Saturday, July 4, 2020

Amberstar: A Streak of Luck

This makes me wonder what the chipmunks in my yard are plotting.
My second session started bleak. I had several quests in Twinlake, both of which required me to descend in two dungeons, the Dancing Dragon Inn wine cellar and the city sewers. The wine cellar seemed like the easier of the two, but it had a number of locked doors for which I needed a crowbar. I couldn't find a shop that sold a crowbar.
Worse was the enemy difficulty. The first foes that Viola and Silk faced were giant rats. Combat--which I'll describe in more detail anon--did not go well for us. The classless, Level 0 characters, clad in simple clothes and armed with kitchen knives, hardly ever managed to hit the enemies, let alone kill them. Meanwhile, their 4 hit points didn't last long against rats capable of doing that much damage in one hit. I had to save and reload several times before each battle with the rodents, then rest or retreat to Sir Marillion's pool to restore my health afterwards.
The outcome of too many early-session battles.
Fortunately, you don't need that many experience points to join a guild, and it was only three or four combats before Silk had enough to get into the thieves' guild. Rising levels confers a lot of extra hit points (Viola went from 4 to 77 in 3 levels), plus a pool of points you can distribute to your various skills. More important at the beginning of the game, making your first level allows you to equip that class's weapons and armor. So Silk immediately became a decent Level 1 fighter, with 16 hit points, a short sword, and leather armor.
Distributing skills upon achieving a new level.
Unfortunately, even in his improved state, Silk was no match for the rat king that lay in wait in the sewers, nor the "wine slime" that served as the mini-boss for the wine cellar, so I went from feeling good about my prospects to feeling pretty poor. I could have made things easier by having Viola join the warriors' guild in Twinlake, but I didn't want that for her. I wanted her to be a paladin or ranger.
This got me thinking that clearly you're not supposed to last very long without joining a guild, but Twinlake only has two guilds. I realized that I'd been assuming that Amberstar would follow the pattern of a typical RPG, where you clean up the introductory city before moving on to the wide world. Maybe I was meant to go outside first. There might be easier encounters there, or I might be able to make it to other cities with the guilds I wanted for Silk. I might also find other NPCs to join the party.
It turns out that there are random encounters in the wilderness, with orcs and trolls and such, and they were a bit too tough for my party. But they're also very rare. The probability is that you'll make it from one town to another without triggering one (wow, was that a nice change after Final Fantasy).

I didn't do very well here, but I eventually got better.
The map of Lyramion shows Twinlake in roughly the center of the map.  The closest cities were Illien to the northwest and Crystal to the north, on a little peninsula. Although I had a specific purpose for this expedition--find a more desirable guild--I was already thinking about how I might go about exploring the map, and it struck me that I could probably do the northern panhandle first, then work my way around the map clockwise or counterclockwise. Thus, I headed for Crystal. Given what happened after this, I will forgive you for thinking that I probably looked at a walkthrough, but I swear it was just luck.
Reaching this was easier than I expected.
Crystal was about the same size as Twinlake. As usual, I went with a "rightmost" exploration pattern, which brought me to the inn shortly after entering. There, I started talking with NPC, and it wasn't long before I met Gryban, who was in town seeking . . . the Guild of Paladines. He joined the party but--apparently knowing that as an NPC he was putting all his choices in my hands--begged me to join him to the paladines rather than some other guild.
Believe it or not, that's exactly why I came to Crystal!
I explored the rest of the city and pushed past most of the special encounters and quests, trusting that I'd explore in more detail later. I soon realized that this was a mistake, as some important messages only come up the first time you enter an area. Once I realized this, I started taking more meticulous notes about things happening in Crystal, but I might have missed some early messages. 
At the Guild of Paladines, I learned that Viola had enough experience to join but not enough cash. I needed about 500 gold pieces. I started circling around the city looking for money-making opportunities or treasures. Among the encounters:
  • Lord Chancellor Drebin's house introduced a mystery. The chancellor fancied himself a demon-summoner, and recently summoned a small demon into the body of a homunculus, which he then imprisoned in a glass globe. The creature refused to recognize him as its master, but that didn't stop the chancellor from resolving to summon a larger demon into a pentagram in the basement. He was convinced that the pentagram was strong enough to contain the King of Hell, Bralkur, himself. His wife and son report there was some kind of ruckus in the basement a few days ago, and the chancellor hasn't returned since then. The homunculus is speaking a language I don't understand, and his cellar door is locked with some kind of seal that I couldn't find in the house. 

