Sunday, April 9, 2023

Ambermoon: Waterworld

It seemed early in the game for such a foe.
This session with Ambermoon went better than my first, in no small part because commenter Fincki gave me some configuration options that made a significant difference with speed. I tried it all at once and thus don't know exactly what made the difference, but something did. Moving with the keyboard is still slow, but not as slow as before, and moving with the mouse is almost too fast.
I restarted in grandfather's house and took the time to explore it more thoroughly before continuing. I had missed a cabinet in his room with potions of healing and cure poison, a buckler, shoes, and a robe. On his bookshelf, I missed a Book of Arachnids, which turned out to be prophetic.
Gee, I wonder if I'll face one of these in the basement.
I explored the secret area through the fireplace before going to the regular basement. I found 25 rations in a barrel, a bunch of chests that had 1 gold piece each, and one chest that killed me immediately when I tried to open it. I reloaded and left that for later, when I have a party member with "Disarm Trap" abilities.
Down in the basement, I managed to kill the rock lizard and the giant spider without taking any damage. Perhaps the robe, which has a defense of 4 (as opposed to my clothing, which has a defense of 2) makes a difference. There was stuff on the floor that I couldn't pick up in both rooms, but I also found plenty of items that I could pick up. The game is a little inconsistent: sometimes treasure is found automatically when you get close to it; sometimes, you have to activate the "Look" action. Either way, the spider room had a lot more potions. Another room had 13 slingstones and a barrel full of torches.
I missed this cabinet on my first pass.
A larder full of rations put me at my weight limit, and I ended up dropping a bunch of rations and the slingstones to make some room. I found a short sword in what looked like a potted plant. 
Even with things moving faster, I don't really like the interface. Despite Thalion's bragging about its 3D engine, I would have preferred the tile-based movement of Amberstar. Movement with the numberpad is a bit too slow, but it's the only way to turn and strafe precisely. When you move with the mouse, the game kind of blends what you're doing based on the mouse position. For instance, on the right side of the screen, holding down the mouse when the cursor is all the way at the top mostly turns you to the right. Holding down the mouse when the cursor is at the middle-right mostly strafes you. Holding it down halfway in between turns and strafes you at the same time. Similarly, holding down the mouse halfway between top-center and top-right turns you right while simultaneously moving you forward. The problem is that it's hard to get "pure" versions of these actions with the mouse. For instance, if you've just entered a room and want to turn to the right, you're likely to have crossed most of the room by the time you turn. The numberpad, on the other hand, results in "pure" turning or strafing, but at the expense of speed. There's no good way to do it. [Ed. As commenters pointed out, using the right mouse button to turn, move, and strafe solves the problem. So there is a good way to do it, and this paragraph is largely moot.]
More items on the floor I can't pick up. They look like sacks of gold!
There are other aspects that make the interface cumbersome. For instance, the action icons in the lower right are all mapped to the numberpad, so you can theoretically play without the mouse in combat and when moving overland (or in a place with an oblique interface, like grandfather's house). The problem is that you frequently get messages that you have to acknowledge, and the only way to acknowledge messages seems to be with the mouse. 
Because of the chaos of movement, I'm constantly missing doors and other exits from rooms. This problem is partially redeemed by an excellent automap. It's large, complete, easy to read, and more detailed than probably any automap we've had to date. It annotates entrances and exits, doors, chests, special encounters, and, in towns, the different kinds of services. I'm grateful for it because I would have missed several rooms in the basement.
Like Amberstar, the game has a fantastic automap.
The basement had several locations where I had to cut through spider webs and was attacked by pairs of giant spiders. There was one web that refused to be cut, and I had to light a torch to get through it. (The Book of Arachnids had a hint about this.) On the other side was a combat with an enormous spider. It took me three reloads to win this one, even using potions liberally. He was guarding a chest that blinded me when I tried to open it. I rested for 8 hours but the blindness didn't wear off, so I reloaded and, like the chest in grandfather's secret area, saved it for later.
It was a well-described trap.
Eventually, I came to a magic mouth that, in rhyme, said he'd only let me through if I answered a clue. But he didn't give me a riddle. Confused, I left him and explored the rest of the basement before I remembered that grandfather had given me a password (WINE) in the previous session. I gave it to the mouth, and a passage opened up beyond.
Typing a keyword.
It ultimately led to a ladder down, which took me to a level titled "Old Cave - First Level." It was only a single room, though. I found Shandra's Amber in a pile of refuse.
In one corner, a message popped up telling me that the ceiling had collapsed, and I'd need a pickaxe to clear the corridor. 
Why would I want to?
I returned to grandfather's bedroom and told him about the cave-in. He said I would need "the armour" to be successful in my quest. I don't remember him mentioning armor before. He suggested I go to Spannenberg to get tools from Tolimar, the horse dealer. When I tried to give him Shandra's Amber, which he had asked for, he said I should keep it. "I never found what its purpose is but many of my friends feel it has a magic aura . . . Perhaps you must use the stone somewhere in order to make contact with Shandra."
A few minutes later, I was out the door and on the overland map, which like the interior map is in an oblique perspective and far closer to the ground than in Amberstar. This allowed the designers to get far more artistic with the terrain. I'm not sure any of it is interactive. After a while, I stopped bothering to try to pick up or look at interesting things.
