Friday, September 25, 2020

Game 382: The Dark Queen of Krynn (1992)

The Dark Queen of Krynn
United States
MicroMagic (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released in 1992 for Amiga, DOS, and Macintosh
Date Started: 21 September 2020
The Dark Queen of Krynn is not quite the end of the Gold Box--we still have Unlimited Adventures and its sample and fan scenarios to investigate in 1993--but it's mostly the end. I find myself not quite as sad at the prospect as I was when I picked up Pool of Radiance (1988), the first Gold Box game, nearly a decade ago. It's a great engine, of course, and I don't know when we'll see another combat system this intuitive and faithful to the original rule set. On the other hand, I can't exactly complain that there aren't enough Gold Box games. The series put out two or three games a year for the five years of its life; if that isn't the most impressive work ethic we've ever seen, it has to be close. If you played nothing but Gold Box games, you'd probably forget enough of the first one by the time you got to the last one to just start the series fresh again.
Some might say that the engine was "showing its age" by 1992, but I'm not sure that's the problem. I think parts of the engine were always old-fashioned. We just forgave it because of the good stuff. Once Dungeon Master (1987) allowed you to see and hear enemies in the distance, no game that allowed you to "stumble upon" an encounter with 6 dragons was ever going to seem cutting-edge again. This is an issue that the engine never solved. Nor did it ever design a decent automap, and it's absurd that we still have to refer to a paper journal in 1992.
The game's opening screen.
But of course the good outweighs the bad, particularly in the series' adaptation of combat and spell rules and its robust character development. However, even these elements are best (in my opinion) in games where you're going from Level 1 to Level 8. There are times that playing with high-level characters starts to become boring, and I particularly worry how this dynamic is going to play in the Dragonlance series, where I already find the draconians a bit tiresome. I want the series to go out with honor, so you can understand why I'm beginning this game less optimistic than usual. It doesn't help that SSI turned development over to MicroMagic, a long time contractor whose involvement thus far had been limited to Amiga conversions of the other games.
Dark Queen is the third of the Dragonlance titles; the previous two were Champions of Krynn (1990) and Death Knights of Krynn (1991). The series takes place after the War of the Lance, a major event in the universe's literature and tabletop gaming, in which the goddess Takhisis tried to conquer the world of Krynn with evil dragons and a race of creatures called draconians, created from the corrupted eggs of good dragons. The famed Heroes of the Lance arose during this period, and they defeated Takhisis with the help of an ancient chivalric order called the Knights of Solamnia.
I guess this is probably Takhisis, but it could also be some minor NPC.
The games are set in the aftermath of the war. The characters are members, or at least contractors, of the Knights of Solamnia. In Champions, they foiled a plot to start a new war with a new horde of draconians. Death Knights dealt with an attempt by Lord Soth to conquer the land with an undead army. There was a weird wolf involved that I never really understood.
Dark Queen begins two years later, the party having been summoned to the city of Palanthas to meet with the elven general Lauralanthalasa, one of the Heroes of the Lance. Her letter warns only of forces still loyal to Takhisis, the titular Dark Queen.
The party meets General Laurana.
As usual, the party imported smoothly from Death Knights, including all of their high-level gear. It looks like I spent most of my money at the end of that game on arrows +1, because I have several hundred, which of course will go very fast. My party in summary:
  • Midsummer, a human female lawful good Knight of the Rose of Level 11. She wears Solamnic plate, a Girdle of Giant Strength, and carries a footman's dragonlance plus a mace +4.
  • Dutch, human male lawful good Knight of the Rose of Level 11. He has Solamnic plate, a mace +4, a long sword +4, a shield +2, and Boots of Speed.
  • Grave, a Silvanesti elf male chaotic good cleric/ranger of Levels 12/12. He has something called Olin's Quarter Staff and plate mail +4.
  • Atmos, a Qualinesti elf male lawful good cleric/white mage of Levels 12/12. He has a mace +4, plate mail +4, and a shield +4.
  • Squirrel, a Qualinesti elf female true neutral red mage/thief of Levels 13/15. She has a short sword +4, bracers AC4, and Gauntlets of Ogre Power.
  • Coral, a kender female neutral good cleric/thief of Levels 12/15. She has a chain mail +4 and a hoopak +3.
