Thursday, December 31, 2020

Secrets of Bharas: Reboot

Success in this game means filtering through a lot of dialogue, most of which I've now lost.
The state of Secrets of Bharas is a mess. I played a lot of it in November and early December and then took a few weeks off without blogging. Somehow, in that time, I managed to lose (or overwrite) a notepad file in which I'd been keeping my game notes. Even worse was a decision I'll describe below that lost me most of my screenshots. So I'm approaching this brief entry without notes, images, or even recent memory.
You'll recall that in my first few entries, I explored the first of what turns out to be six continents. I met an oracle named Yajiv the Big-Nosed, who first told me to return when I had a ship. Once I had a ship, he told me to return when I had three items: the Gem of Vision, the Amulet of the Third Eye, and the Helmet of Goat Empathy.
I turned my attentions next to Dharthi, the continent of the dwarves. It had four cities--Normandy, Toulon, Parthenay, and Amiens--plus the royal palace. That was a lot of NPCs to record, and I was tired playing one night, so I decided that instead of taking notes on every NPC, I'd just screenshot all their dialogue and sift through it later. I'm using an emulator called ActiveGS to play the game, and I used its internal screenshot tool to capture the images. What I didn't realize was that it will only take 99 of them before it stops generating new ones and just keeps overwriting the 99th file. I thus lost a lot of dialogue and probably have to go through at least two of the villages again, not to mention the ones in Surya for which I've lost my notes. 
If anyone ever told me where to find Scrolls of Wisdom, I don't remember.
There are a lot of NPCs in this game who have interesting things to say but not particularly pertinent things to say. For instance, here is the total dialogue of Awad the Nomad in the Palace of Dharthi:
When I was young, I sought my fortune in many places. I could never stay in a single place for very long. I had an urge for travel, an urge for knowledge. I wanted all the knowledge that Dharthi had to offer. I soon realized that the only way I could have this was to visit each city and village in the continent.
When I was fifteen, I lived in Amiens. I worked in the village grocery. I saved up my money and bought a small boat. I hid this in the shop I worked in so my family wouldn't know what I was doing. One day, I took all my possessions and loaded them up on the boat. I then rowed myself away. After Toulon, I headed to Parthenay by the rivers. Parthenay is a bit bigger than Amiens. I liked staying in Parthenay. I made many friends there. One of them started calling me "the Nomad." I kept that nickname even after leaving Parthenay. I left Parthenay when I started getting bored of the same old routine.
From Parthenay, I rowed to Normandy. Normandy is quite a large port city. Normandy was much more interesting than I had expected it to be. Most of the trade of the Dharthi flows in and out of Normandy. In Normandy, I saw my first Suryans and Hawans. They sure look different from Dhartiens!
In Normandy, I first heard of the land of Wairan. The sailors told me that Wairan was full of nomads. I thought that Wairan would be perfect for me. I became friends with some sailors on a ship headed to Wairan. They let me sneak aboard their vessel. When I landed in Wairan, I expected a nomad's paradise. I instead found a harsh and forbidding desert. I tried to live in Wairan, but no matter what I did, I could not be a nomad in the hot and dry climate of Wairan. I headed back to the port and stowed away on the next ship to Dharthi.
Now, that's 339 words for a single NPC, and I think I may even have missed some of it. While it accomplishes some world-building, it doesn't really tell the player anything particularly new or important. Still, there are plenty of situations in which I would praise a game for extraneous world-building text, and for giving their NPCs some real character. I don't know why my first instinct with Bharas is to do the opposite. I have trouble getting immersed in its world despite the authors' world-building attempts. It feels sterile to me, and I don't know why. It's not the graphics; if I cared that much about graphics, I never would have become immersed in the worlds of Ultima IV or Might and Magic. I worry instead that it's prejudice: that this obscure 1991 game--which I wouldn't have even known about if the author hadn't told me while I was writing to him about a different game--by virtue of not being famous, somehow doesn't have the right to try to immerse me, to hold me back from "more important" games. It's because of this concern that I've stubbornly stuck to it, despite a relatively good reason to quit.
That reason is the dungeons. I had been largely avoiding them because I wasn't even sure they were mandatory. That changed in Dharthi, where several NPCs suggested that the artifacts I needed would be found in dungeons, although they didn't name specific ones. I started back in Surya and ultimately explored three dungeons there and two in Dharthi.
Exploring dungeons means frequently running into enemies.
Dungeons in this game are boring. All the levels are 16 x 16, with no interesting layouts, and nothing interesting happening as you explore them. There are no puzzles or navigational obstacles, just elevators connecting the floors, the occasional chest, and far, far, far too many combats. I put three "fars" in there because I didn't think it was good writing to add more, but if I'd put 15 of them, that would still be less than the game deserves.
I wouldn't have been able to stand it without the quick combat option. Battles in this game boil down to two types:
  • Those for which I activate computer control and go do other things until they're over.
  • Those for which I cast a couple of "Flame Wind" spells before activating computer control and going to do other things until they're over.
I've spent about 14 hours on this game since I last wrote, and about 10 of those hours have been waiting for the computer to finish fighting for me. Fortunately, I've been using that time to do other things, like grade my students' papers and tests, or play Legends of Valour in another window. 
The computer fights for me. I have it set to pause if any character's health drops below 250.
Dungeons have around 10-12 combats per level, and even with the computer fighting, those combats take an average of about 2.5 minutes. That's about half an hour to clear a level, or 4 hours to clear an 8-level dungeon. Of course, you can't clear the dungeon in one go. Eventually, your spell points run dry and you have to leave to recharge them or else you can't keep healing your characters. Fortunately, dungeons remember your progress and do not respawn, at least not right away. I'm not sure if they respawn after time, or if it's just the most recent dungeon you visited that doesn't respawn. Even without respawning, though, it still takes a long time to backtrack in and out of them, so you might be looking at closer to 7 hours to clear a full dungeon. Fortunately, not all of them have been eight levels. I only got one level into the Mines of Minere before I couldn't progress for lack of a "crystal key." One of the other dungeons in Surya was only six levels.
The only excitement you get in dungeons is finding the occasional chest. These are rare--fewer than one per level--but they almost always have some equipment upgrade or a quest item. Finally, in the Prisons of Dharthi, one of those chests held a Gem of Vision. It gives you a bird's-eye view of a reasonable area around the party.
This will help find more dungeons and towns.
Because of all the combats, dungeon explorations are pretty lucrative in general. They more than pay for the reagents I expend within them. With so much extra cash, I can flee from most surface battles. Fleeing causes you to drop a bit of gold. It never works in dungeons and always works on the surface.
Time is money.
Speaking of the surface, I figured out what the pyramids do. Each continent appears to have one pyramid associated with a god. If you say the name of the god, or more accurately what the god's name means, you'll be teleported to that continent. This is less useful than it seems because a lot of the continents are archipelagos and thus require a boat anyway, but perhaps there are some places only accessible via pyramids. Anyway, I lost the notes that had the gods' names.
On the positive side, my characters have gained a lot of levels.
So that's where I am with Secrets of Bharas. I basically have to start over in Surya and systematically hit all the towns, dialogue, and dungeons again, this time making a more careful list of what I'm looking for, and perhaps even making a kind-of encyclopedia. I thought I'd write this short entry to tie up what I'd accomplish several weeks ago rather than mingle it with new material next week.
Time so far: 26 hours


