Saturday, May 25, 2013

NetHack: Another Milestone

Ellasar's predictable fate.

Well, probably no one thought that I was going to ascend after my last posting, but at least I got killed by the Wizard of Yendor himself.

If you'll recall from my last posting, Ellasar had reached Level 30, the first level of Hell, in pretty good shape in terms of equipment and intrinsics. I had recently genocided the entire lich class, and I still had another Blessed Scroll of Genocide to use. I had recently obtained a Ring of Teleport Control. The next major step was to get to Level 50 and work my way up to find the Wizard of Yendor and the Amulet of Yendor (for those of you confused, in this version, 3.0.9, the Wizard himself has the amulet).

I ended up finding a Scroll of Teleportation in a hidden area on a previous level. Normally, these work by teleporting you to another location on the current level. But a cursed scroll teleports you to a different level enitrely. Usually, this is bad, but when you have a Ring of Teleport Control, you get to decide where you go. To curse the scroll, I dipped it into a Potion of Unholy Water I happened to be carrying.

NetHack is the only game I know where it's advantageous to deliberately curse things.

Before I had found the scroll, I had killed a leprechaun, consumed him, and got "teleportitis," a condition that causes you to randomly teleport every few dozen moves (on average). Again, this is usually bad, but combined with Teleport Control, it's a nice bonus. If it comes upon you at the right time, you can escape bad combats and more easily navigate to stairs.

Teleportitis comes upon Ellasar just as a minotaur knocks down half his hit points.

Commenter Dave had clued me in that polymorphing a dead dragon produces dragon scale mail. I did that, too. It was one AC point worse than what I'd been wearing (banded mail +4), but it was much lighter and by this point I was sick of over-encumbrance messages.

At this point, I made my biggest mistake of the game: I was so excited to have the ability to teleport to Level 50 and start looking for the Wizard that I read the scroll immediately. I should have waited around to finish my ascension kit first. Two items I critically lacked were anything involving magic resistance and a Wand of Death.

The moment I got to Level 50, I put on my blindfold and was surprised to see the Wizard of Yendor there. I had this idea that he appeared in a random level between 30 and 50, not on 50 itself.

Either there aren't many places where you can get "more info" or I've been completely overlooking this feature.

Studying the map, a plan came upon me. The Wizard was surrounded by a vampire lord and a death hound. Of the two, the vampire lord was most dangerous. I decided to use my second Scroll of Genocide to wipe out the vampire class, then wander around until teleportitis hit, and teleport myself into the vampire lord's previously-occupied square. From there, I'd blast him with a Wand of Cancellation and then pummel him to death with my sword.

There were three major flaws in my plan:

1. The game doesn't let you teleport into the Wizard's little chamber. So when I tried, it I ended up in a random place and had to walk there (carefully putting on my Boots of Water Walking to cross the moat).

2. The Wand of Cancellation doesn't actually do anything against the Wizard of Yendor. I had this idea that it would blank his spells or something.

3. The Wizard of Yendor has a "Touch of Death" attack that means instant death if you don't have any protection (or can't kill him first).

I suppose there was a fourth, for that matter.

4. Even if I killed him and got the Amulet, I still had to fight my way back up 20 levels of Hell.

To even get into the Wizard's little chamber, I had to use a Wand of Digging on the wall. That wasn't much of a problem. But the moment I got up to him, I only landed two hits before he killed me.

To be fair, he did warn me.

Let's do a little post-adventure analysis. I feel like I came really close. At some point, Ellasar was over a hump, with enough intrinsics and equipment that he could defeat almost any monster. Now that I know I can get to such a state, the game doesn't seem quite so intimidating. These are the things I did right with Ellasar:

  • Made ESP and finding a blindfold a priority. This helps an incredible amount with collecting intelligence on enemy positions.
  • Teleport Control and teleportitis. I'd venture a character that can get these early in the game has a much easier game.
  • Keeping a list of intrinsics and equipment and checking things off as I found them.
  • Spending a lot of time sorting through the equipment recovered from the barracks full of soldiers. When I had found a Ring of Protection +3, that might have been enough, but I couldn't stand the thought that there might be a Ring of Protection +5 unclaimed in the pile. I slowly went through everything, testing for curses and noting effects, until I had a great suit of stuff.

I feel like I needed three things to ensure victory:

  • A Wand of Death to kill the Wizard instantly (or at least have a chance)
  • Anything with magic resistance, so his "Touch of Death" (plus a host of enemy attacks) wouldn't kill me
  • A second Cursed Scroll of Teleportation, so I could fly back up to an earlier level (1, I guess) the moment I obtained the ring.

