Saturday, December 15, 2018

Legends of the Lost Realm: Out of Balance

The party is disproportionately rewarded for doing nothing more than stepping into a particular square.
            
There's a fine line between giving challenges to players and screwing with them, and I don't blame developers for not always getting it right. No one wants a game where all you do is wander hallways and fight monsters, at least not by the late 1980s. You want puzzles, special encounters, and navigation obstacles to spice things up. Plus, games like Alternate Reality showed that you can make the environment as much of a challenge as enemies, with considerations of hunger, thirst, fatigue, heat, and cold. I thus respect what the developers were trying to do. They just messed up subtle aspects of balance that make most of the difference between a challenge and a chore.

Take the issue of "dark" squares, which Legends of the Lost Realm features quite heavily, at least on the levels that I explored. An area resistant to light can pose an interesting navigational challenge. The player has to "feel" his way through the area instead of seeing it, and there are a number of strategies he might adopt for doing so. He has to be extremely careful, because one errant click or extra step can completely throw off his map. It's always a relief to get out of such an area.

So yes, the occasional dark area is fine. What we don't need are some squares that cause regular lights to go out and a separate set of squares that only cause magical lights to go out, and a third set of squares that will sustain any light you bring into them but won't let you re-light your spell or lamp if it happens to go out on its own. That's too much to keep track of.

To assist with navigation, the game offers "homing sticks" that you can buy at the magic shop. The shop sells two varieties: those that are pre-set to return to the barracks, and those that set their destination the first time you use them, then take you to that destination the second time. Together, they're extraordinarily useful, allowing you to zip out of dungeons, get squared away on the town level, and return to the dungeon without having to walk all the way. Except that they don't work in about half the dungeon squares. (Fortunately, trying to use them doesn't deplete their charges and cause them to disappear.) So what should be a useful tool becomes a chore as you wander around the dungeon repeatedly testing the sticks and hoping this square will be the one where it works.
            
"Setting" the homing stick.
         
The homing sticks obviate one of the game's core features: the food, water, and fatigue system. The developers expect the players to keep an eye on these three meters and then eat, drink, and rest accordingly. Except the mechanics for eating, drinking, and resting are so annoying, and the character's inventory so limited, that you'd have to be a true masochist to micromanage canteens and rations when the barracks (where all three meters are restored to 100% automatically) are just a homing stick away. All the logistics do, then, is set an artificially low cap on how long you can explore the dungeons before you have to zip out for sustenance.

There are a lot of other little ways that playing Legends of the Lost Realm feels like being nibbled to death by ducks. To cover a few:
          
  • Many games feature thieves who have a chance of stealing things from the party. I hate this however it's done, but the games that do it "best" give the thief a relatively small chance. Legends' thieves inevitably steal from the party nearly every round. If you face party of 9 of them, 7 of them will pickpocket the party and then slip away, leaving them with no gold.
  • "Burglars" are worse--they can steal items from the party, not just gold. Fortunately, they only target characters in melee range. But this means that the three rear characters have to hold on to everything that the party actually wants to keep--quest items, lanterns, homing sticks, unidentified weapons, and so forth.
  • Between the thieves and the tax man, the party has to visit the bank frequently to avoid constantly losing their life savings. Incidentally, the bank only allows you to deposit and withdraw everything at once; you can't choose a specific amount.
  • Arrows come in stacks of up to 40. They deplete fast--maybe 3 or 4 per combat round. You occasionally find them post-combat in random stacks of between 1 and 40. There's no way to merge multiple stacks, so you're constantly juggling them and you have to equip new stacks every couple of rounds. And when a stack reaches 0, they don't disappear and the character's don't discard them automatically. You have to manually un-equip and discard the "stack" of 0 arrows.
  • The game requires you to equip a weapon before you can pay to identify it. Which means a character capable of equipping the weapon has to be carrying it. Since only fighters can reliably equip everything, you would generally want to store excess weapons with them, except there's an excellent chance they'll be stolen by burglars. So you have to store them with the rear characters and then shuffle them around come identification time.
         
But nothing has been more out-of-balance than the way the game rewards experience. Before I cover that, let's talk about what I accomplished since last time.

