Saturday, May 25, 2019

Game 328: The Kingdom of Syree (1992)

The game starts with an Ultima IV-like scene except that unlike Ultima IV, nothing happens in the view window.
The Kingdom of Syree
United States
Everlasting Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 20 May 2019

The moment I fire up a game and see that it's an Ultima clone, I subject it to the "(Z)tats Test." This involves hitting the "Z" key on the keyboard. If doing so produces a screen with the character statistics, I know I'm not dealing with some half-assed "inspired by the look and feel" title like Questron. Any game that passes the "(Z)tats Test" is a proper goddamned clone. There's going to be a wizard with a freaking gem. There's going to be boats with cannons. There's going to be mantras.
The Kingdom of Syree is about as much of an Ultima clone as you can get. It not only passes the "(Z)tats Test" but the "(K)limb Test" besides. It's so much of a clone that "T" stands for "Transact" rather than the more obvious "Talk." It has a main menu command titled "Return to the View" even though the view doesn't actually show anything happening. We're dealing with a developer who took a desire to be unoriginal, doubled down on it, and then doubled down again.
A bunch of clerics chant a mantra around a fire. I think I've seen this before.
As for that developer, I spent a long time following a trail of breadcrumbs and eventually concluded that it is one Thomas Himinez, currently a writer, actor, and script editor for The Doctor Who Audio Dramas, an audio spinoff of the long-running television series. He would have been 25 when The Kingdom of Syree was published. There is no primary author credit in the game except for the company (Everlasting Software), but it is said to be based on three books called The Lost King of Syree, The Sword of Syree, and A Queen for Syree by "Lord Steven." A simple Google search shows that these books never existed in published form, although the first one is quoted on, of all things, a legal discussion forum for landlords. The poster on the forum is named "Lighthope," which is also the name of an NPC in The Kingdom of Syree. Meanwhile, the only publications I can find by "Lord Steven" are a series of books called Tigers' Quest, which were turned into audio plays and films, directed by Thomas Himinez of "Everlasting Films," who according to one magazine goes by the AKA "Lighthope." Q.E.D., as they say. Sorry for the digression, but the authorial mystery was more interesting than the game.
The Kingdom of Syree takes place a few decades after the nation of Syree, in the Land of Sheol, threw off a tyrannical ruler named Rancit in favor of a good king named Telbor. Telbor has ruled for 30 years in wisdom and peace, but now the beat of war drums pulses over the hillsides, and monsters have been appearing across the land. This leads to my favorite paragraph in the backstory:
The court wise men soon discovered that the evil was not the work of some warmonger seeking to overthrow the kingdom, but rather the work of a powerful, malevolent wizard. The approaching storm marked his growing power. Secretly, this wizard worked his evil magic, growing in power every day. What his intentions were were obvious: the conquest of Syree.
Got that? It's not a warmonger seeking to overthrow the kingdom; it's a wizard seeking to conquer Syree! The distinction is clear. Anyway, no knights have gone off in pursuit of the wizard, although many heroes have embarked on quests to find him. These heroes have not all failed to return, although none of them have ever come back.
Not only do I start off with just a dagger and cloth armor, the dagger isn't even christened.
Character creation consists only of a name. The character is assigned 20 points each in strength, agility, and stamina, and starts the game with 100 food, 100 gold, 100 hit points, a dagger, and cloth armor.  He starts next to the town of Ludden, which is apparently his home town, given the number of NPCs who say "welcome home" when he talks to them. There's also a large house with his name written on it, which I admit is something I've never seen in Ultima or any other Ultima clone.
This is rather cool, if also a little ostentatious.
NPC interaction is a mix between the one-liners of Ultima II and III and the keyword-based dialogue of Ultima IV. When you find yourself talking to the latter type of NPC, he of course responds to NAME and JOB, and then you can usually pick up the rest of the keywords from those responses.
Shops in town sell weapons, armor, food, ale, and a night's rest. Food is crazy expensive--like 15 gold pieces per ration, although rations admittedly deplete slowly.
It will be a long time before I can afford that plate mail.
The NPC discussions in Ludden centered around the attribute of agility. One NPC warned me that adventurers with low agility won't survive long; another said that the guards are very agile people and I should ask them about it. It ultimately transpired that a cleric named Shalea was searching for a mantra, and if I could give it to him, he would give me a spell to raise my agility. I found some other clerics chanting the word--AHRHEM--and fed it to Shalea, who gave me a one-use spell word that raised my agility to 60.
That was a big boost.
Lacking anything else to do in my home town, I began exploring the continent. Like any good Ultima clone, Syree is a twisting landscape of peninsulas, islands, mountain ranges, and forests, with vision often obscured by terrain. Combat is relatively rare, and with the types of monsters you're used to from Ultima, including skeletons, thieves, and evil clerics. Combat regresses to the original Ultima: you just hit (A)ttack and specify a direction. Presumably, once I learn how to cast spells, I'll be able to do that, too.
Fighting a thief just north of a dungeon entrance.
There's no inflation of experience here. A thief is worth 1 point, a cleric 2, a skeleton 3, and so forth. There doesn't appear to be any fixed leveling. Instead, your experience points are continually added to your maximum hit points, although using a formula that I haven't yet figured out. (Since the game began, I've earned 53 experience but only 21 additional max hit points, if that helps.) Hit points restore slowly as you move around, or you can pay healers and inns to restore them faster.

