Friday, October 23, 2020

The Summoning: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Jera rules the world.
The Summoning
United States
Event Horizon (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS, 1994 for PC-98
Date Started: 16 August 2020
Date Finished: 20 October 2020
Total Hours: 53
Difficulty: Easy in combats (2/5), hard in puzzles (4/5), average moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
This sequel to DarkSpyre (1990) continues the series effort to bring Dungeon Master puzzles and combat to a single-character axonometric interface. The player enters a fortress of more than 40 levels (though some are optional) hoping to make his or her way to the mysterious Shadow Weaver, a warlord threatening to take over the entire world. The game's well-written backstory plays well into the encounters, NPCs, and plot twists that the player finds within the labyrinth, and the puzzles--tough but fair--particularly shine. Most RPG elements, such as combat, character development, and equipment, are only average, but the game doesn't do much of anything completely wrong. Although it lasts a bit too long for my tastes, it never reaches levels of frustration as high as DarkSpyre. I enjoyed and recommend it.
I was physically close to winning when I last wrote, but it still took a while. The longest part involved fully exploring the Otherworld. I didn't realize I had barely scratched the surface. I had missed the second destination of one of those double-destination teleporters, and it led to two new Otherworld maps--Otherworld Two and Otherworld Three.
Each map had plenty of enemies (including new giant crabs) and plenty of puzzles. One puzzle left me stumped and I had to consult a "let's play" on YouTube to solve it; it involved shooting arrows across a line of teleporters to activate a pressure plate. There was another one involving a rolling barrel that took me about an hour. That's something I picked up from my brief audit of the cluebook: what I had interpreted as cross-sections of trees were in fact "barrels." These levels introduced the "rolling barrel," which looks like a barrel but acts like a ball.
I didn't even realize there was an Otherworld Two.
The major purposes of the Otherworld levels were twofold: first, they delivered the series of items I needed to open the way to the part of the Staff of Summoning. Second, they provided two scraps of paper that together contained the "Shape Change" spell. (I also got "Lightning Shield" and "Swiftness.") Otherworld Three ended at King Evermore's Treasure Chamber, where I had to choose one from among several items. I chose Boots of Levitation, expecting that they would help me short-cut other teleporters and pressure plates in the future.
Back on the first level, on the other side of a Raido rune, I met a young man with no name. He could not remember ever having a name. He had been waiting in the room I encountered him for many years but didn't seem particularly bothered by it. He said he felt like a part of him was missing; I figured he must be the Staff of Summoning piece in human form.
This guy talks a bit like a living staff.
The weird little creature called Qasar had the spell ("Channeling") necessary to turn the kid back into a staff. He would only give the spell to one of his own kind, which was obviously what "Shape Change" was for. I cast it, changed myself to whatever furry toothed creature Qasar is, and spoke to him. He congratulated me for my ingenuity and gave me the seven hand gestures for the spell. 
No champagne first?
I cast the spell near the nameless kid, and he changed into a staff, which I promptly stuck into my backpack. I returned to King Evermore and gated out of the Overworld, never to return, not even for any of the stuff I left strewn in his foyer.
That left the four levels of the citadel, three of which I had already party explored. Each of the first three levels is roughly organized into quadrants, and you can only pass between quadrants on the same level in certain places. Thus, getting to the northwest quadrant of Level 1 means first going up to the southwest quadrant of Level 3, crossing over, and descending two ladders to Level 1 again. I'm making it sound easier than it is; the reality involved a lot more teleporting and levers and pressure plates. But you get the idea.
An "execution chamber."
I'll spoil for you now that I wasted a lot of time and inventory preparing for a final battle that never came. The Raven, who was relatively easy, was the last "boss-level" enemy that I fought. The Ebon Knight was the last difficult enemy that I fought. I expected some epic-level fight with Shadow Weaver, at least, and I prepared for it by leveling up with a variety of weapon types and magic skills and saving runes like Berkana (restores all magic power) and Dagaz (casts "Slaying" spell), but as we'll see, the endgame doesn't even involve a battle. Some random citadel guard or skeleton was the last enemy slain. Some commenter was right: once you find Warmonger, you can pretty much just use it exclusively. I never once used "Healing" nor used any of my diamonds to make a full-healing potion. I kept a Shield of Spell Absorption, Bracers of Regeneration, and a Cloak of Invisibility for no reason.
A clue to the spell parchment to insert.
Levels 1-3 of the citadel are mostly about supplying the black and white pearls that you need on Level 3 to open the way to Level 4. There was one key thing to do, however, which was to find the phylactery of Balthazar, the mage controlled by Shadow Weaver. I guess I had been encountering Balthazar for several levels--I just assumed it was some random mage--but you can't defeat him permanently until you find the phylactery, which itself means feeding a bunch of spell scrolls into the appropriate slots.
Once found, the phylactery need only be thrown against a wall to free the mage. The act gets you about 50,000 experience points, enough to raise me to Level 10 ("hero").
I guess "free" wasn't quite the right word.
Five black pearls and five white pearls are needed on Level 3. As some commenters pointed out, you don't ever find any extra black pearls. I did end the game with several extra white ones.
Inserting the first pearl.
The final level is an outer ring with a group of inner chambers. Various teleporters are scattered throughout the outer ring, leading to isolated inner rooms where you battle guards, skeletons, and stone golems to find iron tokens. You need about eight iron tokens to open the teleporter that leads to Shadow Weaver.
There's one!
