Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Dark Heart of Uukrul: Angry Dialogue During Clash of Blades

This dragon was awesome. I'm sorry I had to kill him.

I tell you, I'm in bloody heaven. The Dark Heart of Uukrul gave me a crossword puzzle--a crossword puzzle!--in the middle of a CRPG! Have I told you I'm a crossword fanatic? I compete in the American Crossword Puzzle tournament most years, and I do several a day. I like to look up anything I got wrong, or stuck on, in Wikipedia. That way, I learn something eclectically new every day. Anyway, thanks for keeping it a secret. Not since Might & Magic gave me a Sodoku-like puzzle have I been so impressed with a dungeon level.

Walking through the crossword level.

I recognized what it was almost immediately. My map of the level looked like a crossword puzzle grid (albeit not a symmetrical one, and with weird numbering), and when I stepped in certain squares, I got clues. This is how it laid out crossword style:

Now, more than a crossword, this was a cryptic crossword, more the style you'll find in The Times of London than The New York Times. Cryptic crosswords are much harder. A regular crossword might cue an answer like "NOSTRIL" with "A breathing hole" or, if they wanted to be cute, "A hole in the head?" A cryptic crossword would cue it with something like "Passage beneath a bridge." Cryptics involve much more lateral thinking than regular crosswords.

Assuming you can't read them in the image, these were the clues in the crossword in the game. I'll explain the annotations in a second:

(1) Weak loud backward liar [double definition, addition, anagram]
(2) Within or inside itself [obvious]
(3) Sounds like bread is being made, want some? [double definition, homophone]
(4) mythical monsters become tiresome [double definition]
(5) The infinite ethereal plane contains many small bones [hidden word]
(6) Sing out, but keep your mouth closed [cryptic definition]
(7) the avenger is moved to carve two points where the dead lie [anagram, addition]
(8) A keen joint [anagram, but with no cluing word]
(9) the tree before and after the fire [cryptic definition]
(10) Conditions important when walking less than twelve inches [double definition]
(11) Gives up a short recess to get a word in [double definition, addition]
(12) covered with cold wet spikes [this one isn't a cryptic, though it's not a common word]

The first one I got was probably the easiest: 9-down. Think about it: "The tree before and after the fire." Here's a picture of Will Shortz while you solve it.

ASH, right? It's a type of tree and it's what you have after you've burned a log of it.

Whoever designed this was familiar with cryptic crosswords and knew what they were doing; they used a lot of the conventions of cryptics, including multiple different types of clues. Briefly, there are 8 different types of clues you find in typical cryptic crosswords:

1. Cryptic definitions: These are the easiest and most common, consisting of a single definition with a hidden twist. They are common in American crosswords, but usually cued with a question mark at the end to let you know the constructor is having some fun. In cryptics, they appear straight: "Texas flower" becomes RIO GRANDE once you realize that "flower" isn't a plant but something that flows.

2. Doubled definitions. Here, you have two definitions in the same clue that resolve to a single answer. "Seductress's alarm" becomes just SIREN and not something like SIREN'S SIREN.

3. Anagrams. These are tough to identify because you have to be on alert for the types of words that the constructor uses to alert you to the anagram; words like "change" or "alter" or something similar. "Lease renewed by painter" becomes EASEL. Sometimes the anagram is a simple reversal, in which case you might see a clue that contains some variant of "around" or "backwards." "Protege sent back to sketch" would be DRAW (i.e., from WARD).

4. Hidden words. Like anagrams, these depend on finding the right cue words, which are often something like "hidden" or "within." "Weapons found in a farm stand" resolves as ARMS.

5. Homonyms. You have to look for clues like "heard" and "said" for these. "Insects that run, in speech" has to be FLEAS.

6. Broken words. In these clues, the constructor gives a separate definition and then a combined definition as concisely as possible. QUESTION might be cued as something like "Pursuit (QUEST) of charged particle (ION) leaves us wondering."

7. Addition and subtraction. Here we add letters and bits of words to make new words, usually cued with "loses," "gains," "adds," and so forth. "Lights go on when Massachusetts college gains weight!" might be BU+LBS = BULBS.

