Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Around the World of Xeen

Walking around the edge of the world.
I ended my last session wondering how I should begin my explorations of Xeen, and it took me an hour or so into this session to come up with a solution, which turned out to be the most obvious solution, but that often happens in life.
I began by finishing the clean-up of Rivercity. I hadn't been able to beat the Yang Knights mid-way through the last session, and they were still tough at the beginning of this one. I could only hit them about 1 time in 15. I ended up using a lot of my gems on "Fantastic Freeze," the best offensive spell that I have at this point, plus burning through a lot of the magic items I'd collected. Their leader, "Captain Yang," was particularly difficult. But I eventually got through them and was rewarded with a couple of chests, one of which had 50,000 gold. My financial worries seem to be temporarily over. I stashed about half of what I had in the bank, along with a couple hundred gems. I don't know if you earn interest on gems, but I'm going to find out.
If I were "captain," I'd demand the more colorful armor.
After this, the outdoor explorations began. My first thought was to go "organically"--to simply role-play the party. I was in Rivercity, near the lake in which Darzog's Tower resided. One "Walk on Water" spell could take me across the waves to the tower. The tower was the site of my main quest. Why not try it?
Ah, right. That's why.
I soon came across a small island with a fisherman in a hut. He complained of "lake beasts" ruining the fish supply and wanted me to kill them. No problem; I probably would have done that anyway. I soon ran into one of those "lake beasts," looking like the Loch Ness monster. It looked back at me briefly and casually tossed off some kind of missile attack that killed everyone immediately.
So much for the "organic" way.
All right, I decided, if I'm going to be exploring the central lake last (which seemed suddenly likely), then there was an obvious exploration pattern that would get me there last: start at the outer edges of the map and work my way inward. I thought I'd make a run around the perimeter to start. I reloaded from Rivercity and took the teleportal mirror to Vertigo, which is in area F3, on the edge of F4 (maps go from A1 to F4). I walked east from there to the eastern edge of the map and then started making my way south. As I explored this literal edge, I thought of some thing my characters might do in real life, like lie down and poke our heads out over the edge to see how "thick" Xeen is. I mean, it has to be thick enough for dungeons, right? I started to ask the same questions I asked in Ultima VI. If you take a dungeon all the way through, do you experience a gravitational shift in the middle? Where does the water go? Since it seems to leave the planet, how is it ever replenished?
We caught that bottle just in time.
My exploration worked okay for a while. I finished the eastern and southern edges of F4, fighting some toads along the way, then cut through the southern boundary of E4, fending off skeletons and zombies. D4 became a problem, though. There were clusters of deadly insects called "stingers" that I could kill if I really threw everything into it, but that got exhausting quite quickly. Even by then, however, I realized this was no fun. I was losing any sense of theme to the various map areas. Even though they're comically small, the creators did take pains to give them some kind of theme.
Thus I changed my mind and did the most obvious thing. I returned to F4 and set about exploring the entire 16 x 16 map, minus a few squares to count for the ragged edges.
On the game map, F4 comprises Toad Meadow and the Witches' Tower. Toad Meadow deserved its name: it was full of giant toads, as well as giant snakes. The toads were capable of inflicting "sleep" with their tongues, but they otherwise weren't hard to kill with melee attacks. There were several locations where I could find Phirna Root for the healer outside Vertigo, but the game would only let me take one at a time. There was no one monstrous toad as the graphic on the game map suggested, which was a little disappointing.
The one non-hostile resident of Toad Meadow introduces herself.
An old woman named Valia lived in a house in the south of the meadow. "Before I die," she said, "I wish to see the witches of Toad Meadow destroyed." She went on to explain that she has spent her life hiding a unicorn named Falista from the witches, but now the unicorn has disappeared, and Valia fears that the witches have "killed her for her alacorn's magic." She gave me the key to the tower.
(Before researching this word just now, I didn't know that alicorn has been used since the 17th century to refer to the horn of the unicorn. There was a similar quest in Might and Magic III, with that spelling, but I just kept referring to the item redundantly as an "alicorn horn," thinking that alicorn was just some variant on "unicorn." The game's spelling here is a bit unorthodox and is often used to describe a unicorn-pegasus hybrid in other games.)
We found the tower in the center of the meadow. As we approached, a brief cinematic took over in which some weird guy with runes on his face said, "I see you have the key to this tower.  You may pass, mortals." A few things mildly annoyed me about this. First of all, that's not how a key works. You don't show it to someone; you insert it into a lock. Second, every time some RPG being calls me "mortal" with a sneer, I feel compelled to show him exactly what mortality means. How do these witches--who, as we're going to see, were charitably maybe Level 1--have the ability to summon an "immortal" guardian for their tower?
What is this guy's story?
Beyond that, the tower itself was easy. The witches had spells, but for the most part they didn't even damage us. They died in one hit. As we explored the four levels of the tower, we freed their prisoners from cages and opened various chests; opening the cages and chests did far more damage (and disease) to my party than the witches or their various goblin minions.
One of the more colorful enemies so far.
