Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Game 352: Dungeons of Avalon II: The Island of Darkness (1992)

This screen is the same in both the German and English versions.
              
Dungeons of Avalon II: The Island of Darkness
Germany
Zeret (developer); published by CompuTec Verlag (German) and Amiga Mania (English)
Released in 1992 for the Amiga
Date Started: 7 January 2020
       
It was over three years ago that I played the frustrating Dungeons of Avalon (1991), which exceeded the typical diskmag game (a game that was distributed via an electronic magazine) in technical quality. But I wasn't able to win it, first because the final battle was unbelievably hard--I can't imagine anyone winning it "straight"--and second because even when I cheated to win the final battle, I couldn't get any flag to trip to show me the endgame screens. Said screens did exist in the game, as attested by the various files.

So the ending was a bit of a downer, but the gameplay experience until then was very good, and we find the same experience in Dungeons of Avalon II. As far as I can tell, the game mechanics, graphics, and sound haven't changed at all between the two versions. The only thing that's changed is the layout of the dungeon and the ostensible reason for being there.
            
The German version supplies the backstory.
         
The games look a lot like Dungeon Master and indeed follow some Dungeon Master protocols when it comes to door switches and navigation puzzles. In everything else, however, they are much more products of the Wizardry lineage. In particular, enemies can't be seen in the environment--you just stumble upon them--and combat is run by having each character specify an action and then watching as they execute in conjunction with the enemies' actions. In their use of grotesque graphics and ambient sound, the Avalon games arguably exceed the best commercial Wizardry derivatives of the era.

I had expected to import characters between the games, so I was glad to see that the sequel starts things over with a new party. It takes place 49 years after the defeat of the Dark Lord in the first game. Avalon has become an empire and expanded to the sea and beyond. On one of its islands, evil has befallen the city of Isla. Monsters have appeared out of nowhere, overwhelming the trading port and slaughtering the city guards. The mayor, Roa, has written to the king for help. The king has dispatched several parties of soldiers and mages to the city, but none have returned. Finally, in desperation, he organizes one more small party, hoping they can succeed where the others failed.

The backstory specifies that "five heroes were chosen . . . two fighters and three magicians," which conflicts with the fact that you can create a party of six and you're not in any way limited by class. The races and classes haven't changed. Races are human (mensch), elf, half-elf (halb-elf), dwarf (zwerg), troll, "gnom," "lizzard" (echse), and "stembär," the last an homage to music composer Rudolf Stember. Classes are fighter (krieger), thief (dieb), knight (ritter), hunter (jäger), monk (mönch), magician (magier), healer (heiler), and wizard (hexer), the last four equipped with spellbooks as well as melee weapons.
            
Creating a new character.
       
Once you specify race and class during creation, the game automatically rolls for intelligence, dexterity, wisdom, luck, strength, and constitution, modified by race. You can spend a lot of time re-rolling, but these attributes increase between 2 and 11 points per level anyway. Character portraits are automatic based on class and always seem to look human. All are male.

Even though I didn't play with them--I never do--I noted that the default party starts at Level 3, which puts them at a major advantage over a party that you create yourself. 

I went with:
           
  • Armin, a human knight
  • Fomorus, a troll fighter
  • Ferry, a half-elf thief
  • Jolson, a dwarf monk
  • Aurion, an elf magician
  • Taliesin, a lizzard wizard
         
I had a tough time getting things started. There are multiple German and English versions of the game on the web, some "patched" in some way, others not. I started with a WHDLoad version of the English edition, but halfway through Level 1 I ran into some problems--the same problems that a period reviewer found when he tried to play the game. It essentially had to do with the wrong encounters showing up in the wrong squares, making it impossible to pass those squares.
         
The shopowner is proud of his limited wares.
         
I couldn't find any English version in which that problem had been repaired, so I switched to a "patched" German version (although I don't know if that's one of the things it patched), which meant starting over with new characters and losing a couple of hours of progress. Fortunately, the game is not that text-heavy, and I can read a lot of it without needing a translator, thanks to previous German RPG experience. Also, a lot of the text is in English even in the German version, including the title.
          
