Friday, September 20, 2019

A quick update

Things have settled down and I'm enjoying my new teaching role. The primary problem is that I didn't conclude all my contracts before starting this new job. Some of them are perilously overdue, and the fiscal year under which I operate ends on 30 September.

Thus, I have been spending most of my spare time this month furiously trying to finish those contracts so I can settle into my new life of teaching and RPGs.

I'm afraid it's probably going to be until the end of the month before I can start playing again, maybe around 3 October before I can get a new entry written. I apologize for the delay, but I promise that in the long run this new job is going to be good for my blog and I'll be able to quickly reclaim the momentum I had through the spring.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Game 339: The Magic Candle III (1992)

           
The Magic Candle III
United States
Mindcraft Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 7 September 2019
      
It's something of a paradox that we take naturally to narrative material organized as trilogies--so much so that "trilogy" feels like a natural word, whereas the comparative terms for two and four installments sound clumsy and foreign in our mouths--and yet the third of something is usually the worst. It somehow feels tacked-on and perfunctory even though we all expected it. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule that no sequel outperforms the original--that is, plenty of Part 2s that are better than Part 1s. But in what series is the third the best of the lot? Arguably Lord of the Rings and then . . . I'll wait.

There are, on the other hand, plenty of examples to confirm the rule. Most people name The Return of the Jedi the least of the original Star Wars trilogy. And that's probably the most controversial of them. Following that is a long list of Part 3s for which no one would advocate: The Dark Knight Rises, The Godfather Part III, The Matrix Revolutions, Smokey and the Bandit 3, Heaven & Hell (the third part to North & South), and we could go on for ages. Note that the same rule doesn't always apply to the third installments of things that went on for a while longer (Ultima III, Might and Magic III, Fallout 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, A Storm of Swords), just things that were conceived as trilogies in the first place. Maybe it's a good thing that we seem unlikely to ever see the third Kingkiller Chronicle.
         
Dutch Elm Diseases is rarely a setup for an epic adventure.
          
All this was on my mind as I began The Magic Candle III. I don't like to go into a game with a bias, but there were some ominous signs. Before I wrote a word about The Magic Candle, it was mentioned in 55 comment threads on other entries. Before I wrote about The Magic Candle II, it was mentioned in 22. Commenters have only brought up The Magic Candle III four times, none of them offering anything substantive about it. It is the only one of the trilogy not to have its own Wikipedia page. It also, unlike II, doesn't have its own subtitle, which always strikes me as the creators saying "#$@* it--here's another one," without any attempt to give the new installment its own character. A general sense of this game being "tacked on" pervades the introductory sequences. Where I thought the plot of II flowed naturally from I, III definitely feels less necessary. It depends, quite early, on lands and people that are remarkably close to the events of the first two games but mysteriously went unmentioned within them.

You'll remember that in The Magic Candle (1989), the protagonist and his (later retconned to "his or her") party of locals scoured the land of Deruvia to find the items and rituals necessary to renew the magic prison (a candle) of the demon Dreax. In ancient times, Dreax had come across the sea from Gurtex with an army of invaders, but he had been bound to the candle by a ritual created by the now-mostly-lost race of Eldens. After the party's success in the first game, King Rebnard of Deruvia decided he was sick of living in fear of the demon lords of Gurtex. He gathered his armies and took the fight to them, crossing the ocean and landing on Oshcrun Island--on the way, conquering the island of Maramon as told in The Keys to Maramon (1990).
           
A map of the "Solian Lands."
         
In The Magic Candle II (1991), the hero of either the first game or Maramon or both continued the effort by helping the invasion of Gurtex from Oshcrun. At first just interested in discovering the fate of the "four and forty" guardians of the original candle, the party ended up rescuing Prince Jemil, Rebnard's son, from the clutches of the demon Zakhad. While the demon himself was immortal, Jemil was able to send him "far, far away" using a magic orb. (The plot ended up getting pretty ridiculous by the end, which you can see in my entry on winning that game.)

The third installment picks up four years after The Four and Forty. Despite some lines from the second game saying "Zakhad's pall of darkness has departed from Gurtex completely," Rebnard is apparently still trying to subdue the continent. My character, Gia, is back in Telermain, on Oshcrun Island, protecting Queen Alishia and Prince Jemil. A "strange blight" has begun to affect the forest, and the queen asks Gia to go investigate.
                     
The queen kicks off the quest.
                  
The import process works very well, almost too well. "Gia" came through from The Magic Candle II with none of her attributes or skills reduced. Her average attribute is 9.4 versus 6.8 for a newly-created character. She comes with magic weapons and armor, plus 1000 coins instead of a new character's 500. She has practically a full set of spellbooks. More important, many of her skills are already maxed or near-maxed, including 99/99 for "Sword," 70/80 for "Archery," 87/99 for "Researching," and 50/99 for "Leadership." Later, after they joined my party, I discovered that other NPCs who were still with me at the end of II also retained their equipment, attributes, and skills.
            
None of Gia's skills were diminished by the intervening years.
            
The game opening gives you the option to pick 3 of 8 potential volunteers. I was in the midst of evaluating their strengths and weaknesses when, I don't know, I hit the wrong key or something and ended up with Silva, Kark, and Bollo by default. I decided to just roll with it.