There were also skulls in various alcoves who provided hints and spells for gems. "Don't forget to use the levitate spell before you enter the cloud world!," one said. I didn't know what that meant until I got to the top of the tower. The roof was a small area of stone from which clouds went off in all directions. The automap indicated that I was looking at an entirely new map, not a variant of the surface map. I cast "Levitate" and walked around a bit on the clouds, and it appears that you can even move between maps up here--that the game has an entirely separate, second "map" with the same number of squares as the surface, but this one above the clouds. (Never mind the absurdity of a four-level tower poking above the clouds.) I either never knew or completely forgot about this. The subtitle makes a lot more sense.
On a particularly sunny day, I guess you can't get around this way.
One of the freed children told us the password ("Rosebud") that opened the door to where the witches had stashed the alacorn. We snatched it and returned it to Valia, who gave us all the "Crusader" skill plus experience.
F3 was next, starting with a return to Vertigo for healing (I don't have "Cure Disease" yet). Dorcas had also gotten cursed somehow. On the way, we found a bottle floating in a pond with a message from Crodo: "Help! I am in Darzog's Tower!" I believe messages-in-bottles are making their appearance here for the first and only time in a Might and Magic game. 
When psychic projections failed, Crodo resorted to more classic methods.
I had explored F4 from the outside-in, but I did F3 in east-west strips, moving north. It was a temperate region, with forests and lakes and mountains. Special encounters included:
  • A fountain that raises you five levels (in addition to the already-discovered ones that raise your hit points and armor class). I'd mention here that walking costs 10 minutes per step, so it doesn't take long to pass a day and for the fountains' effects to wear off. Fountains don't really benefit you while you're exploring; they're for visiting later, using careful timing to maximize their effects before difficult combats or indoor areas (where time passes more slowly).
  • A hermit named Orathin asked me to find his lost bone whistle, which activates two statues in the area that teach "Cure Poison" and "Cure Disease." He lost it in Pitchfork Creek, which is in E3 or E4.
  • A ranger named Derek, living in a wagon, searching for his fiancee, Celia. Zombies kidnapped her and took her into the Forest of the Walking Dead. That appears to be in E4.
  • A shrine that conferred +50 poison resistance. These shrines and fountains are useful, but I wish the creators had just made them apply to the whole party. Instead, you have to activate it and then specify each character. Who visits and only applies the bonus to one character? This is a flaw in the otherwise excellent interface.
  • Myra the Herbalist, already encountered, who mixed up several Potions of Antidotes for each Phirna Root we brought her. These were swiftly obsolete.
  • An orc outpost that I burned for experience. Not burning these outposts doesn't seem to infinitely generate more monsters the way it did in Might and Magic III. That suggests the number of experience points in this game is fixed, except perhaps for the arenas.
There were a few orcs, but I'd killed most of them in earlier sessions. The Red Dwarf Mines were the only "dungeon."
F2 showed lava, and I didn't think I was ready for that yet, so I moved down to E4, a forested area full of skeletons and zombies. I did it in north-south strips moving west. The enemy "camps" were "shrines to the undead," which we could desecrate for experience and items. I found Orothin's bone whistle among a pile of bones at the top of the map. We went back and gave it to the hermit and got 15,000 experience points plus the two spells taught by the statues.
I had to laugh at "destroy the furnishings." I pictured the party slashing couch cushions.

How, precisely?
The area's dungeon was called the Temple of Yak, continuing an unfortunate Might and Magic tradition that began with the Temple of Moo in III and will move on to the Temple of Baa in VI. Once again, there was a door guardian--some kind of orc. I had the entry item, a Stone of Yak--a cursed mermaid gave it to me while I was exploring the edge, saying she wanted me to recover a potion that would restore her tail.
A pit trap opened beneath us soon after I entered. I wasted some time with the "Jump" spell before I remembered that the "Levitation" spell would let us walk over them with impunity.
A pit trap flanked by boxes I'm too weak to open.
Regular enemies varied from easy skeletons to moderate Yak clerics and priests to tough Yak liches--the latter only coming out if I disturbed their coffins. The Yak liches were immune to magic and had a powerful "Sleep" attack. If I could keep most of my party awake for a few rounds, I could kill them with physical damage, but a couple of times they rendered all but one character comatose and then made short work of him.

Some of the enemies in this dungeon.
Other aspects of the dungeon were a bit tough. There were a bunch of crates that even my paladin couldn't open, so I'll have to come back when I have more strength (or identify a fountain for a temporary boost). One special lich, called the "Yak Master," just wiped the floor with me. I'm not entirely sure I figured out a puzzle that involved turning some switches. There were some pools to bathe in that just seemed to disease me (one gave me 25,000 experience points and then immediately killed me). I had to leave about half the dungeon for later.
This would be a good name for one of my cats.
Whoever you designate as the "opener-and-searcher-of-things" (boxes, doors, beds, piles of rags and bones) takes some serious abuse. In my party, it's Suss the Ninja. Open the door--boom, trap removes half her hit points. Search the pile of rags; she gets diseased. Open that sarcophagus; she's cursed. Search that chest--now she's unconscious and her armor is broken. 
But I did find the mermaid's Elixir of Restoration, plus a couple of coins called "King's Mega Credits." The resulting experience was enough to get us to Level 11, after which the next level seems laughably far away.
