Monday, May 17, 2021

Game 413: Orb Quest, Part I: The Search for Seven Wards (1986)

Orb Quest, Part I: The Search for Seven Wards
United States
QWare (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for Macintosh
Date Started: 9 May 2021
Orb Quest is not the first RPG that was available for the Macintosh, as there were 1985 ports of Wizardry and the second and third Ultimas. But if we accept that Quarterstaff isn't an RPG at all, but an adventure game, Orb Quest seems to be the first RPG designed natively for the Macintosh. That isn't always a good thing. There are times that the Mac seems too "cute" for its own good--and too in love with its mouse in particular--but nonetheless, it's a historically-important game. It was unavailable for years. In August last year, a copy showed up on eBay and ended up selling for $305. At around the same time, it became available on Macintosh Garden, but copy protection made it impossible to play until a number of dedicated users (including our own LanHawk) cracked it. LanHawk ended up finishing the game himself and sending me all the instructions necessary to get it going on my own.
The documentation is still lost, I believe, which creates a conundrum when it comes to the title. When there's a conflict, my policy is generally to go with the best two out of three between the game's title screen, box, and manual. With no manual, there's nothing to break the tie between whether the game has a space between "Orb" and "Quest" and whether it has a "Part I" in its title. I tend to favor the game's main screen and have done so here, but in contrast to what nearly every piece of documentation on the Internet says.
Some of the in-game backstory.
We also have to piece together the backstory from the game's brief introductory screen plus what contemporary reviews of the time said. It seems to be simple: Evil threatened the land. King Cricken assembled the seven parts ("wards") of an ancient orb that had the power to banish evil. But something interfered with his spell and caused an explosion that annihilated him and scattered the orb. Evil was pushed back temporarily but now has returned. It is up to the hero to find the seven wards and reunite the orb. I hate to start off with a criticism, but is an orb really the best object to use in a "Disassembulet of Yendor" quest? How do you get seven pieces out of an orb? Okay, sure you cut seven equal ungulae. But how do you put it back together?
Anyway, character creation has you choose from human, elf, dwarf, hobbit, and half-orc classes; spellcaster, fighter, and thief races; and female, male, and--in perhaps a "first"--other gender. [Ed.: As commenters reminded me, Ultima III had the same "other" option three years earlier.] Your attributes--strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, charisma--are rolled on a scale of roughly 30 to 100, modified by race, class, and gender selection. For a "woke" game, the effects of gender selection on attributes is interesting. Males gain 10 points of strength and intelligence over women, plus 5 points of constitution, but lose 10 points of wisdom and dexterity and 5 points of charisma. "Others" have a male's intelligence, dexterity, and charisma, but a female's strength, wisdom, and constitution; in other words, they get two good attributes and four bad ones.
That low intelligence is going to come back to haunt me.
The character starts on a monochrome plan, near a castle and town, with a random amount of hit points, food, and gold. Already, the game and I have some problems, as while some actions have a keyboard shortcut, movement isn't one of them. Until this moment, there were only two things I found unforgivable in CRPG design. One is level caps that an average player would hit before the last 5% of the game. The other is forcing the player to click the mouse to move. Unfortunately, this game manages to find a third one that I didn't even known existed: playing piercing tone with every move. You can turn sound off, but it doesn't seem fair to force the player to miss all sound effects just because there's one stupid one. Oh, and I would note that turning sound "off" doesn't prevent an error message from playing every time you bump into a wall or mountain.
Starting out.
The menus suggest there is a fixed equipment ladder, with weapons starting at "Unprotected" and moving upwards through cloth, leather, ring mail, chain mail, and plate mail, and ending with a magic cloak. Weapons similarly start with "bare hands" and go upward through dagger, battle axe, short sword, bastard sword, and crossbow before ending with a magic wand. I assume some of these things won't be available to my thief character. Already we see a fusion of tropes common to Ultima, but tempered with a little Dungeons and Dragons (including the specific attribute order).
The castle is surrounded by mountains that I cannot yet cross, and the other structure--I assume it's a town--has some water between me and it, so I start heading north and east. Immediately, I'm attacked by a pair of buccaneers. Combat only has one action ("Attack"), plus spells. My thief gets a couple of spell points, but at the outset it's only enough for "Cure Wounds." I kill the buccaneers with my firsts, but it costs me almost half my hit points and nets me 11 gold. A few steps later, another buccaneer takes me down to 36 hit points. I cast "Cure Wounds" twice, but the first one only gets me 8 hit points back, and the second fails. Fortunately, it appears that both spell points and hit points regenerate every few steps, but food depletes fairly quickly, too.
Trading blows with a buccaneer.
As with the first Ultima, enemies pop up in the environment when they're a few steps away, and unlike a lot of games, they don't have some special ability to move faster than you do on the diagonal, so I'm able to outrun a couple of them on the way to the nearest town. This turns out to be called Barrowsmith. You can only save in towns, which is a difficulty setting that I enjoy provided that the game is otherwise fair. Hit point and spell point restoration stop while in town, but so does food loss.

