Sunday, November 22, 2020

Game 390: Super Rambo Special (1986)

Super Rambo Special
Pack-in-Video (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for the MSX2
Date Started: 19 November 2020
Date Ended: 19 November 2020
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Super Rambo Special appears on Wikipedia's list of role-playing video games, with its designation as an "action RPG" cited to a 2009 Hardcore Gaming 101 article that no longer appears on the site. I would like to shake the author by his lapels and demand that he articulate precisely what RPG elements he feels that the game has. It isn't an RPG at all--it's an axonometric action game with elements so simplistic that it might easily have been found in an arcade. My policy on such games these days is to reject them, offer a BRIEF in case someone comes looking for coverage, and move on. The only reason you're getting a full article is because Rambo is so short that to BRIEF it is to cover it entirely.
The game is officially licensed from Carolco, the production company that made the first three Rambo films. In 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part II had smashed international box office records, leading to a slew of tie-in video games, many of which make no sense at all. The earliest seems to be the Japanese Rambo (1985) for the MSX, a game that I seem to have previously rejected. If I had remembered it before playing this one, I would have revisited it first. It's an action game for the original MSX with more limited gameplay than this one, which is really saying something. The same year, Mindscape released Rambo: First Blood Part II as a text adventure, of all things. Two games with that same title hit the shelves in 1986, one for PCs in the United Kingdom and the other for the SEGA Master System in Japan, the U.K., and the United States. The NES had Rambo (1987). Altogether, these titles satisfied the need for jingoistic violence until a slew of games based on Rambo III emerged in 1988 and 1989. It's strange how few video games were made based on the original First Blood (1982). 
When Rambo wields the M-60 in the film,
Super Rambo Special never made it out of Japan, but all the screen text is in English, except for one setup screen in which the player is asked if he wants to enter a save code. (Although the MSX was a proper PC, the game was released as a cartridge.)  I was unable to find a manual for it, but the joystick-based controls were simple enough that I didn't need one.
The game begins with Rambo in a tropical-looking landscape of shrubs, rocks, and thatch-roof huts. From my gameplay experience, I suspect the official mission is to find an MIA and then find your way to an escape helicopter. You start near the lower-right corner of a map of about 200 screens (my best guess is that it's 12 x 16), and the helicopter is in the far upper-right. A north-south river bisects the game world, and rocks, hedges, and buildings make it impossible to travel anywhere in a straight line.
Each screen has up to half a dozen enemies, and may have a building containing up to another half dozen. Rambo begins with nothing but a knife, and buildings are the only places to find other weapons and ammunition, which include a handgun, a bow, an automatic rifle, a bow with exploding arrowheads, grenades, and a rocket launcher. Some buildings are locked and require keys found in the wilderness. Also found in the wilderness are flowers that provide a bit of healing when you find them and even more healing when you later use them. There are other flowers that are poisonous.
Two guards patrol a locked building. Fortunately, I have two keys, plus 33 automatic weapon rounds, 31 grenades, and 37 rockets for my launcher.
The player moves Rambo with the joystick and attacks with one of the buttons. A second button pauses the game and allows the player to scroll through the weapon and object selections.
There are no RPG elements in anything I've said so far, but the worse part is, the game sucks even as an action game. I don't claim to be an expert on action games, but the few that I've played usually start the player weak in weapons and slowly reward him with better weapons while at the same time escalating the difficulty of enemies. Here, the game world is entirely uniform in difficulty. You can find a rocket launcher three screens from the beginning. Enemies, of which there are only a few different types, remain the same throughout the game and actually seem to decrease in number as you approach the end.
A screen has four enemies plus a key and healing herbs on the other side of the hut. I'll have to destroy the hut or come in from the northern screen to get those items.
Then there's the matter of the weapons making no difference in the first place. This part is tough to explain. Enemy AI is bizarre. There are rare moments in which the enemies seem to sense your presence and deliberately move towards you, but usually they wander randomly--back and forth, up and down. If they happen to see you in front of them, they will sometimes start shooting. Since you die in just a couple of shots, you don't want to be standing there when they do.
Shooting enemies from afar with your own weapons doesn't work as well as it should, mostly because if you can shoot at them, they can shoot at you. You want to avoid their line-of-fire entirely. Fortunately, enemies have one major weakness: if you're immediately adjacent to them, they don't attack at all.
The best way to play the game, then, is to approach enemies cautiously on the diagonal (neither you nor they can shoot diagonally), then rush up and shoot or stab them from an adjacent square. The only problem with this approach is that other enemies might wander into a line-of-sight while you're doing it, but after only a little practice, I was able to clear maps of half a dozen enemies without getting hit once. And I'm not very good at action games. 
I dispatch five guards with careful timing and a knife.
