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.


34 comments:

  1. But is it harder than Wizardry IV?

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    Replies
    1. Wizardry IV is extremely difficult, but at least it doesn't require (or permit) grinding.

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    2. I quit W4 more because I was annoyed than because it was hard. I'm going to go back to it someday now that I've learned a bit more patience. Since then, I've played and won plenty of games harder than W4.

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    3. Back then, I hadn't hit upon the strategy of alternating two games at once, allowing some time to cool off after a frustrating session. I felt I either had to push through a game or abandon it before I could enjoy the next one. Ever since I started alternating, I only give up on a game when I can't bring myself to try it again even after a few "off" days.

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  2. Wow, this sounds unbearable. Guess it wouldn't be the first RPG to constantly feed its level 1 characters through the meat grinder, but it makes me wonder how anyone playtested this. Maybe there isn't even a second floor to the dungeon: if no-one can get there, why bother making it?

    I had noticed this game's "sequel" had disappeared from your list of recent & upcoming games, so thanks for telling us the legend of the lost "Legends of the Lost Realm II".

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  3. Title screen would make a great black metal album cover.

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  4. Wow, Avalon Hill! This doesn't have anything to do with any of their board games. And on the Mac no less. Cool.

    I like the taxman. IIRC there were tax rules in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, although I doubt anyone played with them. Greedy elites taxing the crap out of the little people should appear in more games, especially those aiming to be realistic.

    There is a Wiki for this game, although it is mostly annotated maps. Full of stuff like:

    - 7E, 3N - horrid beast drops can of beer when killed.

    Unique drop. No known use for can of beer.


    The maps don't seem to terribly spoil anything. They're just full of notes, item locations, the scribblings on the walls, and the puzzle pieces that can be found inside. There's a monster lore section that states what each monster is vulnerable and invulnerable to. There do seem to be several monsters that are vulnerable to unarmed attacks.

    Since you explicitly asked for help, I went through the small strategy section and extracted these non-spoilery informations:

    Manual Notes
    Bribes: It's never against the law to offer the enemy a bribe. Not only might it save your life, but sometimes it's the only way to obtain special items and information.

    Bribing is done by selecting Cast for the first character and entering a $ plus the amount of the bribe. It doesn't matter how much gold that particular character has, only how much the party has. Bribing may also be the only way your party can receive certain messages that some apparent enemies may be willing to deliver. In many instances speaking to them may work just as well, and could save you some money, but if it doesn't, try a bribe.

    Tips
    If you are having trouble killing an enemy, yvxr syng urnq be syng urnq'f zbz, try attacking unarmed. From the combat screen, select USE and input "0", or outside combat, unready your weapons.
    Enemies can steal your To:Barracks and Homing Sticks. Hold them on characters in the back row. Try not to save anything valuable on the front row characters. Keys don't seem to be stolen though.
    Pole arms allow attacking from the back row. Mentioned in manual.
    Thieves can attack from Hiding. Mentioned in manual.

    Another fan site says it's not a traditional hack-n-slash and you need to think, improvise, and use your imagination. It states "a game that demands creativity, a game that challenges you to try what was heretofore impossible" and "Truly unique in its approach".

    CGW says: "Complaints are few, but noteworthy. The beginning of the early versions of Might and Magic is nothing compared to the difficulty of getting a party started in Legends. Party members can die off even before the second encounter.

    To minimize the problems of getting started, back up files 3, 4, 6, and 7 under the "LoLRM" folder to a saved-game file as soon as each satisfactory character is created. Back up those files, also, after each satisfactory game session is completed.

    One possible starting strategy is to create a party made of three fighters, two shaman and a magician. All of the back characters will be able to use bows and arrows and, once the party has strengthened a little bit, one of the fighters may be replaced with a thief.

    At the early levels, run away from all encounters with magic-users. Also, rest the party whenever their sleep levels reach 50%. Take turns standing guard until everyone has had at least 6 hours sleep.
    "

    Also it says put your gold in the bank to avoid the tax man, which sounds counter-intuitive and unrealistic, but go figure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. i appreciate the effort. Unfortunately, I don't see much in here to help with these absurd early-game combats. No money to bribe, unarmed doesn't outperform armed, etc. I'd like to strangle that jackass who suggests that my problem is that I'm not creative enough.

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  5. This sounds extremely interesting, especially after what Harland wrote about it above! I'd love to see this played and documented further, so would you consider editing your characters in some way or another in order to skip the frustrating level 1 high mortality phase?

    Hex editor or Cheat Engine or something like it might make this a little less frustrating.

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  6. Well, at least now you have a new contender for the "Best Economy" category.

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  7. "A few hours in to Legends of the Lost Realm, I'm trying to decide if the creators were just clueless or actually sadistic."

    "Avalon Hill (developer and publisher)"

    If Avalon Hill ever developed and/or published a decent video game I'd like to hear of it. Reading through old CGW issues makes it sound like SSI pretty much ate their lunch all throughout the 80's, but this is the first I heard of a non-strategy game of theirs.