I so hoped that one of the portraits would show his ancestor, Frank.
  • In the tavern, I found another NPC willing to join the party: Trasric, a black wizard. Unlike the other companions I've found so far, Trasric actually had some levels under his belt, along with spells like "Hail Storm" and "Fireball." He related that black wizards haven't been very popular since the events at Castle Godsbane, which involved one of their number, Marmion. (This the second Thalion game in which the "black" in "black magic" doesn't technically mean evil, although everyone spellcaster who ends up threatening the world just happens to be of the black variety.) He said that the guild is in the southeast of Lyramion, in a valley that I'll need a ship to reach it. I'll also need an artifact to unlock it, which Trasric hid in a flowerpot in the chambers of a fellow denizen of the inn.
Maybe you need a better term than "black magic."
  • While I was searching flowerpots, I came to a courtyard. Searching one of the pots in the courtyard revealed a whopping 5,000 gold pieces, along with a note. The note was written to someone named "Kelvin" from the "Riddlemaster," and it gives Kelvin directions by ship to an island where he can "get his harp back." The gold is clearly meant to buy a ship, as that's exactly what the shipwright charges. I used it to solve my other financial woes for a while. Nearby, an NPC reports that Kelvin was a bard who used to play in the inn but hasn't been see for months.
Visiting Crystal was the best decision I've ever made.
  • A man named Thonion specializes in painting "mindgates"--a series of structures erected around the land that apparently allow travel across great distances, but only if you have a special necklace. Sansri, the Goddess of Snakes, is rumored to have one of them.
  • A man named Firlas lost his Bone of Wisdom in Twinlake when he was attempting to help with the sewer problem.
Viola braes herself for the worst pickup line of all time.
  • A secret door led behind the counter at the town's general store, where I could have looted 1,200 gold pieces from the shopkeeper's chest. If I hadn't found the 5,000, it would have been tempting, but for role-playing reasons it's probably not a good idea to join the Guild of Paladines with stolen gold. Then again, I suppose the gold is no less "stolen" just because I found it in a flower pot. 
Calm down. We were just investigating a secret door.

Having achieved our original goals and then some, we returned to Twinlake and attempted the wine cellar again. The wine slime was still pretty hard, capable of poison and sleep attacks as well as physical attacks. Trasric did the trick, though, with a "Tornado" spell.
Combat takes place in a separate combat interface. Graphically, the enemies are depicted in front of the party, but their specific positions, and yours, are annotated to the right of the main screen, on a 6 x 5 grid. The party members all start in the bottom two rows of the grid, in positions determined by the default party configuration that you set up outside of combat. Melee attacks can be made from any adjacent square, including diagonals.
Each round, you can click on each party member and then specify an action, including moving one square, fleeing, attacking, defending (which the manual gives as "parade"), and casting a spell. You then hit the "OK" button to see the results of your actions, threaded with the enemies' in order of a background initiative roll. It's basically the system that goes back to Wizardry but has the added consideration of specific position rather than just relative rank. Enemy attacks are accompanied by animations in the main window that show them thrusting forward or waving a weapon or whatever.
Trasric casts a spell in combat against the wine slime.
Rounds pass somewhat slowly, so there's a "fast forward" button to change that, but unfortunately the button doesn't change the speed of the enemy animations. I wish the button had made the animations go away but still delivered the messages at normal speed. I also don't quite understand movement. Characters seem to be unable to move forward from the second row, meaning that when enemies decide to flee, they can do so with impunity because the party can't chase them.
Fighting the rat king. There was a cute little crown on his head.
Combat will become more tactical as I obtain more spellcasting ability, so I'll revisit it later. For now, it's not a bad system, a bit slower than necessary, but made tolerable by the relative rarity of battles. Neither the wine cellar nor the sewers had any "random" battles, and as for fixed battles, there were only maybe eight between them.