Characters imported about the same level as newly-created party members, but they're at the upper ends of their levels, while newly-created characters are at the lower ends (or one level lower) with about half the experience. The implication in the journal is that leveling in this game is limitless, or near so, just like Pools of Darkness. On the other hand, despite starting with so many more points, only half my characters became eligible for a new level in 4 hours of playing, so perhaps advancement won't be that rapid.
This last entry revamps the character creation process.
I tried out the character creation process just for fun and noted a few changes. Options for race, sex, class, and alignment are all on a single screen here. You no longer have the ability to create unique icons for the characters; instead, you select from a set of 49 prepared icons. I'd complain about that, but I never had any luck creating good-looking icons in the first place, and the pre-rendered ones look better than anything I'd ever come up with. All of my characters had been converted to the new icons, and I was happy enough with their new look.
The new system has fewer icon options, but arguably better ones.
The windows have some new textures, and it looks like the developers threw keyboard mavens like me a bone by letting the initial letter work for all commands. In previous games, they worked for some commands but others you had to arrow through. The images in the exploration window take full advantage of VGA and are some of the nicest artwork in the games to date. So far, the portraits have been considerably less cartoonish than the previous games.
Palanthas was just a menu town. My party was fully rested, equipped, and trained, so there was nothing to do but head right for the palace and speak with Lauralanthalasa, or Laurana for short. (The Dragonlance writers seem to do this a lot; "My name is is Chestricradrolicanardafluffle, but you can call me Chet!") While happy to see us, she dismally warned us of a new threat. Draconians have recently been seen hanging around the city of Caergoth to the south. She asked us to check it out. 
Yes, we're still using "journal entries."
Moments later, we found ourselves on a standard 16 x 16 map, though with more than half of it blocked by forest. The forest textures were as complex as anything we've seen before in this engine, but as usual I don't get terribly excited about textures. It turns out that Caergoth was a smoldering rubble, recently sacked by an enemy that left pools of acid behind--a clear sign of Kapak draconians. I like to think that my party was muttering "f****** Kapaks" at the same time that I was.
"Without a 'kill them' option, it's not really role-playing!" -- some sick bastard, probably.
There were a few minor encounters around the town, such as helping townsfolk bury their dead. But the enemies weren't gone, and it wasn't long before we found ourselves in the first combat of the game, with two blue dragons and one green dragon. Midsummer made short work of them with her dragonlance, which does damage to dragons equal to the wielder's current hit points with every hit. If she doesn't miss, she can slay two per round--four if she's hastened.
No easing the player into combat here: the game's first battle is with dragons.
At the docks of the city, the party was ambushed by a bunch of sailors. Their leader introduced himself as Daenor, captain of the Silver Shark. The sailors had returned after the battle, but survivors told them tales of draconians and dragons. Daenor's sister, Crysia, was kidnapped. He asked if we wanted to accompany him in pursuit, and for some perverse reason I said no. The party returned to Palanthas instead, to report to Laurana, but she just sent us back to Caergoth. Daenor was still there, and we had no choice but to join his expedition. Daenor became a seventh character in the combats throughout the rest of this narrative.
I wonder what happens if you "attack" here.
Not far out of Caergoth, Daenor spied the wreckage of a ship, and we dropped anchor to investigate. It appeared that the ship had crashed, and captors and captives alike had fled into a nearby cave. The subsequent cave network was set on a fairly large 30 x 30 grid (though with only about half the squares used). As we chased the draconians, we ran afoul of several types of cave denizens, including giant beetles (easy), purple worms (moderate), and greater otyughs (surprisingly hard). There were some giant spiders who actually poisoned some of my characters, which feels like an awfully n00b thing to have happen. Fortunately, I had a couple of "Neutralize Poison" spells memorized.
Even with "Fireball" spells, these guys were hard.
There were also several battles with draconians, and while I'm already a bit sick of them, I do appreciate them a little for the unique challenges they create. Baaz turn to stone when they die, often trapping the weapon that killed them. Kapaks dissolve into a pool of acid when slain, messing up the battlefield. Sivaks can fly and have the power to shape-shift, which often makes them plot-relevant but poses no extra difficulty in combat. Bozaks explode when killed, damaging everyone around them, and it's always fun in combat to get a chain reaction of Bozak explosions going.
The Bozak dies and explodes, causing more damage to other Bozaks, which die and explode.
