Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mines of Titan, Ship of Theseus

Dumping off a dead body in a nightclub.

Mines of Titan has a perhaps unique approach to the idea of a "party" and associated character development, though I don't necessarily mean in a good way. You get so much experience from combat, and combat is so plentiful, that it's relatively easy to train each character to the max in skills and attributes in short order. At the same time, combat is so lethal that you're bound to lose even the most experienced characters occasionally, requiring you to recruit and train another if you want to avoid too much reloading. The game seems specifically designed for this dynamic, as without it, your characters spend most of the game not undergoing any development.

Quaid is eager to learn; there's just not much I need him to learn.

Oddly, the existence of the "party" seems to continue despite the replacement of the original members. If a previous character broke into a computer terminal and saved $5,000 by hacking the transport reservations system, the party will still have the reservations even if none of the same party members are with you when you arrive at the speeder terminal. The same goes for access to the "war room" (the only place to train on automatic weapons, arc weapons, and battle armor). Quest points that you've already experienced remain experienced. It's very odd.

Sneaking into the war room.
I've rotated through about 9 characters since the first posting. Gideon is still going strong, and is trained to the max in everything I would possibly want to train him in. Everyone else has been replaced a couple of times. I've found it impossible to keep all six characters alive at any given time. Eventually, I settled on four as the optimal number; there's less distribution of experience that way, and it cuts down on the length of combat (I'm 95% certain that the number of enemies that appear is based on the number of members in the party).
Increasing stamina at a "personal development institute."

Even from the beginning, I allowed myself to reload if my entire party was slaughtered--you lose all your money if that happens, and money is a precious resource for training and equipment. Also, towards the end of this session, I started playing a part of the game that takes place far away from the cities, and I decided to allow myself to reload during character deaths in this area; it would simply take too long to walk back to a city every time I want to replace a character.

Plot-wise, a lot has happened since my first posting. I've been to three of the four cities on the moon and I've solved (I think) most of the quests. Here are the higlights:

1. Computer hacking. I got Gideon's "Programming" skill up high enough that I was able to hack into a computer terminal and accomplish a bunch of things, including:

  • Access to the "war room" for training.
  • A bunch of classified documents that suggest intelligent alien life forms have attacked the city of Procenium and have infiltrated the mines; hence, the loss of contact with the city and the announced shut-down of the mines. This attack might have been provoked by an agent's killing of one of the creatures. The creature itself is reported to be a "small reddish-brown sack that resembles a partially-filled rubber balloon."

  • Information about how to reprogram "golum armor," which is normally customized for each individual. I haven't found any golum armor yet, though.
  • The ability to modify police records to remove fines and warrants.
  • A back door into the "speeder reservation system" where I can make reservations without having to pay the $5,000 it normally costs.
  • E-mail exchanges between systems operators at different cities, arguing about one's hoarding of an "interface card."

2. The missing specimen. I traced some pink footprints in one part of Primus and found a group of dirty cops who had stolen the specimen from the library.

They fail to kill the witnesses.

In a long combat that left Benny dead, I defeated them and recovered the specimen, which had fallen from its bottle during the fight. The specimen--clearly one of the sentient creatures, or at least a part of it--absorbed itself into my hand and gave me a vision of what had befallen it, with a group of "incompetent scientists" vivisecting it. I recognized the leader as the Surgeon General of Primus.

3. Cybil Graves. The owner of the munitions shop, Cybil Graves, had asked me to go to the surface and find a group of Nomads who were supposed to give her a box. The Nomads, you may recall, are ex-convicts from the cities who have somehow found a way to survive on the surface. I found them with only a few minutes of wandering around.

The Nomads gave me a device that directed me to Cybil's box, as well as the entrance to some underground caves. I explored them a little but found the monsters fairly tough, so I returned to Cybil and got my $4,000 reward.

That seems ominous.

She soon appeared among the police bounties, "wanted dead or alive," for having "aided the outlaw nomads by running guns and ammunition" and "attempting to release a toxic gas into the Parallax air ducts."

