Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Game 338: SpellCraft: Aspects of Valor (1992)

         
SpellCraft: Aspects of Valor
United States
Tsunami Productions (developer), ASCII Entertainment Software (publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 27 July 2019

I was recently reminded of a nine-year old entry in which I remarked on the considerable variances in spell systems between fantasy RPGs. A lot of the stuff I said in the first year of blogging was ignorant nonsense, but this entry holds up. My thesis was that while many CRPGs may offer near-identical experiences when it comes to character attributes, equipment, NPC interactions, and combat, their approaches to magic are so variable as to almost be a fingerprint. "Fully describe the magic system of any game," I said, "and there's a decent chance that your description applies only to that game, or at least only to games in that series." I then analyzed a number of categories in which spell systems varied.
             
The Ultima series was a good title to encapsulate the argument because it doesn't even maintain spell consistency within the series. Every entry is unique. I think the series reached its apex in Ultima V, which featured the "syllable" system as well as the reagent system. I call it the apex, but the system was also full of unrealized potential. There were a couple of unlisted spells that you could figure out if you understood the logic behind syllables and reagents, but otherwise the spells were mostly handed to you in a spellbook. I'd like to see the same system in which the player has to figure out almost every spell, and moreover can create some fantastic combinations. If in Ultima V, KAL XEN summoned a creature and VAS FLAM created a great ball of fire, I don't see why KAL VAS XEN FLAM wouldn't summon a great creature of fire.
          
I agree that neither "accomplishment" nor "danger" seem like this guy's strong suits.
           
One thing that never makes sense to me about spells in Dungeons and Dragons settings is how relentlessly predictable they are. It makes no sense that if a mage can summon a fireball, he can only summon an enormous fireball that covers a 69-square area and does deadly damage to everyone within it. Once you know how to pull fire out of thin air, you ought to be able to figure out how to halve or double the recipe. A lot of other games give you the ability to vary the intensity of a spell without having to change to a completely different spell. This was one area in which Disciples of Steel improved upon the Gold Box engine.
          
SpellCraft offers a little of what I'm looking for in both areas. Its spells are created like recipes--a combination of "aspect" items (not unlike Elvira II in this regard), ingredients, and magic words, some of which can be varied to produce different effects. I'm a little hesitant to call the system exactly what I'm looking for because I don't think there's a lot of logic to the aspects and ingredients. But it may be that I just haven't experienced the system long enough yet.
             
A few hours?! The tailwinds were kind this day.
           
SpellCraft was conceived by Joseph Ybarra, the Electronic Arts executive who had produced the first Bard's Tale games, Starflight, and Legacy of the Ancients (among others). In between presiding over the last days of Infocom (1988-1990) and taking a producer role at 3DO (1995), Ybarra ran his own company, drawing in Karl Buiter, creator of Sentinel Worlds and Hard Nova. Most references to Ybarra's company call it Ybarra Productions, and indeed that's the title the team used for Shadow of Yserbius (1993) and Alien Legacy (1994), but for a while at the beginning he must have flirted with "Tsunami Productions." Anyway, SpellCraft seems to be a completely original conception; I can find nothing like it in Ybarra's history nor the histories of any of the programmers.
        
The manual features one of the worst-written backstories that we've encountered in a long time. (The manual is otherwise okay.) I'd blame Karl Buiter of "You beat me?!...I am destroyed" fame, but he's not credited on the manual. I spent a few paragraphs trying to deconstruct how bad it is, and why it's bad, but it was taking so long I may actually save it for an entire entry. I invite you to click on that link, go to Page 6, and make any sense of it. This is the type of manual that could only have gotten past the production standards of a Japanese company running an American office.
          
Security tightened after it became a UNESCO site.
            
The upshot is that magic was around on Earth for a long time, but its abuses led some wizards to create (or move to) the separate realm of Valoria. While the use of magic in "Terra" dwindled to weak cantrips and soothsaying, in Valoria wizards wielded devastating power and warred among themselves for centuries. Eventually, they came together in a Council of the Wise and elected a Magister to lead them, and war settled down into healthy competitions instead of all-out slaughter.
       
Unfortunately, the testing of atomic bombs in the 1940s on Terra happened to coincide with some powerful magic rituals in Valoria, with the result that a major rift opened between the two worlds. Here, the manual transitions to the game's opening segments, though imperfectly because in-game screens say the rift is "tiny" and it was discovered recently. (Fortunately, the in-game text seems to have been penned by someone more competent than the manual backstory author.) The Magister, Garwayen, suggested that the council close the rift so that "our worlds would not come into conflict," but the rest of the council--six wizards aligned to different "colleges" of magic--voted to enlarge it so they could conquer Terra. As if this wasn't bad enough, Garwayen thinks that enlarging the rift will damage the "very fabric of reality" and thus potentially destroy both realms.
            
Yeah, we'll see how your "Fireball" spells perform against our ballistic missiles.
           
Garwayen, "old and feeble" and unable to stop his six colleagues, looked for someone "born under the same conjunction of stars" who could absorb his magic. He found the answer in Robert Garwin, an American with "a modest life of no great accomplishment and no great danger." Garwin unexpectedly receives a ticket to England from his "Uncle Gar" with the promise of an inheritance on the other end. Following "Gar's" instructions, Garwin flies to Heathrow, rents a car, drives to Stonehenge, gets teleported to Valoria, and soon finds himself Garwayen's apprentice.
             
The images are now in sync with the text.
            