The bottle of good wine was in a crate a few steps behind the wine slime. I returned it to Breth, one of the cooks, for 100 gold pieces.
The sewers were smaller than the wine cellar (oddly), but had more interesting textures, including animations of water flowing out of pipes. One of the drains had the ring that the other cook had lost.
I didn't make a GIF, but trust me that the water here is animated.
There were a couple more rat battles and then a final confrontation with the rat king, who spoke English and was about to sacrifice Felix the Cat when we burst into his room. "First the cats," he screamed, "and then the humans!" We killed him and his companions in melee combat and retrieved both his head and Felix. Two of my characters were poisoned during the battle, which causes them to lose a couple of hit points every round. I had no way of curing this, so we sped for the town healer as soon as we exited the sewers, and got there with no time to spare.
I have a feeling these pools are going to be useful throughout the game.
It was time to turn in several quest rewards, but first we stopped by the cemetery to use Sir Marillion's health and mana restoration pools, since healers don't heal regular hit points for some reason. When we entered, an NPC we hadn't seen before was hanging around the tomb. It turned out to be Gwendolyn, Marillion's former lover. She lamented that his spirit was caught between planes. She could release him with the Rose of Sadness, but it only blossoms every century in some unknown place called the "Sea of Peace."
In my defense, it's not like your icon ever appears anywhere else.
After speaking to her, we waited around for a long time until she left and Marillion's spirit returned. He didn't know anything about the Sea of Peace, but when we spoke to him of Gwendolyn, he gave us the key to his tomb, where we could recover his armor and sword. The key opened the door at the back of the tomb, and it contained not only armor and a sword but 589 gold pieces. The armor and sword are usable only by a paladin, so it was a bit of luck that I found that guild first. The items significantly improved Viola's fighting ability.
I feel like I didn't deserve this just yet.
Back in town, we returned Felix to his owner, Sunny. The "secret" she promised was a pretty big one: the ability to talk to animals. I used it immediately on the dog in my former home, whose name turns out to be Spike. Not only did he join the party (!), but he has a bone that I suspect is the Bone of Wisdom that Firlas needs (since I otherwise didn't find one in the sewers). Now I wonder if I can join Spike to a guild. He comes pretty buffed already, with 40 hit points and relatively high skills in "Attack," "Parry," "Swim," "Listen," "Find Traps," and "Search." For his high search ability (70%), I made him the leader of the party, but I have to remember to switch to someone else when I want to talk to an NPC or else no one can understand him. Is this the first game that allows a dog to join the party, or was it possible in Wasteland? That makes me realize that there's a game I've never seen: one in which the main character has an ability like the "Beastmaster" and slowly assembles a party of animals, each with unique abilities.
I love how even though I can understand the dog, somehow part of his speech is still "woof, woof, woof!"
Lord Karwain gave us 600 gold for the rat king head, and Olddaniel gave us a crystal ball for his ring. Silk got another level at the thieves' guild, after which we went back to Crystal, where Viola got a couple of levels in the Guild of Paladines and Gryban joined the same. For diversity's sake, it would have been better to have a warrior, but having just made my main character a paladin, I couldn't very well do something that cruel. The guild has a shop selling spells scrolls, and paladins are capable of white magic, so I purchased some first-level healing scrolls for both Viola and Gryban, although neither has any "Read Magic" or "Use Magic" abilities yet. I'll prioritize those the next time I level up.
It's always useful to have the favor of a town's lord.

The 77 hit points I have now is a big jump from the 4 I had a few hours ago.

Miscellaneous notes:
  • There's an old estate north of Twinlake. Every time I approach it, no matter from what direction, I fall into a trap that dumps me into its cellars, causing enough damage to kill at least one party member. Maybe we'll be strong enough now that no one is Level 0.
  • I don't remember where we got the clock, but Viola had it in her inventory for a while. I assumed I'd have to "use" it every time I wanted to know the time. Instead, the first time I used it, something delightful happened: the clock disappeared and the time appeared permanently in the main game window. That's awesome. I wish more games featured items that worked that way.
I now know that it's 9:35 exactly as we leave Twinlake.
