Thursday, July 16, 2020

Amberstar: Entrance Exams

The answer to this is MALTOR because the portrait of Maltor shows him wearing an eyepatch. Do you think an eyepatch alone is enough to conclude "pirate"?
We begin with an easy quest: Orlando's wine cellar in Crystal. Now that I know to ask him about his PROBLEM, he is forthcoming with a quest: someone has been stealing wine from his wine cellar. He stays up all night patrolling the only exit, but someone still manages to get by him. The previous night, they stole a precious golden goblet. He'll pay us to find the thieves.
This guy doesn't know his own wine cellar very well.
We soon find part of the solution: there's a secret door in one of the alcoves of the wine cellar. We need a crowbar to open it (something the game doesn't tell us, but I figure out). This leads us to a secret area swarming with goblins, a couple of whom are passed out drunk. It's clear that they're the thieves, but they seem to be working for someone. One of them has a parchment that says: "I would remind you again that you must be more careful! We don't want that old fool Orlando to notice that we are selling him his own wine!" (This is written in the game's runic language, and I would say that although it's not Amberstar's fault, having two games going at the same time in which I have to translate different runic languages that look similar is unwelcome.) The note is signed "Captain B," who is almost certainly Captain Brix. He's hanging out in the lobby of the tavern, looking for Orlando, probably to sell him his own wine back.
It's almost always orcs and goblins.
We find a back exit to the secret area. It emerges from a cave entrance on a small island with a dock, east of Crystal. This is the kind of thing Ultima is always doing, too. Developers: you cannot have a cave network that starts on land, goes under the ocean, and re-emerges on land without it plunging hundreds of feet into the ground. A couple of dungeon levels doesn't do it. Anyway, on the way back I defeat several parties of goblins rolling wine barrels, and eventually fight the "boss battle," which includes eight goblins and two orcs.
Hitting an entire line of enemies never gets old.
As a reward, Orlando gives us a key that's supposed to open the way to "something valuable." He doesn't know what it is, but I have an idea. I might have forgotten to mention it in previous entries, but Crystal has a corridor with a large, rusted keyhole at the end of it, clearly blocking the way to a small secret area. The key opens the way to a small corridor with a chest at the end, and the chest contains . . . a piece of the Amberstar. That's two. Good thing Orlando had a problem he needed some adventurers to solve or we might never have found this one.
The lock isn't exactly subtle.
Unfortunately, there's no way that I can find to confront Captain Brix about his thievery. Showing or giving the note to either him or Orlando produces no results.
You blaggard. I'm on to you.
We level up, noting that even after leveling up, we still have just over 5,000 gold pieces, so we could buy a ship. But the next thing I do is march to Illien to talk to the NPC dwarf who didn't understand us before. He turns out to be a jewelry trader with nothing important to say, at least not for now.
