Monday, February 19, 2024

The Shadow of Yserbius: And Maps Have Made All the Difference

Thanks. I'll keep that in mind when I play a completely different game.
At some point in the last five hours, it became clear that continuing with this game was a somewhat ridiculous idea, but I continued anyway. I kept making loops through the various levels of Yserbius, getting as far as I could, dying frequently, respawning outside the mountain, leveling up, and buying inventory upgrades when I could afford them. There is a certain pleasure in getting killed repeatedly by certain enemies, improving, and watching your odds against them even out and then tilt in your favor. I suppose that's the only thing that kept me going.
I started writing up my experiences for this entry, toying with the idea of ending it here, when I got confused about where I had encountered certain NPCs and how certain dungeon levels connected to others. I started making my own maps and, as I should have come to expect by now, my experience with the game completely changed. Manually mapping changes everything. It becomes a goal in itself. It relieves the experience of somewhat boring dungeon slogs by frequently diverting you to a parallel activity. It makes you feel like you're making progress even when nothing particularly interesting is happening in the game. And it helps to keep better track of puzzles and problems. As I mapped, it occurred to me that the experience of mapping a tiled game is one that I should cherish, as the number of games that allow it (let alone require it) is swiftly diminishing.
Making maps gave my gaming a shot in the arm.
Combat got easier with my character leveling, with my equipment upgrades, and as I experimented with spells. In any battle that poses any danger, I typically cast "Shield" during the first round, reducing the damage I take from physical attacks. After that, I've learned that "Poison Cloud" does a great job softening up stacks of enemies. It only does modest damage per round, but if I can survive four or five rounds, the cloud will often wipe out half a dozen enemies at once. My physical attacks, which originally killed maybe one enemy per round, started to rack up a lot more critical hits. One thing I like about this game is that if you swing at a stack of enemies and you kill one, any excess damage is transferred to the next enemy. Some critical hits let me slay an entire stack at one time.
I win the battle after my "Poison Cloud" takes care of 4 troll rangers at once.
Keeping enough spell points to support a long expedition would be a problem if I didn't find mana potions everywhere. I typically start each expedition with my inventory full of mana potions, purchased in the shop. Each potion has half a dozen doses. After each combat, I fully heal, then chug enough of a potion to get my mana back up to maximum. Even with so much use, I often leave potions lying in the rubble because my inventory is full.
Incidentally, inventory might become a real problem at some point. By the end of this session, I had acquired two unique lockpicks and two unique keys. That's 40% of my inventory space right there. I assume they won't be the last picks and keys I encounter. I don't know when it will be safe to get rid of them. 

Some miscellaneous notes on exploration and character development:
  • I don't know if the game has secret doors. I haven't found one so far.  
  • I'm not sure what the "Detect" skill is supposed to do. It hasn't worked in any place that I've employed it.
I try "Detect" at every dead end, but nothing ever happens.
  • Levels are interconnected with teleporters, which look like doors.
  • Aside from keyed doors, teleporters, and trap doors, there have been no navigational obstacles so far--no traps, spinners, hidden doors, puzzle doors, levers, plates, dark squares, and so forth.
  • There's a "Leadership" skill that supposedly "increases strength, defense, and initiative of all party members." I hope that includes the one who possesses it, too, or I've been wasting points in it.
  • I have a high "Fencing" skill. Because of that, when I equip a sword, the game says, "Fencing skill will be helpful!" It does not say this when I equip a katana, supposedly the best sword, so I guess a katana isn't drawing from that skill.
As so.
  • While exploring, I found a Sword of Ice. I got excited, thinking that it was a magic sword that I could use, but the game said that it wasn't allowed by my guild. Later, though, when I found a Sword of the Flames, I was able to equip it with no problem. 
  • I started to find medallions. I'm currently equipping a "Carnivorous Medallion." I have no idea what it does.
  • The game decided that my maximum agility is 8. It won't let me increase it beyond that when I level up.