We started in the middle of a dark, twisty forest, with a skeleton on the ground in front of us. As we began to move around, one major change from the previous two games became clear: the Magic Candle III party happily takes itself out of formation to get around obstacles and to conform to narrow passages, instead of requiring the player to micro-manage the formation to, for instance, make the lead character poke out one square so he can search a 1 x 1 area. To be fair, The Magic Candle II managed to make something of a game of the formations, requiring the player at various points to figure out the most convoluted formation necessary for navigating a trap-filled hallway. Still, I'm glad to be done with it.

As we walked along the path, we were ambushed by a group of "Blightmolds" and "Blightworms." An orc named Garz stepped out of the trees to join the party's attack against the creatures.
                   
The combat screen.
         
Combat takes place on the same tactical, turn-based screen as the previous games, with each character getting a certain number of actions dependent on his or her movement points. Combat seems a bit more streamlined here, and more in the Ultima VI mold. There's no pre-combat round, no positioning of characters, and less distinction between the exploration environment and the combat environment. Then again, I might just be noting the distinction between wilderness combat and "room" combat in the last game. I'd have to fight a few battles to check. I'll have more on combat details later.

The battle was pretty easy. At its conclusion, "Garz" introduced himself more properly as Garzbondgur, Crown Prince of Kabelo. He said that his land has been affected badly by the same blight, and that he came to Oshcrun to ask for my assistance. Just as I was wondering where "Kabelo" was, he continued that his father had forbade the trip, as the people of the "Solian Lands" don't normally trust "northern folk." I don't know if any previous Magic Candle had addressed these "Solian Lands," but I don't think so. It's the first major crack--the idea that a large collection of landmasses could lie south of Oshcrun and have gone unmentioned in the previous game.
                 
A suitably orcish-looking orc.
             
Garz remained a member of the party as we continued on. (For some reason, the game asks me to explicitly confirm that I want to include him when I distribute things to the party.) We met some more worms in a battle that left three characters poisoned, so I had to look up what mushroom cures poison (Loka). Fortunately, the game started me with a few of them, as well as a few memorized "Healing" spells. A third battle gave us "Blightboars" as well as molds and worms.

Pretty soon, we were out of the forest and on to the Oshcrun overworld map. Nearby were Oshcrun Castle and the city of Telermain.
           
Between the castle and the city.
       
I entered the castle first. Instead of the sprawling, multi-storied structure that I could explore on my last trip, for this game (or, at least, this trip), I was confined to the throne room. There, I had a lot of trouble distinguishing people from furniture. The conversation proceeded much as in previous games, through the "Greet" and "Talk" commands. As usual, the game offers some stock selections while allowing the ability for the player to type in a keyword to ask about a specific subject or person.
           
Stop being so dramatic, Carl. It's called "jock itch."
         
Almost immediately, a servant said that, "There is talk of Blightlords, fierce, deadly, and ruthless creatures, emerging as the new rulers of the lands down south," thus providing me with more intelligence than the entire backstory and summary of the problem given by Queen Alishia.

A notepad stores all of your major observations and conversations, and it's been significantly improved. It no longer erases when you quit and restart the game; it lets you add pages to type your own notes; and it has a "Search" feature. This might be the first game where you can do all your documentation in-game.
            
The throne room. Jemil is as helpful as ever.
          
Two companions joined my party in the throne room, replacing two of the rank amateurs who had accompanied me to the forest. (I assume you can keep them if you want, but their skills are in the single digits.) Rimfiztrik the Wizard and Sakar the Dwarf I remember well from previous games. A third potential companion named Marsa offered to join, claiming to be skilled in the martial arts, but she's a hireling who you have to keep happy with gold, so I declined to take her. In inviting himself to join the party, Sakar noted that the Solian lands are dangerous and I'd need a good fighter at my side. I guess everyone in this game knows where I'm going but me.

In contrast to the castle, Oshcrun was as large and complex as I remembered it, with numerous NPCs and shops, and their availability changing depending on the time of day. I think they may have kept the same map from The Magic Candle II; at least, most things were where I remembered them. I stocked everyone up on food and bought some mushrooms and potions. I'm a little annoyed that the third edition still hasn't fixed the pooling/distribution problem. (Since no character can pool more than 99 of most things, there's no way to evenly distribute all of a particular resource once you earn above 99 of them.) It would have been nice if the developers had regarded food, mushrooms, and gold as party resources rather than individual resources.
            
Buying individual food in the shop.
           
As with the first two games, there are locked houses at which you can knock at the door, but you have to have some clue as to the occupant's name. There are trainers and tradesmen where you can ditch party members to learn or work for a wage. I soon found Eneri, my hero from Maramon, in the Eastern Breeze tavern, so I ditched the novice Kark b'Dang at the metalsmith, as he had some skill in that area, to make money for us to take later. This always feels a little mean.
           
For some reason, the Maramon character appears as "Ralle" until he or she joins the team.
            
I saved selling my gems and purchasing any weapons or armor for later, deciding to explore the rest of the island first. I soon remembered how quickly stamina runs out in the wilderness. You basically have to have everyone chew Sermin mushrooms every dozen steps or so. What particularly sucks is that energy depletes at inconsistent rates for the characters, so that when some of them get to 0 others are still in the 60s. But unless you want to micromanage levels for each character, you just have everyone eat at once, wasting a lot of potential energy.

