Friday, November 27, 2020

Secrets of Bharas: Across the Mighty Ocean

The party exits its clipper to take on some enemies.
           
Secrets of Bharas continues to be a relatively well-designed game mechanically, but it's also turning into a bit of a grind. The game assigns "titles" at various level intervals; for instance, a Level 3 mage is a "Conjurer," and a Level 15 warrior is a "Hero." These titles go all the way up to Level 50. I don't know if that's a level cap or just a point after which there are no more new titles. Either way, I thought it might be a distant aspiration. Now, it's looking like I'll need to hit that level to survive the game.
     
My characters are about Level 18 now, and that's taken a lot of grinding. After the last entry, I kept up my pattern, looping around the world, fighting combats, purchasing the next weapon or armor upgrade whenever I had enough money, and testing myself against the dungeons every few loops. Throughout this process, I wondered what would happen first: being able to survive a dungeon, or running out of weapons and armor to purchase and still having enough for a clipper.
     
Early in the session.
      
It turned out to be the latter, although by only a hair. By Level 13, my characters could survive individual dungeon combats reliably. A few levels later, they could clear out a level. By Level 17, the only thing keeping them from fully exploring dungeons was running out of magic points necessary for keeping everyone alive with healing spells. I thus bought a ship, which seems to be the intended thing to do, since I technically haven't received any quests that require dungeon exploration yet.
     
Dungeons are relatively boring. Levels are a short 16 x 16 with a worm tunnel design and no navigation puzzles so far. You enter on an "elevator," which might immediately take you to other floors, or you may have to find a second and subsequent elevators deeper in the level. I followed one dungeon to Level 6 before I had to turn around, so I'm not sure what the maximum level is. Other than monsters, the only thing I've found in dungeons so far is treasure chests. They're rare but a good deal, proving as much gold as 20 combats.
       
This dungeon lets you access the first three levels from the entrance.
      
Combats don't seem to scale in difficulty in dungeons, but they do outdoors. Again, the scaling is of the maximum difficulty, not the minimum or average, which is how I like it. But the maximum is getting tougher. Spellcasting enemies appeared around Level 10, and enemies in transports (which have special attacks and defenses) appeared around Level 16. I started losing characters even if they started combat with full health. This prompted me to do a more thorough job at my own combat spellcasting.
        
Mixing a "Full Heal" spell.
         
Dungeon exploration allowed me to leapfrog a couple of weapon and armor categories, particularly since the equipment I was finding was +1. Eventually, I had everyone clad in plate mail, copper gauntlets, bronze helms, and large shields, wielding the best melee and missile weapons their classes could support. I had bought plenty of reagents for spell mixtures, and I still had plenty of money. It was time to purchase a ship.
    
Ships come in four varieties: single-mast, double-mast, "gallion," and clipper ships. Clippers are the most expensive, but since they're not that much more than the lowest class of ship, I figured I might as well start at the top. There are also land transports--carts and chariots--that I haven't yet explored.
      
Purchasing a ship--a milestone in any game..
       
Boarding and disembarking from a transport is needlessly complex. You have to go into the combat formation and drag characters on and off the transport. If you enter combat while in the transport, you use the transport's weapons (I'm not yet sure how this works for carts and chariots, but enemies in those transports seem to have some kind of missile weapon). For characters in a ship, this tends to work pretty well. They no longer get individual turns, but the ship's weapon is a cannon, and it reliably kills one enemy per round, no matter how tough, which isn't necessarily true of my regular attacks. Any damage is taken by the transport (which has its own hit points, and can be repaired in towns), not the characters. The characters still get the same experience and money for killing enemies this way.
       
From Surya to Dharthi, in the shade of Wairan . . .
        
Yajiv the Big-Nosed, the seer, had asked me to see him after I purchased a ship. His dialogue changed to offer this:
      
Three lands remain unexplored; these are Wairan, Nadhi, and Jalamuki. [Ed. It's rare to find a properly-used semicolon in a CRPG; it's particularly noticeable after all the mistakes in Defender of Boston.] Jalamuki is by far the most dangerous, but your travels will eventually lead you there. The land of Nadhi consists of several large islands, all strewn by great rivers. On the other hand, the land of Wairan is a vast desert. Nadhi lies to the east and Wairan to the southeast.

Seek out the Gem of Vision, the Amulet of the Third Eye, and the Helmet of Goat Empathy. I will speak with you then.
      
