Thursday, February 20, 2020

Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny: Summary and Rating

Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny
Released in Germany as Das Schwarze Auge: Die Schicksalsklinge
attic Entertainment Software (developer); Fantasy Productions (German publisher); Sir-Tech (U.S. Publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS, 1993 for Amiga
Date Started: 13 November 2019
Date Ended: 7 February 2020
Total Hours: 38
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)


First in a lineage based on the German tabletop RPG Das Schwarze Auge, Blade of Destiny is a gem waiting to be cut and polished. A party of six, comprising familiar races but original classes, stops a horde of orcs from razing the city of Thorwal by finding a legendary sword that defeated the orcs in the past. In an effort to offer a computer game that adhered closely to tabletop rules and gaming style, Blade perhaps errs too much towards obtuse statistics, lengthy character creation and leveling, myriad spells, and exhausting tactical combat. Yet the developers managed to create a large, open game world and populate it with interesting encounters of a variety of length and difficulty, thus feeling a lot like a series of tabletop modules. Nothing in the game--first-person exploration (in Bard's Tale style, but with an interface drawn from Might and Magic III), paper-doll inventories (looking a lot like Eye of the Beholder), axonometric combat (clearly inspired by SSI), dozens of skills and spell skills--works badly, but almost every part of the game needed a little tweaking, editing, or tightening. I enjoyed it more as I became more familiar with its conventions, and it left me looking forward to its next installment.

I grew to enjoy Blade of Destiny more as the hour grew later (the opposite of what usually happens), although the game never really did manage to solve some of its early weaknesses. In the end, I'm struck at how much it reminds me of Pool of Radiance, the first attempt at a serious adaptation of another tabletop system. Both feature the standard party of six. In neither game do the party members have a direct, personal connection to the main quest. In both, the main quest is somewhat low-key--the fate of a city versus the fate of the world. Both keep character leveling in the single digits, and both err towards keeping faith with their tabletop roots, even when it might have been best for the computer game to improvise a bit.

I don't know whether to blame Das Schwarze Auge or the computer game for my chief complaints, most of which can be rolled up into three words: combat is exhausting. Combat is a major part of any RPG, so you don't want your players doing things like reloading to avoid it, which I did a lot. I abandoned entire dungeons because I was sick of all the fighting, so it's a good thing I didn't need an extra character level to win. The primary issues are:
  • The axonometric perspective doesn't work well for combat. It's hard to separate the characters and enemies from each other and particularly hard to move to a specific tile.
  • Everyone misses too often.
  • Attacks don't cause enough damage.
  • Spells, which would make the whole thing go faster, eat up so many magic points that you can rarely cast more than three or four before needing multiple nights' rest to recharge.
In light of these things, the "quick combat" system was a good idea. Unfortunately, combat is hard enough (at least until the end) that you can't really use it until there are only a couple enemies left. Even then, quick combat isn't really "quick." (To be fair, I guess they don't call it that; it's something like "Computer Fight.") You still have to watch the computer take all the actions and monitor your characters' status. It just means you can watch a television show at the same time.
If you can make out individual characters in those blobs, your eyesight is better than mine.
The spell issue had more consequences than just a difficult combat experience. The developers took the time to put several dozen spells into the game, and I never used more than about 5 of them. I kept meaning to find a good place to save near a known combat and then just keep reloading and experimenting, but I never identified an ideal position for this. Most of them would have failed anyway because the nature of the spell skill system means that you can't possibly specialize in more than half a dozen. When I play the sequel, it will absolutely be my priority to more fully investigate the spell catalog.

I had a few lingering questions after the last entry, such as what happens if you try to kill the orc champion with a weapon other than Grimring, and what happens if you don't honor the rule that only your champion fights. Unfortunately, the final save prompted me to overwrite the save game I'd taken just before the battle. My next-most recent save was from before exploring the orc caves and getting the message that led to the endgame. I'm not willing to do all of that again, so we'll have to leave it a mystery unless someone has some experience with it. But I was able to check out the alternate "bad" ending, which I would have experienced had I lingered for extra year in the quest. As I typed the rest of this entry, I had my party sleep at the inn for batches of 99 days until the game woke me up with the fateful message:
So the orcs are the "Vikings" of this setting.
Overall, I felt that the time constraint was generous enough that it wouldn't have impacted my approach even if I'd been more eager to explore every trail and sea lane. This is a good thing because there was quite a bit more to find. I took a look at a cluebook for the game, and among entire dungeons that I overlooked were a "wolf's lair" between Ottarje and Orvil, a six-level "ship of the dead" that I would have found if I'd taken more boat trips, and a three-level "dragon's hoard" on Runin Island. This latter location sounds like it would have been especially lucrative, with an option to do a side quest for the dragon and receive four magic items as a reward.

But I've always been fine with missing content. It's practically necessary in modern games, lest you exhaust yourself before the end. It also enhances a game's replayability. It's nice to see the number of titles with such optional content growing.

Let's give it the ol' GIMLET:

1. Game World. I didn't find the Nordic setting terribly original, but I enjoyed it just the same. The backstory is set up well, and as previously mentioned, I liked the low-key nature of the main plot. The main quest did a good job encouraging nonlinear exploration of the large world. The problem is that the game itself doesn't quite deliver on the backstory (or the tabletop setting in general). The various cities and towns are too interchangeable, the NPCs too bland. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. Well, I can't complain that it doesn't give you enough options. The leveling-up process in Blade of Destiny is probably the longest in any game to date. Not just longest, but most frustrating, with the caps on the number of times you can increase a particular skill per level (even if you neglected it in the early levels) and frequent failures as you try to increase. The caps in particular make it feel like the characters are never really getting stronger or better. (I think the final battle could be won by a Level 1 character.) Hit points and spell points, in particular, are almost imperceptibly slow to increase.
No, not now! I have an appointment in 90 minutes!
Still, I like the nature of character classes in the setting, including the use of "negative attributes" and the plethora of skills. I just wish I had a clearer sense of what skills, attributes, and negative attributes came into play in what circumstances, which bits of equipment compensated for them, and so on. The game text is obtuse enough that sometimes it's not even clear whether you succeeded or failed. When it is, it's almost always because you failed. Honestly, how high do I need to jack up my "Treat Wounds" skill before it has a greater than 50% chance of not making the character worse?