Auraks are more difficult than all the rest put together. They're spellcasters, to begin, and will fry the party with "Lightning Bolt" if they get the initiative. You have to try to damage or "Silence" every one of them every round to stop them from casting, which is tough because they have a permanent "Invisibility" that often prevents you from targeting them. If you get close to them, they "Immolate" every round and damage everyone in the periphery.
Once you kill them the first time, they immediately resurrect with 20 hit points. Kill them a second time and they resurrect again, this time rooted in place. After three rounds, they explode in fireballs and are dead for good. You have to keep careful track of which ones are about to go nuclear and get the party members out of the way.
I feel the Aurak here is unnecessarily specific about how they'll dispose of us if they achieve victory.
"Fireball" takes care of a lot of this, of course, but I found that my party had fewer slots for both the base spell and its "Delayed Blast" alternative than I had remembered. I ran out quickly, and there were a lot of battles. This forced me to get creative with other spells, which of course is a good thing. My fighters used up a lot of those arrows.
We spotted Crysia a few times during the pursuit, but she seemed to be aiding the draconians. One group of freed prisoners confirmed that she was working with them. (They also credited a sailor named Aolan for crashing the ship while the draconians were distracted.) Later, a dying old man named Sensilan said that Crysia was under the influence of a "Charm" spell and thus not responsible for her actions.
Come to think of it, the character on the cover looks a lot like Crysia.
We finally caught up with Crysia, but just then some blue dragons arrived. One of them told her to "go with Zzrivanth" and that they would meet her "at the rendezvous on Taladas." The resulting battle was supposed to be hard, I guess, but again I made such short work of the dragons with the dragonlance that I didn't even bother to take a screen shot. The average draconian battles were harder.
I realized I hadn't included a shot of Daenor yet, so here he is.
As we exited the caves, we committed to joining Daenor in a pursuit to Taladas, which I guess is an entirely different continent, the action in the series so far having taken place on Ansalon.
On the way to Taladas, we ran into a storm that caused the ship to founder and the party to fall beneath the waves. We woke up underwater, somehow able to breathe, and I'm sure it's going to turn out that sea elves or Sahuagin or some stupid thing is behind it. Seriously, have I ever talked about how much I hate underwater levels? Either there are no special rules about moving and fighting under water, in which case they make no sense, or there are, in which case they're just annoying. I don't know why developers insist on doing this. Anyway, I realized I was exhibiting a bad attitude and decided to knock off for the night.
This is probably going to suck for a few hours.
So far: It's okay, I guess. It has most of the Gold Box strengths and weaknesses. It's been very linear, but then again most RPGs are linear during the first few hours. I hope the underwater episode is short, and the game opens up when we get to Taladas. We'll see.
Time so far: 4 hours


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Game 381: Quest of Kings (1990)

Quest of Kings
Independently developed and published as freeware
Released in 1990 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 15 September 2020
Date Ended: 20 September 2020
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
For fans and bloggers of computer role-playing games, there are few resources on the web that are more important--more awesome--than the Museum of Computer Adventure Game History. Since 2001, creator Dr. Howard Feldman, a Toronto biochemist, has provided high-quality scans of the boxes, disks, manuals, clue books, maps, and accompaniments to thousands of computer adventure and role-playing games, most of them curated not from other sites but from scans that Feldman has made of the items in his physical collection. He also has complete sets of gaming magazines, newsletters, and hint books. The brick-and-mortar "museum" is not open to the public, but once I'm allowed to travel to Canada again, I would love to visit Dr. Feldman some day in Toronto and see some of his treasures in person. He has an original copy of Akalabeth donated by Richard Garriott himself.
What is less well known about Dr. Feldman is that while he was still a high school student, he wrote two freeware computer RPGs: Quest of Kings for the C64 in 1990 and The Search for Freedom for the PC in 1994. Neither is going to be "Game of the Year," but they're both reasonably fun freeware games, and the young Feldman notably did all the programming, graphics, and sound effects himself. The game uses Dungeons and Dragons conventions and plays a bit like a small D&D module.
Exploring the hallways of the dungeon. The compass doesn't appear until you find and equip a compass.
Quest of Kings takes place in the land of Kwantulaursia (whoa), where peace was kept for centuries by the custom of simply obeying whoever wore the magical Crown of Kingship. But, as often happens in such stable societies, a necromancer called the Evil One decided to take the crown for himself. He raised an army of beasts, orcs, and undead, and stole the crown from good King Cersis VI, leaving the land in chaos. Figuring that one agent is less conspicuous than an entire army, king's men have been putting posters in local taverns. The PC sees one, grabs a dagger, gets some advice from a wizard named Bagle, and assails the Evil One's lair.