The town is large but simple. It has a food shop, a weapon shop, an armor shop, and a tavern. I buy a dagger, cloth armor, some food, and a drink, which gives me a tip. I assume the higher orders of drinks, which are expensive, give additional tips. There's a large area in the center of town that's inaccessible. It doesn't look like there's anything there, and as far as I can tell, there's no secret door mechanic. The only commands are "Attack," "Enter," "Inventory," "Use," "Drop," and "Barter." That is, except for a mysterious, grayed-out command called "Global Thermonuclear War." This is obviously an allusion to WarGames (1983), but I have no idea what it means in the context of this game. Wow--Matthew Broderick is 59. I guess we're never getting that Ferris Bueller sequel.
Buying a weapon.
For some reason, I expected the game to be difficult and grindy, but it's not so bad. I found I could generally keep up with healing against the starting enemies (satyrs, killer moths, buccaneers, bad bats, floating eyes, pygmies), although it was a good idea to stay near a town and periodically save. Every once in a while, an enemy has a treasure chest, and you get a couple hundred gold pieces instead of the usual 0-10. These were the keys to acquiring better items quickly. The thief can also try to steal inventory, but the risk (loss of all your gold and whatever items you had in that category) is too high to be worth the risk.
The game has mostly normal enemies and then this really weird one.
The opening area has only a couple of towns. Mountains or sea block most ways out. Swamps don't serve as a barrier, but you don't want to walk through them because they sap hit points. To get out of the starting area, you have to cross one of two bridges, both of which are guarded by trolls who demand a 100-gold piece toll. There's no way to fight them instead, so the first task is earning that money.
There are no explicit levels, but I noticed I was gaining maximum hit points and spell points, the latter at a rate of 1 for every 100 experience points. I'm not sure if the experience points also serve as a kind of subtle multiplier on your attack rolls. Battles against low-level foes seem to get a bit easier as I earn more experience, but then again I also upgrade my weapon a couple of times. Unfortunately, as I gain more experience, the game starts throwing more difficult and numerous foes at me. The level scaling seems to only apply to the maximum level of each generated enemy, as I still get single buccaneers. But if the generated enemy is a "white knight" or an "iron ape," I might as well just kill the emulator and restart.   
The truth is, I was thinking about doing something worse than "crossing without paying."
In the wider world, I soon found a city called Petrburg that, in addition to the weapon, armor, and food shops, also had a healer and a shop selling magic items and spells. The spell shop seems to be how you acquire new spells, so I'm not sure what the "Tome of Magic" in the magic shop does. The "Ring of Wishes" is also a mystery.
Fighting battles around Petrburg, I discover that enemy chests sometimes contain clues. In fact, they seem to share the same "hint pool" with the taverns. So far, I've learned:
  • Beware when the fat lady sings! 
  • Beware the floating eye, for it brings bad luck.
  • Many come back to town after meeting the cube.
  • The swamps are known as the little death.
  • The shape changer assumes more than just your form.
  • Legend says that only the pure of spirit, the strong of arm, the swift of foot, and the keen of mind may enter the pyramids and succeed.
  • Levels maybe make combat easier.
  • Many fall upon hard times after meeting the evil eye.
  • Only an adventurer with a keen mind will ever reach the center of the pyramids.
  • There is protection from dragons to be had.
  • Tarry not in thy quest. Evil grows stronger.
  • In the temples, it is said that one receives more than what is bought.
  • All can be cured within the temple.
  • The Orb must be placed upon the throne of the ancient kings.
  • Not all places may be reached by foot.
  • Judge not and thou will still be judged.
  • Few return who behold a beholder. Its powers are many.
  • Only by appeasing the spirits may entrance to the pyramids be gained.
  • When in darkness, go forward one, left two, left 'til you can go no more, right 'til you can go no more, and left for success.
I knew it!!!
Near Petrburg is a pyramid. Entering the pyramid, I found myself in a maze with hieroglyphics on the walls. There were no monsters. The maze led to a center, where I found the first ward. It was surrounded by plates that teleported me around the little room. I just had to keep testing plates until I found a sequence that brought me next to the ward. When I picked it up, I got 25 points in my "orb" statistic, and a new menu ("Special") with a "Remove Curse" option. 
Trying to approach the first ward.
What I do next is only understandable if you know a bit of context. During the period between roughly 7 May and 12 May, I had to grade over 100 papers and other assignments. I'm always looking for something mindless to do in between papers. It can't be too enjoyable, like actually playing an RPG, because I'll get sucked into it and never emerge. But something boring, like mapping a top-down RPG, is ideal. Like grading papers, it's something that you don't really want to be doing. The next paper serves as a break from mapping, and mapping serves as a break from papers. It's perfect.
I expect to have to make my own maps for first-person RPGs, but I think the developer should provide one for top-down games, even if it's just a rough sketch to help get your bearings. I don't know if QWare did that for Orb Quest, but I do know that the geography of the place is too complicated to navigate without one. The map probably took about 12 hours total. Dimensionally, it occupies 267 squares north-south and 219 squares east-west. As you can see, a lot of that is blank space, though. I don't know if boats or other methods of crossing water exist in the game--I never saw a hint about them as I visited the towns--but there looks to be at least one important island. There also has to be some way to cross mountains because there's a castle completely encircled by them.