Much later, I found Cybil in an armor shop in Parallax, trying to buy armor for her Nomad friends. I got annoyed with the game in this section. There was a scripted set of screens in which Cybil offered me $4,000 to let her go and I weighed the offer in comparison to her $3,000 bounty. See what the screen says:

Would it have been that hard for the developers to allow me to decide whether to accept her offer, turn her in, or "do both"?  This seems like a role-playing choice that shouldn't have been taken away from me. In any event, I shot her, turned her in, and got $7,000 from the whole deal.

4. Warring SysAdmins. Okay, the game calls them "SysOps," but that was before it knew any better. In accordance with the e-mail exchanges I hacked, I got a quest from the Progeny SysOp to steal a prototype interface card "devised to crack any computer system" from the Primus SysOp.

A rare role-playing choice in the game.

I went to the Primus office, and I had three choices: try to buy the plans, take them forcefully, or talk him into giving it to me. I suspect the first option would have worked with more administration skill and the third with more charisma, but I didn't have either, so I just robbed the guy. It got me wanted by the police, but I hacked a computer terminal and removed the bounty. When I returned the card to the SysOp in Progeny, he gave me a "prototype terminal," but I'm not sure what that did for me. Perhaps it would have allowed me to hack stuff if my hacking skill wasn't already so high.

5. Miscellaneous Progeny Quests. There were two quests on Progeny: helping an armor shop owner named Herb figure out who'd been breaking into his shop, and finding a wanted criminal who was hiding in the mines. Neither required any role-playing choices; I just wandered into the right places and watched as a series of narration and cut scenes left me victorious. I did get some good money and a couple nice sets of battle armor for my troubles, though.

6. The Alien Conspiracy. A few events came together to depict what I assume is the main quest. When I visited a hospital, a grotesquely burned man somehow divined that I knew of the aliens' existence and shouted at me to "stop these fools before it's too late!" He said that someone named Clinton Cain knew how to find the entrance to their home.

I found Cain by accident in the university in Progeny. He related that while collecting specimens on the surface, he came across a creature that had been wounded by laser fire. The creature "touched his mind" and revealed itself as a "member of an ancient race that does not have any written language or tools," using mental powers for everything. He further said that humanity's actions had "caused them to think of our race as a hostile force that must be eliminated."

Getting the main quest.

He suggested that if I find out what happened to Proscenium, I might be able to stop it at the other colonies and "save Titan." He set my "finder" (I guess the box I got from the Nomads) to direct me to the relevant caves and bade me good luck. I suspect it's pretty obvious what happened at Proscenium, so I don't know how going there is going to help, but whatever wins the game.

Solving these various quests involved visiting all three primary cities: Primus, Progeny, and Parallax. They were relatively indistinguishable from each other, all having the same look, services, and enemies.

I have no idea why the game felt it was necessary to put so many computer terminals near each other. You have to use them basically once in the game to get the hacking information, plus maybe a few other times to get speeder reservations. One per city would have been fine.

I moved between them on speeders, which normally cost $5,000 per trip but are free with my hacking abilities. When you go from one city to another, you have the option to take a "window seat" and see the terrain fly by as you zoom along.

All cities delivered up plenty of opportunities for combat, though later as I developed my "administration" skill, I was able to avoid a lot of them. Choosing between tactical combat and computer-controlled combat is tough. 95% of the time, the computer does fine and all my characters survive, but that means 1 in 20 times, someone dies. To ensure survival, I viscerally want to be in control of the battle, but to be honest, I lose characters at a greater frequency than the computer does. Thus, I either have to watch my guys die with no control over it, or I have to take control and more thoroughly ensure their deaths.

Here, I'm trying to use the terrain to bring them to me one by one, but it never really works. I keep getting into situations where they can shoot me from around the corner, but I can't hit them.

More random notes:

  • It appears that your skill level with weapons and medical equipment defines what you're allowed to buy. As my skill with handguns, rifles, and automatic weapons rose, so did the available choices in the stores. More important, as my skill in medicine rose, so did the medical devices I could buy. Characters with a high enough skill can by "Medkits" and automatically heal the entire party after each combat. Very handy.
  • The game has an infrequent "copy protect" mechanism. When you try to train in advanced weapons in the war room, it occasionally asks you a question that you can only answer by looking at diagrams in the manual.

I like to imagine my party members frantically paging through their notes at times like this.

  • I couldn't role-play any of the quest-related stuff, as above, but this is apparently the game's idea of a "role-playing choice."