Not only is this encounter in the wrong place, he doesn't actually give you a key.
         
There are 10 levels of 32 x 32 to explore (with worm-tunnel walls), divided into two structures: the dungeon and the Tower of Roa. (The first game had 50 x 50 levels, but fewer of them.) A menu town with a shop, a temple, and a training guild sits outside.

Exploration is not entirely "open," but it's less linear than the typical dungeon crawler. Each level has multiple sections, some disconnected from the others, and at any given moment you're probably looking for at least three keys, objects, puzzle solutions, or other necessities to uncover different areas.
           
You have to check all walls for these little floor buttons. Pressing them removes the wall.
         
The levels also wrap, which always disappoints me. Wrapping dungeon levels give you a momentary navigation pause, but they otherwise offer little extra challenge to justify tearing the player out of any sensible reality.
           
My map of Level 2 of the main dungeon. Note the north/south wrap on column 8.
           
The levels are full of the types of light puzzles I remember from the first game. Small grates at the bottom threshold of the walls indicate secret doors; sometimes you have a dozen of these in a sequence. Other secret doors are revealed by pressure plates or wall switches. There are teleporters, traps, spinners, magic barriers, and occasional "ice floors" that send you careening down long hallways with no ability to stop. Fortunately, a group of spells keep you oriented and solve most of the navigation issues, including "Vogelblick" ("Birds' View") "Magier Auge" ("Magic Eye"), and "Falkenfeder" ("Levitation").
            
The game's automap is quite good, though not enough that I could rely on it exclusively.
            
Combats occur at fixed locations (with no respawning), but most have random compositions. Sometimes, you lose to two groups of three zombies, reload, and face a single skeleton on your second try. You don't see the enemies themselves in the environment, but there are very faint blue lines on the tiles where a fixed combat is going to occur; whether this is intentional or some kind of side-effect of the game's coding is unknown. Fighting follows a Wizardry model in which only the first three characters can attack in melee range. You specify actions for each character and watch them execute (threaded with the enemies' actions) all at once. One nice thing is a "quick combat" option that just runs through the actions without narrating the results. At the end of combat (whether you win or flee), you get a little summary of who did and took how much damage, and how experience and gold were allocated. The only other game I remember ever offering such a feature is the German Legend of Faerghail (1990).
           
Combat options when attacking a "pest baby" include attacking, using an object, casting a spell, and defend.
         
The game strikes a good balance in difficulty. It allows you to save anywhere, but you can only camp (to recover health and magic points) on rare fixed squares that have an emblem with the letter "C." You have to keep spell points in reserve to handle the occasional blindness, poison, disease, or petrification.
             
Final statistics after a battle with an "invisible."
           
There's been some nice ambient sound--creaks and groans and moaning wind as you explore the dungeon corridors. Unfortunately, it's a bit repetitive and can't be turned off independently from the music, which is well composed but (as always with me) unwelcome. Thus, I have been playing mostly in silence. 

Perhaps the best part of the game is the grotesque monster portraits and other unusual graphics. The graphics are credited jointly to Hakan Akbiyik, Frank Matzke, and Klaus Ehrhardt. I've checked out their individual portfolios and don't see anything quite the same as the Avalon games, so I'm not sure who to credit.
           
The authors' conception of a "zombie."
This dragon wants a "dragon stone."
This "voodoo man" might be considered a little "questionable" today.
            
Unfortunately, the game has a lot of negative points, too:

1. I don't care for the controls much. Too much depends on the mouse. You can move with the arrow keys but not activate doors or switches. Number keys open the characteristics of the characters, but you then have to use the mouse to switch to inventories or exit. When you're given numbered commands on the screen, you can't activate them with the number keys--you have to click on them. Things like that add up.

2. As with its predecessor, characters in Dungeons of Avalon II start hitting their level caps with two or three game levels left to go.

3. There might as well have been no economy. After you equip your characters at the beginning, the only thing to spend money on is the occasional temple healing and leveling up. For your first 4 or 5 character levels, you're chronically under-funded and almost always waiting for enough gold to advance half your party. Pretty soon, the situation reverses and you have tens of thousands of gold pieces.
       