8. Really obvious answers that trip you up because you're looking for something cryptic. "Simply stated" might be, in fact, STATED.

Now, if this doesn't sound complicated enough already, the constructor might combine types. "Man juggling pins takes a sharp left to get his roots" combines an anagram (cued by "juggling") and an addition (cued by "takes") to get TURNIPS.

Now, if you're shaking your head wondering what the hell I'm talking about, I understand. I need to say this: this is insane. I do these types of crosswords--much bigger ones--several times a week, and it still took me a while to puzzle through this one. If I had encountered this as a 16-year-old in 1989, with no Internet (and no handy grandmother), it would have infuriated me. It almost certainly would have been the end of the game (although if there are truly more than 6 hearts, and you don't need them all, I guess you could skip this area).

I did ultimately get them all, but some of them only because I'd filled in a few letters from other clues. It took me a couple of hours, and fortunately these were hours in which I had no power (and thus Internet access), so I couldn't have cheated even if I was tempted. I'm still a little confused about part of 7-across. Which ones can you get? Put your answers in the comments--and don't be lame and look them up somewhere.

Answers opened doors.

But the crossword wasn't the end of the puzzle on this level. Not by a long shot. At the end of each of the "words" on the map--both across and down--was a secret door, and the answers were the passcodes necessary to open the doors. Inside each secret area was an image of something like "four diamonds above three squares." There were 12 such images in all, all containing diamonds and squares, but in varying numbers and sometimes with squares above diamonds.

Messages elsewhere in this dungeon area had told me that the key to answering a code was to use the symbol mentioned first if the diamonds outnumbered squares and to use the symbol mentioned second if they did not. A second message indicated that I was to ignore ties, of which there were three. So in the end, I had a string of symbols that went diamond-square-diamond-diamond-diamond-square-square-diamond-square.

If I didn't want to do the puzzle, I could have tried all 512 possible combinations until getting it right.

Inputting this message into a control panel in the south of the dungeon got me access to a new area, where I encountered a dragon guarding one of the hearts and a valuable chalice. Here's the best part: all of this puzzling actually makes sense in-story. The dragon turned out to have a vice for intellectual puzzles, such that when Uukrul gave him one of the hearts to guard, he went rogue and reconfigured the dungeon area specifically as a puzzle for adventurers to solve. Isn't that cool? Most of the time, you encounter weird messages and odd puzzles that are nonsensical in terms of the story.

Note that he's breathing fire while talking to me. For dragons, there's no distinction between debate and combat.

The dragon was a tough combat, and I died a few times. I ultimately won through a combination of a spell called RESEN that negates magic (otherwise, the dragon casts something that stuns you every turn) and the priest's RALKOR prayer. It was enough to get my characters to Level 10. They now have four of the stone hearts.

Uh, that didn't look like "ice" he was breathing a minute ago.

At the northern tip of the diamond was another puzzle of sorts. One of the messages in the chronicles of the Circle of Mages had told me that:

The mirror within the diamond carries the promise of Eriosthe's future. Uukrul has cast a dark vision upon it which portends only doom. The fair image must be awakened, though I know not how.

Indeed, when I arrived at the location, I found a mirror with some "dark images":


The solution was an interesting one, and I only hit upon it because I had just been reminded by Canageek to read the manual thoroughly. As part of my reading, I made a list of spells in my notepad so I could better remember them. There was one priest prayer, KUURAOTH, that I couldn't figure out what it did for the life of me:

Fshofth, hark at the kauri branch, a bird dips:
Takes honey from the silvered flower, and stops
Troubled by a dark mirage, far in the forest
Your glass will shatter the foundations of the dream

I had written "huh?" in my notebook, but when I came to mirror I remembered the phrase "troubled by a dark mirage, far in the forest," and I gave it a try. Sure enough, it cleared up the image. Light shone through the clouds, the figure in gray disappeared, the tower turned to dust, and a panel opened beneath the mirror, rewarding me with a "kauri plaque." I don't know what it does for me, but Mara assures me that it's "significant."