I found the stronghold on Oshcrun (places where you can rest safely and send party members), and then a "brick building" with a much more elaborate teleportal than I remember from the previous games, and then finally the little halfling town of Ketrop. A mayoral election was underway between candidates named Miko and Punnik, but that didn't develop into anything. I replaced Silva with a more experienced halfling named Tuff; he seemed to remember Gia, though I don't remember him from the previous game.
              
The teleportal chambers look more high-tech than before.
          
I considered dithering around Oshcrun longer, selling excess items, buying more mushrooms, perhaps gambling a bit, getting better armor for some of my characters--but I decided screw it, the new islands will have those services (probably), and I might as well get to it. (I assume I can return to Oshcrun at any time, too.) Thus, I hired North Star, a ship parked near Telermain, from Captain Turgut, and we sailed south. Actually, I tried sailing east to Gurtex first, but the captain told me it was "unsafe to sail in that direction."
          
Making landfall on a strange, southern shore.
         
We soon made landfall on a large island. The journey was quick enough that it defies logic that these "Solian Islands" are being mentioned here for the first time. The island turned out to be the island of Kabelo on the game map. This is Garz's kingdom, and indeed as soon as I entered the first city I saw on the island, Garz welcomed us to Urkabel.
           
Garz jumps the gun (apparently) in welcoming us to his home city.
         
I think I'll leave off there for my first session. So far, it's been a pleasant game, but with all the weaknesses of the Magic Candle II engine in addition to the strengths. I should have a stronger opinion after a few hours of combat and dungeon exploration.

Time so far: 4 hours

Friday, September 6, 2019

SpellCraft: Aspects of Valor: Summary and Rating

What awaited me if I had won the game.
      
SpellCraft: Aspects of Valor
United States
Tsunami Productions (developer); ASCII Entertainment Software (publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS; SNES port developed but never released
Date Started: 27 July 2019
Date Finished: 25 August 2019
Total Hours: 26
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Summary:
SpellCraft is an unusual, original RPG in which an American named Robert learns about a parallel magical universe and, under the tutelage of a wizard named Garwayen, grows from an apprentice to a master wizard. Most of the game consists of a series of missions in one of seven realms: Earth, Fire, Air, Water, Mind, Ether, and Death. As Robert solves these missions, he gets clues to the recipes for several dozen spells, mastering which is the key to winning the rapid game of rock-paper-scissors that soon develops between Robert and enemy wizards. Robert periodically visits Earth in between his explorations of the magic realms, getting clues, reagents, and side quests from various NPCs.

**** 
        
I admire and am somewhat envious of the player that could not only play but excel at SpellCraft. It's too much for me. I so lack the skill set needed to win such a game that it staggers me that winning it is even possible. You're dealing with dozens of spells constantly flying at you from dozens of directions, monsters constantly trying to drive you off the edge of an abyss, and dozens of your own spells through which to shuffle and try to counter enemies, constantly trying to remember which spells work in which domains, while keeping your eye on a bunch of meters and maps. It is so far removed from the careful deliberation that goes into, say, Gold Box combat that it's amazing we consider the games part of the same genre. A Gold Box game is like a good game of chess. SpellCraft is like three simultaneous games of speed chess played while wearing oven mitts.
          
Usually, when I have to enter "no" in the "Won?" column, it's because I didn't want to invest the time necessary to win the game. Rarely do I feel that I couldn't have won it with a little more patience. Here, I have to admit that the game didn't wear me out or bore me. It simply beat me. I could not react fast enough to the barrage of spells the enemy wizards threw at me. In this, SpellCraft offers a "first"--specifically, the first appearance of a dynamic common to modern games that I described in an entry eight years ago in relation to Dragon Age: Origins:
         
Most of the time, I have no idea what the #&*$ is going on. Seriously. Combat begins. My party members go into their tactics. I select one of the foes for my lead character to fight. I start using his special attacks. Meanwhile, there's a cacophony of sound as friends and foes meet each other and cast spells. Colors streak across the screen. My character starts sparkling for reasons I don't understand--am I being affected by an offensive spell, or did one of my party members cast a buffing spell? Sten starts calling for healing but then suddenly he's at full health even though I didn't heal him. Liliana starts saying "trap, trap, trap" even though we're in combat and it's unrealistic to disarm traps. My character is suddenly paralyzed and I don't know why. The screen shakes and I go sprawling against at tree--what hit me? Then, all at once, it's over, and apparently we're all alive.
      
The difference is that in the case of Dragon Age, the game is fighting for you as well as against you. I don't understand what's happening most of the time on either side, but at least some of it is benefiting me. This isn't the case with SpellCraft. My failure to complete the game, and my assessment of why I'm unable to complete it, has implications for any number of future titles. I'll analyze that more at the end.

Shortly after the events I recounted last, I reloaded and re-explored each of the domains until I found the Orb of Eternal Enlightenment in the Air Domain. With that in hand, I was able to re-kill the minion in the Water Domain. This was followed by the revelation that the Orb had now opened up two new domains: Ethereal and Mind. There, as Garwayen put it, "much of what you know about magic in the elemental domains will no longer be applicable." That generated a vocal multi-syllabic response that I will not reprint on a family blog.