The thing is, there was nothing stopping me from lurking around earlier levels until I got these things. I had a pile of more than 50 C-rations and K-rations on one level, and I was absolutely dominating most monsters. All I really needed to find was a Scroll of Charging, which would have allowed me another wish or two from my Wand of Wishes. If only I hadn't jumped the gun getting to Level 50.

When I last posted, I was feeling depressed at the possibility of losing Ellasar, but some time between then and now, something turned in my mind, and I feel like I "get" the game now. I have another month before my first anniversary of NetHack 3.0 arrives. There's still time.

Friday, May 24, 2013

NetHack: The Blurst of Times

No, I don't want my #$&*@ possessions identified.

The saying goes that given an infinite amount of time, a monkey pounding at a typewriter will eventually produce Hamlet. It's too bad I know it's not true. Otherwise, it might give me hope that some random key combination will eventually produce a winning NetHack screen.

Let's begin by analyzing why the old monkey adage isn't true. First of all, it doesn't matter whether you phrase it as a single monkey on a single typewriter given infinite time or an infinite number of monkeys given a finite amount of time, or whatever. As long as any one of the dimensions of the problem is infinite, the mathematics are essentially the same as if they all are.

But if you're going to rest the argument on mathematics, you have to recognize two things:

1. There isn't enough energy in the universe for the monkey to type long enough to have even a one-in-a-trillion probability of even typing "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

2. Just because a series of events have a cumulative probability of 1 doesn't guarantee that it will ever happen, since each trial is independent. It violates no laws of probability for that monkey to bang at the typewriter for a billion years and never type the letter a, let alone "This above all: to thine own self be true."

So while it would be nice to think that all the time I've spent on NetHack will eventually produce an ascension, it's really just a gambler's fallacy. I could easily never ascend. It's entirely possible for none of my characters to get past Level 1 from now on, even.

I was reminded of this a couple months ago, when a reader wrote to me about his NetHack experience. At first, I thought it was a little odd that he was telling me, but then I realized that when your Level 20 character dies on Level 26 with two dozen active intrinsics and a blessed scroll of genocide you never got to use, who else are you going to tell? Your co-workers? Your spouse? The bartender at Applebee's? No, you have to write to someone who will empathize with that tragedy, and that's a service I'm happy to provide.

Anyway, my correspondent started his posting with: "I had some time off this week, and was resolved to finally ascend in NetHack after 25 years of intermittent tries."

Temporary insanity is really the only explanation for this statement. Anyone who's played the game for more than 25 hours, let alone 25 years, should know that you can't simply "decide" to ascend no matter how much time you're willing to put into it. It's like saying, "I had a week off so I decided to go to Vegas and make $20,000." (Actually, I think that might be easier.)

This is just a random image to show how much a loose NPC dwarf can mess up a level with his pick-axe.

It's been a while since I posted on NetHack, but that isn't because I haven't been playing. To the contrary, I've fielded almost four dozen characters in the past six months. But I wanted to wait until I had something more significant to report than I did last time, when Haran the Barbarian reached the castle and upper levels of Hell, although without much of a plan, and without having really explored the castle.

Shortly after Haran's discouraging death, I decided that you were all right: there was no way I was ever going to win the game without looking at spoilers. Not unless I was willing to jettison the rest of my blog and spend all my time on NetHack. My posting on "The Great Heist"--and I admit it wasn't all that clear in this regard--was supposed to convey that I had, in fact, looked at spoilers, had seen what major steps "ascending" required, and was assembling a master plan to reach that point--a plan that included a detailed "shopping list" of items and intrinsics needed before hitting the castle. Experienced players call this their "ascension kit."

Based on the intrinsics that I wanted in my kit, I decided to spend the rest of NetHack 3.0.9 playing an elf. The elf starts with reasonably decent statistics--not as good as the barbarian, but decent. More important, he comes with several intrinsics: automatic searching, see invisibility, sleep resistance, and speed. Some of these are hard to obtain through the normal mechanism of eating corpses. Automatic searching, for instance, is not available through any corpse-eating; you have to be a archaeologist or tourist at Level 10 (monks and rangers aren't in this version) or an elf at any level or find a Ring of Searching (thus wasting a ring slot). Seeing invisibility only comes from one creature--the stalker--and you have to already be invisible when you eat it. Sleep resistance is another intrinsic that only comes from one monster: an orange dragon.