  • The interface otherwise continues to annoy me, particularly in the inventory screen and in shops. There's more clicking than is necessary; clicking on an object ought to "use" it automatically without requiring an extra button first. And when trading an item, you ought to be able to just hit the number of the character you're trading to, without clicking on his portrait. But worst of all is the way shops work. To buy anything, you first have to put gold on the table, and the easiest way to do this is just to pool all the characters' gold with the button that does that. After you buy something, you then have to make sure you give it to a character. Most important, you have to retrieve your gold before you leave the shop, or else you've just given it all to the shopkeeper. There is a warning that comes up if you're about to do this--which for me is every time--and it's just a matter of time before I accidentally click the wrong button and lose all my gold. I hope I at least notice it when it happens.
It's just a matter of time before I click the wrong thumb.
  • You can swim pretty far out into the ocean before the characters' lack of "Swim" ability kicks in and kills them.
  • So far, the automap has done a good enough job that I haven't felt the need to manually map, although I probably will map the towns since I have to visit and navigate them multiple times. 
The small sewer area, to which I'm probably never going to return, didn't need me to make a map.
  • An NPC based on developer Karsten K√∂per appears in Crystal. 
I started this session in a bad place with the game, but my subsequent streak of luck--choosing Crystal in the first place, finding the gold, encountering Gwendolyn at the right time--turned things around, and now I'm feeling pretty positive. One of the things I'm enjoying is the way the developers bent the usual rules and tropes. The manual lays out the races and classes that can join the party but then allows a dog to join. For the hundredth time, you fight rats in a sewer, but this time they're led by a king with greater ambitions. The game blends both iconographic and 3D interfaces without making the transition seem awkward or clunky. The 3D sections of the game use textures like a thousand similar titles, but some of the textures are animated. It's little additions like these that make a game memorable. Thalion has a history of this, I should add. Their Dragonflight (1990) took a lot of ideas from previous games, but arranged them in memorably different ways. I look forward to seeing what's next.
Time so far: 8 hours

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Final Fantasy: Won!

Why is the game talking to me like it's Mister Rogers?
When I finished my first entry, I had just completed what was basically an introductory series of quests--the game's Act I, if you will. Acquiring the ship opened up the game world for exploration, although the plot imposed a certain amount of linearity. Act II consisted of finding, entering, and conquering the lairs of four elemental fiends that were destroying the land. Conquering each fiend conferred (or restored) elemental power to one of the four globes that the party carried. Act III was about finding and defeating the person who had unleashed those four fiends in the first place.
The story was revealed slowly, and only fully in the game's final moments. In the end, I vacillated on whether I thought the story was original and amazing or kind of stupid. I suppose it depends a lot on what kind of day you're having. I might have parts of it wrong, but I think it goes something like this: Garland, who had kidnapped the princess in the game's first quest, was so pissed at his defeat at the hands of the four heroes that he used a time gate to travel back in time 2,000 years and summon four ancient fiends of earth, wind, fire, and water. He sent these fiends 1,600 years into the future, and over the next four centuries, they slowly gathered the powers of the elements (starting with wind). Their activities caused the collapse of the northern kingdoms, and they were threatening the south as the game began. Their eventual monopoly of the elemental powers allowed them to operate the time gate that sent Garland back in time in the first place, creating a chicken-egg paradox referred to everyone in the game as a "time-loop." The characters had to break the loop by traveling to the past and defeating Garland and his fiends before they got started.
Your first hint of a much bigger story.
I do like that the game's first villain, basically a pushover, turned out to be the "big bad," and that the tired rescue-the-princess quest had world-threatening ramifications. I think it's amusing that the characters' own actions are what prompted his rise in power. I'm not sure I've seen that trope in an RPG before.
As I said, there's some non-linearity that develops once you get the ship, and it increases once you find the airship. I suppose you could do the four elemental quests and the promotion quest in any order, but I suspect the nature of the geography, the difficulty level of various areas, and the complexity of the quest leads most players to do things in the rough order that I did. Basically, I just went by geography, looping around the lower continent, following the thin threads of land north, and then moving west across the upper continent, visiting all the visitable locations in order. The in-game map, which has a flashing pixel at each visitable location (even a hidden one) really helps with this endeavor.