On Earth, there were fewer places to visit but also some new places. Jack Hendricks, the paleontologist from Alberta, had moved to Dry Gulch, Arizona. Selina, my flirtatious friend from Salem, was found hiding in Agra, India, without her costume. A new friend named Spiros Talos showed up in Athens. The NPCs continued to give clues about formulas and ingredients.
             
Spiros Talos delivers some unwelcome news.
               
I gave up after a couple of attempts to defeat the minion in the Ethereal Domain. The graphics made it difficult for me to determine what was just a starry backdrop and what was a bottomless chasm. In three attempts to assail the place, the minion positioned himself on a thin thread of "land" with chasm on either side, making it impossible to approach and engage him directly without getting knocked off by other monsters. I tried keeping myself in the air with "Magic Wings" but the spell runs out fast, and I kept plummeting to my death before I could kill the minion with other spells. (I think he may have been dispelling it a couple of times.) In the few cases I did manage to do some damage, he just teleported away. I'm sure there's some set of options that would have worked, but I simply don't know what they are.
          
The confusing Ethereal Domain.
         
I was able to watch the rest of the game in a series of YouTube videos. There are three full series available, by users Garg Gobbler, Duke Donuts, and Fonze. Mr. Donuts doesn't even try to win honestly, frequently switching to a cheat menu that makes him invulnerable, gives him unlimited spells (he loves to spam "Dragon"), and keeps "Magic Wings" active. "I wouldn't wish a legitimate playthrough on anyone," he says at one point. Nonetheless, the other two seem legitimate, although I think they're both playing with foreknowledge of the game's spells, mixing them as soon as they have the right aspects and words rather than waiting for the clues.

Watching the videos, I experienced a major revelation that nearly made me quit this entry and try again. I hadn't realized that it was possible to cast certain spells, like "Teleport" and various conjurings, off the visible screen. With enough power, you can cast them anywhere on the map, using the attempt to scout the map as you go. This makes a big difference in your ability to find and target specific enemies and to acquire necessary treasures before you're killed. But I slept on it for a couple of nights and still couldn't motivate myself to go back to the game.

The video series let me check out the development of the plot and the ending. The Ethereal and Mind Domains deliver the Damascene Sword and a couple of spellbooks. As usual, the minions seemed to be cool guys who had just happened to become enslaved by their masters.
            
The Mind Domain has some interesting terrain.
           
At the end of the sequence, the Earth Master appears to taunt Robert, saying that the Council lured Garwayen away and has now imprisoned him. Robert must circle his allies on Earth to find a series of keys to access the various domains, as the portals in Stonehenge no longer work. Ultimately, he finds Garwayen's soul in a treasure chest. He continues to find upgrades to the other equipment items.

Robert then has to invade each domain and kill the wizards themselves. In the Ethereal Domain appears a "tear-stained letter" that hints at developments to come:
            
There is a wizard who has sworn himself to the College of ------. He is the most fearsome and terrible wizard of all. This wizard can call on ANY spell of ANY Other college, so powerful is the De----- Magic to which he is sworn. Beware this Wizard, for he is a great liar. His name is --------.
           
After defeating each wizard, Robert can destroy or preserve their spirits. Garwayen comments either way, usually expressing sorrow at the wizard's demise.
        
After the death of the final wizard, Garwayen reveals that his body has been hidden in the trunk in Robert's workshop the entire time, and every time Robert went off to battle a lord, Garwayen reunited his body and spirit to work his own mischief. Proclaiming himself the "Grand Wizard of the Universe," he announces his plans to conquer Earth and return magic to the real world, at which point he will become "Grand Wizard of the Cosmos," as if the cosmos is somehow greater than the universe.
         
Shouldn't you conquer Terra before designating yourself the Grand Wizard of the Universe?
           
A few new NPCs pop up, a few die, and others continue to move around the world. In the late game, Selina is found in the caves in Lascaux, France. She tells Robert to find the Pearl of the Beloved in the Mind Domain and bring it to her.
          
Robert must chase Garwayen through each of the six domains, defeating him in each one. When he finds the Pearl of the Beloved, he brings it to Selina, who gives him the Skull of the Marquis de Sade, which allows access to the Death Domain via a portal in Dry Gulch. Later, she gives Robert a Ring of the Full Circle, which allows Robert to use magic in the Death Domain.

The final battle takes place between Robert and Garwayen in the Death Domain. The videos showed so many spells flying back and forth that I couldn't even begin to keep track of them all. Duke Donuts eventually destroyed Garwayen with unlimited castings of "Meteor Storm" and "Dragon."
             
The chaotic final combat.
              
Exiting the Death Domain via the correct circle of stones brings you to the Mentor Wizard's Workshop and the endgame cut scenes. It turns out that each of the "minions" destroyed by Robert earlier were actually the wizards of each domain, and they survived, as did Garwayen. Everything that previously transpired was in fact a "rather elaborate ordeal to test the extent of [Robert's] powers." Even Garwayen's betrayal was staged, I guess. (One hopes the NPC deaths were also staged.) Robert becomes head of the council and Selina helps him restore Stonehenge and reforge the link between Earth and the universe of magic. Selina then warns of an "anti-hero" of prophecy who Robert will soon have to face. The two hop a jet to return to the United States, "where the leisurely flight home will allow us time to get to know each other better."
                
