Thursday, November 29, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: Trying Everything

A moment where I couldn't pass a cliff. I don't know why this "Coil of the Serpent" worked, but it did.
          
As I mentioned in an earlier posting, I've developed the habit, when playing Crusaders of the Dark Savant, of starting each session with a careful review of my inventory, including reading all the documents in my possession. I also have a collection of screenshots of past dialogue that haven't resolved into anything yet, and I review these. Thus, when I encounter one of the game's many inventory or dialogue puzzles, I have my resources fresh in mind. Unfortunately, there are times when not even this helps.

I began this session by going back to Ukpyr for new orders. Sergeant Balbrak gave us a ridiculous amount of money (more than 8,000 gold) for delivering the message to Rodan; I guess his temper is famous and most other Umpani paid money into a pool to get out of the job. Balbrak then sent us to General Yamo for my next orders.

Yamo had an absurdly long speech that he delivered one line at a time. The gist of it was that the T'Rang clearly intend to colonize Guardia and have been shipping shuttles with their eggs. He charged us with infiltrating their base at Nyctalinth and destroying the T'Rang queen. To help, he gave us a "thermal pineapple," which was clearly our interpretation of a grenade.
              
Destroy an invasion of disgusting spider people? You had me at hello.
            
Seconds after he gave us the grenade, the T'Rang bombed the base, killing Yamo. The other Umpani scattered, leaving the party free to explore areas that had been off-limits before. Among these were a map room, where a map of the Sea of Sorrows indicated something important at the location of the Isle of Crypts on the main game map. Another location had the code to the security vault back at the Umpani embassy in New City (2723539).

For some weird reason, the bombs also set off an explosion of NPCs in the area. From the moment I left Yamo to the moment I engaged the Humpawhammer, I could barely walk a step without running into Master Xheng, Brother T'Shober, Lieutenant Gruntwrapper, and the Gorn king. Some of them I encountered multiple times, and sometimes I encountered multiple NPCs in the same square. None of them had anything new to contribute, but I had to sit through all of their multi-screen introductions every time they showed up. It was rather infuriating.
          
Every time the Gorn king appears, I have to acknowledge like six screens of text.
          
Back in New City, I used the code to enter a storage room in the Umpani embassy. I looted a chest there and received a "Comm-Link," which I was 100% sure was the object I needed to activate the computer in the city's control room (previously cleared of Savant troopers). I was right.

After coming to life with the Comm-Link, the computer required me to enter a server address and then a program name. Fortunately, my review of my items had reminded me that I had discovered those things in Nyctalinth. The program, "Black Ship Command," gave me a few options. The "status" option told me that the Black Ship was currently in orbit around Guardia. 
             
Because I had recently reviewed this piece of parchment . . .

. . . I knew what to enter here.
           
More useful was the "files" section, where I could plug in the name of most NPCs and get a brief file. I learned that General Yamo was considered to be "getting soft with age" and that Rodan Lewarx is "foolhardy and reckless, making him dangerous." But things really kicked into gear when I asked about VI DOMINA, the mysterious descendent of Phoonzhang, mentioned prominently in the backstory but found in the game (so far) only in a vision.

The computer started to spit out her file when a voice behind us said, "If there's something you want, why don't you ask." We spun around to face Vi Domina in the flesh. She explained that she'd been monitoring communications and had come down from the Black Ship. The Dark Savant, she reported, "has gone completely mad, calling himself the divine lord of the universe or something." She was in the process of asking our help getting away from him when the Dark Savant himself appeared in the room, shot Vi Domina, and tossed her into a prison cell attached to the computer room before vanishing again. Nothing I could do with the computer or physically would open the cell.
         

The Dark Savant completely ignores "his" crusaders.
          
After a stop at the healing fountain, I teleported to Nyctalinth and found the place largely deserted. I made my way back to the caverns beneath the city and used the "thermal pineapple" to blow up the room full of eggs I'd previously been unable to traverse.
          
           
This led me to the chambers of H'Jenn-Ra T'Rang, the T'Rang queen (although the game uses "he" to describe him even as he lays eggs), who attacked me with a group of T'Rang assassins and elders. It was one of the most difficult battles in the game so far, and I reloaded four times to get a victory with no character deaths. Both H'Jenn-Ra and his assassins are capable of instant-death spells plus poison that saps dozens of hit points per round.
          
The spell fortunately failed this time.
        
H'Jenn-Ra's body had two of the maps, "Legend" and "Dragon." I found a third, "Serpent," in a crypt. I'd never heard of this one before, but it showed up in my "lore" inquiries after I found it, suggesting that my previous hypothesis was true: you only get lore about maps whose chests you've already visited.
         
It's about time I actually found one where it's supposed to be.
       