I'm enjoying Xeen, but its weaknesses seem somehow more apparent to me this time than in past games. In some ways, the world feels like a giant "to do" list, with every square a task. You just kind of mow your way through the world, accomplishing everything there is to accomplish, leaving a barren square behind you. It's almost as if you start the game on a world teeming with life, and you slowly kill all of it. Even the NPCs' huts are usually empty after you've solved their quests. Plenty of games have featured a similar approach, of course--tiled movement, nothing living in the environment except enemies, plot progression tied inextricably to geographic progression. Maybe it's the lack of any respawning that makes this one feel so extreme. Or maybe it's just become clear that it's time to move on; that Xeen is clearly the end of the line for its type of gameplay.
The ugly mermaid departs, leaving another abandoned hut on the landscape.
Man, I have got to snap out of it this week.
Time so far: 25 hours

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Magic Candle III: Already in Snuff

Traveling by "Teleport" actually saves aggregate stamina.
Our adventure this session begins with the party in Telermain, having rested and restocked (as much as their finances will allow) after exploring the Tower of Wesgar and returning with a magic mirror. We hire a ship and make our way back to the large island in the south-center of the Solian islands. I don't think I've mentioned it, but you hire ships at 50 gold pieces per day. It takes about one full day to get to the two extreme ends of the map, so you only need one or two days (an extra day is a nice buffer in case you misinterpret the map) to get where you're going. The question is whether you want the ship to hang around so you can take it back. That costs extra days. Not having a ship isn't a huge problem because the "Caravel" spell will summon one, plus there are those teleportal rooms that I still haven't used once.
The next thing I find on the island is the city of West Tasur. West and East Tasur are co-joined, but East Tasur has been overrun with the Blight, all of its houses abandoned. The western side has the usual shops and NPCs. I find the codewords of two gods in their respective temples. An NPC named Shalama tells me of her friend, Lucia, a priestess of the god Vorhamme (who forged my magic sword, Brennix). Lucia was married to the chandler of Tasur. Before they were forced to abandon their home on the east side of town, he buried a scroll next to his front door telling where to find a cache of magic candle wicks. The house should also have a supply of rubies in a chest.
I leave Fiz in the wizard's lodge studying "Felmis." In literally the next house, I find an NPC named Jarron selling "Felmis" for 1,750 coins. I don't have that much, but I mark it as a priority. An NPC named Delpina gives me the password (KAVITAR) for the dungeon of Sora on the island of Minalt, in the far southeast.
Ignoring a sign warning us away, we enter East Tasur and start exploring the buildings and fighting various blight creatures who ambush us on the streets. I'm already low on "Medicin" from curing illnesses.
The house with a chest full of rubies is the third one that we search. We dig up the scroll next to the front door and it tells us to find a building with a courtyard in the southwest corner, then search in the northeastern corner. We do so and find a magic wick. I don't know for sure what it's for, but some things said elsewhere in the game make me suspect that we're going to be constructing a new Magic Candle, probably to trap whatever demon is responsible for the Blight.
So . . . a piece of string?
Back in West Tasur, we sell the rubies for just enough money for "Felmis," so I finally don't have to worry about memorizing "Restsoul" anymore. 
We continue poking around the island. East of Eisheim, we find the sleeping place of the goddess Seine, and one of the code words I've been tracking awakens her. I forget to note what she increases for us, but one of the attributes is intelligence.
"Wait a minute. That time King Rebnard invited me to his chambers to 'wield his favorite staff' . . ."
Aside from a stronghold and a teleportal chamber, the last thing we find on the island is the ruined city of Nekros, the centerpiece of which is the Great Library of Archos. There's a locked door in the library and somebody beyond it, but we don't have his name so he won't let us in.
Some cool statues.
It's a relief when we're done with the large island. At this point, I've been moving mostly west-east, but I decide to pretend like I've been going around the islands counter-clockwise, and thus make Minalt my next stop. It has a teleportal, a stronghold, and an "ominous gateway" leading to the dungeon of Sora, which my passcode soon opens.
I wonder what happens if I yell it.
Sora is only three levels, which is a relief. All three are sectioned, with some areas only accessible from higher or lower levels or teleporters. There are a fair number of rooms, but with easy enemies. We find a handful of diamonds and other gems, which will be nice to sell. A puzzle on the second floor requires us to split the party and station three people on three different pressure plates while stepping on a fourth. This opens a wall that allows us to get to Level 3. 
Game, please. I've won Chaos Strikes Back.
On Level 3, we find a magic axe called "Meatus" that only dwarves can use. This causes some reshuffling, because now I have two magic axes and only one character with a decent skill with axes. After some angst, I give the other magic axe to Eneri so she can develop her skill with it and give her magic sword to Fiz.
A teleporter brings us to a hidden area of Level 1. An NPC ghost there (I have to cast "Soulspeak") tells us the name of the ghost in the Nekros library: GORION. This is, of course, also the name of the PC's mentor in Baldur's Gate. Given that the later game also starts in a library, I wonder if it's a deliberate homage, or if there's a source character in some fiction I haven't read. 
"But it will cost you 10,000 gold pieces or a rare book to get in."
