Thursday, November 21, 2019

Challenge of the Five Realms: Walking Shadow

The party teleports to a new location as the darkness slowly creeps northward.
In the city of Greenberry, Challenge started to hint at a greater depth of role-playing than it had delivered (or, at least, that I had perceived) so far. In contrast to the squalid conditions of the other cities in Alonia, Greenberry was clearly the New Rochelle of the kingdom. As we arrived and started at the mansions, Cynna Bane commented that, "these self-satisfied, well-fed nobles are the very type I mean to fight. They eat and drink well every night while I and my people must scratch for every meal." The damned place had a candy shop, even.
I'm not sure about Chesotor's taste.
I had come to the city to retrieve the scroll on which my father had written his edict against magic. Mayor Zamtine--who stressed repeatedly that he supported my claim to the throne--was happy to give me the key to the archives where he'd stored the scroll. (I had already broken in, killed Zamtine's guards, and taken it.) But he clearly assumed that I wanted it so I could enforce the edict, not rescind it.
The battle against the mercenaries guarding the decree.
Similarly, I soon ran into the mayor's son, pining for the harbormaster's daughter in Pendar. I had already delivered her to Deostrus, but the mayor's son wanted me to return and kill Deostrus in return for a lot of money.

As I often do, I must note here that a truly awesome game would make such an "evil" path more attractive by having strangled money on the "good" path. Imagine if I'd reached this wealthy city after eight hours of an exhausting game in which I was scrambling to keep my party fed, where Doomsday was coming ever closer by the hour, and I couldn't even afford horses for my party to speed up the journey. Then I find a group of wealthy people ready to help me if I just help them maintain their status at the top of the food chain. That would be a role-playing choice. Instead, I already have 5000 gold pieces that I don't know how to spend. Thus, there's little to dissuade me from the "good" path that I'm naturally inclined to follow.
Later, you can refuse to help the wizards and slaughter them instead. But for what?
Greenberry was full of NPCs offering vocal support (one of them even gave me a whole 15 gold pieces), but it turned out they were playing both sides. Gormond had secreted warriors throughout the village. I got this news from my cousin, Peppercorn, in exchange for a Ring of Protection. Peppercorn offered to join the party, and I accepted her. In accordance with her tomboyish looks, she excels at stealth, riding, dodging, and missile weapons.
Welcome, proto-Imoen.
I figured Peppercorn filled up my party, as I ran out of spaces for portraits, but soon I was joined by a seventh companion, Barilla Beggarlove, "she-wolf with a sword." I checked the manual, and it turns out that I can have up to 10 characters. I guess the others just don't get portraits.

The next stop was the Mines of Signor, although on the way I went back to Southfrost just to see what had become of it. The game wouldn't let me into the city, noting only that Grimnoth's plague of darkness had devoured it.
I hope the Eskimos got away.
The Mines of Signor were a small, indoor area. The title card noted that the mines had been closed for several decades. The corridors were full of traps, but fortunately my orb absorbed them. There were a lot of spell components to pick up, some of which allowed me to learn new spells.
There are at least a few of these on every map.
Eventually, we ran into Stellerex, the leader of the outlawed mages hiding in the caves. He was skeptical of the prince's sincerity, requiring first that I tear up the decree in front of him and then that I submit to a "Truth" spell. Once he was convinced, he joined the party, bringing a lot of spells and ingredients and the skills to learn and cast them. One of them is "Teleportation," which allows me to go anywhere on the map. Given the time limit, I'd use it exclusively except that the necessary reagents (a grasshopper, a fly, a homing pigeon, and a black rose) are somewhat rare. If I ever find a shop selling them, I'll spend most of my gold on them.
I don't know what's worse: that I made such a scene out of tearing up a simple piece of paper, or that I spelled it with a "w."
Other mages teleported out of the caves, and back to their homes, once they learned about the revocation of the ban. (How in the world did my father enforce this ban?) One of them, Vandar, told about my mother's spirit roaming the Cliffs of Mahor before he left.
One by one, the wizards went home.
The Cliffs of Mahor were on the other side of the game map, but they seemed to be the place to go next. The map was tiny--a small path and a small bridge. A female NPC wandered alone. "Mother, is that you? I've missed you," Chesotor said. "My son," the apparition said, and then my mother faded, to be replaced by Grimnoth. "Don't betray me," he said. "Deliver the crowns or you will suffer a slow death!" I want to point out that Grimnoth is changing the agreement; now, apparently, I have to deliver all of the crowns to him, and not just my own.
Auntie Em!
Anyway, there was nothing else to do at the Cliffs, which makes me wonder what the purpose of the whole episode was. Moreover, at this point I was out of clear directions for where to go next.

