Thursday, June 8, 2023

Shine on, Ambermoon

The night was mighty dark so you could hardly see . . .

So far, Ambermoon has offered the experience of conquering one obstacle only to immediately bang my head on the next one. Last session, the "next one" was the desert lizards. I settle into another period of grinding in Spannenberg. I started with undead, which offer more experience, but they're also a legitimate threat, which bandits are not. So I ultimately go back to killing random pairs of bandits, looting them and selling their equipment when the shop is open.
I admit I don't feel good about the whole thing. I have no problem with grinding in general, but I also think it ought to be something of a last resort. If you only have one path forward and you can't defeat the monsters on the other side, by all means grind. But if you have three or four paths forward, it's a little cheesy to start grinding just because you can't survive one of them. In an open-world game, there is always more than one path forward.
It says this even if they only increased one point.
Nevertheless, I stay at it until Qamara and Egil both hit another level. We return to the trainer for some more attack training, then head back out to the desert. It takes a day or so to find the enemy base in the middle of the desert, surrounded by a wall. Despite quite a bit of traipsing north and south, I don't even encounter any desert lizards this time.
Let me pause to register a complaint about the day/night cycle and, at the same time, to note an interesting fact about game time. First, the clock advances 5 minutes for every 3 moves in the wilderness. Terrain doesn't seem to make a difference. It also advances 5 minutes for every 10 seconds of real time that passes. These advances are completely independent. So if it turns 21:00 and you move twice, then wait 10 seconds, it will be 21:05. If you then move a third time, the clock will immediately advance to 21:10. I've played plenty of games where time advances in real time and plenty where time advances based on moves, but I don't think I remember any game combining the two approaches like this.
In any event, Ambermoon has a day/night cycle in which it gets darker at night. "Darker" is accomplished by shrinking the field of view in the game window. In full daylight, you see 11 x 11 tiles. You occupy the central square and can see 5 squares in any direction. From there, it gets dark in three stages. In the first, the field of view shrinks to a circle with a 3-tile radius; in the second stage, it shrinks to a one-tile radius; in the third, you can't see anything but the tile the party occupies.
This isn't very useful.
This is already pretty annoying. In life, nighttime rarely means pitch black, and Lyramion is supposed to have a couple of moons besides the amber one of the title. But even worse is the time that it starts to get dark: 17:00! It's like the entire game is set in the Orkneys in mid-winter. By 20:00, it's pitch black. From there, you might think that, for balance, it starts to get light again at 05:00, but no, you don't even hit the one-square-radius stage until 06:00, and it's not full light until 08:00. That means you only get 9 hours a day, or around 108 moves, where you can see the entire screen. You basically have to camp as soon as it gets dark, which will have you sleep until 07:00, then dance around for an hour until it gets bright. (Burning a torch, if you're curious, lights only a one-square radius.) I can't wait until graphics are good enough to depict night as dark but not completely opaque.
Entering the bandit's hideout.
Back to the plot. As we enter the house that serves as the bandit's headquarters, we hit a trip cord, and a bell rings to warn them that we're coming (there doesn't seem to be any way to avoid this). Inside, we find a tidy house of two levels and four rooms per level. The game notes that it "looks as if the house was left in great haste," including a card game in progress and warm bowls of soup still on the table. The first thing we find is a hidden lever in the chimney that opens a passage downward.
The secret passage disgorges several cloaked figures, each representing a party of two or three bandits. Regular bandits are no threat at this point, and we spend a few minutes mopping them up. Qamara hits Level 8.
When am I going to get a second attack?
One of the rooms has a chest. We open it with a lockpick. I'm not sure how lockpicking works in the game. Neither of my characters have any skill with it, yet I've never had it fail when I actually have a lockpick. So I guess the skill is for when you don't have any actual lockpicks and you have to improvise? If so, it's a pretty useless skill as long as you keep an eye on your supply of lockpicks. In any event, the chest has a golden horseshoe (one of the four that the farrier in Spannenberg was looking for), a two-handed sword called "Firebrand," a dexterity potion, five more lockpicks, and 1000 gold.
Qamara is just naturally gifted.
I give the sword to Egil, and it's a pretty significant upgrade. He goes from dealing 3 or 4 points of damage per round with a longsword to 10 or 12 with Firebrand. The sword can also be used to cast a fireball. As for the dexterity potion, it's one of several attribute-raising potions that I find in the bandits' headquarters, and I selfishly give them all to Qamara. I mean, she's the only character who I know will be with me for the entire game. 