Breathing in the fresh mountain air.
The outdoor map is titled "Lyramionic Isles," and sure enough, the map that came with the game indicates that the shooting stars turned what had been a single continent into a bunch of disconnected islands. Spannenberg is on an eastern island, along a road west of a small structure. I took that to be grandfather's house, and I was right.
So much debris landed on Lyramion that it caused the oceans to rise.
As I traveled west along the road, night fell just as I reached a bridge across a small inlet. I rested for the night and healed a bit, then kept going to the gates of Spannenberg.
Night closes in around me.
As I entered the city, a message popped up and said: "You will be able to return to this point later." I got this message several more times as I explored. This heralds another interface improvement. The map of Spannenberg is full of these "goto points." From the automap, you just have to click on them to automatically move to those points on the map, although it doesn't work if enemies are near. This is an excellent addition that removes much of the tedium from moving through cities that you've already explored.
A welcome addition to the interface.
An old man was standing in the entryway. He said, "It really is strange that people come to Spannenberg although the town is full of bandits." Sure enough, I got attacked repeatedly by bandits as I explored the town. They weren't very hard except that sometimes they attacked two at a time.
Except for a minor rearrangement of the interface, I don't think the turn-based combat system has changed much from Amberstar. It was never bad, just slow. The party occupies the bottom two rows of a 6 x 5 tactical grid. Enemies have the top three rows. Each round, each character can move, attack, cast a spell, use an item, or defend. Once you specify your actions, you hit the "OK" button and watch as your actions and the enemies' execute in some behind-the-scenes initiative order. When enemies attack, there's a corresponding animation in the forward view. The line-up-your-attacks-and-watch-them-execute system goes back to Wizardry (1981), but I wonder if there's some Phantasie (1985) DNA in the system, perhaps transmitted through Legend of Faerghail (1990).
 A bandit battle. The forward view, which occupies most of the screen, is pretty but completely unnecessary.
It's the attack animations that make combat take so long. There's no more "fast forward" option in the combat panel as there was in Amberstar; instead, you can enable "fast combat" permanently in the game options. This makes the animations faster and it moves quickly between combat messages without requiring you to click to acknowledge them. Another time-saver is that if you want to do the same thing as the last action, you just hit the "OK" button again. However, no interface innovation can ameliorate the fact that at early levels, both the character and her foes miss most of the time. It's not uncommon for half a dozen rounds to go by with no one doing any damage. 
At the end of this session, I was Level 4. Each level-up was accompanied by an increase in maximum health, maximum spell power, and an allotment of "spell learn points" and "training points." I did feel quite a bit stronger by the end.
Leveling up after a battle.
There are two types of NPCs in the game. The first type just gives you a few lines of text. The full NPC interaction interface does not open, and you therefore can't feed them keywords or give them items. The second type offers a full conversation with a separate set of action buttons. Chief among these is the "Talk" button, which allows you to choose from known keywords or type in your own. Just as in Amberstar, each keyword becomes a permanent part of your dialogue options even though most NPCs have nothing to say to most keywords. Ambermoon colors some of the keywords in yellow. At first, I thought it might be highlighting keywords specific to each NPC, but that theory was shot down when many NPCs responded to non-highlighted words. I think maybe the yellow ones are just the newer ones.
The first type of NPC.
Findings from Spannenberg:
  • A nonsensical monologue from a "rough looking and agitated boy" on the street: "I have just left my friends. Let them continue to search for treasure in the desert by themselves. I hope that a ship will come past here soon, because this town is just full of my old associates. I would not like to come across them again."
  • A tavern/inn called the Inn of the Limping Rogue. You can rent a room for 15 gold pieces.
The buildings in town generally use axonometric interfaces.
  • One NPC in the inn tells me about a band of orcs raiding from the mountains to the west, making life difficult for farmers.
  • Another NPC in the inn tells me that the park in town was built by a powerful magician.
  • A named NPC, Aman, is a member of the Guild of Thieves. The guild is troubled by the bandit invasion, which they have nothing to do with, but they're taking a lot of the blame. The guild is in the cellar below the inn. Aman will give me the password if I bring him the brooch from the gardener in the graveyard. The gardener bought a book on necromancy recently, and has been raising the dead.
I suspect this guy is going to end up joining me.
  • I find Tolimar in the stables. He'll give me the tools I need if I can return four golden horseshoes, recently stolen by bandits. (He identifies their leader as "Silverhand.") He'll sell me six horses for 100 gold. I have the money--each bandit battle gives me that much--but I don't buy them yet.
How much are peasant horses?
  • A house is occupied by a married couple named Canth and Noralael. They recently had a wine goblet stolen, but they disagree on what stole it. Canth says that she saw some kind of green creature with wings, but Noralael insists they were just regular bandits.
I didn't think kobolds had wings.
  • Wat the Fisher lives in a house with his young daughter, Sally. His wife died of swamp fever the previous year, and now Sally has it. He asks me to visit Father Anthony, the healer, and ask about an antidote.
Unfortunately, I ran out of time again before I finished Spannenberg, but I'm enjoying the exploration and the slow acquisition of wealth and power.
Time so far: 3 hours