Two sentient swords guard Shadow Weaver's chambers, but Warmonger threatens them and they agree to depart the world, although they swear revenge. From there, getting into Shadow Weaver's chambers is just a matter of inserting half of the Staff of Summoning in a hole. It awaits pickup on the other side of the door.
A sequel is set up.
Shadow Weaver stands alone in a large, empty room, as if the developers' budget ran out in the final area. Wearing a cloak and mask, she invites the character to take the second half of the staff from the chest behind her and mend it. The chest contains not only the staff but the God of Magic's rune necklace. Casting "Mending" brings up a cinematic in which the staff is made whole.
You rule the world but you don't have any furniture?
Shadow Weaver then demands that the character hand over the staff. When the character refuses, Shadow Weaver taunts her, claiming that she is impervious to both physical and magical attacks. Indeed, "any attack brought against me will only serve to harm the attacker" (I verified this). Jera says something about thwarting her plan, but Shadow Weaver says: "Plans? What do you know of plans? The puppet speaks back to the master with only wood for brains. You have been my pawn from the beginning, and now your party in my play is done."
The player has a few seconds to make a choice of object to hold in her hand before activating the Staff of Summoning. No matter what she chooses, Jera says that she knows that Shadow Weaver is Abighael, daughter of Borel. But Shadow Weaver reveals that she is also Rowena, head of the Council of Mages. She Palpatinesquely played both sides of the war and engineered the arrival of a hero to find the second half of the Staff of Summoning, which for some reason she could not do. "[Now] my revenge will be complete. The world will finally regret the pain it has brought me."
TV Tropes calls this "All According to Plan."
Three objects work and offer three different endings. The first thing you can do is hold the rune necklace and summon the God of Magic. Shadow Weaver is delighted, as she intended to do that anyway. The moment he appears, he blasts and kills Jera. He and Shadow Weaver then engage in a "great cosmic battle" that Shadow Weaver loses. The God of Magic then apparently destroys the world.
The second possibility is to hold Chesschantra's skull. Chesschantra paralyzes Jera when she arrives, and Jera watches helplessly as the mother and daughter together summon the God of Magic, who does his thing.
Not even a word of gratitude?
Mother and daughter battle and defeat the god, at which point Chesschantra turns on her daughter and kills her
This was mean.
The game offers the same world-ending message, although it is unclear why Chesschantra wants to destroy it.
But why?
The third and "correct" option was my first inclination, so I'm happy with that. If you hold Warmonger in the other hand, the staff summons King Borel. Although Shadow Weaver claims that it's impossible, since Borel was destroyed by the god-created DarkSpyre, Borel does appear. He thanks Jera and opens a portal to take his daughter to "a realm where they may dwell in peace." Abighael seems happy with this result as she takes Borel's hand and steps into the portal.
After they leave, Jera is left alone in Shadow Weaver's chambers. Warmonger has disappeared. Jera notes that Borel had his own sword, but it wasn't Warmonger, and she speculates that Warmonger has "gone off to sulk somewhere." I'm not sure if this is supposed to be a hint that one of the swords guarding Shadow Weaver's door went and found Borel and helped him return, or if it's just blather.
Am I supposed to attach some significance to this?
Shadow Weaver's outfit is left on the ground. Other than grabbing it, the only thing to do is leave via a portal. If the player leaves without putting on the outfit, she is attacked in the next chamber buy a group of elite guards. I do not think they are beatable. They do half your hit point total in damage every time they hit, and they almost always hit, and there are about a dozen of them. I tried using all my amassed equipment, including Figurines of Resurrection, and I couldn't kill even one of them. Even if I could, the room's one door has no mechanism to open it.
Shadow Weaver should have put these guys on guard duty.
The proper solution is to put on Shadow Weaver's outfit.
I look and perhaps sound the part. I hope my lack of shadow-weaving abilities isn't a problem.
The guards then assume that she is Shadow Weaver and bring news that the final battle has been one and the entire world is under her control. She seems to accept this situation, with plans to rule benevolently while continuing to impersonate Shadow Weaver:
The world has seen much of war these past decades. It is now time for a little peace, I think. Come! Gather my messengers! It is time to go out and see what I have won. There are a great many things I have planned!
Roll end credits. I tried several other objects with the Staff of Summoning, including the wizards' skulls, but nothing else worked. Making it to the endgame rewards you with about 500,000 experience points, catapulting you to the top level even though it no longer matters.
Jera shows a lack of understanding of the economics of ruling the world and keeping a standing army.
The twists at the end were pretty good, although I think some of my commenters oversold them. I was expecting something even more earth-shattering. Still, I have to praise the game for improving upon the approach of DarkSpyre and making the backstory relevant throughout the game. I never really like the "you've been doing my bidding all along" trope, but it's well done here and actually makes sense with the plot reveal. Shadow Weaver's one mistake was assuming Jera wouldn't go to the citadel's lower level and find out how to use the staff from Chesschantra's ghost.
I like the puzzles of The Summoning much better than DarkSpyre, too. They feel more organic and less artificial (although the previous game had a good reason that they felt artificial). Most of them have a couple of solutions, and some can be skipped entirely or circumvented (e.g., using the Boots of Levitation to get over plates and teleporters; casting "Freeze" to stop rolling balls). I could have done without the double-destination teleporters, however, which force you to test every teleporter once you know they exist.