In another room in Nyctalinth, I discovered three inert Savant guardians. I didn't know what would activate them, so for the first time this session I went through the process of trying nearly everything in my inventory. Control card? Nope. Brush and combs? No effect. Lodestone? Nothing. Finally, I hit on the answer with a "mystery ray." Two of the savant guardians attacked me, but the third malfunctioned and spit out the address and program name for the security room back in New City.
            
I wonder how he's pronouncing the @.
            
Returning once again, I used the information to free Vi Domina from the cell. She woke up and recommended that she team up with us to find the Astral Dominae before the Dark Savant. She gave us a transmitter to keep track of our location and then took off, saying she was going to fool the Dark Savant. She dropped the hint at one point that "he can't get his precious orb without me."

At this point, the only unfinished business I had involved the caves on the eastern side of the map. I warped back to Ukpyr and then walked north until I found the first set of caves, which had those deadly whirlpools I couldn't get past. There was a calcium pedestal at one point, and it clearly wanted me to do something, so again I tried everything in my inventory before, surprisingly, a "Rebus Egge" activated it. I don't even remember where I got that thing.
          
This is only the first, and least disturbing, bikini-clad female upper body that you'll see in this entry.
            
The "egge" hatched into a sphinx, which said this:
         
Is he not a body, from that toil doth he bring forth substance? Is he not a heart, that from anguish doth glean understanding? Is he not a mind, that from chaos doth he wrest order? And is he not yet more than this, that from emptiness doth he harvest creation?
           
I don't know if that was supposed to be a riddle or not, but either way, I didn't have a chance to answer. The sphinx spun a rainbow bridge across the whirlpools and disappeared. On the other side, in a pit, we found a "majestik wand."
             
Sure, this seems like a good idea.
          
The other set of caves I hadn't finished exploring had a bunch of mirrors in which demons' and witches' faces appeared and asked me riddles like, "Rat's tails and demon's blood, what name be under South Witch Hood?" I still couldn't make heads or tails of the area and left in frustration. I wish I'd stuck it out because getting back there is going to be a pain. I was reminded during this long session that the worst moments in Crusaders are when you're just trying to get from one place to another and you have to dismiss countless messages and wait for NPCs to load and then leave.

At some point, I encountered my Helazoid friend, Jan-Ette, and was surprised to see one of the maps, "Fools," in her possession. I bought it for 10,000 gold. It just showed a path with an "X" marking a spot at the end of it. Anyway, with this purchase I have all the maps I've been told about except the "Crystals" map, which is supposedly in the hands of a Rattkin.
           
Should I try to follow these instructions, or is it called "Fools" because only a fool pays attention to this map?
           
Meeting Jan-Ette reminded me that I had never found the Helazoid city. I really only had two locations left to explore--the fog bank in the southwestern section of the Sea of Sorrows and the islands in the middle of the sea, including the Isle of Crypts. Figuring the fog bank was the more likely avenue, I felt my way through it to a very large series of underground caverns. I'd hardly fought any combats up to this point in this session because I'd mostly been revisiting previously-explored areas. But the caves had plenty to spare (as well as a number of treasure chests), and I spent about half the time of this session on this one map. Many of the combats were with dragons, delivering tens of thousands of experience points, and everyone rose a couple of levels.
             
Tough customers.
          
At the entrance to the caves was a sea monster named Brombadeg, who has the upper body of a human female and the lower body of a giant octopus. That's pretty weird. Brombadeg was unaffected by most magic and had a pretty hefty physical attack, but she almost never hit. I was able to whittle her down and defeat her in one try.
         
The asterisks tell you that she's a boss, but the lack of spaces in her name shows that she's not a big boss.
          
A ladder in a back passage brought me at last to Higardia, City of Sky, capital of the human-like Helazoids, an all-female race that zips around in air cars. The city map wasn't very large, but navigation was made needlessly difficult by a bunch of invisible walls.
              
The party bashes into an unseen barrier.
           
In due course, I met the Helazoid leader, Ke-Li, who called us "crusaders" and "heroes" and talked about how the time of the prophecy was "nigh" and that we should try to complete the "Great Test."
           
All right, calm down a bit.
         
Best of all, Ke-Li had a lot of magic items to sell, including various ankhs that can be invoked for a permanent bump in attributes. I spent quite a bit of my excess funds with her.
           
Kl-Li had some cool and expensive stuff.
        
The "Great Test" she referred to was a series of rooms with statues of Phoonzang. The first one simply asked his name. But I got stuck at the second one, where I was confronted by nine runes. I couldn't find anything that suggested an order to the runes, and I wasn't going to sit around and try all 9!=362,880 possibilities.
           
Hints welcome if this is something I'm already supposed to know.
         