A bit of the backstory.
A couple of bars of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor play over the title screen, and then we get a little of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" as the game loads. Character creation consists of random rolls for to-hit score, maximum hit points, dexterity, strength, and armor, then a name. Soon, the character is at 0,0 on Level 1. Except for a few places in which you have to enter text, the joystick controls all the action. Even visiting inventory requires pushing down and the button at the same time.
The dungeon consists of four 16 x 16 levels. There are no open areas--every square is its own room or section of a corridor--so it took me a while to map. There are the usual tricks like teleporters, secret doors (identifiable by a small mark in the lower-right corner), and one-way doors. Levels 1, 2, and 3 are connected by multiple staircases, but there's only one heading down to Level 4.
My maps of the four levels.
Encounters come along every 10-12 steps, roughly. Each level has its own set of foes. After an initial screen in which the player can fight or flee (fleeing works about 80% of the time), his options are attack, defend, or visit his inventory to use an item. Enemies only attack; none of them have magical abilities or special attacks, not even those that you would expect, like ghouls and snakes. Combats can take a long time, particularly if you're attacked by a group with lots of foes, and I was appreciative of VICE's "warp" mode to get through most of them.
The major downside of the game is that there's no experience and no leveling. Whatever you started with in terms of maximum health and other attributes, you're mostly stuck with. The only way to get stronger is to find better items at the end of combat. (Items are never found outside of combat.) Since you have an equal likelihood of finding something useful whether you fought 6 orcs or just one, it's best to flee combats with large parties.
Combat options with a vampire lord.
Inventory items get progressively better on lower levels. They include armor, weapons, shields, helms, bracers, gauntlets, and occasional magical items like Wands of Magic Missile, Wands of Fireball, and Scrolls of Death. Most important are healing ointments and potions; if you don't find any of these, you can't heal. Healing items can only be used outside of combat, which causes some problems late in the game when you face large parties of very hard enemies. A high maximum hit point during character creation is a must.
My inventory late on Level 2.
Level 1's enemies include orcs, kobolds, pygmies, and goblins. With luck, you can find a long sword, a shield, scale armor, and maybe a Wand of Magic Missiles before heading downward. Level 2 has ghouls, skeletons, and minotaurs, and you start to see the first magic items, like short swords +1. Level 3 really kicks it up a notch in enemy difficulty with robotic clones, red dragons, crystal warriors, trolls, and king cobras, but you get even better equipment, including some +2 items. Level 4 features vampire lords, werewolves, war giants, manticores, and dragon kings; here, you can find Gloves of Strength and Helms of Dexterity (both raise their attributes to 18), Bracers AC4, and +4 weapons and shields. There are also high-level magic items to use, such as Scrolls of Death and grenades. The trick is to not go to the next level until you have the best stuff from the current one.
Some of the many monster portraits in the game. I want to see that wolf on a t-shirt.
The lack of character development otherwise would make for a relatively boring game except for Quest's use of special encounters and riddles. Each level has a few "boss" creatures, usually guarding a room with a key piece of intelligence. On Level 1, for instance, a magic mouth says, "He had vowed no mortal brave would take him to his very ________." A little thought to the rhyme reveals the answer as GRAVE. At this, the mouth says, "Until he came along to prove him wrong. A man known as Sir Dave!" This isn't just doggerel. On level 2, you have to give Dave's name, as well as his hometown, to open the doorway to the stairs to Level 3. You also have to slay a red dragon to get into this area.
Recording such messages on the walls is vital to winning the game.
Level 4 ultimately brings you face to face with The Evil One, and to defeat him, you have to have been paying attention to several clues. If you just attack him, he immediately kills you with a fireball. Instead, you have to choose the "Talk to him" option.
The "bad" ending.
Previously, a clue has alerted you that you can "speak the four-letter word to bring the evil one to your mercy." You have also seen a bunch of "jibberish" on a wall that reads: "FTRAX FROJ HBL BNL OV EYTNANM WIPFL OSK IQUG." I thought at first that this was a cryptogram, but no solution made any sense. I then realized you have to look at it along with a clue from a magic mouth on Level 2: "Search with all your 'heart' on the level below for the word you seek." The nonsense text string has LOVE embedded within it, which is what you have to say to the Evil One.