Consulting the map, I saw that the darkness had already started to devour the town of Fremont and would soon hit Greenberry. I decided to line up my next visits in east-west strips, hitting the southernmost locations first. This meant first renting ships in Pendar and hitting the island of Monteplai off the western coast.

I screwed up the visit. Apparently, Monteplai is the site of a "supermax" prison that my father ran, complete with a warden and quarrymaster. I spoke to them but couldn't find a way into the prison, so I assumed the visit was just a waste of time. Then, as I was preparing this entry, I happened to notice in a screenshot a door I'd missed. I need to re-visit the location once I finish my current area.
The prison is right in front of me, but somehow I couldn't find it at the time.
At the time, I shrugged and moved on to the town of Buntonderry, the location of several large farms and ranches. It seems like everyone wanted to sell me meat.
Okay, your pitch is just creeping me out.
Three of the ranchers were involved in some kind of land dispute. A recent storm had blown over a fence, and the rancher Elturo claimed that his two neighbors, Pengar and Felrid, ran out after the storm and rebuilt the fence but in doing so stole a bit of land for themselves. "It's a small amount of land, but I won't be made a fool of." However, Pengar and Felrid told essentially the same story, with themselves as the victims.

I found the bandits hiding in Pengar's silo, holding hostage the sheriff of the town, Glenwin Ironbelt. After we killed the bandits, Glenwin joined the group. The cowed Pengar confessed that he and Elturo were in the wrong and Felrid was innocent. Felrid, in gratitude, also joined my party, bringing us up to the maximum. As he did so, Cagliostra appeared in her mirror and told me that, "Felrid is very important to our mission. He must accompany us when we face Grimnoth."
Looting the spoils after the destruction of the bandits.
The town was grateful for my destruction of the bandits, and here I have to note that the game does a good job adapting NPC dialogue to the actions of the party. A lot of games even in the 1990s had immutable dialogue, with NPCs often talking about problems that you've already solved. Not here. It's very gratifying.
In a lot of games, this NPC would still be telling me about the bandit problem.
The next stop was Al-Bahdri, an oasis in the middle of a small desert. Most of the "buildings" were tents. Residents complained about two problems: some kind of thief who keeps stealing food and ale, and drought conditions. I'm not sure if the conditions were supposed to be worse than normal for a desert, or if the village isn't even normally in a desert. The thief was variously described as a dwarf and a hideous monster.
There's quite a variance in terrain in this kingdom.
I figured out what to do about the second problem right away: I had Stellerex cast "Create Rainstorm." It produced a few minutes of rainfall, and from then on the villagers thanked me for helping with the drought. A number of them called me "Rainmaker." Oddly, the game didn't have me teach anyone in the village the "Create Rainstorm" spell, which you think would have helped.
It was such a simple spell, too.
I also solved another quick puzzle when a man named Stilis Fletcher reported that he had recently just escaped 50 years of captivity in a crystal, only to find that his girlfriend, Ilse, was now an old woman. "She is as beautiful as ever, but her years are numbered." Without even asking for my input, the game had Chesotor respond by teaching the man the "Youth" spell that we had recently learned. I had wondered what that could possibly be for. He rewarded me with a magic axe.

