Monday, September 24, 2018

Die Dunkle Dimension: The Name of Evil

Our hero meets a "dame der nacht."
Things are coming together in the Dark Dimension. You will recall that I've been warped to this land to save it from an Evil One who shattered a crystal that previously "kept the land in balance." I need to find the crystal's splinter and then somehow unite it with the crystal to restore the sun and save the land. Along the way, I might need to solve a couple of side quests, like rescuing the princess from a dragon.

As I wrapped up last time, I was recalling a clue that said to talk to the mages of the Black and White circles about the Evil One. I began this session with such a discussion and received, in turn, a major part of the main quest. It turns out that the Evil One was conjured by the master of the Black Circle (no matter how much German games try to sell you on the idea that black and white don't necessarily mean good and evil, the black mages are always up to something sinister). When he realized what a mistake he'd made, he wrote the name of the Evil One on a clay tablet, which shattered when the Evil One crispened the Black Circle's master. Each piece was given to a druid and hidden in one of the seven major cities.
A druid knows the order of one of the tablets.
Last time, I was a bit mystified as to the use of the druids and mages in each city. It turns out that the mages know the location of the tablet in their cities, and the druids know the order of the tablets. Together, I've figured out six of the seven letters, spelling TROFN_H. I haven't found the final city yet. I'm frankly surprised it wasn't MONDAIN.
Finding another once of the pieces.
I continued my systematic exploration of the main island. In the city of Ackbah, in the southwest, I met a prophet named Mohammed who preached about the god Rastullah. Mohammed said that he used to be a warrior, wielding a dragon-slaying sword called Sicaria Draconem, but after Rastullah told him to lay down his weapons, he buried the sword. He'll reveal its location for 1,500 gold pieces. I left the city with three major financial goals: 1500 for the location of the sword, 1000 for the location of the magic elven bow, and 1000 for a ship.

I did buy a horse in Ackbah. When you spur it to a gallop, it goes double speed and finally I could outrun monsters. 
Coming upon a dungeon entrance while on horseback.
I ran across the first dungeon I've found, called Höhle, but I couldn't explore because I didn't yet have a "Magic Light" spell or any torches. I also suspected I wasn't smart enough to learn the spell even if I could find the White Circle.

I thus settled in for a period of grinding, focusing mainly on the bridges. Trolls deliver a reliable 12 gold pieces per troll plus often double that in gold. I soon had over 1,000 gold and rose two levels. Last time, I said that enemies scale with you, but that isn't quite true. The maximum size of an enemy party seems to scale with you, and some individual enemy types don't appear until higher levels, but you still often find parties of one orc or a single skeleton. It thus seems that the maximum difficulty scales rather than the minimum, which in my opinion is the way to do scaling.
Large enemy parties like this are more common as you level up.
Horses make it possible to cross swamp without inevitably getting poisoned, and thanks to my horse I was able to cross a swampy patch in the northeast to find a new city, Muspel, populated by dwarves. Unfortunately, I spent all my hard-won gold on a magic lamp (300), the location of the reagent Alraune (500), and the location of the wreck of the Windjagd, where I can supposedly find a magic axe (500). I also found an intelligence trainer in Muspel, but I had only leveled enough to increase by two points, and when I finally found the White Circle tower nearby, that still wasn't enough.

Back I went to grinding, but this time (now that I had the magic lamp) in the dungeon Höhle. As in the game's source, Ultima IV, dungeon exploration is in the first-person. Levels are a small 11 x 11 and use the "worm tunnel" approach. Progress seems to be about navigating all the up and down passages and finding copious secret doors.
There's a secret door in practically every wall.
Unlike Ultima games, enemies don't appear in the environment. Neither do traps or treasure. Instead, any step has a possibility of generating a monster, gold, or a pit, even ones you've already been over.

Combat is much quicker and more direct than on the surface. You only face one enemy at a time, directly in front of you. There's no consideration of terrain or distance. It was much faster to grind in the dungeon, except that I kept getting poisoned by zombies or slimes and had to keep leaving to walk to the druid's hut for healing.
Fighting a headless in the dungeons.
You can't save in dungeons, so I didn't get very far. I left when I had over 1,500 gold again and could finally purchase a ship.