This is the wussiest way that I've ever won an RPG.
In disgust, the Evil One flees, leaving you to content with three war giants followed immediately by six shadow lords with no way to heal in between. There is no way to win this battle through conventional attacks. You have to have at least a few high-damage magic items. I had to reload and grind a bit until I had a Scroll of Death and a couple of grenades. These together let me kill the two parties before I ran out of hit points.
After this battle, you'd better have a healing potion, because you then have to fight another double header. The first is against the Evil One, who cannot use magic because of your repetition of LOVE, but can still use physical attacks. He's not too hard, but just as he dies, he casts a spell that replicates you and forces you to fight against a shadow of yourself. This battle is a little harder.
Chester's shadow is a little more pear-shaped these days.
Once the battles are done, you still have to find your way to the central chamber of the level and the Crown of Kings. Outside, a magic mouth says that you have to give it two words. Again, you have to interpret a couple of clues that you found in other rooms:
  • "It is to be supposed that the first isn't closed."
  • "After all else had failed, he was left with no choice but to ask politely."
The mouth did not like my first attempt at a two-word phrase.
Together, these reveal that the phrase is OPEN PLEASE. It took me a long time, particularly because I hadn't encountered the first message on my first pass through the area.
After this, you can enter and pick up the Crown of Kings, which makes you the king. Your inventory screen even changes to put "King" before your name.
Placing it on my own head feels a bit presumptuous.
Unfortunately, this is where things fell apart for me. The game says that you have to find your way to the surface, but I can't figure out how to do that. The down ladder from Level 3 to Level 4 is on the other side of a one-way door, so there's no way to get back to the rest of Level 3. I searched every square of Level 4 and didn't find an alternate ladder or teleporter. I tried using all my items as well as fighting random battles to see if the enemies dropped a Scroll of Teleport or something. No luck. I even tried letting myself get killed, but that just resulted in the "game over" screen. Dr. Feldman didn't remember, either. It's possible that it's a bug and no one ever made it this far before; the only way to be sure would be to search the source code, which you're welcome to do at the link below.

Chester is king. I'm going to consider this "won."
A search of text in the game file suggests that you are supposed to make it to the exit and that when you arrive, the ghost of the Evil One appears to vow revenge just before the entire dungeon collapses. Back in town, the Kwantulaursians proclaim you their king, throw a party, and end the game with a toast to your health. However, the game notes ominously that there is an "unwelcome guest" within the crowd.
Aside from the riddles, which were fun and occasionally challenging, it's a fairly basic game, but I'm not going to criticize something that a 10th-grader created as freeware. It earns a 17 on my GIMLET, doing best in "encounters" and "gameplay" (both 3s), the latter primarily for its moderate difficulty and length. Four dungeon levels is an ideal size for a game of limited content. It gets hurt in its lack of NPCs and economy. The monster graphics are worth a note. Although clearly the product of an amateur designer, they have a certain goofy earnestness about them, and it's hard not to be a little fond of them.
He certainly looks evil.
I wrote to Dr. Feldman to ask him a few questions about the game, and he was kind enough to supply his original notes, maps, and code, which he said I was welcome to share, so feel free to download and review it. I can interpret a little, but I'm not sure I see anything that would have been triggered by the final encounters and changes the layout of the dungeon.
Feldman started creating a Quest for Kings II the following year but never finished it. It somehow got out, and some sites offer it for download, but all you can do is create a party and look at the backstory. It would have been a more ambitious game, with a four-character party composed of the standard D&D races, classes, and attributes, except for a race called "Teddy" where you would expect to see a hobbit. The party is expected to stop the return of an evil archmage named Kamazol, once slain but now returned as a lich, but first they have to free themselves from a local jail. Many of the plot elements and mechanics made their way to Feldman's The Search for Freedom (1994) for DOS, which he finished around the end of his last year in high school. Feldman still sells Search as shareware on his web site; I look forward to playing it eventually. It promises to blend Ultima-style world exploration with Pool of Radiance-style combat.
Wow, he really meant "Teddy."
I'll be visiting the Museum less and less in coming years. Although the site has some games that stretch into the mid-1990s, Feldman says that he's generally only interested in titles from 1992 and earlier. This blog would have been a poorer place if not for his images and documentation, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for his work as an RPG creator and curator.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Summoning: I Hope You Crush That Little Dude's Rock

Cool. The last level had like 20 challenges.
