Monday, March 31, 2014

Game 142: The Valley (1982)

The Valley
United Kingdom
Argus Press Software (developer and publisher)
Published 1982 as code in Computing Today; commercial versions released 1983 for any computer capable of understanding BASIC
Date Started: 25 February 2014
Date Ended: 30 March 2014
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2/5)
Final Rating: 11
Ranking at Time of Posting: 8/142 (6%)
Ranking at Game #456: 29/456 (6%)

The Valley was originally published as code in the April 1982 Computing Today, a British magazine from Argus Press. Later, Argus Press's software arm commercialized the game on tape for a variety of platforms. (I'm playing the C64 version using the VICE emulator.) It is the earliest British CRPG, at least under my definitions.

I frankly had more fun reading the article than playing the game. Although the magazine offers a detailed back story (not found in the commercial version's documentation), it feels like it published the code more as a programming exercise than as an enjoyable game. The 18-page article walks the reader through the code, module by module, explaining the importance of each subroutine and the need for each command. I would have loved to have this in the mid-1980s when I was trying to learn programming. As a game, I think it falls flat, even for 1982. Its events are too random, almost inevitably resulting in death, and it takes too long to win.

Deep in the Valley. The white dot represents my character. You can see the two castles at either end of the map, the path between them, and various randomly-generated buildings. I'm in the midst of fighting a harpy, who has 26 stamina and 9 "psi power" against my 75 strength, 69 "psi power," and 101 stamina.

The back story, which possibly takes up more text than the code itself, sets the game in a valley called Tybollea, situated between two castles. Thousands of years ago, one castle was ruled by Princess Evanna and the other by her brother, Prince Xeron. When the valley was besieged by the "Selric hordes," the princess allied with Vounim, the "mightiest wizard of the Northern Reaches." Together, their magic made the valley safe, and in gratitude, Evanna invited Vounim to settle there. But as the years passed, Vounim grew corrupt, invited an evil group of wizards known as the White Order to visit, and built temples to an evil lizard god named Y'Nagioth. Finally, Evanna had to act against him. Vounim's former apprentice, Alarian, allied with her and gave her his magic six-stoned amulet, and Evanna was equipped with her own magic helm. In the ensuing battle, Vounim was banished from the plane, but Evanna was mortally wounded. She scattered the magic artifacts throughout the various dungeons in the valley and shrouded the valley in mists before she died. Now, Vounim is fighting his way back to the world and the valley has become accessible again. An adventurer needs to find the magic artifacts and stop him.

Players can choose from wizard, "thinker," barbarian, warrior, and cleric classes. The choice affects only the starting and maximum attributes for combat strength and psi power. Although I won with a barbarian, characters with high psi-power seem to fare better, as they are more capable of effectively casting the game's three spells: sleep, psi-lance (the only spell that works on undead and magic beings), and "crispit."

The main Valley area consists of a large map of 37 x 12 squares. A winding path cuts through the map, connecting two castles, and the entrances to four sub-areas--two swamps, a forest, and a tower--are randomly situated, changing even within a single game every time the map refreshes. The two swamps and forest all have maps as large as the main map, and they each have their own one-story buildings in the middle.

Traveling through one of the swampy areas. There's a temple in the lake in the northeast.

The size of the world is wasted, as almost all of the events are random. In each square of the main map, the sub-maps, and the buildings, one of the following things occurs at random:

  • Nothing
  • Combat with an enemy
  • A hoard of gold
  • A "circle of evil" that drains stamina and psi power
  • A "place of power" that restores stamina and psi power
  • An "aura of deep magic" that increases maximum psi power and combat strength

The only exceptions to these random events are the Valley's path, where travel is always safe, and a handful of randomly-dispersed treasure locations, marked by asterisks (*), in the buildings.

A random encounter while walking through the Valley.

Successful encounters raise both treasure and experience, which together determine your overall "rating." The only way to see your rating is to visit one of the castles, where you'll also get healed--although this is rarely necessary since stamina regenerates as you walk, and the "places of power" handle the rest. Both experience and "deep magic" locations slowly increase both psi power and combat strength until you hit the maximums allowed by the character level.

Combat is a rote affair made vaguely interesting by a timeout system. In each combat round, you have the option to strike for the enemy's head, body, or legs, and you have to make your decision within about two seconds; otherwise, the game says "Too slow . . . too slow . . ." and the enemy gets a free attack. Attacks can hit or miss, and when they hit, they might do no damage for a variety of reasons.

Combat. I have only a second to hit one of the options before it times out and the enemy gets a free attack.