The Summoning has NPCs, but as for other RPG elements, I'm not sure the sequel did a better job. Making Warmonger so overpowered and then introducing it slightly more than halfway through the game was a mistake; it ruins the other weapons. I wasn't enamored of the spell system. For combat tactics and character development, DarkSpyre may have been a little superior. But because of its other elements, I expect The Summoning to out-perform DarkSpyre's GIMLET score of 30.
For a game of this many entries, I would normally save the GIMLET for its own article. But I've already got one of those coming up for Dark Queen of Krynn so let's just bang it out here:
  • 5 points for the game world. It has a good backstory with original elements, referenced repeatedly during the game.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Character creation is relatively meaningless given the way the character develops, and as for that development, I never felt that any of the "level-ups" made me more powerful.
  • 5 points for NPC interaction. I like the NPCs: they had personalities and interests of their own. They weren't terribly complex, and the game could have done more with the dialogue keywords, but the system was still miles ahead of DarkSpyre. They even offered a fundamentally role playing choice in the decision whether to kill them as you left them, as most were loyal to Shadow Weaver.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. The foes are nothing special. Some hit harder than others and some throw globs of whatever at you, but for the most part you adopt the same approaches to all of them. I do give credit to the game manual for providing a couple of paragraphs of description for all of them. Most of these points go to the puzzle system, which I regard as a type of "encounter." The two games do a good job bringing Dungeon Master-style puzzles to an axonometric interface.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. The fundamental problem with combat is that it's too easy. There are a number of environmental strategies that you might employ if it were harder, including maneuvering enemies into the paths of each others' missiles, leading them to traps or rolling balls or teleporters, using spells like "Magic Wall" to limit the number that can attack you at once, crushing them in doors, or using "Invisibility" to elude them. However, as easy as it is to "Freeze" and heal, not to mention how overpowered Warmonger is, you might as well just wade in swinging. It's too bad because the spell system has some creative spells that I rarely bothered to cast, including "Magic Skill," "Weapon Skill," "Swiftness," "Battlerage," and "Zap Away." You mostly need to save magic points for puzzle-related spells.
One of several spells I never used.
  • 4 points for equipment. There certainly is plenty of it. Focusing just on the standard RPG stuff, you've got various types of weapons and armor, wands, potions, necklaces and other magic items (which have laughably short lives), and of course runes with different effects. Again, it would all be more meaningful with harder combats. I do not like that so much equipment was used for puzzle-solving, particularly when it involved items that most players would be expected to use immediately, such as Odin runes and skill books. I don't like that the distribution of equipment is completely determinate. And I don't like that half the game is spent micro-managing your inventory so you're not overburdened.
  • 1 point for economy. I'm being generous. Individual gold pieces that take up their own slots is more "equipment" than an economy. 
  • 4 points for quests. There's a main quest with several outcomes, even if some are obviously "bad," plus a few side-quests and side-areas.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I didn't think there was anything particularly good or bad about the graphics and limited sound effects. As for the interface, I think it required a bit too much mouse work, and too much of that had a tendency to go awry. The system of dragging the inventory panel up and down was never a good idea; it didn't work well in DarkSpyre or Dusk of the Gods, either. (I seem to have said otherwise in my summary of DarkSpyre, which surprises me.) I would have much preferred a single key to switch between the two. The automap is well-annotated but I would have preferred an easy way to call it up instead of requiring the player to equip a special object.
  • 5 points for gameplay. Here, The Summoning significantly outperforms its predecessor, which was painfully linear and difficult. Both games were a bit too long.
That gives us a final score of 40. I was expecting something in the 40s, so that basically works. I'd certainly consider it "recommended," and if Event Horizon had made a third title in the series, I suspect they would have done even better. Considering how much I was dreading the game at the outset, I'm pleased where I ended up.
Note that the hero in the advertisement is choosing the worst possible ending.
Samuel Baker reviewed The Summoning in the March 1993 Computer Gaming World. Some of his statements are a little mysterious ("I found that floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee paid dividends when there were many adversaries"), but overall he was complimentary to the game. Despite some frustrations with the inventory puzzles, he notes that: "I found myself more and more involved with The Summoning, playing not out of duty, but out of pleasure." That's exactly how I felt, although I can't agree with his follow-up: "I was sorry to finish the game." He alludes to Scorpia having tried the game but quitting in frustration, but I can't find her review in the issue he points to. Later that year, the magazine nominated The Summoning for "Role-Playing Game of the Year" but gave the award to Ultima Underworld II. I was surprised to see much less complimentary scores in MobyGames's round-up (they range from 39 in the German Power Play to 82 in the German PC Games); most of the complaints seem to have to do with technical and interface issues that I didn't experience.
The Summoning ends our experience in this game world--presumably, Jera ruled in peace forever--but not with Event Horizon or the two primary developers, Christopher Straka and Thomas Holmes. Screenshots of their vampire-themed RPG, Veil of Darkness (1993), suggests that it continues the DarkSpyre engine. Later, they'll move to a first-person interface for Dungeon Hack (1993), Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession (1994), Ravenloft: Stone Prophet (1995), and Anvil of Dawn (1995), but even then some of the graphical and interface elements look familiar. Straka's games have gotten continually better since the odd Wizard Wars (1988), and I look forward to seeing the rest of his trajectory.