After crossing the continent to Thorwal again, I finally had my ship. Just like Ultima IV, it comes with cannons, but you don't get any experience or gold from blasting enemies with them. Still, they're a great way to take out parties that you'd rather not fight, leaving only more desirable foes. It's also convenient to fight from the ship because the limited terrain helps ensure that you can funnel them to you.
I'll blast the horses but fight the orcs.
I begin exploring counter-clockwise around the continent, checking out various islands. I found the wreck of the Windjagd and its magic axe, which just as in Ultima IV (sorry to sound like a broken record with that phrase) serves as both a melee weapon and ranged weapon and returns to your hand when thrown. It's handy, but not noticeably more likely to hit or damage foes than the regular axe I'd been using previously.
I'm not really sure how I'm searching.
An island off the west coast is this game's version of Buccanneer's Den. Called Mubrak, it offers illegal reagents, prostitutes, gambling, and a peep show. I had to bribe guards just to enter. Paying money for the peep show was necessary to see this town's piece of the clay tablet. Meanwhile, one of the prostitutes said she'd been with a druid and confirmed everything the Black Circle representative told me about the tablets, the druids, and the mages.
I hope Google doesn't slap a "mature audiences" tag on my blog for this.
The gambling game was a fun little version of blackjack (called teufel, or "devil") where the goal is to reach 13 rather than 21. I lost more than I won, however, so I didn't spent a lot of time there. A broke gambler sold me a compass for 150. A warrior named Arnor confirmed that I'd need a magic weapon and armor to kill the evil dragon (I've heard nothing about magic armor yet). 
This was not a smart wager.
I also found a beggar playing a magic glass flute and bought it from him for some large amount of gold. In another city, a bard had told me about losing the flute and said that it had something to do with making crystals vibrate. I suspect I'll need it at some point.

After Mubrak, I continued searching islands and one of them turned out to be the lost island of Uyrp, yielding a 1000-gold piece treasure. That gives me enough for the magic bow. I need to grind some more for the dragon-slaying sword.
Searching every island pays off.
I know there's at least one city left to explore, but I think I've hit most of them, which means the hard part of the game (all the translation) is mostly over. I need to keep grinding, raise my intelligence some more (I found a charisma trainer, but I can't see wasting slots on that), buy the magic items, and then see about heading towards an endgame.

Time so far: 17 hours

Friday, September 21, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: The Next Square

My map of New City.
I didn't mention this in the last entry, but I initially explored New City without mapping it. As I made my second pass through the city, to ensure I'd found everything and properly annotated locations for later exploration, I found myself enjoying the game a lot more. Again, I am reminded that the simple act of mapping makes a huge difference in my enjoyment of a game. A good map serves not only as a literal map but a comprehensive set of notes and clear delineation of where you can and cannot go next. Uncovering each new square then becomes a goal in itself, imparting a sense of progress even when the game's plot doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

The maps for Crusaders have been intriguing so far. The outdoor map twist and turn through forests, leaving huge unexplored areas--the game has no interest in the predictable n x n grids of its predecessors. It uses the "razor wall" approach for indoor areas but the "worm tunnel" approach for outdoors (in that every "wall" of trees occupies a block rather than just a wall). As you transition from the outdoors to New City, there's a clear demarcation at the "Entering New City" sign, but the same isn't true when you later reach Munkharama, and this opens the intriguing possibility that the world exists on a single scale. I haven't found anything that would give me coordinates and help me confirm this. I don't yet think we've had a large first-person game in which the entire territory could be represented on a single map page, cities and outdoor areas together, without transition between areas messing up the scale and coordinates. Perhaps Wizardry VI was like that and I just don't remember.

When I last wrote, I was back in New City, trying to figure out to cure my fighter's disease without reloading an earlier save and losing a lot of progress. The solution turned out to be simple, if expensive. When speaking to the priest at the Thesminster Abbey, he asks if you're willing to sacrifice a little or all. If you say just a little, you get access to a healing fountain that restores your health and stamina. If you say "all," you get access to a fountain that also removes all conditions. I figured I could make back the gold easier than redo so much of the city, so I gave it all up and cured my disease.

With my stamina at maximum, I was able to swim to the statue in the middle of the temple's courtyard. It was dedicated to Phoonzang (from the back story, creator of the Astral Dominae), and searching it revealed a "moonstone." I'm not sure what's for, but I have no doubt it will turn out to be an important quest object later, perhaps the Sacred Stone from the story below.
I wonder if this will teleport me from place to place if I plant it.
Meanwhile, I took greater notice of an area whose importance I had missed earlier. In one of the southern buildings, there's a plaque with a bunch of letters missing, but it's clearly supposed to be "Old City," and there's a keyhole in the same room. In the city's library, I met a ratkin NPC named Professor Wunderland, who had a long speech telling me more about the Old City. Apparently, all races on the planet used to live there in peace, worshipping a Sacred Stone, but they eventually broke into sects with their own interpretations of what the Stone wanted. Old City was abandoned as the sects settled in other areas and began to war with each other. Eventually, some strangers called the Higardi appeared from the mountains, and they worked to re-unite the various sects by creating New City. But then the Higardi disappeared and no one knows why. Unfortunately, nothing I could think to say or do would get Professor Wunderland to give me or even talk about the key to Old City, so perhaps I have to get that somewhere else.
"Something called the Sacred Stone"? Was it perhaps a sacred stone?
I should note, in keeping with the theme of my last entry, that the story I summarized above is very long--about 25 screens of text--and several potential questions elicit the entire story from the beginning, with no way to break it. It's possible that if I'd kept at it, I would have found the keyword that would have led me to the key, but after four times cycling through the entire narrative, I was done with Professor Wunderland.