Because of this quirk, there's hardly any need to enter any of the buildings looking for guns or ammo. You can keep your knife equipped the entire time and just rush through the screens, stopping to fight only those enemies who are literally standing in your way.
There are a couple of exceptions. First, there are several points at which you need a rocket launcher to blast a building or rock to move to the next area. Failure to find one early in the game can put you in a "walking dead" situation. The early-game rocket launcher is behind a locked door in the southwest corner of the map. There are fewer keys than locked doors, so if you run out of keys before you find the rocket launcher, you have no way to progress forward. But once you've found one and have 25 or 30 shots, that's all you need for the game.
I blow apart a hut so I can progress north and out of this area.
Second, some of the huts are special locations in which you learn a save code. Assuming the one near the end is the last one, there are nine of them throughout the game. If you die, reloading from a save code is the only way to continue. Since the game has no idea how your character was doing (the save codes are only positional), "reloading" this way gets you a default amount of ammunition, keys, and flowers. I mostly used save states instead, but it wouldn't have been much harder or longer if I'd used the codes. Anyway, the need for rocket launchers and these safe havens means that it's always a good idea to at least duck into each building and check things out, immediately leaving if you don't care what it offers.
An empty hut offers a keycode.
The rest of it is just maze navigation. You have to work your way up the left side of the map and then over to the river. The river is three screens wide, and you have to swim across. Swimming involves an awkward process of hitting both the joystick button and the directional at the same time. You progress slowly across the river, and its current carries you continually south as you do. If you reach the bottom of the map still in the river, you die. So you thus have to start as far north as possible and work your way across before the river runs out.
Fording the Mekong.
On the east side of the river are several places with illusory bushes. If you walk into them, you can pass through. There are other places with obstacles that must be destroyed. At one point, you find a map of the final maze, but I navigated that easy enough by just following one wall.
A map appears in the lower-right corner. I later died and didn't go back and pick it up the second time.
There are some "companions" who can join you for a while. I found two. Near the starting area, a fellow commando pops out of the bushes and follows you, turning and shooting enemies when they enter his line of fire. He died relatively quickly for me, I'm afraid, and I think it might be hard to keep him going through the entire game.
A POW follows me from a hut. I didn't check every hut int he game, so there might be more.
In the southeast corner, in a locked hut, you find an emaciated looking figure who follows you for the rest of the game. He has no combat ability, but he can take damage and die. Fortunately, this is close to the endgame. If you navigate through a long maze in the northeast quadrant, you eventually come to a helicopter. 
The final battle is against one guard.
Entering the helicopter fundamentally ends the game All your weapons, keys, and healing flowers disappear, and you get a "rocket launcher" with around 100 shots. You can fly around the map blowing up your enemies if you want.
I think this might fit the definition of a "war crime."
When you're finished, you fly off the edge of the map. The game ends with a patriotic display of U.S. flags.
I would argue that all this flag-waving misses the point of the first two films.
I feel like it's vaguely weird for a Japanese developer to be glorifying U.S. military prowess, but this game isn't worthy enough to serve as the basis for discussion of such a complex issue. It doesn't even make sense for me to give it a GIMLET score, but I will anyway, under the "if I play it, I rate it" philosophy. It gets a 10. A low rating would be fittingf even if I was rating action games.
You've probably noticed by now that every fifth or so entry, I've been plunging my hand into a random grab-bag of games previously overlooked or rejected, regardless of what my "upcoming" list says. I've come to look forward to these "off" entries for the surprise alone, even if the games never seem to amount to much.   

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Secrets of Bharas: Windows on the World

An angry peasant approaches as I discover the town of Vashi.
I haven't done much since the first entry except loop around the land of Surya about 500 times, slowly leveling up, making money, and purchasing better equipment. I have only just got to the point that I can survive maybe one battle in any of the dungeons, so I still have some grinding to go.
It hasn't been a completely unpleasant experience. There's something satisfying about the process of steady, incremental improvement. I basically established the coastal city of Vashi as my home base. It has a full set of basic services: healing, food, weapons, armor. It doesn't have a reagent shop, but it was a long time before I was ready to explore magic anyway. My routine was to follow the coast out of Vashi and keep hugging the coast all the way around the land and its various peninsulas, fighting random combats as they came along. Usually by the time I reached Vashi again, maybe 15 minutes later, I had amassed enough gold to purchase the next level of weapons and armor.
Buying armor.
Once I had 300 gold (minus what I had to spend to restock food), I could buy everyone small shields. Another 300, and everyone had cloth armor. Another 240, I could replace their starting daggers with maces, and at 480, their maces with flails. You get the picture. As I write this, everyone has large shields, short swords or great swords (only warriors can wield the latter), chainmail, leather gauntlets, and leather helmets. I'm still waiting for enough for bronze helmets (2,700), crossbows (3,000), copper gauntlets (3,300), and plate mail (3,750). That's the limit to what you can purchase. There are magic items to be found in the dungeons.