With that, we get ever-so-closer to the end of 1992. Next, I'm going to attempt the French Oméga, Planète Invisible from 1986, but I warn you I'm not going to have a lot of patience for it. We'll see a wrap-up of Dark Queen of Krynn before that. I would also note that is my 120th entry for 2020, which has been my annual goal since setting up my Patreon account in early 2019. If I maintain my pace, I should have close to 150 entries by the end of the year, making this my most productive year since 2011. Even 10 more entries this year will make it my most productive year since 2013. Tell that to all those people who say Chester Bolingbroke is on his way out.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Dark Queen of Krynn: The Black Robed, the Winged Ones, and Also the Small

Bit by bit, we ruin the draconians' plans.
When I last wrote, the party had emerged from New Aurim and had returned to Hawkbluff to infiltrate the fortress of Trandamere, religious ruler-in-all-but-name of Thenol. Hawkbluff was an interesting set of maps. I screwed it up in almost every possible way and still managed to clear it. The fortress consists of five levels up and two levels down. There were several entrances, and each required a different pass. Apparently (I looked this up later), there are eight passes. The jeweler in town, having been shown the queen's signet ring, will forge up to three of them. 
I screwed things up in several ways. First, I was feeling ornery and I refused to map the small levels, even though there are multiple stairways connecting them, plus multiple secret doors, and you really have to map to make sense of it all. Second, I carried my "total war" attitude over from New Aurim and insisted on just attacking everything. Third, I only ever got one pass from the jeweler--the "Keyhole" pass that you need to enter the main doors of the fortress. From there, I put my right shoulder to the wall and followed it dogmatically, up and down stairs when I encountered them, but never finding many of the fortress's encounters. I never even visited the two lower levels. Despite that, the place was packed with encounters. Some examples:
  • As we entered the fortress, guards were trading rumors about "over a hundred mercenaries" attacking and sacking the palace in New Aurim.
  • Clerics demanding that citizens donate their possessions and then sacrifice themselves to the undead army. We watched one old man do this to save his daughter, then attacked the clerics and stopped the practice for good.
  • We killed some treasury guards and got access to the treasury, which had 38,771 gold pieces. Naturally, we couldn't carry most of it.
  • Multiple battles with a new enemy called "Bakali." The manual describes them as lizard men from Taladas. They hit hard, and numerous times, with their spears, and they take a pounding, but they're susceptible to most mass-damage spells. 
A large pack of soon-to-be-charred Bakali.
  • We disrupted services in the main Temple of Hith, killed all the clerics, and overturned the altars.
  • Several overheard conversations and rumors indicated that Trandamere was planning for an invasion of Ansalon once Taladas was conquered.
The primary battle took place in a war room in which Trandamere and his generals were discussing the upcoming invasion of a place called "Blackwater." First, we had to kill the generals while Trandamere fled. Then, we had to kill a bunch of draconians protecting Trandamere in his flight. Then, we had to kill a bunch of Bakali doing the same. Finally, Trandamere fled through a secret portal that exploded behind him.
Trandamere had hauled Hawkbluff's architect, Davik, to the meeting. When everyone was dead, Davik joined the party and helped direct us to various places around the fortress. Still, we had trouble figuring out what to do next. A commenter helped by offering that if we'd come in through the front door of Trandamere's war room, instead of the secret door we used, we would have seen a scripted event in which Trandamere had tossed the Book of Amrocar into a dumbwaiter. That was our cue to look for it in the kitchen. Well, we eventually found it there even though that encounter text had never appeared. The book contained an in-journal map of Blackwater Glade.
I got stuck for a while in a loop where the game was asking me this every step. Fortunately, it cleared up.
Let's pause here to talk about draconians. I've been fighting them since Champions of Krynn, but Dark Queen introduces a new set of "enchanted" varieties that really raise the stakes. Aurak draconians, for instance, resurrect twice before finally dying in a fireball that damages everyone around them. Enchanted Auraks are like this except they also have up to Level 8 mage spells and significantly damage everyone around them when they explode. 
"Exploding when they die" is a trait shared by several enchanted draconian breeds. Enchanted Sivaks explode in four directions with the same effects as "Meteor Swarm." Enchanted Kapaks dissolve into acid for a 10-foot radius. But worse of all are enchanted Bozaks. They not only have "Fire Shield" active when combat begins, they explode into "Ice Storm" when killed and they have "Cone of Cold," "Ice Storm," and "Lightning Bolt" at their disposal. You have to make a tough decision when fighting them: either let them cast at will, or damage them every round so they can't cast spells, in which case they rush up to engage you in melee range and you have to either extract yourself or take the damage when they explode.
The explosions of regular draconians were annoying but rarely fatal, but the death throes of enchanted draconians often kill one or more of my characters. The best tactic I could come up with was to cast "Monster Summoning," which almost always generates fire giants, and try to put them in between the party and the draconians while I picked them off with spells (which fail a lot of the time against draconians) and arrows. The constant struggle got relatively tiresome by the end of the game, but on the other hand it proved the first serious challenge that the Gold Box offered in a long time.
Putting a summoned creature buffer between us and a draconian.
To deal with the difficulty of these and other combats, I naturally relied on buffing spells, often cast during my second attempt at the battle. "Bless," "Protection from Evil," and "Prayer" still offer some assistance. "Resist Fire" and "Resist Cold" are equally vital, although they really just halve the damage. I still use "Enlarge" even though I don't think it really helps my powered characters. My mages get "Mirror Image," "Fire Shield," and "Globe of Invulnerability." Ever since one mage found a Ring of Wizardry that gives extra Level 5 slots, I've sacrificed spaces that would have normally gone to "Cone of Cold" for "Fire Touch," which lets the characters do extra fire damage. But by far the most useful buffing spell is "Haste." Unfortunately, it continues to age the characters one year for every time it's cast, and there aren't many Potions of Youth to be found in this game. My human characters have basically given up their youth to the utility of this spell, aging from their mid-20s to their mid-40s over the course of the series. I know it doesn't make a real in-game difference, but I still feel bad for them.
