Sunday, June 2, 2024

Centauri Alliance: The Perils of Precociousness

This game has been full of one-way trips.
To combat an insurrection or invasion, the agents of the Centauri Alliance have assembled the remnants of an ancient weapon called the Fractyr Fist (thus keeping it out of enemy hands), plus a suit of armor and a helmet. Ancient ruins on the moon of Veladron II gave us access to a teleporter which took us to the forbidden planet of Keppa Var. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do there for the time being, so we took a ship (you can book passage from Keppa Var, but not to it) back to the Lunabase to level up. There, we were alerted to an invasion at Epsilon Indi.
As this session began, we hopped a ship for Epsilon Indi as ordered. We didn't make it. On the way, a pirate dreadnought attacked our transport and pulled it into its own hull. "You will be boarded in moments," the game warned. The party decided to escape out the cargo hatch.
Over the next few hours, we had to navigate four levels of the pirate dreadnought, each of them a little smaller than the standard 16 x 16 because they were in the shape of a ship and thus tapered to a "nose." Early in our explorations of the first level, we found an elevator that offered to take us to the other three levels plus a "Control Room" that we never found a way to access. I'm not sure there was one.
And there's no way to get clearance, apparently.
Based on my notes, I think we had to go to Level 4 to find the information needed to use the escape pod on Level 3. But in between, we found a guy on Level 3 who said he'd recharge an item for us. I gave him a gravity belt and he recharged it for 1 charge, which my technic is already capable of doing just fine on his own. The guy disappeared after that, and I couldn't believe that he existed just to recharge a single random item, so I went through my inventory and noticed that the "Mattermit Pass" that I had received in the alien ruins, allowing me to access the teleportation platform, had no charges. When I gave him the pass, he said, "I'm going to need a chunk of plenadium to recharge that one."
I had no idea where to get plenadium. I had found plenocarbon earlier on Level 3, but that was it. Eventually the only place I hadn't explored on the four levels was the irradiated section of the engine room on Level 2. I poked around there, healing myself constantly and resting for long spells to recharge psi power. Eventually, I'd explored the entire thing and still found nothing. But later, I happened to notice that my chunk of plenocarbon had turned to plenadium, probably because of the radiation.
The graphics artist and the librettist needed to collaborate better on this one.
Anyway, I got the pass recharged for 5 charges. So I guess that allows me to use the teleportation platform 5 more times. I hoped I didn't need to use it more than once.
Elsewhere--I think on Level 4--I ran into a room with 5 mechanoids set into niches in the wall. A control terminal would let me power up one of them and add him to my party. I had the choice of Dragonmech 7, Dreadnot M101, VII Mandrake, Redwraith XL, and Mindscare KIL. I had no idea what the capabilities of any of them were. I don't know why I didn't go with the "Dragonmech" one--that sounds the coolest--but I went with the VII Mandrake instead. I think I figured they were either listed in order from best to worst or worst to best, so by choosing #3, I'd get a decent one either way. He's not as useful in combat as the Fractyr Mech who joined last time, but he occasionally lobs a bomb into an enemy party or blasts someone with a psychic attack, so that's cool.
I don't know where my head was. If a game offers you a dragon anything, you take it.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to see him in action until much later. On all four levels of the pirate dreadnought, I failed to win a single battle. Every one I fought left the party in tatters and most of the characters dead. Clearly, I was meant to have done a lot more grinding (or perhaps less fleeing) on previous maps. A lot of enemies were capable of summoning "guardians," easily the hardest enemy I've fought so far. They almost always went first and killed my characters in one hit, sometimes killed all my characters in one round. With double the number of hit points, I don't know how I would have defeated them. A lot more shield belts, I guess.
The good news is that there were no fixed combats on the entire ship, so when I died, I just had to reload. That's been true of most of the game, frankly. I can only remember three or four fixed combats, most involving holders of the Fractyr First, so my characters were able to move through the game faster than they probably should have.
