Friday, May 7, 2021

Darkside of Xeen: Random Access

The bottom row I had explored last time. The rest of these squares I filled in this time.
I ended the last entry with a long list of quests that I was tracking, five of which could be done right away and five of which could at least be tested (i.e., I wasn't sure if I needed a specific item or higher level). Sometimes, when I have such a list, and there's no clear role-playing reason to do one thing or another, or when the nature of the game doesn't make me care too much about role-playing, I let random numbers direct me. I rolled, and the number that came up was the one that I probably would have chosen if I had been "role-playing": Go to map E1 and find Xanthus the Sorcerer, who had invited me to visit via a message in a bottle.
I decided that I would fully explore every map with the next objective, but not necessarily every map in between. I pointed myself east from Castleview. On the way, I stopped at Sharla the Sprite's treehouse, because I had forgotten to get my reward for freeing the sprite from the Temple of Bark. She awarded me 250,000 experience points, a bunch of gems and gold, and an energy disk. I only need one more for the next phase of Castle Kalindra.
The party made its way to the first column in E4 and then turned north. In D4, a double row of mountains (the Gemstone Range, according to the map) marked the boundary between the Aging Forest and the Desert of Doom. We traversed the cracked earth without incident until we got to E2 and met some vulture rocs. They were harder than the killer cobras from last time--over 2,000 hit points, and with high armor classes. I played with a number of spells, including "Dancing Sword, " "Elemental Storm," "Cold Ray," "Energy Blast," "Fireball," "Fantastic Freeze," "Finger of Death," "Incinerate," "Inferno," and "Lightning Bolt" before I ran out of spell points and the vultures killed us. Not for the first time, I thought that the game could really simplify things by having a generic "Blast" spell that scales with the caster's level. 
This is a great spell, but I can only cast five of them.
Anyway, the battle had been close enough that I knew I'd win if I tried again buffed, and that was indeed the case. The desert gave way to icy tundra, and soon we were in E1, which according to the game map encompasses the Forest of Peril and the eastern part of Magic Mountain.
Xanthus was a bit of a disappointment. I'm not sure why he wanted me to visit at all. All he did was invite us to use the Great Fountain of Magic, a spell point buffing fountain, in a diagonally adjacent square. Like we needed his permission.
Why did you send out a message in a bottle for this?
Right next door to Xanthus was a tent occupied by Slibo the Wizard. Slibo was at the coordinates indicated by the treasure map we'd found in Castleview. I was curious how this was going to play out. You can't have hidden treasure in this game (or III or IV) because the interface gives you no way to interact with the environment if there isn't something in front of you like a door or altar. There's no "dig" or "search" command. So there was no chance that the map was going to lead to a blank square that I would know to search because I had the map. In this case, it didn't make any sense because the map led to Slibo, but Slibo clearly interpreted the map differently. After giving us 2,000 gems for it, he raved about how he now had the map to the "fabled treasure of Jibbo Mox!" and departed for the Desert of Doom. Why did the map lead us to him instead of the Desert of Doom?
Maybe we should have asked for a bit more.
Beyond that, there wasn't much to the map except random combats with hell hornets, which you don't really associate with snow, and arachnids that came spilling out of wood piles. There were also unavoidable "animal traps" that damaged the entire party.
I guess hell has frozen over.
Rolling again, the next quest was to recover the griffin statuette from the hands of Sandro in Necropolis. Rather than walk there, I used "Town Portal." On the Darkside, this spell brings you to the exterior of the city rather than the interior, and since cities on the Darkside require a pass, I had to spend some time searching for one. In the process, I mowed my way through B2, which encompasses the "Forbidden Zone" section of the Desert of Doom. The Forbidden Zone is surrounded by grotesque scarecrows that warn you to "keep out."
I suppose "scarecrow" is a somewhat naive interpretation of what this could be.
As I explored outward from Necropolis, I started to encounter griffons and iguanasauruses, neither of which lasted too long in combat against my unbuffed party (mostly; I had some lingering hit point buffs from the vulture roc battles; they don't go away at 05:00 like other buffs), but both of which hit hard enough that they broke a few pieces of armor. 
The southwest part of the area got into the Gemstone Range, where there were a couple of dungeon entrances, looking a bit like the Red Dwarf mines on the other side. The dungeon was small and full of "beholder bats," who have an eye at the top of their heads but also carry an eye. The have a fire attack, but they died in one hit. The mine had veins on the walls that got me ruby, emerald, and sapphire rocks, although they occasionally exploded for significant damage.