The many benefits of being an elf.
The second reason I decided to stick to the elf is that it's not available as a class in later versions. Somewhere around version 3.2, races and classes are separated, and the elf's abilities are absorbed by the ranger class.

Thus I have since December thrown a company of elves into the Mazes of Menace, most of them dying around Level 8 or 9, often at the jaws of soldier ants. (Man, I know I'm supposed to save Scrolls of Genocide for higher-level creatures, but I sure would love to use them on soldier ants)

For a while, I gave all my elf characters different names, but I got sick of thinking them up, so I eventually settled on Ellasar and used it over and over. The one I'm about to describe might have been my 20th or so. I didn't really start taking notes about his adventures until he made it to dungeon level 15. At that point, he was at character level 10.

The first screenshot I took of this Ellasar. He's just eaten a hill giant corpse and increased his strength to 17.

I'd been playing him on and off for about four days at this point. Of his adventures, only a few things stand out:

1) On an early level, I'd taken a chance drinking from a fountain and a water demon offered me a wish. I asked for a Scroll of Genocide, one of the top things for any ascension kit. Later, I found another one. By the time I reached level 15, I had two potions of water in my inventory, and I was just waiting for an alignment-friendly altar to turn them into holy water and bless the Scrolls of Genocide. Blessed Scrolls of Genocide wipe out entire monster classes rather than individual monsters, and my plan was to use them on some of the more troublesome creatures at higher levels--probably liches and mind flayers.

2) Up to Level 15, I hadn't found a single store. I was walking around with a ton of cash--more than 4,000 gold pieces.

3) I don't think I encountered any soldier ants, either.

4) The only altar I found was back on Level 3. I kept trekking back up there from lower levels to test whether certain items in my inventory were cursed.

5) It took me a long time to improve my weapons and armor. I never found a good replacement for the blessed elven short sword that my elf started with, nor the elven mithril coat he was wearing. It took me until about Level 13 when I killed some soldiers to get some good supplementary armor, including a +1 small shield, a pair of fencing gloves, a pair of hard shoes, and--best of all--a cloak of displacement. Also on the same level, I found what turned out to be a blessed scroll of enchant weapon, which turned my +1 short sword into a +4.

I really like the cloak of displacement.

My inventory at this point was pretty good. I was wearing a circular amulet whose purpose I didn't know at the time (it later turned out to be a resist poison amulet, which was redundant with my intrinsic resistance), plenty of food, a ring of fire resistance and a ring of protection, two wands of cancellation (very effective against magic monsters), a wand of lightning for engraving ELBERETH, two unicorn horns (for dispelling blindness, confusion, etc.), a lizard corpse in case a cockatrice hissed at me, and a pick axe for carving my own paths. The major item lacking from my desired "kit" at this point was a blindfold. I had the "telepathic" intrinsic from eating a floating eye, and in previous games I found the combination of that and a blindfold almost essential.

Part of Ellasar's Level 15 inventory.

For other intrinsics, thanks to careful eating of the right monsters, I was poison resistant, fire resistant, cold resistant, and sleep resistant. I had hoped to find a Ring of Teleport Control so I could then eat something that granted teleportitis; other than that, shock resistance was the only thing on my shopping list.
At this point, I was still cautious. I'd been here before, plenty of times. My last Ellasar, in fact, had died at Level 20.

The level featured a barracks of soliders, which I defeated one-by-one, then spent a ridiculous amount of time--like all day one day--carefully testing much of their gear. But when I was done, I had an armor class of -17, so it was well worth it.

And to think I nearly fled when I saw this many soldiers.

Highlights from the next few levels included:

  • I found an identify spellbook on Level 18. I was delighted when I saw what it was. Unfortunately, none of my castings worked, and I ended up wearing it out without identifying a single thing.

Ellasar's spell list is a little paltry.

  • On Level 20, I ran into a stone giant. I was satiated at the time, so I retreated to the stairs and waited upstairs until I was hungry so I could eat it and get a point of strength. While I was waiting upstairs, I made the rookie mistake of holding down the SPACE bar too long (instead of just typing in a number of turns, which is like NetHack 101) and nearly got killed by something called a "baluchitherium."
  • Later on Level 20, I finally found my blindfold! This is when I started to think Ellasar might be going places.

This is that weird "fungus level" I don't really understand.

