Sunday, May 26, 2024

Loremaster: Death is Cheap

A typical day with Loremaster.
     
I bumbled around a bit more with my fighter character and got nowhere except to lose a bunch of levels from dying in combat. I fiddled around with Myth (the default character) for a while, trying some things that I'll talk about a bit later. 
    
I created a new mage character called Chester, who starts at Level 20 (compared to the default character, Myth, at Level 57). I began by going to Buttermran, the general store owner, and buying some leather armor. Mages cannot cast spells with anything in their hands, so there's no point arming one with a weapon. I exhausted Butterman's dialogue options like last time.
       
A new character begins.
      
I then returned to the castle and exhausted dialogue options with King Yelraf (or Emperor Yelraf; the game is inconsistent) and Queen Tei. I discovered that there's more to the castle than the entrance where Yelraf and Tei stand. But "more" doesn't mean "worthwhile": one door takes you to a Daliesque nightmare that includes piles of food you can't pick up for some reason; the other takes you to a garden that has at least three "Sleep" traps, which put you to sleep for literal minutes real-time. There are traps all over this game. As far as I can tell, they're undetectable and unavoidable, and they make little sense. Who puts a fire trap in the middle of a field?
     
The game let me wake up after about four minutes.
      
I headed for Francis and Gerald, passing by a number of monsters on the way. Almost every screen in this game that doesn't have an NPC has a monster--beasties, basilisks, slimes, spiders, wraiths, manticores, dragons. They seem to be curiously non-hostile at the beginning of the game, or at least around the castle area.  
   
I also found a screen with a bunch of chests. An illusory wall let me in. I tried OPEN CHEST a number of times, but the game just kept saying, "You are talking to yourself!" I assumed it thought I was using CHEST as an abbreviation for "Chester," so I switched to Myth to get him to open the chest and just drop the items on the ground. But the game said the same thing when he tried to open the chest. 
   
I tried a few other options, but nothing worked. I figured I could at least take the item on the ground that the game identified as a GOLDRING. (I've learned through practice that the game doesn't recognize spaces in item names or other keywords.) But even when I was standing right on top of it, the game insisted that it "could not be taken!" 
      
What. The. Hell.
      
Moving on, I re-converse with Francis. To recap, his major pieces of intelligence are that to defeat Gaiasbane, I'll need a special weapon from the caverns below, guarded by a banshee called Banesthrall. Francis has also recently lost his Grail; he suspects it was stolen by a fire elemental who also lives in the caverns. He thinks that the Loremaster will have to go through three trials, one of which will earn him a holy book (HOLYBOOK). Francis trains me 4 points in cleric abilities. 
          
NPCs keep giving me these number sequence puzzles.
      
I then visit Gerald, the king's guardsman again, and had him train me 1 point in fighting ability, then exhausted my combat options with him.
   
At this point, I was caught up on everything that I'd done already. It was time to do something new. I pointed myself west, looking for the Oracle, Iseult. On the way, I talk to the dragon I spoke to before, and I realized that not only are all the monsters near the castle non-hostile; they'll all talk to the character (although many have nothing useful to say).
     
At least he's not attacking me.
       
I find the first hostile creature--a spider--a few screens west of the castle, in the middle of what looks like an impenetrable ring of stone walls. He shows me he's hostile by hitting me, which completely destroys the leather armor that I put myself in debt to buy. I save (which requires backing up all the game files, since it saves automatically) and reload a few times so I can get some experience with combat. To cast spells you have to first INCANT them. So casting a "Fire" spell at a spider means typing INCANT FIRE and then CAST SPIDER. You have to be relatively close when you cast. Fortunately, once the spell is incanted, you can use the mouse to cast it, so you don't fumble the spelling while in the middle of combat.
   
I blast the spider, kill it, and go up to Level 31. I cross the walled area, setting off a trap on the way, and before I make it to the other side, a bolt of lightning comes down and resurrects the spider. I later determine that this happens a lot. When it doesn't happen, the enemy is immediately replaced by another enemy. The game will not let you "clear" a screen. 
       
This world's god has an exasperating sense of humor.
      