The Dungeon Entrance to Yserbius is 11 x 10. There are no encounters in its squares. Doors lead south to the Soldiers' Quarters, east to the Hall of Doors, and north to the Mines. The only thing of interest on the level is a locked door in the northwest corner. "Only heroes of the twentieth level or higher may venture beyond this door," a message says. I still have seven levels to go.
He's such a cuddly-looking cave bear.
For no other reason than that it's right from the entrance and I tend to follow the right wall, I spent most of the initial hours exploring the Soldiers' Quarters. An early NPC, a human barbarian, questions why it's called that, as there don't seem to be any quarters or soldiers. A gremlin wizard offers some backstory, indicating that Yserbius is on an island, and its population is cut off from the rest of the world since the volcano makes the seas too rough for ships to approach. Other NPCs on the level say that I can acquire skills in the dungeon, and another says there are polar bears and ice lions deeper in the dungeon. A final one, a troll knight, tells me of a maze under Cleowyn's Palace that only thieves seem to be able to get through.

Random enemies, it turns out, do not scale with the strength of the character. I kept meeting individual wolves, goblins, spiders, imps, and other denizens well beyond my ability to just swat them away. As I reported last time, fixed encounters are a lot harder, but by Level 8, I was handling them with ease. Both the Soldiers' Quarters and the Maze have a fetish for combinations of halfling clerics and troll rangers, the former dangerous for their spells and the latter for their ability to paralyze. "Shield" stops them from doing much damage and "Poison Cloud" kills them both within a few rounds.
Chester reaches an unlucky level.
So far, I haven't solved a few mysteries and puzzles in the Soldiers' Quarters:
  • Four locked doors, two of which seem to go into the same room in the northeast. I've tried all four keys and picks that I found in the Mines.
Nothing opens this door.
  • A troll ranger NPC says: "Unless you have especially sharp eyes for traps, you should heed the sign at the end of the corridor. This bum leg of mine is proof of that sign's warning." The problem is, there's no sign at the end of the corridor, and I haven't encountered a single trap in the game so far.
  • At the end of one corridor, the game says, "You stumble upon an almost-empty nesting area." This sounds like text that would precede an encounter with some monster nesting there, but nothing happens.
The only exit from the Soldiers' Quarters was to the east, through a door marked "STAY OUT!" It led to the Treasury, Level 1, and specifically to an area so full of floor traps that I can barely move without falling down to the Basement beneath. The Basement, meanwhile, is hard to map fully because of a lot of one-way doors. I'm still in the process of mapping both. The basement has several NPCs, including an orc knight who says there's a "strange elfin race" deeper in the dungeon; a human barbarian who gives useless (for a single-player game) advice on party composition; a gnome thief who says there's more to the basement than meets the eye; and a human thief who says there's an area called the Wizard's Challenge on Level 3.
The Basement has a fountain that healed me once and then never again.
The Basement has the only location that I currently cannot pass because of a battle. In the southeast corner, in a 3 x 3 room, I meet a group of enemies that includes at least one king hobgoblin. He always goes before me, blasts through my defenses, and kills me in a single attack. The only luck I've had is to cast "Petrify" the first round on the king, but one of his allies just dispels it immediately.
The only battle I cannot get past so far.
East of the Dungeon Entrance is the Hall of Doors, which is only 16 x 8 unless a teleporter or secret door takes me to another half. Its NPCs mostly recap the backstory, except for a troll cleric who says that he saw a message on the floor that said if you want to reach the King's Apartments, you must "take a turn for the worse." He thinks it means that you have to get sick. There are two doors in the Hall of Doors that I cannot open and a northern exit to The Vestibule, which I've only begun to explore.
The north exit from the Dungeon Entrance goes to The Mines. I've almost completely explored its first level, but I haven't mapped it. I found two keys and a lockpick on the level, all of which were instrumental on some of the doors. An eastern exit leads to the Vestibule. I want to go through the Mines again and see if the lockpicks and keys reappear if you discard them, so I'll know if I can get them back if I discard them too early to save inventory space.
A lot of the NPC dialogue in The Mines has to do with locks and lockpicks.
Just as I was closing this entry, I found another lockpick in the Treasury. Lockpicks are differentiated by color; I've found green and red in addition to Cleowyn's Lockpick. I also just realized that I can manually put stuff in my "Quest Items" pouch, leaving more free spaces in my backpack. I assume that in a multi-player game, quest items are shared among all characters. 
I don't know what to do with all the money I've been accumulating. I've bought every equipment upgrade. I'll have to try some of the expensive scrolls and see if they're worth it. 
The 40,000-gold piece "helmet" was the last thing I bought worth saving for.
I'm inclined to continue with this single-character experience for at least a little while longer. It's a competent enough dungeon crawler, not terribly far from Wizardry or The Bard's Tale in quality, except for the baffling decision not to allow the single player to create a full party.
Time so far: 9 hours


  1. Detect works exactly the way you used it, so either your skill wasn't high enough or there was nothing to detect. You have to face in the right direction for something like secret walls.