Shortly after the introductory events of my first entry, the party arrived in Melmond, where we saw our first evidence of the elemental effects. The agricultural community was suffering from the effects of the loss of earth power. The town had been invaded by a vampire and many of its buildings destroyed. I tracked the vampire down in a cave near the town. The vampire turned out to be just a minion of the Earth Fiend, a powerful lich. Once we defeated him, earth power was released back into the world and the denizens of Melmond told us that things were beginning to grow again. I should mention that there were a couple of ancillary quests necessary to find items to pass various blockages in the earth cave, but there are lots of walkthroughs and videos if you want that level of detail.
A village slowly decaying.
Sailing around the southern continent, we came to the city of Crescent Lake, where a bunch of sages had gathered. They were off to the east of the main part of the city, on a barely-noticeable side-path, so it took me longer to find out about them than if I'd been following along with the manual. Once I did, they confirmed that we were dealing with four fiends harvesting four powers. They said I should check in with them frequently, and indeed their dialogue updated periodically to reflect our progress through the quest.
We get some exposition on the main quest.
Someone--I forgot to screenshot exactly who--give the party a canoe, allowing us to explore the river network of the southeastern part of the southern continent. There were two important dungeons here: an ice cave and a volcanic cave ruled by the Fire Fiend. The Fire Fiend was the only one whose elemental theft didn't seem to manifest in any specific threat or destruction in the world, but I got the impression that it was also the most recent. For my party, this cave was probably the hardest part of the game, mostly because I hadn't done much (recent) grinding before taking it on, and the lack of black magic in the party made it difficult to deal with the large parties of enemies I found there, some of whom were able to cast mass-damage spells like "FIR2" multiple times.
Canoeing along the waterways.
But I pushed through and ultimately confronted the Fire Fiend, a multi-armed demonic creature named, amusingly, Kary. Upon her death (it probably wasn't intended as a "her," but for some reason that's how I thought of it), our second orb began to glow. I'm not really sure why the orbs glow, as I got the impression that we weren't so much capturing the elemental power as releasing it back to nature. Perhaps it's the nature of the globes to glow when the elemental power is in its natural state.
Given the use of other figures from Indian mythology, I suspect this is supposed to be KALI.
The ice cave, which also had a lot of hard combats, produced something that the game called a "floater," which must have caused a lot of guffaws among the juvenile NES community of the 1980s. I'm still not sure what it was, but an NPC in Elfland had told us to take it to the desert south of Crescent Lake, which we did, and for some reason the airship "rose from the desert" when we used it.
Well, yuck.
The airship is a quick and easy means of transportation. Unlike the ship and canoe, no enemies attack while you fly it. The only disadvantage is that (much like the magic carpet in The Black Gate) it can only land on a square of clear grassland, which of course became far less available from here on. It was still easier than taking the ship, but to visit many of the northern cities and dungeons, you have to land the airship some distance away and walk, of course fighting numerous random combats along the way.
Flying around in the airship. None of the tiles around this town have enough grass to land. I'll have to find another place and walk.
The people in the city of Lefein, the next stop, spoke a language that we didn't understand, so we left it for now and moved to the next city, in the far northeast, called Gaia. There's a spring in town whose fairy had been recently kidnapped by a pirate, bottled, and sold to a trading caravan in the west. We also learned about an ancient skykeep in the region and a castle to the west where you can "test courage." At all of our city stops, we upgraded weapons, armor, and spells when necessary, plus refilled our stock of healing potions to the maximum (99). There were some dungeons that literally took all of those potions. Having to buy them back one by one got old fast.
The castle was the next stop, after we moved on from a tower in the desert that wouldn't let us in. The castle was called the Castle of Ordeals. You need the crown from the earlier Astos fight to get in. Once in, it's a multi-leveled dungeon with a teleporter maze and plenty of random combats. The ultimate goal is to find a tail (of what, the game didn't say).
Finally! I wasted a lot of my youth searching for this.