While trying to find the oracle, I fall down into a cave. A spider immediately kills me. Most enemies kill me in just one hit. I reload and flee from the spider, finding Banesthrall in the cavern to the west. I already know I can't defeat him (more below), so I just quit and reload.
        
I feel like I'm here prematurely.
       
Moving around in this game is a nightmare. You get hung up on everything. Screens that look like they have open exits in some direction turn out to have none because there's no path free of boulders, tree roots, and so forth. Other screens that have hard stone walls at the edges turn out to have illusory doors. There are a lot of holes to the underworld hidden behind walls or stones, so you're constantly falling down there and having to find a way out.
        
I don't believe I can cross this screen to engage this oddly-articulate slime.
      
Further attempts to get to the Oracle keep resulting in my deaths at the fangs of spiders or the spells of wraiths. Finally, in frustration, I just INCANT TELEPORT and CAST ISEULT to go directly to her. I expect it to reduce my levels to almost 0, because it always reduced Myth's level when I cast it, but instead it rockets me to Level 57. This game makes no sense.
   
Iseult is spectacularly unhelpful. Despite other NPCs telling otherwise, she has nothing to say about my parents or their kingdom ("Speak to the emperor if your interest lies in political matters"). When I ask her about MAGIC, she gives me the old sphinx riddle. I answer MAN, and she increases my magic ability by 2. She otherwise just repeats stuff that I already know about needing to get a weapon from the caverns below. Then she turns inexplicably hostile in the middle of our conversation and kills me, forcing me to reload. 
    
Iseult gives me the world's oldest riddle.
      
At this point, I'll break from Chester's adventure to relate a little screwing around that I did with Myth before restoring the game from a backup. Knowing that I can TELEPORT to any NPC whose name I know, I tried teleporting first to Samwise the farmer. I otherwise have no idea how to reach his farm. He attributes his ability to keep his farm going despite the acid rain to his luck and the patronage of the Green Lady. 
       
Well, I wouldn't know, Sam.
      
I then warped myself to Tristan, Iseult's lost lover. It turns out he's trapped in a cave, turned into a statue by an earth elemental (EARTHELEMENT) who thinks Tristan stole his jeweled stalagmite. Tristan protests that he didn't steal it, but the earth elemental trusts the "great, good, and wise" sage who told him of the theft: Gaiasbane. I otherwise can't do anything to free Tristan, but between the elemental and the other NPCs, that's three sub-quests I need to solve: find Tei's missing cloak, find Francis's grail, and find the earth elemental's jeweled stalagmite.
        
The earth elemental refuses to release Tristan.
      
I already know where Banesthrall is, so there's no point teleporting to him, but I do try (with SUMMON) teleporting him to the castle with Yelraf and Tei. I know that the king and queen can kill almost anything. Unfortunately, they can't even hit Banesthrall, who exists in some kind of ethereal form. There must be some spell or weapon specific to him.
        
I guess we're at a standstill.
     
Teleporting myself to Gaiasbane shows that he exists in a ring of stone somewhere. He kills me immediately and re-kills me every time I'm resurrected, before I can take any action at all. Teleporting him to Yelraf and Tei is no more successful than teleporting Banesthrall to them, as Gaiasbane only dies to that special weapon.
   
For the second game in a row, I'm able to reach the endgame boss but not defeat him.
     
Now, there is a way to cheese the SUMMON spell to kill Gaiasbane and end the game prematurely. I've done it, which means I've technically won. But I've only done it because I watched a YouTube video in which someone did it as part of a speedrun. It's a bit annoying that the only video that exists for this game is a speedrun. The author clearly must have known the game well to hit upon this particular solution, which means he probably has the manual, but he has not responded to a message I left. However, with only a little bit more intelligence from an NPC, it's plausible that I could have figured out this solution on my own. More on that for the final entry. I wanted a "win" in my pocket, even a cheating one, in case Morpheus Kitami and I jointly decide that the game simply isn't playable. Make sure you check out his coverage at The Adventurers' Guild, by the way. 
     
In case I can't win some other way.
    