The essential randomness to the game extends to combats as well. You meet a variety of foes, from the easy (orcs, hob-goblins, fire imps) to the tough (dragons, thunder lizards, balrogs), but neither their distribution nor your chances of success against them seems influenced by your experience or attributes. I've defeated dragons with early characters and I've been slain by hob-goblins with experienced characters. The choice of body part to strike, and the damage dealt, also seem to produce essentially random results. Spells offer the only real "tactic" when it comes to combat, with "sleep" acting as a kind of "hail Mary" that, when successful, ends the combat instantly. Some foes, like "ring wraiths" and "barrow wights" are only damageable by the "psi lance" spell, which you don't get until comparatively late in the game. Fortunately, their lightning bolt attacks consume their own psi points, so if you can withstand them, they'll burn themselves out in a few rounds.

I do like the incantations that appear when you cast the spells.

The mission of the game is fairly simple: head to the Temple of Y'Nagioth (one of the buildings in the swamps) and search the distributed treasures until you find the Amulet of Alarin. Then head to the Black Tower of Zaexon and search its multiple levels for the six stones that go with the amulet. Once you have the amulet and its stones, go to Vounim's Lair (in the forest) and find the Helm of Evanna.

The game complicates this process in a few ways. First, since the treasures are randomly distributed, you may have to enter, exit, and re-enter the buildings multiple times, searching through all the treasures, until you find what you need. This is particularly notable in that even if you find one of the amulet stones, there's a 5-in-6 chance that it's the "wrong one" and does you no good.

I have to leave the dungeon and return, let the treasures regenerate, and hope for better luck next time.

Second, the game won't even randomly generate the Helm of Evanna until the character has a rating of at least 26. This takes forever. The reason that there's such a gap between the start date and the end date of my play-through is that after about 3 hours of gameplay, when I had the amulet and all my attributes were at their maximums, I still only had a rating of 13. It took another 3 or 4 hours of constant, boring, random grinding to achieve the needed rank, so I saved doing it for times when I had other stuff to occupy me--meetings, webinars, and the like.

I only have one thing left to get before winning the game--except that I have to develop twice my treasure and experience first.

During this process, the likelihood of eventually getting killed by some random monster approaches 100%, but fortunately the game allows saving at the castles. I couldn't figure out how to mimic saving on a tape drive, so I just allowed myself to take a save state every time I got to a castle. Once you have the Amulet of Alarin, you'll automatically get resurrected when you die, but at the cost of all your gold. Since achieving a rating of 26 based on experience alone would take well into the next decade, this is a scenario for reloading.

There's no special screen or anything when you accomplish the primary objective and "win" the game. You simply find the Helm of Evanna among the random treasures in Vourin's Lair:

The game notes that you have the Helm when you check into the castle, but you otherwise can just keep playing and trying to increase your score. If you reach a rating of 28, you can call yourself "Master of Destiny," but I'm going to quit at 26, or "Demon Killer."

The closest we get to a winning screen.

On a GIMLET, I can't do better than an 11. Its primitive approach to character development, its lack of NPCs or equipment, and its boring, random gameplay put all of its scores at 0, 1, or 2. It barely qualifies as an RPG under my definitions.

The game's box art from its 1982 or 1983 release.

Overall, nothing about The Valley is very fun in 2014. The graphics are primitive; there's no sound; the encounters are too random; there's no depth to the gameplay; there are no tactics or tactical challenge; and it takes way too long to grind the character to the necessary level. Even walking through empty squares, having to wait a couple seconds for it to tell you "Nothing of value . . . search on" is annoying (and you can't defeat it by speeding up the emulator because you'll hose yourself in the timed combats). There's no reason that a modern player would want to fire up the game.

A shot from Paul Robson's DOS remake of the Valley.

A shot from vounim's Windows remake.

So, naturally, there have been remakes, the first by British programmer Paul Robson in 2001 for DOS, the second by a Norwegian programmer named Jan (writing under the name "vounim") in 2013 for Windows. Once again, this proves Bolingbroke's Nostalgia Theorem ("every game, no matter how awful, is someone's favorite") and its Remake Corollary ("if that person is a programmer, he will attempt to remake it"). Seriously, I do admire the efforts that go into these remakes, even if they leave me a bit confused as to their purposes. I've written to both Mr. Robson and Jan to see if they want to stop by and comment on what they see in the game. My understanding is that Jan's closes the game better by offering a final level and endgame screen.
[Ed. Thanks to the investigative work of El Explorador de RPG, we know that the authors of The Valley were Peter Green and Peter Freebey, but they seem to have based it heavily on a 1980 game called Halls of Death, which I've yet to explore. The Valley was later plagiarized as Valley of Death (1983) and The Amulet (1983). See the comments for more.]

An early character dies right away. There's a cute death message.