To deal with the thief, an NPC suggested that I leave meat and ale as bait. I had plenty of meat from Buntonderry but no ale. Someone suggested that I could get it in Skyhold, which was going to be my next stop anyway.
I got this on a random transition between areas.
Skyhold was a wealthier town but also reported several problems. The ineffectual mayor, Gorvas, is being challenged by Baron Wintermore. Both of them have thugs roaming the streets. Neither is dealing with a group of Dark Acolytes who keep raiding the town from the mountains. Some NPCs supported Gorvas, some Wintermore. At least one was disdainful of both, saying that "they're both sons of Ragmar, come here to seek their success. Now their struggle for power threatens the very town they claim to love."
I get what I came for.
Both Gorvas and Wintermore wanted me to assassinate the other. An NPC suggested a third solution where they could be convinced to work together, but I couldn't find any paths that led me there. I decided that for all his weaknesses, Gorvas was the actual mayor of the town while Wintermore was attempting a coup d'├ętat, so I killed Wintermore. But it didn't sit well with me and I ended up reloading a few minutes later. Still thinking about the problem, I swiped a bottle of ale from a brewery and returned to Al-Bahdri without solving the issue.
I'm not sure I like either of them.
Back in Al-Bahdri, I laid out the meat and ale and soon caught a gnome apparating in to steal them. He claimed to be from Alveola, one of the other kingdoms of Nhagardia--finally--and he told me where to find the portal to his realm in some nearby caves.
"I had as a child," Chesotor says, leaving out that he was reading one of those "picture books" just a few days ago in the castle.
Entering the caves, I was beset by lions, snakes, and ogres, and I couldn't defeat them without losing at least one party member. I reluctantly let Beggar go and moved on.
I wish we'd known your actual name.
He was nearly immediately replaced when I found Sir Valakor--my mother's old beau--living in the same caves. He wouldn't believe I was Feya's son until I showed her my mother's diamond ring, which he insisted on taking. I'm glad I didn't sell that to the pawn shop.
My maybe-father joins the party.
A casting of "Revisibility" made the portal appear, and we entered it to find ourselves in the underground gnome kingdom, a large map with numerous entrances to various gnome burrows. As we entered, Cagliostra appeared to offer: "[Gnomes] are known for their pessimism, grumpiness, and greed. To strengthen our spell against Grimnoth, we must change the heart of the Alveolan leader. We need to teach the Alveolans the power of charity, of giving, and we need a symbol of that change of heart."
Alveola and its various gnome holes. Note the gnome "artifacts" on the screen that I discuss below.
I wasn't sure what she meant, but I pressed forward. The big drama in Alveola is that the owner of the brewery, Kito Pona, was recently murdered after abruptly changing his will to leave everything to his son Danzo. He was killed by a poison called Nevi Root which takes a lot of time to work and makes the victim susceptible to suggestion towards the end. Danzo's siblings, Caldo, Harpo, and Neena, suspect foul play, although most of the gnomes think that it's too obvious to be Danzo's doing. Caldo has taken control of the brewery and refuses to turn it over. I've been running around talking to everyone, searching everywhere, casting "Truth" spells on everyone, but I can't seem to get anywhere with the mystery.
One of Kito Pona's children.
Meanwhile, I met with King Armacan, and he's not interested in turning over his crown even though--and this was quite a twist--his own father was also murdered by Grimnoth. Is this going to be true of every holder of a crown? "You have no proof you're a king," Armacan said after a long diatribe. "No proof this Alonia even exists. You ask for money in charity . . . I reject charity and, further, the need for charity." I wonder if I need to retrieve my own crown as "proof" before Armacan will help me.
Tonight, you will be visited by three spirits . . .
Miscellaneous notes:
  • While in the various areas, you can switch between a micro-level map (the screen that usually appears in my shots) and a smaller-scale map that shows the basic outline of the region. If you travel on this smaller-scale map, small, inconsequential obstacles like most fences and trees are ignored, and it's easier to get from one place to another.
Traveling on the mid-scale map.
  • You have only 100 days to solve the quest before the plague of darkness reaches Castle Thiris, but as we've seen, certain locations become inaccessible a lot sooner. I'm on Day 24. I assumed the bar on the left side of the screen would get shorter as Doomsday grew nearer. Instead, it just gets darker.
  • There's some graphic glitch in Alveola where every time a gnome appears on the screen, random gnome images appear all over the place, even off the exploration screen. It often makes it hard to tell who's "real" and who's a glitch. Fortunately, entering inventory and exiting refreshes the screen.
  • Every time Cagliostra appears in the mirror, a classic "witch cackling" effect precedes her even though she's not really that kind of witch.
This is preceded by the cacophonous cackling of an old hag.
  • The game uses a variant of the "PAL" system at work in the previous Paragon titles, where NPCs with particular skills are supposed to pipe up when they see an opportunity to use them. So far, however, this has only occurred every time I enter a shop, when the NPC with the highest "Bargaining" skill suggests that he do the negotiating. No one with "Tinkering" skill has ever spoken up near a locked door, on the other hand, nor has anyone with spell skills said anything when a spell was the obvious solution to a problem. 
A rare use of the PAL system.
I leave you trying to solve these various quests in Alveola. While there is much I like about Challenge, including the game world and evolving plot, it is shaping up to be much more an adventure game than an RPG. In this, it shows the weaknesses of most of the developers' previous Paragon titles. Combat is a rare punctuation rather than a regular part of life, and its outcomes are heavily based on luck rather than skill or character attributes. Spells are so limited by available reagents that you don't want to cast any if you can avoid it.
The party versus lions.
Most important, character development is extremely flimsy and inconsistent. Since the beginning of the game, Chesotor has not increased at all in any of his attributes or physical skills. His "Sword" skill is the only combat skill to have increased (by 4 points) despite the fact that he's been armed with a shield the entire game and an axe for most of it. Only his personality skills, "Leadership" has gone up 10 points but none of the others. "Bargaining" has seen a 16-point boost and "Reading" a one-point bump, and "Learn Spell" seems to go up every time I learn a new one, for 32 total points since the game began.
These numbers have hardly budged since the beginning of the game.
With so many NPCs in the party, everyone specializes in enough stuff that it doesn't really matter if anybody gets better, but this does go against the core mechanics of the traditional RPG, which the old Paragon crew never seems to have understood.
Time so far: 15 hours