I figure it's time to get rid of Spike and replace him with a character who will actually be able to use all the experience being wasted on the dog. The only lead I have on a new party member is the Tower of the Gray Wizards off the coast. (Surely there must be an NPC ranger, monk, and White Wizard somewhere, too.) To reach it, I have to take a raft from a dock north of Illien. Rafts and ships are treated in Amberstar the same way they are in Ultima V and VI: Rafts will allow you to move along the coast, up and down rivers, and through patches of calm water, but you need a ship to cross the choppier water away from the immediate coastline. Both, also like the Ultimas, promise to be replaced by a magical flying option.
Getting around on a raft. I can't go any more to the west.
The Tower of the Gray Wizards is one of at least two magic towers in the game that both work the same way: Shortly after you enter, you find a magic mouth. If you know the answer to the mouth's riddle--in both cases, the founder of the school--then you can open the way directly to the guild on the other side. If you don't know the name, you have to fight your way through a large dungeon to find a statue which tells you the founder's name. After this, return trips are comparatively easy.
Dammit, Shandra.
The Gray Wizard tower is the easier of the two. It has only one level, and not nearly as many combats--although many of its combats are with mummies, which can cause disease. Every time I get diseased, I have to reload or run back to Illien, which slows things down. There's one place where the ceiling has caved in and I have to use a pick-axe to clear the rubble.
I figured this one out on my own, too.
There's at least one fairly significant treasure chest, containing a Wand of Fire (casts "Fireball"), a Wand of Light, and a Rod of Resurrection, all of which I give to my black mage. All three items become vital in the Tower of the Black Wizards later. 
Ultimately, we find the statue of the Gray Wizards' founder, LANDONIS, and use that word to get access to the guild. Like all the magic guilds, it's presented as a small iconographic area with doorways to the trainers and a "library" selling scrolls appropriate to that guild. In this case, we also find an NPC named Satine, who joins the party after I reluctantly let Spike go. I don't know how he's going to find his way home from an island, but somehow he does. When Satine joins, she says, "I hope Shandra has given you enough healing potions," which is a weird thing to say because he never gave us any. More on this later.
"Welcome to the party! Here's a bunch of stuff you can carry."
Satine comes to us at Level 5 with four spells, one of which ("Light 3") she doesn't yet have enough magical ability to cast. The other three are "Weapon Enhancement," "Armor Enhancement," and "Protection from Magic." Oddly, even though her "Read Magic" ability is at 60%, she ruins the first two scrolls I try to have her memorize. I'm also having an impossible time getting my two paladins to memorize any white magic scrolls no matter how many points I put into "Read Magic."
Back on the continent, we use the signet ring found in Jonathan's Laboratory to enter the basement of the Lord Chancellor's house in Crystal. Notes upstairs had suggested that the Lord Chancellor got himself in trouble summoning a demon. There are several magic mouths in the basement that ask us for the names of Drebin family ancestors who bore particular features. Fortunately, I still have the screenshots of all the paintings on the upper floor.

