Ratkin area, the Umpani area, and the Helazoid area, at least, and judging from the game map there are some areas within the seas that have nothing to do with any of the named factions. Maybe, generously, I'm at 40%?

One hopes to have quick, easy alternate games at such times. Alas, one has instead Legends of the Lost Realm.

Time so far: 53 hours

Monday, October 22, 2018

Legends II: Won! (Summary and Rating)

Legends II
United States
Asgard Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for TI-99
Date Started: 14 October 2018
Date Ended: 20 October 2018
Total Hours: 10
Difficulty: Easy (2/5); this is partly user-definable
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Legends II started without much of a plot--just four adventurers looking for trouble. There was a hint in the tavern that "they somehow snatched a great king from a parallel world," but that was it. Throughout the game, I was curious how this plot point would resolve, and I'll say this for the game: I absolutely did not see the ending coming.
A button puzzle in one of the dungeons. Each one opened and closed different areas.
The curiously long north-south island chain had, I think, six dungeons. The nature of the iconography plus my colorblindness made me miss at least one. As I mentioned last time, dungeons in this series are either full of traps and treasure chests, or monsters, but never both. In some ways, the monster-filled dungeons are easier because you can only cast spells (including healing spells) in combat, so if you get too damaged from traps in the trap-filled dungeons, you have to rely on an inventory of healing potions.

You can save your progress outdoors at any time, but saving forces you to quit, and when you reload, you're back at the top of the island in Grumble. At first, I thought this would be annoying, but it turned out to be rather convenient. I'd explore southward until I felt my health was too low, then save and return to Grumble for rest and training. Training was absurdly expensive--so much so that I never trained all the levels I had earned, and I never spent any of my money on potions (though I did find a lot of them).
I'm not sure I had this much money in the whole game.
The Phantasie-inspired dungeon exploration is really the best part of the game, and I enjoyed it to the end, constantly revealing new areas, solving light puzzles, and stumbling upon the rare NPC or special encounter. There aren't as many of any of those things as in the typical Phantasie dungeon, but the dynamic is still fun. I also enjoyed the way the game offered a label or description to each corridor and room.
I continued to enjoy the incremental dungeon exploration.
The first dungeon I explored after Grumble was a troll-infested hole in the mountains called, appropriately, Trollhome. It was naturally a monster dungeon. The only special encounter was a book that contained three passwords--"Klatuu," "Nicktu," and "Barada"--along with three numbers. I trust everyone here has seen the classic film that is the source of these words, but if not, you need to go rent Army of Darkness immediately.

The next dungeon was a treasure dungeon called Zem Outpost, and it was here that I got most of the item upgrades that lasted the rest of the game: a star longsword, a wizard's staff (curiously not wieldable by the wizard but rather the cleric), magical robes, banded mail +3, a silver cape, and so forth.
I think this was the best weapon I found in the game.
Around this time, the outdoor map itself began to take on structure, with limited passages through mountains blocked by sentry points and gates. As we approached, a sign titled "Gorvil's Keep" told us we were viewing the "ruins of an obviously ancient and once majestic fortress," abandoned after peace fell upon the region, now recently taken over.
These title cards add a lot to the game's backstory and lore.
The keep was full of vampires and undead. The key special encounter was finding an NPC named Urgle, who said he was searching for his brother Clovus, who in turn had been trying to figure out who has taken over Gorvil Keep. He asked if he could come with us. I said yes and then never heard from him again.
This combat feels like it should have been harder.
Sentry points repeatedly invited us to "buzz off," but we pressed forward. I should mention at this point that combat in the game--whether with guards, vampires, dragons, sabre-tooth cats, or whatever--is pretty easy, and only in the last dungeon did I ever feel in any real danger. My wizard's spells went mostly unused because it was faster just to hold down the "1" key and plow through physical attacks each round.
The party reaches the end of the islands.
Adamantyr helped me with some information about the dungeon I missed, Fogeek's Deli. A title card indicated that in its heyday, the restaurant was favored by monsters and humans alike. Inside its walls, Urgle would have met up with Clovus and escaped with him, but not before giving the party a set of disguises. Later, the party would have rescued a female NPC named Gina who would have later backstabbed one of the characters and fled after warning the party not to press forward.
This was an interesting twist that I missed.
The last dungeon, titled "Eagle's Roost," was at the far southern end of the island chain. The accompanying sign said it used to be a guest house for visiting "princes, kings, and other luminaries," but was abandoned at the same time as the keep.