The player's first choice is to pick a primary college of magic from among the classic four elements. Irene happened to be walking by as the choice was presented to me, and I decide to test the depth of my knowledge of my wife by giving the options to her. The issue was never what element she'd choose (fire), or how she'd make the choice ("Fire! Fire! Fire!" with a manic gleam in her eye) but whether she'd even let me finish reading the sentence before giving her answer. She had just come home from battling tourist traffic along the coast, so I'm proud to say that she did not.
            
          
The game eases you into its conventions with a few tutorials, starting with the creation of the first spell. In my case, it was "Fire Barrier," a defensive spell. Creating a spell requires first selecting its "aspect" from among 48 potential objects you can collect. You then have to choose how many of that aspect to use in the spell's creation, plus how many standard ingredients--powders, stones, candles, and jewels--will also go into it. Finally, you associate a "magic word" with the spell, which is really just a textual representation of the spell level. The first level of fire-based spells are all LUX, for instance.
         
Mixing a new spell.
       
You get these recipes from a variety of sources, including arcane hints in the manual and NPC dialogue, but in this case Garwayen just told me what ingredients to use.
             
Garwayen explains where to find information about spells.
         
Once the spell is created, you have to go to your spellbook to mix any number of iterations of the spell, capped by how many ingredients you have on-hand. You can also make modifications, by adding more of some ingredients, thus hoping to vary the spell's power or effects. Whether this works or not is governed by the "elasticity" of the ingredients, which you're told during the initial spell's creation.
         
A full description of the spell accompanies its creation.
        
A spellbook that came with the game seems to have blanks for all possible spells, plus partial information for a lot of them. I imagined that the player is meant to fill in these blanks as he discovers new spells, so that's what I started doing. I'm not sure that the "aspects" make any logical sense. Each is a physical object but has an "aspect of" something else. For instance, a fishook has an "aspect of pinpricks" which kind-of makes sense, but the domino mask has the "aspect of falling birds," which makes no sense at all.
           
God damn those shriners!
        
Garwayen then dropped a surprise in telling me that the various wizards won't be defeatable with magic. For that, I'll need a regular weapon. He gave me a Sword of Striking to use, then tossed me into the Earth Domain to check it out.
       
When you're on a mission in Valoria, the interface changes to an axonometric window with environmental objects, enemies, and treasure chests. The numberpad moves the character, the function keys select spells, and the ENTER key casts them. The SPACE bar cycles the bottom-left window through a couple of options, including character statistics and a map. All of these actions have mouse alternatives. I feel like the graphics, good in the rest of the game, degrade significantly in the exploration window.
             
Enemies--in this case, something that looks like an orc--head for you the moment that they see you. Unfortunately, physical combat is pretty pathetic. You simply adopt a combat posture with a single keystroke and the game fights for you. If you hit any other key while in combat, you return to a non-combat posture. A single "life" bar indicates both health and spell points. It recharges relatively quickly as you walk about the environment. An early-game character can't defeat more than one enemy on a single health bar, but you can defeat one, then run around before engaging the next. (In the early game, at least, the character moves faster than enemies.) 
            
I send a fireball streaking towards an orcish creature in the Earth Domain. A chest is available for pickup to my south.
         
Enemies drop bags of items (spell aspects and ingredients) when defeated. Chests scattered about the world deliver these in greater volume. When you've defeated all the enemies and collected all the chests, you return to your home base--a "Stone Circle" that has its own health bar for reasons that must become apparent later--via a keystroke.
          
I ran three practice missions fighting orcs before Garwayen decided we'd better move on. He had me create a "Fireball" spell (red fez aspect, three powders, six candles) and then sent me to fight more orcs. I used the spell for a couple of them, but I defeated most in combat to conserve ingredients.
          
Logging the "Star Healing" spell in the spellbook.
         
For the next spell, he wanted me to create something called "Star Heal," from the "ether" college, but he would only tell me that the "aspect grows naturally" and that the "proportions for the spell are one and three." I consulted the spellbook and found only one "personal modifier" spell with 1 of one thing (the aspect) and 3 of the other (stones). Of aspects that "grow naturally," I only had garlic and onions. Garlic and 3 stones turned out to be the answer.
          
A map of Terra shows me the magic hot spots. I guess Oceania doesn't have any.
        
At this point, the game took an odd turn, as Garwayen sent me back to Terra to purchase some more ingredients--particularly two vials of white liquid. I was presented with a world map, $20,000 cash, a pomegranate, and the ability to travel to Salem, Massachusetts (USA); Teotihuacan, Mexico; Pompeii, Italy; and back to Stonehenge. Each one-way ticket cost at least a few hundred dollars. At each location, I could talk to an NPC and buy or sell ingredients from him.
           
Trading ingredients.
        
Stonehenge's NPC was a hippie named David Greenbriar who wanted a magic pomegranate so much he was willing to pay $10,000, so that bolstered my initial funds. In Salem, I made contact with Selina, a guide at the Witch Museum (this was accompanied by what I can attest is a real photo of Salem's Washington Square), who told me to return if I ever found the Book of Witches. In Teotihuacan, a medicine woman promised to teach me a new magic word if I brought back an opal from the Fire Domain. Pompeii's NPC was an English tourist interested in ancient artifacts. In each location, I bought 5 of any ingredient they were selling that I didn't have. I still had over $27,000 when I returned to Stonehenge, so maybe I was a bit conservative on my first trip.
         
I think I might have met this NPC in real life.
           