I can think of a few.
             
The game concludes with a series of humorous newspaper articles covering various subsequent events: a dragon in Stonehenge; Selina kidnapped in New York while Robert fights her abductors; an undead uprising in Romania; and a worldwide shortage of pomegranates.
              
Isn't the real news that the Chronicle is publishing again after 227 years?
            
SpellCraft is a tough one to rate, owing to the confusion in categories that I describe below. My best guess GIMLET is:
          
  • 4 points for the game world. This was a tough rating because the game has such extremes in the good, bad, and weird. The magic realm isn't terribly imaginative, with the same series of maps appearing repeatedly in each domain. But it was fun how you could visit the various locations on Earth, and I liked seeing how they changed for each stage in the game. I want to call the backstory "interesting," but on the other hand it's so, so horribly written.
  • 3 point for character creation and development. There's no creation. "Development" consists solely of hit point maximum increases that you receive at fixed points. Attack and defense scores are more a matter of "equipment" (and hardly seem to affect anything anyway). The method of earning new spells, partly based on accomplishment and partly based on the player solving puzzles, is worth a couple of points.
         
As far as I got with Robert.

          
  • 4 points for NPC interaction. The friends you make on Earth have interesting personalities, and again it's fun to visit and cycle through them to see what new tidbits they have to offer. Unfortunately, there are no dialogue options.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The small selection of monsters gets old quickly, leaving your only important "foes" the various simulacra, minions, and wizards that you have to face and counter. There are no non-combat encounters.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. It really is all about magic. The system of acquiring spells is one of the more original seen in my chronology so far, and the enormous variety of spells gives you a near endless set of combat tactics. I frankly thought it was too much, and at some point the game simply lost me. More patient or talented players might increase this category by a point or two.
              
The final list of magic words.
            
  • 2 points for equipment. You have four slots in which the items replace each other automatically as you acquire upgrades.
  • 6 points for the economy. It's surprisingly robust. You need a lot of money for spell ingredients as well as jetting around the world, which you can make by selling excess ingredients and artifacts, or by simply buying low and selling high when circling the Earth.
  • 4 points for a main quest with the occasional side-quest involving some kind of item acquisition. I'm also giving a point here for how Death Domain is an optional area in nearly every series of levels.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics work well enough, but I found sound effects minimal. (The music, which I don't rate, is quite good, featuring different themes for different domains and people.) I didn't care for the interface--in particular how you cannot fully use the keyboard for selecting and targeting spells.
  • 1 point for gameplay. For me, it hits all the wrong notes in this category: too linear, too long, and too hard. I gave it a point for some limited replayability based on selecting different schools of magic as the character's specialty.
               
That gives us a final score of 35, which falls right on my "recommended" threshold despite good performance in some categories. The GIMLET is, of course, subjective and has always been subjective, but it feels necessary to call out its subjectivity more in this game than others. Those who take better to this style of gameplay could easily rate it closer to 50.

Computer Gaming World avoided a full review of this one, but they did cover it briefly in the December 1992 "holiday buying guide." The author said that it "offers the most extensive magic system that we've ever seen in a game," which is fair praise. Dragon gave it 4 out of 5 stars, but the reviewers clearly didn't finish it. Like me: "We had more than one occasion where we battled enemy creatures but were defeated because we simply couldn't find the right spell in time. At other times, it was difficult to successfully face an enemy wizard's volley of spells." MobyGames catalogues only two other reviews: a 79/100 from Power Play and a 67/100 from ASM.

Either Tsunami or ASCII or ASCII's Japanese parent worked on an SNES version of the game but never released it even though it seems to have been completed. A pre-release beta version has made the rounds of abandonware sites. A YouTube video suggests that the conversion preserved few aspects of the original. Some of the character portraits are the same, and domain exploration looks similar but with different (better, frankly) graphics. Combat is entirely changed, however, with the character and enemy moving to a separate one-on-one combat screen. There are far fewer spells and no puzzles inherent in determining their mixtures. There also appears to be no Earth section.
               
Combat in the children's version of the game.
            
It would be fun to hear sometime from lead designers Joe Ybarra or Michael Moore about the inspiration for SpellCraft, since it's so unlike anything that preceded or followed it. Ybarra had been a producer at Electronic Arts for about a decade before starting his own company, but none of the titles he worked on show any hints of SpellCraft. Nor are there any clear similarities in the two following titles in which Ybarra is credited as a designer, Shadow of Yserbius (1993) and Fates of Twinion (1993), except for Mark Dickenson's graphical style.
           
             
SpellCraft is a new sort of game, and there are some implications to my failure. I would say I'm unlikely to complete any game that requires a) constant reaction to b) real-time enemy attacks, c) in which the attacks and responses are extremely varied; and d) your cues as to the nature of the attacks are purely visual. So, this doesn't rule out all real-time games because most of them only have a handful of attacks and defenses and you can get used to patterns fairly easily. It doesn't apply to, say, the Infinity Engine games because in addition to the visual cues, the transcript tells you exactly what spells the enemy has cast. I frankly don't yet know what games it does rule out, but I can tell you that I've tried a few modern action games (one of the Devil May Cry editions comes to mind), and I simply have no idea what is happening on the screen at any given time. It makes me feel old.