  1. "A nonsensical monologue from a "rough looking and agitated boy" on the street"

    How is that monologue nonsensical? In-universe the boy is telling you quite coherently that he's had it with the place and can't wait to get away. Out-of-universe the game is giving hints to the player: one, the bandits that have overrun the town are also looking for a treasure in the desert, and two, occasional visiting ships allow passage to other islands.

    1. AlphabeticalAnonymousApril 9, 2023 at 12:10 PM

      Agreed, the boy's comment seemed to make sense to me when I played through this. One could argue about why he would bare his soul to a stranger, but then we could make that point about nearly NPC in nearly any CRPG. (On the other hand, if our protagonist grew up right outside of Spannenberg perhaps these two are old school chums!)

    2. Somehow, I didn't perceive him as one of the bandits. I don't know. It was late. I was tired.

  2. I only played the first one (PC version) and liked it but this sounds like even more fun. Hope it will continue to deliver.

  3. I'm sure there have been earlier games with what are effectively fast travel mechanics, but is this the first with a formal fast travel system as we would recognise it today?

    1. I'm hesitant to say yes, but I can't think off hand of another game with fast travel as an alternative to walking. Like, Bloodnet and Chaos of the FIve Realms has "fast travel," but they were also the only ways to get from one place to another.

      It should be noted that it's a bit weird in AM, though. It allows for fast travel among points on the same map, but I'm not sure there's a version that allows fast travel between distant locations.