(Aside: As a former resident of Salem who really got into the history of the city, I don't care for it when movies, television shows, books, and games suggest that the city was ever the site of any "real" magic and witchcraft. I have a particular distaste for the choice of the Salem Police Department to put a classic witch-on-a-broomstick on its departmental patch. Between 1692 and 1693, twenty residents of Salem were executed on false accusations of witchcraft, and I feel like it insults their memory to suggest that the accusations were anything but unfounded hysteria. I do appreciate, however, how the various museums of the city use the "witch" title to lure in tourists--but then give them a sober account of a tragic history.)
         
The session wrapped up with the creation of a new spell called "Steam Vapor" that required me to interpret a clue from a quote in the manual. After that, I got access to my workshop, where I can create and modify spells.
         
This is a pretty sweet pad.
        
Looking into the mirror in the workshop shows character statistics and inventory. It suggests among other things that I will eventually find other weapons and armor upgrades plus various magic "totems." My maximum health has doubled (from 50 to 100) since I started the game; I don't know if this is the result of solving missions, defeating enemies, or both. Either way, it counts as a sort-of character development that qualifies the game as an RPG. I assume my attack and defense scores can also increase.
          
The "character sheet."
           
Two subsequent missions took me to the Air Domain and the Fire Domain. The Air Domain looked like it was covered in snow, though it was supposed to be clouds, and stepping off the clouds results in instant death. The Fire Domain cracked me up because it's just like the Earth Domain except all the trees are on fire and the lakes and rivers have lava instead of water. How did the trees grow there in the first place? The Fire Domain had more orcish monsters, but the Air Domain gave me phantom-like air creatures. These enemies have been easy enough to defeat with my sword so far. I assume that changes.
        
The Fire Domain is serious about its theme.
         
Both of the areas had special large chests to find. One had the Teotihuacan woman's fire opal; the other had 12 bottles of green liquid and 14 jewels. The green liquid is apparently the base of a powerful mind magic spell, but Garwayen says I need someone on Earth to give me the magic word first.
           
Fighting ghostlike creatures in the Air Domain. The game notes that this mission has 3 enemies, 1 large chest, and 1 small chest left to find.
        
I like the spell creation system and the hub-and-mission approach. Jetting around the real world is weird but inoffensive. I look forward to seeing how SpellCraft develops. I'm glad I didn't reject it.
    
Time so far: 3 hours


Saturday, July 27, 2019

Game 337: Treasures of the Savage Frontier (1992)

The game almost immediately reveals its title to be a double-entendre.

             
Treasures of the Savage Frontier
United States
Beyond (developer), Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released 1992 for Amiga and DOS
Date Started: 20 July 2019
           
Settling into a Gold Box game is like going back to your home town after a few years. You enjoy looking for the little changes while at the same time hoping that not much has changed. The town still has its same friendly character, you think, and it looks like all the neighborhoods are still 16 x 16. The old Irish pub seems to have gotten a VGA facelift; maybe I'll get to know the NPCs there a little better this trip. Mr. Miller at the armory is still hawking that weird selection of polearms, but he's got helmets now, too. Oh, looks like MacGregor's pharmacy got bought out by a Rite Aid--and I hear they have a new "Repair" command that automatically heals all your ailments. Yes, maybe some of those things changed on your last trip. It's hard to remember. Does it really matter?

Of course, your hometown is always happy to welcome you with all the experience and stuff that you've accumulated since you were first created here. Well--most of it. They haven't legalized weed or Gauntlets of Dexterity yet, so you'll have to leave those where you came from.
           
The import process confiscates a few items.
        
We don't have many trips to the old neighborhood left. Mom and Dad sold the place for a better house in a town called Dark Sun, if you can imagine. They're hardly ever even home. They've been leasing it short-term to some executives from a company called Beyond. Better enjoy these streets--and killing bandits on them via one of the best combat engines you've ever experienced--while you can.

I've been plucking games from the 1992 list at random, but I'm not sure if I wouldn't have done it in this order deliberately. Of the three remaining Gold Box games, I think I'll enjoy The Dark Queen of Krynn the most, Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed the least, and Treasures somewhere in between. If that's true, Treasures is a good one to ease into for the first time in almost three years--saving the best experience for last, but not ruining our homecoming on the worst part of town.

I like the setup here. It requires some knowledge of the previous game and the Forgotten Realms factions, but it isn't overly complicated. In Gateway to the Savage Frontier, the characters were former caravan guards who slowly stumbled on a conspiracy by Zhentarim (the evil mercenary company that rules Zhentil Keep) to take over the Savage Frontier (a long strip of land east of the Sword Coast) by marching an army across the Anauroch Desert (which lies between Zhentil Keep and the Savage Frontier) to the city of Ascore. The party foiled the plan by activating a magic ritual in Ascore that summoned various desert monsters to destroy the invading hordes.

The game map shows that action will take place on the western side of the Savage Frontier, plus the Sword Coast cities. If it stretched just a little further south, we'd see Baldur's Gate.
           
Treasures begins a few weeks later, with the party enjoying a picnic in the hills above Yartar. Suddenly, we're sucked through a portal, arriving on the cold stone floor of a dwarven stronghold in the city of Llorkh. The agent of our transportation is Amanitas, the setting's version of Gandalf or Elminster, an absent-minded wizard who aids and directs the party. 
           
Why is this spell never available to me no matter what level I achieve?
         