  1. Could be the distaste is from going too far in the other direction....I mean at a certain point "world building details" can easily become "pointless exposition dump".

    1. I find that "lore" is best when it's proportional to the depth of the game experience. If there's tons of intricate lore and world building in a game that just isn't deep enough to warrant it, it can get annoying.

    2. Lore works best when there's an anticipation of it. Morrowind, for example, is constantly showing you abandoned dwarf structures, lost dwarf treasures, until you're basically begging to know what happened to the dwarves. If you just got a giant lore dump about dwarves without that build up (which can happen, depending on the order you play the game), the reaction is to yawn and fast-forward through it.

    3. There's a very important line between lots of interesting writing and lots of uninteresting writing. My principle is that if you can't write well then maybe just write less so it's at least brief.

    4. Never read the souls.

      I usually don’t like exposition dumps, but I make an exception for disco elysium.

    5. Even outside of the Souls I found big chunks of PoE to be tedious. It's well written, but there is a tonne of it and the game is a bit bogged down by it. I only remember really liking the mega dungeon stuff and the White March content since those were much more fast paced and action oriented with the exposition tying into the immediate game play much better. Basically, give me a taste of fun stuff like a cool abandoned fortress full of weird traps and monsters in it before big info dumps explaining why it's abandoned and what those monsters are there for.

  2. Naming cities after well known French cities and regions doesn't help the world-building either.

  3. I worry instead that it's prejudice: that this obscure 1991 game--which I wouldn't have even known about if the author hadn't told me while I was writing to him about a different game--by virtue of not being famous, somehow doesn't have the right to try to immerse me, to hold me back from "more important" games.

    I really appreciate the fact that you're thinking critically about this, because it's a trap that a lot of reviewers fall into: on the one end, holding popular/well-known/well-liked media products to a forgiving standard, being more patient with them, and either assuming that the fault is the reviewer's own (if an issue is encountered) or handwaving away obvious problems.