Let's talk a little about what we've discovered about the game's origins. I had done some sleuthing and found another company using the same P.O. box in San Francisco that Creative Software was using at the same time. I assumed the owner of that company must be the author. But after my first entry, P-Tux7 pointed out that the author was probably named "Farley," and pdw confirmed that it was Glenn Farley based on information in a Computer Game Review and CD-ROM Entertainment issue from December 1992.
   
Busca got some more information about Glenn Farley, showing he was born in 1953, making him 39 at the time of the game's release, which I am persuaded was in 1992, not 1991 as originally reported. The same source shows him as president of Creative Software, but later there's a record of a lawsuit between him and Creative Software, so either he wasn't the owner (the owner may be the person I originally identified) or some other weird legal thing was happening there. Either way, emails to potential candidates have not been returned.
    
It's premature to look at reviews, but let's do so anyway. The aforementioned Computer Game Review gave it 56 percent--the average of scores ranging from 45 to 65. I'm glad to see that one of the reviewer's experience mirrors mine: "Combat is virtually unplayable, since any monster that attacks you kills you instantly." They had other comments about the poor interface and graphics and gave their highest scores to the manual, of all things. Boy, it would sure be nice to have it.
       
Busca also turned up a 53% review from the July 1993 Videogame & Computer World, an Italian magazine. I didn't translate the entire thing, but the opening paragraph calls it an "impeccable atrocity" and the concluding line is: "If you love RPGs, don't be enchanted by the title and avoid the purchase!"
       
I believe this is a complete map of the surface world. Click to enlarge.
          
Back to the game. Unsatisfied with my progress this session, I returned to the map and managed to map the entirety of the topworld (I think). It's an odd 21 x 5. The right half is mostly the town, although I did find Samwise's farm outside the north walls of the town. I was also able to find the Oracle's place and even the tower in which Gaiasbane is waiting (it only looks like a stone circle on the inside).
       
Gaiasbane's tower.
      
A few notes:
   
  • There are some places in the corners where you can leave the map onto an endless sea of blank screens in which you can only move east-west. Inevitably, you get blocked by an enemy and have to turn back.
     
This beastie stops me from exploring endlessly eastward. Even if I kill him, his bones will stop me.
      
  • There are so many holes going to the underworld that I stopped trying to annotate them.
  • I started naming the screens after the monsters I found there, but it turns out that they're not fixed.
  • Although a lot of the screens have interesting patterns of walls, boulders, trees, or flowers, I couldn't find anything to do on most of them. There's one odd screen in the southwest in which you get chastised for walking over flowers, as if someone's speaking to you, but I couldn't find anything out.
      
Who is talking here?
    
I'll keep going and explore the underworld, hoping to make the connection necessary to win legitimately. All I need is for someone to tell which NPC carries the weapon that will kill Gaiasbane. I suspect I'll win this purely as an adventure game, though, meaning that I won't really be trying to build my character, find money, and buy more stuff (not that there's anything else for a wizard to buy). The RPG parts of the game are just too weird: you start at a high level, you gain and lose levels unpredictably, and enemies just kill you in one hit no matter how powerful you are. What a weird game.
   
Time so far: 8 hours
Playing out of: Bemusement. 
   

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Futurewar: Summary and Rating

 
As far as I made it.
     
Futurewar
United States
Independently developed
Released 1977 for the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois
Updated several times between 1977 and 1980; recreated for Cyber1 in 2017
Date Started: 26 April 2024
Date Ended: 20 May 2024
Total Hours: 20
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later) 
       
FutureWar was designed so that it is possible to win, but I wouldn't say that it was "designed to be won." Its audience was hundreds of college students who had no Netflix, Kindle, or Spotify, and who had less than half a dozen other games to occupy their time. I managed to get a character to the third-highest rank on the leaderboard (the only two higher are owned by the game's creator), see all of the levels, and get killed by the final boss. That seems good enough. 
     
There I am at #3. I guess I made it to master sergeant.
       
The game consists of 20 levels. The first five are the starting zones for each of the game's factions: Americans, Guerrillas, Barbarians, Martians, and Cyborgs. The Cyborgs have the worst "home" level. You can't leave the opening area without wading through radioactive waste and sewage, and much of the rest of the level has large pools of it. 
     