Amanitas relates that after their defeat, the shattered remains of the Zhentarim fled south to Llorkh, the only city in the region that they still controlled. But when the dwarven residents of Llorkh heard that the Zhentarim had been defeated, they realized this was their prime chance to revolt. The city has been plunged into chaos, with the dwarves against the Zhent garrison and the returning survivors of Ascore. Amanitas hopes that we'll do our usual thing. Of course, he won't be sticking around himself. He's going to return home to Secomber to investigate "troubling reports about strange new events in the Savage Frontier." One hopes this includes the apparent imposition of slavery on former caravan guards.

I took a quick look at character creation to make sure nothing had changed (I didn't see anything) before importing my Gateway party, which consists of:

  • Broadside, a lawful good human male paladin of Level 7
  • Talldark, a chaotic good human female ranger of Level 7
  • Ghost, a neutral good dwarf male fighter/thief of Levels 5/6
  • Alpha, a lawful good human male cleric of Level 6
  • Eso, a chaotic good human female cleric of Level 6
  • Monitor, a neutral good elf magic-user of Level 6

Ghost will cap at Level 9 as a fighter, two levels below the maximum for the game, but I guess I'll live with it. Monitor can go to Level 11 as a mage, which also happens to be the game maximum. If the series had gone on for one more title, you'd have to go with an all-human party, or suffer from very low level caps, as in the Forgotten Realms series. 
           
A new character is pretty pathetic compared to an imported one.
          
Most of their equipment came with them, save the Gauntlets of Dexterity, some magic scrolls, ioun stones, a Wand of Defoliation, and a long sword +2 versus undead. Still, everyone has magic weapons and armor. An imported party has an enormous advantage over one created for the game. New characters start at around Level 4 with only 22,600 experience (my imported characters had between 80,000 and 140,0000) and non-magic items. My imported party also has, I suspect, enough money in gems and jewelry to last the entire game.

The game begins in war-torn Llorkh, where the ultimate goal is to assault the Zhent keep in the east-center of the city. An early journal entry recommends that, before heading there, you "clear the rest of the town," thus weakening the Zhent forces and stopping them from sending reinforcements. Yes, we're still using paper journals. I don't really know why.
       
Getting a journal reference . . .

. . . and marking it off in the paper (or PDF) journal.
          
Llorkh held to the 16 x 16 standard that the Gold Box has used since Pool of Radiance, with another 8 x 16 for the keep. I normally like mapping, but for whatever reason, I didn't map during this session. I relied on the overhead "Area" map to get around and make sure I covered every square, which isn't terribly hard on a map this small. The "Area" map still doesn't distinguish walls from doors, which is something that I wish the series had fixed before the end.
           
I did most of my exploration from this map rather than mapping myself.
        
The town had a weapons shop, a couple of inns, a temple, and a training hall, all open during the strife. All my characters except Broadside gained one or two levels during the session. I think I'll probably dual either Alpha or Eso to a second mage pretty soon. The only things I bothered to purchase were arrows and darts, and I noticed that (perhaps for the first time) they now automatically stack, meaning you don't have to buy darts 4 at a time until your mage's inventory is full, then stack them, then buy more.
          
Part of the options in the armory.
     
The Zhent forces in the keep include "lordsmen" (high-level fighters), driders, gryphons, ettins, efreet, and hill giants. Driders were probably the toughest enemies. If you don't damage them, they cast "Fireshield" in the first round, which does double the damage back to the attacker for every melee attack. Once the spell is cast, you have to try to destroy the Drider with spells ("Magic Missile" is a favorite, though they shrug off spell damage about 50% of the time) or ranged weapons.

There were around 20 fixed encounters on the Llorkh map. The accumulation of combats was a bit harder than I remember in any previous Gold Box game, and I found myself really working my various spells, even going so far as to cast "Prayer" and "Bless" in combat, which is something I hardly ever do. My wizard only had two Level 3 spells at the game's outset. Predictably, I used them for "Lightning Bolt" and "Fireball," but these went fast. I got a lot of use out of the clerics' "Hold Person." Fortunately, the game is a bit too generous on letting you rest, heal, and re-memorize spells just about anywhere. Incidentally, unlike Gateway, "Fix" no longer re-memorizes spells. It just heals.
        
It's rare for me to cast "Prayer" in combat. I usually use it as a buffing spell.
        
One thing that has changed: both enemies and allies can join the battle even after it's been going on for a few rounds. You suddenly get a message that "dwarf fighter has joined the combat" or "Zhent fighter has joined the combat," with the new characters taking positions near where the party started. So far, every ally joining has been balanced by an enemy and vice versa. Sometimes you can control the NPC allies (I think this is based on a charisma roll for the leader), but other times they control themselves. Either way, they're usually more trouble than they're worth, appearing in the back and not having much room to maneuver around the main party. Plus, if the NPCs are controlling themselves, the pathfinding remains awful and they get hung up on every wall. 
          
The NPC dwarves don't really contribute much to combat.
         
There weren't a lot of role-playing encounters in the opening map. There were a few places where I had options to help a group of dwarves or leave, which isn't exactly much of a choice. When I reached the front gates of the city in my explorations, the game asked if I wanted to stay and fight or leave the dwarves to their fate. On a lark, I tried to leave, but the dwarves just barred the gate and forced me to stay anyway.
          
This isn't much of a choice. I have to defeat everyone anyway.
        
The one major exception was an encounter in a building where I came across some wounded Zhents and a companion treating them. I had options to attack or leave them alone. I decided to adhere to the Geneva Convention, at which point one of the Zhents gave me some intelligence that the Zhent lord Geildarr was planning to ambush the dwarven leaders while they slept. I don't think this ended up doing anything for me, but it was still an interesting encounter.
           