I had a good last session with The Summoning. The enemies became more challenging and the puzzles retained what I thought was already a satisfactory challenge. (Uber-fans of DarkSpyre probably think it's too easy.) My inventory problems were ameliorated by a Bag of Lightness. I got some more information about the main plot. Everything moved along in a reasonably fast clip. It's not a bad game. But at the same time, I feel like I've gotten its basic experience and I don't really need another 20 hours of it, but another 20 hours seems inevitable whether I "need" it or not.
When I left off last time, I was just entering the "Elemental Barrier" levels, of which there turned out to be three. The last one had three elemental barriers in the corridor leading out of the level, and my goal was to find three spheres, have Duncan "activate" them, and then throw them at the barriers so I could pass. By this point, all of the levels have multiple small areas interconnected by teleporters, so exploring them isn't as simple as just always following the right wall. Since you never know where a teleporter is going to take you, and if you'll be back, I've taken to fully exploring each section before moving on. It's also a good idea to toss an unwanted item through each teleporter just to make sure it doesn't have some effect in your current area. 
In the midst of battle against hellcats. Man, was it hard to find arrows on this floor.
On the first Elemental Barrier level, I met an NPC named Skulk who said he hired himself out as a mercenary and also sold rare and unique items, and I thought I might be able to hire him as a companion or buy some things from him, but despite the dialogue seeming to head in that direction, no such options came to light. Instead, Skulk told me about nine wizards who had tried to defeat Shadow Weaver at the behest of the Council, something I don't remember from the backstory. The wizards were all defeated, and eight of them had their heads impaled on sticks, their souls imprisoned within, and cast into the labyrinth. The ninth, Balthazar, was corrupted to work with Shadow Weaver. This was the first suggestion that I would have to find the eight wizards' skulls.
Levels are becoming groups of interconnected areas rather than cohesive structures.
Elemental Barrier One (which, confusingly, was the second of the three levels) offered combats against a bunch of ghouls. Ghouls can only be damaged by weapons of silver. Fortunately, there was a sword maker named Kern on the same level. He said he'd need a supply of silver and a holy emblem to make the sword, plus 5 gold pieces for his service. I was delighted at the prospect of finally getting rid of some of the gold I'd amassed, only to find that the level itself provides you with at least the 5 gold pieces you have to pay Kern. Anyway, the holy emblem was in the possession of Rhegad, an ex-priest who had become disillusioned with the world and decided to join Shadow Weaver's horde. Lacking martial ability, he wanted to trade the emblem for a Book of the Sword, a magic object that improves your skill with edged weapons. It's a good thing I met him before finding the book, because I would have used it for myself. I don't know if it's possible to kill him after he gives you the holy emblem and take the book back. I'm not evil that way.
A cinematic showed Kern forging the sword. Apparently, it will never break, but it sucks against regular foes.
The silver came from a chalice that a warrior named Greyreign was carrying. He had been wounded, but his code prevented him from accepting magical help. Instead, he wanted me to find him a "healing mango," which sounds like magic to me, but whatever. There were a couple on the level, so I gave him one and got the chalice. Kern made me the sword, and I used it to wipe out what seemed like dozens of undead. I was frankly a little annoyed that I couldn't break regular weapons on them.
Amidst the remains of ghouls.
Other new enemies on this level were "hellcats," which look like small cats. I think by now I was also getting attacked by harpies pretty regularly. Minotaurs joined the bestiary on Elemental Barrier Two.
It was somewhere on this level that I found a Bag of Lightness, which changed life enormously. The bag has 12 slots, and nothing you put in it weighs anything unless you're holding the bag. I was able to shuffle a bunch of stuff and finally get back below my weight threshold, but that didn't last forever, and by the end of this session, I was back to having to drop a chest at the beginning of the level, explore, and then return for it. 
The bag helped, but my new samurai armor made me overburdened again.
Elemental Barrier Two started with a combat against an NPC named Murc'met who said he was a great swordsman but died in like two hits. Later, I met one of his former companions, Toh, who talked smack about him. She also talked about making an effort to find the blade Warmonger, the demon-possessed sword created by King Borel and used by the character in DarkSpyre. She discussed a couple of rumors about where it might be held, including a hidden chamber before the elemental barriers or an underground cavern within the territory of the White Knight. I hope it wasn't in a secret area on the Elemental Barrier levels because I never found it.