This is sure tough to explain from an evolutionary perspective.
I had to warp out for buffing when I encountered a few "gamma gazers"; hydra-like creatures that had some kind of ray attack.
This is the most terrifying-looking creature in the game so far.
In the middle of the Forbidden Zone, I found what someone was trying to keep out: a spacecraft--likely the one that Sheltem flew from Terra. "The lava blocks the entrance," the game said when I tried to activate it. I'm sure we'll be coming back here later.
My party had no reaction to this bizarre contraption.
Two other encounters in B2: We found two genie lamps in the desert. One of the genies offered the person rubbing it a choice of 2 million experience, 200,000 gold, or 2,000 gems. I took the experience. The second offered 100,000 gold, but suggested that was all the genie had. I decided to be nice and decline, but he gave us 50,000 anyway. The second encounter was a barbarian camp that we destroyed for 50,000 experience. This belies what I said in the last entry about the game not having monster "nests." It clearly has at least one.
B2 features several types of terrain.
Unfortunately, we didn't find anyone offering a pass to Necropolis, nor any secret way into the city. I guess they're not all going to be as easy as Castleview. I marked it as unsolvable until later and moved on to the next one. This time, the roll told me to stop being such a wuss and go explore the Volcano Cave back on the Clouds side.
There wasn't much to the cave except a bunch of demons, devils, and lava. Carving my way through the first two and using "Jump" to get over the latter, I made my way down the four levels and reached Shangri-la legitimately. There were a couple of places where if I was willing to take some damage by walking in lava, I could smash a skull for 250,000 experience.
That desire might be related to the fact that we're standing in lava.
It was back to the Darkside for the next quest: trying to get the dragon statuette from the head witch of Lakeside. Lakeside is a town in F2, and as before I tried to "Town Portal" there only to find myself outside the town at the north end of the map. Most of F2 is the Octopod Lake, including the Isle of Lost Souls in the middle. Gargoyles patrolled the shores of the lake and about eight giant octopods appeared from the undulating waves (the water graphics in the game are about as good as we've seen so far). Neither was difficult for my party. 
I expected these guys to be harder.
The southern part of the lake had a +50 magic resistance fountain. The Isle of Lost Souls had a dungeon, but I had no key. Once again, I finished the map without any town pass to show for it.

I had no real hope of getting into Castle Blackfang in F1, where Queen Kalindra is supposedly being held, but I figured I'd give it a try while I was in the area. The map shows nothing in the area except the castle, some snowy mountains, and a river running through the center labeled "Snowy River Rapids." It turns out every time I walked into a river square, I was carried downstream and dumped into Octopod Lake, with associated damage.
There were more gargoyles in the mountains, and a gargoyle lair to destroy. This got me "Caleb's Magnifying Glass," a quest item whose quest I'm sure will become apparent. There were more animal traps in the woods. On the far eastern edge, there was a +500 hit point fountain, a great buffing spot if there was any good way to get there quickly. Maybe if I later find a "Lloyd's Beacon" item.
Really? Because I see a door, a couple of windows, a couple of towers we could climb. Maybe we could check around back?
As expected, there was no way into Castle Blackfang. There was no guardian demanding a key, just a message that there was no way to enter. 
My list now only had one item that I could do now: the Dragon Cave back on the Clouds side. Before heading there, I returned to Castleview for training (it had been a while) and got everyone up to Level 25/26. I made my usual round of the buffing fountains and took the magic mirror to the caves. I don't know why, but I had built up the Dragon Cave in my mind to be an enormous, sprawling complex with hundreds of dragons. Instead, it was a modest-sized dungeon with about 12 fire dragons, 8 frost dragons, and one dragon king. They had breath attacks, but "Protection from Elements" took the edge off those. The trick was to stop them from attacking from afar by using "Jump" and "Teleport" to get right up in their faces. In melee combat, they died in just a few hits. Even the creepy-looking dragon king didn't last very long.
This is like a dragon with an old man's head.
Side chambers had large piles of gold, gems, and items, including several obsidian weapons and armor. There were also books of "Dragon Lore" on various pedestals. All my characters were able to read Volume 1, got an experience boost, and got the title "Loremaster of Worms." Only my druid and sorcerer were able to read a couple of the higher-level books, and even they couldn't read a couple more. I tried returning with an intelligence fountain buff, but it didn't help (the skill check must be based on raw intelligence). If I care about those extra experience points, I'll have to return when my intelligence is higher.