There were four levels to Eagle's Roost, and on the first three, I ran into automatons called "validators" who challenged me with the three words (which are of course from The Day the Earth Stood Still in case you're still sputtering from my statement above). The countersigns were clued on a document that shipped with the game. I had downloaded it but forgotten about it by the time I reached this part of the game, so I couldn't figure out anything that worked. Fortunately, I was able to just fight the validators. They were easily the hardest enemies in the game, capable of killing a character in one round if they concentrated their attacks and got lucky. I had to have both my ranger and cleric cast heal spells every round while my fighter and wizard did their best to whittle away the creatures' 999 hit points. In the last combat, the validator did get lucky and killed my cleric. I finished the game toting her dead body.
Gort has developer Donn Granros's initials on his chest.
Past the third automaton was an "oddly dressed man bound with heavy chains." With tortured dialogue meant to suggest a southern accent (sample: "Ah sho would be much obliged if you could get me out of these thangs"), he suggested we take a hidden exit to the north.

When we left the dungeon, the endgame commenced. The party and their companion hopped into an unattended ship and sailed away from the islands. There were a series of text screens confirming that the "great king" we had rescued was, yes, the King of Rock and Roll--Elvis Presley himself. I suppose this text ought to be preserved. I stress that I am not making any of this up.
And so it came to pass that your part and Elvis, your newfound friend, set sail on yet another quest. A quest to find the interdimensional vortex that plucked him out of his world and plopped him down in yours. Knowing only that the vortex was located in the ocean not far from Femble Isle, the search is long, relying only on Elvis's memories, dimmed by the time spent shackled in the depths of the palace.

Now just as everyone had given up hope, a shimmering haze is seen off the bow. Moving closer, your ship suddenly surges forward as it is drawn into the heart of the vortex.
Your world fades from view as another materializes. You tumble downward and everyone lands in a jumbled heap in the middle of a great black expanse.

Your party seems dazed and a bit confused, but Elvis exclaims, "Well, I'll be an ole hound dog. A parkin' lot! Look, there's my pink Cadillac just a-sitting there." Turning to your party, he says, "Much obliged, friends--and welcome to Vegas. Here, I am the king and I owe a real powerful debt to you guys."

Several crazy women carrying National Enquirers spot the King and scream, "Elvis! It's really him! Ma god." A crowd forms and carries the King away.
The party enjoyed several months in the city before they were bitten by wanderlust again. On Earth, however, "the market for persons of your unique talents is a bit limited." Thus, my fighter took a job as Elvis's bodyguard; my ranger disappeared in the Rockies; my wizard performs a nightly show at the Golden Nugget; and my cleric became a televangelist. 
No, I wasn't kidding.
I gave the original Legends a 29 on the GIMLET, rating its encounters and foes and economy best at 4s, its NPCs worst at 1 (I considered the people you meet in the dungeons encounters, not NPCs), and everything else in the middle at a 2 or 3. Legends II doesn't do so well. Even before the silly final minutes, the story isn't as fleshed out, magic plays a less important role, and equipment upgrades are rarer. The gameplay is more linear, the challenge less intense, and the economy absolutely broken when you never earn enough for leveling. With these various incremental modifications, the rating for Legends II drops to a 21.

I'm curiously ambivalent about the ending. If Crusaders of the Dark Savant pulled this kind of nonsense, I'd go through the roof, but Legends II wasn't exactly the sort of game that engages you with its story in the first place. I think I'd be pretty miffed if I were a 1980s TI-99 owner, though. The last screen ends with a dedication "to the TI and its users, long may we run," which would be a nicer sentiment if the developer hadn't just made a shaggy dog joke out of the last RPG the platform would see for the next 30 years.

Despite the sentiment, Asgard closed up shop the same year Legends II was released, and the platform saw only a handful more games of any genre before the modern "retro" revival. (For more on Asgard and the developers, see the end of my summary of Legends.) Unless I actually make it to the 2010s, this will be the last time we see a TI-99 screenshot. There were only four RPGs released for the machine, and I needed Adamantyr's help to set up three of them, so I'm not sorry to see this one disappear.