First of all, the game unexpectedly got a lot easier. The difficulty problems I related in the first two entries really just plague you for the first character level. Once you hit Level 2, and effectively double your hit points, enemy parties stop being so deadly, and you can afford to resurrect after the occasional character death. I've never seen such a quick pivot in game difficulty.

This relative ease continued as I started to explore the dungeons. I got it in my head somewhere that I wanted to start with the northeast tower--maybe it was in some of the material that someone linked. Anyway, I expected the dungeon to kick it up a notch in difficulty, but instead the enemy parties--aside from the occasional wandering party of 18 fighters and 18 archers--were easier than what I typically faced in the town. Exploring the tower was logistically annoying but I was rarely in any real danger. I often faced only a single enemy at a time.

The northeast tower is called the Tower of War, and like all four of the corner towers, it has two entrances. The tower consisted of two levels, both 20 x 20.
           
The first level. Shaded squares cause lights to go out. That got old fast.
            
The second level was mostly empty.
         
The first level had four squares in which the wall showed me some kind of line drawn on a map. A message on the town level suggested that I would find 16 map pieces, 4 in each corner tower. I figured they'd be spread throughout the tower, but instead they were all grouped relatively close together.
           
Finding the first map piece.
          
Other features of the tower included:

  • The first level had two stairways up, one of them only accessible after we found a silver statue on the dungeon floor. Having the statue in the inventory opened a secret door to the second staircase.
  • A message on the first floor read, "The third test, what is may not be, what is not may be."
  • Two squares on the first floor had encounters with "Flat Head" and "Flat Head's Mom." Both of them were completely immune to everything I threw at them, including unarmed attacks. I had to annotate them for later.
         
The game has mostly avoided this kind of goofiness so far.
       
  • There were two pits going down on the first floor. You need long ropes to travel them safely and I didn't have any. By dropping into them (and taking heavy damage), I found that they led to a long underground area called a "secret passage" with multiple ways up. I suspect all the towers connect to this area. But I had no way to get back up, so I had to reload.
  • In one chamber on the second floor, I found Bracers of Ogre Strength.
           
This is the first unique item I've found so far in the game.
        
Exploring both levels took maybe four or five expeditions from town, returning with a homing stick when I ran low on food, water, or light sources. As I explored, I kept track of how much experience I was earning, because I wanted to return to the Review Board when I was ready for the next level. It was a discouraging experience. My characters needed about 2,000 experience points to advance, and enemy parties were delivering an average of maybe 60 experience points--spread out among a party of 6. I was preparing to write an entry in which I would tell you that after 6 hours of dungeon exploration, I hadn't gained a single level.
           
One of the lamer enemies in the Tower of War.
       
Then, in the northwest corner of the first level of the Tower of War, I ran into a party of 8 guards. Nothing special. I'd fought parties bigger than that before. I killed them without too much problem. Then a message popped up that said, "You have done well! The brave fighters will be rewarded for their courage."
           
That didn't feel like a "boss" combat.
        
Rewarded they were--with about 3,000 experience points for each fighter in the party (somewhat less for the other characters). That was more than I'd earned in the entire game up to this point.

It gets worse. On the second floor, just by wandering into a square, I got a message that said, "Congratulations, you have completed the Tower of War. Fights among you will have gained much experience." Again, it wasn't lying. Each fighter got more than 10,000 experience points. (Again, the three rear characters got somewhat less.) By the time I got done with the Review Board, my fighters were Level 5 and my other characters were Level 3.
          
A fighter goes up two levels at once.
         
The end result is that almost 90% of the experience points I've earned in this game have come from those two squares, and only 10% from the many, many battles I fought to get there. This is pretty nuts. If this continues, there is essentially no purpose to the average combat.
           
Yay! 0.16667% of the way to the next level!
        
As I close, I've begun exploring the Thieves' Tower in the southeast. It's composed of a bunch of small rooms connected by locked doors that my thief has to pick. You'll recall from the last entry that the thief uses his abilities (like all classes do), by "casting" them. Somehow, this actually depletes from his pool of "spell points," and so eventually you run out of points, can't pick any more locks, and have to leave to rest. It's taken me four trips to map one-third of the first level, although I've already found two more map pieces.
            