On one hand, the Zhentarim are unrepentantly evil. On the other hand, we shouldn't stoop to their level.
         
While few of the other encounters offered any role-playing options, there were a lot of contextual encounters (defined here). You rarely just run into a pack of enemies looking for blood, the way you do in, say, The Bard's Tale or Might and Magic. Instead, you get some message indicating why the combat is occurring before it occurs. The series has generally done a good job with these, but I think Treasures is offering more pre-combat messages than any prior game. Some examples:

  • We burst into a room and interrupt a group of ettins and fighters dressing for battle.
  • We hear a lovely melodic voice coming from behind a door, enter, and find ourselves in combat with three harpies. I can't remember harpies making an appearance in Gold Box games before.
  • A building turns out to house a group of Bane worshippers, who attack immediately. 
  • We interrupt a group of hill giants and fighters playing dice.
         
This is so much better than just going right into combat.
         
It's been quite a while since I had a combat system that I really enjoyed. I think Crusaders of the Dark Savant was probably the last. Here, I immediately remembered everything I love about the Gold Box approach to combat: when enemies line up to create a perfect "Lightning Bolt" scenario, or attack in a big cluster ideal for a "Fireball"; when a backstab connects; when my paladin is able to kill two enemies with his two attacks per round; when all three castings of "Hold Person" take effect and you can kill the paralyzed enemies at your leisure; when your casting of "Stinking Cloud" reorganizes the battlefield the way you want it. And every new spell slot increases your tactical options. Not only has this system not been improved upon in a turn-based game, I'm not even sure how you'd improve it. It's one of the few completely transparent systems in all of RPG-dom, meaning that whether an attack succeeds or fails, whether a spell takes effect or doesn't, whether you live or die, you always understand exactly what's happening and why it's happening.
        
Monsters arranged perfectly for a "Fireball."
      
The opening session culminated with an attack on Lord Geildarr's keep, a fortress that had once belonged to a dwarven king named Redblade. There was a very large battle with fighters and ettins in the entry hall.

Geildarr himself seemed to appear in a southern room, but it turned out to be only an illusion. After we tried to attack him, we were attacked ourselves by driders and efreet. In a northern room, a brunette sorceress similarly disappeared, leaving us to fight her minions.
          
Tricky, tricky.
        
Continuing down into the basement, we fought more guards as well as several groups of carrion crawlers (which can paralyze) in the old jail cells. At the north end of the cellars, I found a fighter giving a speech to his troops, and it ominously ended with, "Even if we don't hold Llorkh, the plan to divide--." So apparently the Zhents have a bigger plan.

Next, we came to a room where a beautiful blonde fighter was fighting with a "beautiful" brunette sorceress. At least, that's how the game describes her.
          
You decide.
        
They got into a brawl, and during the tussle, the sorceress changed her appearance to match the fighter, both then shouting that she was the "real" blonde. I had various options at this point, and it turned out that casting "Dispel" allowed me to separate them again. It feels like the paladin's innate "Detect Evil" abilities should have helped here, but I didn't have that option. Maybe he didn't have that ability in the first edition of AD&D rules.

A battle with the sorceress (Cortarra) and her allies--several fighters and cockatrices--ensued. I concentrated on killing the cockatrices first, since they can stone with a successful melee attack. When it was over, the fighter--Siulajia--offered to join the party. Of course, I accepted. She related that she's the daughter of a ranger from the High Forest, captured by retreating Zhent forces and brought to Lord Geildarr as a "gift." It's always useful to have a pure fighter. She seems to do well with a bow.
         
Given that she's also the character on the title screen, I assume she later becomes more important.
       
The final battle was a two-part affair that began when I stumbled into a room and found Lord Geildarr threatening a warrior named Jarbarkas. Geildarr turned on me and first had a giant skeleton and a group of humans attack, including two "Hosttower mages" and two "Kraken masters," showing that the Zhents are allied with the Host Tower of the Arcane in Luskan and the Kraken Society of Purple Rocks. I suspect my adventures may take me in those directions next.
        
It's always great when this spell works.
          
Once I defeated the initial group, Geildarr himself attacked with numerous "lordsmen." He was probably a high-level magic-user, but he had only a small number of hit points, and he went down after one "Magic Missile" from Monitor and a couple of arrows from Siulajia. "Hold Person" helped mop up the rest.
           
The Zhents have allied with Gargamel.
       
After the battle, Jarbarkas gave us a reasonably long account of his history: He's from a village called Windycliffs on the Sword Coast. The town was recently sacked by Luskans, and Jarbarkas set out to get revenge, ultimately getting himself captured. He recommended that we search enemies for "any kind of crystal." "I know not what the powers of these crystals may be," he said, "but they were very careful to shatter them rather than let the stones fall into our hands. There are three different colors, and no single person is ever entrusted with more than one."
          
Technically, I've already won the game. It just lets you keep playing and exploring new areas after you win.
        
I expected Jarbarkas to offer to join us, but he took off after this bit of intelligence. Amidst the cheering of the victorious dwarves, we identified our looted equipment, leveled up, memorized new spells, and contemplated our next move, which seemed to be to visit Amanitas in Secomber.
            
I guess it's for the best. Your name is a bit too similar to someone we all hate.
        
You can leave Llorkh via the gate (on foot) or by renting a boat to go along the river system. Either way, leaving puts you on the overland map. Aside from slightly better graphics than previous overland maps, this one seems (for the first time that I remember) to have some consideration of weather. At least, it's constantly telling you about changes in weather conditions. I'm not sure what impact these conditions have on the game.
           