  • On Level 21, I killed my first dragon of the game--a blue one. I was pissed. I needed to eat a blue dragon for shock resistance, but I was already satiated. I decided not to risk choking and moved on.
  • Level 22 brought an altar with a priestess. I gave her the huge pile of gold I was carrying, and she gave me the "protected" intrinsic. I tried to convert my potions of water to holy water, but it didn't work. It turns out the altar was "neutral" and I was lawful. I started to despair of ever getting holy water.

Ellasar fails the "atheist" conduct.

  • But Level 23 brought an altar to a chaotic god, so I started to have hope about Level 24. Then I stepped on a teleport trap and ended back on Level 6. It took me a while to work my way back down. I killed a wraith on the way, ate its corpse, and rose to Level 14.
  • I finally found a lawful altar on Level 25, made 4 potions of holy water, and dipped my Scrolls of Genocide within them. Bring on the liches!

The power is mine! Bwu-ha-ha-ha-ha!

  • On Level 26, a bunch of statues clued me in as to the presence of a medusa. I put on my blindfold and took care of her. There was also a "treasure zoo" on the level, which I dismantled with rapidity. With my 18+ strength, -18 AC, and pile of wands, I was feeling pretty invincible. I at last descended below the Dungeons of Doom for perhaps only the third time since December.

In the maze levels that followed, I stopped and searched for traps a couple of times between steps, checked my blindfold frequently, and walked slowly. It was tedious, and I forced myself to take breaks when it seemed like I was getting impatient and going too quickly. The way to play NetHack at all levels, but especially at these levels, is step, pause, scan, search, think, step.

I'm glad I didn't step on that.

At length, I arrived at the "castle" level, and unlike usual, I had a way to cross the moat: a pair of "boots of water walking" I'd found a few levels prior. I skirted the castle, dealing with the eels in the moat, the xans on the rampart, and the assorted minotaur. After that, it took me a while to get in. The wiki says something about playing a tune on a musical instrument, but that must have come in a later version because I've never found a musical instrument in this game. What worked for me was a Wand of Striking on the drawbridge.

The center of the castle was full of liches, who immediately tried to start cursing my stuff. It was time to shine. I read the Scroll of Genocide and wiped the entire lich race from the dungeon!

I really wish I could use this on cliff racers.

At last--for the first time--I had the fabled Wand of Wishing from the castle. Because I hadn't otherwise found one, and I needed it to progress, I made my first wish for a Ring of Teleport Control. Unfortunately, that was my only wish: the Wand had no more charges. I held onto it in case I found a Scroll of Charging later.

You've probably been reading all of this wondering how Ellasar ultimately died, so here's the twist: he's not dead. But he's stuck. As experienced NetHack players know, there are no "down" stairs after the castle; you have to get to the levels in Hell by teleporting. The options for doing so are limited. I need either a level teleport trap (they disappear when you first trigger them, though, and I can't find any more), a cursed potion of gain level, or a cursed scroll of teleportation. Actually, since I have some unholy water, regular versions of those items would work, too. Or a Scroll of Charging to recharge my Wand of Wishing.

Thus, for the last few days, for an hour or so a day, I've had Ellasar mincing about the lower levels, fighting random encounters, hoping to run into some foe that has one of these items. But there's a palpable sense of impending doom as I do so; it seems all but inevitable that something will eventually kill me, or rust monsters will slowly ruin all my equipment, or I'll accidentally walk into a patch of water and drown.

I'll let you know how Ellasar ultimately fares, but however it ends, I suspect he'll be my last character in this version.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Knights of Legend: Final Rating

A blond 1980s guy tries, and fails, to look menacing.

Knights of Legend
United States
Origin Systems (developer and publisher)Released 1989 for DOS, Apple II, Commodore 64
Date Started: 24 March 2013
Date Ended: 20 May 2013
Total Hours: 96
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 43
Ranking at Time of Posting: 73/94 (78%)

Knights of Legend is the damnedest game. If you've been following my postings, it must have been baffling every time you saw a new one. Its deficiencies are just jaw-dropping: no sound; the inability to trade gold from one character to another; a training system that doesn't allow you to progress beyond novice level in some weapons or even at all in others; ten keyboard commands just to move one step; almost no keyboard shortcuts; incorrect information given in the manual about everything from statistics to spells; a needlessly complex spell system; enormous combat maps where you spend half your time just trying to find your enemy; an absurdly Spartan approach to saving the game; and a bug at the very end of the game that would have prevented most pre-Internet players from winning.

