Sunday, June 20, 2021

BRIEF: Wizzardz & War Lordz (1985)

You know it's hard core because of all of the Zs.
Wizzardz & War Lordz
United States
Ram-Tek (developer and publisher), although there's some question about whether it was ever published
Released 1985 for DOS
Wizzardz & War Lordz is a competently-programmed Wizardry clone from a James R. Martin of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Up to six characters go on a quest in a 15-level dungeon to defeat someone or something called Vylgar.
Characters have six attributes--strength, agility, knowledge, charisma, stamina, and regeneration--rolled on a scale of 4 to 24. Races are dwarf, human, gnome, hobbit, elf, and barbarian, and classes are wizard, warlord, priest, samurai, ninja, "theif," bard, and cavalier. The game follows Wizardry's tradition of assigning characters a password that has to be entered before you can edit them or add them to an active party.
Character creation.
Play begins in a menu town on the top of the dungeon, to include "Sam's Trading Post." Characters can only equip one weapon and one armor item--no shields, rings, boots, helms, and so on. But those weapons and armor are drawn from a huge list containing things I've never seen before in an RPG, such as the Russian mace, the goupillion, the Khyber knife, Roman and Greek javelins (don't want to mix those up!), the Hoolurge pick, and the Jedbelry axe. Armor options include woven cord, jazeraint, bar and double-bar mail, and lamellar in addition to the usual options. Every item can be purchased with a "plus" from 0 to 9, though any plus is too expensive for a starting character.
Kidney dagger, Angon spear, Battak ax, pelta . . . I'm not even sure about the capitalization of most of these.
Entering the dungeon.
The dungeon features combats with the typical Dungeons and Dragons bestiary, including goblins, kobolds, orcs, gremlins, werewolves, dark elves, and naga. Unlike Wizardry, the game rolls for encounters at regular intervals regardless of whether you move, which means that modern players want to pay careful attention to their clock speeds. You meet parties of anywhere between 1 and 10. There's no option to flee. Combat is otherwise mostly like Wizardry except that all ranks can attack and get hit. You specify whether you want to fight, parry, cast a spell, or do a couple of special actions. You line up your options and then they all execute at once, interlaced with the enemies' attacks. One new option here is the bard class's ability to "charm," although I couldn't get it to work.
A lot of Wizardry clones don't bother with monster portraits; kudos to this one for taking the time.
Combat options with a werewolf.
I mapped a bit of the first level, which looks like it was heading for at least 20 x 25 (or perhaps vice versa; I'm not sure what way I was facing when I entered the dungeon). Other than enemies--both fixed and random--the only things I found were fixed treasures in a couple of rooms. Gold was plentiful, and I was able to upgrade my characters to +2 or +3 weapons and armor by the time they hit Level 2. (Leveling occurs when you rest in an inn.) Combat is tough but fair. Health is represented in percentages rather than absolute hit points. You also have an "energy" statistic that goes down as you move. Both are replenished by standing still in the dungeon. Health can also be replenished by returning to town and paying Benidct the Priest.
The problem here is a lack of documentation, particularly for spells. I created three spellcasters but I haven't been able to use any of them because I don't know what the game wants me to type when I cast a spell. I've tried some common, obvious options like "Heal" to no avail. I'm not sure if it's looking for full text, a code, or a number. I also don't understand the mechanism, which much exist, for searching for secret doors. Before I could finish mapping the first level, a one-way door dumped me into a small area with no exit. I've kicked and searched every wall to no avail. Even if I could solve that problem, I can only imagine a lack of spells will create a long, boring, perhaps impossible game.
My map so far.

Author James R. Martin sold the game through his company, Ram-Tek, run out of what I assume was his home address. He advertised the game in Computer Gaming World and other gaming magazines. I can't find him credited on any other games. A commenter on the Internet Archive site for the game claims that the game was never published, and that the developer just made a few boxed copies for friends, one of which made its way to the contributor.
A magazine ad for the game.
If the documentation ever turns up, I'll be glad to give it a longer try; for now, I have to mark it "NP."