Knowing my luck, I was supposed to get the answer in that witch/demon cavern I left. In any event, I backtracked my way out of the city and to my boat, where I'm deciding whether to visit the Isle of Crypts or go back to the caves (where I still don't have a clue how to answer the riddles). Either way, I'm hoping I can wrap this up in one more entry. That might be laughable, though. I've done an excellent job avoiding spoilers for this game, with the result that there could be an entire "second half" to the game world and I'd have no idea.

Time so far: 90 hours

Monday, November 26, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: Ultima Thule

The game's tendency towards broad comedy continues.
         
Some commenters had suggested that I finish up on land before exploring the ocean, so for no other reason than an inexplicable desire to be contrary, I set off on a long ocean voyage. I decided to make my way to Ukpyr, the Umpani city, by first going west from New City and mapping my way around the perimeter of what the map calls the Sea of Sorrows. I'd eventually arrive back at the Eryn River, east of New City, and from there walk to Ukpyr.

Almost immediately, I ran into a problem. When I reached the northwest corner of the sea, near the game's starting area (for me), my map didn't match up. It wasn't off by just one row, as it was up near Nyctalinth, but rather four rows and one column. Thinking this couldn't possibly be right, I looped back around on land to check the accuracy of my previous map, and I encountered the same problem.
              
The two squares with the Xs are the same location, just at different coordinates depending on which side you approach from.
           
It got worse after that. If I take the sea east from New City to hook up with my previous map of the shores of the Eryn River, I find that I'm off by two rows and two columns. If I loop all the way around the Sea of Sorrows and come up to the other side of the Eryn River, I'm off by three columns and 11 rows. That seems crazy. But I consulted a couple of maps online and I don't seem to be wrong. Check out this map, for instance, and note how the creator had to stretch and distort parts of the map to make it all come together.

I frankly don't understand how it's technically possible for this to happen. I've played more than 200 tile-based RPGs, and never once has a game managed to screw up its maps this way. You'd think if it was easy, it would have happened multiple times. I think back to Fate: Gates of Dawn, which had the largest map we've seen so far, and yet not a tile was out of place. I probably wouldn't understand the underlying programming even if you explained it to me, but Crusaders must use an approach different from just about any other game to introduce these kinds of errors. Whatever the cause, it really dampened my enthusiasm for continuing to meticulously map the game.

My enthusiasm also took a hit for thematic reasons. I spent multiple hours mapping two offshoots from the Sea of Sorrows: the Myrmideon Forest on the west side and the Lesser Wilds on the east side. Both areas had plenty of random encounters, but neither had a single special encounter, treasure chest, or really any reason to exist.

The Sea itself was also full of random encounters, mostly with the red piranhas I'd previously mentioned, plus plenty of fights with various creatures in the flying jellyfish family. They were mostly somewhat easy, as if players were expected to find the boat long before I did.
             
Other creatures in this category are called "dinkle wisps."
         
The Myrmideon Forest, on the other hand, really kicked it up a notch. Its "vampire vultures" are the toughest variant of the generic "black bird" icon I've been encountering since the game's beginning. (The list I've recorded, in order of difficulty, are ravens, vultures, night rooks, dragon rooks, vampire rooks, fire crows, and vampire vultures.) There were several types of giant bugs, each with about a billion hit points. I had entered this session thinking my party was overpowered, but I got completely slaughtered by a party of eight "conquilados," which have a devastating physical attack, spit acid for mass damage, and seem immune to everything.
         
It's rare that I get full-party death from a random encounter.
         
I thought the Myrmideon Forest was coming to something when I ran into a road. The road made a loop around an area with a few walls that looked like buildings instead of forests, but there was nothing to find within this area. Maybe it turns out to be the exit from someplace.
             
This felt like it was leading to something.
         
On the south end of the Sea of Sorrows, I ran into a fog bank. Entering the fog bank caused my ship to run into things, or at least have a chance per round of running into things, causing damage to everyone on board. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to feel my way through this area (listed as Brombadian Bay on the map) or find some artifact that will let me pass. Either way, I left it alone for now.
           
           
On the other side of the sea, the Lesser Wilds were full of skeleton lords, which attacked me annoyingly in small groups of 1 or 2 instead of large groups that would be more susceptible to "Dispel Undead" and various mass-damage spells. I had a lot of trouble with them because "Dispel Undead" is a spirit realm spell, and by now I had exhausted most of my spirit realm points on healing. There were also a lot of monsters in the moth family. The area ended up leading to nothing important. I did level up a couple times during my explorations. Everyone is at Level 19 now, and the number of experience points between levels seems to have stabilized at 600,000.
          
These guys are capable of "Fireball" and thus not to be trifled with.
          
Eventually, I came full circle and headed to Ukpyr. Like some of the other areas of the map, Ukpyr is an ancient city that the Umpani--alien to this world--have recently taken over. The Umpani are a highly-regimented, martial society, and to even enter the city safely I had to say that I was interested in joining the Special Tactical Forces, a division of the Imperial Umpani Federation.
             