I left Hawkbluff having explored nowhere near all of the maps but still having accomplished my objectives. Normally, I would have insisted on exploring every square, but the fortress respawned more than any Gold Box game I can remember. Every time I came across a guard station or checkpoint, it was newly stocked with fresh forces. The combats got exhausting, particularly since it's nearly impossible to rest inside the fortress.
A new marker had appeared on my world map, so I headed there. A ship took me across the strait to what turned out to be the village of Bai'or. A fishing village, Bai'or had been conquered by draconians allied with a thuggish faction of Bai'orians called "Sharkmen," a term use by the Oracle. The draconians had left, but the Sharkmen remained in charge. There were also a company of dragons in the woods north of town, keeping the villagers in line. The villagers had been put to work building dozens of ships to carry the eventual draconian invasion fleet across the sea to Ansalon.
A lot of games would have elided the logistics of an intercontinental invasion.
Most villagers, afraid of the Sharkmen, wouldn't talk with us. Two of them, Eric Strongbond and Oleg Hamhand, tried to pin the troubles of the town on each other.  After we invaded and destroyed the Sharkmen's headquarters, we found an old woman named Anthela who suggested we just leave Bai'or to its fate and go find allies in the gnomes in the citadel of Aldinanachru "on the northwest of the Lava Sea." We had the option to just leave or to tell Anthela that we'd take care of the dragons so the rest of the town could throw off the yoke of the Sharkmen. We of course did the latter.
The fight against the Sharkmen was a classic, old-school Pool of Radiance-type battle against dozens of enemies mostly capable of physical attacks, although they did have a few clerics in the back. They were tough, but a few fireballs softened them up for my melee fighters to finish off. The town rejoiced at their liberation, and even the Strongbonds and Hamhands made amends.
This is what I live for.
We then had to keep our promise to fight the dragons. In the town's northern wooded squares, we found a battle with several black, blue, and red dragons. They could be tough if they went first, but dragons hardly ever do, and a hastened Midsummer and Dutch, both armed with dragonlances, can kill eight dragons per round. The other party members can easily take down one or two. It wasn't even close.
When the battle was over, we met a weak, sickly red dragon who the others had been torturing. We gave it some food and water, and it related that the draconians in the Tower of Flame have been trying to bio-engineer the perfect dragon for Takhisis to inhabit when she enters the mortal plane. He was one of the genetic mistakes. Grunschka unimaginatively named him "Firebreath." Firebreath suggested we find help from unaligned dragons in Blackwater Glade.
If that's your way of describing the afterlife, you and I have very different ideas about what it will look like.
This was the fifth or sixth time we'd heard about Blackwater Glade, but we didn't know where it was. We found it by returning to the mainland and searching up and down systematically.
As we entered, Dutch fell into a sinkhole and briefly lost the dragonscale necklace that the king of the Hulderfolk had given to us. I think the entire episode was just to remind us that he had it. As we explored the area, a bard named Baldric joined us. His character sheet showed he wasn't a bard but a ranger, and 83 years old at that. It was clear that something was up with him because he would disappear before every battle, and later we'd find scorched earth and bodies. Grunschka decided that she hated him for some reason, and yelled "hooray!" every time he left and grumbled every time he returned.
The party meets another walking god.
We ran into a tribe of Bakali--so that's where they come from--and helped one with his manhood trial against a giant crocodile, but in a way that didn't rob him of the honor of slaying the beast. Although his tribe forbade him from helping us, he showed up several times during the rest of the map to give us directions.
Ultimately, it turned out that the Glade was the home of two species of dragons, red and silver, oddly aligned with each other just because neither group had been corrupted by Takhisis during the War of the Lance. They called themselves "Othlorx." Draconians and Thenolians were now stealing their eggs for corruption into draconians. Baldric was a silver dragon in disguise. We also met another, named Clematra, who let us rest in her lair.
Sounds like an abstinence-based education could solve all of our problems.
The red dragons were ruled by Tremor--another name from the Oracle, finally appearing. He was unaligned with Takhisis but not "good," and he kept demanding tribute from us until we just threatened him and he fled. The Book of Amrocar had a password that got us into his lair. We eventually re-encountered a subdued Tremor, who told us that the courage of the red Othlorx had been lost the day that Takhisis struck a scale from the chest of Kothar, their previous leader.
Of course, this turned out to be the scale that Dutch was now wearing around his neck. Just as we handed it to Tremor, a hoard of Thenolians burst in, and we all had to work together to defeat them. After that, another red dragon tried to usurp Tremor's authority, so we had to participate in a ritual in which we laid a sword across Tremor's neck without killing him, apparently proving his bravery, and his rival backed down. Tremor let us keep the sword, which turned out to be a vorpal sword, perhaps the only major equipment upgrade we got in this game except the second dragonlance.
Dragons are weird.