An NPC eventually told me that there are 5 towns, 3 villages, and 2 castles to explore, but only a few are accessible from the starting mainland: Ludden, Emara ("City of Kings"), and Barren Sheol. There's a castle, but I'm unable to enter because apparently peasants just can't go entering castles--which makes sense when you think about it. I always thought it was odd that just anyone could wander into Lord British's throne room and bedchambers.
How rude.
Among my explorations, I learn that EIDO is some kind of mapping spell, I can learn about magic in the town of Lost (which is rumored to be just a rumor), and that I'll need keys to jimmy locks.
An apprentice cartographer gives me a spell name.
There is one dungeon (Mysti) accessible on the opening mainland. Dungeons break the Ultima style by being top-down, but movement is a little different because dungeons track facing direction while the outdoor areas and towns do not. The facing direction determines who you're attacking when you hit "A" and down which hallways you can see. It also creates a bit of a "stutter" as you move around, because when you change direction you have to hit the appropriate arrow key twice. It's innovative but not terribly necessary.

Dungeons have both monsters and chests, and they respawn when you leave and return. Chests on Level 1 seem to have 0-10 gold pieces; those on Level 2 have 11-20, and so forth. It's pretty easy, if time consuming, to enter, grab a lot of gold, leave, and get healed if necessary. Slowly, I upgraded from a dagger and cloth to a mace and leather, and soon I'll have a sword and chainmail. This opening phase seems to be largely about improving weapons, armor, and maximum hit points, and then ultimately saving enough gold for a boat.
Fighting a cleric in a dungeon.
The Kingdom of Syree is hardly the worst Ultima clone, or even worst game, that we've seen, but it just happens to reach me at a time when I'm thoroughly exhausted with this particular sub-genre. At least, unlike The Seventh Link, it doesn't appear this one is going to take very long. The game files themselves suggest about 10 towns and castles and a few dungeons. If I can wrap it up in two, that will be good.
Time so far: 3 hours

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Journey: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

The winning screen you've been desperately anticipating for 8 years.
United States
Infocom (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for DOS, Amiga, Apple II, and Macintosh
Date Started: 20 March 2011
Date Finished: 21 May 2019
Total Hours: 23 (including 9 in 2011)
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
Yeah, this one requires some explanation.
I was sitting around the other night trying to decide what game to play with the couple hours I had available. I had made some progress with Kingdom of Syree but wasn't loving it (it's another Ultima clone), and I was holding out hope I could dispense with it in a single entry. The self-imposed deadline for my next entry was looming and it didn't look like I'd be able to win that fast. At the same time, I wasn't keen to start on a complicated game like Darklands. So I did a quick scan of all the games I'd skipped and abandoned over the years to see if I could find a quick win. House of Usher (1980) looked promising, then The Amulet (1983), but both ended up as "NP" (and on my "Missing and Mysterious" list) when I couldn't get them to emulate.

My eyes then fell on Journey, an adventure game that I blogged about in 2011. By the time I was a few hours into it, I realized it wasn't even really an RPG (and MobyGames has since removed that designation). But I'd numbered and rated it anyway, so its loss was counting against my statistics. I began to wonder what the problem was. How hard is it to win a freaking adventure game? Why would I have abandoned it? Was I too proud to get a hint? How long could it possibly take to turn this loss around? That last question was particularly important because, as often happens, at this point I had spent longer trying to find a "quick win" than it would have taken me to just play a regular game.
Infocom called this a "role-play chronicle." What does that even mean?
I read my first and second entries from 2011 and began to remember the title, as well as the core problem: you have to reach the endgame with a sufficient number of reagents still in your possession, or you can't cast the final spells necessary to win. Since there are a fixed number of reagents to find during the game and plenty of opportunities to use them, you can put yourself in a "walking dead" situation as early as the first 5 minutes and not know until you reach the end, two or three hours later. I was apparently so disgusted with that prospect that I refused to re-start and took the loss. I was more willing to do that in 2011 than I am now.