A good role-playing option.
           
I guess I could have fought and massacred my way through the map, but having already decided to oppose the T'Rang--enemies of the Umpani--I chose to role-play this one. I found the recruiting office, where Sergeant Balbrak welcomed me into the army and gave me my first set of "orders," to go to the supply depot and get some equipment.

The supply depot gave the party a couple of flak jackets, muskets, and shot and powder. (We had to pay almost 10,000 gold for these things, but that's a small fraction of the money I have now, with nothing to spend it on.) One distinguishing feature of the Umpani is that they have firearms, if only the muzzle-loading variety. From here, we went on to the firing range where every character took turns firing at a target, learning the "Firearms" skill in doing so. Every character can learn the skill, but in my party only the Valkyrie and lord can actually equip the musket. I doubt I'll use the weapons unless they become vital later on.
            
An Umpani tell us how to use the musket.
         
The next set of orders had us scouting the forest to the north of Ukpyr for a party of T'Rang. I had already mapped the forest, so we just wandered around until we found them. It was an easy combat, and when we returned Sergeant Balbrak gave us 5,000 gold.
              
Later, each character has a new "Firearms" skill.
          
Our next orders were to go to the Umpani mission in New City to deliver a message to a "master tracker" named Rodan Lewarx from the Umpani General Yamo. To get there, we were given a "Humpa Card" which allowed us to take the "Humpawhammer," the Umpani version of the T'Rang Anthracax--a teleporter between the city and the embassy in New City. 

We arrived in New City and gave Rodan his orders. He was excited, shouting about how Shritis T'Rang himself, the T'Rang leader, was here on Guardia and now Rodan could finally avenge his father's death. With that, he took off, leaving his orders behind. I read the orders, and they explicitly told Rodan not to seek out Shritis T'Rang. 
                
The Umpani are not a patient race.
           
The Umpani embassy has a door with nine digits that I don't have the code for, but I can get out to New City from here, which is a convenient shortcut. I now have to figure out whether to go back to Ukpyr and rat on Rodan or whether to head to Nyctalinth and try to stop him from getting killed (if that's even possible). 
             
Rodan didn't even try to comply with these orders.
            
The Umpani are a reasonably well-characterized faction, and I like that the game has offered some role-playing options (basically, play along or slaughter everyone) in almost all of the major areas. However, as with almost everything David Bradley-related, there's a patina of goofiness over the whole thing, and I find myself wishing the story went just a little deeper and featured less silly names and characterizations.

No new maps this time. I'm still not sure whether assembling all of them is strictly necessary. I hope not, as I'm ready for the game to be over. I think I'm just going to push on with Crusaders until I wrap it up, rather than alternating with the other games on my active list.

Time so far: 81 hours

Thursday, November 22, 2018

It Should Have Been an RPG

Confession time. My lack of entries over the last week has not been because of my usual excuse--work--but rather because all my free time has gone into Red Dead Redemption 2. It's an absurdly large, long, and addictive game. I've been on break all week (no one schedules anything the week of Thanksgiving), and what with the snow and cold here in New England, it's been tough to convince myself to leave my couch and fireplace to go play old RPGs in my office.

Some of you will see my enjoyment of this game, and perhaps even its medium, as a betrayal of the interest that we share. But I can enjoy action games on the console, too. I look for different things when I'm sitting on the couch than I do at my computer. 

That said, it's hard not to play Red Dead Redemption 2 and not wish it had more RPG elements, like character development (a few upgrades to max health, stamina, and "dead eye" don't really count) and a more tactical approach to combat. The game is extremely "realistic" in that a headshot brings down every enemy, which renders all the work you put in to getting better weapons somewhat meaningless. A player would have little problem making his way through the game with just the starting revolver. Yes, this is more "realistic"--it's always a bit jarring when I nail a super mutant in the head with a rocket launcher and it doesn't kill him--but still anathema to an RPG lover.

What Redemption does extremely well--far better than its predecessor--is the game world. There's no question that it would get a perfect 10 in that category if I was rating it on the GIMLET. Most of my joy in the game has come from simply wandering around the enormous map and finding cool things. Some of them are side quests, but a lot of them are just little vignettes. Almost every abandoned cabin has some kind of story to tell, and graphics and sound have advanced enough that you don't need explicit text to tell you what happened. I went to one cabin where there were half a dozen corpses, a couple clearly having collapsed at the dinner table. A hole in the chimney had poured poisonous carbon monoxide into the house. Another cabin had dead flowers on the doorstep, decorated for the arrival of the owner's new bride--only she never made it. His cart is found crashed at the bottom of a nearby cliff, a note on his body indicating that he was headed off to pick her up at the train station. There are dozens of scenarios like this. I can't believe the detail that the developers put into St. Denis--a fictional version of New Orleans--with dozens of back alleys, courtyards, and terraces that have no purpose to the plot and most players will never see.