What kind of deviant says "yes" here?

  • The caves are full of steam and lava traps, but it's mostly just a waste of time, since my characters with medical skill immediately and automatically heal everyone anyway.

Basically, this does nothing but slow my progress through the caves as I have to pause and read the message.

  • The screens in which your party moves as a unit are essentially identical to BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception, the previous Westwood/Infocom offering. In fact, many of the interface elements of this game are identical to BattleTech.

As I close this posting, I'm stuck in the caves. Every few steps, I have a tough combat with a series of alien creatures capable of inflicting mass damage.

My party bathes in a sea of chemicals shot by the creatures in the lower left.

Throughout the caves, I've encountered those red balloon creatures. Some of them have granted me a vision of unlocking a door. Others grant me a "mental ability" but these manifest themselves in items that I can pick up, including a "Render," a "Synapse Beam," a "Mind Melt," and a "Reaver Rifle." I assume some of these are weapons, but other than the rifle, I'm not sure what classes. I'll have to experiment.

I was playing part of this game in an airport. You don't want to know what "small, reddish brown, partially inflated rubber balloon" made me think about.

But I'm stuck. The only way out of the caves, other than the way I came in, is a passage surrounded by four chemical vents that he game won't let me pass. I've tried all of my items here to see if any of them will work, but none of them do.

It's possible that I missed something in the cities or I need to be wearing some special kind of armor to pass. Either way, it's a long trek back to the cities, and I'm not looking forward to it. I wouldn't mind a little hint here if there's some way to move forward without returning to civilization first.

As you may have noticed, there are plot elements here that are similar to Total Recall (the REAL Total Recall), especially given that the original game, Mars Saga, was set on Mars. We have a shadowy, profit-motivated corporation running things through corrupt "agents"; an outcast class (mutants in the film, Nomads here); a hostile exterior environment; and rumors of ancient civilizations. But the game precedes the film by a couple of years. It's possible that the developers were influenced by Philip K. Dick's We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, on which Total Recall was based, but the story doesn't really have all of these elements. It's much more focused on the "hidden memory" aspect. It may all just be a coincidence.

I'm looking forward to seeing what I find in Proscenium, if I ever get there.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Game 102: Mines of Titan (1989)

The game takes place in 2261. I'd like to hear from my science-oriented readers on the chances that humanity will be able to colonize Titan in 250 years.
Mines of Titan
United States
Westwood Associates (developer); Infocom (publisher)
Released as Mars Saga for the Commodore 64 in 1988; re-released for DOS and Apple II in 1989
Date Started: 29 June 2013
Here's one thing about playing certain games that might be peculiar to my own personality: I don't like being told who I am. Not defining your own character seems contrary to the whole idea of a role-playing game. Paradoxically contrary, I suppose, as the ultimate test of "playing a role" is to take a character over whom you have no control and successfully internalize his or her background, motivations, and approaches. But most role-playing games are as much about role-creating as role-playing, and I'd prefer to at least have the illusion of creation conferred by the ability to name my character. If I did, I wouldn't name  him "Tom Jetland."

Jetland is a down-on-his luck cargo ship captain, stuck on Titan after a disastrous mission forced him to jettison his cargo. His company made him sell his ship to cover the cost of the goods, and he's left waiting for his insurance adjuster to arrive in a couple of years.

Rejecting the offer of the Controller of Primus (one of Titan's cities) to work in the mines, Jetland is given a mission to find out what happened to the city of Proscenium, with whom the Controllers have lost contact. But the job doesn't come with any advance funds, so Jetland is cast into Primus to look for work to buy weapons, supplies, and passage to Proscenium.

The odd thing is that after all this setup, you're perfectly free to dump Jetland. He starts in a bar where you recruit and dismiss other characters. Once you have at least one other character, you can send Jetland packing. I didn't do that, but I did decline to reload the game when my party was killed by muggers, and "I" was sent back to the bar to find new characters. Adding characters to the party is a matter of "interviewing" them in the bars, at which point you can hear about their histories and view their attributes. It feels a little like recruiting party members who have already gone through Space.

Interviewing potential party members.