Vorhamme's sleeping chamber is the final room of the dungeon, and we have to pass it by because we don't know his code word. We find it in literally the next place we stop. Upon doing so, we hustle back to Sora, wake up Vorhamme, and get raised in strength, carpentry, and a few other attributes.
Finished with Minalt, we move to the eastern island, starting with the city of Elport and soon moving on to the city of Tiara. This is where we finally get some information about the Blight. It comes from the east, they say, and is worst around the Tower of Hitmos (we get the password). An NPC in Tiara named Rozimel blames the Blight on Alvirex, a wizard from the "northern lands" now living in Hitmos. I don't know; "Alvirex" sure sounds like a demon's name, like "Dreax" from the original game.
We finally get a name!
Hitmos sounds like an endgame sort of place, but it's on the same island, and we have the pass code, so we decide to give it a try. But shortly after we enter, it becomes clear that I'm simply not "feeling" this game session or this entry--literally the only thing that has remotely interested me is the Gorion thing--so I think I'm just going to end it prematurely, post it so I'll have something that will go out on Sunday, and start again fresh in a couple of days. Maybe I'll do one of those ultra-detailed ones that gives the blow-by-blow of every corner of the dungeon. Some people like that.
Alvirex doesn't like halflings, I guess.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • While exploring Minalt, we ended up fighting a few battles on a surface of light volcanic ash. God, I wish all combats in this game took place on this backdrop. In nearly every battle, I miss at least one enemy because it's camouflaged by the background texture.
This makes me long for the days when we didn't try to graphically depict things.
  • The game has a severely annoying bug by which sometimes when you're wandering outdoors, it has to stop to load. When it finishes loading, everyone's energy levels drop to 0 for no reason. I have to then waste 6 Sermins.
Son(a bitch).
Next entry tomorrow to make up for the brevity of this one.

Time so far: 22 hours

Friday, February 26, 2021

Game 404: Time Traveler (1980)

Stony Brook is on Long Island. It has a decent jazz club. It's probably closed now.
Time Traveler
United States
Krell Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for Apple II, Commodore PET, and TRS-80
Expanded and released again as Odyssey in Time in 1981
Date Started: 20 February 2021
Date Ended: 21 February 2021
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Partly user-definable but ultimately easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
I rejected Time Traveler years ago, thinking it was so manifestly an adventure game that whoever categorized it as an RPG on MobyGames ought to have his account revoked. I finally sat down to BRIEF it today and discovered that I was wrong. It's not much of an RPG (but honestly, what was in 1980?), but it's certainly not an adventure game.
It is, specifically, a variant on The Wizard's Castle from the same year, where you explore a grid in which any square might hold encounters, traps, and treasure. Instead of a single map with multiple levels, there are 14 maps (each 5 x 4) in different eras of human history, ranging from ancient Egypt (1300 BCE) to World War II Germany. You play a time traveler visiting each era with a quest to retrieve a magical ring.
I can't help but hear "where to?" in the Clouds of Xeen mining cart voice.
It's an interesting concept. A modern game could have a lot of fun with it, and the player could learn a lot about history while he plays, as I inevitably do every time I pick up an Assassin's Creed. In this case, however, the various "eras" just determine what text is inserted in various encounters, all of which otherwise play exactly the same. You can envision the programming as you play:

Where A$ is set to "GEORGE WASHINGTON" in 1779 or KING RICHARD during the crusades. I don't want anyone to get the impression from these screenshots (as I originally did) that the game offered textual descriptions of various scenes in each era. It's nothing like that. You don't stroll past pyramids in ancient Egypt or get to foil Nazis in World War II. Everything that happens in the eras is purely mechanical. There isn't even a bit of flavor text describing the era when you first arrive.
I did learn one thing, however. As you arrive in each new area from the main menu, you immediately have to choose a "side" in whatever conflict they're experiencing. If you go to Denmark in 1000, it's the Vikings or the villagers. Japan in 1790 puts you between samurai and peasants. For 50 BCE Rome, you choose between Caesar and the "aristocrats." "England 1644" has you choose between "roundheads" and "cavaliers." I vaguely knew that the year would have been during the English Civil War, but I didn't know those were the terms, respectively, for supporters of parliament and supporters of Charles I. So that's something.
You face this same type of choice as you enter each era.
After making your selection, you arrive in a random square on the 20-square grid. Each era has the same selection of potential squares: dock, house, arsenal, treasury, prison, barracks, market, field, [local ruler's] headquarters, cave, town square. Some of these have buildings which offer an additional set of encounters inside. You start each era unarmed and with 1,000 gold pieces; any weapons or wealth you amassed in your last era disappears when you leave.
The game tells you what you see in your current area, which can include any combination of the following: a crowd of commoners, guards, a sign, gold, weapons, or one of the rings. The latter three options only show up if your last action was to search. After seeing what each square holds, you have a number of potential options. I'm going to list them all out because I otherwise couldn't find a manual, and someone might come along needing assistance. Your success in all of these areas is influenced by a "difficulty" variable that you can set from 1 to 6 at the outset of the game.
  • B)ribe: If there are guards in the area, this will make them go away. You want to do this to avoid them spontaneously attacking you, or to get them to stop blocking the way into a structure in that square.