I wonder if my druid and sorcerer are grateful they have each other to talk to, because compared to them, the rest of the party is a bunch of morons.
Back on the Darkside, I decided to try to get into Sandcaster in E3, at the eastern end of the Desert of Doom. As usual, there was no sign of a pass to the city anywhere in its own area. The map was otherwise chock full of stuff, including a final troll hole, an emerald handle just lying on the ground, and a cluster of gypsy wagons. These included Aldo the Food Vendor, selling sun-dried iguana innards; Caleb the Inventor, who rewarded me for finding his magnifying glass; and three vendors selling robes, boots, and necklaces for outrageous amounts of money. The robes and boots were ripoffs, but the necklace (which cost me 500 gems and 50,000 gold) turned out to be a "dragon necklace," bestowing +38 might. I suspect there's some randomness to all the items, though.
I was suspicious, but she came through.
At this point, I had explored 9 of the 20 Darkside areas, was out of clues, and was no closer to the main quest than when I started this session. I decided to extend the randomization theme to the remaining maps. I rolled the dice (actually, and got D2, conveniently close to where I was.
This place is obsessed with keys.
D2 occupies the center part of the map, including the Dragon Pharaoh's Great Pyramid. As expected, I was unable to get into the pyramid without a key. Enemies in the area were vulture rocs, which still required buffing on my part if I didn't want every battle to exhaust my spell points. There was another magic lamp (offering the experience, gold, or gem option). A scattered group of talking enchanted boulders offered one line each in a word puzzle:
  • "My third is in fable and also in tale." 
  • "My fourth is in lark and also in quail."
  • "My fifth is in wind but not in gale."
  • "My sixth is in glimpse and also in sight."
  • "My last is in night but not in light"
Yeah, that narrows it down. Thanks.
I assume there are two more in other desert maps. I'll wait until I have them to play with it.
Near the southeast corner of the map was a grate. Taking it, I found myself in an underground are labeled "Sandcaster sewers." That was a positive development. The sewers were large and sprawling, featuring combats with beholder bats and sewer hags, and not much treasure, but there was one "gym" that we had to pay 50,000 gold to enter. Inside was a book teaching us "Body Building" (which we already had) and two potions, each with six uses, that permanently increased endurance and might.
This would be a really nasty real-life insult.
Ultimately, we crawled out of the sewers and into the town of Sandcaster, where I expect to find at least some clue as to the next step in the main quest.
Arriving insane (because of the beholder bats) in a new city.
I don't know if it was fun to read about this session, but it was fun to play. Even though their encounters are often silly, Might and Magic's maps are just so much fun to explore. The encounters are varied and the rewards nearly constant. 
Time so far: 16 hours

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

BRIEF: Reign of the Red Dragon (1982)

Reign of the Red Dragon
United States
Independently developed; published by Adventure International
Released 1982 for TRS-80
You have to cut these early developers a little bit of slack, particularly if they were writing for an under-served platform like the TRS-80. They were all trying to figure out the best way to bring the tabletop role-playing experience to the computer, and to some degree we have to be grateful for the variation in approaches. 
A dragon guards a treasure chest.
Red Dragon was written by David W. Daring, who narrates a sample of gameplay on his YouTube channel, and published by Florida-based Adventure International. It was supposed to be the first of a series, published under the master label of Demon Venture, and many sites give the official name with that master title, but it doesn't appear in the manual or on the title screen. Daring wrote a follow-up, Mystery of the Four Doors, which AI apparently declined to publish. 
The box is the only place you find the Demon Venture title.
Some sites claim that Red Dragon is the first "graphical adventure" for the TRS-80, but unless I'm using a different definition of that term, I don't think it's even close. Knight's Quest was out in 1978; 1979 offered three Dunjonquest titles, and 1980 had three more. The first three Warrior of Ras games, plus a port of Telengard, came out the same year as Red Dragon.
The game concerns a quest to find eight pieces of a broken scepter and slay the titular red dragon. The party can consist of up to five characters, drawn from dwarf, elf, human, and hobbit races and warrior, magician, cleric, and thief classes. Each character is rolled for values in strength, intelligence, experience, constitution, dexterity, and charisma; you can re-roll if you want, but there's a chance the game will get annoyed and force you to accept the last roll. 