This game did not interrupt my playing of Crusaders of Khazan; I just happened to finally reach Level 25 and win the game while in a boring meeting on Friday, and I already had this post written (except for a couple of paragraphs) last month. More on Khazan later in the week.

In other news, we've had another massacre on the older games list. After some investigation, I've rejected Volcanic Dungeon (1982), The Dark Dungeons (1983), and Federation Quest 1 as belonging more to the adventure game category, Fortress of the Witch King (1983) as being a strategy game, and Chivalry (1983) as being a board game. Oh, all of them have some RPG characteristics, but honestly, I need to trim this list, and I'm sick of playing half-assed quasi-RPGs from the early 1980s, so I'm going to start being more strict about my three elements. Dungeons, Dragons, and Other Perils turns out to be a 1984 game, so I moved it to the appropriate chronology.

This means that Expedition Amazon (1983) is the next game on the "old" list; despite the name, it definitely has all the RPG elements. It also means, more importantly, that I've closed out 1982. I may have a post on re-thinking its "Game of the Year" soon.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Tunnels & Trolls: Choosing My Own Adventure

One of the game's most memorable encounters so far. I like T&T's wraiths a lot better than D&Ds; they just drain my levels.

I was in fourth grade when the Choose Your Own Adventure series, and its competitors, exploded among my peer group. For those uninitiated, the series consisted of nearly two hundred short books, each told from a second-person perspective (e.g., "You walk down the corridor . . ."). Every couple of pages, the reader would have a choice, perhaps as innocuous as trying the left door or right door, or as consequential as which character to accuse of murder. A single book might have a couple dozen "endings," some good, some bad, some just screwed up.

I think my first exposure was Trapped in the Black Box, having to do with time travel, from a CYOA knockoff series called Which Way. Looking through the CYOA titles, the one I remember most was Inside UFO 54-40 (1982), a science fiction story in which characters repeatedly mention a paradise-like planet called "Ultima" but note that you cannot get there by simply following directions. At one point, I stumbled upon some passages in the middle of the book that depict the reader's arrival on Ultima--essentially the "perfect" ending. I scoured the entire book looking for the reference to those pages--for the path that would take me to that ending--before realizing that you can literally only get there by not following directions, by just flipping randomly to those pages. My little mind was blown.

The first book in the series.

For a brief period from maybe 1982-1984, I consumed dozens of the books. As much as I liked them, I never did find an optimal way to read them. I'm not sure there was one. Your options are basically:

  1. Read only a single path, in which case you've just purchased a 100-page book but only read 6 pages of it.
  2. Read a single path and, when it ends, start over at the beginning and try a different one. You end up reading many of the same pages over and over again.
  3. Read a path until it ends, then go back to the previous branch and read to the next ending, always returning to the most recent branch, until at last you've read the whole book.

I dare say that most people did what I did--#3--even though it rendered meaningless the idea of choosing your own adventure. I even made up little paper bookmarks with numbers from 1-10 on them, and I'd insert them between the pages at which each branch occurred, making it easier to find the previous one. You might call it "choice-scumming."

When I wrote about "The Perfect CRPG: Encounters" a couple years ago, I didn't exactly couch it this way, but I guess my idea of a perfect RPG has always been something along the lines of a CYOA book with all the other RPG mechanics surrounding it. (I know these technically exist in paper form--such as in Joe Dever's Lone Wolf series--but the nature of the medium makes the gameplay more limiting than even the most basic CRPG.) I want the game to give me scenarios and let me decide, via role-playing or just instinct, how to navigate them. But now that I'm 42 rather than 12, I don't want to fully explore each branch for the "optimal" set of choices. I want to make my decision and live with it.

So far, Crusaders of Khazan has provided more options for this kind of gameplay than any other game in my chronology. Its encounters are detailed and multi-leveled, with various choices leading to vastly different outcomes. I don't know if it's by design, but very often, trying to always choose the most noble path, or trying to be a "completionist" (a term I really don't like) and do everything, results in an essentially unwinnable encounter. There is a palpable craving to "encounter-scum" by reloading and trying every path to figure out what outcome you like best--a compulsion that I maintain is best ignored if you really want to preserve the challenge and tension of the gameplay.

The beginning of an encounter.

Let's take one example. Exploring the northeast corner of the island, the party comes across a pavilion occupied by the Sheik of Khamad and his guards. The Sheik is sprawled on some pillows and a dancer sways before him. He motions for the party to approach. As they do, the party senses "one of the best dressed men" in the Sheik's retinue trying to pickpocket them. This is the result and decision tree from here:

1. Attack the man. The attack sends him sprawling and he jumps up, drawing his scimitar.

>A. Engage in combat. Combat ensues between a "human leader" and 11 warriors. If you win, "appalled by your bloodthirstiness, the remaining huntsmen cover the Sheik's retreat. In no time, you are left with the empty tents and the corpses." You get some decent experience, gold, and a piece of jewelry from the bodies.