    2. The same question came up (in a caption) in QfG II (1990) which has fast-travel to visited automap locations in Shapeir once you acquire the map. Maybe that's still the earliest such example on the blog?

      Twilight 2000 (1991) had a fast-travel option, too, though I think it was more generalized, i.e. not requiring having been at the destination before.

      There was also the travel agency concept in MegaTraveller 2 (1991) which helped with speeding up getting to other cities.

      If we look beyond the blog and include consoles, it seems a candidate for the earliest fast-travel system in this sense could be the "Zoom" spell in Dragon Quest III (Dragon Warrior III in North America) from 1988 as discussed e.g. in this thread on resetera and this article (the latter mentions DQIII as being from 1986, which was the year the first one was released - covered by Chet on the blog, but only having a 'return to the starting castle' function).

    3. The original "Might & Magic" from 1987 had a "Fly" spell that could take you to one of 20 different locations on the world map, including all of the towns.

    4. I'm tempted to exclude from consideration mechanisms that are explainable in-world, like spells. But Busca is right that QFG II had this game's exact system in 1990. Of course, there it only existed for one town, where as in Ambermoon, it seems to apply to most maps.

    5. Yes, I too would exclude in-world spell and items as "formal fast travel systems".

    6. I'm not sure I see the reason to make this distinction (except for immersion, where it's rather a step back in my opinion, see below).

      The way I understand it, fast travel is a mechanic which allows you to get from A to B faster (at least in real time) than by using your default way of moving (often walking, but could also be with a vehicle, e.g. in space).

      Now, there are many options (and opinions) on how this is (or should be) implemented (if at all), see e.g. these discussions on RPS or reddit and some examples.

      Are you transported immediately to your destination (variations on teleportation) or is your travel time just sped up by an alternate means of transportation (horse, flying carpet / airship, taxi, ...)? Does using it have some kind of associated 'cost' or not, be it in-game time passing and events unfolding meanwhile, diminishing food stocks or energy or the like (which would include the necessity of usable items) or just paying a fee? Other factors could be the risk of it being interrupted by encounters, a network of fixed transport points vs free roaming and the ease of access both in geographical terms and at what point in the game you become able to start using it.

      However, when it comes to such in-game effects, I do not see a notable difference between a method that is explainable in-world and one that is not, just by themselves. It makes a difference when it comes to immersion - assuming the mechanism rooted in the game is done so in a coherent way within said game world. But in this sense, being the first to break the fourth wall regarding that aspect hardly seems to be a desirable and noteworthy 'achievement'.

    7. For me, it's just of historical interest. Fast travel is a common mechanic these days, and is often completely divorced from any in-world explanation or reasoning. It's functional, like a menu button, or a save menu.

      I was just wondering if Ambermoon was the first implementation of this more disassociated mechanic, I'm not claiming that it's a great achievement.

  4. I kinda get turning floors and ceilings off in the dungeon, given that it's supposed to be a dark cave anyway, but in that city screenshot it looks super weird.

    1. The dungeon's textures uniformly fade to a dark brown in atmospheric perspective, mirrored by the ceiling and floor colors, but the city textures don't have the same effect.

  5. AlphabeticalAnonymousApril 9, 2023 at 12:04 PM

    Yes, I believe yellow words are merely new keywords.

    I believe that "officially" you're not supposed to be looking at the world map yet, but that's made no more clear in this game than it was in Amberstar.

    For what's it's worth, I already agree with your early impressions: dreadful interface, decent combat and NPCs, and a world with plenty of choices about what tasks to next undertake.

    Also, all welcome Elanor, at 22hrs old presumably the newest member of the CRPG fan club.

    1. Congratulations!

    2. 100FloorsOfFrightsApril 9, 2023 at 8:12 PM

      Mazel tov! And what a great name!