BRIEF: Total Eclipse (1985)

"Orphanage Road" sounds like a grim place to have a business.
Total Eclipse
United Kingdom
Eclipse-Fenmar Limited (developer); J. Penn Discount Software (publisher)
Released 1985 for Dragon 32
Total Eclipse is among a genre of games that goes back to Star Trader (1974) by Dave Kaufman and is probably best exemplified by the Elite series (starting in 1984). The original Elite is clearly the direct inspiration for Total Eclipse. The type of game is often called "space trading." The player starts off with a ship and a limited number of resources, and through exploration, trading, and (in some games) limited combat, he slowly gains wealth and status. Strip the genre of sci-fi elements and put it on the Spanish Main, and you have Pirates!
This one has a vague quest to find some ancient alien technology that will allow for unlimited energy or distant exploration or something. It is set in the year 3000. You play a rogue trader, unlicensed by the Federation of Intergalactic Traders, who must try to make his fortune by venturing through 12 galaxies, 720 planets, and countless space stations, abandoned ships, and asteroids. Gameplay is a somewhat repetitive process of scanning the local area for interesting locations, jumping to them, and seeing what they have to offer in the way of trading, services, and salvage. Fuel and ship repairs are a constant concern, and you can get attacked by pirates.
Scanning space for prospects.
There have been attempts to merge space trading games with RPGs, most notably in Starflight (1986) and its sequels, and to a lesser extent in Star Control II (1992), although the RPG status of both games is debatable. What is not debatable is that Total Eclipse has no RPG elements at all, and gods know why the MobyGames contributor decided to tag it as such. One common feature of such games is that there is no "character" as such, just a ship (or fleet of ships) and resources. The player is an omnipresent captain but rarely with any specific avatar. There are no attributes to improve, let alone to serve as a basis of combat success.
Buying low and selling high is at the heart of this genre.
Most games released for the Dragon 32 or Dragon 64 were also released for the ZX Spectrum, so I've never had to rely on a Dragon emulator to finish a game. I downloaded one a while ago for some reason, XRoar, but I'm having the worst time getting Total Eclipse to run with it (it's a cassette game, which always poses its own challenges). Thus, this BRIEF is even briefer than usual. There are elements I like about this genre, though, and I wonder if anyone can think of any good games that blend space trading with honest RPG status.
Another entry coming later today.

Friday, June 18, 2021

New Action RPG Released: Astro Aqua Kitty

Someone who has given me a lot of help over the years is on the team behind Tikipod's Astro Aqua Kitty, just released on PC and console. He didn't ask me to mention it here, but he's done so much for this blog that I wanted to encourage readers to check it out. Astro Aqua Kitty is a sequel to 2013's Aqua Kitty. My friend describes it as "90% action, 10% RPG." The official description is:
The Aqua Kitty cats have launched into space in an all new action RPG shoot-em-up adventure!

Pick your crew, then blast off to investigate mysterious water filled asteroids.
Battle bizarre enemies, mine magnificent gems, grab new weapons, install enhancing devices, and unlock your crews' unique skills as you level up XP.

Just watch out for marauding pirate rabbits, always trying to be first to the loot! 
I don't know if my friend wants to be mentioned by name, so I'll remain vague, but if you want to reward someone who's given me assistance on this blog, and/or if the game looks to your taste, please give it a try. I'll look forward to it myself in a few years.
Comment if you want, but I'll probably delete this entry in a few months. I really need some kind of "news" feature on this blog where I can post temporary announcements.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen: Summary and Rating

With a title like this, you'd expect the game to be full of Star Wars references.
Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen
United States
New World Computing (developer and publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS and PC-98, 1994 for FM Towns
Repackaged with Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen and released as World of Xeen in 1994
Date Started: 20 April 2021
Date Ended: 1 June 2021
Total Hours: 44
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
The flip side of Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen, using the same tile-based, first-person, six-character engine that goes back to Might and Magic III. Darkside has the party foil the plans of Sheltem, the rogue AI from the first game in the series, again using the alias Alamar, again bent on returning to Terra. The main quest is not as notable as the hundred thousand side quests, puzzles, and encounters. Although packed with content and never boring, Darkside suffers from over-generosity in experience and a lack of significant character development, particularly for an experienced Clouds party with all the spells and skills. Its penchant for frivolity and its overall ease make it to me the least in the series so far.