The Cyborgs got the raw end of this post-apocalyptic land-grab.
      
Fortunately, the faction level on which you start isn't the only one that you can access. When the game was current, you might get into fights by visiting other factions' levels, but for the modern player, you can pick and choose, especially since the bases don't do anything.

The Martian Zone has a smiley face in the wall pattern. The Americans and Guerrillas have the most maze-like levels. The Barbarians have a nice mix of corridors and open space, and I ended up settling on them for that and other reasons.
 
 
Maybe this is supposed to be an actual martian.
     
Each faction level has an elevator that takes you to Level 6, the beginning of the dungeon proper. From there, most levels have an elevator back up to the faction levels. Levels get incrementally difficult as you go down, but this is mostly imperceptible until you reach Level 12.
      
One of the more difficult enemies that I fought.
      
It's not hard to keep a character alive once you stabilize him around character Level 10 or so; however, it did take me many hours to get there. Perhaps more important than the character level is finding certain bits of equipment. Once you have a bulletproof vest or flak jacket, your character is effectively immortal for the first 5 levels. Exploding treasure chests, mines, and hazardous terrain become far more dangerous than any foe. Once you find a force field and a jetpack (allowing you to fly over hazardous terrain), your character is immortal until at least dungeon Level 15. I can't tell you about the last five levels because I didn't fight a single enemy on them. I was just trying to reach the endgame at that point, and I had found an "Invisibility" field, so I could walk through entire levels without tripping any encounters. This turned out to be a bad idea.
    
Invisibility lets weak characters get further than they probably should.
    
Combat for most characters never gets more interesting than lining up the barrel of your gun with an enemy and hitting S)hoot. I feel like the game almost requires you to miss your first few shots in order to artificially prolong combat. Although I was playing a barbarian, the only faction that can use a club, I could never get the club to work. I ended up just using an Uzi for most of the game. Technos and holy men face a very different game, with 16 different offensive technologies (i.e., spells) to use, and I frankly wonder if these options aren't functionally necessary to defeat Doctor Brain at the end of the game.
      
Hard to imagine that Doctor Brain could survive a nuclear device.
    
After the five faction levels, you face the War Zone, the Battle Zone, the Arena, the Lethal Zone, No-Mans-Land, and the Crater. Except for the War Zone, No-Mans-Land, and the Crater, I only mapped them long enough to find the way to the next level. The Arena lives up to its name by having a large, open area in the middle of the level with what could be "cells" in a ring around it. The Crater has a single hallway in a ring around a largely open and fractured level, with numerous pits to the one below. No-Mans-Land is the most mazelike of all the levels.
      
No-Mans-Land. I'm glad there weren't more levels like this.
       
You start on all of these levels at (2,1). On the five faction levels, (1,1) is the exit, but for the six levels below it, that square is nothing special. For the first 11 levels, the elevator down is found invariably at (20,20), though again you can sometimes find a second elevator or a pit if you want a shortcut. If you want to level up, heal, recharge, and leave the dungeon, you have to find an elevator back up to the faction levels and use the exits.
  
The Radioactive Wasteland (Level 12) changes the rules somewhat. For the first time since the Cyborg Zone, there's an "exit" at (1,1), letting you heal and save without trekking all the way back up to the first five levels. There are exits every two or three levels for the rest of the game. 
     
There were times that I got a lot more experience from looting than from combat.
       
Below the Radioactive Wasteland are the Mutant Zone, the Outer Limits, the Suburbs, the Dead City, the Basement, the Sub-Basement, the Sewer, and finally the PITS. These levels mix things up by putting the down elevator somewhere other than (20,20), although that spot returns for the last three levels. 
   
Late in the game, I just rushed from one level to the next, fleeing from most combats and then using my invisibility device once I figured out how it worked. Because of this, I missed a lot of late-game grinding plus any late-game equipment. The most advanced weapon I found was an M-60 machine gun, which my hunter character couldn't use, but there are at least 10 more weapon types beyond that. It was a similar story with armor.
       
My character only got as far as the ballistic vest.
       