If you don't get diseased or killed much, money doesn't have a purpose.
              
4. It's too goddamned long, particularly where the encounters leave you no reason to fight once you've hit the level cap except that all the encounters are fixed. A diskmag dungeon crawler of this quality would have been perfect at 12-16 hours. Instead, I think it's going to come very near to 40.

As the game begins, you can enter either the dungeon on Level 0 or the Tower of Roa on Level 5. But the part of the Tower that you enter takes you only a short distance before you run into either locked doors or an encounter with a giant named "Argha" who wants you to bring him a dragon to grant passage.

You thus have to explore a while in the main dungeon. The game follows European hotel tradition by designating the first floor "0" and the second floor "1." Level 0 is full of long, snaky corridors with a lot of false walls that have to be opened with switches. In the far southern corridor is a teleporter that takes you to a central area with four pressure plates (and four camping squares), the combinations of which determine which corridors are open at which times. The pressure plate is preceded by message squares that say "BEAM ME UP SCOTTY" in the German version but misspell "BEAM" as "BAEM" in the English version.

The northern half of the level is suggested as a "jail" with numerous cells curving off the main corridor, most hosting fixed combats. A guardian blocks the way to this area until you give him a letter of invitation, which is found in a treasure chest to the southeast.

Monsters on Level 0 are mostly giant turtles and giant frogs, neither of which has any special attacks. They ease you nicely into the combat system.
        
A freaky-looking turtle.
         
Two of the "cells" have special encounters. A dragon is looking for a "dragon stone" for some reason. A group of thieves offers to trade a key for their freedom, although I neglected to write down what I had to do to achieve their freedom. Their key ends up opening the "map rooms" in the Tower of Roa, allowing some further progression on its first level.
        
Some thieves complain about being locked up.
       
A teleporter brings the party to a long north/south corridor that leads to the stairs to Level 1. There, things get more complicated. A small, winding corridor leads you immediately to the stairs to Level 2, which you must nearly fully explore before you find stairs back up to Level 1.

The main part of Level 1 is presented as a rectangular hallway with six crypts jutting to the east and west. The crypts belong to royalty of ages past--kings and queens and princes of Avalon, Isodor, and the Isle Rachon. A couple of them are answers to later puzzles that otherwise block progress. One of the kings is given as the king of "ZD and CT," which is I assume a reference to Zeret and CompuTec.
             
Zouth Dakota and Connecticut?
           
In a chest deep in the level, you find the first truly good equipment. Until then, you've mostly been stuck with the stuff you bought at the beginning, plus perhaps a few scrolls, potions, and regular missile weapons for the rear characters. Here, you find Arc's Helmet and Ara's Armour, Arc and Ara being heroes of ages gone. Mysteriously, you also find a few treasure chests that go into your inventory as whole chests. I've tried everything, and I don't think there's any way to open them. I think maybe you're just expected to sell them whole.
         
What am I supposed to do with these damned chests?
          
I'll stop there so I have something to talk about next time. I poured hours into this game over the weekend, hoping to finish it for a single entry, but it was to no avail. Cross your fingers and hope I can win this one.

Time so far: 24 hours

27 comments:

  1. "I had expected to import characters between the games, so I was glad to see that the sequel starts things over with a new party."

    I am curious why the option of importing characters is a con rather than a pro? (Or are you saying that it's nice that here, unlike eg. Wizardry's sequels, importing characters is not mandatory? Especially given your inability to complete the first game?)

    "The levels also wrap, which always disappoints me."

    Also, would it be more acceptable if instead of a time-warping square bridging the top and bottom of the map, there was a teleporter at the bottom relocating the party to the top of the map?

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    Replies
    1. I mean, you're right that complaining about "realism" in a game with teleporters is somewhat silly--but yes, I would mind it less. I like starting new dungeon maps with a hard border--it makes me feel like I'm making progress faster.

      As for importing characters, I'm having trouble remembering why I wrote "glad" there. Normally, I LIKE the option, except when they get overpowered. Usually they don't get overpowered in a single sequel, though.

      Delete
    2. Teleportation magic is usually defined within the game context in a way that makes sense in-universe. A layout where you would be able to see yourself ahead of you if there was a clear line of sight rarely is.