This is the first iconographic area for which we have needed light, and the first iconographic area that has enemies. The enemies are specifically "ectoplasmas"--basically slimes--and "bloodstingers," which are basically stirges. They're both pretty tough, even though they only attack us two at a time, and pretty soon we have to leave the dungeon and return to Twinlake to restore health and mana. After a couple such trips, I decide to leave the rest of the basement for later.
Ectoplasmas are capable of causing madness, too.
Around this time, I become concerned that everyone is leveling up except for Trasric, the black mage. I could really use more spell power from him, and I know that he must have gained at least a couple levels by now. He's told me that the Tower of the Black Wizards is in the southeast section of the continent, but it's surrounded by mountains so that it can only be approached by sea.
Since our finances allow it, we buy a ship in Crystal and start exploring the ocean. I soon ascertain that the world wraps (that doesn't mean it's a torus; it's never a torus) and is at least 300 tiles north to south. Getting an exact count is hard because the game sometimes doesn't actually move you when you hit one of the directional buttons. There don't seem to be any encounters on the water.
The party at sea!
We eventually find our way to the river that leads into the hidden valley surrounded by what on my map is called the Bollgar Berge. We tie up at a dock and take a raft further up the river to the tower, which seems to be surrounded by mountains. But a nearby altar allows us to use Trasric's Sphere of Opening to lower or remove one of the mountains.
The sphere has the ability to lower one of those mountains. That's impressive.
Inside the tower, a short hallway leads us to two options: a magic mouth and a stairway. The magic mouth says, "If you know the name of the founder of the guild, you may take the short route." I immediately discern that it's the same setup as the Gray Wizards' tower. Once we have the name, we can just go directly to the guild, but until then, we'll need to explore the rest of the tower.
At this point, I would point out two things. First, Trasric is already a member of the guild and should thus know the name of its founder. But he has nothing to say, and he never told me the name back when he joined (I checked the screen shots). Second, Trasric is much easier to get into the party than Satine, and thus we should expect that the Tower of the Black Wizards would be easier to solve than that of the Gray Wizards.
"If you don't, go #&@ yourself."
Well. The stairway leads upwards to a small section of the second level, from which the only way forward is to go down through a hole. (The rope works to lower us safely, but then it disappears.) There's no way back up. We take it because what else are we going to do? 
In the room below, we fight three battles with four skeletons apiece. Skeletons aren't individually very hard. Then have no special attacks or defenses. They can hit hard, but when they're in a line, Trasric can cast "Fireball" or "Ice Ball" and hit them all at once. The battles go well, and I'm not too worried. I start exploring what turns out to be a large first level. The first section has a few teleporters, and one of them, once, offers me a shot back to the level's beginning. You have to understand that this is at a point before it's become clear how hard the dungeon is going to be.
After I've teleported out of this point-of-no-return, the skeleton battles start coming on a little heavier. Eventually, I make my way to the second floor, where there are an equal number of skeleton battles, these featuring eight skeletons per battle instead of just four.
"Flee" never seems to work anyway.
What I was hoping would be a quick trip to level up Trasric becomes a multi-hour nightmare of combat after combat with extremely limited resources. I mostly survive by cheesing the "camping" system of the game: resting 8 hours, then hitting the "wait" button so that the hours pass long enough that I can rest again. Resting in this game only restores about 10% of your health and mana, so you have to do it 10 times for full restoration.
I had to get through two levels of this to get out of this dungeon.
A single battle with 8 skeletons is enough to kill one of my weaker characters, so a lot depends on luck, reloading, and how often I'm willing to use the Rod of Resurrection. Satine's weapon enhancement and protection spells become vital during this process, as does Trasric's Wand of Fire. Still, the skeletons wear me down fast, and by the time I finish the second level and find stairs to a third level (you don't want to imagine what came out of my mouth at that point), I'm facing a ration shortage (which will mean I no longer recover anything from rest), and I'm out of torches, meaning I'm relying on Trasric's Wand of Light, which has who-knows-how-many charges.
Trasric blasts a line of skeletons with his Wand of Fire.
Fortunately, the third level is small, and has only one battle, albeit with 12 skeletons. After pouring everything into winning that battle, I finally find the statue with the name of the founder (NICADEMUS) and make my way into the guild. There, Trasric levels up four times. His leveling costs so much that I leave the tower nearly out of gold.
Finding this conferred perhaps the greatest sense of relief of any game in the past two years.
I don't know how to feel about the tower. I maybe was there a bit too early--except that visiting is the only way to level up my black wizard, so I'm not sure how much longer I could have waited. Someone's going to say that I should have had a white wizard with "Destroy Undead" and "Holy Word," but I haven't heard the faintest clue about where the white wizards are, and in any case those spells would have only worked for a few battles before I would have been in the same state, since mana goes fasts and restores slowly. Making the dungeon essentially one-way after a certain point is almost unforgivable, particularly when coupled with the game's allowance of only one save file.
On the other hand, I made it, and it was kind of exhilarating to have made it, and isn't this what I'm always saying I want from an open world game? No artificial gates--just let the player beat his head against a wall if that's what he wants to do. I guess my problem with Amberstar is that there are no easy areas to balance the hard ones. Every battle, even with a couple of rats, has been a knock-down drag-out fight with every character's life at stake.
After what I just went through, I wouldn't mind if you burned the whole guild down.
My financial situation was soon redeemed by all of the skeleton short swords that I managed to drag out of the dungeon, and everyone went up a few levels. At this point, leveling everyone up means visiting four different places (Twinlake, Crystal, the Gray Wizard Tower, the Black Wizard Tower) at all different points of the map.

