Thursday, December 5, 2019

Challenge of the Five Realms: Sins of the Father

A jester outlines three rumored fates of my father, any of which he would have deserved.
I spent a very long session with Challenge on Tuesday, in the midst of a snowstorm back home. I had hoped to win it, but I still have a few areas left and a number of open side quests. I quit when I started to get a bit impatient with the game, but for most of the session I was having a lot of fun. Challenge definitely feels like a new era in the complexity of the story and the density of the plot. It's one of only a couple of games so far in my chronology that I find it difficult to blog about because I have to elide so much of the NPC dialogue. I also have to take a lot of screenshots to help me remember what happened. I might finish the typical 40-hour game with 250 screen shots, but for Challenge, I already have more than 1,000.

Throughout this session, I continued my pattern of visiting new locations in east-west strips, working northward, away from the creeping darkness. I used "Teleport" to move between areas whenever possible, saving actual time for healing and rest instead of traveling.
The final location I visited this session.
When I began, I was still in the gnome kingdom of Alveola, trying to figure out who murdered the local brewmaster, and how to convince the gnome king to join my cause and give me his crown. This was a king whose own people described him as a miser who rejected any suggestion of charity, who refused to acknowledge poverty and inequity in his own kingdom. Back when we had arrived in the kingdom, Cagliostra had said that, "We need to teach the Alveolans the power of charity, of giving, and we need a symbol of that change of heart."

Eventually, I did what I often do in adventure games, and I simply went through all of my equipment to see if I already had anything that qualified. I paused on the "spirit lamp" I had purchased from a beggar in Farinor, gave it a try, and was pleased to find that it worked.
Well, that sounds like a downer.
The lamp made everyone viewing it see the world from the perspective of its last owner. When the gnome king realized what it was like to be a neglected, ostracized beggar, his whole demeanor changed. He gave me a coin to give to a human beggar. While he insisted that I'd have to "cut him open" to get his crown, he did offer to join my party--at which point I simply plucked his crown from his inventory and put it in my own.

Unfortunately, I had to kick someone out to accept him. I ultimately chose Barilla Beggarlove, who had been with me since Greenberry. This became a theme throughout this session. Although the game is very generous with the number of party members (10), it is extremely generous with the number of NPCs who will join the party, and I spent most of this session agonizing about who I should take and who I should leave. More on that as we go on.
Booting one NPC to accept another.
As we searched various houses, we discovered that the root that had poisoned Kito Pona had come from Shika, one of his nurses. Shika was a former lover of Danzo, Kito's son, and her plan was to get Kito to will everything to Danzo, then murder Danzo's wife and take her place. She killed herself when I exposed her. The whole enterprise got me a whole 20 gold pieces from Kito's family, a paltry sum that the Prince complained about but to no avail.
Maybe wait for your attorney to arrive.
We left Alveola and warped back to the island of Monteplai, where as I surmised last time, the door to the prison was waiting for me in the back of the front office. In exploring the prison, it became clear that my father was not just arrogant and negligent, but actively evil. In contrast to the prison's reputation for housing the worst murderers and most nefarious criminals, I found that it was mostly stocked with my late father's political enemies and people who couldn't afford to pay their taxes.
This is not the worst thing that Chesotor will find out about his father.
Inmates included an actor who dared make fun of Clesodor in a play; Felron the Cooper from Ragmar, who interfered with some knights who were hassling young maidens; a brewer whose yellow beer was unlucky enough to fall under the Beer Tax and the All Yellow Tax; a sea trader who had protested a new tax on trade; and a tutor who had unknowingly violated the king's edict against anyone mentioning his late wife's name. The only true criminal seemed to be Kendric the Terrible, leader of the Commington Forest thieves, who admitted his crimes but protested that his sentence of life imprisonment was unjust.
Did you make any particular jokes about the prince?
The last cell held a prisoner named Kothstul. During conversation, he revealed that he was actually the warden and that he would earn Duke Gormond's favor by killing me.
Regrettably, he was not a madman.
I had a lot of trouble with the subsequent battle. Once the battle map is established, enemies can appear anywhere, even in walled-off areas inaccessible from the rest of the map. Yet in an engine oversight, enemies can shoot missile weapons and cast spells over walls. I had under-prioritized missile weapons in my own party and didn't have much to shoot back at them (you run out of spell points fast). I had to try to station knights in all sections of the map and then provide enough support to keep them from dying.
Some of Kothstul's men start on the left side, some on the right side, and Kothstul himself is in a cell in the middle.
In my best combat, I managed to kill Kothstul with "Explode" spells while taking out his half dozen guards with melee attacks, but I lost Glenwin Ironbelt. Since I needed space for new party members, that turned out to be not such a bad thing.