Later, an old man named Nigel introduced the possibility of a multiverse: he said that when he died, he expected to move on to another plane, and he thinks there must be magical ways to move between planes. He cited the example of the Gods of War, Magic, and Intellect, who clearly came from some place external.
Punching through the elemental barrier.
I otherwise didn't write down much about the Elemental Barrier levels until I got to the end and flung the three spheres into the appropriate barriers. (This required me to take them back to Duncan, but each level had a way to shortcut it on the way back to the beginning.) My shots show a lot of the usual: keyed doors, levers, pressure plates that had to be weighed down (there were a lot of these on the last level in particular), doors that had to be opened with the "Kano" spell, and so forth.
Using a rolling ball to weigh down a pressure plate after stopping it with a "Magic Wall." Yawn.
As I got through the elemental barriers, I was once again visited by the apparition of Rowena, who confirmed that Shadow Weaver intended to use the Staff of Summoning (I had already learned as much from Dunstan on the Broken Seal levels). The Staff is apparently broken into two pieces, one of which Shadow Weaver already has, the other of which is in another world. To get there, I'll need to learn a special spell from the skulls of the eight wizards. I'm preparing for a twist ending in which this isn't really Rowena visiting me, but we'll see.
What do you want to bet that this "other world" coincidentally consists of dungeons with puzzles?
The area after the Elemental Barrier levels is called the Realms of the Five Knights. I've only explored one so far, but I'm assuming it ultimately consists of five levels, each ruled by a different colored knight. The first level was the Blue Knight's, and as I entered, I was greeted by one of his warriors, Makabre. He gave me the lay of the land. The other knights are White, Ebon, Green, and Crimson, and the five are constantly looking to undermine the others, sometimes forming alliances, sometimes breaking them. The Ebon Knight is the most powerful of the lot, the Green Knight the weakest. Each wears a medallion, and to get out of the area, I'll need to collect all five medallions and drop them in a hole in front of a great door. Man, I really hope Shadow Weaver has a secret entrance; otherwise, when he's in the mood for a taco, getting out of his own fortress must be seriously inconvenient.
You may come to regret that you offered this information so freely.
The Blue Knight's level made me complete three "challenges": the mind, the fighter, and the mage. The fighter challenge just had a bunch of enemies, and the mage had a puzzle involving the "Magic Wall" spell that was no harder than a regular puzzle. The "mind" one wasn't hard, but it was funny. The walls in this section were built like an equation, with holes between the operators: HOLE + HOLE = HOLE. There was a chest with three objects in it: a rock, a Jera potion, and an empty potion flask. To solve the puzzle, I had to swallow the potion and hurl one of the flasks at the wall, breaking it, and then drop the resulting objects in the holes so that the equation was ROCK + FLASK = BROKEN GLASS. Unfortunately, the creators made it so the holes would only accept the proper objects, so it was a bit too easy.
This was a cute idea.
Enemies started getting a lot harder on this level with the introduction of samurai, and then eventually I had to kill the Blue Knight himself. Still, "harder" doesn't mean very hard. Even though the enemies might be capable of pounding away my hit points in a few hits, I can always cast "Freeze," then run away from combat. The spell lasts long enough to make and quaff a couple of healing potions, at which point I can re-engage and cast "Freeze" again if necessary. You can't even run out of spells because the spell preparation window (unlike the inventory window) freezes the action on the screen. To be a real threat, an enemy would have to be immune to magic or last long enough that you exhaust your spell points. That hasn't been a danger yet.
This line of samurai was tough, but the pressure plate allowed me to crush some of them in the door.
I started finding the wizards' skulls on this level, ultimately finding three: Erastus, Zana, and Sea Raven. Each taught me one symbol for the "Gateway" spell. I figure if I get six of the eight, I could figure out the rest on my own. I don't know if I need to keep the skulls after talking with them, but I have been.
It feels rude just to dump them on the floor.
The Blue Knight's level ended with a fiendish puzzle. Involving a large area of 20 small rooms, each with two or three doors connecting them to the other rooms. A large chamber nearby held 20 levers, each of which opened at least one door and some of which closed others. I had to test them all, carefully noting the effects (when I could even see them) on the opened and closed doors in the chambers. Each chamber had a will-o-wisp, which has a lightning missile attack. The whole area took a while, but it ultimately led me to the teleporter to the Blue Knight and then to the level's exit. The next area appears to be the White Knight's domain, and here I signed off.