Our plod to the end of 1989 continues but is about to be interrupted by an incredible mire of a game called Legends of the Lost Realm.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: Danelaw

My map of the game world so far. I don't know if I'll ever get to stuff in that middle area, or whether I can just fill it with a solid color.
What has become clear--and what might have been clearer earlier, if I'd paid more attention to the game map--is that the wilderness areas are mostly incidental. The opening area held a few treasure chests and other interesting items, but I don't think I've found anything in the outdoors since I first entered New City. The wilderness basically exists to funnel you from one faction's territory to another's, and while there are diversions to map along the way, most of them don't stray far from the main road, and you could really spend all your time on the marked path.
The map that came with the game. I should have focused on the path and not the wilderness.
The paths lead to a variety of cities, castles, temples, and dungeons, each controlled by a different faction, each with one or more pieces of some map that I'll ultimately have to assemble. As we've seen, my failure to move quickly between places has meant that most of the map pieces have been looted by the time I arrive, and I've had to bribe or kill to reclaim them.

After my triumph at the Temple of Munkharama, I initially explored south, but eventually the combats grew too numerous and difficult, and I turned around. I returned to the opening area and the orchid field to the north, where my characters previously kept falling asleep. Now that I hard higher-level characters resistant to the sleep effects and a "wake up" spell, I was able to map and push through the area despite the constant drowsiness. I eventually re-connected with the road northwest of Orkogre Castle--well, not entirely "re-connected," since as commenters have pointed out, the developers messed up to the tune of one north/south square.
I hope someone was fired.
Along the way, I conquered the Tower of Dane, but before I describe that, let me grouse a bit about the world map. When I originally saw the game map in the materials, I thought the developers had adopted a Might and Magic approach in which the overworld would offer open exploration. Instead, unless something changes, you're pretty well limited to the loops of connecting trails, and a large section of the interior is destined to be colored in "inaccessible." The division of the map into six rows, A-F, and nine columns is a bit misleading, since you can't seem to explore the vast majority of it. (Among other things, A1 and A2 appear to be on the sun, while A8 and A9 are on the moon.) Not that I want the game to last a lot longer, but that's kind of bogus.

On to the Danes. They're tall, bald, blue creatures, like Zhaan on Farscape. I'd only met one of them before entering their tower; he had been sulking around Munkharama, spouting nonsense about the end of the world being nigh and such. Searching my notes, I found only a few other references. When I freed Captain Boerigard, the Gorn, from the jail in New City, he mentioned that the Gorn had survived numerous wars with the Munks and Danes. Brother T'Shober said he thought the evil Munks from the forest were plotting with the Danes. That was it. So you can see why I didn't feel overly informed when I arrived.

The tower consisted of six 10 x 20 levels plus a couple of final rooms at the top. I'm obliged to note that the "tower" wasn't visible from the outside and that somehow we went down a ladder in the wilderness to enter the first floor. On the first level, a priest told me that I would have to pass the Trial of the Fellowship, and he collected some initiation dues from me. I have this idea that I could have refused and just slaughtered my way through the temple, but I played it peaceful until circumstances wouldn't let me do that anymore.