Sagaris told me that the kauri plaque "bears a prophecy from Areth. He wished to be the ruler of Eriosthe and enter the throne room of Aldron's palace," so I suppose that's where it gets me. Incidentally, Sagaris continues to be a wise-ass while identifying equipment for me:

It turned out to be a plain leather cap that sold for 16 gold pieces. Jackass.

I'm not sure if the KUURAOTH prayer has any possible uses elsewhere in the game. There are a couple others like this--and one mage spell--that suggest they might exist solely to solve puzzles. I'll write more about the magic in an upcoming posting.

One other thing: this diamond area is absolutely obsessed with the shape and condition of tiles on the floor. I mean, the entire game has been, to some degree, but in this area, I could barely walk three steps without some new message about the tiles. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be reading anything into these descriptions. Perhaps there's some giant puzzle at the end that depends on my ability to faithfully recall tile descriptions.

This game is confusing me with The HGTV Addict.

The rest of the level had encounters with spiders and lizards that never cleared: if I left the room and re-entered, there they were again. They helped remind me that I was playing a CRPG and not reading the Sunday paper.

These guys sucked, too. Corroded my weapons and armor in melee combat. I learned to hit them with RALKOR from a distance.

Overall, the time spent in this diamond area has been some of the most exhilarating moments I've ever had in a CRPG; it's probably the best I've felt since the kobold battles in Pool of Radiance. It was a truly challenging puzzle that made me feel honestly rewarded for having finished it. This is turning out to be a pretty awesome game.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

My Deark Heart of Uukrul Would Know


When I last blogged, I had just gotten the thread of the main quest, and since then, I've made fairly good progress, finding three of the six stone hearts and solving Sagaris's little "pool" quest.

As much as I love the descriptions in this game, why does it decide my character is "grinning insanely." I'll role-play my own party, thanks.

Two of the hearts were behind secret doors, but banners in the Circle of Mages area had given me clues as to where the doors could be found (they were in areas I'd already mapped, but not searched every wall for doors). I finally got Drutho to give me the ring level with the HOYAMOQ (open secret doors) prayer, so I could get through them.

That's a little melodramatic, Drutho.

Sagaris's quest was to get some kind of cylinder from a pool. Only my cleric could penetrate the unholy miasma around the pool and come out unscathed.

When I gave Sagaris his cylinder, he rewarded me with a wand that automatically translated messages. Thinking I could just keep using NGOS to do the translation, I sold the wand for a lot of gold, which turned out to be a mistake, as I'm encountering more and more messages that defy my mage's ability to translate them.

The insulting thing is, he gave me the wand as a reward and then made me pay to identify it.
But anyway, getting into the area with the pool involved a difficult puzzle, and I wonder if it was the one that Chris L was referring to (his 90-year-old grandmother helped him solve it). Although I solved it without a ton of trouble, I don't understand some of the clues.

The puzzle began with this image reminiscent of a game of "Hangman":

It shows five blanks, indicating that the answer is going to be five letters long. Nearby was a teleporter that took me to different areas, each with a message board on the wall with different clues. The clues are:

  • "My first was of the forming, and lies forever still"
  • "My second of the aftermath--the cooling of the kill"
  • "My third is me alone--one of the mighty three"
  • "My fourth is an elixir and the parting of the ways"
  • "My last is of the holocaust with the dying of the days"

Take a few minutes to see if you can solve it. Answer after the image below.

So I got it through the third and fourth letters. I realized the clues were pointing to individual letters. "Me alone" has to refer to the letter I--one of the "mighty three" of "me, myself, and I." There's only one letter that sounds like a beverage ("elixir") and a junction where the "ways" part: T. The others are to be found as the first letters of the words that follow "of the": F, A, H. Put them together in order and you have FAITH. But I actually didn't figure it out from the clues; I had already noticed that the first letters of the sentence on the hangman's puzzle ("FEAR ALONE IS THE HANGMAN") spell "FAITH."

What I don't understand is the ends of the first, second, and fifth sentences. Is "lies forever still" supposed to somehow elicit an "F" or an "F" sound? Same with the others.

Either way, there were a couple ways to go about solving it and I guess none is best. The word opened the secret door into the pool area.