Equipping an armor upgrade.
My characters have reached about Level 6. Each level increase is accompanied by a boost in maximum hit points and an increase in random attributes. Spellcasters occasionally get access to a new spell. As my character levels have increased, so has the difficulty of random combats, but not in a 1:1 manner. Bharas, rather, does what I like: it increases the maximum difficulty rather than the average or minimum. When I first started playing, a wilderness encounter might consist of one warrior or two thieves. Nowadays, there are giant tarantulas and "porcine demons" wandering around, but I still occasionally face one warrior or two thieves. 
I got luck on this one.
Forty gold pieces to the healer restores all of your hit points. I've been trying to save money by occasionally camping instead, but a night's rest only restores about 40-60 hit points, and my characters have upwards of 800. The day/night cycle is about as annoying here as in Ultima VI. The cycle is far too frequent. Each move passes about 10 minutes on grass, 30 in mountains. It's hard to get any significant exploration done before night closes in around you, making it impossible to see anything.
The camping menu is one of many interesting interfaces in the game.
In my first session, I found the cities of Varnas and Kota. As I mentioned above, this one began with my discovery of Vashi, a much larger city. Some key intelligence from NPCs in that city included:
  • George the Righteous (one of three brothers named George) told me that an evil being is rising on the continent of Jalamuki. He seeks to rule the world.
  • A cleric named Bobby said that a priest named Keviv in Dharthi (Voltgloss called it!) knows a miraculous healing spell.
  • A dwarf named Sajat related that travelers need a special amulet to enter the palace of Dharthi and speak to the king. He suggested I get one from Dave the Short at the palace.
I get to use the "Ask Object" system for the first time.
This was the second or third time I heard about the Suryan palace, but in multiple trips around the continent, I never encountered it. I started to assume that it, along with some mines, might be on some of the islands that I would need to reach with a boat. Later, however, after I had circled the perimeter of the land dozens of times, I explored a section of the interior that I'd missed and found both the palace and some kind of triangular temple. It wants to know what god I worship; I haven't heard the names of any gods yet. 
Stumbling upon a carefully-hidden castle.
The palace also had a full set of services and plenty of NPCs. Dave the Short gave me his amulet. I heard more rumors about an evil being emerging from some kind of chasm in Jalamuki. Most important, an NPC named Xera told me that Andreas in Varnas has a set of the "tassels" that one needs to speak to the sage Yajiv.
As with the developers' previous 2088, the proper names used in Bharas are an odd mix of origins. As I looked through my notes, however, I saw a couple of themes. Elves from Hawa tend to have German-sounding names, such as Gunther and Klaus. Dwarves from Dharthi often have French-sounding names, like Jean-Claude from Toulon. Suryans are a mix of English names and Indian names. (A lot of characters in the palace have Arthurian names, including Gawain, Arthur, and Merlin.) This might be selective observation, though. If not, it's an early example of a trend taken to an extreme in Dragon Age, where the various peoples of Thedas are clearly modeled on European nations, languages, and customs.
Someone's been reading The Once and Future King.
A visit to King Narayan put us on the path of the main quest. He complained that the peace he had spent so long engineering was now in danger because of these rumors of a rising evil. He told us that as our first step, we'd need to consult with the sage Yajiv the Big-Nosed in Varnas. We already knew this, of course, but it was nice to have it confirmed. 
We returned to Varnas, got the tassels from Andreas, and were able to speak with Yajiv. Unfortunately, all he had for me is that we should continue to travel around the land talking to people knowledgeable about the seas, then return to Yajiv when we'd purchased a boat. That's going to involve some more grinding.
The oracle offers nothing . . . yet.
The combat system works pretty well. I've mostly been letting the computer fight--as we discussed last time, the calibration of autocombat is superb--but I'll probably take over more often now that I'm getting a handle on spells. Mages and healers both have unique spellbooks. Each gets nine spells, all named in pseudo-Latin. Mages get a balls, cones, and walls of both fire and frost, plus tremor, death, and summon demon. These latter three must be learned from teachers. Healers get several levels of healing, create food, protection, sleep, resurrection, and a couple of buffing spells.
The party mixes it up with some "lifesaps."
Each spell requires a mixture of reagents, sold at shops throughout the land. They also require a number of magic points, which replenish as you walk around. I'll report more on spells later.