I don't know if New City's current state of depopulation is a result of the Dark Savant taking over (about a third of the buildings have a red emblem indicating his guardians are inside) or some other factor. Either way, I killed a lot of his guardians, which probably means I won't be a part of his faction.
The troopers have stun-lances, which are hard to counter.
I left New City with about half a dozen areas unexplored or tasks unfinished:
  • In the northwest, a locked door proclaims that it is "T'Rshieche's House" and "Property of the T'Rang Empire." The door lock is too powerful for my thief to pick.
  • I the southeast, a building marked "Umpani detache" also has a lock too hard to pick.
  • I still can't defeat the assemblage of Dark Savant troopers and guardians who guard the jail.
  • In a building across from a jail, there's a door with some kind of control panel that needs an object I don't have.
  • In a southern building is a locked door too difficult to pick.
  • The Curio Museum has two puzzles I haven't been able to solve. One involves a set of "twisted heads" and the other involves a glowing wand surrounded by balls of light. Either way, there seem to be too many possibilities to figure out the answers by trial and error, and I don't have any other clues that I know of.
None of these sound like good options.
At least some of these tasks can be solved with a stronger party, so I headed out of New City's east exit intending to return and try again after a few more levels.
The outdoor area between New City and Munkharama.
The forest east of New City served plenty of battles with giant bugs, Gorns, giant ravens, giant moths, and a whole class of plant-like creatures called "phoots," including "gumbiphoots" and "alliphoots." I'm trying not to let all the David Bradley nonsense ruin the game for me, but it's tough when practically every monster or NPC seems like it was named by a four-year-old.
Exhibit Z.
My fighter reached a skill of 100 in his primary weapon (sword) and got an extra attack per round. Eventually, so did my thief. The thief got good enough with "artifacts" that he was finally able to identify most of the stuff I've been lugging around, but disappointingly it turned out to be regular equipment. Equipment upgrades, at least from combat, have been very slow to arrive. Since the beginning, I've replaced maybe two weapons and a couple pairs of pants with slightly better versions.

Like the forest west of New City, the eastern one had a clear, marked road that broke into two branches. Forested areas that deviated from the road inevitably just led to small dead-ends with nothing important to find. The first major branch brought me to a Gorn NPC named Lord Galiere who warned me that I'd be attacked if I went any further into Gorn lands. The game didn't give me a chance to talk with him before he galloped off. Sensitive to angering a potential faction, I declined to keep exploring in that direction for now.
This guy really turns me on. Apparently.
Incidentally, upon meeting Lord Galiere, this was the description I got:
Soon, a part appears in the crowd of leathered men, and striding up the open channel a tall regal figure walks with the poise and stature of seasoned nobility. Although he appears like the others, deep ochre skin, round barreled body, and short tusks ascending out of his mouth a from a wild boar, there is something more concentrated about him, and despite your misgivings about the situation, you feel an unmistakable attraction.
As I mentioned last time, I don't really like being told what my characters are feeling, and that goes doubly true when they're being unwillingly enlisted in David Bradley's homo-bestial erotic fiction. Let's hope this doesn't continue to go anywhere.