And speaking of feeling old, I began teaching college this week! Specifically, I began teaching students who were not yet born for, or otherwise have no memory of, September 11, 2001. I'm teaching students who never saw any of the Lord of the Rings films in theaters. Students who think of the Star Wars prequel series as "old movies." Students for whom Back to the Future is as recent as The Bridge on the River Kwai was for me. Not only do they have no memory of an original Ultima or Bard's Tale, they were barely alive for Morrowind and the last Infinity Engine game.

Anyway, it's been a crazy few weeks. I hope I can get back on a regular schedule now, but there might still be a few rough patches before I return to the regularity that we saw in April to August. Thanks for sticking with me.


Sunday, August 25, 2019

Treasures of the Savage Frontier: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Reminder: It is possible to play this game with "evil" characters.
            
Treasures of the Savage Frontier
United States
Beyond Software (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released in 1992 for Amiga and DOS
Date Started: 20 July 2019
Date Finished: 2 August 2019
Total Hours: 31
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Summary:
One of the last Gold Box games, this one is competent but not terribly memorable. All of the Gold Box strengths (variety of enemies, combat interface, character development, interface) and weaknesses (bad economy, no environmental graphics, limited sound) are present, with a few minor additions such as weather affecting combat, the ability for enemies to join combat in subsequent rounds, and a romance between the lead character and an NPC.

*****

If the Gold Box series was a political dynasty, its founder, Pool of Radiance (1988), would be like a bold, innovative president whose genius and integrity are remembered for generations. Curse of the Azure Bonds would be like his son who only ever made it to vice president. Every other game would be a bunch of descendants who had served as cabinet secretaries and representatives--each perhaps distinguished when considered individually, some even more physically attractive than their famous forebear, but none rising quite to his level of prominence.

Treasures of the Savage Frontier added a handful of tweaks to the Gold Box experience and told a competent story. It was in no way a shame to the family--not like those Buck Rogers cousins. But neither did it offer anything, in real terms, that we haven't experienced already. Since what we experienced already was pretty good, this isn't exactly a problem, but in some ways it's too bad that the lineage didn't continually improve over its lifetime the way that, say, the Ultima series did. Perhaps the comparison is inapt because Ultima used different engines for every release.

I said that Treasures told a "competent story," but even that is only true up through the end of my last entry. The Zhentarim/Hosttower/Kraken plot didn't keep me on the edge of my seat, but it did at least keep me interested. The final battle of this segment was a worthy challenge. Then, all of a sudden the Lords' Alliance leaders started talking about The Gem and the importance in keeping it out of the hands of the Zhentarim. I promise that The Gem had never been mentioned at any point in the story before, but all the journal entries acted as if everyone already knew about it. "It was this magical Gem that was used to destroy [a white dragon named] Freezefire centuries ago," King Steelfist said. "The powerful magic item may still be there, awaiting adventurers with the strength and courage to come find it in the barren wastes."
         
I expected him to turn on me, but mostly I forgot he was even there.
        
And thus the last chapter of the book had the party traipsing through villages and caverns of the frozen north. Accompanying us was an NPC fighter named Kriiador, servant to the human leader of Mirabar. A previously-unavailable dock in Neverwinter now sold passage to the northern city of Fireshear.

When we arrived, we discovered that the city (which occupied two levels with multiple ladders) had already been sacked by the forces of evil. We slowly retook it from the various yeti, ice hounds, remorhazes, and umber hulks that had made homes in the former shops and businesses of the residents. Umber hulks--which look weirder here than in any other game in which I've seen them--did their usual "confuse" trick.
          
An umber hulk, looking very cartoonish.
         
The hardest battle--and this became a recurring issue--was with a large group that included about half a dozen yeti chiefs. I guess the creatures get a chance of "terrifying" each party member when the battle starts, and with so many of them, it was common for every one of my party members to get terrified. Terrified characters flee the battlefield. They ultimately return, but only after four or five rounds in which the remaining characters have to hold out. There seemed to be no way to protect against the effect, and so the battle occasioned several reloads before I got enough party members to stick with it.
           
This is what finally frightens my party?
         
Even after I finished this battle, I had to immediately fight another one with a beholder and more yeti. Fortunately, my characters were under the effects of "Haste" (I used it so often that the party ended the game in their mid-30s having started in their early 20s). Resisting the beholder's more serious attacks, my three lead fighters ran up and pounded him until he was dead.
            
This guy wasn't as hard as he could have been if the dice had gone the other way.
         
Once Fireshear was clear, the shops and services opened up again, including a boat offering passage further up the coast to the Ice Peak. This area consisted of four maps, including three interconnected towns: Aurilssbaarg, Bjorn's Hold, and Icewolf. The areas featured numerous encounters with tribal northerners, and I regret to say I was done with the game at this point, so I stopped meticulously recording everything that happened.
           
The type of encounter I got in the final maps. I probably didn't even read the entry.
          
The tribesmen were nice and didn't give me any trouble about pronouncing "Tempos" as "Tempus," and there were more battles with ice creatures. Ultimately, I found my way to the passage that led to the final area.
            
