Sunday, February 27, 2011

Demon's Winter: Miscellaneous Stuff in Bulleted Form

A puppet? That doesn't sound too hard.

Bulleted lists of "things I've discovered" always seem like a hackneyed way to convey information, but they do have the advantage of being somewhat simple to write and, I hope, read:

  • The game couldn't possibly be more unhelpful in its initial distribution of characters during combat. Almost always, my characters are facing away from the enemy, and my spellcaster in the last rank is almost always closest to them. This may seem like a nitpicking complaint, but since even turning costs moves in this game, I'd rather they started facing towards the enemy. Not being able to attack or move on the diagonal is also a bit annoying.

The characters bravely prepare to attack to the northwest. Too bad the enemy is to the southeast.

  • The game suddenly makes you camp every time it decides your characters are "sleepy." If you don't have a unit of food for everybody when you camp, you lose hit points. The need for food is slightly annoying. I ran out in a dungeon and had to take a break to go outside and hunt.
  • Leveling up turned out to be matter of finding a town with a "guild," where they either train you or tell you how many experience points you have left to earn.

  • Priestly types can "convert" to another deity. I haven't tried it yet.

  • Like Ultima IV, the game has a day/night cycle. To mimic night, the peripheral areas of the screen go black until you can only see for a limited box around you. I guess this is where that "visionary" class would come in handy.

Developers: this adds nothing to the game.

  • The game is fond of random encounters. They're not regular as in Shard of Spring (where they came every 33 moves), but they are frequent.
  • A clue that RJ left me in my last posting informed me about a baffling interface design: shops show you only one item at a time, and you have to keep hitting (c)ontinue to see the others. Nothing on the screen informs you of this. The cool thing is that there's some expensive equipment that I'll have to have much, much more gold to afford. I like having economic goals.

This item is pretty far in my future.

  • As you explore dungeons, you must periodically hit the (i)nspect command; otherwise, you miss treasure and special encounters. This took me a while to figure out, and then I had to retrace my steps through the Temple of Gamur.

A dungeon room with the "inspect" activated.

Moving, examining, taking objects, and moving objects seem to be the four ways that the characters interact with the environment and solve puzzles. The Temple of Gamur took me a long time because I was trying to figure out the interface.

The clue to the next dungeon, I guess.

The entrance area gave way to a long secret passage in which I really couldn't see where I was going, and it took a while to map. There were a couple of inventory puzzles: I had to find a mallet to smash a glass case holding a prisoner, then heal him with a blue potion in order to get a clue about the entrance to a place called Zoorik, a mythical city beneath the earth whose existence I'd learned from a scroll. There was some good equipment in one wing of the temple, but in obtaining it, my wizard was killed by a column of fire from a will-o-wisp. There was another tough battle with a pair of skeleton mages.

Boss lady.

A secret door revealed itself when I moved a wooden altar, beyond which was a room in which my party kept getting crushed (and killed) by walls before I realized that the safe path through the room had been given to me in an inscription in another room. The boss of the dungeon was a woman named Remondadin, who fell fairly quickly to my blades. Afterward, a message informed me that the dungeon was "only part of a small cult that worships Xeres--the demon who destroyed Ildryn." The game gave me the next quest of finding Xeres himself. But since he's named Xeres, not Malifon, I suspect he's the "puppet" mentioned in the opening screenshot.

Consulting the game map, I see that Idlewood, southeast of the dungeon of Zoorik, is on another island. I'm not sure how I get there yet, but I'm sure I'll figure it out.

Fighting skeletons.

Combat ought to be tactical, but it's already striking me as somewhat boring and repetitive, just like it did in Shard of Spring. I can't quite put my finger on what makes this combat fundamentally different from the similar combat in the Gold Box games, and I have to leave myself open to the possibility that it isn't different--that the exciting tactical combat I remember from Pool of Radiance is pretty much identical to this, and I'll be just as bored when I get to it. I hope not.

I'm having a weird feeling about the entire game. This feeling has hit me before with other games: even though I understand it, and there's nothing I'm really confused about, it seems oddly inaccessible, like there's something I'm not quite "getting" about it, like it somehow wasn't written for me. I know that doesn't make any sense, and it's possible I'm just in a weird mood--this was my last week of classes, and I haven't been getting much sleep. I'll see how I feel after a solid 14 hours tonight. I should be back on a regular posting schedule after that.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Game 48: Demon's Winter (1988)

Made glorious summer by this son of York.
Demon's Winter
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1988 for Apple II; 1989 for Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS.
Date Started: 23 February 2011
I tell you, I haven't been keeping up well on my "upcoming games" list. Until I read an e-mail from reader RJ yesterday, I didn't realize that Demon's Winter was a sequel to Shard of Spring. You may recall that I didn't really like Shard of Spring. I could see it as part of the evolution between Wizard's Crown and the Gold Box games, but I found it trite and boring, albeit with a reasonably good combat system.