The game continues to impress me with its interface. Everything from combat settings to equipping weapons and armor has an easy-to-use series of checkboxes and buttons. (I usually prefer keyboard commands for such things, but I realize that's not going to be possible as mechanics for inventory and combat become more and more complex.) Not only are the interface elements easy to understand, but the developers offer multiple ways to get the same information. For instance, if I want to know how the party is doing, I can choose "Quick Player Summaries" to get a rundown of hit points in the message window, or I can choose "Stats (Player Summaries)" to get a pop-up window with each character, his class, his hit points, his magic points, and his armor class. Or I can select the player and choose "Stats (Players)" to get the full character sheet.
A clever combat option lets you see what spoils and experience await you at the end of combat, to help you determine whether to continue.
Sorry for the short entry, but this has been a crazy week, and it's a wonder I'm getting any gaming done at all. Stick with me, and I'll pick up the pace after the Thanksgiving break.
Time so far: 7 hours

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Defender of Boston: Not Lovely, but Crafty

There's a lot to unpack in this paragraph.
With eight hours invested in Defender of Boston, I still barely know what to make of it. It is simultaneously brilliant and amateurish, meticulously detailed and riddled with errors. Part of me wants it to be over, and part of me wants it to never end.
I corresponded with author Tim Wisseman after my first entry, and he said that he based the themes and mechanics on the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG (1981), which is itself based on the Basic Role-Playing rules first developed for RuneQuest (1978). This explains the attributes and skills in Defender; not all of those used in Cthulhu appear, but those that do appear are in Cthulhu. Defender also uses the tabletop RPG's crafting and chemistry systems.
Karem Bradshaw fills in some of the island's lore.
But the game interface is completely original. Wisseman admits that he "really didn't know what [he] was doing." I covered some of the odder elements, like the outdoor movement system, last time. That really doesn't work very well, although like most things in this game, it is more sophisticated than I realized at first glance. The character's movement speed is affected by terrain, injury, energy level, encumbrance, and the enemies and NPCs around him, and making it real-time is supposed to (and does) increase the anxiety level when the character is approached by eldritch horrors. It's still unsupportable, but it does have a certain logic.
In fact, that's true of most of the game's elements. Most times that you encounter something that at first seems stupid, it later turns out to make a certain amount of sense. Early in this session, for instance, I was attacked by a lion as I wandered from one place to another. I laughed at the absurdity of a lion in Massachusetts and mentally chided Wisseman for not creating a sensible game world. Later, an NPC told me that some animal rights activists had kidnapped some animals from a circus in Boston and released them on the island. You get a lot of whiplash like that.
Oh, my.
Thanks to the map that BillBull dug up, I was able to explore most of the island over about three game days, speaking to about a dozen NPCs and exploring that many locations. The game's lore is complex and deliberately confusing, meant to be pieced together through a variety of clues, including NPC dialogue and found journals and notes. I'm still not on the verge of fully understanding the plot, but the initial quest to learn the fate of Fred Black has morphed into a tangled web of Deep Ones, aliens, and government conspiracies.
The island has numerous caves with drawings and petroglyphs.
The best I can tell, Rock Island has been the epicenter for paranormal activity for centuries. Caves on the island have petroglyphs of aliens and monsters. A stone tower, which may predate the pilgrims, may contain a gateway to another world and/or the key to saving this world from disaster. Residents have experienced odd events almost annually, such as Naomy Machentar, who was picked up bodily by a gust of cold wind last winter and dumped into a cemetery with two broken legs. Mysterious lights in the sky and mysterious creatures in the forest are so common that almost everyone has a story about them.
On 13 July 1921, an explosion lit up the island and drew a host of men-in-black to the island, plus some bird-watchers, whose arrival mysteriously preceded the disappearance of all birds except owls. A few days later, Fred Black found a mysterious box-like device with colored lights on it, but it appears the men-in-black kidnapped him, killed his wife, and seized the device. They've tried to keep people away from the Williams farm by spreading a story about anthrax, and from the stone tower by telling people it's structurally unstable.
Every resident so far has been a bit loopy, but the three most suspicious are Scotty, Bob, and Andrew "Dice" Kennedy. They seem to be collaborating on something; Bob, at least, said that he and the other two "have things under control." Something weird is happening in Scotty's house; when I visited, my character nearly had a breakdown over one room's angles or something. I found a bunch of mysterious equipment there and a radio set. Kennedy also had a radio.
The MIB agrees with me about Scotty and Bob. And I get attacked by a lion.
Moving from place to place brought me in conflict with a lot of creatures, including wild dogs, bushpigs, bears, wasps, rat packs, and the aforementioned lion. As I explored areas, I started finding weapons that I could use instead of punching and kicking. I upgraded from nothing to a bull whip to an axe. Later, I found firearms and ammunition. The combat system is relatively original and complex for a shareware game. I assume it's an attempt to replicate the tabletop RPG's rules. You lock on to nearby enemies by clicking on them. You then select either a melee or missile weapon. Either way, a combat panel comes up giving you a few options, including aiming and attacking. As you strike successful blows, the enemy's health meter depletes.