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    3. Yeah, what gnoman says. It's the difference between Realism (which is kinda silly to insist on in a world of magic) and verisimilitude. The latter just says 'We're going to claim these fantastic things, and if you agree to suspend your disbelief that far, we'll try to follow our rules and have it all make sense'.

      So a world which has magic and which has mazes that teleport you around? Ok, that fits. A world that has magic and also impossible physical geometry? Doesn't really follow from the 'magic' thing unless you're getting all Cthulhu.

      It's not a huge deal, but yeah. It'd annoy me when I discovered it.

      Delete
    4. That lizards and trolls look like guys with beards probably hurts the verisimilitude as well. Also, the contrast with the party members and their pinched faces makes the monster art look even more bizarre next to them.

      Delete
    5. I suspect the level-wrap wouldn't be nearly as much of an issue if there was any in-universe explanation for *why* it exists. (e.g. "These dungeons were created by a mad wizard and may bend space and time - beware!")

      In the absence of anything, it's just jarring and weird and breaks the player's general trust that things will behave in predictable and internally consistent ways.

      Delete
  2. I wonder if anyone told the title screen artist what the game's name was. Maybe they drew it during an earlier stage of development when it was still tentatively called "Dungeons of Avalon II: Island of Moderate Cloud Cover".

    Also, are dungeon maps that wrap around like that a common sight? I'd get it if it was the overworld, but it makes no sense in a context like this. I think the only other time I've seen an interior location in a video game wrap around like that was Pac-Man.

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    Replies
    1. Ha! And then the entire game takes place in a dungeon anyway, with no sense at all that you're on an "island."

      Yes, dungeon wrapping like that is quite common. We just saw it with Camelot. Even the original Wizardry did it. I hate it mostly because I like to be able to draw a wall perimeter around every fresh dungeon map.

      Delete
  3. The wrap feature always makes me think Pac Man and by default Arcade rather than RPG.

    Never truly impacts gameplay other than making it more convenient than having to trudge all the way through a dungeon, but I'm not a fan (although as one commenter noted, I'd wondered if teleporters would have changed my views and settled on "Still not a fan, but would dislike it less")

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  4. Was it necessary to keep a copyright notice on screen at all times? Coulda used those pixels for something, I'm sure.

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  5. I would like to know, why Chet never uses default party and what opinion about it have my fellow commenters. I am quite opposite - when it was possible, I used the default party. Why? First maybe I am little bit lazy and I want to play, not to spend much time by other things, which are not so attractive to me. Second I usually don´t read manual, so I don´t know, what could be good combination and what not. This maybe has origin in the times, when most of games in our country was pirated, so we had to play games without manual and find out all ourselves. Third and probably most important - I don´t know, which skills and abilities are useful in the game and which not. And I somehow trust the developers that they know it best. If I remember well, I was usually not dissapointed in that and the default party was well-balanced.

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    Replies
    1. If the option is there, I prefer to create my own party. It adds a personal touch to the game, and I love tinkering with attributes and skills, seeing what works and what effect they have. The default party is usually serviceable, but often you can do better.

      The only exception is when series later make the default character or party canon, something like Might and Magic did with Crag Hack and company. Then I feel sort of compelled to use them if I ever replay the earlier game.

      I'm not above plundering the default party for all their wealth, though. :)

      Delete
    2. For me, reading the manual and creating the characters are part of the fun, specially as I do try to roleplay whenever possible.

      And it is a fun the carries trough the whole game.

      Delete
    3. I love creating my own characters! I couldn't imagine not doing so. The aspects of choice and trade-offs when making a character, and throughout the game, are one of the main reasons I love RPGs so much.

      Delete
    4. For some games, I create the characters because I love the aspect of tinkering with character creation and building a party that fits my style of play. Other times the character creator is like a little game itself, or it can help immerse me in the setting by giving useful and interesting information about the world.

      Delete
    5. Character creation is one of my favorite parts of RPGs, and I am always disappointed when a game doesn't let me create at least one character (games with fixed protagonists like Witcher, for example - I'm fine with games like Planescape Torment and Disco Elysium though because those let you distribute the stats and skills of your character, even though his backstory is fixed). Party-based dungeon crawlers should let me create a full party.