And yet, there are moments of genius and stark originality: the "foresight" system in combat; beautiful graphics; a well-designed world and story; memorable NPCs who respond to keywords; the ability to fit armor to each character; a large selection of interesting character classes; a tactical combat system with dozens of options, but all of them logical; and a "trophy" screen that anticipates the "achievements" of the modern era. Things take maddeningly long in the game, but they happened just often enough--a difficult enemy falls, a quest map is cleared, a new trophy is obtained--to give a shot of dopamine right when it was necessary, and to keep me playing all the way to the end. PetrusOctavianus (perhaps the game's most prominent champion on my blog) had the right term a few days ago: "morbidly addictive."

It's tempting to call it a "flawed masterpiece," but it's far too flawed for that. I absolutely cannot recommend it, but at the same time, I'm a little disappointed if my coverage didn't make you want to check it out at least briefly. I don't know how this is going to translate into a numeric score, but let's see:

1. Game World. The back story is very detailed, well-written, compelling, and utterly inconsequential to the game itself. In its description of the land, the history, the races, and the present set of circumstances, Knights of Legend lives up to Origin's best titles. As you wander the land, you encounter interesting personalities in the towns and keeps. But the core of the gameplay--the quests and combats--are completely divorced from this story. They could be happening anywhere (with the sole exception of the final battle). Enemy fortresses and keeps don't even appear on the map until you get a specific quest to assail them. Hardly any of your actions effect permanent changes in the gameworld. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. You select your six characters from a list of classes defined by their geography (e.g., Krag barbarians, Htron pirates, Poitle Lock rogues) or histories (e.g., the reformed Dark Guards). Again, these sound awesome, but once selected, the classes essentially become a set of numbers and lose any ability to role-play these rich histories. The game is unique in having shopkeepers and innkeepers that will refuse to serve certain races and classes, though this is more an annoyance than a feature.

An armorer reacts harshly, but understandably, to a Dark Guard in his shop.

In terms of development, there isn't much. The primary mechanism is the accumulation of "adventure points" which you can spend on offensive and defensive skills with various weapons. Building these skills is absolutely crucial to the party's ability to survive in combat, which makes the game's approach to training all the more mystifying. Certain trainers will only work with you if you have a certain minimum skill, but there's nowhere in the game to get that skill. Some trainers are the sole trainers in certain weapons, but only go up to 20 or 30 skill points where others go up to 60-70. The result is that you max out on favored weapons very early, and if you want to keep leveling the character, you have to train in random weapons that he probably will never use.

Hela at game's end. 45 is the highest you can get with the halberd, so I trained her in random other weapons to keep leveling her. She still ended the game with 2,366 adventure points.

There really isn't any reason to "level," though--which requires a visit to the arena after you've channeled enough points into training. The only benefit, other than the ability to train more (which ceases to be a benefit once you've maxed in your primary weapon) is that your "title" increases. As a "commoner--apprentice," Hela is about one-third of the way between "peasant" and "knight-baronet." The value of the title, as far as I can tell, is only in the player's satisfaction in achieving it.

And yet, even though real character development is limited to adding offensive and defensive points to weapons, there's some authentic satisfaction associated with doing so, and the effects are palpable in combat. I wish there had been more to it, but I can't say that there isn't any development. Score: 5.

3. NPCs. One of the more interesting parts of the game, even though (like the game world and story), they exert very little influence on the mechanics of gameplay. They're memorable and well-written, with well-designed character portraits, and interacting with them uses the keyword approach that I like in so many Origin titles. Unfortunately, there are no dialogue choices or role-playing opportunities. Score: 5.

 A touching bit of back story from an NPC that amounts to very little.

4. Encounters and Foes. The various foes you face in the game are well-described in the manual and satisfying in their variety of strengths and weaknesses. Many of them are unique to the game, though based on common tropes. Aside from the text you get before each mission, though, there are no "encounters" as such, and no real way to role-play your approach to the various enemies. It's also a bit banal the way that every combat features only a single enemy type. Score: 4.

The "mist giants" are original-ish.

5. Magic and Combat. Combat is the highlight of the game: extremely tactical, with options that we don't see in any other games to date. I love the ability to anticipate the enemy's actions, to choose from a variety of attack and defense types depending on the circumstances, and to use the terrain to the advantage of the party. If the quest-based combats weren't so large and so long, I'd be unabashedly positive about this aspect of the game (and those issues are really more of a gameplay item than a combat item).

Partly concealed in a doorway, Coll kills the final enemy in the game.