Overland exploration by river.
         
I faced no resistance on the way down river (I think this is one of the advantages to getting a boat). On the river, it's impossible to avoid the city of Loudwater on the way to Secomber, so I figured I might as well explore it while we were here. The southern part of the city has the usual shops and services, but we soon encountered a building with a bunch of Kraken Society spies. After we defeated them in combat, we found a map showing a line along a road between the Way Inn, Daggerford, and Waterdeep. "We must break their supply lines," a note read. "Attack and take Daggerford and the Way Inn now! BEFORE they arrive!"
        
The Kraken Society note.
       
A way up the road, a young woman asked me to help find her lost mother, then led me into a building in which she and her "sisters" turned into something called "greenhags" and attacked. I've never encountered this monster before. Their icons look like wights, but they're clearly not undead. In the middle of combat, they "changed form" into two mages and a dwarven fighter. They changed back and forth several times during the battle--I'm not sure what it did for them--but I eventually cut them all down and got a magic ring.
           
What in the world are these things?
         
Actual undead are to be found in a graveyard east of town--ghouls and wights. They're fairly easy to turn at my level. I found no treasure or anything among them.
           
An atmospheric message as I enter the undead part of town.
         
The northern part of Loudwater had an "adventure supplies" shop that sold flasks of oil, mirrors, robes, cloaks, boots, and belts. I bought everyone boots, just because, but I'm not sure if any of these items really has any use. They haven't in most past games. 

Finally, while exploring a back alley in the northeast part of the city, I suffered not only my first character death but also my first full-party death. I was lured into a building by the singing of another group of harpies. This time, they actually hit me, which causes the struck character to be "Charmed." They charmed my strongest fighter and one cleric in the first round. I tried to have the second cleric cast "Dispel," but it didn't work. During the second round, the charmed cleric cast "Hold Person" and held three of the remaining party members, who were soon cut down by my charmed paladin. With no one left conscious about to cast "Dispel," all I could do was focus on the harpies, passing the rounds and hoping that the charmed condition would wear off. I was able to kill the harpies with mage spells, but in the subsequent rounds the charmed characters killed everyone. The party was destroyed, but just as in Gateway, the monsters no longer rejoice.

All told, a satisfying start to a familiar setting. I look forward to playing more.
       
Time so far: 4 hours

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Game 336: The Dragon & Princess (1982)

Many thanks to Laszlo and NLeseul for making this possible!
            
The Dragon & Princess
Japan
Koei (developer and publisher)
Released in 1982 for PC-88, 1983 for FM-7
Date Started: 10 July 2019
Date Finished: 11 July 2019
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

The Dragon & Princess is often given as the first JRPG. There are other contenders from the same year, including Spy Daisakusen, Underground Exploration, Seduction of the Condominium Wives, and the recently-rediscovered Dragon Lair from Crystalware, but I haven't personally vetted those, and most of their descriptions suggest to me that they lack at least one of the core RPG elements that I (at least) require. The Dragon & Princess, on the other hand, has them all--if just barely.

I've wanted to play it for years. A long time ago, I downloaded a PC-88 emulator and found a copy of the game, but I couldn't get past the Japanese text.  Earlier this year, reader Laszlo Benyi tried to assist me by creating a chart that I could use to translate the Katakana characters into Latin syllables and then plug them into Google Translate. I did my best, but it was very slow going, particularly in this game, which has a hundred different ways just to tell you that you've wandered off the main path. I was feeding in dozens of phrases only to get back "it's too dark!," "a branch blocks your way," "you are lost," and "too dangerous!" 

Finally, Laszlo and reader NLeseul did what I needed them to do but didn't dare ask: they translated the text and created a patch. It worked beautifully. I should mention that much of the game is in English anyway, including the title screen, the commands, and the character status screens. This means that the game's official name is The Dragon & Princess, not the Japanese equivalent.
           
The game commands. Most of this was in English in the first place.
         
The game begins by having you name the five characters of your party. "You" are considered the first character, and you travel with four companions. (If the lead character dies, the game ends.) Each character has statistics for power, speed, and hit point attributes that are fixed at the start of the game. Characters 1-3 are relatively balanced; Character 4 is very weak but fast; and Character 5 is strong but slow. A "hits" statistic, represented as a percentage, seems to be a type of THAC0--the chance of hitting a certain base enemy.
           
Character creation is just about assigning names to existing character slots. If you just hit ENTER here, the game assigns its own names.
        
If there was any backstory presented in accompanying documentation, it appears to have been lost. The game begins with the party in a king's throne room. "Bandits have appeared recently," the king explains, "and have stolen much of our treasure. Recover treasure worth 3 million gold and exterminate the bandits! Return here when you have done so." Unless you want a hopeless battle against the king's guards, you have no choice but to leave and start finding your way through the world.
        
The initial quest.
        
Said world encompasses about 70 text screens, with enough one-way and twisty passages to confound the most dedicated mapper. Only a few squares--mostly in the city--are kind enough to tell you which directions you can go to leave them, meaning you have to test all directions. About one-third of the time, when you test an invalid direction, you simply get a message indicating (vaguely) that you can't go that way. Sometimes, these messages are a bit opaque; if the game says "dark . . . so dark . . ." it means the way is dark and thus you didn't move.

The other two-thirds of the time, when you move an invalid direction, you get "lost." Being lost means that any move is futile until the game tells you that you've returned to a known square.