During this process of finding hearts and puzzles and such, the game returned to complete linearity. When I last blogged, I said I had six or seven staircases unexplored. But one by one I checked them off. Some led to single rooms rather than entire levels (common in this game). When I was done, I only had one place left to go. Non-linearity was an illusion.

That one place turned out to be a large area full of illusions and navigation puzzles. Many of the rooms look the same, the area defies automapping, and the compass doesn't work most of the time. Most annoying, a few times I found myself in corridors from which there appeared to be no exit. I would have been in serious trouble if I wasn't allowing myself to use backups from the sanctuaries.

I've been mostly relying on the automaps lately, but perhaps it's time to change that policy.
At one point, I got an image of Mara, who told me to follow signs her followers had left to a valuable treasure.

I followed the signs, and I had to navigate a mine field. Maps of the mines' locations were posted on various walls, but I didn't have them all when I got to the field and I had to get through it partly via trial and error.

On the other side was a room with a teleporter and an "Amulet of Escape." Rubbing the amulet anywhere in the dungeon returns me to the room where I got it, where I can avail myself of the teleporter to go anywhere else. I thought it was a fantastic gift and I looked forward to using it frequently, but I guess I missed the part where Mara said it was one-use only. I used it to get out of a illusory room with no walls and never saw it again.

Nowhere does it say "once."

The third heart was in the maze area, and it was a bit easier to find. I got the hint after I found the heart.

This at least explains why the passages turn back on themselves.
Around this time, the game ramped up the difficultly significantly--but, fortunately, also the experience point rewards. My characters have gone up two levels since I last posted. They've also died a lot. I confess that I've gotten sick of the attribute and experience point losses that accompany resurrection, and I've been using restoration points when the characters die. But lest you think this is cheating, I should point out that there's a lot of playing time in between visits to the sanctuaries, so dying has real consequences.

I think this is more experience than I'd received in the previous 100 combats combined.
My bĂȘtes noires right now are black orcs, armored skeletons, and hell hounds. They deal a ton of melee damage, frequently stun my characters, and have high armor classes themselves. Armored skeletons can also drain experience, and hell hounds can breathe fire. Anything that poisons has become less of a problem, though, as Prufrock got a cure poison spell with his latest advancement in the Healing Arkana.

Anyway, as I write I'm traveling down a very long (>50 squares) east-west corridor in which I encounter a fight every four or five steps. It's the only way to get to the unexplored part of the game, so I'm going to have to tough my way through it. For anyone else playing the game with me (cough, Eino), if you still have unexplored areas when you reach this corridor (you'll know it), go back and clear them up first.

The game's approach to secret doors is perhaps its most annoying feature. Although you are alerted to some via maps and hints, you really just have to search every wall (an activity that increases the chances of random encounters) to be confident you've found them all. They're not all in obvious places, like dead-end passages. I found one on a pillar.

Even after you find them, you have to get them open. As I said earlier, forcing them and looking for hidden releases have generally stopped working, so I'm relying on the cleric prayer HOYAMOQ. But, as you know, prayers often fail, and this one often requires four or five successful castings before the door fully opens and lets me through. I sometimes run out of virtue points before I finish the process, and I have to repeat it again after the points are recharged. Then, to make things worse, once I finally force the door open, it doesn't stay open. If I go through it, I often have to find and open it again from the other side.

A few other notes:

  • I wish the game told you more about equipment. I'm relying on the value of weapons to figure out which is likely "best"; nothing tells you how much damage they do. There are also a ton of items sold in the equipment shop that sound good but leave me mystified as to what they do. Their prices are high enough to discourage experimentation. They include ampoules, Sprigs of Athelas, a Tome of Ruination, a Necronomicon, a Plane Nexus, a Fulminating Crystal, and various types of crosses.
  • Sagaris really likes to make jokes when he identifies stuff.

  • Encumbrance is becoming a problem. As I upgrade armor, it generally gets heavier, and a couple of my characters can't carry anything beyond their armor and weapons.
  • I found this out by accident: some key encounters, you can repeat if you decline to take the quest item (like a key) that the encounter provides. I thought the risk/experience ratio against the wizard below was pretty good, so I kept refusing to take his key at the end of the battle, and I got to fight him eight or nine times.