A records room on Level 4 had a printout with the keywords INVASION and ESCAPE POD. I fed the former into a computer on Level 3 and got: "The Daynab invasion of Alliance space continues on schedule. Alliance star base over Epsilon Indi is currently under attack. Our special agent in the Alliance government is very helpful."
I look forward to unmasking the enemy agent. But since there aren't any named NPCs in the game, it can't really be a surprise.
ESCAPE POD got me off the ship and into Port Minkar. I explored the starport there and found nothing of interest except for the usual services. I hopped a shuttle for Lunabase to level up (I had gained experience from random battles on Minkar), then headed back to Epsilon Indi again. This time, I made it safely. At the Alliance Headquarters, an officer informed me: "Daynab forces have taken Starbase VI, which orbits this world. We can take your group up in a shuttle and sneak you onto the maintenance level."
I explored the surface of Epsilon Indi before taking the shuttle, and I'm glad I did, because in one of the rooms in the southeast part of the city is another teleportation platform. That means to get to Keppa Var, I don't need to go through the whole process of crash-landing on Veladron II's moon again, which I don't even know for sure is possible.  
This will come in handy.
I should have spent some more time grinding, but I took the shuttle instead, hoping that the enemies in the pirate ship had just been unnaturally hard. That was not the case--I was incapable of surviving anything on Starbase VI, too--but again there were no fixed battles, so I could just reload if I died.
The starbase consisted of 3 levels, but they were all quite small, most of the 16 x 16 areas unused. The purpose of the area is solely to find a guy at the end of a hallway on Level 3. The party roughs him up a bit, and he tells us that the Alliance traitor is in the dungeon of Keppa Var, and that the password is CASTLE-FIST. 
If all our enemies are as tough as this commander, we have nothing to worry about.
To get off the starbase, you have to access computers on Levels 1 and 3. Both of them require the same passcode. The passcode is found in a manual of almost 2000 pages in a corner of Level 1. You can feed the game one page at a time, and it will tell you what's on the page, except that most pages have nothing interesting. Only about four of them give you codes to use on the computer.
How do you know what pages to reference? The computer on the same level tells you, except that it also asks you to log in. If you don't know the login, you're stuck on the computer forever, as far as I can tell. It regards your attempts to log OFF (the usual command to leave computers) as an attempt to enter a password. So you either have to access the computer, note the pages, reload, and then go find the manual, or you've got to type in all of 1,982 page numbers to find the right parts of the manual. It's a minor problem, since reloading is so quick, but it's still either a bug or bad design.
Getting code words from the technical manual.
When I was done finding stuff on the base, I launched the shuttle back to the surface. Although I had not in any way stopped the Daynab invasion of Epsilon Indi--I hadn't even won a single battle--the Alliance officer was now telling me, "The next stage of your mission lies on Keppa Var."
Fortunately, the world below is an alliance starport.
I took the teleportation platform to the planet and used the CASTLE-FIST password to enter its dungeon. Here, I soon got stuck. There are fixed battles with guards in this dungeon, and I'm nowhere near the point where I can even survive the first round with them, let alone defeat them. If I could survive the first round, I'd have a decent chance, since my two robots always go at the end of the round, and they have pretty devastating attacks. But until they go, I'm facing 9 guards, each capable of blasting every member of my party for 20-30 points of damage.
The annoying thing is that at the beginning of these battles, one of my characters suggests that we "fan out!" This made me think that I'd been missing something in combat this entire time. It would make perfect sense if you could split your party into multiple groups; for instance, sending melee characters to engage enemies while other characters fired at them. Enemies can certainly do it. It would make more effective use of the hex terrain. But I've been through the manual multiple times and tried every option on the screen, and I can't find a way to make it happen, and I don't think it's possible. If anyone knows otherwise, please speak up. 
Daynab guards utterly destroy me in one round.