>B. Explain the reason for your attack to the Sheik. The Sheik laughs and notes that the man is his brother and he often plays tricks on strangers. He advises the party to check the money belt, and they find a ring that the brother planted on them. The Sheik, who has grown tired of his brother's tricks, suggests that the lead character duel him to the death.

>>i. Yes. Combat ensues between the first party member and a "human leader" alone. If victorious, the Sheik notes that his brother was planning to kill and usurp him, so he's grateful to the party. After some wine and dinner, the Sheik gives the party some gold and jewels and then leaves.

>>ii. No. The Sheik breaks camp and leaves, but you get to keep the white gold ring the brother planted.

2. Accuse him of thievery. The Sheik is indignant that you've accused his brother of thievery. Guards close in ominiously.

>A. Fight. Combat ensues between a "human leader" and 11 warriors, with the results the same as 1A above.

>B. Talk your way out of it. As you talk, the ring that the Sheik's brother planted falls out of your clothes and to the floor. The Sheik gives you a chance to explain it and the game asks you to select a party member to talk. If you make your charisma roll, the Sheik believes you and lets you leave. You get nothing from the encounter. I don't know what happens if you don't make the roll because all of my characters had high enough charisma. I'm guessing it goes to combat as above.

3. Ignore him and talk to the Sheik. As you start talking, the Sheik's brother accuses you of stealing his ring. The encounter proceeds as in 2B above.

The outcome to 1Bi.

Assuming you can survive the combat, 1A and 2A provide the most tangible benefits to the party, in both experience points and treasure. 1Bi provides the safest path that still gives the party a reward. When I played for real, though, my choices led me to 2B, which did nothing for me. I figure there are three types of players here just as there are three paths in the CYOA books:

  1. Those that would reload and try all the options, eventually settling on the one that provides the best rewards.
  2. Those that would reload and try all the options just for curiosity's sake, but ultimately go with the path consistent with role-playing choices.
  3. Those that would simply make their selections, live with the consequences, and save other choices for a new game.

Where do you fall? I confess that I aspire to #3, but curiosity often leads me to #2, which, in rare cases, can lead me to #1 if the reward disparity is significant enough. For this game, except to fully document the encounters as above, I've been sticking with #3 even if it means I "miss" some of the game.

The next level, of course, is when your choices not only determine the outcomes of those encounters but also what happens later on in the game. For all I know, Khazan does that. Maybe I'll encounter the Sheik somewhere else, and my options with him will be defined by how I treated his brother.

The Sheik's tent is one of maybe a dozen such encounters that I've enjoyed in the opening city and island alone. Others include:

  • A catacomb in the sewers consisting of six sarcophaguses and the mummified corpse, sitting on a throne, of a former Prince of Gull. The game gave me the option to open the coffins and burn the undead, but I declined. It then noted fables that said you can trade items with the undead. I chose to trade gold but accidentally chose a character with no gold and offered 0. I got a message that the trade was accepted and was given a piece of jewelry. Thinking that was a pretty good deal, I tried it again, and the mummy got offended and attacked me. He and his undead guards were easier to beat than I expected, but after the combat, the crypt came crashing down, and I didn't get any more items.

Bartering with the undead.

  • A temple in the city where the acolytes worship a giant beetle. As you explore, they bustle in and strap a man to the altar to sacrifice. You heroically leap to his rescue, but I've been unable to even come close to winning the combat that follows.

Unfortunately, my role-playing tendencies wrote a check that my characters couldn't cash.

  • A compound in the city that had been overtaken by orcs. As I tried to sneak in (one of several options for entering), I encountered a party of warriors preparing to assault the compound. I joined the assault and we defeated the orcs. Before departing, the adventurers thanked me for helping ensure that Gull didn't fall to "monsterkin" the way the Dragon Continent has. He warned me about visiting the mainland for this reason.

  • An urchin begs for gold. If you don't give him enough, he'll pick your pocket for half of what you own. If you do, he says "blessings on you," but I don't know if this does anything.
  • A guy named Leo hangs out in the sewers and offers the party a selection of cheese and rat meat. He turns out to be a fairly dumb were-lion, and if you go with your palate and choose the cheese, he assumes you must be a rat and attacks you. If you choose to eat the rat meat, he assumes you're human and gives you a "Cat Ring."

Although generally cheese sounds more appetizing than rat meat, cheese in the sewers sounds less appetizing than rat meat.

Overall, the game has offered more role-playing options in the first city than the average game does in its entirety. It makes for a unique and compelling experience.