The magic system is a little less successful. I didn't fully explore it, but then again, I didn't really need to; it's essentially optional. The system--stringing together syllables to make spells that have various effects on various creatures of various strengths and various ranges--is unusual and interesting, but the reality of the game doesn't match the description in the manual, and I didn't feel like puzzling through the confusion. It's a little odd that all spells tie to the eight attributes; there's no "fireball" spell or anything like that. You directly damage health, fatigue, and stuff instead. Spells are keyed to specific creatures or classes of creatures, so if you want spells to damage every possible class at long range, for instance, you need five separate spells. Still, the game deserves some credit for allowing spell customization; it's perhaps the first game in my chronology to do so. 

For magic, I never experimented beyond healing spells.

The system of damage to body parts and the importance of fatigue are also strong characteristics of this game. The bottom line is that if you enjoy this game at all, it's almost certainly for this category. Score: 8.

6. Equipment. This is another reasonably good category. In an era where most games offer perhaps a weapon, a suit of armor, and a shield--and you always buy the best one--this game features 11 wearable equipment slots plus 7 pockets. You have to carefully balance protection with weight so as not to overly-fatigue your characters, and armor requires custom fitting to offer the best protection. My only complaint is that you don't find much good equipment in the game--a handful of magic items and weapon upgrades--and there's no reason not to finish the game with essentially the same armor purchases you started with. Also, some of the weapon slots go unused: I never found a single necklace or belt in the game, and only two rings. (Perhaps these were planned for expansions.)

Coll proudly displays his gear.

Finally, there were far too many shops selling bafflingly worthless items. The ability to create "forged" items from a few ingots is really not that impressive since you don't get to determine anything about the result except the name. Score: 5.

What would I possibly do with any of this?

7. Economy. There are quite a few things to purchase in the game: equipment, horses, healing, training, and rooms at inns. It's enough that gold is precious at the beginning of the game, and you pick up every stray weapon you can from slain enemies to sell. After you max your training in the various weapons and buy the best horses, gold loses its value considerably. The inability to trade gold among characters is a bizarre interface oversight. Score: 4.

8. Quests. There isn't exactly a "main quest" in the game, though the manual seems to set one up. Instead, you get a series of 24 quests organized into various groupings. Once you finish 23 of them, the ultimate one is sort-of the "main" quest, concerning the rescue of the knight Seggallion. The quests are perhaps the most disappointing part of the game. They all feature the exact same dynamic, centering around the annihilation of a group of enemies and the retrieval of some talisman, and they offer no role-playing choices (except perhaps whether to kill all the enemies or just take the object and run). Since you have to complete them all to get the last one, I can't really regard any of them as "side quests." The trophies were a nice touch. Score: 3.

9. Graphics: I thought the graphics were beautiful. Certainly, a lot of work went into them, from the animated opening to the well-drawn monster and NPC portraits, to the establishing shots every time you enter a city or keep.

These shots even tell you something about the basic layout of the interior.

This is balanced by no sound at all (except during the opening animation) and a frankly horrible interface. There's no reason that common commands couldn't be mapped to letter keys: "I" to access inventory, "A" to attack, "S" to shoot, and so on. Instead, I got repetitive stress in two of my right fingers from constantly hitting the < and > keys, the only way to scroll through menu commands without the mouse. Other interface elements, such as the cumbersome method of trading and equipping items and the inability to trade gold made the game absolutely maddening. In this category, the game only gets credit for the graphics. Score: 2.

10. Gameplay. This one is tough. I have to give it some points for nonlinearity, since you can do the quest "groups" in just about any order. It also gets some small credit for replayability given the huge number of character classes, although this would affect nothing but combat tactics and it's impossible seeing myself spend another 50+ hours on the game. Neither can I say that it's too "hard," exactly, except for a few challenging battles. The game's basic problem is that it's tedious. Everything takes too long in this game: navigating the combat map, finding enemies in combat, killing them, finishing all 24 quests, shuttling between the arena and training sites, staving off random combats as you try to get from place to place, even equipping weapons and armor. Saying that the game is "like a guest at a party who overstays his welcome" isn't enough. It's like a guest who overstays his welcome so long that he's still there for the next party, and then he hangs out too long after that one, too.

The way this game could have been much, much better is to have only about 12 quests, maybe in groups of 3 with some kind of major plot point after each one. But the real assemblage of 24 quests, 21 of which were completely unmemorable, is exhausting. I was ready for it to be over in March. Score: 3.