An ongoing mystery concerns the disappearance, 15 years prior, of a visiting princess. She was 5 then; she would be 20 today. I learned about the enigma from a newspaper article. Later, a random camper in the wilderness told me he was obsessed with the story and heard there were some clues to be found in the town of Van Horn. I spent hours searching Van Horn, heard some cryptic things from a guy in the tavern, found some of the princess's likely belongings in the pawn shop. I'm not even sure this is a real quest--not sure it's even solvable in the game. But simply wandering around looking for clues was more fun than I have in the typical RPG with quest markers leading you from plot point to plot point.

One of the parts that I like best are all the animals. As you discover them, a compendium fills in information. You don't have to kill them; you can study them from afar with binoculars. They act about as realistic as any animals I've ever seen in a game. Beavers come out at dusk from their dams and head into the forest for wood. Deer cautiously approach riverbanks to get a drink. Cougars and wolves stalk deer. Eagles swoop down to lakes and carry away fish. If the only mission in the game had been to observe every animal, it would still be enormously fun.

Another thing it does particularly well is in the area of enemies. I'm often challenged by foes in RPGs, but it's rare that I actively fear or hate them. Redemption has some foes that I go out of my way to avoid, and some that I go out of my way to kill. The prime example of the former is a clan of creepy cannibalistic hillbillies in the northeast corner of the map, an area clearly meant to represent Appalachia. The whole part of the world is dreary and depressing. There are ruined coal towns with unemployed hobos asleep in every alley and a mining town where everyone has black lung. But the worst part is wandering into the woods at night and getting attacked by a group of overall-clad lunatics. You don't camp out in this part of the world.

Not all of the monsters are human. The swamps of Lemoyne--a stand-in for Louisiana--have alligators everywhere. I can't count the number of times I ended up between an alligator's jaws while I was searching for orchids or egrets or some other quest item that you can only find in the swamp. Unfortunately, it's dishonorable to just shoot every damned one of them. Then there are the wolves. When he reviewed The Grey (2012), Roger Ebert wrote, "When I learned of Sarah Palin hunting wolves from a helicopter, my sensibilities were tested, but after this film, I was prepared to call in more helicopters." I feel the same way after about six unsuccessful attempts to get through the same mountain pass.

On the hate side, the world is full of rival gangs with whom you develop extremely legitimate grievances. Plus, there are lots of racists. Interrupting a KKK meeting with a stick of dynamite never gets old.

The story is fun and compelling, but it bothers me from an RPG perspective how little control I seem to have as to its direction. You have control over a thousand minor things--whether to intervene in a scene of domestic violence, whether to suck the poison out of a snake-bitten victim, whether to shoot the shackles off a runaway convict--but not in the big story moments. I've said repeatedly that actual "role-playing" and "choices" aren't a necessary part of a definition of an RPG, which is true, but they are perhaps part of the definition of a modern RPG, and the lack of any meaningful input into the direction of the story really makes this game's genre clear.

(I should mention that I'm only in Chapter 5, so it's possible that things change.)

This isn't the first time I've played a non-RPG and wished I could change its genre. I felt the same way about the first Red Dead Redemption. Just like the sequel, it had an excellent game world, NPCs, main quest, side quests, and inventory, but little-to-no character development or attribute-based combat. Dishonored and its sequel might just qualify as RPGs in a technical sense, but I wish they'd gone a bit further in those same RPG elements. L.A. Noire--another Rockstar title--left me desperately wanting an RPG in the same setting. 

This phenomenon--wishing non-RPGs were RPGs--isn't a modern development for me. I had the same feeling about Pirates! when it was first released; give me the same game but with some character attributes and an inventory! I remember thinking that Airborne Ranger (1987) would have been better if the character had just gotten a little stronger in between missions. I remember wanting to earn experience in Doom

These fantasies may be misguided. Perhaps these games are perfect the way they are, in their natural genres, and attempts to turn them into RPGs would ruin the balance of gameplay that they already achieve. Nonetheless, the desire is there. What games have you played that you wished had taken more of an RPG approach? 

We'll return to the usual program shortly, I promise. Happy Thanksgiving! 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: 10 Steps Behind

This just isn't my month.
          
As I closed the last session, I was near the gates of Ukpyr, where I was destined to meet (finally) the Umpani, a human-rhinoceros race that I guess represents one of the game's "good" factions. But I had reached the gates by following the right-most wilderness path ever since leaving the Rattkin ruins. Rather than continue to Ukpyr, I decided to about-face and map the rest of the wilderness between Ukpyr and the ruins, partly because I knew there were three more flowers to find.