  1. "Oddly, the game didn't have me teach anyone in the village the "Create Rainstorm" spell, which you think would have helped."

    Pfft what sort of future king teaches his subjects to be independent. You gotta keep them thinking you're necessary to their livelihoods!

    1. Hence the Welfare State.

    2. Actually, since the publicly funded education system is part of the welfare state... well, you do the math.

  2. Teach a man how to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime... Keep him in the dark and YOU have a customer and a steady source of income for a lifetime!

  3. Well, looks like the mother was not black, so he's definitely not the king's real son...

    It's funny when the game gives you predefined parents whose faces you get to see, but then lets you customize your own face to look entirely different.

    1. I swear I played some game in the last year where it adjusted the main character's child's race based on what you set of for the parent's race, but I can't remember what it was. I thought Fallout 4 but the Internet tells me I'm wrong.

    2. Yeah Sean's pigment matches your own I'm pretty sure.

      Just like Liam Neeson's does in F3.

    3. Dragon Age 2 adjusts your family's appearance based on how you make the main character look.
      I'm really enjoying your recount of this game I wasn't even aware of until you started playing it.

    4. Probably best to not get too hung up on it. Character creation in gaming routinely lets you create a character that could not plausibly have been the genetic product of their pre-defined parents, whether by reason of hair colour, body type, or other reasons. Generally the problem doesn't even occur to us. The fact that skin colour stands out as an obvious mismatch isn't because skin colour is inherently so visible, but because we culturally code for it more than (for example) freckles or eye colour or other such markers.

      But yes, Dragon Age 2's solution is elegant. Or another easy one for a less sophisticated age of gaming would have been to simply adjust the story to specifically note that the character is an adoptive child - thereby preserving your ability to make the character you want (and letting people of colour represent themselves), while also reaffirming the validity of families that aren't bound by blood, which is also nice.

    5. How many RPGs give you parents, though? Fallout 3 comes to mind, but other than that you usually create a character whose parents aren't around. Baldur's Gate has you be an adopted son/daughter of Gorion in Candlekeep (with your actual dad being a god and your mother unknown), Elder Scrolls games leave your parents undefined (Morrowind even explicitly has your background be "born under uncertain parents"), etc etc. And in games where you create entire parties you don't get to meet any relatives of your characters anyway.

      It's very rare to have family of the player character appear in game. Usually it only happens in games with pre-defined protagonists, and in that case you don't get to adjust the character's appearance anyway. Except for this game, for some reason.

  4. "Spells are so limited by available reagents that you don't want to cast any if you can avoid it."

    Are you absolutely sure this is the case? I thought you only needed the reagent to learn the spell or bind it, then the only limiting thing was your spell points. Given the best way to regenerate them is to rest, the aggressive time frame of the game this still means you can't go crazy but I was using a lot of spells in combat, some of them are very powerful.