Various enemies will come along and attack at random intervals as you explore, including giant bugs, snakes, and bandits. Combat transitions from the text screens to a graphical interface--a tiled map of 10 x 20, with both man-made and natural obstacles depending on the terrain in which you were attacked. The party always goes first, and always in order of the characters' numbers; "Speed" seems to have more to do with natural armor class than any kind of initiative. Each turn, each character can attack once, move up to three spaces, search, check the party's condition, or skip his turn. You can only attack from directly adjacent to an enemy--no diagonals.

Combat with a random bear (from the original, not the translated version).
         
Combat takes a lot longer than it needs to. Both characters and enemies almost always miss their attacks. Despite whatever high percentage is found in the character's "hits" score, you only actually hit about once every 8 or 10 attempts. Enemies are even more unlucky. The result is that a combat that should take 3 minutes takes 15. Since you have no magic, no objects, and no choice of attacks, there aren't many "tactics" except to try to achieve favorable terrain when fighting multiple foes or when ganging up on a single enemy.

Characters get experience for both hitting and getting hit in combat, one for one with damage inflicted or taken. As your experience goes up, so does your speed, hit percentage, and maximum hit points. (Strength increases only from the type of weapon you wield.) Developing the characters against random battles is important for success in the fixed battles, particularly the last one. There are only three fixed battles in the game, unless you're dumb enough to hit A)ttack while in the presence of the king or the monk. I'm not sure either combat is winnable, but I'd be interesting in hearing from anyone who could prove me wrong, and what the consequences were.
          
Character stats after a few battles.
               
I've seen the game described as having "adventure game elements," which must refer to the text part of the game, but the nature of exploration is the only thing that feels vaguely like an adventure game. You don't find any puzzles or objects in any of the areas, and commands are very limited. Only a few squares offer anything useful in response to L)ook, S)earch, G)et, or R)ead, and I never found any use at all for the enigmatic H)urry. The only reason to explore and map the various game locations is to find your way to a couple of key places. Once you know how to get there, a winning game takes less than an hour, and most of that is spent in combat.
            
Arriving at the Tea House--one of two places in the game where you can R)ead something to get directions.
      
The northwest part of the game map has a town called "Ross-Blue" in both the English and Japanese versions. Among its streets, you can find a weapon store to upgrade your initial short swords to long swords. With one exception, such swords are the only equipment in the game. You also have to visit this location to purchase swords if a pickpocket relieves you of one; they appear on the streets of Ross-Blue about once every 20 moves.
              
The twisty streets of Ross-Blue.
          
The city also has a food store. The party starts with 20 food units and eats one every few moves. Purchasing another 10 is enough to get you through a full game. The game's economy seems rather inflated, as two long swords and 10 food units burns through your starting 300,000 gold pieces.
            
The only "equipment" in the game.
Essentially the same screen as above, in the original Katakana.
             
In the southeast, a relatively linear map has you pass something called the Lake of Joker (this location is rendered in English in the original) to enter a variety of forest squares (Oak Forest, Beech Forest, Apple Forest, etc.) Characters can get mysteriously "trapped" in these areas to the loss of dozens of hit points. Occasionally, a girl with medicine comes along and the party can G)et half a dozen doses from her. Eventually, the forest leads west to the desert and a plateau, where moving north wraps the party back around to the Castle and Ross-Blue.
              
The overall game world.
           
Continuing to move west from the plateau puts the party at a mountain, and in particular a hut occupied by a monk who gives some small advice as to the next step of the quest. Near the monk's hut, the party finds its way to the bandits' hideout, where the first fixed combat takes place against a party of 10 bandits.
            
The attack fails . . . like it almost always does.
       
One wrinkle in this combat is that riches are to be found in the houses and wells, and from the moment combat begins, the bandits start burning them. Thus, you generally want to fan your characters around the map, searching the various locations for treasure, before you start fighting in earnest.
       
Grabbing treasure before the bandits can burn it.
       
After you defeat the bandit lair, the king still tells you to get lost, and the monk says there are more bandits hidden in the city. Finding them means tripping a series of unintuitive encounters. First, you have to make your way to the pub. Entering the pub causes you to fall into a trap, where someone extorts $300,000 in treasure for you to get out. (If you don't have enough, the game is over.) You can avoid this by hitting S)earch before you enter the pub.
          
Inflation in this country has run rampant.
          
Once there, you have to take note of a shady character leaving and then lurking behind a door outside. Hitting A)ttack causes the man to surrender and mumble "Eastside-Shape," the street corner on which the bandit hideout sits.
         
Shaking down essentially the only NPC. (No you cannot get drunk in the game. I tried.)
       
In that square, another A)ttack causes you to batter down the hideout door, at which point you can E)nter and mop the floor with the bandits, including their leader. This time, there's no treasure to find during combat. Instead, you have to search all four cardinal directions of the hideout (the only time in the game that this is necessary) after combat; the treasure hoard is to the south. The game lets you keep all this treasure even though there's nothing to do with it.
           
Four of my characters surrounded and killed the bandit leader.
           
Searching the hideout post-combat.
       
Returning to the king has him say: "Well done! I want you to marry my daughter." Here, you have to unintuitively hit G)et to take him up on his offer and become a prince. "You were happy," the game says, "but then . . . a dragon kidnapped the princess! Please kill the dragon and save the princess."
            
Until I figured out that the game wanted me to use "G)et," I thought it was over and there was no dragon.
         