      I never run with the default party or default characters (Fallout and Arcanum had a bunch of pre-made ones to choose from) because that way, I'd deprive myself of the delicious character creation ;)

      Delete
    6. Character creation really scratches my min/max itch. While I'm sure the default party is ok, there's almost always greater efficiencies and sometimes hidden capabilities to be found in making your own. Not to mention (in some games) rerolling characters til you get some very good stats.

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    7. I will use the default party but only after playing a game at least once with custom party. Makes the game more my own.

      Delete
    8. Character creation is more important for me than character development during the game. I want to play my character and that works best when you start with a blank piece of paper.

      Delete
    9. For most of the reasons people have already listed. Although I don't consider it part of my official definition, I really do love real role-playing in CRPGs. For many games--especially in this early era--creating your own character was the closest you got. If you're not willing to put the time and energy into that (I think), why are you even playing RPGs?

      Delete
    10. Names are the important part for me. My names probably aren't much better but some default party ones are embarrassing!

      Delete
    11. Character creation is traditionally one of the deepest and most enjoyable parts of RPGs, whether tabletop or computerised.

      It's also one of the places where you can most freely express yourself (or, indeed, make "yourself" the protagonist), and for many people - and Chet, as he's frequently said - that self-expression is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the RPG genre.

      Thirdly, representation is important. Whether it's the specific ability of people who are not (for example) white dudes to have a character who they identify with, or just that you want to feel like it's *your* hero and not someone else's, it make a big difference to be able to create your own characters.

      Fourth, often default characters in these games have goofy names and I hate them.

      Fifth, working out what the *right* balance of characters are to win the game (or win it in the way that you enjoy playing) is content - it's a puzzle to be solved - and I don't want someone handing me the answer before I've worked it out for myself.

      Sixth, I just don't trust the default party to be interesting. It's often a meat-and-two-veg party with a generic spread of melee, support and range, and hopefully it'll be *viable* but it's not necessarily as fun as making some weird combo for yourself.

      Probably more as well, but that's some of the key reasons.

      (I should note that where a game has been written to specifically address the default characters, by assuming the player to have a certain background, a certain name, a certain motivation, etc, I'd then much rather use the default character and get the 'as intended' experience.)

      Delete
    12. CRPG Addict: I suppose I play RPG´s, because I like stories and because I like puzzles/challenges and tactic (my second favourite genre is different strategy games). For having fun I don´t need to have feeling it's "me" inside the game. And frankly especially when you have some party, it would be hard to pretend it's me, me, me and me :-).
      I take my party like some of my friends, or maybe sometimes I feel like some kind of their mentor. And because of this I somehow don´t feel urgency to create them myself.

      Also I hate when I must create my party and after I discover I took some skills, which appeared interesting, but in game they are mostly useless or worse, that I didn´t take some skills, which are quite essential. Especially when I discover this in the middle of the game, I don´t want to start again. How I said, I have trust in developers that this will not happen to me with default party. I am suprised that nobody of guys who responded to my question didn´t mention this point of view.

      Delete
    13. Eh, and sorry for my mistakes, I was writing this at work and I didn´t have time to check it before publishing :-(

      Delete
  6. Just as a side note, Rudolf Stember also composed the soundtrack for Blade of Destiny. So by pure coincidence, we have two games with the same composer at the same time :)

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  7. "The graphics are credited jointly to Hakan Akbiyik, Frank Matzke, and Klaus Ehrhardt. I've checked out their individual portfolios and don't see anything quite the same as the Avalon games, so I'm not sure who to credit."

    The intro credits Frank Matzke (who has made quite a career managing German business branches for Sierra and Bethesda) for monster sketches, and Klaus Ehrhardt for monster graphics. Hakan Akbiyik is credited for "main graphics", which probably means everything else.

    Looking further, I see you've already covered this in your entry for Dungeons of Avalon I.

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  8. The temple screenshot immediately striked me, it shows one of the most annyoing German language errors: https://seitseid.de/

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