On the other branch, I ran into a river crossing guarded by Brother Tshober. The priest at Thesminster Abbey had told me to repeat some words (SLAY NOT HE THAT CANNOT HEAR) to Tshober, but when I did, Tshober just said he didn't understand what I was getting at. After I explored the rest of the forest, I tried again, and this time he reacted. Maybe I accidentally said "WHO CANNOT HEAR" the first time. Either way, my commenters had warned me that he was long-winded, and my were they right. The gist of it was that we needed to visit the hidden temple of Munkharama, beneath the Holy City. The temple guards the Holy Work, which I assume is the Astral Dominae. He said that once I find it (which is apparently going to involve dealing with some flooding), I should take it to Master Xheng, "Lord of the 5 flowers." He finished his speech by giving us a "cable trolley" that allows crossing the river. Mercifully, he disappeared after that, so we don't have to deal with him every time we approach the river.
The game's text has me seeing double-entendres everywhere.
The path beyond the crossing led to Munkharama, where I ended this session. So far, the game has been pretty linear. I don't know if it opens up later or if it continues like this throughout, but the paths have basically funneled me from place to place, with the only alternatives blocked by a lack of swimming skill or an inability to deal with the poppies on the first map.
We arrive in the next map.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • The door animation gets old fast. It slows down quick travel from place to place.
  • This is probably an emulator issue, but the game frequently registers double-presses of movement keys and thus faces me in the wrong direction, often screwing up mapping if I don't notice it right away.
  • The inn in New City sells rooms for 50 gold pieces. I'm not sure what the advantage is, since you can rest anywhere.
  • A new NPC named D'Rang T'Rang keeps appearing but never wants to talk with me. I have to keep walking away from him.
Yes? Can I help you?
  • The sound effects include a consistent background drone that repeats every few seconds. I have no idea what it's attempting to depict.
  • There is perhaps nothing in this universe more annoying than having your character successfully score a hit in combat but then achieving "no penetration."
I've been at a conference all week, so my experience is a bit limited by the small fractions of time that I have to play. I should be back to a more regular schedule in October.

Time so far: 15 hours

Friday, September 14, 2018

Die Dunkle Dimension: Quest of the Abschreiber

A city of elves has the least elvish name ever.
Die Dunkle Dimension does a decent job evoking the core Ultima IV experience of exploration, learning about the world from NPCs, and slowly assembling a journal of clues and quests. That all the translation makes it a bit frustrating for me isn't the game's fault, though it does affect my ability to play for long periods or in inconvenient locations where I don't have multiple monitors.

But even if the game were in English, I think I'd find it a bit irksome. The primary problem is combat, which is far too frequent, takes far too long, and offers far too few rewards. You can't walk five steps without an enemy appearing and attacking you. Both you and the enemy miss most of your attacks, making every combat drag on for multiple minutes. You get paltry experience and gold rewards from each combat, so you have to fight hundreds of them to level up.
Battling a zombie and something.
But because combat is mechanically easier than town exploration (to fight, I don't need an Internet connection and a separate window for the translation screen), I spent a decent amount of time grinding near the druid's hut (where you can get free healing) as I tentatively explored outward. I rose to Level 4 during this process and amassed enough money for a decent set of equipment when I finally found a town (Trisdic, an obvious reference to Ultima's Trinsic). Then I discovered that no matter how much money I had, my stats were only enough to allow wielding the most basic weapons and armor.
Buying my first weapon.
Meanwhile, enemies scale with your level in number and difficulty. Pretty soon, I started encountering "nettle trees," which of course poison you, in just about every enemy party. Unless I'm near the druid or one of the locations with healing, poisoning is an automatic reload because I have no way to cure it. But fleeing from these trees causes you to lose hard-won experience. It's frustrating as hell.

Animals also suck. I keep getting attacked by snakes, wild horses, and unicorns. They deliver no experience or gold, but you can't flee from them without losing experience. You can't avoid combat by outrunning them because they can move on the diagonal but you can't. You have to beat them until they themselves flee.
Losing 12 experience points because I didn't feel like fighting livestock for no reason.
Leveling up is done at the castle by speaking to the king, just as in Ultima III-IV, and is accompanied by a similar sound and flashing of the screen. You get a few dozen extra hit points per level. Meanwhile, speaking to Cerfax the druid gets you a handful of spell points per level.
Leveling up.
Leveling gives you the ability to speak to trainers and increase your various attributes. The castle has a trainer (Ator) who increases attack and defense scores. Later, in other towns, I found trainers to increase strength and skill. I haven't yet found intelligence (which I really need) or charisma. At first I thought that you could only train one attribute per level, so I was conservative about using too many slots on one attribute, but after I was able to train four times in both strength and skill, now I'm thinking that maybe you can train each attribute every time you level.
"Arnold" trains me in strength. He responds to SCHWARZENEGGER but claims that isn't his last name.
Once I felt strong enough, I began to explore the island in a roughly counter-clockwise manner, using the map as a guide. There's an entire peninsula to the northeast that I can't explore because of swamp squares (which poison you), and of course outlying islands for which I need a boat. Otherwise, I've explored roughly the top half of the main island, finding the king's castle, the towns of Trisdic, Gaht, and Worthal, and the Tower of the Circle of Black Magic.