So I restarted Journey with a willingness to play it through a couple of times if necessary, and it wasn't long before my "quick win" had taken over not just my few allotted hours but rather the entire afternoon, evening, and night until about 03:00. During this time, I restarted not once or twice but about 30 times, filled pages with notes about cause and effect, broke down and consulted two walkthroughs and still couldn't win because the walkthroughs were wrong, and finally--14 hours after I started--ended up with the set of actions necessary to get a party from the beginning to the end. And make no mistake--there really is only one.
In case you forgot, Journey is the game that canonically establishes that orcs and grues are the same thing.
By the end, I had a much clearer picture of the game than I did in 2011, and I reached an obvious conclusion that I'm surprised I missed back then: this is the worst adventure game ever made.
Journey hides this fact with nice graphics and typical Infocom-quality prose, but the game's approach is all wrong--fundamentally an insult to anyone who cut his teeth on both text adventures like Zork and graphical adventures like King's Quest. Every option it suggests is a complete sham, every hint of an RPG influence a complete farce. And its story isn't even that original--so much is lifted from Tolkien that he ought to have a co-author credit.
I feel like I've seen this somewhere before . . .
Journey (whose subtitle of The Quest Begins exists only on the box, not the game screens) tells the story of a ragtag band of village peasants who set off on a quest to determine why their crops have failed and their water has gone foul. A better-equipped, better-qualified band, led by the village blacksmith, Garlimon, left the same village the previous year and was never heard from again. This new effort is headed by the village carpenter, Bergon, and includes a wizard named Praxix, a physician named Esher, and a young apprentice food merchant named Tag. The game is mostly told from Tag's perspective, and the game lets you rename him in its one nod to RPG-like "character creation."
The party later finds Garlimon insane and living as a hermit.
The title differs from previous Infocom outings in that you do not type any of the commands. Instead, you select them with the arrow keys from an interface that distinguishes between high-level party commands (most of which move you to a new place or situation) and micro-level individual commands, aspected to the skills and abilities of each character. Thus, the party leader, Bergon, can almost always "Ask for Advice." Praxix has a perpetual "Cast" option, and Tag has most of the inventory options. I find the interface inoffensive, but not as revolutionary as the developers were clearly intending.
Some of the options in dealing with a party of orcs.
The party's initial quest is simply to find their way to a powerful wizard named Astrix who lives on Sunrise Mountain. Once they arrive, Astrix explains that the land is being threatened by the return of the Dread Lord, and he gives the party a quest to find seven magical stones. They must first find four (Nymph, Wizard, Dwarf, and Elf), which will lead them two others, which will lead to the final one, called the Anvil. Astrix believes that the stones are the key to defeating the Dread Lord. In their quest to find them, the party has to negotiate with dwarves, befriend elves, defeat bands of orcs, and explore ancient tombs. In these adventures, they make use of the special skills of several NPCs that swap in and out of the party.
Astrix gives the party its final quest.
If they recover the first six stones, Astrix tells them to seek the Anvil on the Misty Isle. The party must travel to the port city of Zan, dodge agents of the Dread Lord, and convince a captain to take them to the Misty Isle. Praxix has to cast some spells to help the ship navigate. Eventually, the ship crashes on the island and the Dread Lord attacks. Praxix is knocked unconscious, and Tag must figure out how to mix the right reagents to call a lightning bolt and smite the Dread Lord.
Tag saves the party in the final combat.
Just about every episode has some Tolkien source, though mercifully not in the same order as The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. There's a dwarven mine that recalls Moria and an escape that not only feels but also looks like the bridge at Khazad-dûm. Another moment recalls the discovery of Balin's tomb. A ranger named Minar joins the party early on in an Aragornesque episode. There are echoes of Gandalf in Astrix and of Bilbo in the initially-hapless but ultimately-competent Tag. There's an episode that mirrors the Fellowship hiding from evil crows, and a tense episode in a tavern at the end that recalls the hobbits in the inn at Bree (the solution even involves turning one of them invisible). There's a Tom Bombadil-like figure named Umber whose nature remains a mystery until the end. The Dread Lord is, of course, an exact analogue of Sauron, and the stones are the game's equivalent of rings.
Crebain from Dunland!
Tag, just like Frodo, freaks out when he sees some suspicious characters in the Prancing Pony. If they stay at the inn tonight, the party will be killed.
The whole thing is reasonably well-written and would make a serviceable young adult novel, but as a game, it's nothing but endless frustration. Here is a small list of its sins:

1. It is completely linear. The one saving grace of difficult adventure games is that they are rarely linear. Usually, you can move back and forth between locations and solve puzzles in a variety of orders, taking the time to figure out what must be done in each place. Journey subverts this tradition entirely. You have to choose the right options the first time you arrive in a new location or you cannot return. For instance, there's one castle where you have the option to go to a left room or a right room. If you go to the right room, you see a chest full of jewels. If you're not exactly sure what to do there and leave the room, you can never enter it again. This happens repeatedly throughout the game.
The second screen invites you to enter a tavern or "Proceed" down the street. In any other adventure game you've ever played, if you proceed down the street, you can later turn around and go back to the tavern. Not here. Hit "Proceed," and you're out of town and on your way. It's pretty easy to hit some of these options accidentally, by the way; one too many ENTERs while scrolling through text will accidentally activate the default option on the next screen. An "undo" option could have helped a lot.

2. A "Back" option doesn't really take you "back." Most screens have a "back" option, and sometimes this returns you to a previous screen so you can choose a different direction. But much of the time, it serves as simply another way to go, usually one-way.
A simple choice to go left or right has enormous consequences for the rest of the game.
3. You're almost always walking dead. As I previously mentioned, if you don't reach the end of the game with the right number of spell reagents, you can't win. It is very easy to miss some of the reagents that you might otherwise pick up along the way, and also very easy to accidentally burn too many reagents casting spells. One of the options that burns too many reagents, by the way, is asking the wizard to "Tell the Legends" of magic. Usually, the "Tell Legends" option produces some useful lore about the game world, but if you ask him about magic, he does a little magic demonstration as part of his tale, which wastes necessary reagents.
The reagents are the most egregious example, but there are plenty of others. Fail to purchase a map early in the game--a map that the shopkeeper himself encourages you not to purchase--and you can't find your way to Astrix. Fail to ask a dwarf companion about some elf legends at the right time, and you don't have the right words to speak to an elf woman and thus miss your chance to get the Elf Stone. Fail to do a number of things just right in an early encounter with a nymph and you miss the Nymph Stone. Fail to accept a suspicious character into the party early in the game, and you miss later encounters because you don't have his scouting skill.
The shopkeeper tells you that a required inventory item won't help you.
Not only does the game give you no warning when something like this happens, but lots of other things happen that seem like they might be mistakes. In particular, party members disappear, get lost, get wounded, and even die on occasion, and you feel like you need to reload--only to discover, 20 turns later, that you can find or heal them in a different location.
4. Some of the walking dead criteria make no sense. Except in a single place where the dwarf Hurth has to "die" (or seem to die) only to be found alive again later, no character can die in a successful game, even if that character is no longer needed. This particularly bit me towards the end, in the city of Zan. If you don't do the exact sequence of events correctly in several locations, the Dread Lord's thugs are able to find your party and kill Hurth before the rest of the party members can escape. Even though Hurth's skills are no longer needed for the rest of the game, his death prevents you from winning.
5. Not only do you get no notifications of walking dead situations, a lot of text is wasted in such situations. It feels like fully half of the game's text would never be seen by a party destined to win because such text only appears when the party is already walking dead. There are entire areas of the game that, if you enter and experience any of the adventures to be had there, you've already gone the wrong way and cannot win.
A lot of text and programming--not to mention the graphics--went into a battle you're not even supposed to fight. You're meant to take a different path.
6. A lot of the options are completely nonsensical. Basically, on every screen, at every option, and at every encounter, you have to try every potential option and note the result--keeping in mind that its implications might not be fully realized for several scenes--and then try to assemble the "best" list of options in the right order. Some of the "successful" options you'd never hit upon by logic alone. Most involve the use of spells. For instance, Praxix encounters a stump on the ground in his explorations. If he casts "Tremor," the stump splits and reveals a passage into the Earth. It's both nonsensical to assume (without any other evidence) that such a passage would be revealed, and that "Tremor" would be the spell to reveal it. Later, you have to use the "Wind" spell in a random cave to reveal a hidden rune. Other encounters force you to discern at the outset whether you can cast a regular spell or need the extra "oomph" that comes from mixing the regular spell with grey powder, only the game has given you no gauge to determine the normal strength of spells.