Shard of Spring had a group of adventurers recovering the title artifact from the evil sorceress (or troll, or dragon--there was some confusion at the end) Siriadne, whose theft had created an icy wasteland out of the island nation of Ymros. Demon's Winter is set 5,000 years later, and one hopes the island learned from its previous attempt at environmental tampering, as there is no mention of the fabled Shard. Instead, some demon named Malifon has shown up and unleashed armies of goblins and kobolds and whatnot on the peaceful towns of Ymros, and in some vague way that I haven't encountered yet, he's threatening to plunge the land into eternal winter. Honestly, what do these SSI people have against winter? I think it's kind of pretty, and you have lots of excuses for staying indoors and playing CRPGs.

Selecting skills and a "diety" [sic] during character creation.

Demon's Winter does have some innovations over Shard of Spring. First, the list of character classes is quite expanded. In the first game, you could just be a warrior or wizard. In this game, you have a choice of 10 classes: ranger, barbarian, paladin, monk, cleric, thief, wizard, sorcerer, visionary, and scholar. Your choice of class essentially determines how easy or hard it is to learn certain skills (and which skills are available initially). Shard had a skills-based system, too, but the selection of skills was so limited that by the end of the game, every character had pretty much every skill. This game is a bit more balanced. Fighter classes learn combat skills (sword, axe, karate, fencing, etc.) quite easily but spellcasters have to spend a lot of points. The schools of magic (fire, metal, wind, ice, and spirit) are unchanged from Shard but there are some new magic skills--illusion, summon, and possession--in which sorcerers excel. You get to select two skills upon character creation and you can buy more at "colleges" scattered throughout the land.

Some of the classes are intriguing. The "visionary" has special skills that let him see the surrounding area, and the "scholar" can identify weapons, armor, and potions. I experimented with both but ultimately found them too useless in regular battle, and their skills don't help that much anyway. RJ, who has a lot of enthusiasm for the game, sent me some hints (bordering on spoilers but not quite) which explained why thieves and sorcerers are a bit worthless. He recommended two paladins, a ranger, a barbarian, and a wizard. I went mostly with his recommendations but chose a paladin and a monk instead of two paladins.

Like Shard, there are five races: humans, dwarves, elves, dark elves, and trolls (dark elves replaces gnomes from Shard). My current party consists of:

  • Mathamas, a human paladin
  • Grendel, a troll barbarian
  • Constans, a dwarf monk
  • Triamour, a elf ranger
  • Clinscho, a dark elf wizard

There's also a religious system in the game that's new. Characters who choose "priesthood" as a skill gain access to one of five priestly or shaman deities, each of whom does something different when you pray to him or her and he or she isn't feeling out of sorts. For my monk, I chose the god Illo, who offers a chance at resurrection--something that a no-reloading player often needs.

That's a robust marketplace there. It sells exactly one dagger.

The game starts you with no equipment in what seems to be a random place. The first time I started, I was in a dungeon, and the second two times, I was in some part of the wilderness. In no case does the game give you much of a clue about where to go first or what to do, so I just started messing around. The first thing I tested was whether encounters spring up every 33 moves the way they did in Shard. I am happy to say they do not.

Outdoors in Ymros, which seems suspiciously un-wintery.

The basic gameplay has changed little in the two years. You move overland as a single icon, encounter various towns, dungeons, and colleges. Right away, the game world seems larger than Shard, and in much better detail (compare the above to this). In combat, which pops up randomly and at certain fixed positions, you switch to a tactical map in which each character has his or her own icon.

Yes, that would be a rat I'm fighting.

In combat, each character has a certain number of moves based on speed, which you can spend attacking, maneuvering into position, casting spells, turning undead, praying to your deity, healing other party members, using items, or just defending yourself. There are tactics associated with how you position your party members and whether you let them come to you or go charging at them.

This is a bad battle formation.

I outfitted my party with daggers and wandered around until I found the College of Hunting, where I trained my ranger in that skill so food would be easier to come by.

A quest-ish tavern tale.

In a town, I heard a tavern rumor that there was a band of marauding kobolds in a camp to the south, led by someone named Uffspgot or Uffuspgot (consistency in spelling is not one of the game's strong points). I found their camp easy enough and within four or five steps, I was face-to-face with the kobold leader, who in an overheard conversation identified his master as someone named Xeres.

So you don't spend the rest of the day wondering, they were snarling at me.

Uff(u)spgot turned out to be a bit of a pushover. I made quick work of him and several of his minions in tents surrounding his. In one, I found a woman being taunted by some kobolds and freed her. In another, I found a note that said a cult worshipping Xeres could be found in the catacombs under the Temple of Gamur and the codeword needed to enter is -X-.

So far, I'm not regretting taking the karate-skilled monk. He seems to be the only one who does a consistently high amount of damage, but of course most of my characters are fighting with daggers.

At last, I found a note that told me what the manual didn't make explicit: my group of adventurers is simply questing to find out what happened to the village of Ildryn, whose destruction is chronicled in a brief story at the beginning of the manual. They know nothing about Malifon and winter at this point. Now it makes more sense.

Not sure where to find the Temple, I decided to try to circle the perimeter of the map. Heading east to find water, I ran into a group of Level 4 mages and was almost instantly slaughtered by fireball spells. Much like its predecessor, the game does not reward off-the-beaten-path exploration.