    1. Huh, i guess you're right. I kept running out of reagents for some spells, but I guess it was because I was trying and failing to learn them, not because I was using them up casting them. Well, that changes things, then.

    2. Yes! I just came to say exactly that.

    3. If you've been putting spells in rings and jewelry, that also expends reagents. If not, it might be worth to do it for spells with easily obtainable reagents, because casting from a ring doesn't use mana (but has limited charges).

  5. "As I often do, I must note here that a truly awesome game would make such an "evil" path more attractive by having strangled money on the "good" path."

    I was thinking this just recently playing The Outer Worlds. The amount of money you get just adventuring and stealing, which has no negative consequences, makes choosing the "evil" side for a few coins more not worth it. Someone like me needs a real significant reason to be bad otherwise I'm going to take the generic good guy route everytime. I don't know that I've ever played a game where the advantages of being evil were enough to sway me from my need to think of myself as a good guy in the game.

    1. It wasn't super clear who was the evil side Outer Worlds until closer to the end, when it becomes almost comically obvious. I really enjoyed the beginning where I wasn't super excited about siding with either faction.

    2. Evil is generally mishandled, but also I'm not sure I want a lot of focus put into an evil path.

      I think options to be mercenary are good, especially if the economy in a game is tight.

      But really the best evil storylines are those that let you support factions with dubious, but not entirely meritless goals. As in, not blowing up Megaton just because Tenpenny wanted a better view.

    3. I'd personally change "not entirely meritless" goals to "pragmatically understandable" goals. It's fine to have Black (or very dark grey) Hats vs. White (or very light grey) Hats, as long as the motives of the former make some kind of sense.

      To use your example, blowing up Megaton because it is spoiling your view of the Wasteland is nonsensical. Blowing it up because it it interfering with an unsavory but profitable trade route, because you bear a personal grudge against Simms, or because you think that wiping out a town on a whim will give you power through terror are all perfectly understandable goals if you view them through an Evil mindset.

      What I'm objecting to, really, is a trend I've seen in a few places for "Grey hats vs Slightly Darker Grey Hats are the only acceptable option" arguments.

    4. Yeah basically as long as it isn't 'For the Evulz' I can suspend disbelief.

      I don't really enjoy playing evil story arcs, but if their behaviour is pragmatic at minimum I won't roll my eyes.

      Some games allow for organic evil - Mugging hirelings in Pool of Radiance is a fast route to high-tier loot, as is robbing stores in a lot of games (especially the Fallout titles).

      I think This War of Mine and Dead State come pretty close to hitting the 'evil' sweet spot. While there are no specific evil story arcs, being generous, or even simply not robbing people, comes at a real detriment to your own ability to keep your people alive.

  6. Dragon Age: Origins had a lot of faults, but there were some great storytelling or ethical dilemma moments.

    One example is the Dalish. You start in the creepy forest with the story that the evil werewolves are attacking the oppressed elves. Then you find out the elves might be behind the curse. Then the whole thing goes sideways, and you can end up with Morrigan laughing hysterically as you slaughter the elves.

    The anvil of eternity or whatever presents you with the hero, Carian(?) and the pretty evil Branka. But... There's politics here, who's going to rule Orzimar? You need powerful allies for the campaign and golems sound powerful. etc

    Some good story-telling involves getting people to regret not taking the "evil" path. Do you arrange the dark ritual with Morrigan to avoid death for you or a party member, or stick to your principles knowing that someone is going to pay the price? I was fine with my character being the hero, but then Alistair rushes in and delivers the fatal blow, dying and plunging the kingdom into chaos. My character went from being a stoic self-sacrificing hero to a would-be martyr who never really understood her allies in the climactic cut-scene, and suddenly I felt foolish for so dismissing the dark ritual.

    I thought Dragon Age did an incredible job of letting you choose an evil path and even be rewarded for it, or raising the possibility of regret when you just hit the big blue paragon button without thinking about the consequences. I did a playthrough where I tried to be "neutral evil" and it felt like things both made narrative sense, and it was a valid and satisfying path through the game.

    Mass Effect 3 had great dilemmas, but they were more of a personal versus big picture nature, like Mordin and the neutered turtle people, or Tali/Legion/the Geth. I never felt particularly good or evil, but I did feel the weight of some decisions.