Back on the positive side, I think different party compositions would make a considerable difference in gameplay. I think you could have fun with some interesting combinations, like an all-dwarf party or an all-magician party. It's just too bad the different race/class templates didn't have more role-playing implications. Score: 5.

3. NPC Interaction. This was a really wasted area of the game. The developers give you the ability to talk to every bartender, innkeeper, smith, and cashier, but most of the dialogue is stupid when it isn't confusing. I'd blame the translation, but my German readers report that it was stupid and confusing even in German. The few dialogue options are either false options that lead to the same outcome or confusing ones with counter-intuitive results (e.g., asking to see the map makes the NPC give it to you; asking for the map makes him just show it to you). That said, you occasionally get an important hint from your various NPC interactions. I just wish it had been more consistent and that the developers had used the system to give more blood to the game world. Score: 4.
This conversation made no sense as a whole, and these individual responses made no sense in detail.
4. Encounters and Foes. The game shines, though sometimes with a marred finish, in this area. I really enjoyed the variety of encounters, some fixed, some random, that the party gets on the road and as it explores dungeons and towns. I like that some of them are a single screen, resolved instantly, and others lead you off on a multi-hour digression. In contrast to the dialogue, the text of these special encounters is usually evocative and interesting, and I can even forgive the occasional shaggy dog joke like the "wyvern" encounter. I just wish for a few more role-playing options in these encounters.
These diversions and side areas never stopped being fun.
Foes were mostly high-fantasy standards with similar strengths and weaknesses that we've seen in a thousand RPGs but at least they appeared in appropriate contexts. We've come a long way from the days when we were inexplicably attacked by parties of 6 orcs, 3 trolls, 2 magicians, and a griffon right in the middle of town. Score: 6.

5. Magic and Combat. Very mixed. I like the combat options, the variety of spells, and the turn-based mechanics. I just didn't like the execution, which was partly due to interface and partly due to the game rules. Either way, combat was generally a tedious, annoying process rather than the joyful one I typically find in, say, a Gold Box game. As for spells, the game really needs some in-game help to assist with them, perhaps annotating the spells in which each class is supposed to specialize. Every spellcasting session and every level-up was a long process of flipping through the manual. It's too bad because the spells are so varied and interesting on paper. Score: 4.
I only ever tried about 6 of these spells, which coincidentally is the number of spells I got above 0 in my ability to cast after 5 levels.
6. Equipment. Another disappointment. I like the approach to equipment, with a number of slots, but you get upgrades rarely and it's extremely hard to identify them when you do. This is something that perhaps no game has done very well up to this point. I don't mind if it's hard to identify a piece of equipment--if you need a special skill, or spell, or money, or whatever--but I mind if it's annoying. I mind if I have to swap the item around to multiple characters to try different things, especially when the interface makes swapping annoying and time-consuming. I mind when there's no symbol, color, or other mechanism to distinguish weapons and armor with different values. 

Blade offers perhaps the largest variety of "adventure" equipment that we've seen so far, which makes it all the more frustrating that either so much of it is useless, or the game doesn't bother to tell you when a piece of equipment has saved the day. Finally the encumbrance system is geared towards making most characters chronically over-encumbered. The ability to make potions is nice, but again the system is a little too complicated. Score: 4.

7. Economy. Blade almost perfectly emulates the Gold Box series here: money is plentiful from the first dungeon and you hardly have any reason to spend it. My party ended the game with well over 1,000 ducats. Even potions don't serve as a good "money sink" because they don't stack and you have the constant encumbrance issue. A rack of +1 weapons, the ability to pay to recharge spell points, or temple blessings that actually did something all would have been nice. Score: 3.
I just donated 999 crowns!
8. Quests. Generally positive. Blade is one of the few games of the era to understand side quests, and they sit alongside an interesting-enough main quest with multiple stages. It just needed a few more choices and alternate endings. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I know that some readers will defend the game here, but I found all three to be somewhat horrid. Graphics are perhaps the least so. Some of the cut scenes are nice. Regular exploration graphics aren't bad, but the inability to distinguish stores from regular houses is almost unforgivable. Combat graphics are a confusing mess from the axonometric perspective. Any virtues the sound effects may otherwise have are obscured by the jarring three-note cacophony that accompanies opening any menu. And there's no excuse for the interface, which occasionally gives some nods to the keyboard but really wants you to use the mouse throughout.

Aside from my usual complaints about mouse-driven interfaces, the game is full of all kinds of little annoyances. When you find or purchase a piece of equipment, it always goes to the first character. You've got to then go in and redistribute it. It's annoying to transfer equipment between characters, especially if one is over-encumbered. Messages often time out before you're done reading them, or pop up so quickly that you don't have time to read them before you accidentally hit the next movement key, making them disappear. There's a lot of inconsistency, particularly in dungeons, about when you need a contextual menu and when you need to use the buttons on the main interface. There are dozens of other things like this. The developers took the appearance of the Might and Magic III interface but none of its underlying grace.

The auto-map didn't suck. I'll give it that. Score: 2.