I visited the healing and mana pools in Marillion's Tomb. I thought, man, if you don't notice those at the beginning of the game, you are in for a hard game. But I soon found something that would have made things easier for me all this time: If you say POTION to Shandra in Twinlake, he'll take any empty flask you're carrying and fill it with a healing potion. I had about 20 empty flasks and had no idea why I was carrying them. Those would have been nice in the black tower. Overall, this game makes it fairly easy to overlook numerous early-game things that have significant reverberations. You have to know to wait around Shandra's place for Shandra to actually show up. You have to know to search every little bit of furniture. You have to know where the guilds and NPC companions are, or take a risk exploring the wide world before you feel ready. You have to know to wait in the tomb for Gwendolyn to appear after you've met Marillion's ghost (or get lucky as I did). You have to know not to save in certain places. You have to know to talk to NPCs after you've solved their quests for additional information.
Better late than never.
On the other hand, it's not like I'm not getting by. Aren't I always complaining that modern games coddle the characters with excessive hand-holding? Isn't it more rewarding to discover these things by yourself? There are times I really don't know whether to admire Amberstar or be mad at it. I'll say one thing for it: its sessions have been keeping me up, and without a constant desire that the game would just be over so I could go back to The Black Gate.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • Secret doors in this game are found by simply walking into walls. The automap is quite clear about where they are, depicting them as empty corridors, so you don't need to run around bashing every wall.
  • I keep finding mushrooms in various places, but I have no idea what to do with them.
  • You can indeed talk to the cat in the tavern in Twinlake. He thanks you for killing the rat king and tells you about the hidden door to the thieves' guild, if you didn't already find it. 
Shouldn't "meow, meow" be translated as something like "hello"?
  • There's something going on with my black mage spells that must be a bug. Casting a spell at a group (row) of creatures requires you to select the black wizard, choose "Cast," specify "Black Magic," click the spell, and then click the group of creatures that you want to target. Except almost half the time I do this, I click the spell, and then the game brings me back to the combat window without asking me what group I want to target. The "casting" icon appears next to the character portrait, so it's not as if the game didn't understand what I wanted to do. But with no group targeted, the spell fails. Thus, I often have to cycle through "Magic," "Black Magic," and the name of the spell several times before it finally lets me select a group. Can anyone think of any plausible reason for this behavior?
  • Non-undead enemies flee once you've killed about half of their number. You still get the experience points and equipment as if you had killed them all. I like that. 
  • Anybody can use a magic scroll to cast the associated spell. Late in the game, if I have plenty of money, it could come in handy to load up on high-level magic scrolls for tough combats.
  • During level ups, I've been splitting my paladines' and wizards' points among "Attack," "Parry," "Read Magic," and "Use Magic," but they still have trouble reading scrolls. I had been splitting my thief's points among "Attack," "Parry," and "Pick Locks," but he just maxed out "Pick Locks," so I can concentrate on other skills. Everything for my fighter has been going to "Attack" and "Parry." No one has been getting much with "Search," "Find Traps," or "Disarm Traps," but frankly I don't think there have been any traps on locks that weren't opened with keys (which bypass the traps). I still haven't encountered a clear situation in which "Search" made a difference, but then again I suppose I wouldn't know if I missed something.
Paladines only get eight points on leveling.
We wrapped up this session with a return visit to the Lord Chancellor's cellar. Our improved levels and spellcasting power made the ectoplasmas and bloodstingers easier but still not easy. There are a lot of them.
Eventually, we found our way to a room with a large pentagram, only someone had knocked over some of the candles, which must be how the demon escaped.
Maybe it was my thief in Quest for Glory II.
We met the demon in the next room. The game says he was in a "water tank," but we could just walk right in. He attacked with two bloodstingers and four ectoplasmas. Are we swimming during this battle? How are these other monsters faring in a water tank? Maybe we're just wading in the water tank? None of these issues were answered.
Trasric's "Tornado" spell cleared out the ectoplasmas and hurt everyone else. We focused on the bloodstingers first and were able to kill them. The water demon had a mass-damage spell, but Satine's "Protection Against Magic" spell helped. Once he got into melee range, he often attacked with his tentacles, and the game usually said that his "weapon is powerless." I don't know if this is because of the armor the targeted character was wearing, or because of Satine's "Armor Enhancement" spell, or both. Unfortunately, it also said this about my melee weapons, except for Viola's paladine sword. With it, she slowly chipped away at his health while Trasric fed potions to anyone who got too low.
I have something that renders a demon's tentacles "powerless." I wish I knew what.
Defeating the demon got us a key, which allowed us to unlock the next room, where the Lord Chancellor was being kept prisoner and periodically tortured. In reward, he gave us access to a treasure chest on the other side of the room.
This sounds similar to a vow I've made many mornings in New Orleans.
It was the best haul of the game so far: a magic sword called "Icebiter," a Staff of Might, a Girdle of Thieves, an iron ring, a two-handed sword, a piece of the Amberstar (that's three!) and several items for sale.
Technically, the game has it as "Griddle of Thieves," When you're strapping something to your loins, you really don't want to mix those two things up.
By the time we get out of the basement, most of my characters are diseased from the mummies (there were a couple of mummies at one point), stunned by the ectoplasmas, or prematurely aged from something I didn't even notice--probably the demon. I spend a ton of gold at the local temple, level up, and save.
In this entire session, I got no new items for my "to do" list, so I'll just have to work on cleaning up the remainder from last time. Combat tactics have gotten interesting enough that I think next time, we'll analyze a battle from start to finish.
Time so far: 23 hours    