I immediately run into an encumbrance problem, though. I already had about 4,000 gold from my grinding in town, and with the additional 1,000, plus the items I've looted, I don't really have room for anything else. Thus, we prematurely leave the dungeon and return to Spannenberg, with the intent of buying that elf's "Monster Eye." Unfortunately, in about a day of wandering around Spannenberg, I can't find her. So I end up dumping the gold in a chest back at grandfather's house.
There are bandits in the area and I'm storing thousands of gold pieces in a house occupied only by a man on his deathbed. This is a good plan.
While back in Spannenberg, however, we meet an NPC who we missed the first time (or he wasn't here): a human male adventurer named Otram. He says that he's planning to journey to Newlake to join the Brotherhood of Tarbos. Tarbos is the demon/wizard whose imminent return drove the plot of Amberstar. I prepare to behead Otram, but he explains that the Brotherhood of Tarbos is an order of spellcasters who spend all day and all night casting spells on Tarbos's coffin to prevent his return. "It is only thanks to the brotherhood," he says, "that dreadful Lord Tarbos did not reappear for the last seventy years."
Some important lore.
I'm confused by this until I look over my Amberstar entries and recall that in Tarbos's backstory, he was banished to "one of Lyramion's moons." I had just been picturing him in a different dimension or something. So I guess what happened was that the moon that came crashing into Lyramion was Tarbos's moon, and it brought Tarbos with it. The question is what happened then. Did he die from the impact? Did some hero have to kill him? Maybe we'll find out. Either way, it suggests that the party's success in Amberstar wasn't successful at all. The moon crashing into Lyramion wasn't a side-effect of what happened; it was literally the mechanism by which Tarbos was returned. I just went through the screenshots for my winning Amberstar entry, and none of them explicitly say that we succeeded in stopping the ritual. I just assumed. That's an amazing twist if that's what the game is implying. But it also means that the real story--somehow neutralizing Tarbos as he arrived--happened off-screen.
We return to the bandit house and continue exploring. We find another horseshoe in a chest and a third in a hidden nook in the fireplace. We also find some more gold, potions, and a magic helm called the Sun Helmet.
I appreciate this game's clear statistics.
As we head downstairs, we're attacked by a party of five bandits. This one has a "bandit chief" with them. He's a mean bastard. He stands in the back and fires arrows at us, doing 8-16 points of damage when he hits, and he hits most of the time. After two combats in which Egil is killed, I deal with him by blasting him with one of Firebrand's fireballs. We meet a few more parties that have bandit chiefs, and I continue to deal with them this way. I assume the sword eventually runs out of fireballs or it would be way over-powered. The bandit chief drops a note in runic that translates as "LEFT, RIGHT, CENTER, RIGHT."
The bandit chief flames out of existence as Egil nails him with a fireball.
The meaning of this note becomes clear as we enter the dungeon beneath the house, which is presented in 3D. The opening area has three teleporters in adjacent alcoves. I take the left one and find myself facing three more. I take the center, and so forth, until we reach an area where the dungeon opens up.
The first stop in a teleporter puzzle.
We continue exploring and fighting bandits. Qamara hits Level 9 and Egil Level 5. We find several chests, including one with several pieces of useful armor and helms and one full of potions. We run out of space again. Encumbrance is apparently going to be a real pain in this game.
Eventually, we wander into a room where we meet the bandit's leader, an old man who introduces himself as Nagier. He tells us that we've killed most of his people, and so he offers us a choice: a fierce battle with him and his remaining bandits or a truce in which he promises to abandon Spannenberg and to instruct us in the "Critical Hits" skill. That sounds pretty good to us, so we take his deal. He gives us a treaty to bring to Spannenberg and a key to a chest of stolen loot that we can return. The chest has 1,850 gold, "wishing coins," the fourth horseshoe, a "windpearl," a gold goblet, and a suit of "shadow leather." I have to put some potions and other equipment in the chest to take all of it; I just hope it's there when I return. For some reason, when we go to train for critical hits, the option is grayed out. I don't know whether it's not available to our classes (why wouldn't it be available to a warrior?), whether we need more money, or whether something else is wrong.
I should have tried both options, but I hadn't saved in a while.