The opening City of Gull consists of five sections and a two-level underground sewer area. The sewer is a bit odd. You enter it literally by falling into it, and you cannot exit the way you came. Woe the adventurer who enters without any torches or lamps because, for some reason, magic doesn't work there. On two expeditions, all my torches burned out and I had to navigate out in the dark. You can exit the sewers from two locations, both of which dump you into Gull's harbor, both of which can damage or kill your characters. It's a tough area for an opening party, and I would recommend that other players avoid what I did and grind to Level 2 before heading down.

When you first enter, a Charon-like demon named Ignxx appears in a boat and says that a wizard named Biorom (perhaps the lamest-named character in the game so far) ensorcelled him to help ferry adventurers around. 

The sewers are filled with random encounters with bats, roaches, giant spiders, and other creatures that you might expect to find there. Occasionally, the boat capsizes and you find yourself fighting sharks, blood worms, and other aquatic creatures, nonsensically, in the water. Every once in a while, something like a giant crocodile would kill one of my characters, which prompted me to reload as I haven't found any mechanism for resurrection yet. There was also a spectacularly unfair set of squares where a carnivorous plant was capable of instantly killing my characters.

Fighting a shark in the water.

I generally like the combat in the game. It's fairly fast-paced and tactical, though not quite to the level of the Gold Box games. You can easily switch between manual combat and auto combat, and very often I find myself manually plotting tactics for three-quarters of the battle, only to switch to automatic and let the game mop up the remainder. One odd dynamic, though, is that enemies hardly ever hit my characters (or they hit, but the character's armor absorbs all of the attack, I guess). When they do hit, the damage might be devastating, sometimes resulting in death in a single blow, but I emerge from 80% of combats utterly unscathed.

Combat begins. Note the water obstacle in front of my characters. I'm not really sure what those odd opening messages mean.

The Tunnels & Trolls system is a bit odd in that there are no hit points or spell points. Attacks damage constitution directly and spells reduce other attributes (depending on the spell) directly. For instance, the primary first-level damage spell, "Take That, You Fiend!" costs 6 points of strength against my wizard's base score of 13. Even accounting for increased statistics upon leveling, it's hard to see how my wizard will ever get to the point that she can cast more than a couple of spells between rest periods. Fortunately, a single 8-hour rest break almost entirely restores lost attributes. "Healing" also occurs when characters automatically eat a meal at midnight.

When your experience points cross the threshold for the next level, you automatically get a "level up" screen, where you have the option to increase a chosen attribute. So far, it's been a tough call. Depending on the character's race and class, he might have the option to increase strength by 8 points but speed by only 1--and yet perhaps he needs speed a lot more. There's always an option at the bottom to increase two attributes by a little bit, but it always seems like a slightly worse deal than choosing a single one.

Gaining a level. Luck seems like the best deal, but I really need speed and charisma. Note that option (8), which increases both strength and constitution, gives me only 2 total points, whereas I can increase either individually by 3 points.

Anyway, back to the sewers. They had one encounter that seemed necessary to the main quest, and I nearly missed it. In the northeast corner of the first level, I found a woman named Jasmine trapped in a cage, with a bunch of giant rats squeezing their way through the bars. The game asked if I wanted to fight the rats, which of course I did. They weren't very hard, but they seemed to have a lot of luck damaging my mage, so I had to manually keep her out of melee range for most of the combats. After the initial battle, the game gave me the option to try to unlock the cage even though Jasmine warned "don't."

One of about a dozen rat battles. I'm not sure what those obstacles in the lower-center are supposed to be.

I tried anyway, the lock was stuck, and more rats boiled out of the sewers. When I defeated them, I had another chance to open the cage. I tried again, got more rats. This went on and on for maybe 15 cycles, and I assumed it was eternal. The only reason I kept fighting was that the experience rewards were decent and I was leveling up. But finally, to my surprise, the cage opened. Jasmine shrieked happily that her "quota of rats" was dead and now she could leave.

Is this a joke about common RPG tropes?

She told me Biorom the wizard wanted to speak to me and messed with a panel on a wall. A black-bearded sorcerer appeared.

"I urge you to oppose Lerotra'hh in the north," he says. "My fellow wizards and I are doing what we can, but there are constraints we cannot break. I can say this: Khazan sleeps in exile. You must discover where. There are items which he must have to restore his concerns in this world. Khara Khang and Lerotra'hh have made these things difficult to find and harder to get; they do not want Khazan roused."

Biorom suggested that Jasmine go adventuring with the party, but since the party was already full, she went to hang out in the Black Dragon Tavern. It was a very odd way to introduce the main quest.

