Sunday, January 15, 2023

The Mystic Well: Are You Not Entertained?

Spelling is apparently forbidden, too.
Whether I enjoy a game or hate a game, I've learned to put my reactions in terms of other things going on in my life at the time. If I have a lot of time, I want to be immersed. If not, I want something I can play in bite-sized chunks. If life is complicated, I want a simple game. If life is simple, I'm ready for a challenge. If I'm feeling optimistic about the world, I can handle a dark, grimy setting with a lot of moral ambiguity. If the world seems to be going to hell, I want to be an unadulterated hero. The nature of the way I randomize my upcoming list doesn't always work out in the most optimal way, but it would be impossible  to plan for such things in any event, as life's circumstances often change fast.
Over the last few weeks, I've had to spend a lot of time on a very detailed, time-consuming project that requires a lot of mental effort and creativity. This might explain why The Mystic Well has become an unnaturally appealing game. I can't really defend it as a "good" RPG, but I'm still enjoying the process of mapping walls, killing enemies, and finding better equipment. I don't want to say that playing it is completely mindless--that would be unfair to the author--but it certainly doesn't have the complexity of Dungeon Master. Right now, that's just perfect.
The basement level, half-mapped.
Since my first entry, I've mapped one full level and parts of three more. On the ground level, I had mapped two stairways going down and five going up. I started by heading down. Both down stairways ended up going to the same area, presented as a kind of storage cellar. The message at the bottom of one stairway read: "CASTLE STORES AND EQUIPMENT." Other messages on the level reinforced the theme: "SUNDRY SUPPLIES, OTHER EQUIPMENT"; "HELMS, SHOES, PANTS, SHIRTS"; "ALL CANNED FOOD FOR SIEGES ONLY."
There were several groups of rooms with related supplies. The middle section of the level had weapons and armor. I found my first set of body armor--a wizard robe, soon replaced with a brass cuirass. I briefly replaced my brass sword with an iron mace, then switched back when I couldn't discern a difference. 
Here's a weird locked door I haven't opened yet.
Much of the equipment system remains a mystery. I don't know why there's so much of it, for one thing. It has more than Dungeon Master II, for one game, and that's a multi-character game in which items can break. I don't know why one set of leather pants has better statistics than another. I don't know what to make of half a dozen "oak wood shields" followed by an "oaken shield." One room had three shields in it--why? Just to add to the realism of the setting? Even worse are all the items that have no identifiable purpose, such as mana cubes and holy mana cubes, silver mirrors, blank scrolls, and three separate types of rock chunks: red meteors, red meteorites, and malagamite. I began piling stuff I didn't understand in the starting area.
Rooms on the eastern part of the area had rooms full of food and water, and the southwestern part was presented as a "CASTLE TREASURY." There were only a few easy monsters in the main part of the level, but the treasury had about half a dozen snakes that posed a difficulty for the first time in the game so far. I had to flee to heal a couple of times while cutting through them.
One snake conceals another.
I brought loads of coins and gems back up to the well, but I still haven't seen any sign that it's doing anything. 
I could only map about half the basement. Most of the eastern half couldn't be accessed from the western half; there must be other undiscovered stairs that lead there. There's also a chunk of the western side that must have something in it--I can see something there in the area map--but I can't find a way to get there. There was only one secret door on the level, but it led to nothing. There was a sign across from it that said "SEARCH BEHIND THYSELF," and I can only imagine that it's sole purpose is to teach the player how illusory walls work.
That little bump at the top of the door indicates a lock.
The basement had one locked door that I couldn't initially access. I did figure out how to unlock doors at some point. You can tell they're locked because of a little half-circle at the top of the door. When you click on the door with the right key, it disappears. During the first session, I had found two iron keys, and I found one copper key in the basement. The copper key opened the way to the treasury but not a separate door within the same area. But the same key opened two doors on Level 2 (one level up from the ground level). The lesson is that keys might be used literally anywhere, and you can't discard or lose track of any of them. Because of limited inventory space, I just made a pile of them in the starting courtyard, near the well, but it's going to be a pain to keep going back there.
My growing "key garden."
Having exhausted possibilities in the basement, I decided to assay the stairways up from the ground level. They all led to different isolated sections of Level 2, and four of those isolated areas were small and immediately led to further stairs. As I mentioned last time, the five stairways--or, at least four of them--seem to lead to areas associated with the game's four classes, perhaps paying homage to the four "ways" of Chaos Strikes Back. As a priest, I probably should have prioritized the stairway labeled "TEMPLE OF PUGHI." Instead, I spent most of this session mapping what is clearly supposed to be the fighter's level, which takes up most of Level 2. 
The "fighter's level." Note the arena on the east side.
I believe the only enemies on the entire level are mostly-naked barbarians wearing shorts who comically raise both arms when they attack you. There's nothing funny about the damage that they do, however, and again I had to retreat a lot to heal, at least until I found better equipment. I noted in the first entry that enemies lose interest in you unless you're only a few squares away, but I guess that only applies to Level 1 enemies. These barbarians chased me all over the level like bloodhounds. I could keep ahead of them with fast clicks, but only barely.