That's good enough for a start. I remain a little uncertain how best to allocate my limited skill points, and I'm not sure how my characters level up, but I'm sure I'll figure it out tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An Update

I've spent the last three weeks on the road, and every night I swore I was going to play and post something, and every night I found an excuse not to do it. But I'm back home, and while I still have plenty of work to do, I think you should see January levels of activity once I kick it back into gear.

I dithered with The Bard's Tale III and BattleTech a little during my absence, but not enough to get a full posting. Frankly, I forgot what I was even doing in The Bard's Tale III and probably because of that couldn't make much headway in the next quest. BattleTech didn't excite me at the outset, although I still want to write about it.

To get me back in the game, I need a bit of a palate-cleanser, so I'm going to try this Demon's Winter for a little bit and, once I'm back on the wave, probably alternate between it and The Bard's Tale III. More soon.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

First Birthday

Today is the first birthday of the CRPG Addict, and I was hoping that this posting would come after a long string of reviews, culminating in my 50th game, rather than as the first posting after nearly two weeks of silence. But perhaps nothing else better exemplifies the feast-or-famine nature of my blog. As hiatuses go, this last 10 days has been one of my shorter ones--I had breaks in May and August last year that I wasn't sure I'd recover from.

My winning Rogue screenshot.

This blog began at the encouragement of a Reddit user named RedDyeNumber4, after I won Rogue and posted a screen shot to /r/games. I had just spent four months trying to beat the game, and I wanted to share the triumph with someone. I don't know why the idea of a blog hadn't occurred to me before. I had long been drafting thoughts on CRPGs--some of which have appeared among my "special topics" postings--but if I thought about publishing them at all, I guess I thought I might interest a site like Gamespot or something. Once I had the suggestion, though, I was very excited about it.

I know various aspects of my plan--DOS only, chronological order, six hours no matter how forgettable the game--have struck some readers as silly, and many of you have suggested changes or exceptions. But making a specific plan and sticking with it is very much within my personality. If I had to do it again, I probably would have set a rule about playing the games on their best platforms, but I definitely wouldn't jettison the six-hour rule, which has prevented me from writing trite, cursory postings on some games while rushing to the ones I most anticipate. Even with the rule, I've given a raw deal to certain titles. I could have tried a bit harder on Wizardry II, III, and IV, for instance, and I should have spent more time on Swords of Glass, which seems now like an authentically good-but-overlooked title--the very thing I started this blog to find.

On the whole, though, I'm satisified that the blog has met its purpose. I am a guilty hobbiest, and I can assuage that guilt by having a goal to my hobbies. I used to feel slightly ashamed at all the time I spent on crossword puzzles, but now that I attend the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament every year, my crossword time becomes "training." I used to hate myself for all the CRPG hours--going so far as throwing away games in disgust after winning them--but now I have this project, and goals for it, and readers who seem to like my postings. This makes me feel better about playing games. In fact, it makes me feel bad if I don't play games for a long stretch of time, as in the past 10 days.

The CRPG addict's weekly visits, courteey of Google Analytics.

At the outset, I didn't think I'd care whether I had many readers or not. I considered the blog primarily a self-expression project. But I've been surprised at how much I've come to value comments and dialog. I know nothing about most of you, but I've learned to recognize and appreciate your unique voices. Some of you offer me good supplemental information about the games, some of you have great senses of humor. I can always count on one or two of you for hints. You've helped me with research, files, and translations--sometimes removing a convenient excuse to just move on from a game! When you've disappeared...well, I haven't cried myself to sleep, but it's been a little disappointing. Two longtime, quality commenters stalked off permanently when I bailed on Faery Tale Adventure. It's made me more conscious of the consequences of giving up on games that are someone's favorites.

Here's something I didn't mention on my blog when it happened: a few months ago, I quit my job so that I could do training, teaching, and contract work full-time. I haven't revealed my profession on this blog, not because I care if you know, but because I don't want people from my profession finding the blog. It would cause a lot of issues. But imagine I was something like a state economic planner, and then I started teaching and consulting on economic planning, and now I do that teaching and consulting full-time. That'll give you the right idea. The reality of my new life is that I'm on the road at least half the time, but when I'm not, I'm at home all day, and the temptation to play games instead of working is all too real. I was home for most of the month of January, which explains my prodigious output, and I'm traveling most of the month of February, which I hope excuses my recent drop-off.

I can never correctly anticipate how much time I'll have. Sometimes I'll be going to a conference with plenty of friends and colleagues, and yet I find I have a lot of time to play--almost all of Dungeon Master was written from hotel rooms in Dallas and Seattle. Other times, I'll be headed to a boring place I don't like, like Kansas City last week or Phoenix a few months ago, assuming that I'll be playing and blogging at night, and I end up absurdly busy all week. I've experimented with writing postings in advance, and sometimes it works. You didn't notice when I was gone for a week in January because I had already won Ys before my first posting on Sorcerian was even published.