I had no idea to do with the tail once I found it, but the issue was cleared up by the next series of dungeons we explored: a bunch of small caves on an archipelago to the west of the castle. These caves were inhabited by friendly dragons who said that humans and dragons used to live together. One of the caves has the dragon king, Bahamut, whose name (like the later Tiamat) comes eastern mythology by way of Dungeons and Dragons. Bahamut took the tail and promoted all of the characters to their prestige classes: warrior to knight, thief to ninja, black belt to master, and white mage to white wizard. These promotions not only improved the power of the characters but (in the case of the ninja and white wizard) allowed them to wield better equipment and changed their graphics to more adult figures. It also allowed the white wizard to move on to Level 6 spells and gave some spellcasting ability to the knight and ninja. In a replay, I would arrange to visit the Castle of Ordeals much sooner.
Approaching Bahamut.
The final city, in the far northwest, was called Onrac. There, I learned of a Dr. Unne, who had studied the language of the Lefeinish and could translate their speech if he had a stone slab. I also learned of a sea shrine that had sank when the power of air was stolen; a resident of Onrac created a submarine to help the mermaid denizens of the shrine, but it needs something called Oxyale for its power. Finally, I learned that there was a caravan in the desert west of Onrac.
I don't know. Having TAIL turned out to be pretty useful to us.
There was hidden cave behind a waterfall west of Onrac, but for the life of me I can't remember what I did there. But I did find the caravan to the west and purchased the bottled fairy from Gaia. Released at her spring within Gaia, the grateful fairy gave us the Oxyale we needed for the submarine.
The fairy rewards her return to the spring.
In the ruins of the sunken shrine, we freed a bunch of mermaids and found the stone slab that would translate Lefeinish. At the bottom level, we faced the Water Fiend, a giant kraken, and defeated him after a few tries. 
A mermaid makes a Splash reference but misspells Daryl Hannah's name.
The white wizard tries to protect us against the kraken with "INV2."
We brought the slab to Dr. Unne--fortunately, I had a screen shot showing him back in Melmond. (The manual had called attention to him at the time, so that also helped me remember.) He taught us Lefeinish. This allowed us to communicate with the people in Lefein, an ancient civilization that used to rule the skies with the power of wind; their society collapsed when the wind power had been stolen 400 years ago. NPCs told us that the desert tower was the portal to the skykeep, and they gave us a chime that would allow entry.
I think you need to elaborate how, exactly.
Another multi-level dungeon and many combats later, we came face-to-face with Tiamat, the Wind Fiend, and defeated her. The dungeon also gave us a supply of "Adamant," which we took back to the dwarf caves to be forged into Excalibur, or "Xcalber" as the game has it, one of the more powerful weapons that a knight can wield. The skykeep, I should mention, had a couple of robot NPCs and some graphics that indicated computers, evidence of the height the Lefeinish civilization had reached. This won't be the last time the series blends fantasy and science fiction, of course.
The party checks out a computer bank as a robot stands guard.
The killing blow.
All of the orbs were glowing now, and we'd defeated all of the elemental fiends. At this point, the dialogue of the sages in Crescent Lake changed to tell a lot more about the backstory and to reveal that "someone" had traveled 2,000 years back in time to release the fiends in the first place.
It's cool that dialogue options change depending on where you are in the story.
One sage told us that we'd have to use the time gate in the Temple of Fiends. I didn't know what that was. Another said that it was in the "center of the Four Altars," and I realized for the first time that the dungeons holding the four fiends, where I'd recovered the powers of the elements from altars, basically made four corners of a rough square (though slightly tilted on the map), the center of which was the temple where I'd defeated Garland. Returning now, we found it a bit different, with a time gate in the central room rather than Garland's throne. 
I'm having trouble picturing this geometrically.
The gate took us back 2,000 years to what was now a multi-leveled temple, including one floor for each of the four elements. Each floor was swarming with the types of random encounters that were found in the four individual dungeons, culminating in a second battle with stronger versions of the four fiends. After defeating the lich, the kraken, Kary, and Tiamat a second time, I finally confronted their master, who revealed himself as Garland.
A little villain's exposition.
He summoned or transformed himself into--I'm unclear on this point--a demonic being called "Chaos," which we had to fight and defeat. Chaos is particularly difficult because not only does he have spells that instantly slay the characters, he casts "CUR4" on himself, healing all hit points, in the fourth round. I found it tough to survive more than four rounds with him, so I had to try my best to knock away all 2,000 of his hit points in the first three. This wasn't impossible, as with a little critical hit luck, my first three characters were capable of doing almost 1,000 hit points per round in melee (collectively), but it did take a few reloads.