This is probably going to be one of those reviews where the game rates high but my prose makes it sound like I hated it. I feel that way every time I write about Ultima, too. So let me say at the outset, even if the rest of this entry seems to belie it, that the Might and Magic series is one of my favorite RPG series of all time. I have loved them since I played the first two as a child. Even then, I sensed that they offered something that no one else was offering. If I seem negative, it's only because of the game's performance against my own hopes for it.
The Might and Magic games have always been generous. Jon Van Caneghem clearly had a history with tabletop RPGs and early CRPGs, but he envisioned worlds of bounty where those titles were sparse and unyielding. In Wizardry, Might and Magic's most obvious forebear, a 16 x 16 map might only hold a couple of fixed combats and two textual encounters. Van Caneghem's strategy was to give you something in every row and column. I have maps from the first game in which I had to go into the double letters to annotate everything. A Dungeons and Dragons module might take you from Level 2 to 5 over the course of 30 hours of campaigning. Van Caneghem had no problem offering games in which you hit Level 100 or more. Where Dungeons and Dragons and Wizardry regarded attributes as closely policed within a 3-18 range, you might start at 15 strength in Might and Magic and end at 500.
All I did was open a barrel.
This generosity is key to the first two games, immediately distinguishing and elevating the series from Wizardry and The Bard's Tale (which I find hopelessly boring in contrast). Looking through my notes in on Secret of the Inner Sanctum and Gates to a New World, I see all kings of messages and interleaves, prisoners you can torment or free, some kind of puzzle involving black and white checkerboard floor patterns, word games and riddles, a giant sudoku puzzle, a city where males take damage at every intersection but you can change sexes in the basement, an arbor in which you get rewarded for climbing every tree, and dozens of other encounters and side-quests--this in an era that otherwise showed no awareness of the concept of "side quests." Perhaps more important, each area offered a bit of lore, hinting at a large, complex story beneath the surface, one that occasionally (usually at the end) introduced elements of science fiction. Trying to figure out that story, filling in the gaps left by the materials, was a fun part of playing each game.
At the same time, the series has always offered a stupid side. You've heard me complain about it in every summary of every previous Might and Magic game. Wizardry acquired the same stupid side when David W. Bradley took over, and you've heard me complain about that. I've run out of original ways to complain about it. So I'll just say that Darkside of Xeen is a worthy successor to the previous games in the series in both the generosity of content and the stupidity of a lot of that content. If that doesn't bother you, you'll like the game a little more than I did. 
Is that pronounced the British way or the American way?
Beyond its thematic consistency, however, I thought Darkside was a lesser Might and Magic for a couple of other reasons. The first was also well-discussed during my last few entries: the game completely goes off the rails with the character leveling. It rewards the party with millions of experience points that no player would ever be able to redeem unless he engaged in some kind of optimizing financial strategy going back to Clouds of Xeen. At the same time, nearly everything you touch seems to bestow an extra 1, 3, or 5 levels. And it's not like these levels are ramping towards some major boss enemy or encounter. You could survive this game's toughest enemies at half the levels I achieved, which is only about two-thirds of the levels possible to achieve.
This gets into a second problem, which is that the game is simply too easy. Not only is the party over-leveled, but the proliferation of attribute-boosting fountains and altars exponentially increases the party's effectiveness in individual combats. As for accumulation of combats, they're hardly an issue when you can drop a "Lloyd's Beacon," ride a "Town Portal" to the nearest temple, and be back before anyone notices you're gone. Even if these easy teleportation puzzles didn't exist, the fact that you can sleep and fully restore health and magic--an issue that the series never solves--removes a lot of the challenge by itself. I'm anticipating lots of comments that say things like, "Well, if you find it too easy, just don't use those fountains/spells/whatever." Sure, but I don't think expecting the player to nerf himself is good game design.