I also missed a lot of miscellaneous gear. I've already talked about the uses of jet packs, invisibility cloaks, and force fields. Flashlights help you see enemies in nearby squares, but only sometimes. There were several items I didn't find, including a "spirit vial," which allows for a free resurrection. 
    
Not unless it comes with an assistant gunner and an ammo bearer.
     
Despite all that I missed, I made it to character level 48 and the PITS. I didn't really have trouble with most enemies even on this last level. I made my way to the (20,20) square, and I was automatically teleported to battle with Doctor Brain. He had almost 1,000 hit points, and he killed me in two blows.

Author Erik Witz was kind enough to send me an image of the winning screen:
     
This screen comes at the conclusion of a fun cinematic that has some other plot points. Witz suggested I leave it undescribed so that future winners still get an unexpected reward.
      
The game also has another surprise: somewhere in the PITS, you can find a hole to an even lower level. This turns out to be Hell. On this level, you can find the Devil himself; he's apparently about as hard as Doctor Brain.
 
Witz's character battles Satan himself.
      
I wish I could take the time to win this legitimately. It has some balance issues, but overall it's a clever game whose "win" condition is only about as onerous as the batch of commercial CRPGs that we'd see a decade later. As always, I'm impressed at what these kids (Witz was 15) managed to produce at the dawn of the genre, with no references or templates. If Futurewar had been released for the microcomputer, it would have been a smash hit. It would have blown away just about every other game available for the next 7 years.
       
I forgot to mention that you can get specific statistics on your opponents in combat.
       
In several emails, Witz alerted me to several other bits of information about both Futurewar and other PLATO games of the time. One thing that I have to keep reminding myself is that these games were in relatively constant development, so what we're playing today is not necessarily what players saw in the games' release years. Moria (1975), for instance, which I'm sure at one point or another I've called the first 3D RPG, actually didn't get its 3D perspective until late in 1977 or 1978. Even in Futurewar's initial release, "only your guy rotated, not the maze view." (Having typed that, I confess that I can't imagine what it functionally looked like.) Oubliette (1977), it turns out, had the first proper perspective-shifting 3D view, which Witz quickly copied for Futurewar.
      
The last shot I took of the character with all his statistics and gear.
     
While we're on the subject of "firsts," I must report, without fully understanding it, that Futurewar's graphics are more advanced than anything else on PLATO at the time in that "the character graphics were stored in datasets and loaded for every encounter which allowed for a vast array of sprites." Witz built his own character editor to accomplish this. It's kind of the first game with animated enemies, in that they jump around the screen during combat (the images themselves don't change).
       
The last couple of levels have either broken windows or abstract art on the walls.
    
I think it's also the first CRPG with "terrains," including radioactive waste, rubble, sewage, and fire. Here again, I'll hide my technical ignorance by just quoting directly from Witz: "Because Futurewar keeps 4 bits per square, it can handle up to 16 possibilities . . . no players, one player, more than one player, mutant, treasure, item, elevator, mine, pit, teleporter up, teleporter down, base, and multiple terrain types." Other contemporary games were more limited in what they could provide in a single square.
      
Not that I would have minded if these squares didn't exist.
     
Finally, one of my favorite parts of the game is the random graffiti that we see spray painted across the walls. I took note of a random sample:

  • MONSTROUS BARTER
  • AVOID THE MASSACRE
  • BEASTLY INFESTATION
  • KILROY UP
  • END OF INFESTATION
  • DIRTY DEVIL
  • FOUL HEAVENS
  • MURKY UP
  • AVOID THE GRAM
  • STING BACK
  • KILROY RUNNING
  • FUTURE MUTANTS
  • REVOLTING SLIME
  • STOP WILD
  • BEWARE OF ANIMAL
  • HORRIBLE HELL
    
This is an example of what I was just complimenting in relation to Dungeon Hack: Using randomization to add a little fun and flavor to what would otherwise be just a bunch of repeating textures. In this case, they fit the weird, post-apocalyptic vibe of the game quite well.
       
I feel like a sign with this message would be so much more effective than one telling you to beware of a specific animal, such as a dog.
       