Characters have six attributes--might, agility, stamina, wisdom, education, and charisma--that do about what you'd expect. Health is an average of might, agility, and stamina, and once it's depleted, you lose points in those categories. If they all go to 0, you die. Characters also have a selection of skills: administration, arc gun, automatic weapon, battle armor, blade, cudgel, gambling, golum armor, handgun, medical, melee, mining, programming, rifle, street (wisdom), and throwing. As with most games, I suspect that some of these skills will turn out to be useless. So far, I can't see any advantage to specializing in melee combat skills when you have guns, but perhaps there's a place later where they become important.

You can't control anything about the beginning statistics and skills of the characters you recruit, though you can just keep searching for recruits until you find one who has the stats you want. And you can assign their names. My new party leader is a 42-year-old ex cop named Gideon with skills in handguns, rifles, melee fighting, cudgels, and battle armor. He's strong in agility and stamina, though a little weak in might. In due course, I supplemented him with Richter, an ex-marine with skills in automatic weapons, melee combat, and rifles; Melina, a woman with skills in administration and "street knowledge"; and Cohaagen, an ex-miner with skills in gambling and mining. I wanted to start with someone with medical or programming skills, but I wasn't able to find someone at the outset.

As you adventure, you learn and improve skills at training academies, universities, and hospitals. I haven't found a way to improve weapons skills yet, but I suspect that's done in the "war room" once I find a way to get access.

To train, you have to spend both money and accumulated experience points, but the game hides the specific experience point figure. It just tells you that a character is "eager to learn" whenever he can train. Other than this occasional training, there doesn't seem to be any "leveling up." I suspect this makes it less painful to replace slain party members later.

Gideon's statistics and gear after a few hours of play. Nice dot-matrix printers they have in the 23rd century.

It soon became clear that characters get individual experience for combat, and since Gideon and Richter had weapons and Melina and Cohaagen had no skills to use weapons, they were never leveling up (which means I could never train them in weapons skills). I eventually dumped them and replaced them with two characters--Benny and Lori--with existing weapons skills, figuring it would be easier to train them in non-combat skills than for non-combat characters to get enough experience to train in weapons skills.

In fact, mining costs hardly anything to learn.

Titan is presented as a "frontier" world being developed by an oppressive corporation called Paramount Mining, Inc. The manual, presented as a Visitor's Guide to Titan, reveals that when humans first visited in 2042, they were overjoyed to find a diverse variety of life forms--joy that turned to horror when they were slaughtered by some of them. Paramount Mining established a colony on Titan to mine SOL-R-GARD, a hydrocarbon that absorbs radiation, and populated it largely with ex-convicts. Some of these have escaped to the surface, found some way to survive, and are known as Nomads.

So far, I've explored the surface only briefly.

In general, it's a good setup, and one that doesn't hand-wave the difficulties associated with living on a moon two years from earth, with an average temperature of -180 degrees and a nitrogen/methane atmosphere. There are hints of conspiracies and secrets to discover, and I look forward to seeing how the game's plot unfolds.

Several quests become available immediately in Primus. Someone has broken into the university and stolen  a "specimen" and the police are willing to pay 20,000 credits for anyone who can identify the culprits. An escaped convict named Phelos Fletcher has fled Primus to the surface. Cybil Graves, the owner of a munitions shop, is willing to pay 5,000 credits for me to deliver a "micro disk" to the leader of the Nomads and bring back a package. She gave me 1,000 up front, which helped me stock up on weapons. Computer terminals have other "classifieds" from other cities, but it costs at least 5,000 to get out of Primus.

My first quest.

Not that I'll have much trouble getting that 5,000.  Either we have another game with a broken gambling system, or I just got really lucky. There are gambling establishments in the city that offer "Cosmic Keno" and "Laser Slots." I haven't had a chance to experiment with keno yet, but when I walked into laser slots and dropped $17, I got three stars and won $8,500 on my first spin. I tried to work out the odds but the symbols seem randomly generated each spin, and in any event the player's "gambling" skill is supposed to come into play. Rather than keep testing things and risk ruining the game again, I decided to be thankful for my good fortune and spend the money on some decent armor. I bought vacuum suits so my characters could survive outside.

I wish I had the luck in real life that I have in CRPG casinos.