A very annoying sequence followed. I found the cell keys on Kothstul's body, but the game's normal mechanism for unlocking doors ("Use" the key, then click on the door) didn't work in the prison. The only way I could free any prisoners was through dialogue, and that only worked on a couple of them. I had hoped to free all of them. Both Felron and Kendric would join the party, the latter promising to help me out when I got to Commington Forest. I took them both, dismissing the relatively useless Peppercorn.
Perhaps the gnome king hasn't undergone as much character growth as we thought.
Castle Thiris was next in my exploration pattern, but all I found was a large, empty building with nothing to do. A portal appeared as I explored the building, but I wasn't able to activate it without all five crowns. The endgame happens here.
I'm here a little too early.
We moved on to Commington Forest, where I soon encountered a bug. It became clear that some outlaw leader named Ogdoth was supposed to pilfer my belongings, and I was supposed to kill him to get them back. But all I got were a lot of NPC messages congratulating me for having already killed Ogdoth. His various thieves were all planning to leave the band and start their lives over elsewhere.
I have no idea what this guy is talking about.
The map had several people who had been hired by my father to raze the forest in preparation for a new castle. But most important was a clearing guarded by a group of living trees--knights who had served my grandfather but who had become disgusted with his indolent ways. For their opposition, my grandfather's sorcerer, Clitax Malocchius, had turned them into their current states. They begged me to find a Ring of Transformation and return their forms. Apparently, Malocchius's descendants live in Thornkeep.
A tree is blunt.
Onward to the town of Silvermoor, a community of actors and artists, or at least people who fancied themselves such. There were also beggars in the town, and the first house that I wandered into was occupied by a rich jackass who bragged about leading a secret society responsible for killing the beggars at nighttime. He offered me 500 gold pieces to finish the job by killing the last five. I declined the mission and killed the man in combat instead. Later, we were attacked by other members of his society.
A large combat in the middle of an artisans' village.
As for the beggars . . . I'm not sure. Each told a sob story and had a reason why 25 or 75 or 125 gold pieces was all he needed for a fresh start in the world. I was generous, but I couldn't help but notice the beggars were still hanging around their old posts even after I'd given them the money they said they needed. I don't know if this is an engine limitation or an attempt to model the behavior of actual beggars. I've noticed that lots of them who only need "$10 for the bus," upon acquiring the $10, curiously do not get on the bus.
I'm sounding a bit like this woman, aren't I?
One of them gave me a Ring of Translation, though, which turned out to be important. Another sold me a painting and a third a mermaid statue after I quickly warped back to Monteplai to get a block of marble for him. I got a set of musical instruments from a craftsman. A novelist hanging out in a tavern wanted me to bring him a muse if I ever found one.
Only in an RPG would I believe this story.
Chesotor got to meet his favorite author, Shanna Nobokov (I'm pretty sure that should be "Nobokova"), author of Lost Labor of Love, who's now working on a book about "corruption in the royal family." A librarian didn't want to speak to me unless I had "something new" for him, but he wouldn't accept a copy of Nobokov's book nor a new book of philosophy that I got from another NPC, so I'm not sure what he was looking for.
Chesotor needs to work on his pickup lines.
An old knight named Sir Balthazaar was guarding a theater, where a director and several actors were staging a play called The Forest Tale; more on that below. Chesotor knew Balthazaar from his childhood and wondered why the knight had left his post at Castle Duras. Balthazaar said he'd been scared off by a ghost, but he offered to join us. I didn't have any room, so I declined, which Balthazaar interpreted as calling him a coward. He was sad.
That's quite a career change.
In the end, I'm not sure I got anything absolutely necessary out of Silvermoor, but it was an interesting stop nonetheless.