My ranger gets impatient.
          
The final map, Freezefire's Lair, had a lot of secret doors but not a lot of special encounters. One exception was a combat with a creature I'd never encountered before (in any game) called a "gorgimera"--a cross between a gorgon and a chimera.
             
These guys were pretty bad-ass.
         
The penultimate battle occurred when we stumbled into a cave containing Freezefire's corpse. A bunch of mages, spies, and priests had beat us there, and fighting them was about as hard as the last battle in Mirabar. It all came down to who drew first and paralyzed everyone else with "Hold" or negated their spellcasting abilities with "Ice Storm" or "Fireball." I'd gained a level or two since the final battle in Mirabar, however, and this one had fewer enemies suddenly appearing in later rounds.
           
My ranger is taken out of the action, but we were victorious in the end.
       
When it was over, there was a scripted scene in which the party drooled over the piles of treasure in Freezefire's chamber before remembering that their duty was to collect The Gem. (The game never gave any indication of what, exactly, it did.) Ghost pried it out of the dead dragon's claws, which somehow caused the dead dragon to come back to life.
              
I like how the game tries to make the dragon scary, as if we hadn't been fighting dragons since Level 2 in Gateway.
          
The actual "final battle" with Freezefire was laughably easy, as battles with single dragons tend to be in Gold Box titles. He had a few dozen hit points, which the dancing blades of my hastened fighters depleted before he could even breathe once.
          
I swear his name is spelled "Freezefire" everywhere else.
            
The endgame screens then commenced. A group of dwarves carried us victoriously back to Icewolf, where we had a feast. The two rulers of Mirabar showed up to lay plans for dividing Freezefire's treasure among the Lords' Alliance cities, plus the northern tribes.
          
Yeah, that's going to pretty much ruin the local economy.
         
The party was offered 40 jewelry, 250 gems, and 15,000 platinum pieces (but why)? The Lord's Alliance took charge of The Gem, and the Zhentarim, Krakens, and Hosttower forces all slithered back to their homes. After the final screen at the top of this entry, the game allowed me to keep playing.
             
That's nice, but just once I'd like someone to call us by our names.
        
As I noted in the last entry, the ending felt tacked on. On the other hand, without it, the title didn't make any sense, as the game preceding it wasn't about any treasures. On yet another hand, it still doesn't make any sense, because while the ending is about treasures, the treasures are not "of the Savage Frontier." Then again, hardly any of the game took place in the Savage Frontier. 

There are more than a couple hints that the developers were setting up a sequel to occur in High Forest. First, there was the mystery to do with Siulajia and how the Axis of Evil knew her family. Second, the mages and priests we encountered at the Ice Peak appear to have been sent not by the Zhentarim conspiracy but by "the Masters of Hellgate Keep," as one captured enemy squealed. Hellgate Keep is on the edge of the High Forest. Even the cover, showing Siulajia holding a magic gem, seems to be from a sequel more than the current game.

After I won, I took a few minutes to create a new party out of my massively-overpowered characters from Pools of Darkness. These were characters so powerful, you'll recall, that at the end of Pools, they were basically sent into exile. They were all around Level 30-40, some of them in their second classes, and the mages among them had Level 9 spells. Treasures read their character files, including all their equipment, as if they were native characters.
          
The imported party. Look at those ACs!
        
The game wouldn't let me outside until I won the big battle in Llorkh. There were a lot more enemies than the first time, but I'm not sure if that's because Treasures "read" my party as being more powerful, or if it was because I didn't clean up the side encounters first. Either way, the large party still went down quickly to "Delayed Blast Fireball."
          
A lot more foes than last time, but that's just more fodder for a "Fireball."
         
I immediately brought the party to Luskan and attacked the Hosttower. Despite the level of my characters, the defending mages still mostly acted first, suggesting that the initiative rolls are rigged for this battle. It didn't help them much, however, as they mostly cast "Ice Storm" and I had "Resist Cold" on every character. Although multiple new enemies joined each round, my vorpal swords and spells like "Meteor Swarm" cut through the masses faster than they could replenish them, and I won with minimal damage in just a few minutes.
            
I forgot how much I like vorpal swords.
        
The battle earned me 19,751 experience per character. When it was over, I was taken back to the 3-D screen where a message said, "The great gates slam shut!" I then had the option to bash them again for, presumably, another battle. So much for that. I'm sure this combat could be won with native characters, particularly late in the game. "Resist Cold" and "Haste" would do most of the work.
           
The whole point of fighting that big battle was to get through those gates.
         
I always like to check out the uncircled journal entries to see which are likely to be fake. There aren't many here. Out of 88 entries, I checked off 73, and at least 5 of the remainder fit known story developments and events, so it's likely that I just missed them. Of the few obvious "fakes," one has the dwarves of Llorkh betraying and imprisoning the party. Another would have the party waste time looking for a beholder in Port Llast. There was a fake map, and a misleading entry about the pirate Redleg. That's about it. I miss some of the older games' fake entries, which often had an entire fake sub-plot running through them.

With all the corners explored, it's time to get on to the GIMLET:
          
  • 5 points for the game world. It makes good use of Forgotten Realms themes, adequately continues the story from Gateway, and does a reasonably good job evolving the world as the game progresses.
          