Navigation is through a 3D view. The city is abundant with shops, bars, gambling halls, computer terminals, hospitals, and other places to visit, though your options in each place of each type are limited to same selections, so there might as well have only been one of each.

Buying weapons in the munitions store.

As you wander around, there are random encounters with thugs, muggers, and hitmen, as well as police officers and regular citizens,  and for all of them you have the option to fight or decline. If you decline and the enemy is hostile, he might attack anyway.

Battle takes place on a top-down tactical map, and it's extremely similar to BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception, another Westwood/Infocom collaboration (more on that in a bit). You line up your attacks or item uses, execute, and watch as your party members duke it out with the enemies. You have the option to let the computer fight the battle, and if you do that, you can either watch or just find out the result. Weapons seem to have unlimited ammunition.

Watching the computer fight for me. My characters are on the right.

A few miscellaneous notes:

  • The game has a pretty good automap, both on the main screen and in a larger view that you can access from the main menu.

  • Characters with medical skills can heal themselves and each other in combat. In between combats, hospitals will heal for a charge.

  • The game avoids one of the ways that players often cheat by preventing you from distributing credits until party members have been with the party for a while. You can't just recruit party members, steal their credits, and dump them.

I found this out while legitimately trying to distribute credits among party members, incidentally.

  • Dead characters remain with the party until dropped off at a police station, bar, barracks, lounge, or restaurant. There is no resurrection, and combat is deadly enough that I suspect I'll go through a whole battalion of characters unless I relax my reloading standards.

Mines of Titan was originally published as Mars Saga for the Commodore 64 in 1988. Online documentation says that when it was released the following year for the Apple II and DOS, not only was the action moved to Titan, but it has more quests and creatures and slightly different details.

The game was developed by Westwood Associates and published by Infocom. Westwood has shown a spotty history with me so far. I thought Questron II and Hillsfar were mediocre, and BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception still makes me angry, especially having to type that misplaced apostrophe. Right now, Mines could go either way. By the next time I write, I expect I'll have solved some of the initial quests and I'll have a better sense of the game's quality.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Land: Won!

Perhaps now that you have some free time, you can come up with a better name for your country than "The Land."

NetHack was probably the most satisfying game to win in terms of challenge, but The Land was most satisfying in terms of process. I won honestly, and as the only player who gets to play his own custom version of the game...

....while in correspondence with an extremely friendly developer, and in a way that helps improve the game for future players. I'm now glad that The Land is my real 100th game (inserting a game called The Quest to Solve Chester's Problem with Counting between 11 and 13 was easier than renumbering everything by the time I realized I'd skipped a number).

In correspondence with Mike Riley, I learned that:

1. I hadn't done anything wrong in my final battle with Lord Foul. Thomas Covenant was supposed to be using "Wild Magic" in the battle to keep himself alive, and something in the game's code was preventing him. When Mike made a few tweaks to the .exe (in less than 24 hours!), I won quite easily.

2. This is the only battle that Thomas Covenant will fight in.

3. This isn't the only way to defeat Lord Foul, but the alternative--using the Talisman of Earthpower--is much harder and requires a Loresraat (which I did happen to be).

4. Most of the other options I could have wished for with the Seventh Ward would have backfired on me in some way. There is a warning from Amok in the books that is a clue about this.

5. If I hadn't wished to "Destroy Lord Foul," I could have returned to the surface for two more quests from Lord Morham, one of which would have led me to Foul's lair ultimately.

6. The un-killable monsters roaming the hallways of Foul's Creche are called "Ravers." There are some lore bits about them, but I didn't put two and two together. I was meant to do what I did: evade them by putting obstacles in their paths. Apparently, I could have been using "Create Forbidding" for that, but what I actually did was use the Krill of Loric Vilesilencer to summon iterations of Lord Amok in their paths.

7. Regarding my problem finding dungeon entrances: the "(S)earch" command would have worked. I mostly forgot about that command. It also helps you find random items in the wilderness, like torches and herbs.

8. The game originally had a lot more documentation, released when the player paid the shareware fee. But Mike lost the files some time ago.

9. The version I've been playing is actually from 2009. The RogueBasin article that Mike wrote is a little out of date.

The actual process of winning with the new version just took a couple of minutes. Covenant took on Lord Foul while I and the other party members dealt with his minions.