A repeated message in the thieves' tower.
         
Despite the odd imbalances, the towers have intrigued me just enough to keep me from wrapping up the game with this entry. There are three things the game has me curious about. First, I want to see what kind of puzzle the map pieces are leading to. Second, I'd like to know when and how I can switch to the prestige classes. None of them have been available so far when leveling up, but my attributes are increasing with each level-up, and I imagine it's just a matter of time. The prestige classes have some interesting-sounding skills.

Third, I'm very curious about the uses for some of the game's many spells. So far, I haven't done much with spells. My shaman has put almost everything into "Cure Light Wounds." He has some minor offensive and protective spells beyond that, but nothing I've been eager to sacrifice healing for.

The mage has been less useful than mages in other games. Level 1 mage spells are mostly offensive, but they hardly do anything. "Magical Arrow" is good for a few hit points' damage--far less than a fighter's melee attack. "Hold," "Pain," "Slow," and "Weaken" all sound more useful than they are. They have a minor impact on enemies' stats. "Hold" doesn't even really hold; it just "causes a group of enemies to hesitate."

Level 2 mage spells are almost all about navigation: "Compass," "Lantern Glow," "Mapping," "Determine Location," "Detect Secret Doors," and "Locate Treasure." They'd all be more useful if the dungeons weren't set up to cause the spells to fail in about half the squares you cast them.
            
I'm also curious what some of these items will be used for.
          
But what really has me curious is some of the spells coming up, as well as some of those available if I class-change to witch, healer, wizard, or enchanter classes. Plus, the sorcerer class somehow has the ability to create their own spells based on the characteristics of others in the game. This might be a "first" for CRPGs. It just seems like it's going to take me a long time to get there.

32 comments:

  1. If this game was well balanced (incl mapping challenges, enemies, exp, food) but was otherwise unchanged, how much would you enjoy it? Would it be something you'd ever choose to play?

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    1. I mean, it would be about as enjoyable as any Wizardry-style game without much plot. Especially given the paucity of RPGs for the Mac, I probably would have played it if I’d had a Mac in 1989.

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  2. Didn't Knights of Legend have the first spellmaker?

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    1. Same year. I don’t know which came out first; hence “might be.”

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  3. I see the argument for quest based experience points, but if all fights in the game don't even add up to a single level up, they feel pointless and like a chore. One could argue if it's even a CRPG at all, since there is no real character development, all level ups are predetermined. That's like getting a new weapon in a platformer game.

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    1. Exactly. Quest-based experience on its own is fine—desirable, even—just not when it so overwhelms combat experience.

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    2. In principle, I actually prefer games that don't give out any combat experience at all (unless it's a train-by-doing system). It just motivates you to look for non-combat solutions (provided the game has them, of course, which doesn't seem to be the case here) and ensured that non-combat builds don't end up vastly underlevelled compared to combat-focused ones.

      I also strongly disagree with this: "One could argue if it's even a CRPG at all, since there is no real character development, all level ups are predetermined". First, they are only predetermined if the game has no optional content. Second, if the game allows character customization on level-ups, there's still meaningful character development irrespective of whether it happens at fixed points or not.

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    3. I really like getting exp for encounters, so I can choose to fight or haggle. I once played a pacifist run in Pillars of Eternity and barely killed anything at all, but talked and sneaked though the game - that was quite interesting. But hard to compare such an advanced engine with a game from '89.

      But I also liked the grind in Bard's Tale, I can spend an hour burning the same 69 wights over and over for whatever reason.

      Customization requires meaningful choices, so basically a well balanced skill tree. We didn't see that too often so far in this blog. But I agree, creating a character build is the best part. Can't count the hours I spent theorycrafting and writing guides for several games (like Diablo 2, which I discussed almost as long as I played it).

      Those old games lack a lot - but there are still classics which have only good parts in them, know their limits, and are quite enjoyable and others, like this one, which don't. That's why I love reading this blog :-)

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    4. If done well, I can see the benefits of a quest based experience system, it eliminates the need for grinding. And it's definitely better than a game where most exp is gained by walking around somewhere until the roof falls on your head (yes, I'm looking at you, Ernyzf bs nepnavn oxnqr bs qrfgval).