It amazes me that this far into this project, I'm still finding new uses of the word "first" for games created in the 1970s. And if Witz hadn't taken the time to re-enter the code in 2017, we probably never would have heard of it. What other lost wonders are still waiting to be discovered?

Witz wrote to me that he never even thought of trying to make a career in gaming, although "after learning of the millions made by people like Lord British, I wish I had stayed in the field." He seems to have done very well for himself in the private sector regardless.
     
All right, it's time to Kilroy up and see if I can make any sense of Loremaster.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Centauri Alliance: Medieval Times

Ignoring the first line, that's a decent bit of iambic octameter.
    
I realized during some recent session that the opening cinematic has more text than I noticed before. When it got to the credits, I assumed it was over, but it had more to say. Here's the full thing:
 
In the year AD 2214, in the system Alpha Centauri, six races formed a historic alliance. Their dream: Peace throughout the galaxy. Today, less than three decades later, that dream has become a living reality.

Mysterious events are occurring on the far fringes of Alliance space. Rumors filter back of a mutinous Donsai officer gathering a force of renegades . . . an Alliance armory is looted . . . a border patrol vanishes. Most disturbing, arms dealers report uneasily that components of the legendary Fracytr Fist have surfaced in the black market. In the hands of Alliance enemies, the Fist would post an incalculable danger.


I thought I already had all the components.
      
Whatever the cost, you must quell the rebellion and prevent any part of the Fist from falling into hostile hands.

      
In-game, I've heard nothing of this renegade officer. The faction trying to find the first has been given as the Daynab Confederation. We wound the four fingers and the thumb of the Fractyr Fist in the dungeons of Omicron VII, and we learned that the palm was somewhere on Andrini.
   
As this session began, I arrived on Andrini. Like Omicron, the planet consisted of a starport and two dungeon levels. The starport had an Alliance HQ and an armory, but no medical bay, so when I was wounded, I had to have my body-focused psion cast INSHL ("Instant Heal") and wait for his spell points to regenerate.
  
"Rumors of the Fractyr Palm are widespread," I was told at Alliance HQ. "Exercise extreme caution." That wasn't much help. I ran through the area with the automap, then descended to the dungeon level, which was dark. I had to cast my mind-focused psion's NITST ("Night Sight") to see, which the game depicts as the word "Light" surrounded by flames, one of many ways that the interface signals that it was intended for a fantasy game.
      
Undead and beholders are another one.
      
Combats came along regularly. They are so boring, but I don't try to flee from them because fleeing fails at least half the time, giving enemies a free round to riddle you with bullets. For the same reason, I rarely try to move the party in combat, because that's all you can do that round. My lead character is fierce with a melee weapon, but advancing under enemy fire isn't worth it; it's best to have her use a pistol unless enemies start in melee range or they move themselves there.
     
For most combats, I just unload with my 9mm weapons. My two psions will get some good mass-damage spells later, but for the time being, their pistols outperform their psionic attacks.
      
Fairly early on the first level, I wandered into a "crowded room filled with guards." Someone yelled that I was there to "steal the Palm," and they attacked. It was the toughest battle in the game so far, with seven men armed with machine guns. Three of my characters started the battle with empty magazines. The enemies killed two characters in the first round. I reloaded the game, reloaded my guns, and tried again, this time also lobbing a grenade at them. I found a Yellow Badge on one of them when they died. 
       
Who are these guys? Humans?
       
Some time later, in an alcove, I found a pile of papers on a desk. One of them included a note: "The complete suit was lost on KW. Raiding parties are on their way to Chronum. The real Palm is hidden behind the impostor." There was a pen with which I could write a note, but I didn't know of anything to write, so I declined. "KW" must be Kevner's World. Now it's not just a fist but a whole suit?
   
The only way down to Level 2 was by falling through the rotting timbers in an abandoned mineshaft, which I did accidentally. The Fractyr Palms--one real, one fake--were hidden in the southeast corner, protected by two energy fields. One of them halved our hit points when we walked through it. The other simply blocked us.
      
I'm not quite sure what this image is attempting to depict.
                
I had to find a generator in the southwest corner and shut it down. I believe there was a technical skill check involved. We then made our way to the Palms, each guarded by a robot. The message above had said the real one is "behind" the fake one, and indeed both of them were in adjacent squares, but I still don't know which one is real and which is fake.
     