My map of the Orb Quest world. Yes, it looks a bit like Africa and South America have switched places, and there's a land bridge from South America to Australia.
The red squares are the poisoned swamps, and as you can see, you have to cross through one huge one to get to the southeast continent. By the way, I want you to imagine me mapping that area, going one row of 13 tiles at a time, figuring confidently that based on the dimensions of the rest of the map, the southern tip of the red area is going to be the end. Only it never ends. There's this trail of single red squares that seems to last forever and ever, and then suddenly it opens up into new, huge continent. There was more than a little swearing that evening.
During this mapping, I found seven pyramids. All of them are named after a precious gem, metal, or other material: Emerald, Ivory, Bronze, and so forth. I don't think I tried to enter all of them, but the ones I did try to enter (other than the first, Azure), refused to let me in because I have "yet to be judged at the Island of Mystics." There are 11 cities and towns with names like Cape West, Clearview, New Talos, Three Rivers, Susetta, and Eventide. I didn't exhaustively explore all of them, but none seemed to offer any NPCs or services that I haven't already discussed. 
Any chance the "powerful guardian" could give me a lift?
I gained a lot of experience during the mapping process, but not as much as you might expect, since well over half my expeditions ended in death and reloading at the previous town. I discovered that chests sometimes contain additional pieces of armor, like steel gauntlets and a magic shield, that you equip and use automatically. I found a Wand of Death at one point, but that character didn't last.
Now that I have the map and I'm done grading papers, I suppose the next step is to figure out how to get to that Island of the Mystics. I hope it doesn't linger more than one more entry, because I'm thoroughly sick of the movement system already: If not for that, this would be a perfectly pleasant if somewhat bland Ultima clone.
Time so far: 14 hours

Friday, May 14, 2021

Darkside of Xeen: Game Time!