Creating a new character.
You then spend your gold on supplies. The supply list is differentiated by character, with warriors buying more martial items but clerics and magicians having spell options. One tip, learned the hard way, is to buy plenty of torches, as you're screwed if they run out mid-dungeon. Arrows or javelins are also important for flying creatures, and elixirs for healing. Most items have an associated menu command; this is a rare game in which the inventory list and the interface are roughly the same thing.
Equipment the warrior can buy.
The game begins on the first level of the dungeon. The dungeon has two levels, but also at least one special area. The first level is 30 x 15. There are about 10 squares on the level that offer you the option of opening a trap door and entering a room below. It's in these rooms that most of the action takes place. 
You choose a "leader" for the party, who is less a leader and more a permanently active character. The other characters don't do much until the active character changes or dies. 
Setting a new leader after my warrior dies.
Rooms may have any combination of monsters or treasure. When you encounter a monster, you can attack with a melee or ranged weapon, cast a spell, or flee. The best action is determined by the type of monster. Melee weapons work well against physical creatures, but not flying one. Those are best taken down by arrows. Javelins work well against large creatures. Undead and spiritual creatures can only be harmed by magic. If the active character doesn't have the appropriate weapon or skill, the best thing to do is flee. Otherwise, killing the creature allows you to take the room's treasure.
In a room with a snake and silver bars. The message to the left indicates that I can shoot an arrow, attack with my mace, attack with a javelin, use my "Vermin ID" (basically an "Identify Monster" object), use my pole, eat a yam, or drink wine. I can also flee.
If you use an arrow, javelin, or lance, you have to play a little mini-game by which a cursor moves back and forth along the bottom of the screen. You hit SPACE when you want it to stop and fire. I've never seen anything quite like it this early in RPG history. 
Shooting arrows at bats. The black line in the white area at the bottom bounces back and forth. You have to time it and hit the SPACE as the optimal time to hit a bat.
In between these rooms are twisty hallways and a plethora of squares that trigger wall sections to open or close. Some of these triggers so radically reconfigure the dungeon that it's virtually impossible to map. There are also trap squares, but some of these are the same as trigger squares, and I'm not sure what toggles them. Exploration is quite a challenge.
The square containing my asterisk in the first shot is the same square that is above the asterisk in the second shot. The area reconfigures significantly depending on which direction you approach from.
From what I can tell, the pieces of the scepter are all found in regular hallways, usually at dead ends, rather than in rooms. I found three of them on Level 1. I suspect a fourth is in a room to the southwest, but I can't figure out how to get in there. There's a trigger square in the northwest that opens a passage, but other triggers squares close the same passage as you approach.
A trigger square opens a door elsewhere.
Getting to Level 2 requires you to find a room with a tunnel, then use the pole to vault into it. Level 2 seems even crazier than Level 1, with numerous squares of lava that you have to either find a trigger to drain or trust your dexterity to jump over. I found a weird creature offering to sell things in one of the rooms, including valuable torches, arrows, and elixirs, but we kept getting attacked by monsters during the transactions.
Some spider-thing offers to sell me arrows.
There's also a teleporter square that takes you to a special area called . . . damn it. My computer crashed and I lost the notepad on which I wrote it down. It was something like "Maze From Hell." It's a single screen with six exits that leads to identical-looking screens whichever way you go.
I never found my way out of this area.
Unfortunately, my attempts to play and win the game seem doomed by its extreme fragility. This might be an artifact of the original program, a modern emulation problem, or some combination of the two. I don't even understand the issues that I faced trying to get the program to run, something that both Dungy and Jason Dyer helped me with extensively. My understanding is that the program is so big that in order to have room for the saved characters, you can't have the TRS-80 boot files on the same disk, so you have to boot with one disk, then swap in the game disk, a process that didn't work for me for various reasons. But the problems go deeper than that. The game would refuse to recognize characters after I created them. If you try to clean out old characters to make space, you sometimes get stuck in an endless loop. Every errant keypress seems to cause it to dump to the system prompt. It often gets stuck loading areas. My main character, who had good stats to start, suddenly ended up with everything set to 9. And after successfully getting to Level 2 once, I found myself unable to get there again, even with a new party. The game either crashed or froze every time I tried, even after re-downloading a clean version of the disk.
One of many deaths. Fortunately, you can save anywhere. Unfortunately, reloading a saved game doesn't often work.