Weapons realistically run out of ammo, after which you have to load the right caliber one bullet at a time, each one taking a few seconds. This is realistic: you find boxes of rounds in this game, not magazines. I found that I'm far more likely to miss using a firearm, but when I hit, it does significantly more damage.
After a few misses, I kill the wild dog in one shot. I'm badly injured, though.
Enemy blows affect not only your health, but also body part-specific damage tracked by a paper doll at the top of the screen. Yellow areas of the body are injured but will heal over time. Red areas are badly injured and will get worse without healing. Injured legs are especially bad because they get worse as you try to walk on them.
Healing depends on successful use of the crafting system, which I also assume comes from the tabletop rules. There are five crafting menus: "Mix Medicine," "Make Explosives," "Field Engineering," "Cooking," and "Butcher." I think the latter two are available to anyone, but the first three are dependent on "First Aid" and "Chemistry" skills and don't appear at all if the skills are low enough. Within each menu are recipes for a variety of items. For instance, a "Stomotic Elixir Drug," which cures an upset stomach, requires a can of beer, a bottle of sulfur, and a bunch of berries. "Nitrex Explosive" requires a bottle of acid, a lump of saltpeter, a bag of sugar, and a bottle of iodine.
This healing broth drink cures injuries to the body. I badly need it for my head, waist, and leg.
You find most of the recipe items just searching the ground outside. Various reagents and bits of junk pop up as you walk: hemlock, poison ivy sprigs, ears of corn, bits of barbed wire, seawater, swamp water, pinecones, and so forth. Other items are in people's houses or the general store. The "Field Engineering" button lets you turn barbed wire into iron wire and iron wire into lock picks. (This was an important discovery, as there are a lot of doors on the island to pick.) You can make explosives, fuses, and detonators independently and them bring them together to make bombs. I haven't found any use for bombs yet, but the system is pretty cool.
Picking locks is just a matter of time and patience.
After my introductory session last time, I began exploring the island somewhat systematically in east-west strips from the north down. Scotty's house is on the north coast, and it was there that I experienced its oddities and picked up some weird equipment and a green glowing stone. Scotty tried to warn me about the men-in-black wandering the area. There was a crop circle near his house.
The men-in-black were reportedly staying in an old farmhouse that used to be occupied by a reclusive family. I tried to visit, but they shot at me as I got close. One of the funny things about this game is that you can have conversations with people even as they shoot at you. While one of the MIBs, Nick, was pumping me full of lead, he warned me of a mob presence on the island. I eventually had to flee.
On the way to another location, I met a shirtless man named John Wilets in the woods. He spoke like he had been living there for years, cut off by society. He claimed that "the Great One from far away has come near to stop those who eat all things" and that Bob had "trapped the black one from under feet." He also told me that the men-in-black had taken Fred Black to the north. Later, I met Wilets' wife, and she claimed he had only been missing for a few days. The Wilets home was oddly filthy, so perhaps they just live like that.
I'll bet he's just hiding from the Britannian Tax Council.
You can only explore dark places in this game with light sources, and you can't celebrate when you find candles or a flashlight because you also need matches and batteries, respectively. But once you have all of that, things open up. On a revisit to Andrew Kennedy's house, I was able to explore the dark parts. I found a weird object called a "p vortex inductor." Using his radio, I was able to send a mission report back to the Foundation, but I got no reply. Kennedy had a safe, but I couldn't figure out how to open it.
Eventually, I came to Bob's house. The stone tower is technically on his land, and Bob said that his father, Uri, warned him that the tower would be vital some day to the preservation of the world. Bob tried to warn me away from the investigation. In his journal, he claims to have invented "anti-dimensional shift glasses" based on his father's design. He claims to have used the glasses to shoot a Deep One in the head and kill it. "The elder sign is in place," his journal mysteriously reports.
Approaching Bob's mansion.
Black's house also had a mysterious document called the Pisro Scroll. It seems to be in German, but not good German, and a lot of it is just nonsense. If my German readers think it makes any sense and is worth translating, I'll take another shot at it.
This reads like gibberish to me.
I had been saving the Black farmhouse for last, assuming that I'd find plenty of clues there, but the place had nothing at all, just a description. After thinking it over, I decided to head back to the men-in-black house, which I hadn't explored at all, and try again. Night fell on the way, and any question about whether the "Deep Ones" were real or imaginary disappeared when I encountered one in the forest. The very sight of the creature made me sick, and it didn't respond at all to my weapons. I ended up dying and having to reload.
I guess there's no question that they're real.