After leaving the dungeon, I make the mistake of going to Spannenberg first to turn the horseshoes over to Tolimar. He accepts them and gives us a shovel, pickaxe, and crowbar, which of course we don't have the room for. I have to drop a bunch of food. After shuffling everything around, we take a side trip back to grandfather's house to store more equipment in his bedroom cabinet.
You don't need to justify why you're attached to solid gold horseshoes.
In Spannenberg, Norlael gives us a 500 gold piece reward for the return of his goblet. The Baron is happy with the treaty and gives us a "treasure key." I also earn enough experience for Qamara to make Level 10. (It's curious that Egil doesn't make a new level here; does only the person who hands the Baron the note get the experience?) The key opens one of the chests in his throne room, where I find--sigh--4,000 gold pieces and a "holy horn." I already have one of those and I'm not even sure what it does.
Somehow, I missed the fact that the baron is named "Iron George."
I finally find Sandire again and buy the Monster Eye from her, which is a huge pain because a single character has to give her 5,000 gold, but to give a single character that much gold, I have to swap most of my equipment to the other character. Anyway, she sells me the eye, which becomes a permanent part of the interface, just like the clock and compass.
Let's just say that if you told me that it was a different part of a monster rather than its eye, I'd believe you.
We head back to the bandit dungeon to grab the rest of the loot, but of course I screw up the teleporter puzzle, which sends us to a kind of arena. An announcer tells us that to escape, we'll have to press the correct button out of two possibilities. We fight a battle with spiders, then press a button. I guess it's the wrong one because more spiders drop from the ceiling. After the second battle (Egil reaches Level 6), we press the other button and it opens a corridor back to the beginning. I guess this would be a good place to grind. 
I hate when this happens.
We grab the potions and gold we left on our first visit, then return to grandfather's house. I take a save outside his front door, but rather than head to the basement and clear the rubble with our new tools, I decide to indulge a bit of wanderlust.
I like the graphics in outdoor exploration, but the game has weird ideas about where you can move. Take the bridge pictured below, where you see me ramming into a post at the end of it.
The oblique interface obscures the actual path of movement across the bridge. If you were to look at it top down, replacing the graphics with the tiles behind the scenes, it would look like this:
It's a minor thing, and I'm not honestly upset about it, but it's silly that you can't just cross a bridge in a straight path, or that the only valid path on the bridge has you banging into a post on either side. It gets worse for other objects, like trees, where the tiles that they occupy graphically are different from the tile or tiles they occupy for purposes of movement. In the screenshot below, for instance, the tile that I cannot traverse because of the tree (visually) to the northwest of the character is actually directly north of the character. When early iconographic games stuck resolutely to one-tile-per-terrain-type, as in Ultima III or IV, there was never any confusion as to where you could walk. But as we get further into the 1990s, we're seeing games that maintain a tile-based approach but try to mask that fact by blending the graphics from one tile to another. Graphically, that tile to the  north of my character is "right edge of tree, right tree shadow, the rest grass." For the purposes of movement, the tile is just "tree."
I cannot move north, but I can move northwest.
The overall point I'm making is that it's visually difficult to determine where you can walk and where you can't. So far, this hasn't had major implications, but I could see it becoming an issue. I could miss an obscure mountain path or assume that I can't cross between two islands when I actually can. That very example actually comes up a little later:
Despite the water, you can cross on and off this island to the north and west.
I decide to make a counter-clockwise circuit around the extremities of the island, starting at grandfather's hut, which is in the southeast "corner" of the island. Mountains and stone walls funnel me west, then north into the desert, then east, then north again. We get a rematch against the desert lizards. They hit hard and take a lot of damage. I nearly lose Egil, but we manage to kill one, and the other one flees. They're worth 75 experience points and 2 food rations.
These guys can take a real beating.
We round the eastern mountains and find ourselves on the coast, which includes graphics of palm trees and very large shells and starfish. We reach a dungeon entrance. The door has the symbol of Gala, goddess of life. Our picks fail to open it. Mountains prevent exploration very far to the north or south, so soon we're back in the desert again.