It's amazing how fast enemies go from "challenges to be overcome" to "annoyances to be swatted."
I'm particularly disappointed in the lesser importance of spells. In the earlier games--and, indeed, in the later ones--magic is crucial to your strategy. Here, it so blatantly under-performs physical attacks that there's almost no reason to cast offensive spells except during a very narrow window of time in which a) your characters can't reliably hit some enemies, and b) those same enemies can be defeated with spells before they wipe the floor with you. The problem is largely the multipliers that the game gives with level and strength on physical attacks. By mid-game, your whomping most enemies away with one hit. Someone needed to rework that math.
The number of people reading this who will one day play the game but have not already must be small. But to those few, I implore you: when you do play, try something like an all-druid party or an all-barbarian party. Among the three major character focuses--melee combat, clerics' magic, and sorcerers' magic--create a party that entirely lacks one of them. Without any melee strength, you'll be forced to rely on spells, and combat will be more interesting. Without one of the magic types, you won't have as many buffing or transportation options (you'll be able to rely on limited charges from magic items in a pinch). I guarantee it will create a more exciting game.
A paladin and ranger set out to solve Xeen's problems alone.
In rating Darkside, I'm also including the World of Xeen content. I can't see any good way to separate them. I think the GIMLET will even out. It was partly because of the World of Xeen content that I felt leveling was too generous and the game was too easy, but it was also because of that content that I ended up feeling better about the game world and story. 
1. Game World. I don't know. A couple of weeks ago, I would have said that there is no new content here; that the game is just a rehash of the plot introduced in the first three games, a plot for which I have lost patience since the game seems more interested in making Star Trek references than exploring its own lore. But the ending of the World content, despite the questions it raises, was pretty cool. I felt less interested in either side of Xeen as a game world, though--there is no attempt at consistency whatsoever, and there are numerous unnecessary races added to the six character races, a few of which never make an appearance anywhere else in the game. The two Xeen titles suffered from a lack of the "Corak's Notes" feature of III. Score: 4.
At the end of the game, Prince Roland sticks his "staff" in the queen's "cube." Wait . . . that doesn't work.
2. Character Creation and Development. I generally like the number of ways that the characters develop, but as we discussed, Darkside is so generous that it stops mattering very early in the game, particularly if you brought a party from Clouds with all the spells and skills and a decent set of equipment. And it's always disappointing when a game fails to integrate character choices into the encounters and quests. These last few games should have included the alignments of the first two and offered more role-playing options based on those alignments. Score: 3.

3. NPC Interaction. I'm going to do here what I did in my rating for Clouds of Xeen and give it a couple of points for having something of the concept of NPCs, but most of what you'd call "NPCs" in this game are really "encounters" that happen to feature a portrait of someone. True NPCs exist in the environment independently of the party. Previous games were rated for hirelings in this category, and their loss is also unfortunate. Score: 2.
4. Encounters and Foes. The game's bestiary continues to be relatively original. I suppose the problem here is that combats are so short that you often don't find out about an enemy's strengths or weaknesses. The game also continues to benefit from a high quantity of non-combat contextual encounters and role-playing encounters, including--making their debut in the series--dialogue options. Add to this the dungeons' navigational puzzles, and we have probably the strongest category in the game. I just wish so many of the puzzles weren't so easy. Score: 6.
An important if clumsy step in the evolution of the genre.
5. Magic and Combat. I offered my thoughts above. There are a lot of options but not much reason to use anything but a mallet. Score: 3.

6. Equipment. A surprisingly disappointing category. I like how many slots the game offered, the item identification system, the use of magic items as backups for spells, and how easy it is to swap around and evaluate things. I didn't like that nothing seemed to matter. Your level multipliers matter so much more in combat than your equipment that I sometimes spent hours in which a character's equipment was broken and never noticed.
The game also does a bizarre thing by assigning either a material or an effect to equipment but not both. So you might have an Obsidian Long Sword or a Long Sword of Undead Slaying but not both. With weapons and armor, the material is so much more powerful than the effects that you wonder why they bothered with the effects at all. But with wearable items, an Obsidian Necklace does absolutely nothing despite being worth like 200,000 gold pieces, while a Necklace of Strength might only sell for 2,000. Madness. Score: 4.