Over the last few months, I've started to receive a lot more direct e-mails from readers or other people asking about my blog. Sometimes, I don't really know what they want. Other times, I'm delighted, as when a reader recently gave me the opportunity to comment on a CRPG under development. Between the blog comments and e-mail, I get a lot of the same questions over and over, so here are the answers to a few:

  • Time: I have time to play so many games by staying up late at night. I do much of my playing in the four hours after my wife goes to bed and before I get tired. I don't have many other hobbies, I don't follow sports, and I don't watch TV except what I get on Netflix Instant Play during a particularly boring game, so I have extra time that most people don't.
  • Comments: I get an e-mail alert for every comment someone leaves, and I read every comment no matter how old the original posting. I respond to about 50% of them based on my overall reaction. I think I've responded to almost all questions.
  • Maps: I make them in Excel by using the "draw borders" tool. Nothing fancy.
  • Money: I don't put ads on my site because I can't imagine the amount of revenue would make it worth while. I don't want to make this blog about money. If regular readers feel compelled to pay me back, I wish they'd just offer to buy me a drink when I'm in their towns.
  • Wife: I have one. Her name is Irene. She doesn't know about the blog, and I think it would be kind of difficult to tell her after doing this for a year. She does occasionally like to play console games with me, and a few weeks ago we went out and bought an X-box 360 and a few games she liked the look of, one of which was Oblivion. The irony stings.

The ultimate message that I want to convey here is that I'm grateful to all of you who read the blog. You've helped turn something that I used to do solo--and feel embarrassed about--into a kind-of community where you can share my joy of good games, my disgust and amusement at bad games, and make unique discoveries as we tour the history of CRPGs. I apologize for my hot-and-cold publication schedule, but I'll try to do better in Year 2. Stick with me, and we'll have a lot of fun together.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bard's Tale III: Brief Break

Switching to the chronomancer class.

Yikes! I take two days off and I have something like 50 postings to reply to. I'll work on that a bit this afternoon.

I am going to keep going with The Bard's Tale III, based partly on your comments that it improves, and partly because my win/give-up ratio hasn't been looking so good lately. But unfortunately, I'm spending the week in Kansas City and I forgot to copy the save game from my old laptop to my new one (which I have with me) before I left. So to the extent that I get any playing time this week, my next post will be on BattleTech. I'll resume with BT3 next weekend.

In the meantime, anyone know who this guy is? Was he in The Bard's Tale II? I encountered him when I stepped into Arboria, the first alternate dimension.

Later edit: The "brief break" ultimately stretched on so long that I forgot what I was even doing in the game. I've kicked Bard's Tale III lower on the 1988 list and I'll basically start over with it after I get through 8 or 10 other games.

Much later edit: It was over a year before I got back to it. Here is the next posting.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Bard's Tale III: More Complaints, Mostly

A harmonic gem at last!

The last two days have been full of complete bull$%&*.

Yesterday I timed it. With the bard song "The Rhyme of Duotime" playing, spell points regenerate at a rate of two every 30 seconds. My characters had around 160 spell points then, so if they came out of a dungeon needing to regenerate 140 of them, that took 35 minutes. But there are other complications because "The Rhyme of Duotime" only lasts about three minutes, meaning I'd have to keep resetting it, which defeats the purpose of doing other things while I wait. That means that a real regeneration took closer to 55 minutes providing I remembered to reset the song once. However, this also doesn't take into account that spell points only regenerate during the daylight, and day and night both last about 10 minutes. This effectively doubles the amount of time it takes to recharge spells unless I stand outside the refugee camp and remember to enter and exit every once in a while (you always return to morning when you leave the camp).

The upside is that I had to wait at least 35 minutes, but practically more like 70 minutes, in between trips to the dungeon. It's hard to believe I'm not missing something, but I don't think I am. I've only found one "harmonic gem," which does indeed regenerate all spell points for a single character, but I kind of feel like I need to save that for emergencies.

I'm just putting this here because I thought this guy looked weird.

What makes this particularly unforgivable is the multiple dungeon squares that sap your magic points. There's nothing like waiting an hour to recharge your spell points only to head into the dungeon and watch half of them drain away.

While I'm complaining, here's a few other things:

  • Spellcaster leveling makes no sense. Once you've achieved the seventh spell rank (character Level 13) in your first class, there's no reason not to switch to the next class. Switching starts you back at 0 experience points, but with no detriment to your health or spell points. Leveling comes extraordinarily quickly at this point. It took my characters about 3 hours of playing to get to Level 13 in their first spell classes, then only about an hour to get to Level 13 in their second classes and less than that to get to Level 13 in their third. During the time that the two spellcasters went through 13 levels the third time around, all my other characters rose maybe 1.
  • I don't like the way the characters find items at the end of combat. The game forces you to take whatever you find, but with no way to sell the items, 90% of the time, you immediately go into the character's inventory and discard it. A better game would ask what items you wanted to keep.
  • The only way to tell if a bard song is still playing is to have the volume on, but the bard songs--the only sound the game, as far as I can tell--just loop over and over and over again every 10 seconds or so. While the sound quality isn't bad, you can't listen to it for long.
  • I don't mind random encounters in dungeons, but what annoys me is that enemies can attack when your only move is to turn. This makes mapping very frustrating. There are certain squares where it seems like every move produces an encounter. You finish fighting and then take a couple of turns to remind you where you are, and suddenly you're in battle again.
  • The game doesn't seem to register a lot of my key-presses. I'll hit "8" twice to go north and map the walls assuming I've gone north twice. Then I find out it only registered one of them.