At this point, the game drops characters 2-4 and leaves you just with the character occupying the #1 spot. The dragon is found on Mount Lu-Fey in the map's southwestern terminus, and if you stop by the monk along the way, he'll give you a magic sword that increases power to 60 (from the short sword's 15 and the long sword's 30). From there, S)earching for the dragon on the mountain square causes it to appear and combat to commence.
            
I tried killing the monk with his magic sword to get more experience, but he slaughtered me in two rounds.
          
(There's an amusing encounter along the way in which a young woman tries to entice you into her house. If you accept, the game chides you for dallying with another woman while your wife is in danger, and you lose two hit points.)
 
The first time I faced the dragon, I couldn't even hit him let alone kill him. I reloaded a dozen times, and not one of over 50 strikes, with my hit percentage at 65%, landed on the target. The dragon, meanwhile, hit me about half the time and soon killed me.
          
Ouch.
       
The issue was that my lead character hadn't fought enough battles or done enough damage, in comparison to the other characters. I had to fight random combats to build him to a level where he could take on the dragon effectively. In my case, that meant reloading a save from before the end of the bandit quest because a single character doesn't survive well in the wild; I needed the other four as meat shields while trying to get the main character to strike most of the killing blows.

Grinding is hard in this game because there's no reliable way to heal. You mostly have to hope that the girl with the medicine bottle wanders along as a random encounter, then give as many doses as she'll allow to the weakest party members. She wanders away after half a dozen.

Anyway, through grinding I eventually got my lead character's attack percentage into the 90s, wihch was enough to hit the dragon. I still had to reload a couple of times, but I ultimately defeated him.
            
Nah, I'm good.
          
The winning screen came up at this point and enticed me to try again for a higher score.
          
In a GIMLET, the game earns:
         
  • 1 point for the game world, not described in any backstory, but evoked slightly through exploration.
  • 2 points for fairly limited character creation and development.
  • 1 point for minimal NPC interaction
  • 2 points for encounters and foes, the foes nothing special, the encounters a bit unintuitive and weird.
  • 2 points for a limited (if original) combat system with no magic.
  • 1 point for an equally limited equipment system.
           
Checking inventory mid-game. A couple of my characters have broken their weapons or had them stolen.
      
  • 1 point for having an economy that doesn't matter beyond your initial purchases.
  • 2 points for a main quest line.
            
The "game over" screen. I don't know what "entranced by a witch" means. I was killed by the dragon!
         
  • 1 point for minimal graphics and sound and an interface that uses commands in an unintuitive way.
  • 3 points for gameplay that offers a reasonable challenge and at least doesn't linger.
         
With no category getting 0, and the sum of the bunch receiving 16 points, I am at least satisfied that The Dragon & Princess is an RPG. If it isn't literally the first (which it very well might be), it is perhaps the first that owes no allegiance to anything coming out of the west. It seems highly unlikely that the developers could have been exposed to Tunnels of Doom for the TI-99, released the same year, which means that they independently developed the type of turn-based graphical combat that Ultima and SSI would soon make famous. While several western RPG and adventure games had a similar approach to text exploration, none of them are quite like this one.
         
Attacking the bandit safehouse.
       
The title was one of the first issued by Koei, then calling itself "KOEI MICOM." The company would soon be famed for its strategy games, many of which have some RPG qualities, including Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1985), Nobunaga's Ambition (1986), and Bandit Kings of Ancient China (1989). Role-playing became a bigger part of the developer's portfolio in the 1990s, and it seems impossible that I won't encounter them again, although most of their games are either Japanese-only or for consoles.

The game is credited to "Y. Hayase" and "Locke," owners (respectively) of the in-game weapon shop and food shop. I haven't been able to turn up any information as to the full identities of these developers. MobyGames doesn't have them credited on any other titles, but then the database is missing credits for a lot of Japanese titles of this period. Several other releases from Koei in the coming years, including Dungeon (1983), Ken to Mahō (1983), and Khufu-Ō no Himitsu (1983), have similar enough elements that these two developers could easily have been involved. I'm particularly curious about "Locke," particularly whether it's a pseudonym or whether it's evidence of another westerner responsible for an early JRPG, as with Henk Rogers and Black Onyx and John and Patty Bell and Dragon Lair.

The edition of The Dragon & Princess that I played was packed on a disk with several other games. In a 2013 article on Hardcore Gaming 101, the author turned up some screen shots of a more primitive version of the game, which suggests that the graphics may have been upgraded at some point. Later that year, Sam Derboo wrote a longer article on the game on the site, managing to finish it in the original Japanese, although he had no more luck than I did on the identities of Hayase or Locke.

Given Sam's existing coverage, it wasn't imperative that I write about this one, and yet some part of me didn't feel comfortable continuing our exploration of JRPGs without playing the first one. That's one dragon I'm glad to have slain.

****

On the upcoming list, I rejected Paladin 2 as a non-RPG. The first one really wasn't, either. The only character development that comes in either game is in the form of a single statistic being possibly increased a minor amount upon completion of a mission. And while there's an "inventory" of sorts, it's not really a classic RPG inventory.

I'm toying with rejecting Spellcraft: Aspects of Valor. It's a tough call. I can't quite tell from the documentation whether I should expect any character development, and aside from what you need for spells, there doesn't seem to be much of an inventory. On the other hand, it does have a certain RPG-like je ne sais quoi that goes beyond my definitions. I guess I'll see how I feel after a couple of hours. But I really need to start being more relentless in applying my definitions if I'm ever going to make serious progress.