Each level had a name, announced by a title card upon entering the level. The goal on each level was to find a golden idol and place it on an altar, which in each case opened the way forward. Before moving up to the next levels, I always encountered the Dane priest, who congratulated us on our progress, promoted us to a higher temple rank, and collected a new set of (increasing) dues.
None of these titles meant much in the end.
Each level had a different theme, with a set of related challenges. Specifically:
  • The Temple of the Initiate. A fairly easy level except for a single square, through which I had to pass repeatedly, where a "spray of choking gas" damaged my party and made a bunch of them nauseated. This square kicked off a theme for the tower, in which I repeatedly had to take unavoidable damage from certain squares, something that had me shouting some unprintable curses by the end of the tower.
  • The Temple of Divine Order. I had to get a Key of the Beast from a group of Dane and use it to enter the Lair of the Beast, where I killed a Psi-Beast and learned its secret word, which was--sigh--MOO.
This guy was freaky.
  • The Temple of Eternal Night. Most of the squares were dark, and I had to navigate with my map and by bumping against walls.
  • The Temple of Aerial Wimsey. The level's theme was a bunch of teleporters that I had to map and master. The golden idol was found in a room where a lack of air made the party collapse into unconsciousness. They had a vision of a young woman doing something with a sparkling globe. The young woman would seem to be the mysterious Vi Domina from the backstory (otherwise unencountered in the game so far), and I'm guessing the globe is the Astral Dominae.
This had better make sense at some point.
  • The Temple of Deadly Coffers. Annoying as hell. Not only were there numerous chests that exploded every time I faced them (chests containing necessary keys), there were squares that damaged and "veggified" my party members, which I don't even know what that means. I had to continually rest to undo the damage.
"Oops" suggests I did something wrong. All I did was turn and face the chest.
  • The Temple of Wanderers. Another annoying level where stepping into various squares--not levers, buttons, or anything you could actually see--opened gates and hidden walls. 
There was a corridor on this last level with a series of grates on the west wall. Some maniac was on the other side of the grates, with a "wild orgy of bodies," casting fireballs at my party. There was no way to open the grates and get to him, just move forward down the hallway. "Fire Shield" didn't seem to do anything to protect us. The damage continued for four squares, and it got so bad that I had to stop and rest several times in the middle of the corridor. When I got to the end, it turned out there was no way to progress further in that direction, and I had to turn around and walk back through the corridor--again stopping to rest several times--as I continued to take more damage.
This was pretty infuriating.
The lunatic turned out to be the head of the temple, Torquesade, the "Magna Dane," who I encountered when I went up and back down. He presided over a "decadent" group of followers, "ripe with wine and orgasm." In a long ALL CAPS speech, he demanded that we face the "challenge of the Spawning Pit, kill a fiend, and return with his demon horn. I had an option to just attack the idiot, and I was sorely tempted, but I had already collected some items necessary to perform the ritual at the Spawning Pit, and no role-playing option motivates me more than seeing a quest item fulfill its intended purpose and get out of my inventory.
The head of the religion doesn't seem very religious.
The top level of the tower had a pit where we performed the ritual to summon the demon, first by throwing the Munk Innards from Gorn Castle, then by throwing the Ashes of Diam found earlier in the Dane Tower, then by tossing in the Stone of Gates found in Munkharama. (Until this moment, I had been hoping that the Stone of Gates would somehow warp us from location to location.) This sequence was found in a book and also explained by the Magna Dane.
Well, that's disgusting.
The demon appeared and attacked. He is called * S P A W N * in the game; I remember from Wizardry VI that Bradley is fond of putting asterisks and spaces in the names of boss-level creatures. [Edit: as a commenter pointed out, this goes back to the first game and not something that Bradley introduced.] He had some mass-damage attacks but wasn't that hard overall. When he was dead, we jumped into the pit and took his horn.
The graphics and animation were pretty cool with this guy.
Immediately, the voice of the Magna Dane stated ringing through the levels, shouting things like "KILL THEM, SEIZE THEM, BRING ME THE HORN!" as if I wasn't going to bring it back to him. When I returned to his location, he attacked me with his army of followers, but my growing arsenal of mass damage spells (including the mage's "Nuclear Blast" and the alchemist's terrifyingly-effective "Asphyxiation") made short work of them.
The "boss" battle of the tower.
After they were dead, it took me a while to realize I had to search the area to find the Magna Dane's ring, use it to enter his chambers, and loot the treasure chest with the "Temple" map. I also got something called the "Coil of the Serpent" and a "Jeweled Cushion."
When I left the Temple, I finished mapping the pathway and forest north of it, which reconnected with the part I'd already mapped at a new location called Nyctalinth. This appears to be the T'Rang capital. On the way, I did have one weird encounter in which I found a Helazoid battling a group of T'Rang and chose to help her. She gave me the banner of her people and suggested I visit the home of her people. Incidentally, she introduced herself as "Jan-Ette" and said that her queen's name was "Ke-Li." I don't know how much more of that I can take.
But not the Crusaders of the Dark Savant, right? Because wouldn't they be bad?
Other notes:

  • The second level of the tower had a room called Belcanzor's Magik Emporium. A note on the door said that Belcanzor is in New City at nighttime and in the tower during the day. I guess I mapped his shop but didn't realize there was something to find there if I re-visited.
  • In between the various areas, you get attacked by members of the various factions in generally unavoidable combat. In random battles, I've killed plenty of Danes, Munks, Gorns, and Helazoids in their hovercraft. I feel particularly bad about the latter. They're pretty, and I have nothing against them even if they don't seem to fit in to this setting.
They look so happy. Why are they trying to kill me?
  • NPCs have started offering "Lore" when I click the associated button during encounters. The lore mostly indicates which individuals have what pieces of the map. The Magna Dane was supposed to have both the "Temple" and "Fools" maps, but I only found the Temple one. Some Munk has the "Dragon" and "Legend" maps. Ratkin have the "Crystal" map. Other lore talks about alliances; one tidbit I received late in the expedition is that "Lord Galiere has formed an alliance with Magna Dane."
  • Supposedly, when you click "Lore," you're actually trading lore, and the NPC finds out everything you know, too. I'm not sure what consequences this has for the game.
I guess I'll have to return to Munkharama.
I'm still waiting for the plot to resolve into anything sensible. Despite taking copious notes in a very text-heavy game, I never really understood why I was at the Tower of Dane, what the Danes were about, or what consequences their demise at my hands might have on the game world. Crusaders feels like it was developed by someone who had a strong internal sense of the plot, the characters, and the various factions, but he forgot to seed the world with enough clues for the rest of us.

Time so far: 47 hours

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Game 306: Legends II (1989)

Legends II
United States
Asgard Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for TI-99
Date Started: 9 October 2018

It was about a year ago that I looked at Legends (1987) for the TI-99, a platform that was already three-years discontinued. By 1989, it had been five years. And yet Asgard Software was still pumping out titles for its little cult following. Legends II is explicitly "dedicated to the TI community," according to the manual. "Daily we keep the TI legacy alive and with each passing year we create our own legends." Ironically, this was the company's last year, but it was a busy one, releases include a third version Tunnels of Doom anthology and four ports of Infocom text adventures.

You may recall that the original Legend was a Phantasie-inspired romp to defeat a warlord named Ashtar Creel. I liked that it used Phantasie's approach to dungeon exploration, but I thought the character development was limited and the combat far too frequent. It was also very grindy; to win I had to pretty much grind to the highest level before I even seriously attempted the dungeons.

Legends II--unimaginatively subtitled The Sequel everywhere but the title screen--doesn't begin with much of a backstory. The four-person party (every player gets a fighter, ranger, cleric, and wizard), bored after defeating Ashtar Creel, sets sail for a newly-discovered continent, hoping to find something to do there. They're shipwrecked on the way, and they wind up in the town of Grumble on an island called Femble.
A tavern tale hints at a bigger plot to come.
The game doesn't support any character-creation process. You either have to play with the (weak) default party or import a Legends party, which reduces them all to Level 3 but maintains their hit points and most of their equipment. I had trouble with the import process, so Adamantyr supplied me with a clean installation that includes a default party with appropriate attributes but lousy equipment. I changed the names.

Grumble, the only town on the new continent, has an inn, a potion shop, a temple, and a training hall, but oddly no weapons shop (you have to find all weapon and armor upgrades). Legends had only one town, too, but the rest of the island was dotted with inns where you could rest and heal. Instead, in Legends II the ranger occasionally finds "safe havens" for resting while you explore the outdoor landscape.
Options in town.
Every time you leave Grumble, you set a difficulty level for the monsters you encounter, on a scale of 1 to 10, the lower the easier. The setting affects not the type of monsters but their hit points and damage levels. Higher risk yields higher rewards, but it takes a while to build up to those higher settings. Just as in the original, in advancement my characters are hampered far more by lack of gold than lack of experience.
Sure, that will only take me about 70 combats to earn.
Movement is accomplished with the ESDX cluster, with a few other keys to perform special actions inside and outside of combat. The game checks for random encounters based on a number of cycles rather than the number of moves. This is highly annoying. Not only are you penalized for not immediately moving the moment that you have the ability (after a few seconds, the game inevitably rolls a random encounter), but in the modern era you can't crank up the emulation speed to get other things to run faster unless you're prepared to deal with all the extra combats.