  • I had a couple of encounters with gnomish creatures that had something to do with a "nose-ring." I never found out what was going on and nothing became of them.

I know I keep mentioning this, but I just love the quality of the text and the encounters.  Here are a few random shots:

I haven't figured out what it's for yet.

Isn't this so much better than just having them attack you?

This coincidentally goes along with my characterization of Prufrock. He would have been the last one to want to cross a dangerous dungeon corridor looking for a gem. Gliglois or Plenamujer must have pushed him into it.

Hey, the gold that I dug out of this pile of dung bought my next armor upgrade.

These two encounters followed each other in quick succession:

Ha ha! I killed him.

I took a half-hour video of some of the gameplay elements. It takes place fairly early in this session, ending just as I start to encounter the FAITH puzzle. I tried to illustrate the shops, dungeon exploration, combat, magic, secret doors, sanctuaries, and many of the other things you encounter in the game. It's embedded below; here's the link to the YouTube version.

The chokepoint in the east-west corridor feels like a "halfway" point in the game, especially since I have three of the six hearts I need to defeat Uukrul. I'm curious what will happen over the next three days. Hurricane Sandy has canceled a trip I was supposed to take Monday-Wednesday this week, so I have three unexpected free days to play as much of the game as I want. But then again, it might knock out my power, leaving me unable to play anything. Anyone on the east coast, take care and good luck.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Take Another Little Piece of My Dark Heart of Uukrul

Now we know where Pirates of the Caribbean got its inspiration.

I didn't mean for that break to be so long. It took me a while to remember what I was doing in the game when I finally got back to it.

The Dark Heart of Uukrul is one of those games where hours of play don't necessarily translate to much blogging. It took me about six hours of playing time to get enough material for this bit, although those six hours included significant character development and revealed the main quest. This is in contrast to plot-heavy games like Ultima IV and Ultima V, where every new town made me want to blog about what I'd discovered.

Over Prufrock's objections, the party searched, and found a secret door they couldn't open.

When I blogged last time, I had just entered part of a vast area that houses altars to each of the four gods. Visiting each one, my priest got the base level spells for Fshofth and Drutho, and the next ring of spells for Ufthu and Golthur. Based on the nature of the leveling, I suspect that the rings (as well as the mage rings, which I got later) are awarded on the basis of frequency of use of the spells and prayers in each category. In other words, if I pray for SIRDHE (heal) to Golthur frequently, he'll give me the next ring faster. Frequency of use, rather than level, also seems to affect the maximum spell and prayer points. In any event, they've been increasing even when my levels have remained static.

It would be nice if this means he'll listen to me more often.

The temple area was full of messages that I had to translate slowly through my mage's NGOS spell. One casting doesn't necessarily translate the entire message; sometimes you just get a letter or two. A few messages took up to 15 castings, completely depleting my psychic power.

Halfway through translating.

Four of the messages in the temple area reflected the gods' different perspectives on life, I guess:

  • Fshofth: "When all else has failed, keep heart."
  • Ufthu: "When all else has failed, use your force."
  • Drutho: "When all else has failed, cheat."
  • Golthur: "When all else has failed, expect defeat." (Thanks for the uplift there, Golthur.)

I have unfortunately, followed Drutho's advice on more than one occasion.

Through long exploration, I eventually found the sage Saragis (the "old man" that Mara had talked about trusting). He wanted me to retrieve something from some kind of pool, but he didn't say where it was, only that he'd let me know when I found it. More important, he identified my unknown equipment. I confess I had been looking forward to the moment, assuming I had all kinds of great magic stuff, but everything turned out to be rather banal.

Yes, I paid money for this. It might have been a magic bone.

Two things I said last time turned out not to hold true. First, combats have been coming a lot more frequently, sometimes immediately on top of the last combat, sometimes when the only move I make is to turn. There are definitely random combats after all. Many of them offer paltry experience rewards (single-digit, even) when I need thousands for the next level.

I only need another 2000 of these combats.

I do appreciate the gold, though, because the shop sells all kinds of things I want to buy. I'm concentrating on armor first.

No sense buying the cheap stuff.