In between times in which I was standing around waiting for spell points to recharge, I finished exploring the dungeon and ultimately killed Brilhasti, the Mad God's servant. To do this, I had to first solve two more riddles on Levels 4 and 5. Both stumped me for a few minutes, although there were other clues on the levels as to the answers (select the text to see the answers):

  • "I am nothing, I make nothing, but my opposite creates me even as it destroys me" (SHADOW).
  • "I have no lips, yet my kiss is deadly. I am not a razor, but those I caress need never shave again. Your best friend, I will kill you" (SWORD).

Answering them got me a message to the effect that maybe I am strong enough to defeat Brilhasti and a clear path to the stairs. Reader Eric nailed it: it's more fun if you imagine these messages were scrawled in blood by a spy as he tried to escape. That leaves the question of why he magicked up a mouth with a riddle, though.

Both levels featured plenty of spinners, anti-magic zones, silent zones, spell-point-draining squares, and invisible walls--things that seemed like novelties in the first Bard's Tale but are just tiresome now.

Level 5 was also full of clues as to "three wards" that would "try my soul" on Level 6. Well, I don't know what they were talking about. Level 6 had spinners and dark zones and such, but it was easy enough just to plow through it and make my way to Brilhasti's lair...

My most successful run at Brilhasti out of about 30. He soon killed me.

...where I promptly had my ass handed to me. Bad. I didn't even come close. He was surrounded by four "dark guards" who cast pillars of fire at me, did 80-100 points of damage in melee attacks, and basically just slaughtered me even when my spellcasters were casting REST (full party health restore) every round. I reloaded about 30 times before I finally was able to kill the dark guards through DEST (destruction) spells. But then I had to "advance" across 60 feet to Brilhasti, and he wasted me with RIME (serious frost damage) spells along the way. When I finally reached him, two of my characters were dead, and then he started summoning greater demons. I didn't stand a chance.

Discouraged, I returned to the surface--which was no picnic, by the way, walking back up four levels (the APAR teleport spell failed)--healed, and started to level grind. For an entire day, I killed easy, medium, and hard monsters throughout the Mad God's dungeon. My spellcasters finished mastering conjurer, magician, and sorcerer spells. But my regular characters only advanced a couple of levels throughout the entire day. Still, with my new spells and strength, I returned to Brilhasti's lair a second time.

It ended mostly well.

This time, I only had to reload about 15 times before I finally defeated Brilhasti and his guards, although I lost two characters in the combat. Yay! And my victory was accompanied by an automatic teleport out of the dungeon. Thank you! But this is where the final BS appeared.

Returning to the review board, I found that killing Brilhasti gave me enough experience points to advance from Level 16 to LEVEL 36! Moreover, my two spellcasters, who I hadn't even changed to wizard, let alone archmage, suddenly had all the conjurer, magician, sorcerer, wizard, and archmage spells. What the hell?! I spend an entire day level grinding only to have the game hand me 20 levels and two full classes' worth of spells for a single combat? Could it maybe have balanced that a little better? Was the entire purpose of the first dungeon to get my characters to the level they would have been if they had finished The Bard's Tale II? This is bad, bad, bad game design. Aside from the new chronomancer class, my spellcasters have nowhere to go. My thief has 99 in all the thief abilities. Playing with way overpowered characters is no fun even if the monsters are hard; there's nowhere for my characters to develop.

The next quest.

So the "last of the guild elders"--the guy in the review board--wants me to go to some realm accessible through some trees and to bring back a bow and arrows from another adventurer named Valarian. To do this, I have to take one of my archmages and make him or her a chronomancer, leaving me with only one archmage unless I take the time to develop another. I'm going to bed now to sleep on whether I want to even keep playing this dumb game. I'll leave it running overnight, though, so maybe my 350 spell points will be recharged by the time I wake up in the morning.

Sorry to sound so negative, but at least I know one thing now: my reviews of The Bard's Tale II were not simply because I was in a "bad mood." I was in quite a good mood two days ago, and I was eagerly anticipating this game. It's the game, not me. This series sucks. Why is it considered a classic?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Bard's Tale III: Just What I Needed

Enjoying the sunshine between battles.

Some of you may have noticed that I've been a bit manic lately. In January, I had 29 postings--a monthly record for me--and I covered 11 games. Truth be told, I've probably been devoting too much time to playing CRPGs this month--to the detriment of my real work. Thus, The Bard's Tale III came along just in time.

Let me explain. Spell points are vital to the survival of your characters. In fact, if the rest of the dungeons go like the first one did, I'm going to regret not just creating an all-spellcaster party. You need them for healing, buffing spells, exploration spells, and defensive spells, and all of the necessary exploration spells (magic compass, greater revelation, levitation, mystic shield) take up about 1/3 of your spell points right there. So when you go exploring and you start to run out of magic, it's time to get out of Dodge.