  • D)rop weapons. The only reason I can think to do this is that sometimes guards won't let you into a building if you're armed.
  • F)ight. Gets rid of guards the old fashioned way.
  • G)o. Leave the square by going any cardinal direction or IN or OUT of a building. If you're in a market square, you can also attempt to go to your time machine.
  • I)nformation about what rings you've collected and which are still outstanding.
  • M)ap
The game map.
  • P)ersuade. If there's a group of commoners in the square, you can try to get them to join you. Success depends on your "eloquence" skill (and maybe whether you sided with the "commoner" faction), which goes up if you pass and down if you fail. Once allies join you, they remain in your party for the duration of the era and make combat a lot easier.
  • Q)uit the game.
  • R)ead a sign. Sometimes you can't read it; sometimes it says "Keep off the Grass"; sometimes it tells you where to find the era's ring.
Signs aren't always accurate, but I think this one was.
  • S)earch. This is how you find gold, weapons, and the ring. 
  • T)ake anything that came up during a search. If you take weapons, the game will show you as "armed" from that point, and your chances of surviving combat improve. The same goes for your group.
  • U)se the power of a ring. More on this below.
  • W)ait. Causes a turn to pass. This happens automatically if you don't act within a few seconds.
There are a number of spontaneous things that can occur, too. You can experience a "time machine malfunction" that whisks you suddenly to a new era. An informant can turn up and offer to tell you the location of a ring for a certain amount of gold. Guards can demand half your wealth in taxes. The local ruler can spontaneously order your arrest (this seems less likely if you sided with his faction). Finally, guards can just decide to attack you for no reason.
That's gratitude for you.
Combat is resolved automatically. As it begins, you're told how many people are on your side how many are on theirs, and whether either side is armed. The game automatically calculates a probability of winning based on these variables, generates the appropriate random numbers, and tells you the result. If you win, your "combat skill" variable goes up; if you lose, it goes down. Your "health" may also go up or down. If you win, generally all that you "gain" is that there are no more guards on the screen. If you lose, you might be imprisoned in the "prison" square and have to escape or fight your way free. You can also die, but the time machine rescues you and zaps you to a new era when that happens.
I hadn't picked up the weapons yet, so I'm unarmed with a low combat skill. My probability of winning is just 40%.
Here, I have allies, weapons, and a much higher score.
As you can imagine, your success in each era depends partly on strategy but a lot on luck. You might arrive in an era and immediately get approached by an informant who, for 800 gold pieces, tells you that the ring is in a market. A market square is one move away from your starting square. You go there, search, find the ring, and immediately GO to your time machine and make your escape.
On the other hand, you might spend a dozen rounds manually searching each square, finding no allies, getting no informants or helpful signs, fighting off packs of guards ordered to arrest you, eventually defeated and imprisoned, stripped of weapons and gold, stuck in a loop where you can't seem to get free of the prison but the guards won't actually kill you.
Stuck in an Italian prison with a low probability of fighting my way free.
The good news is that you can't die, so there's no way to lose permanently. Even on the highest difficulty, you just have to roll with the punches until you can start fresh in a new era, where you might get lucky. I found that a good strategy was to try to enlist allies as soon as possible and find weapons to arm them. That way, I could usually explore most of the map with a high probability of winning any combats that came along. The bad news is that there's no way to save, so you do have to win in a reasonable time if you don't want to keep the program running permanently.
I pay for a hint.
Each of the rings has a useful power that you can invoke if you're carrying it, and you can carry up to three rings between eras. I admire some of the clever things that the author made the rings do within its limited mechanics:
  • The Ring of Thoth (Egypt) ensures you can always read signs.
  • The Ring of Hammurabi (Babylon) increases your eloquence.
  • The Ring of Solon (Athens) speeds up healing.
  • The Ring of Romulus (Rome) helps you locate other rings.
I find the Ring of Romulus in a marketplace
  • The Ring of Joshua (Jerusalem) makes you invulnerable.
  • The Ring of Rune (Denmark) lets you warp out of the era and back to the time machine from anywhere, with perfect success.
  • The Ring of Paul (Crusades) does something called "anachrony." I have no idea.
  • The Ring of Augustus (Italy) stops the other rings from disappearing. See below.
  • The Ring of Alfred (England) lets you escape prison with 100% success.
  • The Ring of Eagles (USA) increases your gold.
  • The Ring of Gaul (France) slows time or something. I never tried it.
  • The Ring of Jimmu (Japan) automatically searches as you move around squares.
  • The Ring of Nevsky (Russia) lets you start each era with weapons.
  • The Ring of Loki (Germany) makes you invisible.
The problem with carrying all of the rings is that there's a good chance that they'll disappear or get stolen and return to their own eras. Having the Ring of Augustus stops this from happening, I guess, but I always got nervous carrying the rings and generally found the best strategy was to deposit them in my time vault as soon as I could, ensuring I didn't have to replay their eras. (Once you deposit a ring, you can't pick it up again.) I won on a difficulty level of 3, and I suppose at a higher level, it might be necessary to make the rings a greater part of your strategy. Romulus and Rune would be a particularly potent combination: Warp in, find the ring, and immediately warp out. But without Augustus, you probably lose one or both of them in short order. Augustus with either Romulus or Rune might be better.