Days pass as we explore the northern coast, where there's an impassable swamp to the northeast, round a bay that cuts into the island from the west, and finally reach the mountains west of Spannenberg--days in which nothing at all happens. I account the experiment a failure. This is perhaps a game in which you want to save open exploration for those times in which you have no other ideas.
I thought that little crater lake was cute.
Next time, we'll go more purposefully back to my "to do" list and see if I can clear up the rest of Spannenberg's woes. I complained about several things in this entry, but as it concludes, I actually find myself enjoying the game more than in my first three entries. I feel I finally have some momentum. More important, Ambermoon, like its predecessor, is one of the few early-1990s games to check all the boxes for what we would consider a full RPG: an evolving story, quests and side quests, NPCs with dialogue and personalities, and full sets of attributes, equipment, and combat mechanics. I expect it to get better as I move forward.
Time so far: 15 hours 


  1. Definitely seems a good construction of rpg. General raters give this game about a B+

  2. There's a maximum for each skill which I think is based on class - the main character and Egil have 0% for critical strike, so they can't learn it. You can see it in your character sheet.

    The game gives you most item stats but some magical ones can only be found out with a spell, like the number of charges. The sword might vanish once you cast its last fireball - but I'm not entirely sure.

    Generally spells will be helpful once you get them. IIRC light casts a much wider circle than a torch, so you can navigate the outside at night.

    Glad you're starting to enjoy this game more. I did not care for all the mechanics and I had similar troubles with some of the interface, but I loved the NPCs and story, and character development is still pretty good (you get noticeably stronger throughout the game).

    1. To add to this, attributes also have a maximum for each character, so check that you haven't already reached it when you give someone an attribute boosting potion. You can go beyond the maximum with equipment, but not with potions.

      Also, I don't think there's an unlimited supply of lockpicks.

      I almost fell for "Iron George". Was that an accidential screenshot?

    2. Re lockpicking: If I understand the manual correctly, when trying to open doors or chests you can "break lock" ("Schloss knacken") - i.e. without a key or lockpick, here the corresponding skill comes into play - or "open lock with object" ("Schloss mit Gegenstand öffnen") - if you have a matching key or a lockpick ("pass key" in the English manual translation).

      The former might trigger a trap if you didn't separately "discover" it previously. This is not necessary with a lockpick which can, however, apparently break if the lock was secured against it. And as noted by Buck, it seems there is a limited number of lockpicks.

    3. God, I'm such an idiot. Until literally this moment, I thought the Baron's name WAS "Iron George." Obviously, what happened was, I hovered the mouse cursor over the "Ba" part of his name in that screenshot.

    4. That's even funnier.

  3. AlphabeticalAnonymousJune 8, 2023 at 2:28 PM

    > Encumbrance is apparently going to be a real pain in this game.


    > I assume the sword eventually runs out of fireballs...

    Yes, again. Though (re. Buck's comment above) an item will not disappear when its charges run out.

    > Burning a torch ... lights only a one-square radius.

    Torches aren't the only light-creating items. Your characters now have at least two others.

    > Critical hits...

    I believe only 'Thief'-class NPCs can perform critical strikes. But as Buck notes above, you can check a character's stat sheet to double-check.

    > ... and a "holy horn." I already have one of those and
    > I'm not even sure what it does.

    I had the same problem and hoarded these far longer than I needed to. A minor hint: they're usable in combat.

    > I expect it to get better as I move forward.

    I found that it did, anyway; fingers crossed that it does for you, too.

    1. > Your characters now have at least two others.

      Hah, yeah. I keep forgetting that I bought lanterns. I probably want to save them for dungeons, though, not to illuminate the night air.