10. Gameplay. We can end on a positive note. This is one of the few open-world games of the era, and in between the opening screen and closing combat, it's almost entirely non-linear. The many things that a first-time player doesn't find makes it inherently replayable. And the length and difficulty are just about perfect for the era. I particularly love that you have to lose experience points to save (except at temples), which discourages save-scumming. Score: 8.
This NPC seems to think he's living hundreds of years in the past.
That gives us a subtotal final score of 46, a respectable total that would put it in the top 15% of games so far. But I'm going to administratively remove 2 more points for an issue that really isn't covered by my GIMLET: a lack of editing that created unnecessary confusion at numerous points in the game. There are numerous places that go unused, such as the tower and "Ottaskins" in Thorwal. NPCs frequently tell you things in dialogue that aren't true. There are numerous false leads on the map quest, and I don't think they're there to challenge you--I think the developers changed things and didn't update the dialogue. All of the NPCs in Phexcaer were clearly written for an earlier game in which the nature of the backstory and quest were quite different. It's common now, but relatively uncommon back then, to find a game released in what was clearly its "beta" stage.

So that gives us a final score of 44, which still puts the game in the top 15%. It had a lot of promise, and I'm sorry that the developers didn't find more time to tweak and tighten it.
This is not the sort of game for which you really want to emphasize "conversation."
Blade of Destiny wasn't released in the United States until 1993, so Scorpia didn't take it on until the October 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World. It's one of her more ornery reviews. After saying that the English translation of Das Schwarze Auge, "The Black Eye," "might be appropriate," she goes on to spoil the entire plot in the next paragraph, including the one-on-one combat at the end. She found the plot unoriginal and wasted three days trying to figure out how to find the orc cave, noting that there are no clues to be found anywhere. (Remember: I had to use a walkthrough for this.) She hated the failures when trying to level up, complaining that one of her fighters "made no advance in swords on two successive level gains." She noted a lot of discrepancies between the manual and actual gameplay, particularly in the area of spells, and she agrees with me that combat is a "tedious, frustrating, boring, long-drawn-out affair."

She liked the automap, the ability to reload in the middle of combat, and the extra experience you get the first time you face a particular monster. That was about it. I was surprised to see how much she hated the experience cost for saving. She says she wouldn't have minded if the creators had awarded a bonus for not saving, apparently seeing a difference there that I don't. 

But her worst vitriol was for a bug that I didn't experience: apparently, if you quit in the middle of the final battle, you get the victory screen anyway. "This is not just a scam; it is the Grand Canyon of scams," she sputters. "How did the 20+ playtesters manage to miss this one? If they didn't miss it, why wasn't it fixed?" In summary:
Those who worship at the mythical altar of Realism often end up sacrificing fun and playability on it. That is what happened with Blade of Destiny. In their attempt to make the game "like real life" (something few players want in the first place) the designers went overboard in the wrong direction more than once. I would not recommend Arkania to any game player, but I do recommend it to game designers as an example of what to avoid in their own products. Let us all hope we don't see another one like this any time soon.
Ouch. I don't disagree with the elements she didn't like, but I found more that I did like.

On the continent, the game had polarized reviews. Some thought that the designers went overboard in the right direction, or perhaps didn't go overboard, or perhaps only did it once. Whatever the case, the ASM reviewer (92/100) said that he'd "rarely seen a perfect implementation of an RPG that also remains really playable on the computer." PC Joker (90/100) said that it is "only surpassed by Ultima, leaving the rest of the genre competition far behind in terms of freedom of action and complexity." But not all German reviews were positive. PC Player (48/100) recommended that players "close your eyes, put the lid on, and wait for Star Trail."

(At least there were some positives in the reviews for the original game. A 2013 remake by German-based Crafty Studios came out to almost universally negative reviews despite improved graphics, voiced dialogue, and other trappings of the modern era. It was apparently quite unforgivably bugged. Crafty went on to remake Star Trail in 2017.)
Combat in the remake. At least you can identify the squares a bit easier.
The original game sold well despite a few bad reviews and certainly justified the two sequels, Realms of Arkania: Star Trail (1994) and Realms of Arkania: Shadows over Riva (1996). Together, the trilogy established the viability of Das Schwarze Auge setting, which continues to produce RPGs into the modern era, including The Dark Eye: Drakensang (2008), Deminicon (2013), and Blackguards (2014). Lead developer Guido Henkel would eventually tire of the setting, quit attic, move to the United States, join Black Isle studios, and produce Planescape: Torment.

I haven't attempted to reach out to Henkel, as his work on the Arkania series has been well-documented elsewhere. In his 2012 RPG Codex interview, he explains that the publisher of attic's Spirit of Adventure, StarByte, originally approached the company about creating a series based on Das Schwarze Auge, claiming they already had the rights. The attic personnel were reluctant to work with StarByte after a dreadful Spirit experience ("a horribly crooked company that cheated us and all of its other developers"), so they were delighted to find that the company had been lying about the license. attic managed to get it for themselves, although at such an expense that the three Arkania games barely made a profit despite selling well.

From a 1992 perspective, I would call Blade of Destiny "a good start." I look forward to seeing how things change in the sequels.


B.A.T. II will be coming up next. For the next title on the "upcoming" list, we reach back to 1981 for Quest for Power, later renamed King Arthur's Heir. Come to think of it, the Crystalware titles are so similar and quick that I might try to cover Quest for Power and Sands of Mars in a single session so I can be done with 1981 entirely. Again.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Ragnarok: Temple of Doom