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  4. Replies
    1. Can you elaborate? I’m honestly trying to decide whether I should continue.

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    2. I remember playing this when I was 14 or 15 on my dad´s computer. My understanding of english was already good enough to grasp the basics of the game and I already played some RPGs at that time like Rogue and Ultima as far as I remember. Together with a friend, as we mostly did, we also tried this one. It took a looooooooong time to get anywhere in this game! But at least it was the summer holidays and I recall it being a rather nice time, meeting every day to play and try to get further in this game. We loved the interface and the graphics of it! But still, I remember this game leaving a bad taste in my mouth for it being unsatisfying. Concerning the effort we set into it. I can´t really recall what exactly caused this but still feel there was something amiss. Sorry for not being precise, but this was really long ago. We didn´t beat it, but -as we thought at that time- we got quite far,but in the end it was not worth the work for it. It´s just a feeling from that time, I know, but maybe you can do it differently and to a more pleasing ending for you. At least I hope so!

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  5. If I recall correctly, the early Might and Magic games had the experience irregularities but only in the mid-to-late game. There were winnable combats in a few locations which would give you INSANE amounts of experience. As soon as I found them, I just grinded against them for all my leveling needs and the game quickly transformed into money being the primary issue for leveling rather than experience... but only after I'd gained 20+ levels immediately for every character which made the rest of the game much easier.

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    1. I don’t remember a particular MM1 fight that had disproportionate experience, but yeah, MM2 has the Cuisinarts.

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    2. The infamous 99 Berserkers party x4 found in the Bard's Tale?

      I think Gauntlets of Ogre strength come right out of First Edition AD&D.

      This one sounds more than a bit on the painful side.

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    3. See, the 99 Berserkers isn't a good example to me. Sure, it's an obvious "grind point," but you do WORK for those experience points, and the reward, while generous, isn't hugely out of proportion with the effort.

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  6. Ah, so it was just a classic "level 1 party" hump that was the cause of the game's absurd difficulty? I remember that being a big issue with Troika's The Temple of Elemental Evil too. (Not to mention more NES RPGs than I could name.)

    I do have some admiration for games that have unconventional XP delivery systems, such as for quest completions or dialogue successes, because they usually put that system in place for players who prefer to find non-violent solutions to goals (like with Torment, for example). In a game like this where combat is both mandatory (as in, everything attacks on sight) and extremely common, it doesn't feel quite as welcome. I wonder how feasible it would be for anyone starting a new game to make a mad dash for that "you completed the tower" XP deluge square with a struggling level 1 party? Probably not very.

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    1. Temple of Elemental Evil is a nice lesson on how not adapt a D&D module into a videogame and why modules need GMs to be played. While I can understand, and even agree with, the decisions the developers made the results are mostly just frustrating. It also shows what happens when there's no hand-holding at all. The first levels, fundamental, can be gained without a single fight doing mundane tasks in the starting city. There's no indication of that except that combat are all too difficult so maybe one should think of something else, like hiring that drunk guy you just met. On a table whit your friens on a game night that's fun, alone in front of a screen it's frustrating. Troika tried to avoid the trappings of the narrative of a Baldur's Gate and go straight for the barebone rpg experience. The point is that in the process the kinda forgot that the narration in a crpg does the job of the master at the table. The result is a frustrating game that required a different approach from any other crpg on the market and that many abandoned, not unfairly, before discovering all the fun that it could offer.

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    2. "I do have some admiration for games that have unconventional XP delivery systems." I think that's cool, too. As I hope was clear, it's the imbalance that I object to less than the fact I was awarded experience points at all.

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    3. Oh yeah, it was clear. I was musing that, while a format like that is a smart and more pacifist-friendly concept in some RPGs, it doesn't really fit an 80s dungeon-crawler like Legends of the Lost Realm. The game doesn't appear to have the depth of role-playing alternatives to combat to make a system like that work, from what I can tell. If the bulk of the gameplay is combat, that's where the bulk of the XP should be also.