Who needs electricity when you have a "Light" spell?
        
Some scratchings on a wall said: "When you get the chance, write 'ORACLE.'" We found stairs up to Level 1 (a hidden area with a one-way door leading back to the main part of the level). We went back to the desk we had seen previously and wrote ORACLE in the notebook. This somehow caused a door to appear on a nearby wall. Behind it was an old man. He said he'd identify equipment, but he didn't have anything interesting to say about any of our things.
      
I'd love to know the mechanism by which writing in a paper notebook causes a door to open.
      
We also had the option to feed him a keyword. I chose a random word. "You'd better bring me the word from Tonka's," he said. I don't know what that means.
    
I brought the party back to the surface and to the spaceport so we could return to Lunabase and level up. On the way to the academy, we stopped at the Alliance HQ. "Go IMMEDIATELY to Chronum," the Alliance officer said. I disobeyed orders to level up first, then returned to the starport.
    
Maybe that's just his way of telling us to get out of his office.
     
We flew to Chronum without knowing why. Nothing got any clearer when we arrived; the officer in the Alliance HQ there just said, "Welcome to Alliance Headquarters."  The starport had an armory, a medical bay, and not much else. I wasted a bunch of time mapping the rest, but I guess that's been true of every map so far. There was only one square of interest, in the center of the map, that said: "The reactor is sealed off. No one can enter from here." Maybe I didn't go "immediately" enough.
  
Having found nothing on Chronum, I wasn't sure what to do next. I returned to the starport and decided to go to Kevner's World to see if I could find that "complete suit." The manual notes that Kevner's World is the home of a "humanoid civilization caught in an era resembling Earth's medieval period." Their psionic abilities "have been mistaken for magic and spellcasting." Enemies on the planet seemed like characters and monsters from The Bard's Tale: hunters, paladins, orcs, mages, bards, and dragons. One of the weapons I looted was a Dragonsword. You have to wonder why Michael Cranford didn't just produce another fantasy RPG.
     
Living the dream.
       
On Kevner's World, the Alliance Headquarters, starport, armory, and medical bay were all in the same 2 x 2 building. In the rest of the 16 x 16 map, there were only two things to find. The first was Tonka's Tower, the home of the "Great Wizard Tonka Og." A magic mouth wanted my name for admittance, but when I gave it, it said, "Sorry, I don't know you," and kicked me out. I also tried ORACLE and TONKA to no avail.
  
The second area was the entrance to Zentek's Fortress in the southwest. There was no magic mouth here, so I entered. 
   
Level 1 was relatively linear, with three branches that each led to switchback mazes. At the end of a corridor was a skeleton whose former host had written something about assembling "the penultimate words from the magic clues."
      
You guys are taking this medieval theme too far.
     
Another branch ended in a computer terminal which let me input words. I tried various keywords to no avail, although it did seem to recognize ZENTEK. 

Level 2 led me to three magic mouths, each with a phrase:
   
  • "I smell a rat behind the spot where Zentek sat."
  • "A foe so far that never could we ever spar."
  • "The game's the thing wherein you feel the deadly sting."
        
A fourth magic mouth asked for a password, which I didn't have. I did note that ZENTEK is the penultimate word of the first phrase, so I figured the computer on the first floor wanted the words ZENTEK, EVER, and DEADLY. The problem was, I couldn't find any way to get back up to the prior floor. There were no stairs going back up at the location where I had arrived--and without the password, there was no way forward. I don't know whether that's a bug or whether I missed something. Either way, I looked up what would have happened had I fed the three words into the computer. I would have gotten the password: NAVATH. I used it to open the way to the next level.
      
I should mention that by this point, I'd acquired a couple of allies. First, I found a genie bottle at the end of a battle with some half-orcs. Using it summoned a genie to fill a party slot. Then a vampire asked to join the party. Both of them have powerful magic attacks if they can get close enough.
     
How does this look different from a vampire desiring to eat my party?
       