Let me pause to note (and perhaps slightly complain) that Crusaders doesn't really have an "outdoor" area. It has a huge dungeon with outdoor textures, just like the first Might and Magic. Far fewer than half the squares on the grid are used, and the party is channeled through very narrow passages. I much prefer the open exploration available in Might and Magic III, which retains a first-person interface outside, or Pool of Radiance, which switches to a top-down view. Crusaders' system works okay for the needs of pacing and plot, but to pretend it's a major step up from Wizardry VI is absurd. I find the game map, which copies the style of the Might and Magic series, particularly disingenuous. It suggests there are 54 map squares, from A1 to F9, but most of these squares--including, I think, all of Row A--are completely unexplorable, and others only have a tiny handful of used tiles. 

For that matter, why annotate the squares? Unless I'm missing something, there's no spell or device in the game that provides the party's current coordinates, so why even specify that New City is in square C4 or Ukpyr is in D9? In any event, one consolation is that this type of world is easier to map.
            
Water exploration is exhausting for both me and the characters.
         
In due course, I came to a water-filled cave. I spent an hour mapping the damned thing, swimming for six or seven squares and then taking forever to restore everyone's stamina via "Stamina" spells. It was often up to 20 squares between land areas, so there were multiple "Stamina" breaks between times that I could simply sleep.

I should mention that water squares contain as many fixed encounters as land squares. Most of them are with red piranhas or these things called "Dinkle Wisps" that look like flying jellyfish. Nothing too hard.
          
I refuse to spell "piranha" the way the game does.
        
When all was said and done, I accomplished nothing in the cave. I'm not sure what it's purpose was. There was one area full of whirlpools that I couldn't pass without dying. ("Levitate" did nothing to help, and I couldn't find any other spell solution.) There were numerous messages about calcium deposits and turbulent waters, but nothing that gave me a clue to use or do anything. Maybe I'll later find something that allows easier passage over water.

I found two flowers on the way back to the Rattkin ruins. I also found another cave, this one populated by giants. (And like the cave I entered last time, at some point it collides with the existing outdoor map, meaning it doesn't exist on the same scale.) The giants mostly attacked individually, and had names like Ogo, Munstachio, and Gruengard. At first, I felt bad about entering their cave and slaughtering them, but it soon became clear that they regarded us as food. The giants have a devastating melee attack that almost never hits. They have so many hit points that I was generally lucky with a critical hit before I actually wore them down to 0.
             
            
The ultimate battle of the area was with Spot--sorry, * S P O T *--the dinosaur-ish "pet" of the giants. He had about 1,500 hit points and, like the giants, a deadly physical attack that usually missed. He seemed completely immune to spells and critical hits, so I had to kill him the hard way. Sometimes I miss all-physical combats like this, where buffing spells like "Superhero" and "Bless" and "Enchanted Sword" can really make a difference, and you need healers to run from character to character to minimize hit point loss. You use far different tactics when pounding away at one guy than you do in combat with 40 enemies in 5 groups.
              
He doesn't even have any spots.
         
* S P O T * turned out to be guarding nothing more than a buried helmet called a "Necromatic Helm," which is cursed. I have no idea as to its purpose. Elsewhere in the caves was the fifth flower required by Master Xheng.

At this point, I was way back at the beginning of this wilderness area. Rather than hike all the way back to Ukpyr, I decided to walk downriver and see if I could figure out where the two maps connected (I had been keeping a separate map ever since emerging from the Rattkin ruins). It didn't take very long, and with some careful cutting and pasting, I had a unified map again.
            
My current map of the game world.
         
Along the way, I explored an area north of the river, accessible only from the river, and found a treasure chest with a lot of great stuff. It had belonged to some kind of knight, apparently, and featured a "Crusader's Axe" and "Crusader's Helm," plus a couple of pieces of magical chainmail. The items are only usable by a fighter, lord, or Valkyrie. I had been building my Valkyrie's "Axe" skill in anticipation of eventually finding one, so I gave it to her to see if it would perform better than my +2 spear. Jury is still out.
            
Treasure chests are rare enough in this game that it's a major event when you find one.
        
Munkharama was now only a short distance away, so I went there to bring the 5 flowers to Master Xheng. When I arrived, he was gone, but he'd left a note: "Seek out Father Rulae in the Abbey of New City.  Tell him that you have learned the Holy Sacrament, and he shall aid you in your journey." This was followed by instructions for blending the five flowers together. I had to figure out part of the recipe myself, which was to make a "divine solution of White Dahlia," which just meant mixing the White Dahlia with holy water. In the end, I had a potion called "Snakespeed," and I have no idea what it does. "Identify" doesn't help at all. Drinking it doesn't seem to produce any increase in attributes. I've saved it in case I need it for a puzzle or something.
              