I'm not just standing off to the side and watching. I'm casting spells!

Unfortunately, my other party members died in the process (farewell, noble pegasus!). When I left the combat screen, I found myself returned to Revelstone with the message that Covenant had disappeared. 

I spoke to Lord Morham, who congratulated me on destroying Lord Foul. The game let me continue playing at this point.

So my winning streak remains unbroken, and Mike is working on a patch for the next edition. (He removed gambling from the one he gave me, but I encouraged him to put it back in, just with worse odds and a betting cap.) All together, a good day.

And yet that leper-rapist Covenant gets all the credit. I think Gideon should be in the next book.

A little adjustment of the final rating is in order, and not just because I'm feeling kindly toward the developer. First, now that I know the game allows multiple paths to the end, that's worth a point in "Gameplay." Second, knowing there's a developer so willing to talk about the game and fix its problems leads me to return one of the points I subtracted for bugginess and poor documentation. That leaves it at 32. I guess I should explicitly say, though, that this rating applies to the next release.

If you missed the edited bit at the end of my last posting, I decided to postpone Rance. I'm doing my playing this week on a hotel terrace, and the last thing I need is my fellow guests and staff wandering by while a naked 1980s anime character is on my screen. Mines of Titan coming up next.


Further reading: Check out my series of posts on Quest for the Unicorn, Mike Riley's second RPG, in the winter of 2015.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Land: Final Rating

As far as I got. That's Lord Foul in the vanguard of the enemies.

The Land 
Riley Computer Services
Mike Riley
Released in multiple versions between 1985 and 2009
Date Started: 16 June 2013
Date Ended: 25 June 2013
Total Hours: 14
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 32
Ranking at Time of Posting: 52/99 (53%)

I'm giving up on The Land until some more information comes along. It's annoying because I'm on the threshold of victory.

When I last blogged, I was hunting around for the Sixth Ward of Kevin's Lore. I finally found it, returned to Lord Morham, and got a quest to find the "Krill of Loric Vilesilencer." (Is this a character in the books? Does he silence people in vile way, or does he silence vile people?) I was looking forward to tracking down a collection of small crustaceans, but the Krill turned out to be a weapon of some sort.

While searching for lore on the Krill (the library didn't have any), I ran into Thomas Covenant in Revelwood, and this time he agreed to join me. "NOW we'll kick some ass," I thought, before I found that Tom's default response to any combat is to run away screaming the moment we enter. (His default action was set to "evade" and the game wouldn't let me change it.) Nonetheless, I kept him with me because I'd received clues that I need either the Talisman of Earthpower or Wild Magic to defeat Lord Foul, and other lore told me that Covenant, the "bearer of white gold," was the only one who could use Wild Magic.

"T-Cov" joins the group. That 5000 mana never did us much good.

The Krill turned out to be in a hidden dungeon exactly one step from Revelstone, and obtaining it wasn't too hard. I returned with it to Morham and got the quest to get the Seventh Ward. To find it, I had to summon someone named Amok using the Krill. It took me a while messing around with various words to figure out the right combination to do this. Once I finally had him there, he told me where it was and bade me summon him again once I reached its barrier. The weird thing is that after I summoned him, every NPC in the dungeons was flagged as Amok.

We're there! Can't you see it just to the south?

The moment I laid hands on the Seventh Ward, it gave me a selection of a series of wishes, including power, wealth, knowledge, and other items. The last two options were "Give me the Talisman of Earthpower" and "Destroy Lord Foul." I figured since destroying Lord Foul was my ultimate mission, I chose that. Well, the Ward didn't actually destroy him; it just warped me to his dungeon and left the job to me.

I do wonder what would have happened if I'd chosen some of the other options. Note that the last option definitely says "Destroy Lord Foul," not "Take me to destroy Lord Foul."

It was in the final dungeon--"Foul's Creche"--that the game utterly slaughtered me. The previous dungeons had served up groups of enemies that were very dangerous and difficult, but this one gave me enemies that were absolutely unkillable. I mean that literally. On every level, there seemed to be at least once group of invulnerable foes that refused to die no matter what tactics I used. I tried the Horn of Blasting for 100 consecutive uses on some of them (no enemy had ever survived more than 8 or 9 before) to no avail. I finally had to put up barricades in their paths and run to other corners of the dungeon. [Later edit: In an e-mail correspondence with Mike Riley, he confirms the invulnerable enemies, notes that they're called "Ravers," and says that I was supposed to get past them by putting up barricades. So in that sense, I guess they were an interesting addition to the game tactics.]