You win some, you lose some.
Ah, roguelikes. There's no other sub-genre in which this kind of narrative makes any sense:
When I walked into the room, I saw a deadly asp on the other side of it. I didn't want him to get too close, so I killed him with my shurikens. I wanted to eat his corpse to get intrinsic poison resistance, but I didn't have any artificial resistance, so I knew trying would kill me. I had three unidentified rings, one of which might have been a Ring of Immunity, which would have protected me from poison while I ate him, but I only had one Scroll of Identification, and I was hoping to hold onto until I found a Scroll of Blessing because blessed Scrolls of Identification identify everything in your pack. I tried one of the rings blind, but it turned out to be a Ring of Relocation, and it teleported me to another part of the dungeon. While I was trying to make it back, I stepped in quicksand and started to drown. The only thing I could think to do was drink an unidentified potion, hoping it was a Potion of Phasing, but it turned out to be a Potion of Lycanthropy, and my character dropped all his stuff when he changed into a werewolf, then ran around the dungeon killing everything he encountered for a few minutes. Eventually, he turned back into a man, but I got killed by another deadly asp before I could get back to my equipment. C'est la vie.
There's so much to learn, and enough that works differently from NetHack that I'm not sure if my previous NetHack knowledge is a blessing or a curse--an apropos phrase, as I spent forever trying to figure out how to use Holy Water to remove curses and/or bless things before coming to the conclusion that it simply doesn't work that way in this game. As far as I can tell, Holy Water just increases your luck. You have to find Scrolls of Dispel Hex and Blessing to do the other things. But if you do find a Scroll of Blessing, a good use for it is to bless your Scroll of Identification, because blessed Scrolls of Identification identify all your items, not just several as in NetHack. To find monsters on the level, I don't want a Potion of Monster Detection; I want a Potion of Depredation, which sounds like a bad thing. If you do find any "bad" potions, don't save them to throw at enemies because that doesn't work here.
And maybe stay away from mushrooms entirely.
The worst part is the monsters. While NetHack and Ragnarok have a lot of overlaps in terms of equipment, the bestiary is almost entirely new. It makes good use of Norse mythology, yay, but I've got to learn every enemy's special attacks and weaknesses again. I started keeping a list of enemies to particularly avoid, but it ended up including almost all enemies. Jacchuses give you a disease that prevents you from healing. Kalvins pluck your eyes out. Pale Mosses destroy your brain tissue, which causes you to forget potions, scrolls, and such that you've already identified. Ramapiths toss fireballs. Red oozes devour your weapons and can't even be killed by regular weapons. Ulls disorient you; Predens give you fevers; Retchweed makes you hungry; Gas balls deafen you; Pelgrats suck charges from wands that you carry. I've barely gotten started.
I had lycanthropy for a while. It was worse for the other creatures in the dungeon.
I've spent a lot of time debating whether to try to eat slain enemies or not. Ragnarok doesn't seem to have as many enemies whose corpses give intrinsic protection, but they're definitely there. The aforementioned asps will give you poison resistance if you can survive eating them. Fire dragons confer fire resistance. I haven't found much else. What I can tell you is that troll corpses do not confer regeneration, wight corpses do not give you experience, and giants do not give you strength.

Ragnarok seems to offer more items and monsters that rearrange the physical environment than other roguelikes. In NetHack, you could take a pick-axe to just about every solid part of a level, and you can do that here, too, but there are also traps that fill rooms with water or lava, cause the ceiling to collapse, or replace all the external walls with monsters. There's a scroll that summons lava, and another that randomly plants trees wherever you are. There's an artifact called a "disruption horn" that you can use in the doorway of a room to cause the ceiling to cave in, killing whatever monsters are there (you get the experience!). A creature called a "mudman" leaves gobs of mud everywhere. There's a wand that just blasts the hell out of everything you point it at, including floors, walls, and anything in between.
Using my horn to collapse the ceiling on a roomful of deadly moss.
I spent seven hours exploring the dungeon beneath the forest, and I have nothing at all to show for it yet. It's three levels with nine maps per level--as big as Rogue by itself. Commenters were right: the game got a lot harder once I left the forest. I've been trying not to abuse the backup system too much, but thank the gods it's there. Some of my more amusing deaths include:

  • I stepped on a mist trap, which confused me. Confused characters in this game sometimes randomly use their items, and in this case, I ate a mushroom that turned the whole world hallucinogenic before killing me.
  • I ate some creature that turned out to be made of lava.
  • I stepped on a trap that turned all the surrounding walls into wizards, who quickly surrounded and killed me.
At least the hill giant probably won't make it out, either.
  • The one below didn't kill me, but it made life hard enough that I reloaded.
What kind of potion was that!?
One of my most heartbreaking deaths came late in this session, when I had just come across a Wand of Wishing. These are as useful here as they are in NetHack except I don't really know the specific names of the best equipment to wish for. Since I'd already activated the first wish by using it at all, I wished for one of the only high-level items whose name I reliably knew: Mjollnir. For some reason, I got a sword instead. Before I even had a chance to investigate it, a bartok came wandering into the room and killed me with a sonic wail. My previous save was well before this area was seeded with equipment. Lesson learned: save after you find Wands of Wishing.
In retrospect, the best answer would have been: "I wish I wasn't so excited about having found a Wand of Washing that I'm failing to notice the dude coming up from the southeast."
A lot of my woes are equipment-related. I'm constantly over-encumbered, made worse by the fact that I don't understand how a lot of stuff works. But there are good things to report. I have a full set of armor, including a "holocaust cloak," which protects against fire and I think is an homage to The Princess Bride. I have both a Ring of Locus Mastery and a Ring of Relocation. This means that every 12-100 rounds, I get teleported, but I can direct my destination location. It gets me out of a lot of fights and traps, and if I don't want to move, I can just specify the next square I was going to walk into anyway. It would be nicer to have these powers as intrinsics, but with the ability to equip 8 rings, you don't feel like you're wasting a slot as much as you do in NetHack.
Thankfully, my Ring of Translocation will eventually get me out of here.
In other good news, a blessed Scroll of Enhancement empowered my silver sword up to +9. In bad news, a red slime then ate the sword. Then I found another blessed Scroll of Enhancement and got a spear up to +15. You have to roll with the punches in roguelikes.