A prophet describes every RPG ever.
As we wrapped up last time, my Level 26 party had finally found its way into Xeen's second town, Sandcaster, hoping to get a new bead on the main quest. As we emerged from the sewers, we were attacked almost immediately by enchantresses that looked more techno than fantasy. As it turned out, the entire city was being bullied by enchantresses and wizards (including a "master" variety).
That's an awfully cyberpunky enchantress.
Grimgrag the Baker told us the spellcasters are sensitive to insults. Sure enough, when I approached Blastem the Wizard in the tavern, he demanded respect. I had a role-playing option that wasn't really any role-playing option at all . . .
If any CRPG player has ever chosen #2 in this scenario, I want to meet you. E-mail me after you get your second COVID vaccine. I'll pay the travel expenses.
. . . which generated a huge tavern fight against a couple dozen mages. Fortunately, I was clearly supposed to have visited Sandcaster many levels ago. For the most part, their spells were unable to overcome my elemental resistances, and they typically died in one hit. The only negative part was waiting for all their spell animations to finish.
Elsewhere, Astra the Good Sorceress asked us to clean out the town of the magic users and their leaders, Xenoc the Wizard and Morgana the Sorceress. Morgana was in a room in town, but to find Xenoc, I had to go to the sewers and back up into a hidden section of town.
With muscles like that, why use spells?
The town had the usual selection of services, including a temple, which was good because half my characters were insane when I arrived. I don't think insanity has a spell cure in this game, although I haven't tried "Divine Intervention." It seems like overkill to cure one condition. Someone who inherited all his wealth and has all day to sit around reading manuals is going to pop in to tell me that there is a cure and it's in the manual. Must be nice.
The double-sized map also had a number of other encounters, most with NPCs in tables and tents:
  • Trainers for prestidigitation (Tibara the Magician), navigation (Gregor the Navigator), linguist (Natalie the Linguist), and merchant (Morgan the Merchant). Perhaps Darkside should have simply required players to learn Darkside-specific versions of these skills.
  • Melissa the Trainer told me that Natasha "will sometimes enchant ordinary things will spells of calm and friendship," useful for taming wild beasts. But when I met Natasha the Enchantress, she said I didn't have anything that she could enchant. I don't know if this is a later quest or if I just need to have a specific type of item.
  • A chest in one of the wizards' chambers had the key to the Great Eastern Tower.
  • Apparently, the darkside used to have travel mirrors just like the other side, but Alamar shut them down. 
  • The spellcasters' rooms had some potions that gave permanent bonuses to speed, intelligence, and personality.
The game has been generous with these lately.
  • James the Merchant and Edmund the Weapons Forger (that sounds like me makes bootleg copies) both had algebra problems, each of which netted us 250,000 experience for the solution.
p=1, a=2. What else ya got?
  • Digga the Salesman sold me "vulture repellent" for 25,000 gold. Later, an NPC told me that "vulture repellent doesn't work," but that NPC is named "Creighton the Dunce," so I don't know what to believe. I think I already killed all the vultures.
  • Niccola the Guildman sold us membership in the Sandcaster guild for 20,000 gold pieces each (60,000 total for my three spellcasters). Although I purchased it here and in the next two cities, I believe I already have all the game's spells. None of the guilds had anything to offer me.
  • Flint the Treasure Hunter said he's heard of a great treasure "horde" buried "somewhere in the land." I wonder if he's referring to the treasure of Jibbo Mox.
  • Sarah, "a Paladin's Friend," said that a dying paladin gave his magic armor to the "enchanted boulders o the land for safekeeping." That must be what the boulders' puzzle gets me.
  • A monkeydog (there was a second one!) said that I should never take all of a genie's money. "It's greedy." This suggests I played the encounter with the genie in the last session just right. I wonder if that will come back to benefit us.
". . . but you clean one lamp . . ."
  • Drusilla the Clairvoyant offers a hint of a plot twist for anyone who hasn't already played the first Might and Magic:
Just get a floor plan for the basement of his castle.
Most important, Geoffrey the Monitor was selling passes to Lakeside. Since I had tried to visit that city during the last game, and it had one of my statuette quests, I decided to head there next via the expediency of "Town Portal."
Lakeside was a smaller community.
We immediately got attacked by witches when we arrived. What's with the spellcasters in this setting? Imagine if they put this effort into helping the pharaoh instead of menacing small towns. Just like Sandcaster, they were pretty helpless against our "Protection from Elements." The small map was full of cages in which the witches had imprisoned townsfolk. We got a lot of experience for freeing them. One of the freed NPCs, Camilla the Captured, told me that they turn the captured citizens into monsters, who then get shipped to Castle Blackfang as guards. The ones that come out wrong go to the Isle of Lost Souls. 
Y'all aren't going to keep those sobriquets, are you?
Like Sandcaster, the witches had a bunch of potions that permanently increased attributes. They also had a bunch of texts that described in detail how to make such potions. The detail was a little unnecessary, as the instructions are impossible to follow using the game mechanics and clearly aren't meant for the player. Some of the potions were in cauldrons, and some of the cauldrons turned the drinker to stone rather than providing an attribute increase. After one such event, I finally decided to trust the heads on the side of the screen, which activate with the "Clairvoyance" spell (including the packaged "Day of Sorcery" spell). The one on the left shakes if it's unsafe to do something and nods if it's safe. The one on the right nods if there's any benefit to doing it and shakes if there's not. Obviously, he's the one you have to pay most attention to, but if they both shake, you probably want to move on.
I admit I like the witch graphics.
There was a silly word puzzle that had the same shtick as the desert boulders, though much easier because there's only one possibility for each letter, and the answer is obvious anyway. I can't even remember what I got for solving it.
This could have been a little harder.
To wipe out the witches, I had to hit them in both the town and the sewers. The witch leader had a pass to Necropolis and the golden dragon statuette, one of three I have to recover for . . . a dryad? An elf? I forgot. Yes, I could look it up in a previous entry. Why don't you do that, David Allen, and report back to me.
I braced for more spellcasters in Necropolis, but as I should have guessed from its name, its theme was undead. Higher mummies attacked as soon as I entered (I never even got to face regular mummies!), and I had to fight a bunch of power liches when I pillaged their coffins. Things only started to get hard here, but not very. The biggest problem was the power liches kept cursing me, which in turn curses your entire inventory until you get it lifted at a temple or spend the absurd points on "Divine Intervention."
Isn't that a bit redundant?
The most difficult enemy was Sandro the Lich. He wanted us to bring him his heart so I could destroy it and end his curse. Even though we were working for him, his "hunger for the living" compelled him to attack us, and his first blast killed two of my characters. Raising them isn't a big deal at this point, though, and Sandro died (temporarily) with I think a combination of physical attacks and "Holy Word."
To kill Sandro permanently, I had to get his heart from the sewers, which are running with lava instead of sewage. Fortunately, it doesn't do much against my elemental protection. There were some trivial "lava roaches" that popped up as we explored. When we brought back his heart, Sandro expired gratefully and gave us not only another statuette but the key to his "old home" on the Clouds side of the world, the Dungeon of Death. He also gave us 2 million experience and the encouragement that "Alamar can be defeated."
I suppose the town should be commended for building above a geothermal heat source.
Incidentally, the name "Sandro" seemed familiar, so I Googled it. A bunch of wikis say he (or, more likely, another lich of the same name) appears in the Heroes of Might and Magic series on Enroth. There must be some reference to him in VI or VII, because I've never played Heroes
Maybe he realized he liked being a lich and gives away his heart again.
A few other odd things were in Necropolis. One was a very long book. Books in this game tend to be a couple of pages at most, but this one went on forever about a conflict between two brothers, both sorcerers, named Death and Darkness. They battled for years over who was stronger and eventually hashed it out in a cataclysmic battle in which they both died. I'm not sure what I was supposed to take from that.