The first two games had a shop called Roscoe's Energy Emporium where you could pay to get your spell points recharged. But in III, Roscoe's was destroyed by the Mad God. Thus, the only way to recharge your mana (that I can tell) is to hang around outside. This only works in the daytime, too, so if it happens to be night when you emerge from the dungeon, you have to wait.

A full recharge takes about 20-30 minutes in real time, even with the bard song called "The Rhyme of Duotime" playing in the background. This time only gets longer as my levels (and, thus, max spell points) increase. Consequently, I'm getting a lot of work done on my "to do" list when I'm supposed to be playing the game. Explore the dungeon. Write a few pages for a report. Finish mapping Level 1. Check in on my online classes. Map half of Level 2. Design a database form. This really is just the kind of game I need. In fact, it gives me an idea: all computer games ought to come with built-in timers. When you create your character, you tell the game how long it should allow you to play and how long a break you should take in between playing sessions. Want to override those settings? Fine, but you'll have to restart from the beginning.

Based on comments I got from yesterday's posting, there are things called "harmonic gems" that recharge your spell points, but I haven't found them yet.

Tarjan's dungeon, Level 3

I managed to map four levels of Tarjan's dungeon since my last posting It's slow-going. The game throws encounters at you on every other square, it seems, and you never "clear" a level, so it's relentless. With "Sir Robin's Tune" playing, I can avoid most of the fights if I want to, but obviously the point of the dungeon is to increase my experience. My characters are Level 13/14 and my spellcasters have rolled over into their second classes. I had to find a word on Level 2 ("CHAOS") to allow access to Level 3, and on Level 3 there was a riddle ("The tint of melancholy paves the way" and "A splash of noble's blood colors the exit"; answer: BLUE) to pass to Level 4.

Here are my notes from the last day's sessions:

  • In a departure from the first two games, monsters do not attack while you wait, only when you actually turn or move. This makes my strategy above possible.
  • The game has introduced a new way to cast spells, and it's so annoying that I don't know what the developers were intending. Instead of typing in the four-letter code for the spell, you now have to choose the spell from a list. A long list, especially as your spellcasters achieve multiple classes.

They could have at least put them in alphabetical order.

  • There are a lot of ways to get NPC assistants in the game. I've found half a dozen figurines that will summon them, sometimes wandering monsters offer to join me, and there are several spells that conjure them. What I've noticed is that these monsters are nigh indestructible. A figurine gave me a "Molten Man" with an AC of -12 and 146 hit points. I've had him for two levels and he hasn't come close to dying.

I think in real life I'd be suspicious of this offer.

  • The ability to save in the dungeons, while beneficial on the surface, potentially removes a lot of the challenge inherent in the first game. There, you felt a real tension as you explored the dungeons, taking care not to stray too far too fast, watching your hit points and spell points. While I have been forcing myself to take slain characters for resurrection rather than reloading the game, I decided that when my entire party is wiped out, I'll allow myself to reload rather than trying to create dummy characters and resurrect them all from the adventurer's guild.
  • Along these lines, one level of the dungeon had a couple of doors that said, "Those who enter this door will never leave through it." Entering takes you to a dark level with no exit in which you take constant damage while moving. Lesson learned: heed the warnings on doors.

Honestly, if you saw this in real life, you wouldn't open the door, right?

  • I don't know if the creators were afraid of copyright infringement suits or something, but none of the monsters from I or II appear in this game. This game features a slate of creatures found in no other game. So far, I've counted about 15 different monster portraits, with each portrait standing for at least half a dozen monsters. For instance, the goofy looking thing below is shown as a "Hookfang," but the same portrait serves for "Blackclaws" and "Greenclaws" as well. Since these creatures are all unique to The Bard's Tale III, I suppose a dedicated player would keep track of their names, toughness, and special abilities to help better plan combat tactics. Alas, I have lacked such motivation.

I need to work on better insults.

  • In another departure from previous games, not all of the dungeon levels are the same size. The first level was only 13x13, for instance, while the second was 22x22.
  • There is precious little in the levels, aside from random encounters, traps, dark squares, spinners, and other such dangers. The first two levels of the dungeon, for all of their twists and turns, served only one purpose: to tell me that the word CHAOS, when spoken to the Mad God's priests, would allow me access to the deeper levels. This whole "message-scrawled-on-the-wall" thing is a staple of early CRPGs, found in Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, and Might & Magic, among others. But it does break the immersion a bit, doesn't it? I mean, why would the bad guys go and write their code words on the walls?

Was this written by some helpful fifth columnist in Tarjan's horde?

  • The game theoretically introduces an automap feature. I say "theoretically" because it doesn't really work. I think it's supposed to black out places you haven't been, but calling up the automap seems to either 1) show me the entire map of the level regardless of whether I've been there; 2) show a map with random parts--including places I've been--blacked out. I haven't abandoned my Excel maps.

This is what the automap showed me before I had even gone anywhere.