The Forgotten Realms campaign setting says Mirabar is ruled jointly by dwarves and humans, and that's how the game presents it.
         
  • 5 points for character creation and development, which is essentially the Gold Box/AD&D1 average. Only the Dragonlance games do significantly better with their unique races and classes. Here, I thought some of the level caps were a bit low.
  • 6 points for NPC interaction. This series has never featured classic NPCs (with their own icons, independent existence, etc.) so much as "encounters" with memorable characters in them. But this game does better than most by allowing so many characters to join the party, including one who will engage in a romance with the lead character. The romance is a bit dull and progresses mostly in the background, but it has actual consequences for statistics and behavior in combat.
  • 6 points for encounters and foes. Most of that goes to the foes. I really do like the AD&D bestiary, with its incredible variety of special attacks and defenses that constantly change up combat tactics, and this game had some creatures I'd never heard of. Non-combat encounters aren't as thick or memorable in their role-playing options as some of the earlier titles, but the game does feature at least a few.
         
Monsters are introduced in memorable fashion . . . 

. . . and the manual tells you what you need to know.
         
  • 7 points for magic and combat. Few changes to a very good combat engine and magic system. I didn't feel strongly enough about the two additions--consideration of the weather and the ability of enemies to join the combat midway--for it to affect the rating either way.
  • 5 points for equipment. I like the variety of equipment, but I don't like that every item is predetermined and fixed in location.
  • 2 points for the economy. There's more interesting stuff to buy than in the typical Gold Box title, but it's so cheap that you end up with the same problem as every other game: too much gold, not enough to spend it on. A party could easily get through this game with its starting allowance.
            
The party defeats six orcs.
           
  • 4 points for a main quest and a fair number of side-quests and side-areas. I never finished whatever the dwarves wanted me to do.
  • 6 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics and sound effects are both adequate, though I'm getting sick of empty environments. Most of the points here go to the extremely intuitive interface, which manages to accommodate keyboard, joystick, and mouse users.
  • 5 points for gameplay. I like the quasi-nonlinearity, and I thought the challenge and length were about right, or maybe just a tad too easy. I don't see it as very "replayable."
            
The final score of 51 is about middle-of-the-road for a Gold Box title. I'm surprised to see it only two points higher than Gateway, but I can't pinpoint where I expected Gateway to do worse. At this point, it's clear that no Gold Box game is going to outperform the first entry, Pool of Radiance (1988), which got a 65. It has the most interesting world and story of the series, the most memorable and challenging battles, the best non-combat encounter options, and the best variety of quests.
             
           
It doesn't appear that Computer Gaming World even bothered to review this one. Scorpia offered some hints in the July 1992 issue but not a full review. In an October 1993 summary of CRPGs on the market, she said that the game had "a couple of twists" but was "otherwise pretty much a yawner." Dragon gave it 4/5 stars in an August 1992 review and said that while it was "enjoyable" and "satisfying," there was "nothing really new."

(A couple of weird things about this issue of Dragon: 1) it features a screenshot from SSI's Sword of Aragon from 1989 but labels it from Treasures; 2) it has a joint ad for Twilight: 2001 and MegaTraveller 3, neither of which were ever released.)

I would venture that Treasures is more fun today, when the player isn't really expecting innovation, than in 1992, when the Gold Box engine was 4 years old and players were excited by more immersive environments as in Ultima Underworld or even Eye of the Beholder and its sequel. Such attitudes surely pervade the horrid series of reviews that the game received from European Amiga magazines, the best being the 69 in the June 1992 Power Play and the worst the 34 afforded by the November 1992 Amiga Power. Amiga magazines, and particularly the British ones, never really "got" the Gold Box, and it annoys me that the reviewer (Les Ellis) seems to define "playability" as the ability to immediately start playing without reading the manual. Otherwise, the review is oddly forgivable in its historical context, opening with the rhetorical question: "After the likes of Eye of the Beholder 2, is there really any need for games like this?" I rated Eye of the Beholder II lower than Treasures, but even I kind-of get where he's coming from.

In my ignorance as a non-programmer, I have to wonder why the Gold Box couldn't have evolved better than it did. For instance, why couldn't a player exploring the tiled maps of Neverwinter be treated to some of the same menacing background sounds, perhaps growing when enemies were near, that he receives in Eye of the Beholder? Why couldn't the graphics have featured more environmental clues? Why was it so important to stick to 16 x 16 maps? I know some of my helpful commenters will try to give answers, but I suspect they'll sound to me more like excuses than explanations.
           
"Players can now interact with NPCs--they can even have romances!" is a bit misleading.
          
Ah, but it's too soon to bemoan the loss of the engine--we'll do that after Dark Queen of Krynn. For now, we say goodbye to Beyond Software, soon to rename itself Stormfront Studios. It will develop one more RPG in the near future (1993's Stronghold) and nothing again until the 2000s. SSI, the most prolific RPG publisher of the period, will continue to entertain us with RPGs of all types until 1995, when it will suddenly get out of the RPG business for good.

I move now to The Magic Candle III, of which I know virtually nothing. My entries may continue to be a bit spotty for the next few weeks (though hopefully without any more very long breaks) as I adjust to a new job and schedule.