Unfortunately, nothing happened after I had found and deposited all 14 rings. I'm not sure if there was something else to do, as I never found a copy of the manual. I did inspect the code, and there's a line that tells the program to flash "THE GAME IS OVER," but my interpretation of the rest of the code is that you would never reach that particular line. Then again, my knowledge of even BASIC is only, well, basic. I can't otherwise find any winning text in the program, so I'm going to call it a win anyway. I'll score it as a 15 on my GIMLET, with 1s and 2s in all categories.
I got and deposited all of them. I don't know what the game wants me to do. (I think the asterisks mean that you don't to "Use" those rings; their powers are active as long as you possess it.)
I didn't have a great time with Time Traveler, but it was almost . . . acceptable. With a few more variables, a little more use of the themes of the eras, and a little more complexity, this could have been a decent game. It perhaps was for 1980. A reviewer named Terry Romine covered it in the first issue of Computer Gaming World and gave it a medium-rare review, ultimately concluding that "after a person develops a strategy, the game will quickly become a series of stale replays." In the December 1980 issue of Dragon, Mark Herro says that when he started to play, he intended to "roast" the game, but later had some fun as he tried to figure out the best approach through the eras. Still, the idea that this game sold for the equivalent of $80 today ($24.95 in 1980) is mind-blowing.
This ad clip shows Krell selling the upgrade alongside the original.
We've seen New York-based Krell Software before, most recently with Sword of Zedek (1981). That game used a similar approach--grid-based exploration with a variety of potential encounters in each square, including the ability to P)ersuade groups of monsters to join as allies. The "Search" and "Take" functions are essentially the same between the two games, and combat is resolved similarly. I'm relatively sure they were programmed by the same author.  The company was around only a short time (roughly 1980-1983) and never developed anything graphical. In 1981, they repackaged Time Traveler as Odyssey in Time, which offered 10 additional eras and a save feature for $39.95, or about $120 in today's dollars. I was unable to find it, but unless it offers a lot new, I'm not particularly interested in finding another 10 rings.
I had a major project due this week, so you might see another "easy" one before I get back into either of my primary games.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

World of Xeen: Tired of Getting Sand Kicked in Your Face?

RPG combat or Broadway production?
One of the joys of the entire Might and Magic series is that it exemplifies the atavistic desire, inherent in RPGs in general, to get knocked down, get stronger, and get revenge. All of the games in the series have moments when you come face-to-face with enemies who used to scare you--sometimes hours later, sometimes only minutes because in the meantime you managed to level up twice, or find particularly useful fountain, or learn a new spell. Such moments, promised by Charles Atlas ads, are maddeningly elusive in real life.
This session began as I wrapped up the starting city, Vertigo. Most of it took place in two areas: the interconnected mines of the Red Dwarf Range and the city of Rivercity. I had access to the former because it was right outside the gates of Vertigo, and the latter because each city's magic mirror will teleport you wherever you want to go if you know the name of the location. I knew about Rivercity from one of the tavern patrons in Vertigo.
I tried the outdoors first. The gates of Vertigo dumped me into overland map area F3, at coordinates 10, 12. The game maps shows this on the far eastern side of the map. For the first time in Might and Magic history, the world map doesn't wrap. [ed. I was wrong; it doesn't wrap in MM3 either, but the world there is meant to be spherical.] Instead, a black void forms the borders of the roughly-square land. The center of the map has a large lake with Castle Burlock on the northeast shore and Darzog's Tower on an island in the middle. From there, the map is divided into quadrants--a desert to the northwest, a volcanic wasteland to the northeast, an icy tundra to the southwest, and a forest to the southeast. There are depictions of elemental lords in the corners, and I wonder if they'll play a role here as they did in Might and Magic II. There are also representations of creatures that are probably real creatures, like a giant in the tundra and a pegasus in the desert. In other words, it's the usual colorful, densely-packed Mike Winterbauer map.
The light side of Xeen.
I couldn't explore it openly yet because my characters lacked sufficient skills in "Pathfinding," "Mountaineering," and "Swimming." The first two require only two characters in the party to be trained; the latter requires all characters to have it. I had only found the trainer for "Pathfinding" (in Vertigo), and he wanted a hefty 2,500 gold pieces. 
Yep, that looks like a mad dwarf.
So instead of immediately lawnmowing my way around the area, I just started poking around the areas I could reach. I immediately started getting attacked by orcs. They were harder to hit than I imagined, though I did start with some pretty miserable "Accuracy" statistics. They also had some kind of breath attack that didn't seem to do anything to me, so perhaps it was just an animation.

Picking my way along the mountains, I found the entrance to a dungeon. As I approached, a dwarf appeared on the screen and announced, "Step right up! This way to the action-packed, treasure-filled mines of the Red Dwarf range!" The mayor in Vertigo had said that the dwarves were facing an invasion from the "Mad Dwarf" clan and had asked for help, so I entered.
Once was funny; every time I entered, not so much.