After all was said and done, the Othlorx offered to fly us north to the gnome citadel at Aldinanachriu, which for some reason is built on the edge of a sea of lava. As we arrived, the place was in chaos. Tasslehoff Burfoot--groan--met us at the entrance and related what's happening. Gnomes have long been divided into two castes: the Gnomoi, who do all the thinking, planning, and inventing, and the Minoi, who do all the actual work. The king recently decided he wanted to abolish the caste system, and did so by reversing the two traditional roles. The new Gnomoi laborers were stumbling over themselves while the Minoi thinkers were designing disastrous inventions. As we arrived, the castle was gutted and full of debris and the elevator was broken; every time we used it, either we took some damage or some gnome operators died.
Typical of conditions in the citadel.
We re-encountered Captain Daenor, still searching for his sister. He had hoped that the gnome king would help with the nation's fire-fleets and windships, but the king was ignoring his pleas. He re-joined the party, and I was surprised to note that he was a paladin. I didn't remember if he had that class the first time. I gave him a spare long bow +3 and long sword +4.
We had an audience with the king, who listened impatiently and then dismissed us. However, our lie-detection ring started glowing in his presence and revealed him to be a Sivak draconian. He ordered his guards to attack as he fled, and we had to kill a lot of probably-innocent gnomes. 
This plot device is used more than masks in the Mission Impossible franchise.
The next couple of hours had us running around the multiple levels of the gnome fortress, trying to find the abducted king. We fought several squads of disguised Sivaks, plus a bunch of hydras and iron golems coming through a portal that they had opened, plus fooled ambassadors from the Land of the Minotaurs. In doing so, we revealed draconian plans to invade the Land of the Minotaurs, for which the minotaurs thanked us. We also awoke a pack of vampires in one forgotten corner of the place, which was a tough battle. They all refused to turn. 
I think the minotaurs are the "black robed" of the Oracle's prophecy. It's a good thing I didn't kill them all.
We made use of the fortress's services as we explored, including a training hall, an inn, a tavern, and most importantly, an old woman selling missiles out of a suitcase. She sold 10 arrows +2 for 15,000 gold. I spent nearly an hour appraising and selling gems and jewels to convert them to steel pieces, and in the end, I was able to purchase about 250 arrows, split among five characters with bows (including Captain Daenor). They didn't quite last me until the end of the game, and I can see why some players, taking a long-term view, invest quite heavily in cheaper arrows + 1 in Death Knights of Krynn before starting this game.
About halfway through the conversion process.
We finally caught up to where the draconians were holding the king, fought several more battles, dealt with a scene in which the real king and a Sivak both claimed to be each other, and ultimately won the day.
Baldric arrived at the citadel to report that the Othlorx had finished destroying the Thenol armies. (It's kind of weird that we never had a final confrontation with Trandamere.) The restored gnome king agreed to help us and the Othlorx on a multi-pronged attack on the draconians' Tower of Flame. We will be flown by wind ship to the top floors of the tower and then work our way down.
This "Grathanich" will become important next time--and not in a good way.
I had hoped to win the game for this entry, but although I have explored most of the Tower of Flame, I'm frustratingly unable to figure out how to actually wrap up the game. I've fought what seems like about 15 "final battles," but the game apparently wants me to still fight the final battle, which I have to hunt around for. We'll talk about my end game frustrations next time, assuming I'm able to win.
Before I go, I just want to note that this game has done a better job than any Gold Box title since Pool of Radiance in giving a large number of what I called contextual, conversational, and choice encounters in this old entry. Some allow you to role-play, some are a kind of mini-puzzle, and some are like rolling a die. They're all welcome. Here are some examples from this session alone:
A rare example of a dialogue option in a Gold Box game.

Since you really need Tremor and the Othlorx, choosing "behead" must lead to instant death or a very different game.

I like having choices, but who sees this situation and thinks, "attack!"?

The man is a vampire. Helping him allows him a free attack that drains the character.
I'm not sure that any of the encounter choices offered in Dark Queen lead to significantly different outcomes in terms of the plot, but it's still nice to see some recognition that role-playing is about choices, and some players like choices that go beyond what weapon to use and what enemy to attack in combat. It's an important step on the road to more meaningful role-playing in later games.     
Time so far: 30 hours


Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Summoning: Behind Enemy Lines

Sentries open the gate as I arrive at Shadow Weaver's Citadel at last.
When I last wrote about The Summoning, I thought I was stuck. It turned out I had overlooked one teleporter. That one teleporter took me to a brand new area that had several of the items I needed for the additional slots on End Five, including a crucial gold key that opened a couple of ways forward. Before I discovered the teleporter, I also Fehu-scummed for a couple of the additional items (that is, I used my Fehu runes, which generate random items, and reloaded if I got something that didn't help.), but they only opened doors to other treasures.
It's amazing that something like my impasse hasn't happened before. There are a number of places in the game where all action funnels to a single point--a door, a teleporter, a lever that opens a door, a pressure plate that activates a teleporter, and so forth. There are a million ways that you could miss or misinterpret one of these many objects and thus have no idea how to proceed. I've been very lucky so far.
While I was trying to figure out how to proceed, I allowed myself to briefly consult the hint book. I hardly ever consult hint books while playing the games; they typically ruin the experience for me. But I was so sure I was stuck that I wanted to see if I could find the specific solution to my problem.
The hint book is 164 pages. It is my opinion that anyone who looked at the hint book before playing the game would immediately put it down and at least slowly back away, if not turn tail and run. It looks like something that Satan would hand an RPG addict shortly after his arrival in hell. The problem is not that the book isn't accurate (although it often is not) but that seeing it all laid out like this makes each level look like a Kafkaesque horror. There are hundreds of numbered annotations per map, sometimes with both numbers and letters, sometimes double letters, often in no sensible order. For instance, the opening room for End Five has the annotations 1, 2, 3, 51B, and 54.