I've heard nothing of these artifacts, but I assume they're in the dungeons and I'll hear more about them in the towns on other continents. In these objects, we see some Indian themes that go beyond the simple use of Hindi names that has characterized the game so far. In interests of cultural respect, I have avoided snickering at the "Helmet of Goat Empathy," though I admit it took some effort.
    
Later dialogue suggests that Gems of Vision and Amulets of the Third Eye are not unique artifacts.
      
With the visit to Yajiv out of the way, I took to the seas. Nothing seems to attack you on the water. I expected vast ocean distances between continents, but in fact the next continent is on the next screen. The six continents of the world are arranged tightly together in this configuration:
      
The lands of Bharas.
       
The world wraps, so you can get from Surya to Jalamuki by going north. I decided to explore Dharthi first, the land of the dwarves, but I was discouraged by early combats on the continent. My ship's cannons didn't perform as well as in Surya; I couldn't even hit most of the enemies I encountered. You can't cast spells while on a ship; you have to move the ship to land and then have the characters disembark. Also, the computer never casts spells if you leave combat in its control--one of the weaknesses to an otherwise impressive autocombat calibration system.
   
Spells are the saviors of large, otherwise-long combats, and I wonder if by the end of the game, I'm going to wish I'd made a party of three mages and three healers. There aren't many spells in the game, but a few of them--particularly the mage's "Vallum Flammae" (flame wind) and the healer's "Somnum" (sleep)--make combat a lot easier. I still have three spells to acquire, but I have to learn these from NPCs rather than gaining them automatically by leveling up.
        
"Flame Wind" streaks towards my enemies.
      
Dharthi looks like a large, unified continent, but in fact a river cuts through the middle and divides it in two. I scouted the coast and find the town of Amiens in the southeast; I know there are at least three other cites, Parthenay, Normandy, and Toulon, plus the dwarven palace.
   
As I start to speak with the NPCs in Dharthi, I again realize that there's a complexity to NPCs in this game that we've never quite seen, not even in Ultima. A lot of them have authentically interesting perspectives and stories. The first one I meet is an elf named Dolpon. He has a long screed about how since the Summit, all the people of the world have started to think of themselves as citizens of the world rather than their nations of origin. Travel has gotten so much easier between continents that people can find better lives for themselves in faraway places. Dolpon himself came to Dharthi from Hawa because in Hawa, he had trouble escaping his family's reputation for piracy. A dwarf woman named Nolipa is fiercely proud of her nation's development of healing spells, but she didn't have the magical skill to become a healer herself. A dwarf named Nevaal has been traumatized by his service as a soldier and now wanders the land as an explorer, content that he will never have to kill anyone again. As with 2088, these NPCs are written by educated, thoughtful developers who use them to make both subtle and overt commentaries on politics and society. They almost feel a bit out-sized for such a limited game. 
    
Speaking of out-sized.
       
Many of them convey essential information, of course. From a dwarf named Kilthorpe, I learn about the history of the coal mines in Dharthi, now abandoned. These seem to be the continent's only dungeon. Loferrin, a half-elf, half-dwarf, tells me that Yaniv the Powerful will only speak to someone who has the Orb of Sparks; I can get one from his former student, Sita, in Orthos. 
    
Miscellaneous notes:
    
  • A lot of the NPCs talk about how reagent prices vary from town to town, just like they did in Ultima IV, and how by noting the prices, you can get the best deals. While this is true, reagents are never so expensive that it's worth trying to keep track of relative costs.
  • Having all my characters' names start with "VI" seemed like a funny homage. Now I wish I'd varied them more. It's tough to remember who's who.
  • Death reduces the character's maximum health for a while even after resurrection. The game notifies you where you've "returned to full health."
  • Selling weapons, which you often find at the end of combats, is one way to make a lot of money fast. However, there doesn't seem to be any way to sell magic weapons.
  • Both Dharthi and Surya have pyramids in the landscape which, when you try to enter them, ask which god we pray to. "All" is filled in by default, but it doesn't accomplish anything.
      
Maybe I should try "None."
      
As I close, I've just found the second dwarf town, Normandy. I'm having mixed feelings about the game. It's competently programmed, and interesting for the reasons I've outlined, but also a bit padded. An Ultima-esque romp through a few islands, towns, and dungeons should take closer to the dozen hours I've invested already, not the 25 or 30 that the game seems destined for. I'll give it one more session to see if I can get anywhere with the plot.
   
Time so far: 12 hours

26 comments:

  1. Took awhile to get the Enya reference.

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  2. Even if the last couple of games have been interesting something in me just want them to be over so I could read about some of the games in the upcomming list.