Chaos is so badass, he has demonic faces for knees and a dragon literally poking its head out of his stomach.
Once Chaos was dead, the endgame text appeared, telling us that the time-loop was broken. As a result, when we returned to our own time, we would find the world vastly changed. The fiends would have never risen to power, and so no one would remember us or our quest, though somehow the elves, the dwarves, and the dragons would remember the events and tell them as legends.
A bit from the endgame text.
There's one line, referring to the heroes, saying that "Sara and Jane wait for them . . . Of course, Garland does too." Jane is the Queen of Coneria, and Sara is the princess. The line suggests that the four heroes, appearing out of nowhere at the beginning of the game, may have in fact been the four party members returning from the past. Even though the world has changed, Garland apparently still kidnaps the princess, and she still needs to be rescued. This suggests that perhaps the time-loop has not been broken, and the game has come full circle, but perhaps I'm over-reading it, especially since the ending text takes pains to emphasize that you broke the time loop.
One of the downsides of time travel.
Let me back up and talk about combat and grinding. Each of the dungeons described above served up a boatload of random combats before we reached the "big boss" at the end. It's important to fully explore each dungeon because the dungeon's chests hold the best equipment, including vital quest items. Even if you knew how to beeline for the boss, it wouldn't be a good idea to do it.
On the other hand, sometimes you waste time getting to a chest for something like this. This was pretty late in the game.
Eventually, I developed a system to dungeon exploration. It begins with spending the night in a "house" outside the dungeon so you both save the game and recover the most of hit points and magic slots that you spent getting there. Houses are one-use items that cost 3,000 gold pieces each, but by the end of the game you're swimming in money. You also want 99 health potions and at least 20 "pure" (anti-poison) potions. Late in the game, it helps to have "soft" (anti-stone) potions.
I learned to explore the first levels as thoroughly as possible, then exit, heal, and spend another night in the house. Then with my knowledge of the first level (sometimes the first two), I would re-enter the dungeon and try to make it to the end. I learned to be judicious about which combats I fought and which I fled. Fleeing usually works, but the characters rarely go first, so you generally take some damage--sometimes significant--even when running away. If the enemies seem beatable in a couple of rounds, it's generally better to fight and get some experience for the damage you take.
Once I had the "Exit" spell (which came after promotion), I was a lot more comfortable exploring dungeons, knowing that I could just warp out if I reached the end of my resources. Until then, you have to at least plan for a return journey, although many of the dungeons mercifully return you to the surface automatically when you succeed.
Even the game knows how awesome this spell is.
The monsters in this game are an odd and sometimes funny mix.  A lot of them are taken directly from Dungeons and Dragons (e.g., chimera, cockatrice, manticore, naga), but there are a lot of funny ones that must have gone through an odd translation process. Ghosts and geists are separate creatures, for instance. A "red caribe" is a sea creature whose name must have something to do with the Caribbean. "Sahags" are a strange attempt to abbreviate "sahuagin." The "badman" looks like Batman, although with a sword. Best of all are funny combinations like the wizard mummy, the wizard vampire, the ZomBull, the zombie dragon, and the frost gator.
Minus the sword, this graphic could have easily been taken from an issue of Batman.
I found that the boss fights were always a toss-up. The bosses seem to have a mixture of weak magical attacks (like "Darkness"), moderate physical attacks, and devastating magical attacks. Some of them are capable of instant-death spells like "Rub." (There's a counter-spell, but it often doesn't cast first.) The AI isn't tactical, however, and bosses seem to select their attacks at random from their arsenals. Sometimes, I'd get unlucky with an immediate "Rub"; other times, bosses would waste their rounds on weak attacks while I beat at them. No boss ever took more than a couple of reloads.