Level 3 was linear, but confusing enough that I mapped it manually. There were a lot of teleporters that sent us on one-way trips between individual sections of the map. It culminated in a long eastern corridor full of squares that drain health and psionics. The damage done by both can be undone by simply waiting for spell points to recharge and casting healing spells, but psionic ones come with a twist: If a character gets to 0 psionic points, he becomes stunned, a condition that (I think) is only fixable by visiting the medical bay back in the starport. 
      
My map of Zentek's fortress.
      
The end of the level had two special encounters. The first was a message that said Tonak's middle name was BUNT.
     
The second was an encounter with Zentek himself, wearing the Fractyr Suit. It took me about 6 reloads to defeat him. He was capable of some devastating magic spells, plus he could summon "stone men" which themselves had powerful magic and could kill characters with one hit in melee range. Vir was out of commission from the psi-draining squares; there was no way to avoid them or save him. Ultimately, genie and vampire were crucial in the successful battle. I ended up losing the vampire anyway.
     
That's quite a pose, Big Z.
        
Killing Zentek got me the Fractyr Suit. I had to go back through the psi-draining squares and health-draining squares to find the exit; fortunately, it teleported me back to the first level, two steps away from the stairs to the starport. I visited the medical bay and got everyone healed, then took a ship to Lunabase so I could level up. 

Back to Kevner's World, where TONKA BUNT OG got us past the magic mouth and into Tonka's fortress. 
     
I spent too long trying to find an anagram in here.
       
Tonka's place was two levels. On the first, we found a message that said: "Directions: Inverted logic . . . visit the three sequentially." This seemed to refer to three squares on the east side of the map, each of which contained a message. I didn't write down two of them exactly, but they were something like this:

  • "The hand reaches for the sword."
  • "The sword clears the sheath."
  • "The blow is struck."
 
Thus, I had to visit the squares in that order to tell the story and open the teleporter to the next level.
  
Arriving on Level 2, I was greeted with a message from Tonka. The long and annoying level only had two things. One was a message that: "The secret is contained in KNLAKRA." The other was an encounter with Tonka, wearing a Fractyr Helm. This encounter came at the end of a very long passage in which every other square had a psion-draining effect. If there's some way to protect against these, I haven't found it. Even resting for long periods along the way, I couldn't make it to Tonka's door without Morella getting stunned.
     
What kind of a name is "Tonka," anyway?
     
Tonka was about as hard as Zentek, which means it took a lot of reloads and my genie did much of the heavy lifting. Half of my success in difficult battles comes down to enemies making stupid decisions for multiple turns in a row, such as trying to use psi attacks with limited range when we're too far away. We finally got lucky with a sequence of those, killed Tonka, and took the helm.
   
Back at the Alliance headquarters on Kevner's World, the representative told us information might be waiting for us on Tau Eridani. But we went to Lunabase first to level up. It really is quite annoying that we have to do that. Then we returned to Andrini to feed that weird keyword to the Oracle. All he said was, "Why didn't you say so in the first place?" I have no idea what that accomplished.
        
Because it's a nonsense word that means nothing?
     
Combat is getting a little harder, so I probably need to take some time to grind a few levels, perhaps exploring some skills that I haven't been prioritizing. I also keep finding items with charges, but rather than taking the time to figure out what they do, I've mostly been selling them. 

At this point, I've explored about one-third of the worlds, so I guess I'm about one-third done. I haven't been able to find the right words to describe what it's like to play this game. It's not bad--it's about as much fun as The Bard's Tale--and some of the puzzles and navigational challenges are okay. There's just a general sense of cluelessness about the thing. If this were a shareware game, I'd call it "spunky," but it came from Michael Cranford and Brøderbund. It doesn't seem to be winking at its own obsolescence; indeed, it seems to be convinced that it's actually a good game. It so earnestly repeats things that worked well in a previous era, and it shows no awareness of anything else that happened during the intervening period, like Might and Magic or Dungeon Master or Pool of Radiance. It feels a little sad, frankly.
                    
But I'll stick with it and see how it goes. Maybe there are surprises on the other worlds.
   
Time so far: 11 hours
Playing out of: Still duty, like the kind of duty that forces you to read your 11-year-old son's "novel" even though it's full of cringe.