We continued west to Castle Duras, once my family's summer castle. Upon arrival, we were immediately attacked by the garrison commander, Sir Osborne, another flunky of Duke Gormond's. We killed him without much trouble. The castle cook had heard a rumor that Clesodor died choking on a chicken bone. I made a jester happy by letting him keep his job. On the upper floor of the castle, we found Clesodor's "knighting sword."
When the entire known world is one unified kingdom, why do we need castle walls?
On the lower floor, we found the ghost of my mother. She had a long speech in which she said the "chains of her worry" had bound her to the earthly realm. "I could not move on to what lies beyond without seeing you again, without making sure that you were safe from your father." She related what I'd already suspected--that Clesodor had overlooked poverty and suffering, her persecuted innocents, had banished magic for no reason except that he couldn't cast it. "Your father killed for pleasure and gain," she said. "He was an evil man."
My mother was apparently Veronica Lake.
She went on to say that she had not accidentally fallen from the Cliffs of Mahor. Instead, King Clesodor had told her to meet him at Castle Duras to discuss the issue with Sir Valakor, and when she arrived, she was attacked and strangled to death by a hooded executioner while Clesodor "watched with a cruel eye." Clesodor had been driven to the act by the queen's friendship with Sir Valakor, which admittedly sounds like an emotional affair even if it was never physically consummated.
Yeah, sounds like dad was jealous for nothing.
She asked me to bring Valakor to her so she could say goodbye before departing the worldly realm. Since Valakor was already in my party, she immediately made her farewell. "I will await you, my love. We will have our day." (Valakor, oddly, had nothing to say.) But before she left, she dropped one other bombshell: Cagliostra was not just her friend, but her older sister. Cagliostra immediately confirmed this. As my mother ascended to heaven, her chains appeared in my inventory as a spell component.
Chesotor immediately regrets certain evenings spent with that magic mirror.
Off the northwest coast of the city lay the Sea of Belgror. I couldn't "Teleport" there, but fortunately a ship was still available in the port city of Pendar. When I arrived, the game told me that we immediately found a portal and went through it to the underwater realm of Thalassy. I think I needed the "Swim" and "Breathe Water" spells, but the game didn't force me to cast them. It seems that having them in my inventory was enough.
Thalassy had its own "world map" with three areas.
The warlike Thalassians turned out to be blue fish-men who lived in the skeleton of a giant sea-creature, with small buildings made from shells, sponges, and arrangements of bones. I found that they were a segregated society, with women living in a separate city. (The region had an entirely separate "outdoor" map with two cities and a shipwreck.) The men were in an uproar because a giant whale had recently appeared and started patrolling the perimeter of the city, repelling all attacks against him by the Thalassians.
The local spell shop was in a giant skull.
I soon met the Thalassian emperor, Claret III, whose father (like mine and the gnome king's) had recently been slain by Grimnoth. He agreed to help me if I could get rid of the whale. I swam up to the beast and looked through my inventory and spells for anything promising. I decided to try the "Friends" spell. To my surprise, it worked immediately, establishing a telepathic connection that allowed me to speak with Voolz, the whale.
This was an original plot twist.
Voolz related that he wasn't there to threaten the Thalassians but rather to help them evolve. By patrolling their borders, he will protect the city from all external threats, allowing the Thalassians to concentrate on arts and skills other than martial ones.