When I say "reloads," though, I often mean reloads of save states. I'm not going to pretend that I won this while adhering to the game's rules about saving, which would have required me to reload from outside the dungeon for every party death (or death of my white wizard) that occurred within a dungeon. I save-stated about once per dungeon level, frankly sometimes more. The issue was time. I won the game at Level 27, but the game's maximum is Level 50, and I'm betting that era players were a lot closer to the maximum when they won. There are so many ways that the dice can go the wrong way, even in regular encounters, that you really need those extra levels to ensure victory. Even then, I suspect that an original player would have had to try most of the dungeons multiple times. I wanted to have a look at the game, but I wasn't interested in stretching 30 hours to 80.
My characters at the game's end.
In the last quarter of the game, I found that the dungeon combats delivered enough experience by themselves that grinding wasn't necessary, but you don't have to grind in this game to get bored by the sheer number and regularity of the combats. The regularity is probably worse than the number. Most games seem to roll for random combats at regular intervals; for instance, you might have a 20% chance of a battle every 10 seconds or a 10% chance every move in a tiled game. It doesn't happen often, but occasionally you might have a streak of a few minutes in which you fight no combats at all. (Of course, there are other times when you have a streak of several combats almost immediately after one another.) Final Fantasy, on the other hand, seems to simply give you a random battle every 6 seconds of movement, period. You can't even hope that maybe you'll make it through this level or down this corridor without one. 
I don't know that a black or red wizard would have made things easier. Maybe early in the game. Late in the game, I found some objects that cast low-level black magic spells, and my ninja acquired a few black magic levels, but by then the first few spell levels were relatively useless against higher-level enemies, so if I'd had a black wizard, I suspect his value would have been limited to his higher-level spells, of which maybe he'd have 10 slots. Those spells would have been helpful for some of the boss battles, perhaps, but they wouldn't have gotten me through all of the random battles necessary to get to the boss.
My party performed pretty well. My knight and master, in particular, escalated in both damage and critical hit percentages with every level, until by the end of the game they were doing hundreds of points of damage in a single hit. My ninja was less deadly, but only a little bit, and he got a lot more useful once I found a weapon called "Masmune." 
Wow! What is it?
My white wizard waned in power steadily throughout the game. I used her mostly for healing and occasional buffing or protection spells, although her HARM series of spells were nicely devastating to undead when we encountered them. Late in the game, I started finding items that she could use in combat, and she became a lot more useful again. Usable magic items are rare, but they never seem to run out of charges. The most useful by far was a healing staff which cast the "HEAL" spell with every use, restoring a couple dozen hit points per character. That's not enough to stave off death from a really tough enemy, but it's enough to keep the party's health above a certain threshold if I used it every round in every combat. It prevented my potions from running out and thus let me save them for when I really needed them. She also found a mage staff capable of casting "CONF" (confuse) every round and a wizard staff capable of "FIR2" every round, neither of which was a game-changer, but both of which were occasionally helpful against large parties.
Using the staff in combat.
I like the regularity of equipment upgrades, both from shops and from treasure chests. Just when I'd found something that I thought couldn't be exceeded, the game would have another surprise for me. Because of the cost of these items, plus houses and spells and healing potions, the economy remains relevant for about two-thirds of the game. After that, you've run out of stuff to buy and you keep accumulating thousands of gold pieces per battle. I ended with nearly 600,000. Different party compositions would need gold at different rates, though. An all-black belt/master party would need virtually none (no equipment and no spells) while an all red-wizard party might still need to grind for gold at the eleventh hour.
My final weapon selection.
One final thing that I enjoyed about the game is the way that the character classes' strengths and weaknesses remained relevant and noticeable throughout. My knight ended up with such good armor that he was almost immune to physical attacks, yet magic got through to him easily. My master could dodge most attacks but would take a lot of damage if something hit him. My white wizard was rarely targeted but very weak if an enemy singled her out. When my ninja scored a critical hit, he could be deadly, but when the critical roll failed, his efforts were laughable. I don't have a lot of desire to replay with a different party combination, but I understand the urge. I imagine a party of four white wizards would have a nearly impossible time, but I'm sure someone's done it.
The unarmed master's critical hits often outperformed weapons.
I had intended to wrap this whole thing up in one entry, but there's a lot more to say about the game and its legacy, plus I have to do the GIMLET, so I suppose we'll have one more. In the end, while I still have some complaints about specific aspects, I'm glad I experienced it overall. 
Final time: 30 hours