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    Replies
    1. Some of their Atari 2600 games were quite decent, though they were very ambitious (maybe too much so). Death Trap and Shuttle Orbiter had their charm.

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  8. Didn't Avalon Hill publish Telengard?

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    Replies
    1. Yep... I still have my copy from around 1985.

      It was huge but brutal to survive in for long, with very limited save options.

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  9. For some reason (probably Castle of the Winds + Macs in the computer lab in school) I always find these Mac interfaces fascinating. The graphics seem crisp and clear even today with their black and white.

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    1. They seem really ahead of their time. I grew up with a PC in the early 90s, which meant DOS command prompt or at best using Norton Commander. Later on also Windows 3.x but there weren't any real games for early Windows, only simple stuff comparable to flash games of the early 00s.

      Meanwhile Mac has a Windows style interface before Microsoft did it, and Mac games made use of that interface style whereas PC games didn't even care about the existence of Windows at that point. And interface-wise the Mac RPGs seem a little more user friendly than most interfaces of DOS and Amiga RPGs, but I haven't tried emulating the original Mac yet so I'm not sure how it's in practice.

      Also Mac games have a surprisingly high resolution for the time. Then again, DOS games were much more colorful while Mac was plain black and white - so it deliberately chose high res over multiple colors. Which gives it a unique look that I quite enjoy.

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    2. The windows style interface in Macintosh RPGs diminishes immersion a bit. But there is something intriguing in this high-res black and white graphics. It has a certain tinge of nostalgia, and in my opinion it aged much better than all those EGA and even many VGA games.

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    3. The MacVentures games (Deja Vu, Shadowgate, etc.) looked pretty fantastic in black and white.

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    4. Black and white can be an effective design choice and one that's not used as often as it should these days.

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  10. I'm positively intrigued by this one. I look forward to see more of it! (I'd try it myself, but I have no idea on how to run this on a linux machine).

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  11. Kinda reminds me of a Bards Tale Let´s Play that I´ve been reading, where the guy went through like 30 Melee Characters in order to get his Mages up to a level where they can actually cast a healing spell o.-

    Not that I mind hard RPGs but that DOES seem to be a TINY bit tedious o.-

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  12. The burial fee was probably to keep you from making a bunch of extra characters and ripping them off for more starting money.

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    Replies
    1. That was certainly a tactic of mine when I played Bard's Tale. I got so fed up with characters dying in droves before I could make any progress I spent a couple hours on my C64 rolling characters, selling off their gear and putting them back on the street naked and vulnerable.

      Delete
    2. That does make a certain amount of sense.

      Delete
  13. "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."

    In my reading of Garriott's comment on the Digital Antiquarian's site, that first hand-packaged version of Akalabeth was sold in that single computer shop in 1979. The question is whether he means his own hand-packaged games when he uses the word "published" or the nationally distributed version. I wouldn't use the word for my own hand-packaged games sold in a single computer store. "Released" would be more fitting in that case.

    "Akalabeth was indeed published in the year 1980. However, I wrote it in 1979 at the end of high school, before college. Then with the encouragement of friends and most importantly John Mayer the owner of the local Computerland, where I worked summers, I invested in my own zip-lock version of the game, which sold 12-25 units. Shortly after I was contacted by California Pacific who offered to distribute it nationally."

    The Wikipedia editors seem to take it like this too, according to the article's info box, but are obviously also unsure about it:
    "circa 1979 (limited release), 1980-1981 (California Pacific release)"; and they have an inconclusive section about the release date:
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akalabeth:_World_of_Doom#Release_date

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    Replies
    1. In the next paragraph, he says, "I have occasionally stated both 1979 and 1980 as the release date of Akalabeth. Clearly 1980 is accurate." I'm 99% sure he's talking about the hand-packaged ComputerLand version here as well as the California Pacific Computing version. I no version of the story does an entire year pass between the CL release and the CPC contract. Moreover, the original packaging has a copyright date of 1980.

      Obviously, the date that an author started working on a game has value, and it's to be understood in all cases that development began a year or more before the release date. But I use the first date that someone could have bought and played the game as the most important date for the game, and I'm convinced by the evidence that 1980 is correct for Akalabeth.

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  14. Yes, I can definitely see how offering credit to adventurers, who are probably going to be eaten by giant frogs, turned to ash by a dragon or just lost down some bottomless pit, is a sound business decision.

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  15. The enemy balance sounds like something a developer would do to you when you failed the copy protection, not a normal game.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, that's what I was thinking. The game DOES have a copy protection, but when you fail, it just kicks you back to the desktop.

      Delete
  16. "Using radial buttons" - They are "radio buttons" named after the old mechanical push button car radios where only one button can be pushed down at a time.

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    Replies
    1. This would be pointless pedantry, except that "radial menus" has an actual (and completely different) meaning.

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    2. Someone was wrong on the internet and I had to fix it ;^). Seriously though, Chet's blog is amazing, and I just wanted to add one more to his list of "things I learned from a CRPG/obnoxious commenter list".

      Delete

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