  4. Regarding graphics that "depict night as dark but not completely opaque", this is entirely feasible with 1993 technology. For instance, Ultima 7 uses palette tricks to have clouds darken parts of the screen, or magical effects brighten parts. This could be used to darken the area beyond torch range.

    It's easier to do it by blacking out every other pixel; this is done e.g. in Ultima 6. I'm sure there are earlier examples than U7 (for palette darkening) and U6 (for pixel blacking), too; used e.g. for fog-of-war in strategy games.

    1. "Drakkhen" (1989, France) used a dark palette for the night, but then the night was nothing more than an inconvenience because of the high-level constellation monsters.

    2. Yes, I knew there were examples well before 1993 even as I was typing that, although I had forgotten about Drakkhen. I should have taken time to make a longer argument. Night is a different environment than day, but its differences are more than just "darker and harder to see." Even in U7, "darker"--although it is accomplished much better than in Ambermoon--mostly still means "annoying." Eventually, through both graphics and sound, games will be able to depict nighttime in a way that's equally interesting and enjoyable to play as daytime even if the "limited vision" aspect is still present.

      Drakkhen, I admit, comes closest to what I was talking about.

    3. You've also got the various Quest for Glory games, which are darker at night.

    4. Yes, of course. I don't know why I always forget Quest for Glory at times like these. Perfect example. Not only is night well-depicted, but it's a different world, with its own allure and challenges.

  5. Is the title a reference to Harvest Moon by Mree?

    1. It's a reference to an old vaudeville song from the early 1900s. I guess Mree, who I'd never heard of until now, did a cover. My favorite version is Leon Redbone's.

    2. I like when you get nerdy with games, but I love and want to send you flowers when you do it with music.

  6. "It's like the entire game is set in the Orkneys in mid-winter." And here I thought Ambermoon was more like Ultima than The Bard's Tale.

    1. This comment gave me pause, then I remembered. The first Bard's Tale takes place in a city called Skara Brae, that is also the name of an archaeological site in the Orkneys (Scotland).

    2. Honestly, I just couldn't think of any other northern archipelago where people actually live.

  7. The sun starts setting at 3 PM in the Orkney's during December.

  8. >But even worse is the time that it starts to get dark: 17:00! It's >like the entire game is set in the Orkneys in mid-winter.

    Or anywhere in Northern Canada...

    1. Or Germany in Winter, without looking the longitude would be not far of, I know Neapel in Italy is on the same as New York.

    2. Sorry, I've ment latitude

    3. If the sun sets at 17:00 (5 hours after noon), then logically it should rise at 07:00 (5 hours before noon). Instead, the sun doesn't rise until 08:00. Apparently this medieval fantasy land runs on Daylight-Saving Time.

    4. I guess so :D
      The sun setting at 16:30 and rising a bit before 8:00 is typical for Berlin in December/November. Maybe the devs rounded a bit

  9. In the Gold Box games, the clock is 24 hours, but dawn is at 0:01. I don't remember exactly when night falls, but it's an approximately reasonable distance from dawn (which is to say, it's around 2 PM or something similar).

    But, of course, in the Gold Box games, night doesn't occlude visibility at all; it just changes the color of the sky from blue to black.

  10. I guess someone already said it, so here´s reiterating....Clearly Ambermoon is a copy of (or heavily inspired by) Might and Magic.

    1. AlphabeticalAnonymousJune 10, 2023 at 12:43 PM

      No one has said it it a copy, because it's a separate game with its own plot and lineage. Some similarities, sure - but it's the rare 1993 game that *wasn't* inspired by earlier, successful franchises.

    2. I grant you there are some interface similarities, but I'm not sure it's as clear cut as all that. An interface consisting of a row of character portraits, a view window, and an icon panel is hardly unique to MM (I assume you're talking about III and above). I think it's equally possible that they were both inspired by Dungeon Master.

  11. The artful eye column: desert lizard battle screen is looking swell.

    1. It is. It's also a bit strange. The background matches the terrain the combat occurs in - I don't remember ever meeting a desert lizard outside of the desert.


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