Combat hasn't advanced at all since the first game. It's basically Phantasie's system without the little character animations. There are only a couple dozen enemies in the game.  Upon meeting an enemy party, you can choose to fight, intimidate them, greet them, surrender to them, or flee. Anything other than "fight" gives the enemy a free round of attacks if it fails. "Intimidate" is a great option. If it succeeds--which it does enough to make it viable--you still get the experience and gold from the combat, without having to fight anything.
I'm glad I didn't have to fight these guys. They eat armor.
If you choose to fight, you have options to thrust, parry, lunge, or cast a spell. Actions execute immediately instead of waiting until everyone sets up. The spell selection is small--eight each for wizards and clerics and six for rangers--and they can only be cast in combat. As in Phantasie, many are simply variants in power of the same base spell; for instance, the wizard gets "Firestorm1," "Firestorm2," and "Firestorm3." There are no mass-damage spells, which I somewhat like, as it makes me more likely to cast buffing spells like "Strength," "Protection," and "Prayer" in combat.
Fighting a cute giant snake.
Dungeon exploration offers the same weird dichotomy as in Legends, where half the dungeons offer traps and treasure chests but no monsters, and the other half offer monsters but no traps or chests. The first type of dungeon is attached to Grumble and is the first one that you explore. Legends started with some of the dungeon levels exposed, but the sequel makes you move to find every available square. It doesn't even open up the squares around you; you have to actually move into walls to see if you can go that way.
Threading my way through the dungeon. The dot indicates a special encounter.
Chests are often trapped and have to be disarmed. They might hold gold, potions, or equipment. You have to keep careful track of your current weapon, armor, and shield because when you find something new, you don't have an option to review what you're already carrying before deciding whether to keep it or leave it. One trip through the starter dungeon mostly made up for the paltry equipment my characters imported with.
I think most of my guys have better weapons than this.
The pair of games does a good job with narratives and encounters that develop the backstory and propel the main quest. I wish more titles of the era, independent and commercial, rewarded exploration with an occasional bit of text. (A text card like the one below at the end of each Shadowkeep level would have incentivized continuing to play it.) Grumble's tavern offers hits of gameplay elements to come. Rooms and hallways in dungeons have brief descriptions, and special encounters, annotated with a dot, sometimes offer role-playing options.
A signpost on the starting island.
An intertitle at the beginning of the Grumble dungeon explains that it's used for storage as well as the city's famous water and sewer system. As you explore, you repeatedly encounter a guide leading people through the sewers. On Level 2, there's a maintenance man who sells some tools to the party, and on Level 4, you run into the city's mayor, in hiding from assassins, who gives you a key to a special room at the Zen Outpost.
If Crusaders of the Dark Savant presented its text like this, I'd have a lot less of an issue with it.
Back on the surface, the tools are necessary to repair the drawbridge connecting the starting island to the next one to the south. I know from peeking at the map on Adamantyr's site that the game world consists of an absurdly long chain of islands running from north to south, none wider east-west than a single game screen but occupying perhaps 13 screens vertically. Apparently, Donn Granros has said that players of Legend complained of the open-world nature of the first game, so in this one the authors decided to feed them the dungeons in a linear order.
Good thing we bought those tools!
The problem with this approach is that you can only level up and heal in Grumble. And while you can quit and save in camp in the wilderness, every time you reload, you're back in Grumble. This is going to get annoying towards the end of the game when I'm far afield, want to save to avoid losing progress, but then have to trek all the way back to my position from Grumble again. (And the Classic99 emulator doesn't offer save states, so I can't cheat this process.) The overall setup seems to suggest that, once again, the player is best off doing a lot of grinding near Grumble before heading out into the open world. Fortunately, as long as you check in once in a while, grinding is as easy as weighing down the "1" key, since that key acknowledges messages, choose to fight, and chooses the "thrust" action each round.
Signs warn of strange happenings to the south.
I've explored about four screens to the south. It appears there are going to be special encounters at a lot of the bridges. I found the second dungeon--a monster one, this time. But I'm relying on the idea that all dungeons are visible on the screen and don't require you to poke around the map. Anyone who's played the game--which is probably just Adamantyr--please let me know if I'm wrong about this.
It's a tough call, but I'm thinking "no."
Just like its predecessor, Legends II is not a fantastic game, but it's one of the few fully-developed RPGs for the TI-99, and it offers enough of interest to keep me going. I look forward to seeing how or if the story develops and what the main quest truly is. One of the tavern tales suggests that Ashtar Creel isn't really dead, and another says, intriguingly, that "they somehow snatched this great king from a parallel world," likely to hold him for ransom. Are we going to end up rescuing Lord British in a non-Origin game?

Time so far: 4 hours