I clearly needed to grind, but finding good grinding spots in this game is harder than it seems. None of them are terribly convenient, partly because you can only level up at Lunabase, which itself has no dungeons. Enemies in any of the starports themselves are too easy, and leveling would take too long. So you have to go find a planet with a dungeon and grind there. Second, a lot of the game's areas are inaccessible after you've explored them. For instance, the last place I was reliably able to beat enemies was the alien ruins on Veladron II, but once you've taken the ship there once, you can't go back.
Thus, I've been doing most of my grinding in the medieval dungeon on Kevner's World, which you'll remember I explored quite some time ago, but it reliably delivers 200-300 experience points per battle for minimal risk. I got bored after a while there and moved on to killing rats on the two derelict ships accessible from Veladron II. The combats seem to come faster there. If I get bored there, I might move to the Andrini dungeon.
The perfect grinding foe.
The final issue with grinding is a weird one, and I'd be interested if anyone can help me parse what is happening. In The Bard's Tale II and III, you could just spin in place and enemies would come to you until you got sick of it. That doesn't work here. It is possible for an enemy party to attack after a turn, but they won't do it inevitably. And if you've just defeated an enemy party, you can spin in circles forever in the same square, and it doesn't seem that you'll ever encounter another enemy party. Nor can you just walk back and forth between the same spaces. It seems like the game enforces a minimum amount of time and distance between battles. Normally, I'd praise such a system--the number of battles in The Bard's Tale series got to be way, way too much--but not when I'm deliberating trying to find enemies to grind against.
I'm embarrassed to say that this period of grinding is the first time since the opening hours that I've bothered to check out the powers of my metamorph. I let him take on a Stonewalker form early in the game, found it unimpressive, and never really bothered to visit the other forms even though I continued to level him as a metamorph. It doesn't help that the manual tells you nothing about the forms. From 1 to 10, they are: Stonewalker, Andromedan, Gorn Warrior, Gamma Goblin, Beta Wolf, Zon Dragon, Drak, Far Spectre, Atomic Ant, and Devastator. Mine is capable of only the first five levels right now. But through experimentation, I found that starting at the Gamma Goblin level, the creatures actually start becoming useful, capable of long-range attacks against multiple enemies per round. The problem is that you can't target what the metamorph does. Once morphed, he acts as if he's an NPC. However, whatever he does is generally more effective than if I had just had him fire a Beretta, which is mostly what I've been using him for.
The grinding process has also taught me a bit more about how experience points work. It turns out that the number of points you need for the next level is based on what you took on the previous level. If you went from Melee 1 to Melee 2, for instance, you only have to wait a few hundred points before you can level again. Going from Sidearm 8 to Sidearm 9 requires about 20,000 experience points before the next level. Beyond that, I'm not sure of the exact formula because the game apparently does give you credit after your required experience level hits 0, but it hides the actual number that you're earning.
My Fractyr Mech is still more valuable than any regular party member.
The priority is to grind spell levels. Only towards the end of this session did I finally get Level 8 "Body" and "Mind" spells, which among other things gives me a spell that damages every enemy on the board ("Meta-War"), and one that paralyzes every enemy on the board ("Paral"). That last one alone would get me past the fixed guards on Keppa Var if they didn't always go first. I'm not sure what factors determine initiative. I hope level has something to do with it; otherwise, I don't see how I'm ever going to beat them.
There are two entire spell schools ("Matter" and "Energy") that I haven't even had access to. I assumed my psionics would get those options once I reached a certain level in their existing schools. Maybe I have to max out at Level 10 first.
I had hoped to finish my grinding and move on in time to write more for this entry, but I started to run up against my deadline for the next entry, so I had to move on to something else. It feels like I could finish this up in one more--Keppa Var, Gamma Base, and Kasdran are the only planets I haven't explored--if I can get strong enough.
Time so far: 23 hours
Playing out of: Duty again. This game hasn't really earned the right to require me to grind.