Foul's lair. I cannot get through the barrier to the artifact nor defeat Foul in combat.

Thus fleeing, I did finally encounter Lord Foul on the tenth level of his lair, near some artifact surrounded by a barrier that none of the commands I'd received through lore was able to dispel. Foul himself seems as impossible as some of his allies. He's capable of killing me with a single blast of his magic, no matter what type of protection I equip or cast. When I engage him in combat, Thomas Covenant doesn't flee as usual, but neither does he seem to be using any "Wild Magic." He just runs up and attacks Foul and inevitably gets killed. After Foul and his minions pick off my party one-by-one, I typically fall in a single hit. I've tried to defeat him more than 30 times with different tactics. I can't say "I never even came close" because the game doesn't show me how many hit points my foe has left, but it never feels like I came close.

Gideon hangs back while his party, led by t-shirt-clad Thomas Covenant, prepares to ineffectually deal with Lord Foul.

Before you actually engage him in combat, Foul stands in a fixed position and shoots magic, so I suppose it's possible that the goal is not to actually kill him but to get his artifact, but none of my keywords seem to break the barrier. I tried to leave the dungeon and return to towns to get more lore, but it seems there's no way to get off his peninsula once you're on it.

Gideon begins to regret that wish.

Unless someone proves otherwise (and I've been chastened when making this challenge before), I'm going to conclude that something in the game is broken and winning is not really possible. This is borne out by the fact that no one online seems to have won it. Even "Baltirow," the writer of the otherwise-thorough FAQ/walkthrough that accompanies the game (a document I didn't consult until I was thoroughly stuck) admits that he never completed the last three dungeons. This is obvious because there's some patently wrong information about them (though this may have been due to a version change). I created the only YouTube video I can find, and if anyone's done an LP or claimed to have won the game on a message board, it's not coming up in any of the keyword terms I use. (The game's generic title doesn't help.)

Compounding the problem is a series of bugs that seem to have affected the final dungeon. When I first arrived, I couldn't see anything and I had to go up and down a few times to get the map to appear. My "Oath" setting suddenly announces that I'm "evil" with no obvious evil actions preceding it. While trying to find a way to defeat Lord Foul at one point, the screen glitched and the game suddenly said I was dead. Trying to adjust my party members' default actions often produces a crash. I'm fed up with the bugginess of the game as much as the difficulty. 

Our hero is approached by a dungeon-destroying fuzz-monster.

But for a minor shareware game, The Land has prompted a lot of great discussion on the Covenant books, the nature of fantasy, what makes an engaging protagonist, and cheating. The developer had some interesting ideas that didn't come together well. I'm not sorry I played it, though it really wasn't meant to last this long.

In a brief GIMLET, I give the game:

  • 3 points for the game world. It's a tough call because the world of the Covenant books is obviously quite large and rich, but The Land doesn't really make any attempt to ease non-Donaldson readers into the lore of the world. The player's place in the world never really becomes clear throughout the game.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. The large selection of classes, with clear strengths and weaknesses, is one of the game's major assets. The skill system, offering a diverse array of specialties, is a good idea, though advancement should have been prompted by player choice and not random rolls. Leveling is satisfying in the hit point, spell point, skill, and attribute bonuses you receive (and you also get special items at fixed levels), and the "oath/service" system is intriguing if a little flawed.

Gaining spells upon leveling up.

  • 5 points for NPC interaction. Talking with NPCs is absolutely necessary in the game, which is unique in the way that you collect and record "lore." You can also get certain NPCs to join you and perform some limited management of their tactics in combat. My problem is that the gameplay with NPCs is a little too blunt and literal. Good NPC interaction involves asking the right questions (and often providing the right answers) to tease out the related lore; this game just has NPCs say "The Sixth Word of Power is KHABAAL" with no depth to the interactions.

Good in concept, boring in delivery.