Two Scrolls of Knowledge bestowed my character with the "Terraforming" and "Identification" abilities. I haven't tried the former yet, but the latter seems to render Scrolls of Identification moot. I wish I'd known to wish for Scrolls of Knowledge back when I had that Wand of Wishing.
That's one logistical concern I no longer have to deal with.
On Level 2, I found an enemy named Scyld, who was so powerful that I assumed he must be some kind of "level boss" and likely in possession of one of the quest items. I reloaded half a dozen times before I finally killed him, but it turns out he didn't have anything special.
This seemed like a unique enemy, so I thought there would be more to him.
The real conclusion of the dungeon came via a hole I found on Level 2, which led to some kind of temple, preceded by a title screen. The game strikes a good balance between random level generation and some fixed level content, as this particular level shows. Its enemies are chiefly "guardians," who root in place unless you walk next to them, at which point they become hostile and generally kill me in two or three blows. My teleportation abilities plus careful navigating led me to avoid most of them.
Entering the temple. These special screens help create an atmosphere lacking in a lot of roguelikes.
I soon encountered a warrior named Hrethel, standing on a stump with a noose around his neck. He pleaded for freedom, but I had options to kick out the stump and do nothing instead of setting him free. (Note that the developers, finding no good way to operate this encounter with the usual game commands, just provided a special options menu. In both this and the graphics, the authors of Ragnarok show more flexibility than a lot of roguelike authors.) Of course, I chose to free him. The grateful Hrethel joined my character, but before I had a chance to figure out what that really meant, the god Vidur attacked and killed me instantly.
I like that the game supports these special options in addition to the usual plethora of roguelike commands.
In subsequent trials, I learned that Vidur always gets angry and appears if you rescue any of the three captives on the level. If I chug a Potion of Speed, I can act as often as Vidur and can wound him, but he always pounds away my hit points in two or three turns. My Orb of Imprisonment doesn't work on him. Neither (it seems) do several wands. He has no special attacks (so far), but his physical attacks are devastating. I'm going to roam around the dungeon some more and try to build my resources before giving him another run, as I have several unexplored screens on Level 3.

I'm still enjoying Ragnarok, but I have a feeling it's going to be way too long. I also forgot how exhausting roguelikes are. You have to watch every step, pay attention to every message, and stop and think before every combat. Life and death can hinge upon whether you take a beat before entering a room, or whether you take a corner using a diagonal movement key or two lateral movement keys. NetHack taught me to stop, pause, and think between moves, which serves me well here, but it also means that it seems to take forever to get through a level and yet you still have to pay rapt attention.

The lack of permadeath helps, of course. I'm quite careful to save every 200 turns and usually glad that I did. It means that I have a reasonable chance of getting through the game without having to look at spoilers, since underestimating an enemy or misdiagnosing a piece of equipment doesn't mean that I'm starting over from scratch. But 200 turns are more to make up than they sound, and it's especially jarring when, thanks to the nature of randomization, the same stuff doesn't happen the second time.

Because of reader comments, I never did switch to the Valhalla version of the game. It's a more apt name, since far more of my characters will have ended up there than at Ragnarok.

Time so far: 10 hours

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Tenth Anniversary!

Today, the Ides of February, is the 10th anniversary of the CRPG Addict.

I have no long screed for you today. The value that I get from this project, my gratitude toward my readers and commenters, my hopes for the future, have mostly been encapsulated already in my recent 10th-anniversary entries:
I had originally planned to do a lot more of these, but most of my ideas required going through my blog from the beginning. I thought I was going to have time for that during the winter, but it turned out not to be the case. I might still get to a few more.

Today, I'd like to simply announce three things:

1. If you haven't already noticed, we have a new banner! Sebastian from Switzerland, who previously made my GIMLET logo, put this together. (That's part of my map of Fate: Gates of Dawn in the background.) I just love the shield.

2. I just posted a couple of helpful new pages. Both were created by longtime commenter Abacos, and the first organizes many of the games I've played into their series, both in a macro sense (e.g., "Forgotten Realms") and a micro sense (e.g., "Infinity Engine"). Yes, he has places for those yet-to-come, too.

The second page is a long-awaited index of special topics entries over the years. Both are accessible from the right-hand navigation bar on desktop and from the top navigation menu on mobile.

3. Finally: You're going to be seeing a fairly significant change on "The CRPG Addict": a relaxing of my rules to allow me, slowly and cautiously, to move forward without necessarily finishing every game from the previous year.

I know this move will not be popular with everyone, but I feel it is necessary. After more than two years of work, I still have 23 games remaining in 1992. There are 80 for 1993. I've managed to cover 350 games in 10 years; that many again will barely get us through 1997. I want to play Baldur's Gate and Morrowind again before I die, not to mention some classics that I've never played, like the first two Fallout games, Planescape: Torment, and Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates.

However, I'm going to put some strict rules on the endeavor, one of which is that at least one-third of the games that make up my "upcoming" list will be the earliest games that I have not yet played. I will thus still keep sweeping up the past, still finishing years, still designating "games of the year," and so on.

Beyond that, I don't really want to explain my rules just yet. I floated some ideas with my Patreon subscribers and received some great comments. I'm going to experiment with a few methods of selecting games from my long list. However, there is one rule that is very important for me, to ensure that my blog still remains chronologically relevant: I can play no game before its antecedents. I mean this in several ways:
  • Direct antecedents: Icewind Dale must come before Icewind Dale II.
  • Spiritual antecedents: Dark Souls must come before Lords of the Fallen because the latter is clearly designed to evoke the former.
  • Technical antecedents: Neverwinter Nights must come before Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic because they both use the Aurora Engine.
  • Cultural antecedents: Abandoned Places: A Time for Heroes, the first Hungarian RPG, should come before any other RPGs from Hungary.
  • Source antecedents: Even though they're not part of the same specific series, Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny must come before The Dark Eye: Drakensang because they're both based on The Dark Eye tabletop setting.
  • Major thematic antecedents: The first game to do something significant should be played before other games that include the same element. For instance, Ultima Underworld should be played before any other dungeon crawler with continuous movement.
  • Personnel antecedents: As the first BioWare game, Baldur's Gate should come before any others from that developer.
You can see how this rule ensures that I won't be jumping to Mass Effect 3 any time in the near future. Indeed, the "central tendency" of my blog will likely remain in the early 1990s for quite some time. Trust me for now, watch what happens over the next year, and we'll do an evaluation on my next anniversary. In the meantime, help me by telling me if I've missed any clear antecedents. Thematic and technical ones are particularly difficult to look up. If you see a game on my "upcoming" list that shouldn't be there, let me know and I'll replace it with its antecedent, if I agree.