Ironically, that wasn't quite enough for Claret III. He made me explore the shipwreck to find a prototype spear gun before he'd come with us and thus allow access to his crown. I also got the leader of the females, Neika, to join us by stealing the two Great Seals for the male-dominated town. I had to dump John Oldcastle to fit her in, but in many hours, he hadn't said anything except to insult me by calling me a girl's name. I think the Thalassians could only leave their kingdom because I had "Breathe Air" and "Walk" in my spell inventory.
Fortunately, Claret has "Sword" and "Shield" skills to rival Oldcastle's.
Miscellaneous notes:          
  • There were two amusing references to previous RPGs. In Alveola, a gnome objected to my bursting into her home uninvited. She noted that "someone named Avatar was through here not so long ago," and had looted the home of its valuables. This would be funnier if the Ultima wasn't the one series that defies this common trope and actually punishes the Avatar for stealing from random houses. In the other, the play The Forest Tale in Silvermoor was about a wizard named Temeres, which is also the name of the main character in Paragon's Wizard Wars (1988).
  • I'm having an ongoing interface issue with hailing and speaking. I can't seem to figure out exactly how the system works. Usually the two commands do the same thing. Sometimes, I'll be sitting next to an NPC pounding the (S)peak key and nothing happens. Other times, I'll hit the key at the edge of a screen when no one is around, and then suddenly an NPC will automatically pipe up when I walk into range. Sometimes I have to click and target the NPC I want to speak with, sometimes I don't. Sometimes the NPC's portrait remains on the side of the screen long after I've stopped talking to him and wandered away.
Shika's face remains to the left even though I last spoke to her 15 minutes ago in another building.
  • The food and armor stores in Thalassy refused to sell me anything because I was a human and thus had an incompatible physiology. I guess that made sense.
  • I'm pretty sure something is bugged in the economy. My money doesn't seem to decrease as I spend it. 
  • Multiple transitions show Grimnoth observing my progress.
You told me to bring you the five crowns! How do you know that I'm not just doing your bidding?!
As I mentioned earlier, I think Challenge has more words--at least, more NPC words--than any prior game. Unlike with, say, Crusaders of the Dark Savant, I have no complaints about its wordiness because the words are well-written and serious. The characters have unique and realistic personalities. The game also probably sets the record for unique, joinable NPCs and manages to continue to have them comment on the action on a regular basis. Finally, it's one of the few games of the era to really understand the concept of "side quests."
Inside a Thalassian sponge-house.
Aside from a few interface issues and bugs, the only place that it really fails--and this is keenly felt--is in character development. It has the same problem as the team's MegaTraveller games, in which skill development is erratic and inconsistent, and by the end of the game the team isn't notably stronger than at the beginning. In the entire game so far, none of Chesotor's attributes or physical skills have increased. I guess they simply don't. His "Sword" skill has gone up 7 points. His "Large Blade" skill never increased despite the fact that I equipped him with an axe for half the game, nor has his "Shield" skill gone up at all. "Morality" hasn't budged despite the many role-playing choices, nor have "Reading," "Observation," "Persuasion," "Charisma," or "Courage" gone up despite the many uses of those skills. Then, on the other extreme, "Leadership" has gone up 29 points, "Spell Casting" 20 points, "Bargaining" a whopping 30 points despite the fact that someone else almost always steps in to do it, and "Learn Spell" about 80 points. Why does that last skill increase almost every time you learn a new spell, but "Sword" doesn't go up with the same rapidity?

There also isn't much of an improvement in terms of equipment. The game seems to feature no unique or magic weapons or armor. You can buy everything in its inventory in shops, and you have plenty of money to do so. Altogether, this means that Challenge--much like Paragon's previous games--feels more like an adventure game than an RPG. It's a better adventure game, I would add, but it's still hard to get excited about side quests when the game has no experience points and such a paltry approach to improving skills.

Time so far: 22 hours


  1. Little mini-stories like the poisoner mentioned at the beginning of the article give me a very strong Ultima vibe.

    1. Same. Many of the quests or character interactions as reported by Chester remind me of Ultima(s) VII, which also have a strong Adventure Game slant.

      Really an interesting find, as I cannot remember many other games of the age with such strong emphasis on story and characters.

  2. Veronica Lake or no, the hero's mother is a babe compared to the generally homely female inhabitants of the five realms. Even the prettier ones are kind of mannish.

    1. The portraits are very same-y, that's for sure. A lot of asset reuse.

  3. That jester's face is going to give me nightmares.

  4. You'd think they'd make Veronica Lake less obvious. The second you look at it, you can tell something is different about it even if you aren't familiar with classic film. Either use photos for everyone or bring down the traced photos to your level. Although, looking at the regular portraits, I can see where the artist became desperate. I guess the guy who did the Twilight 2000 portraits must have asked for too much money.

    1. I'm reminded of Ultima VII: Serpent Isle, where it's clear that there was a lot of variation in how much time the artists had to make the portraits, which range from "well-done photorealistic art based on a carefully-altered digitized photograph" to "someone took a photograph and spent 5 minutes on it in Deluxe Paint to turn it into a gargoyle or whatever."

  5. I guess one benefit of characters not developing is if you end up swapping them out a lot you're not losing much invested effort and growth. Not much of a plus, but better than a scenario where you're constantly dropping level 10 characters to pick up a level 1 character for plot reasons.