More interesting were a series of "Books of the Dead." I think there were only five or six, but they were numbered III through VIII or something. Maybe I missed a couple; I guess I should go back. Anyway, reading these generally conferred 1 million experience points on the reader, but also aged him between 25 and 50 years. The final book conferred 10 million experience points but aged the reader 100 years, and could only be read by my druid and sorcerer anyway (there was an intelligence check). I think the "right" way to do this was to help someone named Thaddeus (based on a hint I got in Sandcaster), who can remove magical aging. But not having experienced that encounter, I warped back to the Clouds side (I still have a "Lloyd's Beacon" set in Vertigo) and did the circuit of druids. The thing is, I was afraid to let anyone get too old, even though I don't think there's any danger until you sleep, so I ended up doing this three times.
I hope the shock of "Lloyd's Beacon" doesn't kill him.
That must have been interesting for the people of Xeen: the world went through all four seasons three times in the space of about three days. What kind of system has the seasons advance whenever a druid gets some item from the last druid? But that isn't the only thing that's odd about this game and time. Based on some lingering questions from my previous sessions, I did some experimentation. The results indicate that if you didn't already know Xeen was a false reality, you'd be able to figure it out through a little observation:
  • One minute passes for every move or action indoors, not including inventory, the journal, or checking the time itself. Turning also takes no time. If you enter combat, one minute passes for every combat round.
  • Outside, the rules are the same, but every action takes 10 minutes. However, in combat outdoors, rounds only take one minute.
You have to keep your eye on the calendar. Days can slip by faster than you think.
  • It thus takes about 16 hours to cross the entire world of Xeen from east to west, and 10.5 hours to cross it from north to south ("about" because there are a variable number of inaccessible squares around the edge). Assuming a slow walking speed, that still puts Xeen at roughly 672 square miles. I was trying to find a good comparison to that. It's about the size of Los Angeles, but that doesn't really work because most of what people think is Los Angeles isn't Los Angeles and most of what is Los Angeles isn't what people think is Los Angeles. Houston and London both work. It's about the size of Houston or London. Just the cities, not the metro areas.
  • Using a magic mirror to travel takes no time at all, even though you have to hit SPACE to use it. Neither does entering or exiting a town via the door.
  • Here's where it gets weird. Visiting any town service--temple, tavern, armory--makes one full day pass on the calendar, even if you immediately back out. Oddly, this has no effect on your active buffs. The game acts as if no time has passed at all, and any active spells or healing potions remain active until 05:00 the next day.
  • However, if you get healed at the temple (and only healed; donations don't count), it will remove any active buffs for that character only. That's what was happening to my party all throughout Clouds.
  • Training takes one initial day for just visiting. If you actually train, it's one day per person, regardless of how many times they train. Training removes buffs and spells but not status effects like drunkenness that would otherwise wear off over time.
  • If you haven't slept in 48 hours or more when the clock rolls around to 05:00, the game says, "Your party needs rest!" and everyone gets "Weak," which puts a sad look on their faces and reduces all their attributes by 1. It never seems to get worse than that. Occasionally, even though their appearances don't change, their statuses get restored to "Good" (and their attributes go back up) for no reason.
Everyone is sad and slightly weak.
  • A year is only 100 days. It rolls from Day 99 to Day 0.
When I was done puzzling the mysteries of space and time, the party decided to return to the Clouds side and explore the new dungeon. Given its name and that it had belonged to a lich, we expected it might be full of undead creatures. Instead, it--or, at least, its first level--is a giant crossword puzzle. It violates the rules of any modern crossword puzzle grid, but that's forgivable since nearly every answer is themed answer. In a Sunday New York Times crossword (which has about the same number of clues), you're lucky to get five or six themed answers.
We did not have to consult our notes for this one.
This one has 89 clues and answers, 41 across and 48 down. They all start in dead-end squares, which was probably a limitation of the engine (e.g., you can' t have two encounters in one square, with one clue on each wall). Some of them are generic fantasy, like "half man, half bull" (MINOTAUR) or "knight's attendant" (PAGE). Some could be figured out generically but are also emphasized in Might and Magic specifically, like "savage, primitive person" (BARBARIAN) or "armored mammal" (ARMADILLO). But quite a few require specific knowledge from these two games, including "unicorn whose alicorn was stolen" (FALISTA) and "Castle Basenji password" (THEREWOLF). One of them, "freed from spaceship" (CORAK) was even a spoiler. A couple of them had me shuffling through my notes and screenshots from the last game.
None of them are very hard, however, because they're all given--even highlighted--in a little travelogue given by a statue at the entrance to the dungeon. That really annoyed me. The reward for finishing the puzzle is +5 levels, which is enough that the player should have had to do the work. I didn't use the book. If you want to try it yourself, here's the blank version and the filled-in version.
A statue spoils the entire puzzle.
Solving the puzzle doesn't just get you 5 levels; it also gets you down the stairway to the lower level of the Dungeon of Death. Unfortunately, even with my ninja at Level 65 (including the +5 for solving the puzzle and 10 levels from the fountain), I can't open or bash a door in this area. I thus reloaded from before I got the +5 levels, thinking that if I have to return to the Dungeon of Death anyway, I might as well save it for when those levels are a lot more valuable.
I don't want to seem ungrateful, but I think we deserve more than a haircut.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • When you go into a store or other service location in Clouds, you get a desk. Walking up to the desk and hitting SPACE activates the "store." On the Darkside, instead of a desk you get this wooden thing. I had perceived it as a door, but I finally realized this session that it's supposed to represent stairs going up, to where the actual services are found.
It took me until now to properly interpret this image.
  • For the first time, I had to take money out of my bank account to train. Thanks to the rewards in Necropolis, we each went up about 15 levels at once. I still have about 2 million in the bank, but a couple of my characters could train more; they're just at the maximum level for Sandcaster (50). Lakeside and Necropolis don't have training halls, so I suppose my only hope is the final city, Olympus.
  • Olympus is up in the clouds, and I have no idea where to get a pass.
  • This is fine because I still don't have a pass to Sandcaster, so to get there to train, I was having to sneak in through the sewers. 
  • Lakeview had some flooded squares in the northern part of the city, a couple with boats. I guess it was supposed to be a marina. One boat offered us "safe passage" to the Isle of Lost Souls, but that just took us to the outside. I was surprised we didn't find a key to the dungeon on the island in the city, given its connection to the witches. 
  • I need another 5 energy discs for the next phase of Castle Kalindra. About 12 hours after finding a fourth energy disc, I still haven't found a fifth one.
When I was done (for now) with the Dungeon of Death, I had reached the end of my immediate clues. Everything else requires an item or is at an unknown location, such as the "head heretical cleric" who possesses the third statuette. I thus rolled for a new random area and got A2, just north of where I'd already explored for Necropolis. 
Feeling like a badass, I was almost immediately deflated by a "gamma gazer." I remember beating one before; why would it be hard now that I'm 15 levels higher? I mean, he didn't come close to killing us or anything, but the combat took about 7 rounds, and I had to heal a couple of times.
Griffins--which seem to have a particular hatred for my knight--and giants prowl the eastern edges of this map, which transitions from desert in the southwest to snow in the northeast. I haven't found much so far, but I have found a second space ship. And this one allows me to enter it.
We should have some interesting things to discuss next time. 
Time so far: 18 hours