    And on the other end, quickly dismissing unknown creators' works or unpopular works as unimportant and not worth wasting time over, because there won't be fallout for doing so. The only exception is (in the case of games) if the graphics and sound are really good, or if the game is especially rare and valuable, or maybe if it's got lots of bare anime flesh or otherwise titillates pathological Japanophiles.

    And besides, the popular stuff is what brings in the clicks and ad revenue, so why rock the boat? Praise the Greatest Hits to the skies, and mock the unknown or unsexy work as only for losers and "not worth playing/watching/whatever in 202x", whether or not it's actually true. Snark sells, and effort is wasted unless it gets more of those delicious, no-day-job clicks! Gotta get those clicks!

    1. Sometimes a bland game is just a bland game.

      The example dialogue Chet provided is an excellent example that quantity of words doesn't automatically equal good storytelling. Awad travelled to some places, got a nickname, travelled to a place he didn't like, then came home. From three paragraphs, we learn that Normandy is a port city and Wairan is a desert. Not only does nothing really happen in this anecdote, he describes every stop on his journey as "I went to [place]. I did [thing]." Nothing about the variety of boats in Normandy, the culture of the Suryans or Hawans he met, the hazards of stowing away illegally or any interesting fauna in Wairan. If you were to "world-build" a game set in the United States, it would be like having an NPC that says "I went to California. Then I went to Oregon. Then I went to Nevada, but it was too hot so I came back to California." It lists places that are in your fictional world, but doesn't give you any idea what they're like or any particular motivation to visit them.

    2. You misunderstand me, perhaps: I'm not disagreeing with Chet's appraisal of this particular game (why would I?), but simply and enthusiastically affirming his willingness to look critically at his own responses, in (what I presume is) an effort to curb the kind of biases that are so easy to harbor.

    3. >or maybe if it's got lots of bare anime flesh or otherwise titillates pathological Japanophiles.
      Which is as bad as the pathological hatred for anything vaguely manga/anime-ish that somehow compulses some people to randomly mention it in every second review or comment.

    4. @fireball: Those people do exist, but have you confused me with another poster? I love tons of Japanese video games, film, music. True, I don't habitually watch anime or read manga (though weirdly I skimmed Dragon Ball Z yesterday), but I don't read Western comic books either.

      The toxicity of pathological Japanophiles (not all fans, but those who identify with Japanese media in an unhealthy, self-centered way, and often with comorbidities to boot) is so much more of a problem, I don't lose sleep worrying they might receive disproportionate or undeserved criticism. No, from where I stand, what you mention is not "as bad as" -- certainly not "as damaging as" or "as pervasive as" -- because usually, the criticism isn't unfair: in aggregate, video game reviewers often do deserve to be put on blast for fetishizing all things Japanese. At minimum we're not plagued with reviewers insufficiently sympathetic to (alleged) tropes of Japanese niche media, or not forgiving enough of its sketchy aspects.

      (The Addict's perspective is refreshing: he tends to respond with genuine antipathy towards Japanese RPG and graphic design tropes, but he's perennially self-critical and self-aware, and frankly that antipathy serves as a much-needed corrective anyway.)

      Let's be charitable: a well-meaning consumer (and thus reviewer) might give certain questionable things the benefit of the doubt, assuming them to be legitimate, normative expressions of an intriguingly different culture. But isn't that just exoticism and Orientalism, dressed up in sympathetic clothing? The hippies meant well too, but most didn't "get" India and weren't interested in the real thing to begin with: their interest was bounded by its ability to supply a commodifiable, low-effort experience centered on their own needs. I don't know if they did more harm than good, you'd have to ask an Indian historian.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. Fair enough. It's just that I haven't encountered these reviewers you mention as often as you did. However at least in german online reviews and magazines there were some avid manga style haters, but they get fewer in with the years. I don't know, maybe give a review of someone who isn't with prejudice against a certain type of expression or culture would be a better idea, or at least have two opinions.

  4. The part of these posts that fills me with the most admiration, and the greatest determination never to follow in the footsteps of the Addict, is that last italicized line: "Time Spent So Far".

    I realize he has all these strategies for doing other things (exercising, grading papers as he mentions here, etc.) while grinding through the games, but I just couldn't do it. I've had Bard's Tale II and III waiting for me on the Apple ][ for 30 or so years, and just can't bring myself to do it. Mad props to the CRPG addict for helping us experience these games by proxy with his dedication and persistence!

    1. Well, I guess I appreciate it, but I'm not sure that my compulsion is something to envy. As I've always said, the title of my blog has a dark side.


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