Thanks as always for your readership and participation. I have no intention of quitting or slowing down, and I look forward to the next 10 years!

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Game 357: The Dungeon of Danger (1980)

The game efficiently blends its title screen with character creation.
The Dungeon of Danger
United States
Written and published as code in the Mostly BASIC series by Howard Berenbon
Versions released in 1980 for the Atari 800, 1981 for the Apple II and TRS-80, 1983 for the Commodore PET, 1984 for the Commodore 64
Date Started: 7 February 2020
Date Ended: 7 February 2020
Total Hours: 1
Difficulty: Very Easy-Easy (1.5/5)
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)
And here's a final (for now) quick entry to clear up another "game" that made its way onto MobyGames recently. We already had a discussion, relative to The Devil's Dungeon (1978) as to whether a book of type-it-yourself code constitutes a "game." Having not reached a satisfactory conclusion, even in my own mind, I decided I might as well play this one.
Yep, another one of these.
Dungeon of Danger is a lot simpler than even The Devil's Dungeon, and to be honest I think I could argue that this lacks enough elements to be considered an RPG. The problem is that to investigate a game this simple is the same thing as playing it, so I figured I might as well toss up an entry. Putting a "rejection" in the status column isn't satisfying to anyone.
A random encounter with a good wizard offers the only graphic in the game.
You start the game. You enter a difficulty level. You enter your name. You get dumped into a two-level dungeon with 64 rooms per level arranged in an 8 x 8 grid. Your goal is to collect as much gold as possible and get out. You do that by finding your way to one of the stairway squares on Level 1. The rooms are randomized between north-south passages, east-west passages, caverns, and chambers. Any one of them might contain one of a couple dozen monster types and a couple hundred pieces of gold. You can fight or flee them.
Killing a dragon and getting its gold.
When combat comes, you and your enemy exchange blows until one of you is dead. The rolls are all randomized (roughly 1d8). You start with more hit points than any enemy in the dungeon and you can replenish them with healing potions and encounters with a friendly wizard, so you have the edge. You need to find enchanted keys to climb levels and a map on each level to actually see the 8 x 8 grid, which reminds me a bit of The Wizard's Castle from the same year.
A map of the level. The fuzzy bit in the seventh column is my current position.
There are some special encounters in the dungeon:
  • Rooms with pools of water that might freeze you, do nothing, or burn you
  • Thieves who may steal your gold or drop theirs
That could have been worse.
  • Vapors that might knock you out, causing you to awaken in a random part of the dungeon
  • Trap doors that might dump you to the next level (or into a pit if already on Level 2)
All of these events are delivered with maddening pauses between short bursts of text, as if the entire game were narrated by William Shatner. 
Every one of those sets of ellipses is accompanied by a pause as the text loads.
If you make it to the exit, the game gives you a score based on your gold, how many enemies you killed, and how long it took you. It took me less than an hour to get the highest level (Dungeon Master) on "expert" difficulty. 
I won. I hope someone, somewhere, is happy.
The Dungeon of Danger appeared as 12 pages of code in a book series called Mostly BASIC by Michigan hobbyist Howard Berenbon. It specifically appeared in the "Book 2" volume for each platform. The earliest seems to be for the Atari 800 in 1980; editions for the Apple II, TRS-80, Commodore PET, and Commodore 64 followed over the next four years. 
The initial lines of code for The Dungeon of Danger.
There's no character development, combat is based on random rolls and not any intrinsic attributes, and there's no inventory, meaning that the game fails all my criteria for an RPG. (Frankly, it fails MobyGames's definitions, too, but it's easier to write an entry than to get them to change incorrect information.) It thus earns only a 5 on my GIMLET.
That catches us up to where we were before someone with too much time on his hands decided that The Devil's Dungeon, Knight's Quest, and The Dungeon of Danger needed to be preserved in our memory. Back to Ragnarok and the final entry on Blade of Destiny.


Note: An earlier version of this entry, accidentally published before I was ready, was a lot angrier. I was trying to make a joke by which my entries got progressively more ranting and incoherent over the last three games, culminating in my basically frothing at the mouth on this one. I had scheduled all three games a few days in advance. I later decided that people wouldn't get the meta-joke, which was only a little funny in the first place, and removed the setups from the first two entries but neglected to edit the third before it automatically published yesterday. I quickly took it offline to edit out the more irate language. Sorry if you got the premature edition; it would have been confusing.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Game 356: Knight's Quest (1978)