  • The rogue's attack abilities are a nice touch. I'm not sure if they're new to this game since I didn't have a rogue in the first Bard's Tale. Essentially, the rogue can take one combat round to hide in shadows. If successful, he can attempt a sneak attack against a foe on the next round. The sneak attack has a decent chance of being a critical hit (instant death). He can also do this from the fifth rank--a rank from which you can normally not attack. Also related to the rogue, the game follows Wizardry's tradition of having the rogue first identify the trap and then attempt to disarm it by typing in the trap's name. This can get annoying during repeat failures, when I have to type "poison blades" six or seven times. Inevitably, I screw it up ("pison blades") and set it off.

The thief makes a back stab.

I'm actually a little disturbed by how quickly I'm leveling up. I guess I had the erroneous impression that III restarted all characters at Level 1 for a reason, but the game seems bent on ensuring that I'll have Level 20 characters and arch-mages (spellcasters with all spell levels in all spellcasting classes) before the end of the first dungeon.

In this posting, I probably haven't been able to successfully conceal my disappointment. I don't know why, but I was really looking forward to this game. Somehow I thought it would be a lot different than II, but it's not. The lack of scripted encounters, the needlessly large dungeons, the constant combat, and the insanely rapid leveling have conspired to create a game that is fundamentally boring. The first Bard's Tale wasn't a whole lot different in gameplay, but it was somehow different in quality. It was more compact, for one thing. There were more NPCs and scripted encounters in dungeons, and the maps had a little more thematic sense to them. Compare the largely random map above to this one from the first game, for instance:

See how you can discern a pattern in this map? There was a consistent theme on this level with undead, and the walls led you inextricably to the location of the level's main encounter. Not so in the maps so far in The Bard's Tale III.

But the forced waiting has been a real benefit to me during a couple of days when I had to get some real work done, so in that sense, it's been just want I needed. And perhaps I'm being a bit premature--I understand that after this starter dungeon, I get to explore other worlds and stuff. That must be cool, right?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Game 47: The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate (1988)

This is one of several games in which the title could be rearranged almost any way and it would still sound like a good game. Try it: The Thief's Tale III: Bard of Fate; Bard's Fate III: Tale of the Thief; Tale of Fate III: The Bard Thief.
The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate
United States
Interplay (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1988 for Apple II and Commodore 64; 1990 for DOS; 1991 for Amiga; 1992 for PC-98
Date Started: 1 February 2011
We just crossed another year! This is the first crossing since 2400 A.D., which brought us to 1987 back in October. I played 19 games for 1987, and there are 31 on the list for 1988. Better get a-questing.

As you may recall, my experience with The Bard's Tale II didn't go so well. At first I found it too easy, then simply boring because of the lack of variety in the dungeons (the "snare" sections being the one exception). Then I ragequit when I realized I hadn't saved my game properly and I would have to go back to the dungeons I already completed. I decided to return to it after Might & Magic, but I found Might & Magic to be such a superior game in every way that I couldn't face going back to The Bard's Tale II. I always felt bad about that, like if I had played it in a better mood, things would have been different.

I was glad when, a few days ago, Kyle Haight linked me to this Matt Barton interview with Rebecca ("Burger") Heineman, the programmer behind The Bard's Tale and The Bard's Tale III. It does suggest that because of a rift in the creative team, The Bard's Tale II was fundamentally different, and harder, than the first one, and that perhaps III will be better. Heineman also indicates that Dragon Wars, coming up in 1989, was supposed to be The Bard's Tale IV.

In any event, after a string of quasi-CRPGs and console ports, I'm happy to be playing a multi-character Wizardry descendant again. 1988 promises to be a great year for classic series. In addition to this, we get the beginnings of two Dungeons & Dragons series: Heroes of the Lance and Pool of Radiance, Might & Magic II, Ultima V, and the fifth Wizardry.

The back story to The Bard's Tale III is mildly horrifying: After your party's defeat of Mangar in the first game, they immediately ditched Skara Brae to find the pieces of the Destiny Wand in a neighboring kingdom. Well, no sooner had the adventurers left the liberated city than the Mad God Tarjan, the dead Mangar's master, showed up and interrupted the festivities by sending his minions to kill everyone ("thanks, adventurers, but we rather liked Mangar better"). Garth of Garth's Emporium and Roscoe from Roscoe's Energy Emporium were crushed under their own shops. One of the city's elders managed to get a message to the adventurers, warning them that if Tarjan is successful, he will dominate life across multiple dimensions.

Gameplay hasn't really changed much since II (which hadn't changed much since I). Even most of the spells are the same, although there are two new spell classes: geomancer (converted fighters), and chronomancer (needed to move across dimensions). Races (humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits, half-elves, half-orcs, and gnomes) and other classes (warrior, paladin, hunter, monk, bard, rogue, conjurer, magician) are the same, but the creators decided to allow females at last. You can transfer characters from either of the two original games, but I decided to start fresh with newbies. My idea is that my original party was slain trying to defeat the second game, and the message intended for them has instead fallen into the hands of a group of rank amateurs.

Females finally qualify as adventurers in the third edition.