The men in black were hostile when I returned to their house, so I killed three of them with an axe and then set about exploring the place. There were rooms suggesting they had been doing experiments on someone or something and keeping someone prisoner. I couldn't get through the door of a large vault in the house, but I did find a "mission journal." It indicated that the men-in-black were part of something called Operation Nightbird, an attempt to recover an alien spacecraft that had crashed on the island, apparently causing the explosion on 13 July. The Artifact that Fred found was from that crash. The MIBs decided to send an antagonizing letter from Fred to some local mob characters, leading the mafiosi to kill Fred and his wife without implicating the MIBs. They are now investigating Scotty and Andrew Kennedy and managed to figure out the combinations to both of their safes.
Dealing with the MIBs with my axe.
I returned to Kennedy's house and opened his safe with the combination, revealing a map of the island (it's now part of the interface, and I can find my position when I look at it), a Geiger counter, and a book called the Sussex Mystro. It describes the Deep Ones, or Children of Dagon, and the dangers they pose. It particularly warns against the Black Goat of the Woods and its young ones, "the trees that walk." 
The map is a nice touch, but like everything in the game, it's a little too small and hard to read.
On the south side of the island, I found the mob house and a "mob journal" which detailed their activities on the island, including shooting Deep Ones for target practice! None of the mobsters wanted to talk with me, but they didn't attack me, either. One of them, Lefty, did say that he saw the MIBs digging a hole somewhere on the eastern side of the island. I had found a shovel in the MIBs' house, so that made sense.
The mafia goon is cagey.
As I continued to explore, I started digging at each new location, and this paid off when I dug at some ruins near the Black farm. I found a large brass key near an old willow tree.
I headed back north and first used the combination provided by the MIBs to open the safe in Scotty's house. His journal mostly detailed his electrical experiments, which I couldn't follow, but it suggested he belonged to some group called the Esotoric Order of the Golden Twilight, perhaps a group of paranormal researchers and enthusiasts.
Bob's journal.
The large brass key unlocked the vault in the MIB house. There, I found a tank with a "membranous octopoid" floating inside it. "You feel the dark cloud of an unspeakable alien intelligence learing [sic] at you unseen with an unquenchable hatred," it said. There was an option to open its container, which I did, and the thing somehow immediately escaped, destroying the room on the way out.
I free a hostile alien and am rewarded with a Super Simon.
In the rubble, I found Fred Black's artifact--a boxlike object with four colored buttons. I reloaded, but there was no way to get it without also freeing the creature. I hope I was supposed to do that.
Open puzzles include:
  • There are reports of a "criminal" loose on the island. Bob may be hiding him in his house. There's a locked door in Bob's house that Bob won't let me open. I need to distract or kill him.
  • A lighthouse on the north coast had something horrible happen in the past. When I tried to visit, I couldn't get past the door lock, but that was before I realized that picking locks was just a matter of patience.
  • In a cave, I found a stone disc on the floor with a pentagram symbol. Moving it released some kind of black ooze that drained my life away. I reloaded and left it alone, but I wonder if that's the thing that Bob has trapped. Can I kill it? Should I leave it alone?
Note that the items in the room suggest a particular pop culture icon died here.
  • I have no idea what to do with a ton of odd equipment I've been picking up, including the Pisro Scroll, a Geiger counter, a spark coil, a loading coil, a glowing green stone, the Artifact, a p vortex inductor, a hormonic emi sender, an extorneutronic gun, and a scalar altogenerater. I guess I just need to start using them in various places and see what happens.
All of the mysterious items have their own interfaces.
Of course, there are still probably places that I haven't explored yet in my fairly cursory first run of the land. 
By far, the oddest part about this very odd game is the way NPCs tend to follow you after you've talked with them. I have about half a dozen trailing me at any given time, and I can only outrun them with a very fast pace. They generally catch up whenever I stop. At first, I was wary of them, but now I like to think of them as my fan club, excited to see if I solve the quest.
I'm glad you all could be here.
Let's see if I can win it in one more. 
Time so far: 8 hours


Friday, November 13, 2020

Game 389: Secrets of Bharas (1991)

Secrets of Bharas
United States
Victory Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for Apple IIGS
Date Started: 7 November 2020
I was looking forward to Secrets of Bharas after I played Victory Software's first title, 2088: The Cryllan Mission, a couple of years ago. 2088 wasn't great--it scored just below my "recommended" threshold--but it had some interesting thematic elements. The three brothers who started Victory Software, Vinay, Vivek, and Vijay Pai, were raised in Houston, but by parents recently emigrated from India. Their games are the closest we get to an "Indian RPG" until a couple of Trine Games titles in 2008.