This is an area of End Three that I didn't find too hard to solve. If I'd looked at this first, I never would have gotten started.
The bigger problem is that some of the annotations are wrong, including the key one that would have helped me with this level. I figured out the teleporter I needed to advance in the level, the door I needed to open to get to the teleporter, and the slot that I needed to feed to open the door. The slot requires a gold key. Nowhere on the map does it say you find a gold key. There was a gold key in End Three, but I needed it for a necessary door there. I've needed all the gold keys I've found so far. Why would the game expect me to save a random one just in case I needed it in a later level?

Well, it didn't. The gold key is dropped by a cyclops in an area accessible by the "missed" teleporter. The hint book says that he drops a gold coin. That's a big difference. A spot check reveals several other inaccuracies, including index numbers that don't appear on the map or mismatches between the number on the map and the textual description of that number. "Open this door by operating the lever at 17," the book says, with the number on the map pointing to a teleporter, not a door. Anyway, I'm happy to put the hint book aside. This is a game that you need to experience as it feeds it to you, not all at once.
Having sorted things out, I was able to open the way to two new areas. The first went to a part of End Three that is inaccessible from the rest of the map. To get there, I first had to solve a puzzle in End Five. I stumbled into a room with Algit, Sowelu, Isa, and Nauthiz runes. (None of these do anything interesting enough that I was excited about them this late in the game.) There was a slot in the room next to a talking skull that said, "It's your job to solve my riddle, fellow guild members. Trust your initial instinct!"
"Initial instinct" sounded like some kind of letter-based puzzle, and it didn't take me long to realize that the letters A, S, I, and N can spell ASSASSIN. There were enough runes to make the word, so I fed them in the slot in the right order, and the way opened to End Three.
Well, I'm set on "Cure Poison," "Freeze," and "Cure Confusion" for a while.
The "hidden" area of End Three was shaped like a raven, and it was swarming with assassins. I feel like I killed 50 of them. I adopted some funny combat preferences for this level and the subsequent ones, incidentally. I started to find weapons again, so I set aside Warmonger for spears, axes, and maces in an attempt to build those skills. Later in this session, I had run low on disposable weapons but high on magic-regenerating stuff, with multiple wizard's staffs and magic hats. Thus, for a while I prioritized killing enemies with magic. Warmonger is always a nice failsafe, but I wish it were one-handed. I have so many shields to get rid of.
The game gets cute with its wall pattern.
The assassin area's primary puzzle was a series of locks, positioned all over the level, that had to be opened in a specific order. It wasn't much of a challenge, just a lot of trial and error. The locks opened the way to the assassin leader called the Raven. When I encountered him, he sensed that I had the magic mirror from like 18 levels ago and threatened to kill me if I didn't give it to him. The conversation went downhill from there, and soon we were in combat. He was surprisingly easy. He took a long time to die, but his own attacks were very mild. I didn't have to "Freeze" the action once.
Raven fundamentally misunderstands the situation.
When he was dead, I used a Gebo rune to teleport to the other side of the level, where a guy named Hiram had offered me a reward for Raven's head. The reward was 12 gold coins, a Book of Spears, and a Figurine of Resurrection. The 12 coins were exactly what I needed. Added to the 3 I already had, they gave me enough loot to purchase the lava boots and the healing spell.

I returned to End Two to purchase the boots from the boot maker, then went on to explore the lava level. "Lava" is a bit of a misnomer, as I never really saw any. Instead, the entire level just glowed red with heat. Standing in the level without the boots causes you to rapidly lose hit points. With the boots, you stop losing the points, but fire-based enemies (fire giants, phoenixes, and snake statues) cause a lot of fire-based damage, so its best to keep "Fire Shield" going. As I started to explore the level, I was worried the lava boots might turn out to be temporary items, like the amulets or Boots of Levitation. But they lasted the entire level, and I assume now they're permanent.
A cinematic interlude shows the boot maker working on my boots.
The lava level was mostly about providing item rewards to the player. Enemies and pressure plate puzzles led to fairly large caches of treasures, most of which I didn't need or want, but the experience was probably good. There was one clever puzzle early in the level ruined by the game's own mechanics. The puzzle consisted of 7 skulls arranged in a circle, each of which had a clue that resolved into a number. You had to be paying attention to the game's lore and mechanics to figure out the number. The clues were:
  1. Wizards who attempted to defeat Shadow Weaver (9)
  2. Hand motions in a magic wall spell (4)
  3. Items in a sack (10)
  4. Offspring of Chesschantra (1)
  5. Wizards whose souls were entrapped in their skulls (8)
  6. Weight of a boulder (5)
  7. The Gods of Darkspyre (3) 
Each skull had a pressure plate in front of it. The idea was that as you encounter locked doors throughout the level, you weigh down the appropriate combination of pressure plates. So a nearby door whose skull announced "4103" required me to weigh down plates 2, 3, and 7. There were large blocks of wood in the room for just that purpose, but only three of them, so you couldn't just weigh down every plate--except you could if you dribbled in nearby fire giant corpses. Without much effort, I weighed everything down and spared myself repeated trips back to the room.
An interesting puzzle ruined by its own mechanics.