    I'd like to give Tyranny another play-through, but the beginning "choose your own adventure" part means that if you're not careful, you can wall off content that you are trying to keep open.

    I think evil is interesting in games when (1) the game offers a real reward for betrayal and/or (2) the game makes the obviously "good" choice unappealing because the "good" people are flawed in ways that accumulate and grate on your nerves over time.

    Actually, I think the best version of "evil" in a game is to give the player a taste of power, then crank the stakes and consequences up slowly, until the player is in too deep to feel good about it and make things right. Like, let the player set an extractive tribute value for his subjects in the village. Watch the village go to ruin, or the villagers riot and get slaughtered by the player's forces. I don't know that I see this kind of thing happen much. Overt evil is usually like Boethieah's house in Markarth: just kill the cleric! Very dull.

  7. Hello, Chet.

    Offtopic question, but why Darklands isn't on Highest Rated So Far list? It has pretty high score.

    1. Hm. Darklands got the final rating of 56, so it should be above the Death Knights of Krynn (54) and on par with the Champions of Krynn (56).

  8. I hope everything is fine with you

  9. Hmmm.

    Console game = >60 trash comments and pleas for more console games

    Actual PC CRPG = fewer comments but they're of better quality.

    Please stick to actual CRPGs and hope your holiday goes well.

    1. dont play a troll game we are all gamers and we love rpgs so sometimes the discussion gets ruogh but I wote for most reeaders that we love this blog and it is up to the author to decide what and when he want to write

    2. I don't really think that's a fair comparison. Deadly Towers is quite well-known and infamous, getting frequent mentions as one of the worst of all time. Challenge, meanwhile is fairly obscure. I mean, I've played and enjoyed all the other RPGs related to Microprose and never even heard of this before. I'm not one to miss such things easily. It stands to reason that people who aren't fans of Microprose care even less and Challenge comes off as fairly boring. Its like the fifth game in this particular style but without the advantage of a license.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. About the tendency of NPCs not reacting to stuff you've done, that's the reason I dropped Skyrim rather quickly.
    If not even assassinating the current ruler triggers any response, then what's the point? Everything just felt entirely meaningless.

    1. I agree that is a weakness of Skyrim. It feels like the developers could have programmed more dependencies like that into the game. It's one of those things that I blame on the need for voiced dialogue.

    2. Voice acting probably exacerbates the problem, but the fundamental reason is the actual writing. More accurately, it is the limitation of the writing to handle the combinatorial explosion that a sandbox or even semi-sandbox has.

      Consider a simple branching tree - you start with a "node" with two outcomes, each of which leads to a node with two outcomes. Each layer of nodes you add is twice as much work as the one before it - a story with four critical choices has 8 endpoints, while adding just one more choice increases it to 16.

      Now, take those same 31 nodes, and arrange them in a sandbox where you can trigger them at any point. The state of game at any point in time is no longer a simple "what branch are you on?", but "which nodes have you encountered, what order did you solve them in, and what solutions did you choose?". This magnifies the problem space immensely if you want to avoid having every node be completely independent of one another.

    3. No one's asking for unique dialogues for every combination of options, just more flags that alter certain parts of dialogue (and other in-game options) if certain events have occurred. They don't have to be combined with other events--except in the case of voice recordings, where it's awkward to substitute individual words in the middle of sentences and so an entire paragraph gets recorded or nothing does. It's not like other games haven't done it better than Skyrim.

  12. Morrowind was already pretty bland in that regard (I don't remember much beyond "Hey, you're the Nerevarine!") despite being only text. Voice acting is (currently) an additional obstacle, but I think this is partially by design for Elder Scrolls games. And it's not only dialogue - despite being a big hero, merchants treat you the same way, you get the same trivial quests, etc.. Daggerfall at least gave you some perks like free stays at inns when progressing as a knight.

    Not saying that this is bad design, it has its advantages, too. E.g. you can still do that trivial fetch quest even after completing the main quest.

  13. In case anyone is trying to solve the murder part, the murderer is in one of the more southwest burrows outside the pool area. Dialog reveals she was one of the nurses when the victim was ill; the poison root is found by searching, in the southeast corner of her burrow.


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