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Revisiting: The Seven Spirits of Ra (1987)

The Seven Spirits of Ra
United States
Macrocom (developer); Sir-Tech (publisher)
Released in 1987 for DOS
Date Started: 23 January 2011
Date Finished: 5 May 2021
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
This is a game that I've long wanted to convert to a "win" even though it isn't really an RPG. I could have rejected it on all three of my grounds, but I didn't, back when I played it in 2011. Thus having already numbered and listed it, I figure I should tie it off with a victory.
Ra was made by the same team that created the highly-original ICON: The Quest for the Ring (1984). In that game, you played and interacted with characters from the Nibelungenlied. Ra similarly mines classical mythology, in this case the Osiris myth from ancient Egypt. As before, Dr. Randall Bohrer of the Georgia Institute of Technology served as the subject matter expert while collaborating with his former students, Neal White III and Bryan Rossman, on the programming.
Starting out.
The manual tells a long backstory about Osiris, the first pharaoh, and his brothers and sisters among the Egyptian pantheon. Someone more versed in Egyptian mythology would have to confirm, but I think the story that the authors tell in the manual is a bit different than any of the traditional versions. It sometimes conflates them and sometimes seems to go off in its own direction. (This is in no way a criticism, just an observation). The basic story is that Osiris was a wise and successful ruler, but his brother, Set, managed to gaslight the populace into thinking otherwise. Eventually, Osiris's own guards set a trap for him and allowed Set to murder him.
The opening moments of the game show this assassination happening on a boat.
Set butchered the body of the king and scattered the pieces, each of which was devoured by a different animal. Meanwhile, the spirit of Osiris, deprived of a proper burial, wanders the Duad, the after-realm, looking for a way to return to the land of the living. The goal of the game is to find the spirits of the five animals that ate Osiris, slay them, and gain their own powers. 
The backstory and quest naturally call the title into question. The manual says that Osiris had 10 spirits within him; three of them went to enjoy immortality with Ra while seven went to the Duad. These seven make up the seven "lives" that you have in the game. So why does the title have them as the seven spirits of Ra? Ra doesn't really play a part in the game.
In any event, during the game, you must slay a particular rat, vulture, snake, bat, and crocodile, each distinguished from its brethren because its graphic flashes as you approach. When you kill the animal, you gain the ability to transform into it. Such transformations are key to the game's limited puzzles: there are swamps you can only cross as a crocodile or snake; small areas you can only navigate as a rat or snake; and areas to which you have to fly as a bat or vulture. I assume the redundancies among the transformations are there to keep the game from being too linear.
You must become a vulture to reach the entrance to one pyramid.