    3. Congratulations, AA. I look forward to hearing from here in a couple of decades.

  6. I'm playing along, and find it especially confusing how the game decides to display environments in either zelda-like 2D or barely steerable 3D, without discernible rhyme or reason. The top-down areas are certainly more detailed and interactable, while the first-person bits seem more like navigational puzzles.

    I'm not very happy with that, and wished they stuck to one formula (2D, ahem), especially when the combat screen whisks you to yet another different format of display.

    1. It gets the most ridiculous in Albion (which, while not part of the same IP, was made by the same people and with the same design philosophy). That game's opening chapter has the same combination of overhead worldmap travel, first-person 3D cities and dungeons, and oblique angle for some areas. But then one of the following chapters wholly takes place on the world map, and another area is wholly represented in the oblique projection (can't remember now if there was a chapter that was fully 3D).

    2. I didn't mind it in the original and don't really mind it here. There's a precedent in how Ultima games handled dungeons vs. town exploration.

    3. Ye, it seems harmless. Maybe a bit confusing UI-wise. But I can't help thinking how the production costs of creating each of these interfaces, each with its own set of neatly crafted pixels, could have been better allocated to greater depth in game design. In Chets's words: "pretty, but completely unnecessary ".

  7. By the way, I've watched 'D&D: Honour among Thieves' today, and it's been everything I was hoping for, even if it didn't include a fourth wall breaking framing story of teenagers playing the game (I still claim that would've made it better).

    So I urge everyone to go see it, so that we get more of that stuff, and hope Chet doesn't flag me as spam ;)

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Seconded, it was an entertaining watch well worth the money. Even though being a comedy it has more in common with D&D than everything done before for big and small screen which bore the brand name.

    3. 100FloorsOfFrightsApril 9, 2023 at 8:13 PM

      Agreed. I loved the way they handled broken concentration on spells and the way they simulated solid plans going wrong due to lousy rolls.

    4. I probably won't see it in theaters, but I'll definitely look forward to it when it hits whatever streaming service.

    5. The trailer made it look like D&D flavoured MCU to me.

      Is that a a fair description?

    6. Tristan: Yes, yes it is...

      Now ask yourself what do you like better: Marvel or Dungeons&Dragons?

    7. "D&D flavored MCU" isn't really a fair description. It does take some from MCU films (particularly Guardians Of The Galaxy), but it isn't a clone of the format. It also lacks a lot of the MCU's vices in terms of action choreography, bloat, and obnoxiously self-aware quips.

    8. Ok, sounds like its worth giving it a go.

      I find MCU a bit paint-by-numbers.

    9. Me and my kids went to watch it yesterday, this was an entertaining one! I loved how the protagonists/PCs goofed up a puzzle, got thrown a bone in the form of a magic item ex machina by the screenwriters/DM, then naturally made that magic item the centerpiece of every consecutive plan they hatched! That's what would have happened at every game table I've been at.

  8. "They look like sacks of gold". I like how in video games we assume all little baggies on the ground contain something useful, when in real life they probably just have dog poop.

  9. I got the impression at the time that this was the peak of Amiga RPGs. It was released right before the platform entered its death throes.
    I wonder if you'll agree. Thalion maybe put too much focus on optics, but the games were good enough. A bit like Westwood Studios, I guess.

    1. Good comparison because Ambermoon does look really beautiful. And Albion is just pretty all along.

      I was super hooked to Albion at the time, and I am one of those impatient guys who can never get really into the crpg interface quirks, and who struggles a lot with character builds (because I am in real life a thief/fighter/mage/priest, master of none), but I was never able to get to Amberstar though I started it like 100 times already. This one, however, tempts me.

  10. Fight click of the mouse turno you around in First person

    1. Thank you. You are correct that this works. Correction appended above.

  11. I wonder if Realms of Arkania 3 might have been the first game with a good implementation of both of step-based and free-move systems?

    1. RoA2 had that, too, but the free movement was completely unnecessary there.

  12. As much as I liked Amberstar, the sequel never really clicked for me. The free movement is completely pointless, since the game still works on tiles.


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