7. The game randomizes some variables. Even if you can make an exhaustive list of the "right" options in the "right" orders, you'll still lose the game because each new session randomizes some of the variables. The most obvious is early in the game, when you're trying to navigate the paths to get to Asterix's tower. There are six choices of left or right, or 64 possible total paths, and you don't know if you've chosen right or wrong until you arrive. Each new game generates a different combination of correct paths. Now, technically you can bypass this navigation by casting a "Glow" spell on the map you hopefully purchased in the first town, but after a few sessions of this game, you're so paranoid about conserving reagents that you're more likely to sigh and start working your way through all 64 possible combinations.
The name of the boat captain you need to ask for at the end of the game is also randomized.
One of the things that the game randomizes is the color of the reagents that correspond with the different "essences": wind, fire, water, earth, and so forth. At the end of the game, Tag has to figure out what reagents to mix, and only a throw-away line in an earlier scene about brushing some color of powder from his hands keeps him from, again, having to reload multiple times and work through dozens of possibilities. 
Failing to note the "fine orange residue" early in the game makes it nearly impossible to cast the final spell.
The one nod the game makes to its own difficulty is by letting you view Tag's "musings" once you've lost the game. This screen lets you go one-by-one through all the things you did wrong, but only those things that led to your particular demise, and even then it's maddeningly vague with advice like "conserve reagents," not "you used reagents when you didn't have to in this specific place."
Tag muses on the many things the party did wrong.
Given all I've described, I have to highlight this particular paragraph from the game manual:
Your Journey will provide you with many hours of enjoyment and many hundreds of difficult decisions. But unlike other games you may have played, there are virtually no dead ends. Any action you take will advance the story toward one of its many endings. But there is only one ending that is the best.
I've never read such a blatant lie in a game manual before. There are no "alternate" endings--every single ending except the victory screen above has the main character reflecting on the literal destruction of the world. And the only way it can say that "there are virtually no dead ends" is because the damned game lets you keep on playing as long as possible even when you're in an unwinnable situation. That's not a virtue!
"Not a dead end."
These various failings are why it took me ultimately 23 hours to win a game that only lasts about 1 hour if you hit all the right options. And that's with using walkthroughs to help in some areas. With Journey, what you basically have is a cruel Choose Your Own Adventure book that you have to read 25 times, each time getting maybe an extra paragraph. It's barely a "computer" game, and of course certainly not an RPG. It has no character development, hardly any inventory, and the combats are all scripted.
The most frustrating part is, I'm the only one who sees how bad this is! In the June 1989 Computer Gaming World, Roe Adams--Roe &@&$*# Adams!--practically wets himself, calling it "the best effort to date of any game designer struggling to find a new way for the game to interface with the player," although he does caution about the use of reagents and mentions some of the more illogical puzzles. He seems to have been seduced by the interface--which is innovative but not all that great--and the plenitude of the graphics. European Amiga magazines gave it in the 80s and 90s.
Only more modern reviewers have failed to be lured in by its promises. In 1998, All Game Guide rated it a 40, called it "shallow," rejected its RPG credentials, and said that "it fails to take advantage of what a reactive computer can do that a non-reactive book cannot."
When I got done typing all of this and started searching for other modern takes on the game, I was delighted to see that Jimmy Maher ("The Digital Antiquarian") had covered it in 2016. As I read his piece, he at first scared the bejesus out of me by calling his initial reactions "a unique and very pleasant experience." But his opinion evolves as he plays, and eventually we get to the good stuff:
[T]here inevitably comes a point when you realize that everything Infocom has been saying about their game and everything the game has been implying about itself is a lie. Far from being the more easy-going sort of text adventure that it’s purported to be, Journey is a minefield of the very dead ends it decries, a cruel betrayal of everything it supposedly stands for. It turns out that there is exactly one correct path through the dozens of significant choices you make in playing the game to completion. Make one wrong choice and it’s all over. Worse--far worse--more often than not you are given no clue about the irrecoverable blunder you’ve just made. You might play on for hours before being brought up short.
When I rated it in 2011, I gave it a 23 without even bothering to explain the GIMLET. I don't know what I was thinking with some of the ratings. I gave it 2 points for "character creation and development" when it deserves 0 and 4 points for "magic and combat" when it deserves maybe 2 (some of the uses of magic to solve puzzles are at least well-described). A revision brings the score down to 17. It does best in the "game world" (3) despite being derivative, and in the graphics, which are credited to Donald Langosy. I agree with Adams that they're well-composed, and the game didn't skimp on them: practically every scene has a different set. 
Evocative graphics are one of the game's few positives.
The most surprising thing about Journey is that it was written by Infocom-founder Marc Blank, author of the original Zork series as well as the Enchanter series and several other Infocom titles. It certainly has his quality of prose, but it's hard to believe that he didn't understand why the basic approach was so much worse than the open-world games for which he was famous. Maher's account of the game's development suggests that the developers were in love with the interface: "an experiment to find out whether you could play an interactive story without having to type." There's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't explain why the interface had to so relentlessly drive the player forward, to punish him so severely for minor mistakes, and to waste so much of his time in unwinnable scenarios. Fortunately, it didn't begin a trend. I like to think that Blank himself was dissatisfied with the result, which is why we saw no more games in the "Golden Age Trilogy," as the secondary title screen has it. 
I like to think that the next two would have been Destination and Return.
So there it is. In an attempt to get a "quick win," I managed to waste a lot of time and get myself highly frustrated on a non-RPG, for no benefit except to increase my "win" percentage by 0.31%. This does not bode well for an eventual return visit to, say, Wizardry IV, but we'll see.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Star Control II: Summary and Rating

Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters
United States
Toys for Bob (developer); Accolade (publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1994 for the 3DO console; later fan ports to other platforms
Date Started: 23 March 2019
Date Finished: 14 May 2019
Total Hours: 47
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Star Control II takes the ship-by-ship action combat of the original Star Control and places it solidly within an adventure game of epic proportions. In a galaxy of more than 500 stars and 3,000 planets, a captain must build alliances, find artifacts, mine minerals, and coerce information from alien races so that he can ultimately throw off the yoke of the Ur-Quan Hierarchy and free Earth and its allies from slavery. Gameplay comes with a lot of lore and plot-twists, but every so often it reveals its origins and requires the player to defeat enemy ships with selections from his own armada, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. Although the sense of an open world and a nonlinear plot both end up being somewhat illusory, the game is still fun and memorable.

In the comments for my winning entry, several readers have offered descriptions and text that occurs when you try some of the game's alternate strategies, such as surrendering to the Ur-Quan, provoking the Orz, or selling your own crewmembers to the Druuge. Most of them are either dead-ends or offer such harsh consequences that you'd best not do them in the first place.

One thing I was curious to check out is what happens if you wait out the game's time limit. The Melnorme originally told me that the Earth would be destroyed in January or February of 2159, but my actions in the game managed to delay the apocalypse by almost two years. As I sat in hyperspace and watched, nothing much happened until November 2159, when the Supox and Utwig returned to their original systems, much diminished. 
No one remains but the Ur-Quan.
Around the end of 2159, the Kohr-Ah won the civil war and started to circle the galaxy, destroying each sentient race in turn. Some of their ships reached Earth in April, but they weren't here to destroy Earth just yet. I fought a few dreadnoughts and the horde moved on. The Arilou, Umgah, and Zoq-Fot-Pik were all gone by June 2160, the Supox and Utwig a month later. By October 2160, the Ur-Quan fleet had reached the "southern" end of the galaxy and destroyed the Yehat. Finally, in November, I received a broadcast from the Ur-Quan notifying me of Earth's destruction, and the game was over. My ship was parked right next to Earth at the time, and I was hoping I'd see a bunch of dreadnoughts approaching it, but alas, it wasn't quite that detailed.
The "bad" ending, unless you're a big Ur-Quan fan.
If I hadn't cheated a bit during the game by reloading when an expedition proved a waste of time, I probably would have run into issues with the time limit. Watching the slow destruction of every race, along with the intelligence that they possessed, would have been mildly horrifying. But apparently you can still win the game at any time during this process, with nothing altered in the endgame sequence.

I confess that the last bit bothers me a little because it's indicative of the approach taken by the game as a whole. When I started playing Star Control II, it gave the impression of an open-world game with multiple narrative possibilities. But it turns out you have to follow a few paths in a relatively specific order, and most of the choices turn out to be illusory. Oh, it certainly does better than the typical RPG of the period, I hasten to add. It was just a bit disappointing to find that open exploration isn't really rewarded. If you're lucky enough to stumble upon a key location amidst all the planets in the vast galaxy, you probably won't be able to do anything because you haven't bought an important piece of information from the Melnorme first.

I have similarly mixed feelings about the game's approach to the alien races and racial characterizations. On the one hand, I enjoyed the variety. When you're making a game (as opposed to shooting a film or television show), you have the freedom to make some interesting races without worrying about the CGI budget. I appreciated that there were no "bumpy forehead" aliens except perhaps for the Syreen.
I could have done with less of this.
I also don't fault the game for broad characterizations. It's a longstanding trope of science fiction and fantasy to paint races with a broad brush: the wise elves, the logical Vulcans, the proud Klingons, the evil orcs, and so forth. You rarely have time to explore the detailed characteristics of an entire culture. It's perfectly acceptable that Star Control II decided to highlight one major attribute of each race, such as cowardice, depression, loneliness, and greed. When it did go into more detail, such as in the case of the Ur-Quan and the Syreen, the detail was generally good, and it was rewarding to unlock those stories. I also appreciated the consistency of characterization. The Spathi locking themselves under their own slave shield amused me to no end because it was perfectly in keeping with the Spathi personality--and, in hindsight, 100% foreseeable. 

But I also felt there were too many moments of outright goofiness and parody among the racial interactions. The Orz, the Pkunk, the VUX, the Umgah, and the Utwig mostly just exhausted my patience. I couldn't help but think how the same races with similar characteristics might be handled with less silliness. We don't have to look very far to find an example. Starflight and Starflight II had some of the same broad racial characterizations, but rarely crossed the line into outright slapstick. I felt the stories and plot twists of those games were much better, too.