Indian themes, or at least proper names, are far more on display in Bharas than in the sci-fi 2088, starting with the title. In the game, Bharas (almost universally misspelled online as "Bahras") is the name of the land. In Hindi . . . I'm not sure. Bhar appears to be a caste, and both it and Bharas appear as prefixes to a number of names and place names, but I'm not sure how Hindi roots work (and, of course, the entire word has been romanized). The game's backstory is similarly filled with Hindi or Sanskrit names: the lands of Bharas include Surya, Nadhi, Darthi, and Vashi among many others.
I wonder if Vivek and Vijay occasionally think about how they used to style themselves "MC VSP" and "DJ VJ."
These names pepper a game world heavily inspired by Ultima and other high fantasy. The manual spends a long time setting up the history of Bharas and its six lands: Surya, kingdom of humans; Nadhi, land of great rivers; Dharthi, kingdom of dwarves; Wairan, land of great deserts; Jalamuki, land of volcanoes; and Hawa, kingdom of the elves. The races originally didn't know about each other, but the great Suryan explorer Sadanana traveled the world and established relationships and trade between the three peoples. An elf named Narayan and a dwarf named Gaspard independently discovered magic; the rivalry between their two schools eventually escalated into a war between Dharthi and Hawa that spread across the world, drew in the Suryans, and resulted in four Great Wars over 200 years. Each new spell discovery shifted the balance of power in favor of those who discovered it.
The game begins a few years after a Great Summit established peace across the world. As a symbol of a new era of unity, the three kings agree to a joint expedition to "chart the lands of Bharas." However, the party of cartographers sent to Jalamuki mysteriously disappears. How this impacts the main quest, or what the main quest is, is left (strategically?) unsaid by the manual.
Creating a new character.
The player creates a party of six, choosing from human, dwarf, and elf races and warrior, mage, and cleric classes. The game rolls random values for strength, agility, stamina, psyche, and ego, and you supplement that with a pool of around 12-20 additional points. You need high values in psyche to assign a mage or cleric. I made two of each race and class. There's a training round after creation, during which your stats may go up or down.
The game starts in the wilderness, at night.
The game begins in what seems like a random place in Surya. The game uses the same interface as 2088, dominated by an exploration window and a message window. It has acquired a few features since the previous game. A row of command icons duplicates the most common menu selections. There's a map of the current continent, showing the party's current position as a blinking cursor. A clock tracks the time, which only advances when you act, not when you sit still. A compass points the way to the nearest town, and a set of status bars show the current health of the party members.
Movement is accomplished with the mouse (you click on your destination) or the numberpad. Commands are found under the menus at the top. Most have a keyboard backup, but in all cases, this involves using the Apple II GS's "command" key, mapped in the emulator to ALT. This is mildly annoying. The game isn't very interactive. There are no chests to find, doors to open, or places to search. All you can really do is attack, talk, camp, shuffle player inventory, and mix spells. The party has started with only daggers, no spell components, and no gold.
Following the coast, I make my way to the first town, called Varnas. It has a healer, a magic components shop, a transport shop, and a transport repair shop. Other continents are accessible by ship, and the manual suggests you start saving money for a ship right away. 
As with Ultima, spells in this game require reagents.
There are about a dozen NPCs. Conversation hasn't changed since the last game. Although there are different dialogue buttons--"background," "introduction", "new topic," and "more detail"--they all serve to basically advance the same verbose (and often recursive) narrative. For instance, these are the results with the first NPC I find, Emilio:
  • Background: I am from Dharthi originally. I came here to explore the dungeons of Surya. I'm just resting in Varnas for a while. I'll go to the dungeons soon. I've been talking to people in this village, but it seems like nobody knows where any dungeons are. Before I go, I'll have to stop at that place they call Kota. 
  • Introduction: I have sailed to this land from Dharthi. I like Varnas. It is one of the better ports that I have been to. I'm just here to get some supplies and some information before heading to the dungeons. A lot of travelers come up to me and ask me questions. They must realize that I'm a traveler too since I am a dwarf. But I don't know that much more than anybody else.
Chatting with Emilio.

  • New Topic: Sailing up here was an interesting experience. Kind of seasickening. I'm used to doing all my travel by land. As far as I'm concerned, the land is always the best way to get places. They should build a land bridge from Surya to Dharthi. At their closest, our two kingdoms aren't that far apart.
  • More Detail: I sailed here from Normandy. We went north through the bay and then headed northwest. We then started following the western coast of Surya. I noticed that most of the islands south of Surya are pleasant and full of meadows or light forests. But there is one island covered with mountains. The mountains are very tall. Quite bizarre. I must go there one day.
There's also an option to ask an NPC for a specific object if you also have the name of the person who told you to request it.
I suspect I'm going to be asking Nathan for a CACTUS FLOWER and telling him that DARCIE sent me.