The chalice and the anchor refer to the two artifacts you find in the game.
Knight's Quest
United States
Instant Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1978 for the TRS-80
Date Started: 7 February 2020
Date Ended: 7 February 2020
Total Hours: 1
Difficulty: Very Easy (1/5)
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)
Knight's Quest just appeared on MobyGames a couple of weeks ago. At first, it seemed exciting: a CRPG that we didn't already know about from 1978! But naturally, any game that truly deserved to challenge established titles for "earliest CRPG" would already be well known. It was unlikely that one would slip quietly into an online database without a bigger fuss. Thus, Knight's Quest, as it was essentially destined to be, is at best a "proto-RPG" that meets my own definitions technically
The story and rules are told in-game as well as in the manual.
The setup of the game is that you're a squire who wants to become a knight. The king gives you a quest, randomized at the beginning of the game, to recover either a gold chalice from a mountain demon or a gold anchor from a sea demon. You leave from the king's castle, at the center of a map of concentric squares creating 41 total "positions." The contents of each position are also randomized. The borders of the outermost square are designated as either sea or mountains, but you don't know which is which until you get there. The quest object is always found in one of these outermost squares.
Meeting the object of my quest.
Most squares hold some kind of combat encounter, such as robbers, an evil knight, a mountain sorcerer, sea smugglers, a dragon, or a giant. As you meet each of these foes, the game asks whether you want to "challenge" them. If you say no, they can still challenge you, and you go to combat. If you say yes, they can decline to challenge you, and no combat occurs. Thus, whether you fight or not is entirely in their hands, so I'm not sure why the game even asks. Nothing is more annoying than finding the demon that has your quest object and having to move in and out of his square repeatedly trying to get him to fight you.

If you win a battle, you get "reputation" and silver pieces. Reputation serves as a kind of "level"; the more you have, the better you do in combat. I found that if I could get it up to 50, I was usually invincible. Successful combat also rewards you with silver pieces.
Combat consists of watching a bunch of words across the top of the screen.
Squares may also have peaceful villages, health springs, and monasteries. If you have silver, you can pass time at these locations to recover strength. One monastery will give you a magic dagger--only one exists per game--that will save you if you're about to lose a combat. If you lose a combat without the magic dagger, you suffer a serious wound or death, and you lose all your accumulated items, silver, and reputation.
And if you return without the object of your quest, you are "disgraced."
And that's it. Finding the creature with the quest object should take no more than 12 moves--5 from the castle to the edge, and up to 7 around the edge. Combat is so randomized that even without reputation, you have a decent chance of defeating the demon when you encounter him. Returning to the castle takes no more than 5 moves. A winning game could take as little as 2 minutes.

In fact, I was so dissatisfied by the rapidity of the game that I decided I wouldn't have "won" until I returned to the king with a reputation over 100, both quest items, and the magic dagger. That took me about 10 minutes.
The uber-win.
Knight's Quest was developed and published by Peterborough, New Hampshire-based Instant Software, which specialized in a large catalog of low-cost, low-quality titles. It came on a disk with two other games, Robot Chase and Horse Race. Oddly, the program causes both emulators I tried it with to default to a Model III, which wasn't released until 1980. But plenty of magazine ads attest to the game being available in early 1979 at the latest, which gives me no reason to mistrust the 1978 copyright date on the manual.

I doubt the game left much of a legacy, but I have to note that gameplay in the 1981 Apple II title The Dragon's Eye is somewhat similar in that you move around on a computerized "board" seeking an artifact, and gameplay is randomized for each new game. When I spoke to the author of The Dragon's Eye, he didn't offer Knight's Quest as an influence, though.
Manual covers have sure come a long way.
So the reputation technically counts as character development, and its use in combat technically means that it uses attribute-based combat, and the single dagger is technically an inventory item, which means the game technically vies with The Devi's Dungeon, Dungeon Campaign, and Beneath Apple Manor for the title of "earliest commercial RPG." It still gets an 8 on the GIMLET, and the earliest commercial RPG worth the name is still Dunjonquest: The Temple of Apshai (1979).


Note: My commenters' contributions are always worth reading, but in this case, do make sure to read P-Tux7's take on how this game anticipates developments in later RPGs while not being much of an RPG itself. This is commentary I should have thought to include in the entry.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Game 355: The Devil's Dungeon (1978)

Since there's no in-game title, here's the title from the printed instructions.
The Devil's Dungeon
United States
Written and published as code by C. William Engel
Versions released for BASIC computers (1978), Atari 800 (1979), Commodore VIC-20 (1983), Apple II (1984), TI-99 (1984), and Commodore 64 (1984)
Date Started: 4 February 2020
Date Ended: 4 February 2020
Total Hours: 1
Difficulty: Very Easy (1/5) in the sense that you can escape and "win" from the opening screen; Hard (4/5) in the sense that it's hard to stay alive if you choose to keep exploring
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)

This is one of a couple of very brief "clean up" entries that you're going to see this week, spaced not so far apart as my usual longer entries. The purpose here is to sweep up some 1970s titles that linger on my master list even though I should have gotten to them sooner.

The Devil's Dungeon has dogged me for a few years, and I occasionally get e-mails about it. I understand why. If it was a 1977 game, as many web sites (including MobyGames) allege, and if it was an RPG and if it was actually sold as a game, it would be perhaps the first commercial RPG. Indeed, my colleague and occasional commenter Keith Smith wrote an article in 2015 questioning whether it was, in fact, the first commercial CRPG. When Smith wrote to me about the question, I dismissed it as such, but after reading his coverage, I realized I was a bit hasty. For various reasons, I am reluctant to call it the first commercial CRPG, but for various reasons it isn't exactly not, either.
The cover for the Atari 800 version of the program.
The game was a creation (perhaps--see below) of C. William Engel, professor of Mathematics Education at the University of South Florida in Tampa. In 1977, Engel self-published Stimulating Simulations: Ten Unique Programs in BASIC for the Computer Hobbyist. The 64-page book consists of 10 BASIC programs that the reader could type into a TRS-80 or whatever other computer he had that used conventional BASIC. The programs included Art Auction, Gone Fishing, Space Flight, and Business Management. The goal was to teach the reader to program, with a particular focus on statistical simulation and probability.