This all must weigh a ton.
7. Economy. Over the game, I think I probably spent about 30 million gold pieces, which is probably some kind of record. This hyper-inflation made most of the economy--shops, temples, spells--utterly insignificant, with the sole exception of training--for which you never have enough. It's broken however you look at it. Score: 3.
8. Quests. With the World of Xeen content, we had a couple of main quests. Neither had alternate endings or role-playing options, but they were modestly interesting. More important, as always for this series, are the copious side quests. When will these finally become standard? Score: 5
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The graphics are perfectly nice; the sound is a bit overdone but otherwise fine; the interface has a number of excellent elements that I covered in the first entry. This is about as high as a game can score until graphics and sound get good enough that they're truly immersive. Score: 6.
I didn't notice this until late in the game: If you have sound turned off, you get subtitles.
10. Gameplay. Like its predecessors, Darkside gets a lot of credit for nonlinearity--to the point that I finished most of the World of Xeen content before finishing Darkside. Some of you didn't agree with my random exploration pattern, but you must agree that only in this series of games would such a pattern be possible. Everything else suffers a bit: it was a bit too easy; it's only slightly replayable (with different party compositions); and it lasted too long.
But to bring it full circle, I can't say that it was ever boring. I might have groaned or even shouted obscenities at much of the content, but at least I was having a reaction. I wasn't mapping miles of featureless corridor. Every few steps, there was a new hut on the horizon, a new alcove in a dungeon, a new book to read or box to open. The game may have been long, but it was easy to binge. Score: 6.
That gives us a final score of 42, one point lower than I gave to Clouds of Xeen and lowest for the series so far. I really do think the first and second games--particularly the first--were better games. I don't mean they were better "for their years"; I mean they were just better. Sure, the graphics were primitive, but a lot of the mechanics--including combat, equipment, and the economy--were significantly better. There were just as many encounters and side-quests, but fewer of them were so blatantly goofy. But 42 is still well into my "recommended" range, and Darkside is certainly superior to a lot of other games released in its year.  
The advertisement promised an interesting, gritty story. I wish the game had followed through.
Once again, my review aligns reasonably well with Scorpia's September 1993 coverage in Computer Gaming World. She covered the economic problem, though didn't seem quite as bothered about it. She was more upset about the ease of the puzzles--she called out the same one that I did, involving the Vowelless Knights. She also thought the crossword puzzle was "pointless and boring" and that the Dungeon of Death in general was ridiculous. (She agreed with the game that she was a "super goober" for having wasted her time with it.) She thought the cinematic ending was worth not having any kind of final battle, and I have to grant her that, since it was very well done for its year. She also thought the endgame to the Worlds content (which she completely spoils) was worth reaching, even if it involved so much pointless walking on the final level. "A satisfactory conclusion to the current Might and Magic saga," she concluded. Later, the magazine nominated it for "Game of the Year," but it lost to Betrayal at Krondor.
Dragon made some changes to its computer game reviewing in 1993. The "Role of Computers" section was re-titled "Eye of the Monitor," and a newer reviewer--Sandy Petersen--seems to have taken over. The over-inflated rating system seems to have gone with the previous title and reviewers, which I suppose is good, as I was running out of ways to make fun of that. Petersen makes it clear that three stars is "Good" and five is "Superb," and there's a new "X" rating for "Not recommended" that's even worse than one star ("Poor"). The combined World of Xeen gets only three stars. Mr. Petersen is himself a game designer, having written Call of Cthulhu and the third edition of RuneQuest for Chaosium. He also contributed to several computer RPGs, including Darklands (1992). It is thus too bad to see him bumble right out of the gate by calling the Might and Magic series "Eye of the Beholder-style games." His subsequent review makes it clear that he didn't get very far: he thinks the game is too generous with money and marvels at the 50,000 experience points he got for solving one puzzle. Most of the rest of the review is occupied with speed and loading issues. In summary, even though I agreed on the star rating, the review kind of annoyed me.