Nonetheless, I understand why Star Control II is regarded as the better game: it's all about the combat. I wasn't any good at it, but I can see why people like it. Until I played it, I wouldn't have thought that a single choice--what ship to pilot--could have so many tactical implications. There are 14 ships that can join the New Alliance and 13 potential enemy ships, resulting in 182 potential battle combinations, and each has completely different tactical considerations. (With the Super Melee application, you can fight any of the ships against any of the others, for 625 possible combinations.) Slowly mastering the strengths of your ships and learning the weaknesses of the enemy ships is a huge and rewarding part of gameplay. Later in the game, when you have to fight multiple ships in a row, there are strategic implications for what ships you send into combat first and which you reserve for later in the battle.
The typical outcome of my combats.
Still, the nature of combat, plus the lack of "character development," really makes this a non-RPG, which means it might not do so well on the GIMLET as an RPG. I played it as an exception. I don't want to hear any future comments along the lines of, "Well, you played Star Control II, so to be consistent, you should also play This Game." The point of exceptions is that I don't have to be consistent with them.

As to the GIMLET:

1. Game World. Star Control II manages to check most of the boxes in this category. It has a rich, detailed backstory, an open world, a clear place for the character and his quest, and an evolving game state that responds to the player's actions. (I particularly like how the starmap continually updates to show the dispositions of the various races.) The plot and its twists are original and interesting. The only fault I can find is that there isn't much to see or do in the open universe. I wish the creators had seeded more planets with optional encounters and finds, perhaps replacing the system by which you purchase all your technology upgrades from the Melnorme. Score: 8.

2. Character Creation and Development. Alas, there is none of either except for the ability to name your own captain. Even if you regard the ship as a "character," it doesn't get innately better so much as it gains better equipment. Score: 0.

3. NPC Interaction. Another strong point. I've given my thoughts about the NPC personalities, but I should add that even goofy personalities are better than we get from the typical RPG of the period, which is no personality (or even NPCs) at all. I wish there had been more honest variety in dialogue options instead of one that's obvious, two that are stupid, and one that's evil. The Starflight games did a better job giving the player real "options" when talking to different alien races even though they came in the form of "stances" rather than specific dialogue choices. 

I should also note that most NPCs aren't individuals but rather representatives of their races who somehow know the previous conversations the player has had with other representatives. But the game otherwise hits most of the criteria for a high score here, including a plot that advances based on NPC interaction. Score: 7.
My thoughts exactly.
4. Encounters and Foes. The game has an original slate of foes (ships) that require you to learn their individual strengths and weaknesses. There are otherwise no real "encounters" in the game that aren't also NPC dialogues. Score: 6.

5. Magic and Combat. I can't give a high score here because my scale is about RPG-style combat and the various tactics and strategies that draw from attributes, skills, and the player's intelligence rather than his dexterity. Still, as I discussed above, the choice of ship and the way you plot long combats create some important tactical and strategic decisions. I just wish combat had only been about ship versus ship. The planets, which show up suddenly as you switch screens, were unwelcome guests. Score: 3.
The asteroids, on the other hand, I didn't mind so much.
6. Equipment. All of the "equipment" in the game is ship-related rather than character-related, and it all applies to the flagship, which a good player arguably does not rely on. I wish there had been opportunities to upgrade the other ships in the fleet. It would have been tough to offer meaningful options with so many of them, but even just generic attack or defense improvements would have been nice. Beyond that, it's fun to figure out how to best make use of the limited modular space on the flagship, particularly as new options come along regularly. Score: 3.

7. Economy. There are really two economies in the game: the "resource unit" economy that lets you build a fleet and equip your flagship, and the Melnorme "information" economy that depends on bio data and Rainbow World identifications. I found both rewarding enough for about two-thirds of the game. Score: 7.

8. Quests. The game has one main quest with a few options (though, as I mentioned before, a lot of the options are illusory) and side-quests. There's only one ending. Score: 4.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. I don't have many complaints in this category. The graphics are perfectly fine for the scope and nature of the game; the sound effects are fun and evocative throughout; and it's hard to complain about the interface of a game that supports both joystick and keyboard inputs and lets you customize the keyboard. I had problems in combat despite these advantages, but I don't think I can blame the game.

I do have one major issue, or several related issues, that fits into this category. The dialogue is delivered one line at a time in a huge font. You can hit the SPACE bar after each bit of dialogue to see a transcription in a smaller font that you can barely read. Either way, if you don't make your own transcriptions or screen shots (which must have been tough for an era player), the dialogue is lost once you leave the screen. In most cases, you can't prompt the NPC to speak the same lines again, and there's no databank in which to retrieve it as there was in Starflight II. Thankfully, I took copious screenshots, but they're a cumbersome way to review previous dialogue and I think the game should have offered a better system. Score: 6.
This text is better than nothing, but it's still not very easy to read.
10. Gameplay. I give half-credit for non-linearity. The game is more linear than it seems when you start, but you still have a lot of choices about the order of your activities. I also give half-credit for replayability. As I mentioned earlier, many of the "options" seem illusory, and a replaying player might find himself swiftly on familiar paths, but there is at least some variety for a replay. The hourly total is just about right for this content, and while I had difficulty in combat, I still managed to win with an acceptable number of reloads, so I can't fault the difficulty. Score: 7.