  1. AlphabeticalAnonymousJune 2, 2024 at 1:12 PM

    I'm a bit more into SciFi than Fantasy, so I'm really enjoying these entries. It sounds like the game is *almost* good enough to recommend, so I'll be very interested to see the final rating and review.

  2. "It turns out that the number of points you need for the next level is based on what you took on the previous level."

    So it's effectively a skill point system where you accrue points that can be spent on skills, except flipped. It's like you're constantly in skill point debt. I wonder if character level is used directly in any calculations. If not, it really is a skill point system in disguise.

    1. There is no explicit overall character level, so I think it's as you say.

  3. A possible clue as to whether you can split the party is if you're ever asked to select a hex target for beneficial PSI or items. If you ever get an option that feels like you should be able to assist a nearby unit then maybe it is possible. But if they all target the caster's stack implicitly then that indicates the heroes are a Dungeon Master blob party occupying a hex (as the manual seems to suggest).

    1. Good point. And that isn't the case. Any party-effect spell just immediately casts on the party; it doesn't have a targeting option.

      I can't believe that there's any way to split the party. It's just that the game sometimes acts like there is. Maybe that was the original intention and it got cut.

  4. Avoiding getting into situations like this is a big part of why I treat fleeing as a last resort. At best you're risking making later parts of the game harder than they need to be, at worst it gets you stuck having to flee until you hit something you can't run from, and then you're in for a bad time.

    1. "Fleeing" is actually a bad idea in this game. It only works about half the time and gives the enemy a free attack if it doesn't work.

      The issue isn't so much that I've been "fleeing" as that I haven't been overly concerned with preserving my progress. When I've arrived at each map, my priority has been to explore the map and find its secrets. I've typically been saving the game at the beginning of the map, going off in a direction that reveals new parts of the map, annotating squares of interest, and reloading if I died. At the end of the process, the party that survives may only have explored 10% of the overall map.

      What I should have done is insisted on having the party expose the entire map within a single "life."

    2. Fair enough, but it's still the same basic issue: the game expects you'll have won some amount of fights, and not having done that causes problems.

    3. I took a look at the one available FAQ/walkthrough (by some "ASchultz" guy). I won't spoil anything, but around this part of the game there's a suggestion that a good party "might actually win some battles" but that you should "save every ten steps or so". So I'm not sure being underleveled is the full problem, the difficulty curve might just be rough near the end.

      I also get the impression that equipment is really important. Not sure what this party has equipped.

    4. This point is where I stopped playing, due to the difficulty curve spike. As Chet says, although there are spells that could give your party the upper hand, my spellcasters tended always to go last, and since those spell always seem to be in effect only the turn they are cast, they are effectively wasted, since the enemy will have already acted (and likely decimated your party already).

      I'm not sure how initiative works, but I believe there should be something like "casting time" delaying the spellcaster turns further, this purely on the manual describing some spells as "instant" (although it is not really consistent).

      The game really seems to suffers from poor balance and it looks to be rushed, as some features that should be there look scrapped or half-baked like the broken player movement in combat; the manual itself seems well written until you realize it is missing a lot of information and some of it conflicts with the actual game.

      Hopefully raising skill levels will improve initiative behind the curtains (as it does explicitly with life and psi points), but the way forward really seems to be a mix of grinding, luck and save scumming.

    5. When I beat this game a few years ago I also had serious trouble grinding. I ended up finding some weapon that could hit everyone on the screen at once and did my grinding on the guards you're having trouble with. Even then I think you eventually hit a wall of some sort where you can't expand your characters any further (max out all the skills? It's been too long).

      One thing I did end up doing is cheat by using the old 'disk swap' trick and getting everyone in my party the Fractyr Gear. Even then it was tricky to reach the end of the game. The whole thing was obviously rushed as it is very unbalanced. They were probably trying to get it out the door before the Apple II and C64 markets completely evaporated. I find it odd that they never bothered with a PC version.

    6. Alright, so in this case sounds like there's a good chance it's the game that's the problem and not the playstyle

    7. I think it's probably a combination. The game has a steep difficulty curve that might be a bit unfair, but I exacerbated it by pushing through map on which I should have lingered.

    8. Oh, and +1 for "by some "ASchultz" guy."

    9. There's also the "everyone rushed too much" option, but I get this weird feeling that's not what's going on

    10. A good well balanced game should have protection against something like this. Usually it's a meat-shield type boss that blocks the way to the next area until you're strong enough to beat them. If not a blocking boss then an area should have a low level enemy or two amongst the rest that an under-prepared party can use to get themselves up to a minimal level to survive. You should never get yourself into a walking dead situation like this.

      It's kind of odd that CA doesn't allow the player to go back to older areas to grind because that's how the player was meant to advance in Crawfords Bards Tale games. Maybe he was trying something new?