In another plot-related encounter, we came upon a small island in the sewers inhabited by a "black elf" named Aradon. He and Ignxx clearly knew each other, and they chatted for a while about the goings-on on the continent. Empress Lerotra'hh is rumored to be off-continent, raising an army elsewhere. They disagreed as to whether it was more important to eliminate Lerotra'hh (the evil empress) or Khara Khang (her sorcerer, who had betrayed Khazan) to bring the empire down.

The party eavesdrops on some exposition.

The sewers culminated in an encounter with the wraith whose image is at the top of the screen. The wraith demanded that I gamble for my life, though the game offered me the option to fight him or try to flee. The gambling game was a simple hi/lo variant in which he rolled two dice and I had to guess whether the result was higher or lower than 7. He said he'd let me leave if I guessed correctly twice, and I'd also win a gem for each correct guess. Through pure luck, I guessed twice correctly on my first try and won two gems. He gave me the option to keep playing for another one, but I declined.

Discretion seemed the better part of valor.

When I got out of the sewers, I went to the jewelry store and sold my gems, plus a couple of pieces of jewelry I'd collected, for nearly 10,000 gold pieces--about 100 times more than I'd ever had up to that point.

Selling my riches.

With my new riches, I bought the best weapons and armor that I could wield (given my attributes), replenished my lamp and oilskins, stocked up on spells for my rogue and wizard, and learned some new languages.

Jori shuffles through her new inventory. I'll have more on this later.

Other notes:

  • The game is one of many to feature poison at an early level but no spell capable of countering it until later levels. I always hate that.
  • At one point in the sewers, Ignxx said, "I've heard some of those scum-sucking Rangers have found a way into this area. They'd love to see the city come down." The game offered otherwise no explanation of what "rangers" are, nor did I encounter anything involving them in the sewers. Anyone know what that was about?
  • At first, I worried that the game was going to be like Dungeon Master, where you'd find a bunch of items but know nothing about what they actually did. Then, I remembered the wandering mage who offers to identify items for a fee. This is an invaluable service.

The "Cat Ring" apparently lets me jump like a cat. Who would have guessed?

  • I've only found one secret door in the game so far, cued by a note that "Cleverly, you spot something unusual about the wall immediately north of you." I entered just by walking through the wall. I have to resist the urge to now go and walk into every wall. 
  • This is the message upon full party death:

  • The town had guilds for wizards and rogues in which no other characters were allowed to enter. When I approached the doors, the rest of my party disappeared to go stay in the nearest inn, and I had to go pick them up there later. Other NPCs hang around the inns and guilds, and you can swap them in and out for your created party members. I'm not sure if there are any plot-related reasons to do this, but the NPCs are so plentiful that I wonder if there is no resurrection mechanism and you're just expected to replace fallen party members if you don't want to reload.

Getting my characters out of the inn. Note that Jasmine from the sewers is now a joinable NPC.

  • A couple of the encounters have resulted in combats where each character had to fight a foe individually. This is difficult for my weak wizard.
  • There's one square near the docks that resets with monsters every time you enter the area if you want to grind. I've taken to spending time there at night when shops are closed and I'm waiting for them to open.
  • Each step indoors takes 4 minutes. Each step outdoors takes 3 hours and 45 minutes. The screen changes colors between day and night but otherwise doesn't restrict your view. Shops are only open in the towns between 08:00 and 16:00, and bars don't open until 16:00. Every night at midnight, everyone consumes a ration. I don't know yet what happens if you don't have any. You can (R)est for 8 hours at any location.

Exploring the outdoors of the Island of Phoron produces a lot of text but not many encounters.

When I had finished with the city, I took the time to walk every square on the island. There were a lot of odd, unavoidable traps, plus some flavor text, but no combats, and the only encounter was with the Sheik above. My next step is to hire or purchase a boat and make for the mainland. The game is only beginning!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wizardry II: Won!*

Wizardry: Scenario #2 - The Knight of Diamonds
Sir-Tech Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1982 for Apple II and DOS; 1986 for FM-7 and PC-88; 1987 for PC-88 and Sharp X1; 1988 for Commodore 64; 1990 for Macintosh; 1991 for NES; 2001 for Game Boy Color; 1993 for TurboGrafx CD; 1997 for PlayStation, SEGA Saturn, and Windows
Date Started: 9 April 2010
Date Ended: 24 March 2014
Total Hours: 26
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 32
Ranking at Time of Posting: 84/142 (59%)

It was almost four years ago that I first played Wizardry: Scenario #2 - The Knight of Diamonds. The first Wizardry (Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord) was audacious in its demands on the player: extreme difficulty, little character progression, mapping puzzles, and--above all--permadeath. Wizardry II upped the ante by not only featuring all of the same elements but also requiring the player to import characters from the first game. If played "straight," a party slain in Wizardry II was permanently dead and the player--I'm completely serious--would have to win the first Wizardry again (or at least build up the characters to high enough levels in that game) before trying again in II. This is the only game I know whose permadeath requires starting over in an earlier game.