The towns have all been small enough to make mapping unnecessary, which is refreshing after some of the other Ultima clones lately (Deathlord comes to mind in particular, as well as Nippon until you find the in-town maps). There are generally fewer than 12 NPCs per town, not counting generic guards who all say the same thing. Some NPCs are shopkeepers who only respond to words relevant to what they're selling--although you have to be careful, because some seem that way, but then launch into long speeches from an obscure keyword.
Dunkle also follows the old Ultima trick of hiding key NPCs in dark or hidden areas of town.
I've noted that "translating" has been tough, but it's more than that. I not only have to translate, but then figure out what words in the original German are likely to produce more text. You also have to take care with words with umlauts and eszetts (ß). The game represents these characters but knows that many players won't be able to easily type them, and thus requires phonetic input. So when a character says something about the groß böse ("big evil"), you have to render your follow-up questions as GROSS and BOESE.

(Related language question that this made me think of: I always hear that letters with diacritics like ä and ü are considered distinct letters and not just a and u with extra accents. Does that mean that when Germans recite their alphabet, they include these letters separately? How does it work for alphabetization? Do all a words appear before ä words, or are they mixed together? Where does ß fall alphabetically?)

Then, the game occasionally gets cute with its text, as in the image below, where I'm talking to a drunk guy. The developers added extra words and syllables to simulate the slurred speech of an alcoholic. I've seen this a million times in English games, and it never occurred to me how hard it must make it for someone trying to translate.
This text is tough to interpret.
But I muddled through, and here are some of the key takeaways and "to do" items from my various visits:
  • Every town has a druid who says that the druids want to help me, but then offers no additional keywords, just "ask what you will." If I ask about anything obvious, like the KRISTALL, they just tell me to see Cerfax, who already gave me the rundown. I have no idea how they're supposed to help.
The druid claims that he jut wants to helfen, but then he doesn't helfen.
  • Each town also has a sorcerer who says he or she specializes in a particular spell and then says "Seek the [Black/White] Circle" if I express interest in that spell. These people seem kind of superfluous, since the two circle towers also have sorcerers who a) specialize in those spells, and b) will actually teach them to you.
  • In Gaht, a city of elves, a man named Anatol sells unicorns. He says I'm too clumsy to ride one, but that was before I found the skill trainer. I need to re-visit.
  • Also in Gaht, an elven princes named Thyra told me of the elbenbogen ("Elven Bow"), a magic weapon created by the elven queen Mithra and kept by a weapon-seller named Elrik. Elrik, in an episode I wish more RPGs would follow, said something like, "I'm really supposed to hold on to this bow, but I guess you are on a quest to save the world." But he wants 1,000 gold pieces for it, so I'll have to pick it up later.
The elven weaponsmith cuts the B.S.
  • In Worthal (which, confusingly, is called "Thorwal" when you enter), a retired seaman named Kapt'n Hook offered to sell me his sextant for 340 gold. Another thing I'll have to save up for.
  • A bard in Gaht named Ijale told me of his magic glass flute that had something to do with causing the Crystal to vibrate. It was stolen from him when he was in Mubrak, a town I have not yet discovered.
  • In Trisdic, a sot named Zacharion is hiding in the tavern while his wife, Helena, looks around for him. She tells me to ask him of "treasure" if I want to hear the most ridiculous story ever. Zacharion tells me that after he was attacked by the Pirate of Mubrak, he hid a bunch of treasure on the island of Uyrp, but he can't remember where the island is.
  • I can buy a boat in Worthal for 1,000 gold. I was hoping to capture one instead, but the one time I found a pirate ship on the waters, it was gone after I finished combat.
The next big stage awaits.
All of these items are added to the two quests I got last time: defeat the dragon so that Princess Sheila won't have to be sacrificed, and defeat the thieving band in Mubrak. 

You really can't do anything in towns. Outdoor commands like attack, inventory, ready weapon, wear armor, and cast a spell simply don't work. You can only talk and search. Incidentally, I chose the "search" option in one town when I reached a dead-end in a long path (an obvious place to hide something), and I found a "clay tablet" with a "T" on it.
In Ultima IV, I found the Skull of Mondain the same way.
I have yet to cast a single magic spell, but I understand how it works. First, you have to get the mages in the Tower of the Black and White Circles to teach you the spells, but when I visited the Black Circle tower, they all told me that I was too dumb to learn their spells (my intelligence is only 5). You then have to have the right set of reagents in your pouch to cast the spell, and you also have to have enough spell points. I've been buying handfuls of reagents here and there (they're cheap), so that I'm ready when I finally get smart enough to learn the spells.
May the schwarze be with you.
As for the reagents, the developer again mostly copied Ultima IV. There are eight reagents, and six of them are the same as their Britannian counterparts: schwefel (sulfur), knoblauch (garlic), ginseng (ginseng), blutflechte (blood moss), gift der nacht (nightshade), and alraunewurzel (mandrake). There is no spider silk or black pearl; instead, the game introduces zirbelkraut ("pine herb"?) and totenblume ("death flower").