Part of Master Xheng's instructions.
          
Back I traveled to New City, now with two things to accomplish. First, I told Father Rulae that I learned the "Holy Sacrament." He granted me access to a new underground area, where there was a chest that contained . . . only dust. Yet another map piece that someone else got to first. There was also a healing fountain that I don't have to pay to use, but I do have to talk to Father Rulae and acknowledge multiple messages every time I want to use it. It might be easier just to use the one in the starter dungeon.
            
I walked around and picked five flowers. It wasn't particularly "virtuous."
        
I next visited Professor Wunderlund and told him that I need to visit the ARCHIVES, the keyword I'd received in the Rattkin ruins. He responded that the archives were in the Old City and gave me a key.
             
I feel like we could have gotten here sooner.
          
The key opened the way to a small underground area where there were a few easy combats with undead and slimes. I found two treasure chests there. The first contained some miscellaneous goodies--scrolls, mostly. The second contained . . . empty wrappers. Damn it. That's 0 for 2 this session, and like 2 for 7 the entire game.
             
This graphic makes me think of the "great link" from Deep Space 9.
        
The interesting thing is that these two chests in New City are keyword-dependent rather than item-dependent. If you were replaying the game, you could presumably get instant access to the maps by feeding the previously-known keywords to Father Rulae and Professor Wunderlund. I'm curious if any of my commenters who've replayed the game have done that or forced themselves to learn the words "honestly."

As I've mentioned before, the game continually assaults you with wandering NPCs. The two I encounter most frequently are Captain Beaurigad, the Gorn soldier I released from prison in New City, and Jan-Ette, the Helazoid I rescued from a party of T'Rang. King Ulgar the Gorn shows up a lot, too. Every time they appear, you have to acknowledge their multi-screen introductory text, and sometimes they pop up literally a few steps from your last encounter with them.
             
Oh, go screw yourself.
           
The two positive things about these encounters are that you can offload unwanted goods on them, and by clicking "Lore," you can get rumors about who has the various map pieces. The current status seems to be:
           
  • We have Temple.
  • We have Boat.
  • We have Crypt (this is the one I bought from an Umpani rather than finding).
  • The T'Rang have Dragon.
  • The T'Rang have Legend.
  • The Rattkin have Crystal.
  • The Umpani have Fools.
          
Maybe I can trade the lodestone for it.
             
These are the only maps I ever hear about, but I think you only ever hear about maps whose chests you've already visited, so presumably there are still more out there. I still don't understand why they're called "maps" or what they actually do besides imparting some hints that you don't really need to solve the areas.

Let's do a quick character check-in. For the magic items equipped by each character, I cast "Identify" and gave it to the person that it seemed most suited for at the time, but for most of them, I can no longer remember what they do.
          
  • Gideon is a human lord of Level 17. He's equipped with the Sword of 4 Winds, a Bat Necklace, a Crusader Helm, upper plate mail +3, lower plate mail +2, cuir gauntlets, and buskins. Every one of his attributes is 18. He also has the highest karma, at 19, but I honestly don't know what karma does for me.
  • Noctura is a Dracon ninja at Level 17. She has a Vorpal Blade, a Blackbelt of 5 Flowers, ninja cowl, ninja garb (upper and lower), and Tabi boots (all items of armor given by the Xheng Temple). She has 18 in most attributes except 15 personality and 17 piety. She has the lowest karma, at 3.
  • Svava is a dwarf Valkyrie of Level 17. She wields a Crusader's Axe +1 (two-handed), a Burgonet helm, plate mail +2 (upper), plate mail +3 (lower), an "Amulet of Stillness." Here attributes range from 15 to 18.
  • Esteban is an elf bishop of Level 16. He's carrying a Staff of Blessing and a Cross of Protection and wearing the Necromatic Helm, a chainmail doublet +2, quilt leggins, and buskins. His attributes range from 12 to 18.
  • Prenele is a Level 17 faerie alchemist. I currently have her wielding a short bow and wearing an Amulet of Protection from Magic, a Wizard's Cone, a gossamer gown (upper and lower), and sandals. Because the availability of ammunition is variable, she also has a sling and a faerie stick as backup weapons, but I use her mostly for spells. Her attributes range from 15 to 18.
  • Bix is a Level 17 hobbit mage. I just equpped him with an awesome whip called a "Cat'O Nine Tail" that hits enemies all the way from the back row. He also has an Amulet of Airs, a skullcap, Robes of Enchantment (upper and lower), and sandals. Skilled at "Music" from his bard days, he's carrying a Poet's Lute (puts enemies to sleep), a Chromatic Lyre (casts "Itching Skin"), a Lute of Sloth (casts "Slow"), a Silent Lyre (casts "Silence"), and a Cornu of Demonspawn (casts "Astral Gate" and summons a demon to help the party). I should really be getting more use out of these.
            