I struggled a bit with character creation. I like to lead with a paladin, but I remembered how good hunters and monks are at high levels. It seems wrong to play without a bard, and the manual warns you that you really need a rogue (who now comes with a new backstab ability) and you definitely need a chronomancer. Knowing that I'll have to sacrifice at least one spellcaster to the chronomancer class (who loses knowledge of all previous spells), I need at least one other. Technically, you can have seven party members, but you really need to leave a slot free for NPCs and summoned creatures. Thus, after some wrangling, I went with:

  • Sir Tor, a male human paladin. I wanted to do a half-orc paladin but the game, influenced by D&D, I guess, won't let you.
  • Ambrosius, a male dwarven monk (yes, dwarven monk, Mr. Autocorrect, not "dwarfish").
  • Vaux, a female halfling thief
  • Essyltt, a female half-elven bard
  • Mabon the Mad, a male elven conjurer
  • Escorducarla, a female gnomish magician

From a purely tactical perspective, it would probably have been a better idea to choose a hunter instead of the paladin, and to jettison the bard entirely, but from a roleplaying perspective I like this group better. One of these days I'll have the guts to play with a party of all one class or something, but it doesn't sound like that's possible in this game.

The game starts you with no gold--probably because, with Garth crushed, there's nowhere to spend it--but each character does have some basic equipment.

We begin in a refugee camp outside Skara Brae, with the camp taking the place of the adventurer's guild from previous games. Right next door is a tavern (these refugees have their priorities straight) and the bartender says that there still might be some treasures stashed in the nearby ruins of Skara Brae. I began by mapping the fairly limited out door area...

...which features the camp, the tavern, a temple, the ruins of Skara Brae, and a bunch of locations that promise to become important later, such as an "old dwarven mine" and a "peaceful grove," but the game wants me to explore Skara Brae first. Nonsensically, the outdoor section doubles back on itself. Walk 20 steps east from the refugee camp, and you'll find yourself approaching the camp again from the west. The game is apparently set on The Little Prince's planet.

Skara Brae is indeed in ruins, and much smaller than in the first game, although some features like the neverending street are still present. There are, as far as I can tell, only four buildings of consequence: the review board (where a single old man levels you up and sells spells), the Mad God's temple, some building that gives you the ability to search it but doesn't seem to turn up anything when you do, and the "Interplay House," where you can get the game's credits.

"His life impedes my efforts to stave off disaster" is a nice, roundabout way of saying, "kill him."

The old guy at the review board provides the first quest: to enter the dungeons beneath the Mad God's temple and slay one of his devotees, Brilhasti Ap Tarj. Entering the Mad God's dungeon is done the same way as in The Bard's Tale: you give the name of the Mad God ("Tarjan") to the priest. Incidentally, it is in this game that if you give the name of the Mad God as "Burger," you get a bit of a joke:

As I said, combat is identical to The Bard's Tale II. Your first four characters can attack; the rear two or three must cast spells or use items. Enemies can approach at a range, and if you enter combat with multiple groups of monsters, some may be off in the distance while others are directly in front of you. You can only attack the ones directly in front of you, and a favorite tactic of enemy spellcasters is to keep summoning creatures from 30 feet away, preventing you from ever reaching them except with your own spells.

Doesn't "miasmal" mean "vaporous"?

My characters began at Level 1 and were slain a lot before I realized that the bard song called "Sir Robin's Tune" (I think I am alone among geeks in absolutely hating that movie) allows you to always flee combat. This means that as long as I kept my bard's throat soothed with mead, she could play the song constantly and I could effectively pick and choose which combats to fight and which to avoid. In short order, I had my characters up to Level 5. Healing is expensive but spell points regenerate in sunlight, so my spellcasters can generally keep my party members in good shape.

The graphics don't seem to have improved much since The Bard's Tale II, although the character portraits and enemy animations look a little more advanced. Unless I have something set up wrong in DOSBox, the game is curiously devoid of sound effects except for the bard's tunes.

The game features monsters of unexpected power.

After I mapped the outdoor area and Skara Brae, I started exploring the Mad God's temple. The monsters took about 17 levels in badass right away. About halfway through the first level, my entire party was wiped out by a "goresucker" (my party had a different name for the beast, although oddly similar) who proved capable of belching fireballs. The particularly annoying thing is that the game manual doesn't give you a rundown of creatures, the monsters are unique to this game so you really don't know what to expect, and the game uses the same portraits for several monsters each. There was really no way to know that the Jabba-the-Huttish creature known as a "bloodfiend" in the outdoor area would turn into a merchant of death called a "goresucker" the moment I hit the first dungeon.

That actually doesn't sound so bad.

When your party is wiped out, the characters are transferred to the refugee camp, where a relief party can attempt to resurrect them. This takes more gold than I had, so I dumped them all and started over with new characters of the same names and classes. This time, I'll bring myself to a higher level before attempting the dungeons.

When I blog tomorrow, I should have a better sense of the overall gameplay and whether I actually like it or not. If I really hustle, I might be able to get this one done in a week, leaving me about one week more to get the four other games I need to...damn, I'm not going to make it, am I?