The copying from Ultima IV unfortunately goes beyond the list of reagents. Here's how the manual describes ginseng, for instance (my translation):
Ginseng has long been praised for its invigorating and medicinal properties. The root of the ginseng plant is particularly notable for its bifurcated shape and its pink color. For a long time, the tea has been prepared to give strength to the sick. For magical purposes, only the particularly strong, black ginseng is used, which is found only in the mountains, but is almost everywhere to buy.
And here's how it's described in Ultima IV's documentation:
Long praised for its strength-giving and medicinal properties, the root of the ginseng plant is immediately recognizable for its forked shape, and to those initiated in the mystic ways, by its overpowering rose-coloured aura. It has been used for centuries by peasants who chew it or brew tea from a powdered preparation of the root in order to gain strength and stamina as they toil in the fields. While commonly found throughout Britannia, the Ginseng used as a component in the casting of spells is generally black in colour and found only on the slopes of the northern mountains.
The Dunkle Dimension one is shorter, but otherwise a near-direct translation. The descriptions of the other herbs are quite similar.

We see lots of other Ultima analogs in my descriptions above, including the need to find a ship and a sextant, and perhaps those clay tablets will turn out to be similar to Ultima IV's runes, of which you find one per town and they spell something. However, the game is starting to feel more notable for the things that it didn't adapt, such as secret doors, multiple indoor levels, lockpicking, torches, gems, and joinable party members. I'm not even sure if it has dungeons. As I said at the beginning, Dunkle evokes some of the best of Ultima, but it lacks a lot of the features that gave its predecessor real character.

Still, I'm happy to see it to the end, and there's lots left to do. When I was looking through my notes to compile this entry, I see that I missed acting on a clue. A bard in the king's castle told me to ask the magicians of the two circles about EVIL to learn more about the name of the Evil One. I guess I'll have to head back to the Black Circle, but maybe I'll wait until I find an intelligence trainer first. Or perhaps I'll grind for enough money for a ship next. Ultima clones always seems to kick to the next level once you have a ship.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: Yada Yada Yada

The game is fond of text interludes. Normally I applaud this kind of thing, but Crusaders takes it a bit too far.
It's taken me a while to get going with this one--I've had two entries basically covering the opening minutes--but at last I feel like I'm "in" the game. I find it quite a bit harder than its predecessors, although part of that has to do with the growing length of things. In a simple game like the original Wizardry, a single combat takes far less than a minute. It may have been functionally harder than this seventh entry, but there you could grind a fighter from Level 1 to Level 10 in less time than it takes here to explore the opening wilderness.

As I previously noted, I started over with a new party, and I think it's safe to say that I spent longer analyzing, planning, and creating the new party than I have with any previous RPG. This is what I came up with:
  • Gideon, a male human fighter. I wanted a lord, but I couldn't get quite enough bonus points, so I figured I'd dual to a lord at a later date. I've concentrated his weaponry skills on the sword and shield and his academic skills on mapping.
  • Svava, a female dwarf Valkyrie. All her weapon skills go into the "pole & staff" (which includes spears), and academically I'm having her specialize in mythology.
  • Noctura, a female Dracon thief. I also have vague plans to dual her to something later. Damned 7-character limit on names kept me from putting the second "n" in there. She's also a sword specialist, but academically she's our item-identifier. At least, she will be when she gets good enough. I have too much unidentified stuff sitting around.
  • Bix, a male hobbit bard. He's a third sword specialist (perhaps I'm going to regret not diversifying) and the party's diplomat.
  • Esteban, a male elf priest. He strikes with his staff (and thus specializes in pole & staff) from the rear, and academically I pour his points into theology.
  • Prenele, a female faerie alchemist. I've split her weapon skills into several categories: wand and dagger, throwing, and sling. Basically, whenever I have some cool stuff to shoot or toss, I give it to her (I try to get everyone else into melee range). Her academic points go into alchemy.
One of my new characters.
I thought this setup gave me a decent melee party but with several characters (priest, alchemist, and Valkyrie) capable of casting healing spells in early levels. The bard comes with a lute that provides essentially unlimited "Sleep" spells, which were very handy in the opening area. I'll think about changing classes for some of these characters at some point, particularly since this configuration leaves me impoverished in classic mage spells.