  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The enemies in the game are drawn from the Donaldson universe and really aren't very memorable beyond their icons. They aren't well described and don't vary enough in tactics to be interesting. The only puzzles in the game involve finding the right words of power to use to dispel the barriers (which I now see are called "forbiddings"), and there are no scripted encounters or role-playing opportunities. The game provides as many grinding opportunities as you want.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. There are a number of tactical options in combat, and there are a decent selection of interesting spells for combat, protection, and navigation. A few spells seem to do nothing, but otherwise magic is useful and well-balanced. The overwhelming press of enemies means that most players won't fully explore the detailed tactics possible in the game.
  • 4 points for equipment. There are a lot of items in the games, and a lot of slots to equip them. The identification system is sensible and not too annoying, and the plus ratings, plus the consequent effects on combat and defense scores, allow you to easily rate equipment. It's annoying how rarely the word of power/artifact combinations seem to work, but perhaps this is more a matter of poor documentation (even the walkthrough writer admitted he had "no idea" how to actually use most artifacts).

Gideon's final inventory.

  • 4 points for the economy. It would actually be quite good if not for the gambling system that breaks it. Gold is always useful for items and food, and the ability to purchase lore at the library was a nice addition. It's just too bad it's so easy to raise millions.
  • 2 points for the quests. The game seems to have a main quest, but with no player options until perhaps what to do with the Seventh Ward. The quests are rote, unvarying, and ultimately boring, and it's never really clear what your overall mission is.

These got annoying and repetitive.

  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. The graphics are okay, but the unvarying tilesets in the dungeons gets boring fast. The only sound is an occasional bloop. While the keyboard commands make sense and are easy to master, too many of the interface screens are buggy, causing the game to crash or for the player to lose inventory while trying to move it around. The process for speaking certain words or using certain artifacts was never very clear.
  • 1 point for gameplay. It rates very badly in all of my gameplay categories. It's linear, non-replayable, and too long. It goes from too easy to too hard extremely quickly, and as I said, I found the final dungeon essentially impossible. [Edit: I restored a point after getting the patched version from Mike Riley. The final dungeon is not impossible, and there are a couple of paths to the endgame, making it slightly replayable.]

You take a risk with shareware games from a single developer, and in this case the risk doesn't pay off in a way that the initial sum of scores doesn't make clear. The bugs, lack of documentation, overabundance of combats, and difficulty conspire to create a game that I cannot really recommend--a game that essentially feels unfinished--and for these reasons I feel compelled to subtract 3 points from the initial sum [edit: reduced to 2 in light of Mike's willingness to talk about the game and fix problems] to arrive at a final score of 30 [Edit: 32 with the modifications].

But as things go, this really isn't a bad score. It ties with or beats a lot of commercial games from the era. I liked it far better than Ultima II or Questron II, which featured similar interfaces. The relatively high score speaks to the sophistication and innovation of the game, and I honestly think The Land could be a good game with a few tweaks, such as limiting the dungeons to five levels, cutting the number of foes by about 2/3 (and compensating with more experience from the remaining ones), creating less expansive towns, building in more history in the documentation or in-game lore, fixing the gambling system, improving enemy and party pathfinding, and ratcheting down the difficultly level of the final dungeon.

Of the developer, Mike Riley, I can find virtually nothing. [Edit: Until, that is, he posted a comment below.] Like the name of his game, his own name is a bit too generic to be easily-searchable. He may own a bookstore in Phoenix. (MobyGames credits him on two other titles--Frogger Advance: The Great Quest (2002), and Fat Princess (2009)--but I suspect this is an example of more than one person of the same name being conflated in the database.) Someone must have been playing The Land for Mr. Riley to continue updating it for 20 years, but I can't find a shred of online evidence with the exception of the aforementioned Baltirow, the game's biggest fan, who never seems to actually have won it.

I might keep trying to kill Lord Foul on occasion as I move on--I hate breaking my winning streak--and I'd sill love to hear from anyone with any tips.

Although many of you tried to convince me otherwise, I'm going to move on to Rance for at least one posting. No one successfully defended Fire King as an RPG, so it's gone. [Later Edit: I'm still going to play Rance, but I decided to move it below Mines of Titan because I'm doing a lot of my playing this week on a hotel terrace, and I didn't want other people seeing me play a porn game.]