    Slight spoiler regarding lockpicks (I don't remember if I got it from the manual or some forum): lbh bayl unir gb xrrc gur orfg bar

    I've since finished the quest that was hinted at in the previous post, and it was very doable solo without much grinding. Maybe that's a goal you can set yourself for this game. I think after the level 20 door it gets much more difficult, at least for a solo player.

    I've been mistaken in my previous assumptions, there are some persistent changes to the dungeon, probably stored locally together with the automap. How that would work with a party isn't clear to me, especially if you join up and split within the dungeon.

    1. To add on the subject of lockpicks. Cleowyn's is clearly a quest/gating type object, but the others vzcebir sebz jrnxrfg gb fgebatrfg guvf frdhrapr: terra, benatr, erq, checyr, oyhr.

    2. The idea of different "lockpicks" that open specific doors is kind of amusing.

      That would be the definition of "key".

    3. Agree with Vince. Having colour-coded or otherwise door-specific lockpicks next to the same for keys sounds like a strange concept to me.

      "Lockpicks are differentiated by color; I've found green and red"

      I assume - and hope for you - these are described as such and not merely distinguished by the in-game colour of the respective item symbol/representation.

    4. Has there every been a game with lockpicking mechanics complicated enough to do entirely different kinds of lockpicks, rather than just "levels"? In the real world, locksmiths use a set of differently-shaped picks because different designs of lock respond better to tools of a particular shape. I could kinda imagine a game world where door-locks and chest-locks are sufficiently different (if nothing else, than in size) that you'd need different picks for each. Obviously, when you get into the specialized picks for more bespoke locks, as a game mechanic it stops being much different from just "you need the actual key"

    5. Observation about the lockpicks: Gur vqrn vf fbyvq, rira vs znxvat gurz qvssrerag ivn pbybe vf dhvgr hahfhny. Bgure bowrpgf ner qvssrerag ivn pbybe gbb, rira jura gurl fgvyy unir gur fnzr rssrpg, whfg fgebatre, ohg jvgu ybpxcvpxf vg frrzf jebat rira vs gurer vfa'g n tbbq ernfba gb fnl vg vf jebat.

  2. For weapons/armor changes, I check the stats screen and see what they do to the + behind the attributes. If your fencing skill doesn't apply to the katana, you'll likely notice because your dexterity modifier will be much lower. It's much nicer in the remake which displays all the information with the item.

    As for the hobgoblin king, I had to do him a while later. The most annoying thing is when you get killed in the first round (happens often as a mage), get dumped out of the dungeon, and can't even read anymore where the damage came from.

  3. If you like dungeon mapping for mapping's sake, I highly recommend the Etrian Odyssey series on Nintendo DS

    These are very competent Wizardy-style party blobbers, and while being fairly modern games, you have to map the dungeons all by hand.

    Although PC versions do exist, I'd avoid these, as the games were designed around the DS's ...erm... dual screen: one screen for the game view and another for mapping (complete with extensive mapping tools!).

    1. The mapping utility in the PC version seems to be well-made, though?

      I'm not usually one to complain about anime art, but these characters... ugh. I'd rather have that austere and dignified art style which some Wizardry games have. The Nintendo DS game 'The Dark Spire' is a good homage to that.

    2. The HD release for the PC works fine, and has better mapping tools (due to backporting developments from later in the series) as well. The only thing you lose from the DS version are eyestrain and hand pain.

    3. Absolutely, avoid the DS versions. The DS/3DS is absolute poison for your hand - replaying my beloved castlevanias required me to stop after an hour because it really hurts.