I've been putting physical points mostly into swimming, with the exception of Noctura, who has to build her "skullduggery" skill to disarm traps and open locks, and Bix, who has to master music. I had hoped that I could stop once I got swimming to 10, but now I realize that's just the bare minimum to avoid drowning if you have a full stamina bar. One dip into one water square cuts that bar neatly in half. Unless I want to rest after every breaststroke, I'll need to keep feeding this skill.
My map of the outdoor area. Later, I found that north is to the right. I need to swim and to be able to avoid poppies to explore any more.
With the new party, I set out to fully explore the wilderness area and then to re-do the opening dungeon. The wilderness area is a bit smaller but more irregular than I expected. It's designed to funnel a character adopting a "rightmost path" strategy to the starter dungeon and then to New City. If you follow the left "wall" instead, you end up fighting quite a few battles against forest denizens before finding a skull and a treasure chest near an entrance to the sea. The chest contains an automap. I don't know what the skull does.
Finding a chest can be a wordy experience in Crusaders.
To the north of the starting area, there's a field of poppies that put you to sleep before you have a chance to walk more than a few squares. I mapped as much as I could here, but clearly I need something to avoid the poppies' sleep effect.

The battles in the wilderness were mostly easy enough for my new party, particularly with Bix putting everyone to sleep every round. The most difficult was the ratkin ambush on the way to New City, which I probably should have saved for after the dungeon. It took me about six reloads to win that one.

The starter dungeon proceeded as the first time, greatly assisted by the healing fountain. Bix, who started with no weapon, finally got a sword, although I still don't know what kind it is. By the time I left the dungeon, my characters were only one level lower than their imported counterparts, and with a better allocation of skills.

I had expected New City to be something of a resting point, the way most cities are in most RPGs, with comfortable places like stores, inns, and temples. While it does offer a couple of "shops" (individual characters who sell things) and one quasi-temple, it's more hostile than I expected, the area having recently been conquered by the Dark Savant.

The Dark Savant's soldiers occupy a bunch of buildings and often show up as random encounters. They come in two types--savant guards and savant troopers--and both of them are tough to defeat at this level, particularly since they don't respond to the bard's sleep tunes (I suspect they're automatons). In comparison, a large number of "Gorn spearmean" were much easier to defeat, but I got the impression that they were natives and thus felt bad about killing them. There were also more ratkin.
Killing these guys feels wrong, but it really added to my leveling.
Many times, I had to annotate a building for later return after facing an undefeatable party. Sometimes, I learned, it's worth trying a couple of times, because the fixed encounter that offered three savant troopers and four savant guards the first time might only serve up two savant guards the second time. But in other places, the enemies were just consistently too hard no matter what I tried. I have to say, I'm getting a lot of use out of the "terminate game" button, which thankfully allows you to end a hopeless combat instantly instead of fighting to the bitter end.
This is an unwinnable combat at my level.
The other annoyance I found within New City was an abundance of locked doors. Lockpicking involves the same kind of mini-game as in Wizardry VI, where a series of colors rotate beneath each tumbler, and you have to click when the light is green to trip the tumbler. The proportion of green to other colors is based on the character's "skullduggery" skill. If your skill is high enough, a light might just stay a consistent green, and if it's low enough, it might stay a consistent red. Just as with Wizardry VI, the lights change too quickly to time them (unless you cheat by cranking down the emulator speed), and clicking at the right time is more like taking a chance than playing a true mini-game. Either way, if you screw up, the door can become jammed, which is no good for anyone. There's theoretically a way to force doors, but I'm having less luck with that than lockpicking. I had to annotate a lot of doors for later return.
Even if I could time my click, I can't tell the difference between green and red.
Because of both tough enemies and locked doors, I couldn't explore a lot of the city. In particular, there's a prison with some trapped NPCs (one of them calls out a rear window for us to free him), but I can't fight my way through the enemies just yet.
An NPC asks for help.
There were a few standard NPCs in the buildings, and the game adopts the convention found in Wizardry V and VI for full-text dialogues. You have to type entire sentences and end questions with question marks, or the game doesn't always understand what you mean. Here's a talk I had with Sogheim, someone living in a southern building:

Me: Hello
S: Ahoi!
M: Who are you?
S: I am Sogheim
M: What do you do?
S: I live here, by the sea
M: Why do you live here, by the sea?
S: It is rumored a great monster guards the secret of the seas!
(I tried several questions related to the monster but couldn't get him to add anything.)
M: Do you know the Dark Savant?
S: Dread ruler of Galaxies!
M: What's happening in New City?
S: New City is where everyone eventually ends up!
I didn't cover all his conversation options. 50 gold pieces is a lot.
I met a couple of NPCs that I didn't know what to do with. One, on the road, was named "Ratsputin." Another, in town, was named an Umpani whose name I neglected to write down. Neither responded to my requests for a "truce," and I ultimately just avoided them by hitting "leave" at the initial encounter screen. I hope I wasn't supposed to do something more productive with them.
In case you keep forgetting who the lead developer was, moments like this repeatedly remind you.
A few other encounters worth noting:

  • A copper penny found in an abandoned bank vault bought my way into the "Curio Museum of Amazing Oddities," where I found a chest containing a magic cloak and "deadman's hair." More on this chest in a bit.
The tradition of putting a question mark in front of unknown items goes back to the first Wizardry.
  • A weaponry shop was guarded by a large Umpani who insisted that he was closed, "PERMANENTLY!" However, I later heard that he ran a black market, and when I returned and said "black market" to him, he relented and let me see a selection of weapons.
I think that's supposed to be some kind of gun, not a horn.
  • A statue in the center of a courtyard surrounded by water. My skill isn't good enough to swim to the statue.
More blah-blah-blah.
  • "Thesminster Abbey" held a priest who, with the right dialogue choices, let me go downstairs to a healing fountain. It would have been more useful if it didn't mean passing through so many messages and dialogues to get to it (see below).
These are always handy.
  • Because of my exploration pattern, I reached "Paluke's Armory," the putative reason I was in the city, quite late. It was underwhelming. He had a few armor upgrades to offer, but nothing extraordinary. 
I've made very little money since the game began.
Throughout the gameplay, I began to get annoyed with its unavoidable wordiness. Normally, I like textual encounters and lore, but somehow the way Crusaders presents them gets in my nerves. The first problem is that the text says simple things as if they're profound. Here's a message that you get when you step near New City's docks, for instance:
The great Sea of Sorrows spans before you like a vast and dense space flattened unto the sky, spreading into the far distant horizon as a desolate plain of shimmering ether. Its deep waters chant a thousand silent tales, and its unseen borders but hint of far distant lands. How universal such a compelling motion, as if behind every veil of boundless unknown lay cloaked an invisible beacon, endlessly calling. Such solace these sights bring, as if a reminder that though the trappings of mortal man be forever enshrouded in a sea of passing discords, he has but to open his eyes that he may bear witness to some greater existence of which he is only a momentary traveler.
Beyond the sophomoric wordiness are  couple of problems: Not only that the game is putting sentiments into my own character's minds, but also that they're a bit misplaced. Romanticizing the sea and the boundless lands beyond its horizon is something that you do on your own world, when the sea is a true frontier, not something that you're likely to do after you've just arrived on this planet, having crossed the galaxy in a starship.

Anyway, the game feeds you this text one screen at a time, using a font far larger than necessary, and often not using the entire screen, so that you have to acknowledge six screens of text before you can move on. And if you accidentally return to the square, you have to go through all of the text again. Oh, and there's an annoying delay after the text appears but before you can hit ENTER to move on. I could suffer this rarely, but about a dozen times in New City, the developers felt they needed to hijack my gameplay with some unnecessary twaddle that did more to confuse the plot than to enhance it.
Part of another long description that I have to suffer every time I want to use the healing fountain.
As I finished my first loop through the city, my big problem became the need to cure the disease that my fighter incurred when we opened the chest in the "Curio Museum." The healing fountain in the temple doesn't cure it, and the priest doesn't seem to offer other services. None of the potions I've found are "cure disease" potions. I was hoping that one of the shops might sell them, but no luck there. The game manual warns of an increasing horrible fate, and ultimately death, suffered by a diseased character, and it warns you not to rest if anyone is diseased, so it's affecting my entire party. My best hope is that the "Cure Disease" spell pops up as an option the next time my alchemist or priest level up, but I hate to put all my eggs in that basket. I wonder if the healing fountain in the dungeon will take care of it.

Either way, I feel like I need to grind for a couple more levels before taking on the city again, hopefully exploring more buildings this time. One point in Crusaders' favor is that leveling up feels extremely rewarding. You watch your attributes increase--sometimes three or four per level--and then you can put a bunch of skill points into your chosen skills. So far, each level has a palpable effect on the next few combats.
I have some misgivings about the game, but leveling is as addictive as ever.
I hope to have some more momentum going by the time of the next entry. I've got a lot of work and travel this month, so my posting schedule might continue to be erratic for a few more weeks.