The numbers add up to 44, but I'm subtracting one point for an unforgivable bug, which puts the final score at 43. That's not bad as things go. It puts it in the top 25% of games I've played so far, on par with games I honestly enjoyed, like Star Command, Demon's Winter, and Chaos Strikes Back. But this is the rare type of game that's lesser than the sum of its parts. There are some really good elements here that just don't effectively come together in what we might call a "good" game. If the score doesn't adequately reflect that, I hope the text does.

At least I'm not the only one of two minds about the game. Dragon apparently reviewed it twice, completely panning it in March 1990 and then giving it 5/5 stars in May 1990 in a review that praised Porter for his programming skills and called it an "outstanding adventure." MobyGames currently has two user reviews for the game; one is titled "Knights of Legend is a turn-based role-playing game that is well-developed" and the other is titled "Gaming hell." The bigger problem seems to be magazines that didn't review it, though. Scorpia gave hints for the game in the March 1990 Computer Gaming World, but the magazine otherwise seems to have ignored it. I'm not sure how well it was publicized; I scanned six issues of CGW and couldn't find a single ad for it.

The manual has a touching story about how developer Todd Mitchell Porter created the basic concept for the game with three fellow RPG lovers while sitting around a restaurant table in Pella, Iowa in 1981. Porter tinkered with developing it for a while, and he got extremely lucky when a friend introduced him to Richard Garriott. Garriott both optioned the game and hired Porter, who worked a bit on Times of Lore (1988) before his creation was published in 1989.

The reception must have been difficult for Porter. He planned a host of expansions that, thanks to flat sales, were now impossible. But he stayed at Origin for a while and is credited on Ultima VI (where Seggallion returns!). He went on to develop a strategy game for SSI called Renegade Legion: Interceptor (1990) and is credited on several other games before he transitioned into other industries. He says he now makes software for the casino industry. He stopped by and commented on my second-to-last posting a couple of days ago, so be sure to check that out.

We're now going to divert to NetHack for at least one posting while I try to figure out if Romance of the Three Kingdoms is really an RPG.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Knights of Legend: Won!

It was not, in fact, the beginning of another saga.

After my last posting, I essentially did nothing except play Knights of Legend for 24 hours straight. When I finally went to bed, combat tactics and movements invaded my dreams and kept me from anything restful. It'll probably screw me up for the entire week, but at least I won the damned game. Consulting my notes, I see that this game took me an epic 96 hours to win, the longest so far in my chronology. I got some good postings out of it, but from a gameplay perspective, I can't say it was worth it.

Only in the last quest did the game finally produce any kind of tie-in with the plot outlined in the manual, and it became clear that the history of Pildar, Seggallion, and Duke Fuquan was supposed to serve as a backdrop for multiple expansions, and not just this primary game. Leading up to this final quest was a series of...I started to say "increasingly difficult missions," but that's not quite right. There was a series of missions of extremely variable difficulty, including some very difficult ones. But the last two were oddly easy.

Towards the end game, each solved quest got me a keyword or clue to the next one.

After the last posting, when my skills were already at the max level allowed by the game in each weapon, I didn't bother to get any more training or leveling; it was just one quest after another. Because I no longer needed to pay for anything but saving (I even found a free way to get healing after battle by finding some roaming monks), I just went from quest to quest. I didn't follow PetrusOctavianus's advice about buying spells, either; I mostly relied on weapons alone in the final battles.

More of these endgame quests tended to reward my characters with tangible objects rather than just adventure points and good will. These included:

  • A magic halberd called the "Death Blade" that turned my Ghor Tigress, Hela, into my best combat character. That makes two magic halberds in this game, and one magic greatsword, but nothing special in any of the other weapons. Another example of this game's weird imbalance.

Hela proudly wields her quest reward

  • "Speed Boots" that enabled a character to run four steps instead of just two each round. I gave them to my leader, Coll, who also had the Courage Cloak. He was able to run swiftly around the battlefields towards the end of the game.
  • A "Shade Ring," which seemed to make it difficult for monsters to see my character. They'd bumble around even when he was right up next to them. I also gave it to Coll; I figured it was better to have one uber-powerful fighter than a selection of moderately-powerful ones. Coll ended up cleaning up some of the latter maps almost solo.
  • A magic ingot that created a battle axe. But I got this as a reward for the very last quest, so it didn't help me at all, which was fine because none of my characters had battle axe skills.