One thing the author did well, at least so far, was to design interesting level layouts rather than just a bunch of random corridors and rooms. This level has multiple rows of rooms with portcullises for doors, and I think they're supposed to represent cells for gladiators. Some of them had the aforementioned men; others had piles of bones and ash. One weird element was that some rooms had spiral things on the ceilings in opposite corners. I'm not sure what they were supposed to represent, but the piles of bones were often found under them.
Remains of shackles? A delivery system for lethal gas?
There were some nice equipment upgrades on the level. I traded my dungeon shoes for combat boots, my leather helm for an iron helm, and I found an iron ring that (unlike all other iron rings) adds several points of protection to each resistance. (This was under a pile of bones; you have to move large items out of the way.) In adjacent cells, I found a Singing Sword and a Blade of Venom. While I was still trying to figure out which was stronger, I discovered a secret area in the northwest part of the level, where a sword called "Flametongue" rested in a corner. It killed the men in 3-5 hits instead of the 15-20 it had taken with my brass sword. It also shoots fireballs. 
I know there's a "Flametongue" in Dungeons & Dragons, but I suspect this was inspired by "Fury" in Dungeon Master.
The centerpiece of the level is a gladiatorial arena, 18 x 18, on the far eastern side. You can only reach it by teleporter on the eastern end of the "cell" area. The arena has about half a dozen barbarians, but they're much faster and stronger than the ones elsewhere on the level, and I struggled to defeat them even with Flametongue, partly because magic doesn't work in the arena.
Fighting the "barbarian" in the arena.
There were some more upgrades here--a metal cuirass, an iron shield--but the key point to the arena was to find a ruby key on the far eastern side. I suspect there are similar ruby keys in each of the other four "ways," and I would note that once you know where it is, you could just run and grab it, bypassing the mapping and attacking. I suspect a speedrun of this game would be quite fast, barring any need to grind for enemies you can't avoid (there have been none so far).
The goal of the arena.
The ruby key opened a door on Level 2 and a door in the basement that promised to lead to some kind of crypt. (Nearby sign: "LOCK THE CRYPT BEFORE LEAVING.") I haven't yet tested it on a couple of locked doors on Level 1. 
A few other observations:
  • The stairs map weird. A stairway on Level 1 at (14,6) reaches the basement at (14,5), one square further south. I could see making a case for that if the player walked south into the stairway, but he walks north into it. A stairway to the east at (2,10) arrives on Level 2 at (1,10). A stairway to the north at (3,14) arrives on Level 2 at (3,13). Basically, all stairways move you one square opposite the way you expect.
  • Some of the storage rooms had cans of "Zolt cola." I'm sure it's a play on Jolt Cola, but it also sounds familiar, as if there's another game that makes the same pun. Googling got me nowhere.
  • There are sometimes double illusory walls in a row. This is not a great idea for a game that has no way of acknowledging your inputs. Thankfully, my special priest spell helps me with the maps.
  • I still keep running into floor designs that may just be decorative or may have some kind of effect or be part of some kind of puzzle. 
Is that just a puddle?
  • With LanHawk's help, I fixed all the technical issues I reported last time.
  • That includes the sound. Sounds are sparse in the game, primarily a "clack" when you attack and something that sounds like a gunshot when you cast a spell.
  • It might be my imagination, but I think the game may have an encumbrance system. I think my stamina started depleting faster once I loaded up with iron stuff.

The Levels are unsupportably large, but I'm still grateful that the author used his limited tools--signs, placement of items, and layouts--to create themes to them. I wish he'd taken some further lessons from Chaos and introduced actual puzzles, but perhaps those are to come. For now, I'm happy to map and pound the attack button for a couple more sessions. Well probably won't get a high GIMLET score, but sometimes whether a game is "good" simply comes down to how you answer the question posed in the subtitle.
Time so far: 8 hours


  1. Almost all the problems you mentioned seem to stem from limited to non-existing playtesting, a thing which was probably hard to achieve at the time. Same as proof-reading, you really want another person to do it, to spot stuff the author had already registered as 'correct' a long time ago while it really wasn't. Speaking from experience, ahem...