I'm mostly glad that for the next entry, we'll be moving on from this engine. I think the series has accomplished everything it can with tiled worlds. The graphics are getting sophisticated enough that we need a realism of content to match the realism of visuals. Magic and combat simply never worked well in this engine; it was so much better in the earlier games when you could face dozens or hundreds of enemies at once and choosing the right spells was a major tactical question. I'm also glad we'll be leaving the story of Sheltem being chased by the spectacularly inept Corak.
World of Xeen advertises some of New World's other titles in its final area.
As for that next entry, despite the in-game promise of a new title in 1994, it wasn't until 1998 that we saw Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven, a game that I was absolutely addicted to before I started this blog. I must have played it at least once a year between its release year and 2010, and not since. I may never reach it again. Before then, we'll have Swords of Xeen (1995), an ascended mod that I've never played. We'll also have the first three Heroes of Might and Magic games and Anvil of Dawn (1995), which looks to me like a prototype of the Might and Magic VI engine.
As I just typed that last paragraph, I noted that however annoyed I got with Xeen, my desire to check out Heroes (which I've never played), whether they qualify as RPGs or not, purely for the lore, is undiminished. This will always be one of my favorite series despite the developers' tendencies to trivialize it with goofiness. Live long and prosper, New World. Live long and prosper.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Abandoned Places 2: Not Abandoned Enough

What kind of monks live in the sewer?
For the first couple of entries, this game coasted on some unearned goodwill. An uncomplicated dungeon crawler was just what I needed, and it had been a long time since I'd had to make maps. It could have taken that time to earn my honest fondness, but I'm afraid to say that it has failed. Everything that distinguished its predecessor is missing from this sequel, and while there are times that it's an agreeable dungeon crawler, it really doesn't seem have much new to offer the Dungeon Master line.
When I last wrote, I had explored one and a quarter levels of a dungeon in which I was to find the Dobelal Shield. The dungeon ended up being nine levels. It took me about 22 hours to explore and map them. I had gotten way ahead in my blogging, so this session helped to put on the brakes a bit.
The levels were all a relentlessly monotonous 30 x 30, which is the first major break from the first Abandoned Places. That one had a lot more variety in dungeon shape, size, and depth. Maybe that's still to come in the sequel, but I doubt it. The dungeon had three sections: four levels of dwarven mines, three levels of what looked like sewers, and two levels of "ancient dwarven mines." Each section had its own textures and monsters, and once again I have to give the game some kudos for evocative graphics.
The game is best when making interesting textures.
But here we also have my first major complaint: Each section of dungeon has two and only two types of monsters, and sometimes they aren't even very different from each other. In the opening dungeon, there were skeletons and armored skeletons. In the four dwarven mine levels, I faced dwarves and spiders. The sewers brought monks and some kind of giant leeches. And the ancient dwarven mines had armored warriors and armored warriors with blue cloaks. Add to this the four different monster types in the wilderness, and I've faced 12 monsters in 35 hours. In place of "boss" fights, where most games would give you a special opponent, this one just gives you a whole lot of the regular ones.
The two types of monsters on the last two levels. I don't even think one is harder than the other.
There were times that the combats were tough, but the skills of my crew and the ability to run away and heal keep combat from ever becoming very hard. The toughest ones are when the game combines them with some other navigation puzzle. During this last session, there were times I had to fight enemies from a spinner, or in anti-magic zones, or in darkness. There was a memorable area in which I had to quickly kill a group of foes to get out of a fire square. But for all that, I've only reloaded because of combat deaths about five times. Almost always, that was because my voider in position 2 was killed; the game really seems to have expected the player to make two warriors and two mages.
Realizing that I'm in an anti-magic zone just in time to face a bunch of giant leeches.
The navigation puzzles are the harder part of the game, but they're not really hard in a challenging, fun way like Dungeon Master. I'm talking about things like invisible teleporter squares that jerk you all over the dungeon, or having to hit buttons while whizzing by on a slider. Some buttons activate secret doors, turning regular walls into illusory walls. It's annoying enough to have to head-butt every wall to test for secret door; it's enraging to have to do it a second time after activating a button.