After I was done with the lava level, I took the long slog back to End Five. I still hadn't found two of the items wanted by the floor slots--an Odin rune, a rowan wand, and a "Zap Away" parchment--but I figured I could live without whatever treasures they revealed. I stopped in the level's foyer and spent most of the rest of my gold on the "Heal" spell, which completely restores the character and removes the need for swapping in a potion bottle during combat. On the other hand, it uses 99 spell points compared to the 5 that "Liquify" uses, and it only takes 3 "Liquify" spells to fully heal me. I'll save "Heal" for emergencies.
I finally made my way to the exit from End Five, which is the entrance to the Citadel. Two guards stood sentry by the door, saying: "Nobody enters the citadel, save for Shadow Weaver's messengers." This was my clue to don the stone messenger's outfit and hat and to carry the stolen message. With the equipment on, the sentries opened the door, and I was at last in the Citadel.
Don't I look dashing.
A downward ladder awaited me right at the entrance, and it led to the Citadel Basement. A second ladder was right there, and it led to the sewers, the alternate way into the Citadel. I started to explore it from this direction, but I soon sank into the muck again and gave up. I don't know how much experience or treasure I'm leaving in the sewers, but it doesn't seem worth it.
I explored the basement next. All the Citadel levels are roughly circular. The basement had a couple of outer "rings" with a few structures in the middle. There was a lot of open area and the same types of keyed doors, pressure plates, levers, and teleporters you've heard me describe a million times. Enemies were specters and particularly difficult skeletons. I found two Books of the Spear in the area. Spears break very fast, so it's hard to otherwise develop skill with them. There were lots of other runes. 
Chesschantra's spirit rises.
The center building housed the crypt of Chesschantra, the sorceress from the backstory. She had been King Borel's lover but slept with the God of Magic and had an unnatural child, Abighael. I had long suspected that Abighael was either Shadow Weaver or Rowena. Chesschantra's spirit arose from her coffin and cleared things up:
Do not fear me, Jera. Come closer. I must speak with you. I am the witch Chesschantra. Or, should I say, the ghost of Chesschantra. I know that you must seek out half of the Staff of Summoning that Shadow Weaver does not possess. You must then mend the Staff and use it. Hold a personal possession of the one you wish to summon in one hand and the Staff in the other. Then invoke the Staff's power!
I must tell you, Shadow Weaver is actually my daughter, Abighael. She plans to use the necklace of runes to summon back the God of Magic. She hopes to defeat him and assume his state of existence. She does not realize that she cannot win. The god will overpower her, and then release his own wrath upon this world. When you have mended the Staff, summon ME. I will then be able to take care of my daughter. I know Abighael has brought great pain to this world, but she must be forgiven. I can convince her to make amends, and to bring peace and happiness back to this world.
Somehow, "I am the world's only salvation" gives me pause.
She then gave me her skull to use in the ritual. Her plan makes sense, but I can't help but wonder what will happen if I hold other items in my hand when invoking the staff--one of the speared skulls, say, or even Warmonger. I might have to play around.
The upper floors of the Citadel had clean, crisp textures, with polished floors and golden doors, suggesting recent construction.  Enemies were guards, stone golems, and hags, none of whom were fooled by my messenger's uniform. There weren't a lot of difficult puzzles on the first level, but I could only explore half of it; the entire northern half must be accessed from Floor Two. I could only explore most of the southern half of Floor Two, also, so it's possible that I'm going to have to get to Floor Three before I find the way back down to Floor Two and then the Ground Floor to finish the maps.
I could only explore half of the first level. I assume there's another half. There was in the basement.
I haven't found the ladder to Floor Three yet, but I've been vexed by a particular puzzle on Floor Two. There's a small room surrounded by doors. It has a pressure plate in the middle, and the room is so small that you can't help but step on the plate when you enter. Stepping on the plate closes the north and south doors but opens the east and west doors. If you weigh it down, the configuration remains permanent.
This one has me stumped. I need to go south.
I can approach from the north, east, and west, but I need to hold the south door open so I can go south. That's what I can't figure out how to do. You can't step off the plate while still in the room, so there's no way to avoid the plate while getting anywhere near the southern door, and stepping on the plate closes it. Maybe I'm not meant to go that way. I still have to test my three teleportation runes on both floors to see if they take me anywhere new.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • I still haven't found a black pearl to progress in the Otherworld. I have revisited sometimes to use the foyer as my personal vault.
Don't mind me, your majesty.
  • Jere made it to "hero" (Level 10/12) a while back. She has 157,501 experience points, and it's hard to imagine her reaching the 256,000 needed for "champion" level, let alone the 600,000 needed for "vanquisher." She is "expert" (Level 9/10) at swords and axes, "adept" (7/10) at polearms, and "stalwart" (6/10) at missile weapons. For magic, she is "master" (10/10) at healing and between 6 and 8 in the other three disciplines.
I make a level in polearms while killing a snake statue with a spear.
  • The only spells I haven't found are "Swiftness," "Lightning Shield," "Weapon Skill," "Shape Change," and "Alteration." The latter two are apparently plot-driven.
  • This note isn't specific to The Summoning, but I don't think I've ever mentioned it. To take a screenshot in DOSBox, you use CTRL-F5. Mis-reach and accidentally hit F4, and you've started an audio recording of your game session. I frequently exit a long session to find I have a 7 GB .wav file in my screenshots folder.
The manual suggests there are 4 levels to the Citadel. I still have to explore the equivalent of three of them, plus however much is left of the Otherworld. Still, I bet I can wrap it up in one more entry.
Time so far: 45 hours