That gives us a final score of 51, surprisingly close to the 53 I gave both Starflight and Starflight II, which had actual characters and character development. But reviewing those games, I'm reminded how awful combat was, and how many issues I had with the interface. I'm thus comfortable with the rating. 
The ad makes it seem like the game's enemies are the Umgah.
There are plenty of players, however, who would consider a 51 an insult. Star Control II still continues to make "best games ever" lists compiled by various publications. In a March 1993 preview in Computer Gaming World, Stanley Trevena liked the game enough to put it on his "top ten list of all time." "It is not often," he says, "that such a perfect balance is struck between role-playing, adventure, and action/arcade." In the November 1993 issue, they gave it "Game of the Year" in the adventure category (or, at least, it tied with Eric the Unready). Dragon gave it 5 out of 5 stars. It's rare to find an English review out of the 90s, though for some reason European reviews tended to put it lower, in the 70s.

The 3DO version from 1994 has some significant differences from the DOS version. It has an animated, narrated introduction and cut scenes plus voiced dialogue for the conversations. (My understanding is that the open-source Ur-Quan Masters would use some of this voiced dialogue but re-record others.) Some readers encouraged me to play this version specifically because of the voices. I'm not sure I would have liked it better. There's really just too much dialogue overall. Some of the voices are good: I appreciate the Vaderesque bass of the Ur-Quan, the lispy enthusiasm of the Pik, and the weird Scottish accent the creators gave to the Yehat. For some reason, they decided the Shofixti was a bad English translator of a 1970s Japanese kung-fu movie; the Orz, Spathi, and Utwig are just annoying; and the Umgah is the stuff of nightmares. The Talking Pet is the worst, with some ridiculous southern "Joe Sixpack" accent. I was also disappointed by the Syreen, who sounds like Doris Day rather than . . . well, honestly, I'm not sure what would have done justice to the Syreen. How do you blend a fierce Amazonian and a seductive vixen in a single voice?

Star Control II left a satisfying number of mysteries, such as the fate of the Precursors and why they seemed (to the Slylandro) to be nervously searching for something. We never learned about the Rainbow Worlds or why they (apparently) form an arrow pointing to the "northeast" of the galaxy. We never learned what the Orz did to the Androsynth, what the Orz really are, and how they relate to the Arilou. I was disappointed that we never found out why the Ur-Quan destroyed historical structures of humanity, including some places we weren't even aware of. I was disappointed to find that most of these questions are unanswered in Star Control 3 (1996), although we do apparently learn that the Precursors genetically modified themselves so they would have the intelligence of cows, thus protecting themselves from a race that periodically harvests the energies of sentient races. I think the creators missed an opportunity by not making the Precursors actual cows. There could have been a Gary Larson tie-in and everything.
The creepy cover to the game's sequel.
The direction of Star Control 3 reveals some of the background drama between developer Toys for Bob (authors Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford) and publisher Accolade. According to Reiche and Ford, Accolade gave the developer such a limited budget that they had to essentially work for free for half a year to create a quality game. Accolade would not increase the budget for the sequel, so the original creators refused to develop it, and the job went to Legend Entertainment instead.

In 2002, authors Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford made the source code available for free, and some fans used it to create The Ur-Quan Masters for Windows, with multiple releases starting in 2005. It has since been ported to multiple additional platforms. The effort also led to the creation of the Ultronomicon, a Star Control II wiki.

The Star Control trademark passed to Infogrames when it purchased Accolade in 1999; Infogrames soon rebranded itself as Atari. When Atari filed for bankruptcy in 2013, its assets were sold. Stardock Corporation managed to acquire the Star Control license and produce Star Control: Origins (2018). Set 26 years before the original Star Control, the game would seem to retcon when Earth first encountered alien life. During development, Stardock claimed to be in contact with Reiche and Ford, and were developing the game along their vision, although they couldn't technically participate because of their Activision contract. If this relationship was ever friendly and cooperative, it soon became otherwise when Reiche and Ford announced they would be creating Ghosts of the Precursors and Stardock started selling the first three Star Control games on Steam. Both parties counter-sued each other for copyright and intellectual property violations, and Steam removed the Star Control titles (including Origins, at least temporarily) after receiving DCMA takedown notices from Reiche and Ford. As far as I can tell, the litigation is still ongoing.
Combat in Origins has improved graphics but seems to adhere to original principles.
Toys for Bob still lives as a subsidiary of Activision, and Reiche and Ford still continue to direct the development of its games. I don't think we'll see them again, however, as none of their titles are RPGs. (For more on Reiche and Ford, see Jimmy Maher's excellent coverage of Star Control II from this past December. My favorite part is when Reiche gets fired from TSR for questioning the purchase of a Porsche as an executive's company car.)

I am often dismissive of calls for remakes, usually considering them to be the products of dull, dilettante gamers who can't handle any graphics more than 5 years old. But I would like to see, if not a remake, a modern game that has the basic approach of Star Control II (and, for that matter, Starflight)--perhaps even one that realizes it better by offering truly alternate plot paths. We have plenty of games (although, in my opinion, not enough) that allow us to explore open worlds; have any so far allowed us to explore an open universe? Perhaps that's what we'll get from Bethesda's forthcoming Starfield.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Game 327: Darkwood (1992)