Here, I had to get items out of a chest while standing in fire.
Sometimes, messages offer clues as to the nature of a challenge "But . . . where is the key?" one offered as I neared a locked door. Sure enough, no key that I found anywhere on the level opened it. Instead, the lock was unlocked with a gem. Without the message, I might not have been primed to try unorthodox solutions, but I still don't think that makes it a good puzzle. 
A message alerts me that I need to fill this chamber with longswords.
Worst of all are a couple of places in which hitting a button can put you in a "walking dead" state. I encountered two of these. There might have been more, but after the first two, I stopped pressing buttons unless it was clear that I needed them. The first was obvious. I pressed a button and two pillars appeared on either side of me, preventing me from moving. Pressing it again didn't lower them. Reload, no big deal. But on a different level, pushing a button raised a pillar that blocked the exit from a huge area. It wasn't clear there was no other exit until I had explored the entire thing and had saved. If my automated backup hadn't made a copy of the save disk just a couple hours prior, this would have been a very different sort of entry.
One of my ongoing complaints about the entire Dungeon Master line is their refusal to provide any equipment information and statistics. Abandoned Places 2 follows that tradition. You can tell which item of armor offers better protective value by the character's defense score, and a few items raise attributes, but that's about it. There's no indication of weapon damage (and unlike Dungeon Master, you don't even get damage values during combat), nor of any special abilities or resistances. This is particularly bothersome here because I suspect many of the weapons are useless or cursed. Some are just mysterious. A Sword of Mercy can only be handled by a fighter but raises intelligence and wisdom (useless to fighters) by a point each. It delivers less experience per successful blow than other weapons, and I suspect does less damage (which I supposed would make sense, given its name). I can't say for sure that a throwing axe called Rehebbel the Axe of Axes did nothing, but I never once saw an enemy die to it despite picking it up and throwing it multiple times in some battles. A Sword of the Lovely causes you to lose a level. 
This was disappointing.
The game does an interesting thing with armor. Certain weapons explicitly won't work in the hands of mages, but with armor, it appears if you put on something wrong for your class, it will allow you to equip it (which excited me at first), but you don't get any benefits from it. Thus, only a mage's defense score increases from robes, and only a fighter gets the +1 constitution benefit of the Helm of Dwarves. Even here there are some mysteries. A Chain Mail of the Bull seems to offer less protection than regular chain mail, and a couple of cool-sounding robes and cloaks offer no protection at all. Boots of Fumbling have no effect on statistics, but I think I'll avoid them anyway.
For the longest time, every wearable magical item I found was for the fighter. Only at the end of the last dungeon in this session did I suddenly find weapons and armor meant for mages, including a Dagger of Effective Poisons, a Club of Power Oaks, and Fire Robes.
The third sewer level was particularly vexing. First, the stairways A and B are outside of the 30 x 30 area of the map; on other maps, the staircases were part of the map space. Second, so much space is unused in the northwest that I figured I must have missed something, but I couldn't find anything. To lower the gate at F, you have to hit the buttons at E, one of which is in fire. To get to the inner "E," you have to first hit the button at H, which lowers the wall at I. You have to get through the passages at G and I while being slid around in a loop by sliders. Some of the squares are dark, too. Oh, and there are constant missiles flying down the east corridor (in yellow), but don't hit the button at L to block them. That raises a pillar at M that you can never get to go away, trapping you in the area. (I just realized that I used M for several locations; the one I'm talking about is the one right next to L.)
My fighter started to fall so far behind in experience that I spent a few levels allowing him to get almost all of it. The crux of the problem is that spellcasters gain experience with every successful spell, but fighters actually have to hit an enemy to level up. But later in this session, my fighter found a couple of enchanted weapons that allowed him to overtake the spellcasters. He's now Level 13 to everyone else's Level 11.
There's been no "plot," as such, but one curious thing happened as I entered the third sewer level. One step into the hallway, and I encountered (in text alone) an "upset dwarf" who said: "You were told not to touch our treasure. Now take responsibility for what you have done. You will never leave this place alive and your destiny will not be fame and fortune but death itself." Yikes. Despite the warning, nothing special happened that indicated that the dwarves had it in for me. I wonder if I would have truly avoided this message if I hadn't looted any of the chests in the upper levels, or if everyone gets it.