    4. The DS isn´t that bad Iam over 40 and still play it from time to time in long sitttings.

    5. At 26 I've been having some issues with the DS, but that's mostly with specific games and Etrian Odyssey wasn't one of them

    6. It might not be immediately obvious from the advertising, but Etrian Odyssey gives you a range of portrait styles to choose from, so you don't have to go chibi if you don't like that style. My recollection is that there was at least one credibly adult-looking portrait per class.

  4. I've been having a blast getting back into this game, but the optimal way to play single-player is decidedly not at all in keeping with the way the original game was intended to play solo. A party of four instances on Medievalands makes a giant difference: this game was clearly intended to be played multi-player, to the degree that the solo version almost functions like a frustrating demo to get people ready to fork out the money for multi. Medievalands, though, makes quite a few major quality of life changes and implements a Diablo 2 style system of magic find and magic item drops (and even all new uniques), so it's really not equivalent to the original version of Yserbius that came out in 1993.

    To answer a couple questions that aren't spoilery, I believe the troll ranger was referring to the trapdoors in the treasury when he mentioned traps. And katanas may belong to the same 'exotic weapons' category as nunchakas and the like, so not covered by 'duelist'.

    1. From the posts and comments I've definately gotten an impression this is less "single player version of online game" and more "Client for online game with offline mode", which is going to have different design considerations. Namely, making sure you don't give people the complete experience offline. After all, you want people to stay subscribed to your service, so making sure they'd have an inferior experience if they stop paying makes sense. Unfortunately yesterday's smart business decisions are today's preservation and playability nightmares

    2. Absolutely agreed, that's definitely what it is. I get it. Although I still find it a bit questionable that they were selling a solo version as a standalone copy IF it was an equivalent price to what Sierra was selling full games for at the time.

    3. I have to question the wisdom of making the single-player game essentially crippleware, because it can imply that the game as a whole is bad and that players SHOULDN'T subscribe. There's a reason that Commander Keen 1, Commander Keen 4, and Doom Episode 1 are still remembered fondly - they're awesome games that reminded you at the end that there was still twice the size of the game you just played remaining, right when the player is victorious and most satisfied. PAYING to play this tech demo when Might and Magic and Wizardry were still releasing new full games at the same price is just a joke.

    4. While I can't confirm this (couldn't find the game listed in any old magazine ads from the time, but I didn't look too long), my recollection is that the game was not released at full price. Maybe around the $20 point, as opposed to $40 or $50 for a "normal" new release. Certainly it didn't get the sort of press rollout and advertising campaign that a normal Sierra game would. It also, of course, came with a one-month subscription to INN, the online service.

      Really hoping Chester sticks with this one, despite the challenges. I remember playing the original online back in the day, and frittering away most of my time in the tavern / chat room... but wondering what the lower levels of the dungeon contained!

    5. And now I must immediately apologize and correct myself: The review in Computer Gaming World 115 indicates that it was indeed full price. Memory plays tricks on us all.

    6. It maybe wasn’t the best deal in the world as a single-player game, but I suspect even the boxed version was primarily bought by people who were at least internet-curious (that’s certainly how it was for me). And in that case 1) it did come with that free month of INN, which was around $25 a month - so if you were planning on playing online, that’s half the sticker price right there, and 2) this was before flat-price ISP subscriptions were much of a thing, so downloading the client - even if you knew about it and how to get it - probably would have taken a couple hours billed at like $2.50 apiece. So at a net $15 or so premium it doesn’t look so bad.

    7. Although I'd also love to hear Chester's thoughts on the complete game, we'll see. If he decides to stop after finishing the content preceding that Level 20 door, I'll definitely understand. It'd be a bit like stopping with the first act of Fate. Except in this case what he'd be missing is 80% grinding, 20% poorly-explained puzzles. It's fundamentally a game where you're supposed to really *need* to party up, as well as socialize in order to find out what you're supposed to do, where you're supposed to do it, and what shortcuts or grinding spots will make your life easier.

    8. The back of the box mentions (offline) single player and online (group) mode as two apparently equal alternatives to choose from according to your likings, as far as I can see, and at least to me does not hint at quests or goals that are only (realistically / without much more massive grinding or tricks) completable through the latter.