Well, back in 2010, I did play it straight and I died almost right away. Since I wasn't willing to go back and win Proving Grounds again, I gave up on the game after only a few hours and moved on, never expecting to return.
But last October, amidst my writings on Wizardry VI and Oubliette--the PLATO game that inspired many of Wizardry's elements--I began to seriously jones for the original Wizardry again. In the last four years, and especially since I've played through the non-DOS games from 1979-1982 that I originally skipped, I've really learned to appreciate how unbelievably good it was for its time. In my opinion, in the entire first half of the 1980s, the only other game that can challenge it is Ultima III. Because I went almost directly from Wizardry to Ultima III in 2010, skipping a horde of non-DOS games in between, I didn't realize the implications of that.
In preparation for this post, I had to win Wizardry again with a new party.

Because of these realizations, and because I was a clueless, novice blogger when I first wrote about Wizardry, I wanted to offer a retrospective on Wizardry to coincide with my fourth anniversary. I fired up the game, developed a new party, and began re-experiencing it, this time taking more detailed notes for more in-depth postings than I offered in 2010. When I finally finished the game around Christmas, I had notes enough for about seven entries but no longer had any motivation to write them, and to be honest, I don't know if I ever will. But I also had a successful party ready to try again in Wizardry II. When I saw that completing II would allow me to finish 1982 having won every (reasonably) winnable game up to that point, I decided to give it a try.

This time, I backed up the party; hence, my asterisk in the title. Much like I did with Wizardry V, I also allowed myself to back up the save disk after every playing session and restore party members if they were eradicated. The funny thing was, I didn't need it much. I only restored from the save disk four or five times. The Knight of Diamonds is not easy, but in the ways that it's hard, it's predictably hard. The monsters don't scale in difficulty as dramatically as in Proving Grounds, and I never found myself in a combat in which I was in danger of having everyone eradicated. No single combat in II was anywhere near as difficult as the final battle with Werdna and his allies in I.

Wizardry II is the only direct sequel in this series--in which you play the same characters and they retain their levels--until Wizardry VII. In basic mechanics, it is the same game as the first Wizardry, to the extent that in The Ultimate Wizardry Archives, a description of the game occupies only a single page: the reader is instructed to look at the instructions for the first game for everything but the brief back story. All the spells are the same; even the shop names are the same, although II takes place in a different city (of course, this would also be the case in V).
Gilgamesh and Boltac really have a corner on their franchises.
The story and quest for Knight of Diamonds are probably the weakest of the series. Basically, the City of Llylgamyn used to be protected by the Staff of Llylgamyn (bestowed by the goddess Gnilda), which prevented evil people from entering the city. Through a dumb loophole, it didn't work on Llylgamyn natives, so a resident named Davalpus staged a coup and slaughtered the royal family. The only survivors, Princess Margda and Prince Alavik, tried to retake the city by retrieving the fabled magic armor of a hero known as the Knight of Diamonds. Wearing the armor, Alavik engaged in combat with Davalpus and killed him, but Davalpus's final curse brought the castle down in ruins, and the Staff, the armor, and Alavik were lost to the depths of the dungeons. Someone needs to get the staff back, which first means retrieving the various pieces of the Knight of Diamonds.

An encounter square on the first level spells out the nature of the quest.
Like its predecessor, the game features a series of 20 x 20 dungeon levels, but there are only 6 of them rather than 10. Each level culminates in a battle against an animated piece of the Knight of Diamonds' outfit (a suit of armor, a helm, a pair of gauntlets, a shield, and a sword). Only the battle on Level 1 is very hard. To get to it, you first have to be capable of casting the MALOR (teleport) spell, which requires a mage of at least Level 13. The suit of armor itself is immune to magic and almost impossible to hit, but it doesn't do much damage, so fighting it is a long process of seeing who bleeds out first. The other items are both susceptible to magic and easier to hit.

Fighting the battle to get the first piece of armor.

Characters transfer from the first game with all of their levels, attributes, spells, and gold, but no equipment. This was easy to replenish with the riches I brought, and my gold also helped with occasional resurrections. I had taken two fighters, a thief, a priest, a mage, and a bishop through Wizardry, and I had hoped to change some of the characters to prestige classes (samurai, lord, ninja), but owing to the weird first-game bug by which you often lose attributes when leveling up, no one had the requisite statistics.

Leveling up offers the same blend of gained and lost attributes.