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    4. imo, the right approach to Temple of Elemental Evil was to start the game with 1 single character instead of the usual (5? 6?) party size. Every time you level (or every 2 levels, depending on your playstyle) add a new party member.

      This is basically saying that a party of 5 in which they were levels 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 was much more efficient than a party of 5 in which they were levels 3, 3, 3, 3, 3.

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    5. The worst an NES RPG ever did was force you to rest between every battle. Now some of those Famicom RPGs are downright evil.

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  7. With needing to equip weapons to identify them, I really hope there's no cursed items in the game

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  8. Koyaanisqatsi: the role-playing game.

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  9. Pillars of Eternity has a nice system for EXP. For fights you only get EXP for the first times you kill an enemy. Most EXP you get from quests. Normally I also like the fight => EXP more, because you can grind to overcome some difficult areas.
    But in Pillars it was very well done.

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    1. Can you tell more why it worked in the game?

      The immediate result that I can see is that the game has a bounded and exact amount of experience in it that you can gain. (One of every monster + all the quests.) And the designer has full control of the XP curve, since they determine what monster types appear where. So if an area has no new monsters, it will grant no fight XP.

      So as far as I can tell it's basically equivalent to your XP being tied to your progress through the game. Just a little more granular and flexible where those points are.

      Benefits of tightly controlled XP curve are that the designer knows exactly how powerful the character(s) will be any given point in the game, so he can craft the difficulty to match.

      Downside is that the crafted difficulty is exactly what you get. Not all players will be equally skilled, or like equally great challenge. For some the level of difficulty may be too low, or others it may be too high.

      Benefit of optionally available XP is that players can grind to their preferred level of difficulty. They can blaze through the game, which is hard, or they can take it slow which makes it easier.

      Downside though is of course that grind needs to still be fun. Which can be hard, especially if player feels that they �������� to grind.

      Plus it means that the optimal strategy would be to grind the first enemy mobs until you reach the level cap. So there needs to be something to constrain the players' worst instincts. Many players are drawn to "optimal play" even at the expense of the experience.

      One of my favourites is to make it so repeat kills get you progressively less experience. You can control how much grinding players can do by making that dropoff curve steeper or shallower. (I guess in a way constant XP from kills and no XP at all from repeat kills are just the two extremes of this dropoff curve.)

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    2. (Sorry, looks like the blog mangled the word "need" that I tried to make with unicode italics.)

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    3. I think it worked in the Pillars games so well (they are one my favourite RPGs) because the fighting and leveling system was well integrated into the story. I actually didn't focus very much on my character level.

      The fights were fun, but they were never there for themselves, only just for fighting. They were always part of the plot somehow.

      The Pillars games suffered from the dangerous unbalancedness you mentioned. The endboss of Pillars I was way to hard for my taste (and I did _every_ sidequest + the DLCs). The endboss of Pillars II was way to easy, finished it on the first try.

      On the other spectrum are JRPGS. There is not a single JRPG I have played were grinding was not necessary to make progress. I actually like the grinding part, if the fighting system is fun.

      Kind of totally different RPG styles.

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    4. Final Fantasy VIII had systems in place that discouraged combat grinding, but that led to all sorts of other problems.

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    5. While you're not wrong, FF VIII is one of the few jRPGs that are solidly on the list due to having a contemporary PC release. Best not to discuss it on the off chance that the Addict remembers this comment thread in BY1999.

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    6. Pillars of Eternity had an open world with few static fixed points and lots of side quests. So you could choose your fights and skip a harder dungeon for later. Also character customization and party composition is a huge factor.
      During the game, you could get more experience than required for the maximum level. This way, you don't feel railroaded or like having a static difficulty. I don't think endless grinding is required in a closed game world if it leaves enough choices. In a linear game that's different.

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    7. Level caps are a form of static difficulty, at least for the end game.

      Still, there's a big difference between a system like this one where fights are unavoidable (although escaping may be an option), and something like Pillars where you can see the monsters and attempt to maneuver around them. Ultima Underworld (as another example) gave experience for exploration and quests, which made combat mostly unnecessary other than for quest items. Because you could run right past most of the monsters though, it wasn't that much of an issue with the design.

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