The NPCs are relatively interesting, bringing us perhaps the closest to Ultima IV-VII dialogue that we've seen in any other RPG. They don't seem quite as mission-driven as their Ultima counterparts--sometimes, they just ramble--but every paragraph fills in a bit about the game world and its lore.
Some other NPCs in Varnas include:

  • Bagdu. He used to be a map-maker. His expedition was recently canceled because of the disappearance of the other cartography party. He notes that much of Bharas is covered in water.
  • Giselle. She loves ancient artifacts and hopes to collect them someday in a "Giselleum." Her father wrote The Book of Legends about the "ancients," a race that had the ability to create magic amulets and gems, but these seem to have been lost to the ages.
  • Igor: His family is descended from those who used to run the Prisons of Lakmos, which are now ruins. A mysterious man was once incarcerated there--no one knew his name or crime--and he somehow got hold of an Amulet of Invisibility. He was killed trying to escape, and the amulet was lost in the dungeon. Igor intends to go look for it.
  • Baal the Goat Man: Says he has a secret but I'm not ready for it yet. Goats are apparently going to be a thing in this game.
  • Baxter: Goes on about Varnas's history as a port town. He says he knows a lot about history and hopes to get appointed to the Varnas Proud committee.
  • Dritte: A follower of Yajiv the Big-Nosed, who has the gift of prophecy. No one knows if Yajiv came from another world or just nearby Kota.
  • Julius and Hermes. Two marine merchants who were recently lost at sea. They ended up at the city of Davenport in Hawa, where elves told them that all lost ships end up there.
  • Craig the Elder. A village elder who governs Varnas with four other elders. He's always had the sobriquet "the Elder"; the fact that he is an elder now is just a coincidence.
  • Andreas: A former farmer who notes that Varnas grows most of the food of Surya. The meadows to the north grow a lot of food and also have a lot of game.
  • Ralph. A dungeon explorer who tells me there are three dungeons in Surya. One is the Caves of the Yukon to the east.
I find the sage named Yajiv in a secluded area. He's twice the size of a normal man and surrounded by unicorns. Unfortunately, I apparently need the "Tassels of Learning" to speak with him.
Focusing on his nose somewhat misses the point.
Leaving Varnas, I head east, hoping to find the Caves of the Yukon, but instead I find a second village, Kota. I note its location but decide to move on until I have some money. The land is quite large, and it's hard to find anything, particularly since the day/night cycle (which works like Ultima VI, bringing a fog of darkness around the periphery at night) makes it hard to see.
It takes a while before I have my first combat, with two peasants. They attack me, so I don't feel bad. As with 2088, combat occurs on a tactical grid. In its sheer number of options--move, attack, cast, use an item, enter and exit transports--it shows similarity to the Gold Box games. Unfortunately, executing the commands isn't quite as elegant. Particularly annoying is simple movement, which requires you to click and drag the character to an adjacent space. I don't know why numberpad-based movement suddenly stops working here.
Two peasants attack from the top of the screen.
But the developers did a great job with auto-combat options in 2088, and that same control panel returns here. In 1989, it was probably the most sophisticated calibration of auto-combat that we'd seen at that point, and it remains so through 1992. Unfortunately, even with the computer in charge, you have to activate each round manually. The manual hints at something called "continuous combat" where this isn't necessary, but I don't see any options for that. 
Various autocombat options.
I eventually find the Caves of Yukon and enter. Dungeon exploration is first-person. The compass changes to show your facing direction; the world map changes to show a dungeon map; and a separate button now brings up an auto-map. Unfortunately, I'm clearly here too soon, and I get slaughtered by the first group of enemies I fight.
Inside the Caves of Yukon.

My dagger-wielding level 1 characters aren't ready for this.
With my remaining time, I head to Kota and make the rounds of another dozen NPCs. An elf from Hawa named David said he had come to Kota to learn magic from Matthias, only to discover that Matthias didn't really know anything. He now plans to return to Hawa and study with Yaniv the Powerful. I don't really understand magic in this game yet. I know you have to mix reagents as in Ultima, but I'm not sure if there's a training component. I need to head back to the manual.
Two NPCs encouraged me to consult the sage Yajiv, and yet there were two self-identified prophets in town. Gwendolyn the Gifted said she recently dreamed of an evil being arising from a chasm in the earth. Another seer named Io said that I would have to purchase a ship and travel far.
Kota's main industry seems to be growing and processing turmeric. The town has a food shop, so I think I'll hang out in the area, practice combat, and build up my food stock. The game has offered a solid, Ultima-esque start so far. My only complaint is that I have no clue as to what my party is doing or what our place is in all of this. I don't know whether it's supposed to be implicit that we're on a quest to find the missing cartographers or if there's something else at work. Maybe we'll know by next time.
Time so far: 3 hours