Some of these issues may still be solvable, but I feel like I've wasted enough of my time and my readers' time on the game. We'll chalk up these difficulties to issues with modern emulation and give Red Dragon its due for offering some interesting game elements in a time when the best mechanics for CRPGs was still an open question.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Darkside of Xeen: Here Today to Introduce the Next Phase

Terrorizing people wherever he goes.
After that rambling entry on finding the right exploration pattern, while waiting for your responses, I started re-exploring the Clouds side, including clearing out the towns and doing a loop around the roads just to see if I could. I ended up re-purchasing most of the skills from Clouds and frankly many of the spells. I realize this goes against the experience many of you wanted to read for Darkside, but I guess the fundamental problem is that the two games seem like one game, and thus it seemed silly to take five huge leaps backwards.
At some point, I realized that if I didn't cut it out, I would probably end up just re-exploring Clouds again with a new party. So I reloaded with the party I ended Clouds with and decided to continue with them. They probably provide a greater challenge than training up a new party, since a) I have non-optimal classes; and b) I sold all their items at the end of the game, so they're starting Darkside with nothing.
The short-lived "new" party cleans out Nightshadow before I came to my senses.
I discovered one amusing thing along the way. In Clouds, I made liberal use of the +10 level fountain in Nightshadow. A lot of you thought that was overkill, opining that you had never used the fountain. This confused me a bit because I was barely winning some battles even with the bonus. However, I realized during this last session that I hardly ever had the bonus at all. My usual M.O., after getting the bonus, was to return to Vertigo and go to the temple to get the temple bonuses (eventually, I got "Day of Protection" and "Day of Sorcery," but I rarely cast them because I became paranoid about wasting gems). But because the +10 level fountain had increased my maximum hit points, I also usually paid the temple for "healing" (i.e., bringing my actual hit point total up to the new maximum). What I didn't realize was that getting healed at the temple, for whatever reason, removes fountain bonuses. Through the entirety of Clouds, I was using fountains to buff and then immediately undoing the buffing before entering battle. No wonder I didn't notice a significant difference.
Wiping out the goblins and gremlins in Castleview again.
I thus re-cleared Castleview with the old party and re-contacted Ellinger in his tower. I had missed a secret area in the tower the first time, which led to the clouds above it. This side of Xeen also has explorable areas and walkways above its towers. However, where these areas were isolated on the Clouds side, they're interconnected on the Darkside. A "skyroad" winds its way around the entire map and provides access to its towers from the top down. There was at least one suggestion from an NPC that I might have to use these pathways to reach towers for which I can't find a key. I explored for a little while but didn't linger.
The skies of the Darkside are more linear and connected.
Castleview is in A4 along with Castle Kalindra, which as per Ellinger's intelligence was "out of phase" with reality and thus inaccessible. A bottle in a nearby river held a message from Queen Kalindra: "Help! I am being held captive in Castle Blackfang!" Nearby, another bottle had a message from Xanthus the Sorcerer, inviting us to visit him 25 squares west of Castle Blackfang.
I thought the Dragon Pharaoh was the ruler of Darkside.
The area is full of fields and plains swarming with "electropedes," which weren't too hard. Almost immediately, I found an encounter that I would not have enjoyed if not for finishing Clouds: Falista the Unicorn had relocated to the meadows of the Darkside and restored my magic points every time I visited.
We should domesticate and harness the power of these creatures.
I got 500,000 experience points for saying PALINDROME to another Drawkcab Monk named Reger. A fountain raised my armor class by 10 temporarily; another gave +25 might and a third offered +100 luck. Luna the Druid asked me to recover three stolen golden statuettes that she needs to use her healing powers. The thieves in the Great Southern Tower probably stole them; I can get a key from the keeper of the fountain near Venom Pond.
Area B4 started with more meadows. In a hut, Nibbler the Monkeydog asked me to recover Mongo Melons for him. Fortunately, I'd already found a bunch in A4. In return, he suggested we visit the dungeon in the Sprite Forest, and he gave us a key.
For a small world, Xeen sure does have a lot of sentient creatures.