Turning into a bat is the only way to see in a cave near the end.
There are eight areas to explore: the Desert of the Three Pyramids; the pyramids of Manu, Hetsahpet, and Osa; the Pits of Abot; the City of Tombs; the Caverns of Isis; and the Stronghold of Set. Each is swarming with continually-respawning enemies. There are a few fixed treasures, puzzles, and encounters in each area.
Like ICON, the game uses CGA graphics, but is able to get more colors and a higher resolution than should have been possible through a set of innovative tweaks that, as a non-programmer, I don't really understand. The controls are excellent--all keyboard, one key per action, with intuitive mapping like "T" to transform and "W" to change weapons. 
Osiris starts with one weapon, just a hand attack that does virtually no damage, so one of the first goals is to find a sword, which in the basic games is in the southeast corner of the outdoor area. You have to cross the Nile to get to it, avoiding crocodiles. Things aren't easy even after you have the sword. Combat with the sword requires that the sword itself--which always juts out to the right of the character icon--be in contact with the enemy. This means that there's no attacking from under, above, or right of the enemy. Meanwhile, to sap your own hit points, the enemy needs only to touch you. Most of your hit points are lost just trying to get into position.
Trying to kill some mummies before they kill me. The snake who ate a piece of my body is in the room in the upper-right.
The sword isn't even effective against ghosts, so until you find one of the other two weapons--a Wand of Fire and a Wand of Lighting--you just have to do your best to avoid them. I lost four of seven lives during this early stage of the game, and that's even with frequently reloading. Hit points regenerate slowly if you stand still, but it's hard to find an area where that's safe. There are rare mushrooms that also heal you.
My character sheet near the end. I only have the bat to kill.
Things are a bit easier once you have the wands, but not always. The wands allow you to attack in any direction, which is nice, but if you attack with a wand too close to the enemy, you'll take some of the reflected damage. If you miss with the Wand of Lightning, you have to wait for it to bounce around and dissipate before you can attack again; there are some maps in which it takes literal minutes for the bolt to travel across the map and bounce back, leaving you without a weapon in the meantime.
I assume the difficulty was intentional, because otherwise the game is relatively small. If you didn't die so much, you could win in an hour. And that's in a "basic" game. There's also an "advanced" option in which only mushrooms heal you and some of the items are randomized, so you can't use previous knowledge to find things.
I traverse a small passage as a rat. One of the wands and three treasures await on the other side.
The best parts of the game are the use of lore. As you enter each area, you get a title card with a little blank verse describing what you'll find there. Most of the puzzles are based on this lore. For instance, in the Pits of Abot, you meet the crocodile god, who bars you from reaching the god Thoth. He wants to know why you seek Thoth. To answer correctly, you have to remember the title card for the Pyramid of Manu, which ends, "Look instead for the gates to wisdom." I didn't get it. I Googled what Thoth was the god of and tried MAGIC and WRITING before getting it correct with WISDOM.
HOPE is later the answer to a riddle.
When you reach Thoth, he offers this: "Salvation lies in the sight of truth. Although you see, you are in darkness. The Spirit of Truth seeks light." This provides answers to two of the final questions in the Caves of Isis: "Where are you?" (DARKNESS) and "What do you seek?" (LIGHT). A stela in the City of Tombs provides the answers to the other two.
I nearly typed "infinity."
To get to the endgame, I think you have to kill all five animals, but I think three are only technically necessary to navigate to all the areas. I'm not sure what happens if you try to finish the game without having killed one of them. You also have to make an offering of treasures at the Altar of Ra. I have no idea how many treasures are needed here; I just dropped all of mine.
As an atheist, I never understand how religious people are so accepting of being in a state of constant surveillance.
After that, you pass through the four questions in the Caverns of Isis, where you can also visit an island to reclaim your lost "lives" from earlier in the game. At some point during this journey, you transform into Horus, Osiris's son who was also Osiris reborn.
So Isis is simultaneously my mother, my wife, and my sister.
A few transformations are necessary to reach Set at the center of his stronghold. The final battle is a bit disappointing. He's immune to wands, so you just end up waving your sword at him until he dies, which costs you a few lives along the way. I read an interview with the authors in which they said they originally planned to introduce a lot more strategy to the final battle, with Set changing forms repeatedly and Osiris having to transform into his own animal forms to keep up. It's too bad they weren't able to use this. Set does change forms during the battle, but all you do is stab at him.
Approaching Set amid his allies.
The victory screen shows Horus/Osiris being ferried back to the land of the living as text scrolls across the bottom of the screen: "Hail, Osiris, conqueror of Set and his Dominion of Darkness. Like Ra, you emerge victorious over the power of night. Journey with Ra as an immortal aboard his boat of the Sun."
You then get your final score, which is a combination of the enemies you killed and the treasure you found, minus what you sacrificed to Ra. I think something may be bugged with the score, though, as mine kept going into negative values during the game. I could never identify exactly what was causing it to do that.
844 doesn't sound bad, but I think I was up to over 3,000 at one point.
After the victory screen, you get . . . I don't know what to call it. A story? A religious text? It's ten screens of text tiled The Koru Kosmu, or The Eye of the Universe, "a fragment of the Discourse of Thoth to a priest of Amon-Ra." No Googling turns up anything of that name, subtitle, or text, so I assume the authors must have written it as a kind of bonus. The story is told from the perspective of a young priest who falls asleep while studying ancient texts and receives a vision from Thoth. Thoth shows him that there are two worlds: the temporary, malleable physical world, and the eternal, unchanging spiritual world. Truth, he says, is to be found by looking beyond the material and into the spiritual. Thoth then uses these two worlds as the metaphors for the text and subtext of stories, including the one we've just learned about Osiris. "To understand it literally is to become entangled in the veil of appearances." He explains in great detail about the symbology of Osiris's tale and the lessons we should take from it. I've retyped the entire thing after the end of this entry because I don't think it ought to be lost, but I'm also not sure what to make of it. Is it a bonus for winning? Is it an attempt by the authors to ensure that the lessons of the game are not lost on the casual player? Either way, it's one of the more interesting endgames of the 1980s.
Back in 2011, I gave it a 19 on the GIMLET. Looking at the scores now, I want to make some adjustments to the individual categories. It doesn't deserve the 2 I gave it for character creation and development since there's none of either. But I would raise "encounters" from a 2 to a 3 and "economy" from 0 to 1 to compensate, and thus leave the final score the same.
The number of fans for which "exhaustively researched for authenticity" would be a selling point must have been small in 1987.
Alan Roberts reviewed the game in the August 1988 Computer Gaming World. He called it an "arcade/adventure," which seems apt. He didn't think much of the mechanics, but he praised the game for its source material, plot, and manual. He characterized the post-winning screens as "a short optional philosophy lecture."
Though marketed by Sir-Tech, The Seven Spirits of Ra sold poorly. DOS was still a limited market at the time, and the developers limited themselves further by writing the program for specific hardware. Macrocom thus folded after two highly original games that remain hard to classify. While neither is really an RPG, I'm glad I played them both to the end.
The Koru Kosmu, or the Eye of the Universe
A Fragment of the Discourse of Thoth to a Priest of Amon-Ra
Once, while I was studying the ancient texts, sleep came over me and restrained my bodily senses. And as I slept I thought that there appeared to me a being of boundless magnitude, who called me by name and said to me, "What do you wish to hear and see, to learn and know by thought?"
The game's odd coda begins.
"Who are you?" I said.