The mines were a good introduction to the game's dungeoneering conventions. They consisted of five regular mines and four "deep" mines, none of them terribly large or hard to navigate. The mines were connected by mining carts that say, "Where to?" and ask you to type in a location. Scraps of paper found amidst bones have the codes for the upper mines: MINE 1, MINE 2, MINE 3, MINE 4, and MINE 5. There's one scrap of paper in each of these that has part of the name of the first deep mine, ALPHA. From there, you find scraps of paper with the names THETA, KAPPA, and OMEGA, although once you figure out the pattern, you could probably guess your way there. I found that the mirror back in Vertigo will happily take you to any mine, but to get back, you need to return to MINE 1 and take the exit.
This guess didn't work out.
All of these areas had roughly the same features:
  • Monsters. They consisted of mad dwarves, giant bats, giant spiders, and tiger moles. None of them were very hard, but accumulations of battles were enough that I couldn't complete more than a level or two at a time without returning to Vertigo for rest and healing. I don't have a "Cure Poison" spell yet, so every poisoning (from giant spiders or traps) means a return to town to a temple. Also, the mad dwarves concentrated their attacks on my own dwarf, Suss, which got her knocked out and her armor broken quite frequently.
Tiger moles come bursting out of a box.
  • Barrels, full of liquids of different colors. Drinking gives you a +2 permanent boost in the attribute associated with that color. This can only be done once per barrel. These barrels first appeared in Might and Magic III, and they will continue to appear, with the same color associations, through at least Might and Magic VIII. My typical approach is to try to balance the party by giving the barrel to whoever has the lowest figure in a particular attribute. Since personality (blue) and intelligence (orange) are wasted on non-spellcasters, I generally only let spellcasters drink those barrels.
In Might and Magic VI, these barrels will actually respawn.
  • Crates. Wooden boxes appear plentifully among the upper mines. I got sick of messages saying I was too weak to open them, and I ended up letting Saoirse, my paladin, drink all the red barrels until she was strong enough to do it. A strength of 24 turned out to be sufficient. Most of the crates were empty, but some had caches of weapons and armor, and some released tiger moles.
I would think that our weapons would be enough.
  • Mining veins. Ends of corridors often had sparkling veins of gold that I could mine, sometimes three or four times, for various amounts of gold. But there's a chance of a damaging cave-in each time you try to mine the ore.
A lucky lode late in this session.
  • Chests. More significant treasure was found in these.
  • Locked doors and grates. You can bash these, taking inevitable (but small) damage, and earning no experience--or you can try to have the robber or ninja pick them for experience but also the risk of significant damage, sometimes even death. I've never been sure how the thief is taking damage in these situations. Does she slip and stab herself with the lockpick?
  • Secret doors. These must be bashed. You identify them automatically with the associated skill, which causes the little lizard on the lower-right part of the view window to wave his arm frantically.
  • Traps. The most infuriating parts of the game are the invisible, unavoidable, undisarmable traps that you have to cross, sometimes repeatedly. The ones in Might and Magic III at least had blades on pendulums and such, so you could see them. These just shoot fire or gas out of the ground, often both damaging and poisoning the party. "Jump" is supposed to help you cross them safely, when you know they're there, but it failed every time I tried to cast it.
A trap gets me again.
The mines beat me down after a while, so I took a break from them to explore other areas. I met an herbalist named Myra who offered me potions for Phirna root. I killed some more orcs and got special experience for destroying their "observation post." Most important, I found a couple of fountains near Vertigo's entrance, one which gives you a temporary 25 hit points, and the other of which gives you a temporary +5 boost to armor class.
These would be nice in real life.
These fountains, plus the bonuses from donating at temples, proved to be key to clearing these early areas. You have to time them right. Enhancements always disappear at 05:00, so you want to get them immediately after that to get a full 24 hours out of them.
I activated one of the pyramids and found my party transported to the city of Castleview on the Darkside of Xeen. I immediately hustled to another pyramid to get back, but not before Myra's counterpart, an herbalist named Zelda, shoved a Dragon Pharaoh's Orb in our hands and said we should take it to someone named Ellinger.
Whoops! I think I'm here too early.
Back in Vertigo, I took the magic mirror to Rivercity, which a Vertigo tavern patron had assured me was "full of action." I immediately met that town's primary opponent, insane beggars, which have a melee attack that drives characters insane. To avoid bankrupting myself at the temple, I adopted a "shoot first" policy, the moment I saw them in the distance. The city also had a lot of robbers--much harder enemies that I couldn't defeat without the fountain and temple bonuses.
Trouble with a capital "T," and that rhymes with "B," and that stands for "beggar."
The robbers were cash cows, delivering 200 gold each. That wasn't quite enough to keep up with the excellent training offered by various desks and tents in the city, including "Armsmaster," "Bodybuilding," "Mountaineering," "Navigation," and "Swimming." The latter was pretty cheap, though, and I did ultimately give it to all my characters so they could finish exploring Rivercity itself, which has a large harbor, including a back entrance that leads to the ocean outside. A brief foray outside showed me that the city is in map C3, at the south end of the world's central lake.
So, like, 10 feet?