In Might and Magic III and Clouds of Xeen, I had complained that the small 16 x 16 maps didn't allow enough terrain space for the different points on the map to be memorable. I doubt anyone remembers the "Barbaric Mountains" or the "Land of the Giants" of the Clouds side because they only occupy a single small map. Perhaps aware of this, the creators did something a bit different on the Darkside. There are fewer distinct geographic zones, and thus these are larger, stretching across multiple areas. The "Sprite Forest" starts in B4 and extends to F4, although it is called the "Aging Forest" by the time it gets to the far east side. Four maps in a row were mostly dense thicket that prevented us from seeing into the next square (the need for the "Pathfinder" skill was perhaps more justified). 
The guardian of dungeons on this side.
Encounters held across multiple maps, too. Early in B4, the party tumbled unceremoniously into a "troll hole" and found themselves fighting trolls (grunts and chiefs) in the dark. There were about eight such holes. I tried to avoid falling down them by keeping "Day of Sorcery" (which includes "Levitate") active, but time passes so quickly outdoors and spells wear off. Usually, falling down yet another hole was my reminder to cast the spell again.
It's hard to imagine how these two things are connected.
Each troll hole was a small dungeon with dead adventurers. There were notes indicating that the trolls had stolen gold from the thieves' guild, and the suggestion was that many of the dead adventurers were thieves who had died trying to reclaim it. A few chests held gold and gems. The best part of the troll holes was a series of barrels labeled "troll juice" that poisoned the character drinking it but raised all attributes by 1. Eventually, in the last troll hole, we met Hobstadt the Troll King. We had options to surrender to him or fight. We killed him, of course.
Here's a troll in the light.

I like that the series is doing more of this, but come on.
For B4, C4, and D4, the primary enemy in the outdoor map were "medusa sprites." They sound like they have some kind of paralysis attack, but they died so easily that I never experienced it. A hut in the forest belonged to Sharla the Sprite, who wanted our help rescuing her sister from "the orcs." I had options to help, help in demand for a reward, or try to rob Sharla. Again, it's nice to see more role-playing choices in the series, even if I did the obvious thing (offer to help). She's supposedly located in the Temple of Bark, which is just a few steps from Sharla. It wasn't until later that I got the key from Nibbler, and I thus haven't visited yet.
Throughout the forests, all the way through E4, were a series of huts that offered "forbidden fruit." Sometimes, these caused some effect--unconsciousness, confusion, insanity--no matter what. Usually, though, they provided a permanent +10 boost to some statistic to whoever ate the fruit. There was no way to tell ahead of time what the statistic would be, so I just gave them all to my paladin.
This one didn't work out for us.
C4 had the South Tower, for which I didn't have a key on my first pass. A well offered +50 elemental resistance (temporary), and an altar offered +10 to all statistics (temporary). 
As we got into D4, the medusa sprites were replaced with dark wolves. They weren't very hard, either. But E4 and F4 confronted me with much more difficult enemies: mantis ants and giant killer cobras. These were the first enemies in the game so far clearly meant for higher-level parties. Both were hard to hit and took several rounds to kill in melee, particularly the cobras. Mantis ants caused poison, and the cobras' special attack magically aged the characters by 5 years. Fighting both of them let me to experiment more with spells. I really like "Shrapmetal," which does a fair amount of damage but uses no gems. If I'm willing to sacrifice some gems, both "Fireball" and "Lightning Bolt," which scale with the caster's level (as does the cost) do a fair amount of damage. However, my experience with them reinforced what most commenters have said: this is a game of physical attacks. It's rare to find a spell that outperforms a physical attack, and when you do find one, it's almost always a very high-level spell that wipes out half (or more) of your spell points. The only problem with physical attacks is hitting. The game does some steep scaling of THAC0 (or whatever this series calls it) by character level. 
The toughest enemies so far.
Character level, in fact, seems to matter more than anything else for combat success. As I mentioned, I started this session with no equipment. I slowly gathered some as the session progressed, but by the end I still didn't have a full set of armor pieces for every character, and only three of the four characters capable of wielding a bow had actually found one. None of it really seemed to make any difference. Fighting with their fists, my characters seemed to do nearly as much damage as they did with swords. When I had trouble hitting the killer cobras and mantis ants, a visit to the well of +50 accuracy barely helped. A visit to the well of +10 levels, on the other hand, helped a great deal. I'd love to work out the specific math, but it appears to me that levels provide a significant multiplier to the other statistics.
This is some bull@#&.
There fortunately weren't that many killer cobras and mantis ants. F4 brought a stupid and annoying "encounter" in which characters would get randomly brained by low-hanging branches and knocked out, no matter how high their hit points had been before. There was also a "Venom Pond" that poisoned us when we stepped in it. As promised, the nearby fountain keeper, Thaddeus, gave us a key to the Great Southern Tower. We had to promise to try to find the lost Jewel of Ages, which will restore the life-giving waters of the fountain.