  6. The king mostly imprisoning people for tax evasion is realistic. Modern states are also the quickest to apply justice when tax evasion is the crime, than they are with anything else :p

    1. In 2016, 584 (0.9%) out of 67,742 US federal convictions involved tax fraud.

    2. Thia is of topic from this blog and feel free to delete, but why do so many people se tax as something bad?

    3. There is a particularly philosophy popular with young dudes on the internet which claims that anything not completely voluntary* is by definition bad.

      Other people believe that the compact between state and citizen is the central tenet of positive, efficient, supportive communities.

      Other people don't really adhere to either of the above views.

      *under some definitions of voluntary

    4. In my entry, I wasn't clear enough, I guess. The people were in prison for inability to pay their taxes or protest against taxes, not fraud or evasion by itself.

    5. If you want a quick "If you vote for me, you'll have more money after my election than you do before it or will if my opponent wins!" sound byte, you can 1) give up on the "quick" part and try to explain why your policies will be good for the economy, or you can 2) say that you're going to lower taxes.

      Over time, people's perceptions and expectations have been deformed by this.

    6. My comment was mostly meant jokingly, but if we look at the raw percentage of our income which we have to pay as taxes (over here in Germany it's quite high if you put everything together: income taxes, sales tax, fuel tax, alcohol and tobacco tax if you consume those things, church tax, investment tax, etc), and then look at how frequently tax money is wasted, it's not hard to see that the current system is unfair.

      I don't mind paying some tax so unemployment and retirement funds can be financed, but I do mind having to pay a lot of different taxes that all add up to a hefty sum, and then see the government waste millions through mismanagement. There are some famous long-term building projects here in Germany (the new airport in Berlin which should have been completed years ago, for example) which ate up way more tax euros than they should have, and still keep eating them.

      It's only reasonable to be disgruntled about taxes under these considerations ;)

    7. High taxes and government waste aren't as connected as you might think. In 2017, Germany collected 561 billion Euros in personal income taxes and VAT alone. Each million wasted in a year can be thought of as 0.00018% of your taxes wasted. Someone who makes 120,000 EUR pays 6 cents per million that the government wastes, and maybe 3 cents for VAT if they spent every leftover penny on taxable services and goods.

      Under those considerations, getting disgruntled about "millions" wasted through mismanagement doesn't seem very reasonable to me at all.

      We have plenty of interest groups and think tanks who decry government waste, but it's a facade behind their real purpose - austerity measures. Anything less would not impact individual/corporate taxes meaningfully. For instance, CAGW proposes totally eliminating rural utilities expansion & administration, but the only project they cite as "wasteful" cost less than $1 million - and even that was useful to the community it serviced.

  7. The shout-out to Ultima made me wonder, does anyone know the full extent of the Origin/SSI rivalry? I know in Ultima 8 there is a scroll called "Eye of the Boulder" that criticizes EoB, particularly how everything is done on 90 degree angles and that SSI fired back in the second Dark sun game with a savage burn of U8 in a book called something like "Penultimate Adventure", including things that Origin would eventually patch like the some of the jump puzzles and the quest to nowhere. Were there more of those jabs? Where did it start?

  8. Challenge of the Five Realms appears to have released in August 1992, so it will *probably* be referring to Ultima VII, which launched to much success in April of the same year.

    I'd expect your memory to be better than mine, but my memory of Ultima VII was that while stealing from random people could get you into trouble with the guards, it was so comparitively easy, so rewarding, and so occasionally plain necessary, that you do in fact do an absolute ton of it. And I don't remember there being any particular spiritual judgement for it in Ultima VII - the consequences were entirely temporal, and if you weren't seen, you weren't guilty.

    But it's been a long time since I played it...

    1. That's true. The only thing you have to do in u7 is to close the door behind you and nobody will care. You walk into a house, shove out the occupant, manouver so that the avatar is inside and his party members and the occupant are outside, close the door and loot. It is necessary to steal keys from drawers in houses to complete quests, so you can just as well take the money too. My avatar looted the entire kingdom. You can even rob the royal mint without consequences (or even a remark).

    2. I thought I remembered the other characters objecting to your actions and even leaving the party.

  9. "Thalassy" sounds like a nod to Arthur C. Clarke's book The Songs of Distant Earth that featured a water planet called Thalassa.


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