The town's quest involved the recovery of a magical pendant for Barak the Sorcerer. That name seems familiar, but I might be thinking of Baruk the Sorcerer from the Malazan books, or perhaps a former U.S. President whose first name was "Barack." He said it was stolen by some "sorceresses." (There was some slightly deeper plot involving Barak, as tavern rumors said that the tavern had hired the sorceresses to run him out of town, but the reasoning behind this was never explained.) They were in the northwest section of town. They were capable of casting a fireball spell that damaged all my characters, so it was important to close quickly with them, avoiding walking in the same column or row when they were in the distance. Once in melee range, they were pretty easy.
Probably best not to make any comment at all.
In a room full of treasure chests that each imparted 1 gold and 1 gem, I found one that had Barak's pendant, which I returned. My reward was the "Enchant Item" spell. More important, he removed the poison from Rivercity's central well, which now gave a 100 point bonus to spell points, making the rest of this area (and the mines) much easier, as my paladin and druid were able to cast a lot more "Cure Wounds" spells before having to rest.
In the southwest, blue robbers gave way to black "robber bosses." Defeating them all netted me a chest with 5,000 gold and 100 gems and a second chest with 1,000 gold and Princess Roxanne's Tiara. That's one quest I'll be able to solve immediately.
This early in the game, this is a nice reward.
The mid-west section of town, behind the training hall, had a bunch of fearsome foes called "yang knights" that I was unable to touch, let alone defeat. Saving them for later, I leveled up, drank from the bonus fountains, got blessed by the temple, and returned to finish the mines.
I'll be back.
The deep mines were much the same as the first five, although more spread out. There were a couple of corpses that somehow gave everyone "Danger Sense," "Direction Sense," and "Cartographer."
This is a skill I naturally have. I think it comes from all the years working with maps.
The vein walls got a lot more lucrative, some delivering over 5,000 gold their first try, and descending amounts after that. The final battles were in deep mine Omega, where I met a number of mad dwarf clan sergeants and ultimately the clan king. After I killed him (I forgot to take a screen shot, but he looked like a regular mad dwarf, just a different color), we returned to Vertigo's mayor for our reward: The Red Dwarf Badge of Courage and 50,000 experience points.
If you want a sad story, read about the life of Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage (1895).
I had well over 75,000 gold by now, so I visited all the trainers in Vertigo and Rivercity, and got the party trained in the navigation skills they need. I also visited the two guilds in the cities and got caught up on spells. I couldn't quite buy all of them, but I got the vital "Cure Paralysis," "Power Cure," and "Cure Poison" spells for my cleric spellcasters and "Lloyd's Beacon" for my druid. I also got "Day of Protection" for my paladin and "Day of Sorcery" for my sorcerer. These are extremely useful high-level spells making their first appearance in the series. "Day of Protection" simultaneously casts "Light," "Protection from Air," "Protection from Earth," "Protection from Fire," "Protection from Water," "Heroism," "Holy Bonus," and "Bless." "Day of Sorcery" simultaneously casts "Light," "Levitate," "Wizard Eye," "Clairvoyance," and "Power Shield." I'm astonished to have them both this early in the game.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • It occurred to me during this session that neither Rivercity nor Vertigo has a dungeon. I think this is the first time in the series that its cities don't have dungeons. 
  • The Rivercity trees mostly say, "What did you expect, money?" when you search them, which is making fun of the trees in Vertigo, I guess. But occasionally one of them does have money. Screw you, Rivercity trees.
  • I think the mad dwarf/clan sergeant/clan king trio might be the first appearance of the famous Might and Magic "triad." If we had something that fits the bill in III, let me know, but I don't remember any. These triads are groups of progressively harder enemies that have the same icons, but with slightly different colors or decorations. By Might and Magic VI, every non-unique enemy in the game will be one of three flavors.
  • I'm not sure the developers didn't over-do it a bit on the sound. Was III this loud? If so, I must have played with the sound very low or off a lot of the time. Every combat is a cacophony of clangs, screams, and thuds.
  • My characters all ended this session at Level 8 or 9.  
My paladin at the end of the session, before we bought all the skills and spells.
  • I found modest item upgrades throughout the session, including the first accessories (e.g., steel necklaces, iron rings), some of which might not do anything. I've found two attribute-enhancing items: a rapid broach [sic] and a chance charm. Suss has a shocking hammer, which does some extra electrical damage, and Grey Witch has a frost dagger. I haven't found any missile weapons that my druid or sorcerer can use.
  • I haven't tried it yet, but apparently saying WARZONE to the mirrors will take you to an arena.
  • As you can see, I didn't make any changes to my starting party after the first entry, no matter how much good advice you may have given. This is because I scheduled that entry to post almost 10 days after I finished writing it. I got impatient waiting for it to be published and played this second session. I may still replace a character or two; I can probably make up experience in the WARZONE.
  • In the next paragraph, I use the phrase "more bad-ass." My grammar checker wants me to replace it with "worse-ass."
With no active quests, I have to decide how next to proceed. I'm trying to think of an original approach. I could lawnmow using a variety of patterns and from a variety of starting points. I could role-play and try to head directly for Darzog's Tower and the source of my dreams. I could go to the magic mirror and start feeding in destinations from the game map. I could even use the pyramids to try out the opening city in Darkside. Whatever I do, I'm sure I'll be too weak for some of the areas, but I definitely feel a lot more bad-ass at the end of this session than when I started.
Time so far: 7 hours