      If that's not the case, as it appears from some comments here, I'd consider it at least potentially misleading.

    9. It'd be far from the first time the back of a box made misleading claims, and considering they'd have both wanted people to buy it and subscribe to the service playing down how much the service is really needed makes perfect sense

    10. On Medievalands there's an optional area in level 3 where you need different races to get through different doors, making a diverse party of players necessary. In the offline original, these doors are opened by various keys you find for other puzzles. But there is an NPC that mentions a diverse party is helpful for this area, so I think this is something that was in the original, too, but got special treatment for the solo version. So far, I did not come across any areas that I could not enter as a solo player in the original.

      The box cover also contains the expansion Fates of Twinion and this seems to be the only version that was ever released as a box. Which makes me wonder how this was distributed when it went online originally (in 1992, if Wikipedia is to be believed).

    11. Correction: the English Wikipedia has it as 1991, with a first solo version in 1992. I assume before the first boxed version this was distributed as part of the ImagiNation welcome kit.

  5. The cave bear looks like he's slapping his knee laughing at one of Mento's jokes ;)

  6. You mention the Troll Ranger who talks about a sign and traps which you can't find, before saying you haven't encountered a single trap in the game yet. However in the following paragraph you say you enter a room full of traps, past a sign. Maybe this is what he is referring to?

    1. I admit that does seem pretty obtuse. I wrote those two points at different times and somehow didn't put them together.

  7. "The problem is, there's no sign at the end of the corridor, and I haven't encountered a single trap in the game so far."

    Looks like the ranger is trolling you

  8. "Take a turn for the worse" sounds like it's alluding to leftness (i.e. turning left somewhere,) since that's where we get the word "sinister" from. Of course, it could just as easily mean turning 180° at an auspicious location, because in these first-person games anything outside your viewport can magically turn into a teleporter square.

  9. Inventory: According to the manual, there is an extra holding spot between your feet (used for transfer among party members in online mode). Items do not confer a bonus in that position, though.

    'Leadership' skill: From the manual I understand it affects your own character, too.

    Medallions: A file with items from Yserbius compiled by someone and shared online here (download link) (might contain spoilers, I assume) does list a few Medallions, including the "Carnivorous" one, (ROT13), ohg qbrf abg vaqvpngr nal shapgvba be fcrpvny rssrpg tenagrq ol gurz - abg fher vs gung svyr vf pbzcyrgr, gubhtu.

  10. Since you mentioned the joy of mapping...

    Not an RPG, so outside the scope of this blog, but I can recommend the game Castle Master to anyone who likes mapping and the discovery process that goes along with it.

    It was released in 1990 by Domark Software, for various platforms. There's no character creation other than selecting your gender, no levels or stats other than a combined strength/health meter, but I do think it executed the "dungeon exploration" better than most RPGs, so if that's what you like in an RPG, you may like this game as well.

    1. Castle Master, and most of Incentive Software's games with that engine didn't seem that way to me. I never got that fun of mapping from it. Sure, there's a period where you map things out, but inevitably there's some aspect of it that it ruins with some incredibly tedious puzzle or aspect.

    2. Other than Castle Master, I only played Driller, and I didn't like it. Too much action oriented, too much pressure to advance instead of to discover. From the description, Total Eclipse sounds the most interesting, but it seems to impose a time limit in some way, and that doesn't seem to fit with the slow pace of the game's Freescape engine.

      I played Castle Master as a kid, but never completed it. Then a few years ago I decided to give it another go, taking care to create a map and take notes, and thanks to that systematic approach finally beat it.

      I still liked what I liked as a kid. The castle is an interesting place to discover, a bit silly at times (toilets in a medieval castle?), but it feels rewarding whenever you reach another part of the castle thanks to those maps and notes you've made.

  11. Since the game was meant to be played multiplayer, I wonder why they didn't let people do hotseat multiplayer, like each person controls 1 character in the party.

    Though I guess you could technically do that with basically any turn based RPG. I remember Final Fantasy 3/6 on the SNES had an option where you could map characters to the 2nd controller in combat so that you could kind of do multiplayer, where one person would control 2 of the characters and the other could control the other 2 characters.


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