  2. The colliseum is a special arena where all battles are fought out by the fighters running into and colliding with each other until one of them falls down.

  3. "I'm still enjoying the process of mapping walls, killing enemies, and finding better equipment. I don't want to say that playing it is completely mindless....right now, that's just perfect."

    Comfort gaming. Some game genres intentionally cater for that play rhythm, but just about anything you're sufficiently familiar with can serve as a comfort game.

    Having to learn a new set of game norms takes energy.

    1. It's called a walking simulator.

    2. For some people, walking simulators may represent comfort gaming. My current comfort go-tos are Bloons TD and Monster Train.

    3. Yep. Comfort games don't need to be games one could classify as initially easy. They just need to be relatively easy (and scratch the right itch) by the time they become comfort. Roguelites, 4X strategy, and even ARPGs like Diablo 2 with extremely high end gear typically do it for me.

    4. For me, it's been 'Anno 1404' for many years, because I can basically sleepwalk through every stage of that game.

    5. My comfort game is Thief. I've played hundreds of fan missions at this point, both good and bad ones, and am so familiar with the engine I know all the exploits. Even made a few fan missions myself!

      Exploring Thief levels and hearing that delightful *drring* when you pick up valuables is peak comfort gaming.

    6. I would disagree that walking simulators are necessarily comfort gaming. Yes, they're heavily narrative driven but that narrative can be horrific or otherwise extremely anxiety inducing.

      But like Tristan and Bruce said, it's really about the relationship between the game and the player. What one person finds comforting another person doesn't.

    7. For a long time it was the original "Pirates!" in my case. Though at some point the gameplay becomes a bit repetitive, as Chet also remarked, once you're familiar with the Caribbean geography and the town structure of the respective game era plus the basic combat mechanics and strategy, it's usually mostly smooth sailing (pun intended).

      Random events and encounters plus difficulty level and era differences still provide some variation in the challenge to see how far you can push your (high) score past 100.

      Hmm, now that I mention it, I might have to fire it up once more... or check out that almost finished privately made "Pirates 2" for DOS.

    8. Comfort games for me are Sim City, OpenTTD, and similar games. I think the important part is that you can play these at your own speed and let them challenge you as much as you want them to at the moment. You can (mostly) lay back and watch your systems running, or you can be aggressive and extend and optimize.

    9. I might be a but of a masochist,because Soulslikes are now my comfort food

    10. Chris, I'll call it: You are either gud or a masochist.

  4. The multi-colored 'puddles' certainly look like they could be glyphs of some kind.

    Regarding the stairs, I guess that implies a landing halfway between the levels?

    1. Yeah, I was going to suggest the same thing. You continue forward until halfway down, then it turns and descends in the opposite direction. You exit directly below where you entered. Or it's a spiral stair case.

    2. Looks like good old planet earth (generic fantasy version) to me. At least the closest puddle.

    3. Eye Of The Beholder 1 has stairs that turn as you descend.

  5. "In adjacent cells, I found a Singing Sword and a Blade of Venom."

    In the long running comic strip Prince Valiant, the Singing Sword is Prince Valiant's signature weapon. I wonder if this is a reference.

    1. It's also a gag in 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?'

    2. Addendum: Said 'Roger Rabbit' gag also being a Prince Valiant reference, perhaps?

    3. The Roger Rabbit gag is probably a reference to the 1958 Bugs Bunny short "Knighty Knight Bugs"... which itself was almost certainly a reference to Prince Valiant. Singing swords show up in folklore, though.

  6. I am interested to see if the elongated level design continues. I don't recall seeing anything quite like this previously on your blog. Do you find mapping these kinds of layouts faster, easier, or no different as compared to more square shaped layouts?

    1. Whether the dungeon is square or rectangular doesn't really impact the length of time it takes to map it. Mapping time comes down to a) number of squares; b) whether the game uses a worm tunnel or razor wall approach, and c) whether it favors big rooms or twisty corridors.

      At 1600 "coordinates" per level, TMW is about four times as large as a 20 x 20 Wizardry level and more than six times as large as a standard 16 x 16 "Gold Box" level. But it doesn't take four times as long because it uses worm tunnels and has lots of big, open areas. I'd say it takes about twice as long as a Wizardry level.

  7. "I don't know why one set of leather pants has better statistics than another."

    One of the The Readme file's "helpful hints" just states that "many ordinary looking items actually have special powers". While I'm not sure it refers to this specifically, it could (also) mean that the author gave certain (random?) objects of a same type different/better stats. Though without some kind of identification mechanism it might need a bit more work to keep track of it.


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