United States
Published as shareware in 1992 for the Macintosh
Date Started: 15 May 2019
Date Finished: 16 May 2019
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
You are an orphan named Derek who wants to join the elite city guard of Darkwood, the safest city in the kingdom. Anyone who defeats the toughest creature in the arena will become Captain of the Guard. You start at Level 1 with no experience, a dagger, and 10 gold pieces. In front of you lies a town with a weapon shop, an armor shop, a magic shop, an inn, and an arena.
Starting the game. You click on buildings to enter them.
Because it's all you can afford, you buy some leather armor for 5 gold pieces before heading into the arena. You are offered battles against 20 creatures, listed in order of difficulty from a giant rat to a red dragon. You choose the giant rat. You defeat him in a few rounds of combat and get 10 gold pieces and 75 experience points. You rest up at the inn, and with your newfound wealth, you upgrade your weapon to a short sword. Back you go to the arena to face the next monster.
Over the next several hours, you kill successively harder monsters, buy successively better equipment, and level up. You can save at any time, so death is not permanent. Eventually, you make your way to the arena wielding a Sword +5 Holy Avenger and wearing Full Plate +4, and you defeat the red dragon. Then the game is over.
Battering away at an enemy.
As tempting as it is to go immediately to GIMLET and make this the shortest entry of all time, there are a few more things to talk about. The first is that I've played this game before, when it was new. Someone had loaded it onto one of the lab computers at my university, and I copied it to floppy disk and brought it home. (This would have been around 1993, in my only Mac-owning period.) The entire time I played, I assumed I was playing a prologue, and once I was named Captain of the Guard, the game would open up and I'd perform a bunch of quests in my new role. I couldn't believe that it was over when it was over.
Dad would be so proud.
I mis-remembered a few things about the game. I thought I remembered that you could only fight each creature once, but not only would this make for a 10-minute game, it would be impossible. You need to grind relentlessly against low-level creatures to survive and build wealth. The game doesn't really encourage you to test your limits. Even with reloading, if a goblin gives you 25 gold pieces and 110 experience points, and you can kill him 100% of the time (which you can after Level 2), what is your incentive to move up to a bugbear, which offers 40 gold pieces and 250 experience points but a 50% chance of death? Just fight the goblin twice. It only takes a few seconds.

You have to be careful not to be lured by the ghoul (400 gold, 500 experience) or the wight (500 gold, 700 experience). They can drain levels, so their rewards aren't worth it. If you can get to the point that you can defeat the troll, he's a reliably rewarding enemy, offering 1500 gold and 1800 experience. He's the third-to-last enemy, so he should be a lot harder, but something isn't programmed properly. He almost never hits you.
Grind all those experience points again? Or just reload?
I bought the best weapon and armor in the game, as well as a ring of protection +3, before purchasing any healing potions (easier just to reload than chug a 1000-gold-piece potion) or tomes. The tomes cost 2,000 gold pieces each and allow you to increase your dexterity and constitution to 18 and your strength to 18/100. (I don't think intelligence, wisdom, or charisma do anything. They can't be improved.) After that, the only things to spend money on are wands and potions.
Using a tome.
I made it to Level 8. It was taking too long to grind to Level 9. I found that the red dragon was unconquerable with melee weapons, even with a full stock of healing potions. But it was vulnerable to the lightning wand that you can buy in the magic shop. Four or five blasts and I was Captain of the Guard.
I don't want to accuse the author of anything, but our past experience with shareware titles makes me suspicious of the provenance of these graphics.
In a GIMLET, it earns:
  • 2 points for the game world, featuring a basic backstory commensurate with the scope of the game.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There's no creation, and leveling doesn't seem to do much more than confer extra hit points.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. The bestiary is Dungeons and Dragons standard, and the level-draining attacks of the undead are the only special attacks programmed in.
A few statistics help you determine what foe you'll want to defeat next.

  • 1 point for magic and combat. Your options are only to attack, use an item, or surrender.
Using the Wand of Lightning in the final battle.
  • 3 points for equipment. Only one weapon and armor slot, but the magic item selection is decent.
  • 4 points for the economy. It lacks any complexity, but it remains relevant until the end.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. There are only a couple of sounds: hit, miss, and "you won!" Graphics are sparse enough that it might as well have been a text game. It's disappointing how all the monsters are represented by the same helmeted figure. I found the all-mouse interface annoying, as I do all all-mouse interfaces, but it was easy enough to determine what to click on.
  • 2 points for gameplay. Too easy, too limited, and not replayable, it's at least short.
That gives us a final score of 18. It's about as minor as you can get and still qualify as an RPG at all. Author Robert Chancellor returned to the setting with Siege of Darkwood (1993), a light strategy game that he published through Pointware. Based in La Verne, California, Chancellor would later go on to work for Blizzard and Amazon Game Studios.
He sure got a lot of mileage out of that graphic.
What Darkwood does best is raise uncomfortable questions about what makes it a "lesser" RPG. Imagine that it is the menu town of something like a Gold Box game. Instead of leveling up and gaining wealth by fighting monsters in the arena in 30 seconds, you have to spend hours questing in dungeons, only to ultimately return to the city to spend your money and level up. What have all those extra hours gained you? Are they anything more than sound and fury? In stripping away the frills of typical, more elaborate RPGs, does Darkwood also strip illusions about the value of time spent playing those games? Can I honestly say that the endgame screen is less satisfying than a typical era title that takes 5 times as long but introduces no extra plot?

Those questions might be more worth thinking about if the combat in Darkwood were a bit more elaborate, a bit more tactical. I feel like if you're going to set your title entirely in the confines of an arena, combat needs to offer something more than clicking the icon of a sword until someone is dead. (Has any good RPG been set entirely in an arena? I'm open to the possibility.) Perhaps an action-oriented approach drawing upon the underlying attributes. Perhaps the ability to team up with other NPCs. As it is, Darkwood leaves me uncomfortable and unsatisfied. Perhaps I can pretend it's a prologue to Darklands.


I've removed Dragons Shard from the list after playing it for a while, then realizing that the shareware version caps character development at Level 5. This is my third half-hearted attempt to play a Bit Brothers game, all of which seem to feature the same engine. Until I can somehow obtain a full-featured copy of the game, I can't get far enough to bother writing about it.

Also gone is Mission: Thunderbolt, which it turns out is not really a 1992 game but a 1991 Macintosh release of a single mission of a mainframe game called Doomsday 2000 (1987). The game has been moved to re-consideration in its appropriate year.