"I am Thoth, the Master of those who would know."
"I would learn," I said, "of the mysteries of the temple and of that which is."
He answered, "I know what you wish, for I am with you everywhere. Keep in mind what you would know, and I will teach you."

And forthwith all things changed before me and were opened out in an instant. All about was a pure light, impossible to look at steadily. But around the light there came into being a shadowy place, downward tending, and in it where a multitude of shapes, coming and going, as the waves on a great sea.

And Thoth spoke to me and said, "Do you understand the meaning of what you see?"

"Tell me its meaning," I said, "and I shall know."

"The Light is all-pervading Mind, and the place of shadows is the Kosmos that comes from the Mind. Understand that the world is two-fold, the seen and the unseen, the sensible and the spiritual. The outer world is changeable and material; the inner is eternal and spiritual. The outer or surface realm of appearance is like a dark mirror that reflects the intangible light of the inner realm. The ignorant man puts his faith in appearances but the wise man sees with the inner eye of the mind and knows the invisible within the visible. For all things which the eye can see are unsubstantial and distorted reflections; but the things which the eye cannot see are the realities, and above all Truth and Goodness. As the eye cannot see the Eternal Mind, so it cannot see Good or Truth. For Eternity and Goodness and Truth are parts of the One Reality. All who would know should look inward with the eyes of the heart. 
"Seek a guide to lead you to the Door of the House of Knowledge. Pass beyond the veils of the senses, for the true light cannot be seen with bodily eyes, but with the eye of the heart and mind alone." And when Thoth had finished speaking, I said, "Lord Thoth, guide me, that I might see truly."
"Look now with your mind upon the play of the shadows," he said, "and fix your thought on what you see."
And as I gazed upon the wavering forms there came into my mind the wondrous story of Osiris and his struggle with Set. But soon there fell over all a veil, and on the veil were the forms of all manner of demons and monsters. And when I was amazed, Thoth spoke again.

"Know, then, that the mysteries of Osiris are a true reflection and are meant to be a guide to those who seek wisdom, but a snare to the unaware. Its mysteries are cloaked in the veils of passions, to entangle those who live only in their senses and know only their corporeal selves. The initiated know that the Great Myth of sufferings and struggle of Osiris with his adversary Set is a Sacred Drama, exhibiting the Initiate's path to wisdom. It is a story of symbols, of reflections of what is. So know that to understand it literally is to become entangled in the veil of appearances.

"The other world of the Duad is a hieroglyph of the material world. For the initiate, Osiris's descent into the Duad after death is a token of the existence of a realm of being that transcend the boundaries of the physical world and its truths. And Osiris's life beyond signifies that there is a realm of existence that is not corporeal."

"Yet," I said, when Thoth had paused, "how may it be that the horrors of Osiris's death or the violence of Horus's revenge teaches the wise?"

To which Thoth replied, "Your question shows that, though an initiated priest of this temple, you still need guidance. Do you not see that the legend of Osiris's defeat at the hands of Set, his death, and the consumption of his body by the creatures of the field and air are signs? Remember that. Set is the brother of Osiris, that is, his other-self. In the realm of the corporeal, visible world, Osiris is doomed to defeat. He is overcome by envy and ambition; he is consumed by animal appetites. The tale of Osiris's destruction is the tale of the dissipation and dispersal of the mind under the onslaught of the corporeal and physical.

"The descent into the real of the Duad shows the inner descent into itself of the lost spirit. Only by such a journey can the soul recover its lost and hidden elements from the dark and lethal depths before it learns to ascend into the light.

"You who would understand the mysteries of Death and Rebirth, know that Osiris does not achieve victory through his own power. He is guided on the way by what is written; the questions he is asked make him understand. He can no more grow in the ways of understanding by himself than a plant can grow without the sun.

"Be mindful, then, of the guides you have been given."

"Lord Thoth," I asked, "much remains unclear to me. Tell me more of what Osiris's becoming a master of forms signifies."

"You now see that appearances may have many meanings, and it is true that the powers of transformation that Osiris gains represents more than overcoming the passions of the flesh. Know that the path Osiris takes is not one of renouncing the passions, but rather learning their powers and controlling them. By doing so, Osiris becomes a lord of creation, one whose soul is like a polished mirror in which the microcosmic form of the divine nature is reflected. 
The story either ends abruptly, or this fragment does.
"Know that the changes of this world, the endless succession of births and deaths, is in its way a reflection of the imperceptible and eternal. The outer cosmos has been made in the image of the spiritual world and reproduces eternity in a copy. For though the kosmos moves and changes, it is ever the same, for all that perishes comes again in the cycle of reoccurrences, for through time, all is brought back that has perished, so that for the whole there is no beginning or end. That which manifests itself and disappears by turns in the several parts of nature, does so in such fashion that again and again in the checkered course of time it shows itself anew in those same parts in which it disappeared before. This is but one of the truths that the great myth of Osiris teaches."

"But surely, then," I said, and I awoke.