The second thing was the linearity of the dungeon: it's definitely opened up. I now have six or seven stairways untaken, and I keep using the teleporters to bounce around from one map area to another, trying different unexplored areas rather than keeping a consistent heading. 

Here's an odd thing: my characters haven't increased in level since the last time I blogged. I reached Level 4 in what seemed like no time, and since then I've been very incrementally building the additional 4,000+ experience points I need for Level 5. Corpses that drain experience don't help.

A long way from the next level.

So towards the end of my playing session, I at last reached the Circle of Magicians, where my mage got a ton of new spell levels and the three Arkanas he didn't already have. I guess I was supposed to find this sooner.

This allows me access to more powerful spells. I look forward to using them.
The Circle also allows me to "consult the archives," passage by passage, although only up to a certain number that I guess is based on experience. But even the first five passages explained what the main quest was about:

I, Suraqis, have here created a log of the wonders and perils of this mountain city Eriosthe. In it I have left my thoughts and reflections which may be of help to you who now read this.

The lord Uukrul has cast a pall of darkness across our land. It shames me to think he was once of our calling. Now, twisted and ruined by promises of corruption, he mocks at us; but his arrogance will be his downfall.

Uukrul, fearing another attack by the Council, has hidden his black heart in a magical chalice, protected by six locks. Each may be opened only by a petrified human heart.

In the caverns hidden by a web of teleporters is a pool: a pool of tears. Within the pool lies a small black rod. If that rod is taken to the beacon, the beacon can be lit.

Uukrul's agents have hidden two hearts west of the caverns. I know not where they are, but have heard tell that one lies with the dead.

So I have to find six petrified hearts (what Mara in a vision called "frozen" hearts) and then the Dead Man's Chalice. Since I have not yet found one, it feels like I'm still very early in the game. Messages posted on the wall near the Circle of Magicians give me clues as to the locations of the hearts. At least, the first three do: my spellpower is insufficient to translate the others.

I know where this area is, but I haven't figured out how to get past the gases and poisonous air.

Here are the miscellaneous notes I've collected through my explorations:

  • I've found four secret doors that I cannot open through the usual methods of forcing or searching for a lever. I suspect that either I need more strength or I need to get the HOYAMQ prayer from Drutho, god of the underworld. To maximize this chance, I've been translating all the messages on the walls with the UMESH prayer, even though it rarely works.

Gliglois needs to hit the gym.
  • The paladin's "lay on hands" ability can damage enemies as well as heal party members. It only works in combat. This is an unusual adaptation.
  • I forgot to mention broken weapons in my first postings. Every once in a while, when you strike an enemy, your weapon shatters, and you have to return to the smith to fix it. For that reason, I like to keep a backup weapon or two in my characters' inventories. But as Saintus warned, it's easy to miss the breaking, especially if you're using auto combat. More than once, I've found that my characters have been fighting with their hands for the last hour.

This mace has been repaired about 16 times.
  • Another thing that happens almost as often as weapon breakage is enemies are "stunned" by a blow, paralyzing them for a round or two. This is always nice. There are also critical hits.

These are the bastards that drain experience.

  • The priest has a couple of options in combat that I didn't cover last time: turn undead and summon elemental. The former has worked on several occasions, and like in Dungeons & Dragons games, as the priest advances, it simply kills low-level undead while forcing more equally matched undead to flee. Summon elemental has never worked once. I suspect I need to be a higher level.
  • There are spinners in the dungeons, and as in Bloodwych, they are a little diabolical, usually appearing in places that look the same from all directions. I have to keep using the "Heading Check" command to verify where I'm facing.
  • In autocombat, my mage can't tell when there's a wall in his way. He wastes a lot of spells trying to cast through walls.

I'm still really enjoying the game's vivid descriptions of areas...

If the pyramid-shaped blocks were confusing, this is triply so.

...and its occasional odd encounters, in which there's some kind of role-playing choice:

There was a struggle between Invictia and Plenamujer. Plenamjuer won.

These features elevate it from the standard "dungeon crawl," even if it is a bit more like Dungeon Master in its seemingly endless corridors.

I'll work on a video for next time.