The Devil's Dungeon is not one of the original 10 programs, but Engel soon found a commercial publisher for Stimulating Simulations in Hayden Books of New Jersey, and gussied-up versions followed for the Atari 800 in 1979, the Commodore VIC-20 in 1983, and the Apple II, TI-99, and Commodore 64 in 1984. The Devil's Dungeon appears in all of these editions. Whether the game counts as the earliest RPGs thus depends first on whether we count type-it-yourself code as actual software.
Gameplay consists of moving from room to room.
Then we have the date. Evidence from ads shows that Engel was selling The Devil's Dungeon as a 15-page standalone publication as early as February 1978. I have yet to find a copy of this book, but enough web sites, including Google Books, give the specific date of 10 January 1978 that I suspect that's what appeared on the original publication itself. The 1977 date given by many web sites is a confusion based on the copyright date in several editions of Stimulating Simulations, which list both the original copyright (1977, with no Devil's Dungeon) and the publication dates of those specific editions (1979-1984). So while the game was not published in 1977--which would have put it in stores a full year before any other candidate--it was published so early in 1978 that it's hard to imagine any of the other candidates beats it.
A February 1978 ad for the pre-Hayden Books version of Stimulating Simulations. Note that The Devil's Dungeon is "also available" at the bottom.
Third, there's the question of whether the game is even an RPG. If you wonder whether something printed on a few pages for a reader to type could possibly be much of a game, your skepticism is well-founded. The game reminds me in a weird way of Andrew Greenberg's Star Saga (1988), where most of the "game" was in the printed book and the computer was simply used for the probabilities and calculations. Here, you need the book for the backstory and instructions. The computer program just keeps track of your strength, speed, experience, and gold. So it does have attributes. And those attributes do increase with experience and they are used to determine success in combat. And you do have a single piece of "equipment" that you can use when you want. It's like someone looked at my requirements and made a game that technically meets them . . . but come on.
"Character development" consists of buying speed and strength with experience.
The backstory is simply that there's a lot of gold hidden in a "maze of caves" in an active volcano. Monsters and demons also roam the halls. When you start the game, you have 100 speed, 100 strength, and no gold. The game creates randomized dungeon levels of 16 rooms each, and you spend the game navigating from room to room by pressing the number of the room you want to go to. A room may have a random amount of gold, a monster (unnamed) with a random amount of speed and strength. It may also have demons or poison gas, neither of which can be conquered and instead must be quickly fled. Tremors occasionally re-arrange the dungeon levels while you're in mid-exploration.

The only "equipment" is a "magic wand" that the player carries and can activate by hitting 99 in any room. The wand destroys monsters and creates a dropoff to lower levels 60% of the time; it backfires and halves your strength and speed 40% of the time.

Room #1 on each level is a "special room," where you can trade your accumulated experience for an equivalent boost to your speed or strength. You can also leave the dungeon from the room, at which point the game gives you your gold total and dumps you out of the program.
"Winning" The Devil's Dungeon.
Commands are simply 0 to fight (if the room has a monster), 1-9 to move between rooms, negative numbers to go down an equivalent number of levels (if the room has a dropoff), 88 to see what rooms you've already visited, and 99 to activate the wand or leave the dungeon, depending on what room you're in. This is one of those few cases where a couple of screenshots tells you all you need to know about the game.

Engel wasn't trying to entertain with this game; he was trying to teach. His books weren't just a bunch of code: they contained tables of variables, flow charts, diagrams, and other tools meant to explain how the program works. At the end of each program, he also listed some ideas for both minor and major modifications and upgrades to the base program--challenges for the more advanced coder. For The Devil's Dungeon, he suggested that a more complicated game would include the purchase of weapons and equipment before starting, named monsters, a variable number of rooms per level, light and dark rooms, and pit traps that dump the player to lower levels.

These suggestions are not coincidentally among the many featured in Caverns of Mordia, a 1980 Australian game for the Apple II that is a "grown up" version of The Devil's Dungeon. I covered it about a year ago. That Mordia uses Dungeon as a base is 100% clear from the nature of exploration: infinite dungeon levels of up to 16 rooms, Room #1 is a "special room," you have two attributes (strength and agility in Mordia) and can trade experience for them, there are gas and demons, the wand works the same way, and so forth. But Mordia adds about 200% to the content of the game, including some crude graphics (animated in a couple scenes!), equipment, named monsters, more special encounters, and a main quest.
Caverns of Mordia started with a Devil's Dungeon base but offered a more complete RPG experience.
Mordia is so clearly an expanded version of The Devil's Dungeon that I find it hard to give credence to author Hans Coster's insistence (in an e-mail to me) that he wrote it from scratch. He says he gave early versions of the game away for free before ultimately selling Mordia, but it's hard to imagine one of those disks making it from Australia to Florida two years ahead of Mordia's release, and Dr. Engel then not only plagiarizing the code but dumbing it down at the same time. (Dr. Engel died in 2011, so we can't ask him.) Mordia makes so much more sense as an additive experience to Dungeon than Dungeon does as a reductive experience of Mordia. It's easier to believe that Dr. Coster simply doesn't remember, 40 years later, that he started with The Devil's Dungeon as a nucleus, particularly when he would have had to add so much to the code. It is a full game where Dungeon isn't, and if it had been published in 1978, I wouldn't hesitate to call it the first commercial RPG.

If I had to GIMLET The Devil's Dungeon, it would earn a 6, tied for the lowest score ever, probably the lowest score possible. I can't bring myself to give it any points for the game world, encounters, or equipment; even though it technically has them, they're not fleshed out enough to even make it to "1." I did give a 1 for character creation and development, combat, economy, quest, graphics and sound, and gameplay.

In the end, while I'm reluctantly forced to admit that it was "sold" before any other RPG we can identify and it does meet my three RPG criteria, it's still tough to give it the award of "first commercial CRPG," particularly when this is one of the few cases where even I would have had the skill to create a BASIC game this primitive. While I try to think of a good way out of it, check out my colleague Nathan's take on the game at "CRPG Adventures," where he found an amusing way to cheat. Maybe ignore his last sentence before the rating.