    11. Cranford not Crawford. I'm mixing up my programmers. :)

    12. I mean, it sounds to me like the game's not in a true walking dead situation, but it is in one where getting it back on track might be more trouble than it's worth anyway

  5. Your metamorph can take on a 'Gorn Warrior' form, eh? Immediately brings this image to (my) mind. Guess it's not surprising for a SF CRPG from that era to include ST / SF pop culture references.

    1. No. Gorn spearmen and rangers are from Guardia planet. Wizardry 7

    2. I mean...ST:TOS significantly predates both, and is incredibly widely known. It's likely that both are paying homage to it.

      Also, double-checking the date on Wizardry 7 indicates that it's from 1992—two years *after* Centauri Alliance.

      So, no—this game was *definitely* not basing Gorn Warrior on the Gorns from Guardia.

    3. Gorn, especially in combination with warrior, brings Gothic to my mind, but that's even later.

    4. To me it brings Arena to mind.

    5. AlphabeticalAnonymousJune 3, 2024 at 3:53 PM

      On this critical point, I have to agree with Busca & Delvin that 'Gorn' in a sci-fi context is overwhelmingly likely to be a Star Trek reference.

    6. I am 100% sure that you are right, and I am further 100% sure that Lord Hienmitey agrees with you and was just screwing around.

    7. There's also a recurring character in Ultima named Gorn, presumably not directly inspired by the TOS lizard dudes. It just seems like a very satisfying word for some reason.

    8. I'm 1000% sure that some "stepped pyramids" guy is right.

  6. Since none of the other mechanoids have a similarly 'adapted' name, I wonder if 'Dreadnot' just is a misspelling or an intentional play on words.

  7. It seems a lot of thought and effort has been put into behind the scenes stuff most players won't notice or fully understand, like the leveling system and the way the encounter rate is handled. But then it screws up major things like the difficulty curve... Hope you can push past this without too much trouble.

    1. Another interesting thing about random combat encounters is that different squares seem to have different rates, in the same map.

      Map squares can be roughly divided in "hallway" squares and "interior" squares, with the former seemingly having a much lower encounter rate than the latter.

      It is especially true in spaceports maps, but also dungeons follow that pattern to an extent.

      This makes it easier to skip combat, as you can stick to the hallways and use the "sense" ability to safely identify points of interest.

    2. I could have saved myself a lot of time, grief, and reloading if I had actually trusted "Seventh Sense" instead of insisting that I physically step on every square. Old habits are hard to break.

  8. Cranford in 2013 interview states that the party was not splittable:

    > In Centauri Alliance, you went from the Bard's Tale-style combat to a hex grid, introducing a unique compromise between the first person menu-based combat and the full-blown tactical isometric combat characteristic of e.g. the Goldbox games - your party moved around on the hex grid but was only represented by a single sprite. What motivated that design decision, and why didn't you go for a Goldbox-like combat?

    > It was simply a code compromise. There needed to be a spatial dimension to combat; having a list of characters like in BT (with 3 on the front line to take physical damage) was too simplistic. I went with a compromise that was still simplistic. If there had been a SQL it would have evolved further.​

    The issue with random fights is further clarified:

    > Speaking of real-time elements, why were random encounters in BT1 and BT2 checked in real time instead of each time you moved or turned? Sometimes you would end up with multiple battles in the same square since you didn't even have time to distribute new loot before being beset by a new monster group.

    > Hmm, I don’t remember the exact rationale. Again, though, I wanted to simulate reality. There was obviously a need for some tuning on this, though!​

    1. Thanks for removing that doubt once and for all.

  9. The commander looks like he's about to say "Like, no way no how. I wouldn't tell you the password to the underground fortress on Keppa Var even for a Scooby Snack."

  10. Guys, I just came back from a comic festival and need to catch up with reading the new posts. Props to Chet for whipping out the sci-fi banner when it's appropriate :)

    1. AlphabeticalAnonymousJune 4, 2024 at 6:10 PM

      I initially misread your post as 'a cosmic festival,' in which case the sci-fi banner would have been even more appropriate!


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