  1. To be fair about Shandra, he has a sign on his door, telling you he is fishing until the evening.

    1. I his appearance in the house time-based?

      Lord Karwain directs you to him after completing his quest, so I thought it was progress-based.

    2. You can also visit him before, get plot information, the lore book and the map. Not sure if Karwain provides a keyword for further information, but i think he just sends you there to make sure you don't miss it.

  2. It would be funny if the next time you meet the Lord Chancellor, you have to save him from a giant venus flytrap or something.

  3. How do we know the ocean isn't just extremely shallow? ;)

    1. Or maybe the stairs between dungeon levels are extremely long. :)

      Regardless, I liked that the Brix plot had some physical evidence in the game, with that long (if implausible) tunnel connecting the cellar to the island.

    2. In such cases, I prefer to imagine that these neat flat grids are naught but a gameplay abstraction, and the levels are "really" much more uneven. In this case, I would envision the levels as sloping significantly downward.

  4. Every time I see a screenshot with one of those magic mouths, I always think of Thomas the Tank Engine. In particular I think they resemble Gordon.

    1. Holy moley... they sure do. My kids loved some TTT back in the day!

  5. When I make blueberry pancakes for breakfast, my kids grab them so fast it feels like I'm using the Griddle of Thieves.

    1. That made me literally LoL.

    2. I didn't think "griddle" was a real word. After looking it up I LoL'ed.

    3. Had to look that up, too, and, funny enough, it appears griddles are called "girdles" in certain regions:

      "In the Scots language and the Northumbrian English dialect, a griddle is called a girdle. The transposition of the sounds is due to linguistic metathesis. Therefore, griddle scones are known as girdle scones. This usage is also common in New Zealand."
      See also e.g.

      This has led to confusion and jokes elsewhere already, e.g.

      So I learned several new things here. Not sure if this was the source of the girdle of thieves appearing as a griddle instead in the English version of the game. At any rate I agree with Chet you do not want to strap a griddle to your loins... .

  6. "Good thing Orlando had a problem he needed some adventurers to solve or we might never have found this one."

    To quote Katie Tiedrich:
    "Listen: making puzzles is hard, and it's a lot easier to assume something annoying is going to happen directly above you in a hundred years."

  7. IMHO the developers forgot to finish the last part of the Brix quest. Presenting the note should at least trigger a dialogue.

  8. So what you're saying's a torus?

  9. Happy that your mailing Progress,this kind of posts är Always a fun read

  10. >>Oddly, even though her "Read Magic" ability is at 60%, she ruins the first two scrolls I try to have her memorize.

    I'm unsure why you would think this odd. Probability-wise, it's not unlikely given she has a 4-in-10 chance of failing each time.

  11. I had no problems with spells in the German Amiga version. I didn't have to select "black magic" either (Transic can only cast black magic anyway). Another difference: you get experience for fleeing enemies, but not their equipment.

    I think the chance of fleeing before combat depends on the luck of the current party leader.

    1. I have the same issue as Chet. The PC version seems quite a bit unpolished, with a number of bugs/glitches.

      Another annoying one I found is that if you use a weapon buff potion, the game systematically crashes.

      I'm starting to wonder if emulation could be partly responsible, since I cannot believe something that basic could go undetected/unfixed.

    2. The PC version was probably an afterthought, Ambermoon doesn't even have one, think they ran out of money before finishing it.
      Not sure about learning spells, though, I resorted to reloading after maxing the according skill.
      The weapon elixier only works if you unequip the weapon afair. Otherwise it improves the weapon, but not your total attack - resulting in a negative attack base value. Could be it has different bugs between versions.
      Only having one ring slot is another issue.
      And there is some stuff with ammo and shields.
      Quite a bit, but at least you can play the game properly. And a hex editor repairs most of it.

  12. I played the PC version and I remember having the exact same problem of never having success in party members sucessfully learning new spells.

    I suspect there is some mechanic at play beside the read magic spell. Would appreciate anyobe offering more insight here.

  13. Interestigly, we seem to have taken mostly the same path: I have tackled the Grey and Black tower in this order at about the same stage, for the same reasons (getting a new member and leveling up Transic).

    The Black Tower was grueling but satisfying, although I probably I had an easier time, to give the game some credit (minor spoiler):

    Znevyyvba'f fjbeq unf 10 punetrf bs "Ubyl Jbeq", gung vafgnagyl qrfgeblf nyy gur haqrnq.

    Abg znal punetrf, ohg rabhtu gb trg guebhtu gur uneqrfg onggyrf.

    At 40 or so hours in, some tedium is settling in (mostly on account of the slow animations when fighting large groups, having to do a world tour when leveling up, and inventory micromanagement) but the game keeps offering a nice variety of locations and quests.

    1. Wow, I'm glad I just read that ROT-13. I never thought to try using it like an object. Hopefully, I'll still face more undead!

    2. You really should have gathered more information about this item.

  14. Oops, I forgot (sorry for so many comments).

    "I visited the healing and mana pools in Marillion's Tomb. I thought, man, if you don't notice those at the beginning of the game, you are in for a hard game"

    I haven't used them once (and I didn't know about the free potions); resting at the inns is a bit expensive, but beats backtracking to the cemetery every time.

    1. I didn't even discover inns by myself back then... Lots of stuff isn't too obvious, but left to find out.

  15. "Wizards off the coast"
    Took a second reading, but good one :-)

  16. I am really enjoying the Amberstar blogs. Had never heard of the game before, but it seems like an early game that has actually managed to make a good open world.


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