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    1. It is the case for all of us I believe, but one's man boring game is another man's treasure so I am happy that the Addict plows through every single game.

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    2. It is most definitely *not* the case for all of us.

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    3. Sorry Anonymous but you are wrong.

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    4. I've played some of the upcoming games, and this one is definitely better and provides for a more interesting read than them.

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    5. This is a very interesting game to me. Wish I had played it.

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    6. It's okay that these discussions happen every time I get to a "boring" game, but honestly, the worst thing that could happen to my blog is my trying to cater to reader opinion instead of just doing what I do and attracting readers (or not) organically. So while it's inaccurate to say I don't care about the arguments on either side, neither are they going to influence my approach. For better or worse.

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    7. All I know is the approach you use means you play through interesting titles that would otherwise slip through the cracks. So keep it up!

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    8. My intent with the firat comment was more of a kid att Christmas looking att the content to be, I Enjoy most of your posts and like this report and dont concider it boring. (My phone wanted to write Boeing insted of boring but that is beyond my expertis) it went over my head

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    9. For the record, as I realize my message was not clear : I am actually not bored by this specific game - I find it interesting. The typical game I barely skim through are the roguelikes, but as I said, presumably a lot of people are really interested by the endless variations of the roguelike genre, so to each its own.

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    10. I'm really enjoying coverage of this particular game as it clearly has a unique cultural perspective and some original ideas. :-)

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  3. I find it hard to believe that every class has a unique title for all 50 levels. Either they stop after a point, there's a lot of repeats, or there's a point where they're really stretching for synonyms and stop making sense. I kinda hope for the latter case.

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    1. I think, Mr. Addict said something about intervals. So it's not like there is a new name for each of the 50 levels. More like there is one name for each 5 levels or so.

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    2. I think we've seen games with titles for as many as 50 classes before, but Vladimir is right. There are 7 titles for each class, and they come along at Levels 0, 3, 8, 15, 24, 35, and 50.

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    3. I think d&d also had titles for levels, at least for some classes. That's probably the inspiration.

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    4. Nahlakh has 53 adjectives describing different skill levels, so it's not impossible.

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  4. I'm not sure I follow how the maximum enemy level increases but the average enemy level doesn't. I'll try to explain what I mean with a simple example. Suppose that the possible enemy levels are 1, 2, and 3, and that each level is equally likely. If the maximum enemy level increases to 4 but all enemy levels are still equally likely, then the average enemy level necessarily increases from 2 to 2.5. Is that what the game's doing, or is it adjusting the distribution of enemy levels to keep the average at 2? I haven't sat down to do the math yet, but I think that increasing the maximum enemy level while preserving the average might actually imply that low-level enemies become relatively more common as the maximum enemy level increases.

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    1. Yes, of course you're right. Obviously if you increase the maximum, you're going to increase the mean. By "average," I meant something a little harder to explain, although I suppose in the end, it's covered by "minimum." Basically, it seems to me that games that include level scaling do it one of three ways:

      1. The player's level serves as a variable in the calculation of MAXIMUM enemy level. So if the player's level is P, the enemies are always betwee 1 and P+2, say.

      2. 1. The player's level serves as a variable in the calculation of MINIMUM enemy level. So if the player's level is P, the enemies are always between P and the highest level in the game.

      3. The player's level serves as a variable in both the maximum and the minimum, so enemies are always between, say, P-2 and P+2.

      The third is what I meant by "average," as in the central tendency moves upward with the player level, maintaining a uniform distribution.

      #2 or #3 never feel to me that the player is being rewarded. I always feel like he ought to have something to curb-stomp, if only rarely.

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    2. Ah. I think I get it now. Thank you. I don't have your breadth or depth of experience with the genre, but the idea of an RPG where the average enemy level remains constant over time seemed odd to me and very unlike the RPGs that I have played. Still, if anyone was going to find one I think it would be you.

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  5. I hope you at least get to find out what the special Helmet does for you during your quest. Are you going to command a herd of goats? Or something more akin to Doctor Dolittle?

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  6. Had to laugh at "Death reduces the character's maximum health"!

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  7. Don't get me wrong, but seeing this I imagine being colour blind is a mercy sometimes.

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  8. Given that Ultima is clearly an inspiration here, I'm wondering if the dungeons are much like Ultima I, where the vast majority of them served no plot/progression purpose whatsoever and existed entirely for levelling and for the randomised quests from the kings.

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  9. Judging by that last screenshot there's a lot of BS in this game.
    (this was bad, I apologize...)

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