I don't know what we expected.
On the far east side of the bottom row, we met Celia and Derek. We had saved Celia from zombies on the Clouds side. They had relocated here and they gave us a platinum sword. 
An encounter I wouldn't have gotten if I hadn't played the previous game.
Having finished the bottom row, we returned to the Great Southern Tower. There are three other great towers on the Darkside map. This one was inhabited by rogues, who fell before us by the score without even touching us. A logbook indicated that they had stolen Luna's statuettes and the Jewel of Ages and sold them to various people throughout the land. There were a number of trapped chests that required reloading (they wiped out my entire party), plus some kind of puzzle involving buttons that I'm not sure I solved. I did find two energy discs, though, which brought my total up to five.
The thieves on the other side looked more menacing.
The skyroad above the tower had a combat with an "air golem," which wasn't hard. But then a group of "sky bandits" ambushed us and demanded money. When we refused, they turned into dragons and wiped out the entire party in a single combat round. We'll have to return there later.
If you just appeared in this form, I'm sure more people would turn over their money.
With the energy discs in hand, I returned to Ellinger, who used them to restore the first floor of Castle Kalindra. We explored it, but there wasn't much. A number of locked cabinets had magic items; in a weird dynamic, the cabinets had combination locks, but the game told us what we "sensed" was the number, and in all cases, it was right.
How do we have any idea? Is this a check against thief skill?
There were a number of NPCs at tables and such. Kenneth the Butler thanked us for freeing them, as they were about to run out of food. Audrey the Cook said they survived on sun-dried lizard innards. Terry the Waiter said that Alamar stole the Cube of Power. Jones the Spy said that he heard Alamar claiming to have Prince Roland (from the Clouds side) in his basement. There were trainers for "Armsmaster" and "Danger Sense," but of course my party already had those. The throne was empty.
Of course. The queen is in another castle.
As we finished the first level of Castle Kalindra, we took stock of our open quests and noted the following. The ones with asterisks (*) we could do right now; the ones with pluses (+) are waiting for a higher level; the ones with at symbols (@) are waiting for an item; and the ones with question marks (?) probably have some kind of precursor, but I don't know what it is yet.
    @ CL A2 11,9: Southern sphinx; need key.
    @ CL B3 11,0: Tower for which I don't have the key.
    @ CL D1 10,15: Tower for which I don't have the key.    
    @ CL E1 14,12: Dragon Cave.
    + CL E1 15,2: Volcano Cave.
    + CL E3 3,4: Dungeon for which I don't have the key.
    @ DS A4 13,15. Return to Luna with the three golden statuettes.
    * DS B2: Recover griffin statue from Sandro in Necropolis.
    * DS C4: Explore the Temple of Bark and free the sprite.
    @ DS C4 1,7: Return after freeing sprite.
    * DS E1 1, 11: Location on treasure map found in Castleview.
    * DS E1: Visit Xanthus the Sorcerer.
    ? DS F1: Castle Blackfang. Free Queen Kalindra.
    * DS F2: Get dragon statuette from head witch of Lakeside.
    @ DS F3: Recover the Jewel of Ages from the Great Eastern Tower.
    @ DS F4 6,7: Return the Jewel of Ages to Thaddeus.
    ? Find energy discs and bring them to Ellinger to restore Castle Kalindra. 
    ? Get the pegasus statuette from the "head heretical cleric."
A few miscellaneous notes:
  • The series seems to have abandoned the idea of "lairs" (monster headquarters that you could destroy for extra experience and items). Although the Clouds side had them, I haven't seen any here.
  • I keep stashing excess money and gems in the bank. My gold total is over 2 million, and I have almost 40,000 gems. (These totals include the big haul I got below.) So far, training has escalated to about 4,500 gold per session, so no problems with money yet.
  • There are no special elemental "corners" with reflectors on the Darkside. Whatever those are, only the Clouds side seems to have them.
  • While I was playing Clouds, I made a joke that there are hardly any elves and dwarves to be found in the game world, let alone the other official races. I'm not sure you ever meet a single gnome or half-orc who isn't part of the party. This session made me realize how many other sentient creatures exist in the world. We've got talking monkeys, unicorns, leprechauns, minotaurs, fairies, dragons, and various humanoids pictured in cut scenes. It feels a little overcrowded, frankly. Where are the other "monkeydogs?" Is Nibbler the only one? If so, is he immortal? Where did he come from otherwise?