Let me bullet a lot of miscellaneous things:
  • Gameplay can get very sluggish with lots of enemies around. I'm using the settings recommended by the developers, but very often, the game fails to register clicks. This can be fatal when that click was meant to cast a healing spell.
  • I've adopted the expedient of just using scrolls, wands, potions, burning oil, and so forth the moment I find it. There's nothing to save them for, and inventory space is precious. One exception is torches. I always have a few of those on hand because the "Light" spell only lasts a few seconds.
  • The game clearly has an encumbrance statistic because my characters slowed down their attacks noticeably when their inventories were full. That's another reason not to carry excess stuff.
  • I've found two pits. One went to the next level (you can return via "Levitate") and the other went to another area on the same level. That's confusing.
Preparing to drop.
  • The game's few sound effects include swishes and thuds in combat. If they signify anything at all (and are not just random noises), I think maybe they're accidentally reversed. When I see an enemy die from a melee attack, it's usually accompanied by a swish. I don't think I've ever seen one die on a thud.
  • Most messages come up once and never again. They dismiss themselves at a slight breeze. If I'm moving fast down a hallway and a message pops up, I often accidentally hit the next step before I see it, and it disappears. This means reloading.
  • There was a big area of the second level of the ancient dwarven mines (the last level of this series of dungeons) that I never found a way into. I can hear a lot of enemies clomping around in there.
  • When you cast "Create Food," one of around 15 food items gets randomly created. These generally vary in nutritional value (i.e., food points) from 1 or 2 (apricot, tomato, ear of corn) to 7 (potato, goodberries). But a fish, for some reason, is worth 40. It's always great when one of those comes up. It saves like 20 other castings.
By the end of the dungeon, I was sick of all the mapping. My tolerance for mapping is about 4,000 squares. I can do 10 levels of wizardry at 20 x 20 each, but a game with 900-square levels is going to lose me before Level 5. I persevered and found the Dobelal Shield behind a couple of locked doors on the last level. It was accompanied by a message from Kuhalk--I don't know if the game means the sword or the person the sword was named after. Either way, he related that Pendugmalhe has taken him to the dungeons beneath the old tower in the north forest.
How do we know what Kuhalk's voice sounds like?
I had really expected a teleporter or shortcut stairway after finding the artifact, but instead I had to walk all the way back up seven levels. 
When I got back to a town, I sold all my gems and jewelry, and then confirmed my growing suspicion that the shops in this game serve no purpose at all. Anything they sell is outclassed by the time you can afford to buy it. If you didn't reload after character deaths, you could spend some money on resurrections, but that's really the only point of collecting gold. Dungeon Master games so rarely have shops and economies that it's a bit enraging to see them introduced and then rendered meaningless.
I don't even think I'll bother to collect gems for the rest of the game.
As I wrapped up this very long session, I realized I couldn't continue without some sense of how much longer the game is. So I Googled around until I found this Slovakian site, on which a user named Ringo (who has commented on The CRPG Addict before) has mapped all the levels. There are 13 more; I've only played half the game. I don't think I have another 35 hours of mapping in me, so I'm going to adopt the rare (for me) approach of playing the rest of the game with Ringo's maps. Yes, it breaks the rules, but you have to break the rules now and then to keep things interesting. I never use spoilers to this extent, and it interests me to see how playing with them will change the fundamental experience. I would point out, too, that Ringo's maps only annotate the locations of things, not what they do, so I'll still have to solve the puzzles. For instance, I checked his maps of the dwarven mines against mine, and his would not have warned me about the two "walking dead" situations I mentioned earlier.
After 22 hours of gameplay, I still could barely get 2,000 words out of the experience, but that's par for the course in dungeon crawlers. Unless someone really wants one of those intensely detailed entries in which I cover the blow-by-blow of a single level, I'll probably wrap this up in one.
Time so far: 35 hours