Combat has frankly become easy, and it's my fault for spending so much time switching classes and getting easy skill points, though I guess I'm paying for that wasted time when it comes to the maps. Between Esteban, Prenele, and Bix, they're capable of so many mass-damage spells, and have so many spell points, that large enemy parties rarely last more than two rounds. Ironically, it's individual enemies, like the giants, that pose the most risk because I'm less likely to spend a lot of spell points on them.

From here, I have a few options. There's an unexplored area northeast of the Rattkin ruins, but I suspect it simply dead-ends in the forest, and I'll end up walking all the way up there just to map six squares. Still, I need to take care of it. I also have to finish the Nyctalinth ruins (readers offered hints that I haven't fully digested) and of course Ukpyr. 

But as I was closing this entry, a new path opened up. There's a square in New City, in the "Curio Museum," that I've long left marked "for later." I annotated it with the comment "Twisted heads; several options." To remind myself what I was talking about, I returned to that area and found that there are six heads sticking out of a mural, and they can be twisted around in any order. Their names are Laughing Devil, Silent Devil, Happy Demon, Angry Demon, Surprised Imp, and Scared Imp.
          
I wasn't looking forward to trying 6! = 720 combinations.
         
Those names rang a bell because I had just consulted the "Boat" map to support my statement above that the maps just give useless hints. It says:
            
The waters of life do move as the weather, and in life as the waters, thee shall know both calm and storm. He that must embrace the storm shall soon be swept away. While he that learns to navigate shall make his own journey. When they fear has turned to anger, thee has lost thy soul, and shall make the devil laugh. But to still thy tongue and become amazed, thee begets enlightenment, and thus shall thee know bliss. Thus may one discover a craft, and sail upon the waters. Thus one may discover thyself, and sail upon life.
              
(Every time I quote text in this game, I'm ignoring that all of the sentences end in ellipses rather than periods. Every damned sentence in the game ends with an ellipse. It is one of the most annoying devices I have ever seen in an RPG.)

Twisting the heads in the order suggested by the paragraph caused a secret door to open. The passage beyond led to a boat! The game noted that it had no visible means of propulsion, so I searched my inventory--why am I still carrying that lodestone?--when I realized that the game called the boat the "Wikum-boat," and I had something called "Wikum's Power Globe." That was obviously the solution, and a few squares later, the party was out on the open sea. This is another area where a second-time player could get this resource almost immediately.
            
This feels like a major milestone.
           
A couple of weeks ago, a commenter with the initials L.M. (I'll let him comment if he wants his identity known further) contacted me to encourage me to upload my times to howlongtobeat.com. It's an interesting site that gives average completion times in three categories: "main story," "main + extras," and "completionist" (gods, how I hate that term). I frankly don't get some of the distinctions. For instance, it says that it takes 27.5 hours to beat Ultima IV's main story, 35 hours with "extras," and 50 hours as a "completionist." The problem is that Ultima IV really doesn't have a lot of optional content. For a first-time player (which is what the site ought to be polling), you have to visit pretty much every area. I don't see how a "completionist" approach would double the game's playing time. (Nor do I see how a second-time player would take as long as 27 hours.) Frankly, it's well past the era in which my blog currently lingers (1992) before such distinctions become relevant to most RPGs.

Nonetheless, the "main + extras" value is a reasonably good predictor for how long it took me to win games that I've played. Here are some examples:


Game
Me
HLTB
Might and Magic
50
55.0
Might and Magic II
65
65.0
Might and Magic III
68
71.0
Pool of Radiance
30
32.5
Quest for Glory
12
11.0
Ultima V
48
44.0
Ultima Underworld
33
30.5

I created an account and L.M. agreed to help enter my scores for games already played. A lot of my games weren't in the HLTB database, and for many that were (or were later added), I'm the only player. Mandragore (1985) and Conan: The Cimmerian (1991) are two of them.

Anyway, Crusaders of the Dark Savant is proving to be a bit of an outlier. HLTB's scores show the "main story" should wrap up in 66 hours, "main + extra" at 100 hours, and "completionist" at 112 hours. Again, I don't know how you make these distinctions as a first-time player, when you basically have to explore everything, but the numbers suggest I should be done in about 26 hours, and it just doesn't feel like I'm that close. I guess we'll see.

I'm toying with whether I should reference this site at the beginning of my experience with a game. In some ways, it's a spoiler to know how long it lasts, and the numbers might even serve to intimidate me in the case of very long games. On the other hand, it might help me plan my upcoming list, alternating long and short games to create a better pacing. Of course, I'm still going to run into issues where a decent portion of games aren't in the database. Not a single title on my "upcoming" list is in there, for instance. Still, I'll try it for a while for major titles and see how it goes.

Time so far: 74 hours