  • This game seems to really love button puzzles. About four of the dungeons I've explored so far have numerous buttons. I just hit them and hope something happens, but I rarely get any confirmation that it does. For all I know, I've missed half a dozen secret areas.      
I finished off this session by going to the Temple of Bark, which is guarded by some kind of minotaur-like creature. There were orcs inhabiting the place, looking nothing like the orcs from the Clouds side, though I guess this is true of all the shared monsters. Neither the orcs nor their shamans were capable of doing any serious damage to us, although there were a number of spear traps that occasioned a lot of swearing and healing. I freed the sprite plus several other prisoners held in cages. There were two energy discs.
These orcs look more serious than the other side's.
The dungeon was full of attribute-boosting bonuses, including potions and barrels (which unfortunately also had a magical aging effect). A button and lever puzzle that culminated in drinking from a fountain gained us +19 to all attributes! My characters started this session with many attributes still in their 20s and ended with hardly anything below 60. There were also some fountains that provided a +50 boost (permanent) to all elemental resistances.
Even better: each of these potions could be used twice.
The more interesting part of the Temple of Bark was the lore, as provided by numerous books. As often when it comes to Might and Magic, a lot of it is silly and perhaps I'm reading too much into it. The Temple of Bark was dedicated to a primordial being called Bark or Barkman. His own history claims that he was the first living being on Xeen, sharing the world with Sky and Sun. (To add to the oddities: one of the prisoners I freed was named Sky.) Seeking other living things to speak with, he convinced Sky to rain on him and Sun to shine on him, and all the living beings of Xeen grew from spores that he dropped. Later, the Weed sought to corrupt other living beings.
The age-old saga of the battle between Bark and Weed.
It could be just a bunch of nonsense, but there's a line ("something was not 100% confidence") that suggests Bark may be another Ancient creation. Perhaps his origin myth preserves some truth about how the Ancients seeded Xeen with life. More interesting, a document about "morning ceremonies" tells the Disciples of Bark to:
Take ye then the Bark of the Tre, and sprinkle it with ash. The ash symbolizes the Yak, the Bark the Moo. March ye congregation in a circle about the Tree, directing the half of them to chant "Yak" and the other half "Moo." After three circuits of the Tree, command the worshippers to sit where they are and clasp hands, all the while continuing the holy "Yak" and "Moo" chant . . . then plan the Holy Bark of the Tree (with the ash sprinkled upon it) into the ground next to all the other Holy Bark implantations.
It's hard to know what to make of this. There was a Temple of Moo in Might and Magic III and a Temple of Yak on the Clouds side. Remove that silliness from the ritual, and basically you have instructions for taking cuttings from a tree and planting it in ash-rich soil to make another tree. Did the Ancients convince primitive beings to seed the world with trees by turning it into a ritual? Are the Temples of Moo and Yak examples of cults that lost their original purpose? As usual, it's tough to determine if there's deep stuff below the surface here, or if the authors are just screwing around.
Evidence, perhaps, for the latter.
Bark was encountered in the flesh on the lowest level of the dungeon, a sprawling area shaped a bit like a tree. There had been warnings not to feed the "branches" (the northern extremities) but rather to feed the "roots" (the southern ones). Feeding the roots enabled the fountains that caused the +50 resistances. But I fed the branches, too, which brought Bark out of his secret area in the center. He had 37,000 hit points. My first battle with him went poorly. My spell points had already been low, and my casters were unable to keep up with "Power Cure." We succumbed after about 15 rounds. I reloaded, "Lloyd's Beacon-ed" out of there, rested, buffed a bit, and returned. We killed him in about 20 rounds.
His death unlocked some treasure chests, which gave us 25,000 gems and 2 million gold pieces, the largest treasure haul in either side of Xeen so far. 
Prepare to be depressed, economy!
I ended with a quick visit back to the Clouds side to run the circuit of the four druids and thus cure our magical aging.
I probably won't continue to explore the Darkside map in rows; instead, I'll do it by quest. Either way, I've fretted enough about exploration patterns. Might and Magic games pack their areas with so much content that you really never feel bored even if you're over-leveled and exploring "artificially."  
Time so far: 10 hours (including 5 spent with previous party)