My heart sank when I walked into this area.
Beyond that, there's not much to tell you except miscellaneous things:
  • One puzzle gave me a room in the shape of a clock. There were 12 pressure plates that I clearly had to weigh down with rocks, and a skull told me that I wanted "eagle's position." Through trial and error (and reloading, because the wrong choice sent fireballs hurling at me), I figured out that the right positions were 12 and 7. What does this have to do with eagles?
Is there some in-game context by which this makes sense?
  • Since I eventually had plenty of weapons, I tried to prioritize the ones for which I had low skill, starting with missile weapons. By this time, I was carrying two bows and had a quiver full of arrows, including a couple of barbed and poison arrows. While you can pick up arrows after combat, I find that I slowly lost about half of them just because they can be hard to see. But the thing I like is that you just have to run over them and hit "T" ("Take") to pick them up, and they go directly into the quiver. I wish Dungeon Master made it so easy.
  • The game has an annoying copy protection system. When you start up, you have to consult a page in the manual, each of which has a string of five faces at the top of the page, which you replicate in the game window. Some of them are kind of hard to make out in the book. 
This discourages short sessions.
  • Melee weapons and shields have broken plenty of times. Armor, greaves, helms, gauntlets, and bows have never broken. Do they?
  • Some of the doors are tough to pick out from the surrounding walls.
Note the closed door to the southwest of my character.
  • I'm carrying way too many extra Raido, Gebo, and Thurisaz runes, all of which teleport you to their respective floor sigils if the level you're on has them. So far, I haven't found very many floor sigils that aren't accessible through non-teleportation means.
This was a rare exception.
  • Amulets use up their magic and disappear in less than five minutes. They may as well have not even included them.
  • So far, every time the game has called for a miscellaneous item, it has offered that miscellaneous item somewhere on the same level. I assume, given all the warnings I've received, this must change at some point. If not, you're making me carry around a lot of extra junk for nothing.
  • Character development slowed to a crawl this section. I ended the last one a "Cavalier" (8/12) and remain one hours later. My edged weapon skill went up to "Savant" (8/10), an increase of one, and my use of missile weapons went to "Skilled" (5/10). Healing magic increased by one category to "Sage" (8/10), but that's only because I used a Fehu rune (creates random objects), which in turn got me a Perth rune, which levels up a random spell skill. 
My current status.
As I acquire new spells, it's getting harder and harder to memorize them, and inconvenient to refer to screenshots of the hand motions. Now that I have all 12 hand positions, I've assigned a number to each one, and I have a notepad where I've written down every spell's numerical code. This works if I have plenty of time, but I needed something faster for the spells I might want to quickly memorize and cast in combat, so I unwittingly found myself adopting a mnemonic device for the most common spells, based on what the hand movements could represent. 
Ultimately, I had labeled the 12 movements, in order:
  1. "Point." It looks like someone saying "Point of Order!"
  2. "Hope." Because I initially interpreted it as crossed fingers. I had to go with what works.
  3. "One." That was the laziest one.
  4. "Crush," because it looks like someone crushing a soda can.
  5. "Commodore." It was the first thing I could think of that began with "C."
  6. "Paper." From Rock, Paper, Scissors.
  7. "Hook," because that's what he's doing with his finger.
  8. "Swear," because it looks like someone taking an oath.
  9. "Waiter," because it almost looks like someone carrying a tray.
  10. "Rock," also from the game.
  11. "Dude." I realize the sign is usually with the thumb, not the index finger, but you go with what you first think of.
  12. "Little," as if the person is saying, "just a little bit."
Waiter! One little rock, dude.
After this, the trick is to string them together along with an image of the spell. "Flaming Arrow" becomes CRUSHING a ROCK, and you picture a flaming arrow doing that. "Kano" (which opens doors) is similarly CRUSHING HOPE, so I picture an enemy on the other side of the door desperately hoping that I won't get through. "Restore" is tougher: ONE POINT is that the DUDE is a WAITER. I don't know why, but for some reason I could hear Robert Downey Jr. saying that sentence, and he was in Restoration with Sam Neill, so it works. I'll probably remember that long after I've forgotten my own middle name.
Time so far: 21 hours