The final sequence of quests--six or seven of them--were all interlocked and proceeded in a specific order. Like all the quests in the game, they followed the "Questing by Numbers" template: agree to retrieve an object, get someone else to tell you where the enemies actually are, travel there overland, slay the monsters, grab the item, and return. Many of the enemies were capable of causing fear, but the effects of this capability seemed to paralyze my characters less often than in the mid-game.
Aedd seizes up while trying to fight a cliff troll. This map split my party into two groups, but both were at the ends of good ambush points.
It would be tedious for me, and unrewarding for you, to recount every one of them, but here are a few highlights:

1. Aurin the Stalwart outside the city of Shellernoon wanted me to retrieve an unnamed item stolen from him by unnamed creatures.

The creatures turned out to be djinns, fairly tough, but the map was even more interesting, consisting of a long, narrow bridge with a small village on the other end. At least I didn't have to go hunting the creatures.

There's Coll, way out in front of his companions.

Aurin's missing item? See for yourself:

This game is way too long to be screwing with me with this kind of thing.

2. By far, the most annoying combat map in the game was that of the Sledges, where Lord Shellernoon asked me to retrieve some kind of "ward."

The Sledges themselves weren't that difficult despite being fear-causing. Rather, the difficulty was the map. Unlike all the other maps in the game, which were in keeps or fields or other reasonably open areas, this one took place in a huge maze--a maze with only one path to the exit (where the quest item was), and in which all my characters started in a different position.

Yder, my lightly-armored archer, tried his best, but he didn't last long when he started in a dead-end facing a huge Sledge.

I won the quest on the first try, but it took nearly four hours. After the first hour, with my characters bumbling feebly about, I realized I would have to map it. This was difficult since they weren't all together, but I ended up starting with five separate maps (one character was knocked unconscious right away) and piecing them together when the characters found each other. This is the result:

The *s are where my characters started, and the $ is the treasure at the exit. The yellow path is the one that my furthest-afield character (Coll) had to take to get to the exit. By the time I finally found the egress, I would have gladly just taken the quest item and run, but it turned out the last foe was waiting there anyway. If this whole thing doesn't seem so bad, keep in mind how long it takes simply to plan and execute a command to move one square in a specific direction. Fortunately, the Sledges themselves weren't very hard, and my strong melee characters were able to defeat them individually (which is good, since there's almost no place to set up a multi-character assault in the maze).

1/12 of the way closer to my goal.

4. The Sledge quest was the third-to-last. After I turned in the Ward of Shellernoon, Lord Norgan told me to "seek out the black Dwarf, Dundle!"

I had thankfully taken copious notes about NPCs, and I knew where Dundle was to be found, but he had absolutely nothing to say to me, no matter what I asked.

It turned out the game was sticking it to me one final time. An anonymous saint of a commenter informed me that there's a bug in the game, and while Dundle does indeed point the way to the final quest, Lord Norgan really meant to tell me to see Denswurth, in nearby Olanthen. Denswurth's quest, to wipe out some trolls, was pretty lame and easy, and I suspect that the developers originally intended for the player to go right to Dundle but decided to shoehorn an extra quest into things to make it an even 24 or something.

I got through the troll quest pretty quickly, despite their ability to take massive damage without falling...


...and the fact that three of them were hiding out on a rampart that only my flying characters could reach:

If I hadn't chosen a Kelder, I guess I just would have had to take the quest item and run.

5. Thanks to the same commenter, I knew to go to Dundle for the final quest, which he gave me when I spoke SEGGALLION to him. It turns out that he knew where Seggallion was (not in the inaccessible Tower of Pildar, thankfully) and bade me rescue him from the clutches of the cyclopes (yes, that is the correct plural) holding him prisoner.

I knew I wanted to video the final battle, so I spent some time just messing about and learning the map before re-loading my characters and engaging the cyclopes for "real." They were reasonably hard but not too hard. About half of them were in a big field near the beginning of the map:

And the other half were entrenched in a very long corridor winding through the mountains. It was a lot of luck when I could line up a scenario like this, with multiple characters able to engage the enemy at once:

When I finally defeated the last cyclops, I was treated to a multi-screen endgame narrative in which I opened the stone door to Seggallion's prison and freed him from his chains. He warned me about the threat that Pildar posed and suggested that my next quest--had the game resulted in any expansions--would be to find the missing Duke Fuquan to warn him.

Little does he know that he'll soon be lost in Britannia.

After that, the game let me continue playing. I returned to Dundle and got a magic ingot (which I forged into a battle axe) as a reward.

What other realms would those be?

I tell you what: I'm thoroughly exhausted with this game. I took more than an hour of video of the final battle, intending to narrate it later, but I can't seem to muster the energy to edit and comment on the video. I'll see how I feel tomorrow when I start writing the GIMLET. It ought to be interesting.