It turned out to be unlikely that any of my level-ups in II would promote me to lord, samurai, or ninja territory. Not only did the dynamic of losing attributes continue, but I only achieved one or two more levels throughout the entire game. By the time you hit Level 13 or 14, you need more than half a million experience points to advance, and combats only tend to deliver a few thousand each. In this way, the game is a little less fun than its predecessor. On the other hand, it features a lot more items that, when equipped and "invoked," will increase attributes and make other character improvements.

Those of you who read my Wizardry postings may remember how much I complained about my thief. In the first three games of the series, thieves and ninjas are the only characters capable of successfully disarming traps, so you really need one if you ever want to open a chest (and you need to open chests if you ever want to find good magic equipment). My thief's blundering, on the other hand, turned out to save me a lot of trouble when I fumbled a teleporter trap early on the final level and got teleported right to Werdna's chambers (recounted in this post).

Kurosawa tries to disarm a trap. It's even odds whether he's even identified the right trap.

Although I had a new thief this time (Kurosawa; I think I wanted to make him a samurai originally), he bungled his job with equal regularity, so I made it a joke to test out unknown items on him in punishment. One of these items, found on Level 4, was called a "Ring of Metamorph." I had Kurosawa equip and invoke it, and I didn't notice any immediate change, so I shrugged and kept adventuring. Only when he started screwing up every trap did I take a closer look and realize that the ring had changed his class to a lord! (Apparently, a neutral-alignment lord is possible if you convert this way.) The good news was that I had a much stronger fighter in the front three ranks; the bad was that I had absolutely no way to reliably disarm traps.

Even a hobbit can, with a little luck, become a lord.

Changing him back to a thief would have re-started him on Level 1. Since I was pretty far into the game, I just lived with it, using CALFO to identify traps and shrugging off their effects if it was something that wouldn't kill me. "Alarms" were always good; they just bring another combat, after which you get the stuff that was in the chest. I didn't mind "Teleporter" traps so much; I'd just re-orient myself and make my way back to where I had been, although I discovered that something about the trap prevents the square from clearing, so I'd have to fight fixed combats a second time.

The six levels of the scenario were filled with navigational obstacles. About one third of Levels 1 and 2 are dark squares that you have to map by feeling your way around in the dark.
Imagine how much of a pain it was to map that maze in the dark.
My map of Level 4 shows numerous areas of solid wall.
Level 2 featured a sage who demanded 100,000 gold from me. That was no problem. In response, he gave me a spiel that suggested changes to some of the spells in the game, but I didn't really notice any difference. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who knows what that was about.
About half of Level 4 (presented as a series of caverns) were solid wall. In I, you could teleport into squares even if you couldn't enter them normally (i.e., through doors), but I learned the hard way that you don't want to try to do that here. You get teleported into rock and the entire party dies. This was responsible for one of my reloads.
One thing that annoyed me was the presence of traps. I had forgotten that Wizardry features no spell to "levitate" or otherwise avoid pit traps. You can't even detect them. You just blunder into them and suck up the damage. Traps were the cause of a lot of resurrections.

There were a couple of riddles. Level 2 had a long one before the armor battle whose answer, predictably, came out SHIELD. Level 6 had an even longer one whose answer, even more predictably, was THE KNIGHT OF DIAMONDS--and boy, was that definite article necessary. Just KNIGHT OF DIAMONDS caused me to get a "wrong!" and to lose all of the pieces of armor I'd collected. I don't mind admitting I reloaded.
Part of a multi-part riddle on the final level.
There were only five pieces of the knight's kit, but I had to descend from Level 5 to 6 via a chute and come back up via a set of stairs to get the fifth piece. This battle, with a pair of gauntlets, was essentially the "final battle" of the game, notable because it was extremely easy. There's no one epic final battle against a "big boss" here.
The last major fixed battle of the game.

Once I had the four pieces of armor and the sword, I returned to the sorceress Gnilda's altar on the first level. At first, nothing happened, but I figured I needed to combine the items into a single character. Still nothing. Then, I figured out that a message I got on Level 6--"ONE ALONE"--meant that a single character needed to return to Gnilda with the armor. This worked. Gnilda gave me the Staff and made me her champion.
Rare bit of trivia: Greenberg and Woodhead named the goddess after their Korean friend, Adli Ng.
After that, I returned to the surface and got the winning screen above. At that point, the game let me identify which of the other characters on disk had been in my party and designed them with a "K" symbol for "knight." Gideon, who brought the items to Gnilda, gets a "G" instead. I don't know if these have any effect on the next game or whether they're just status marks.
My party leader at game's end. The > symbol means he beat the first game.
When I got to the end of my first attempt to play the game, in 2010, I somewhat stupidly remarked that, "Since Wizardry II is the same game as Wizardry, I see no reason not to give it the same overall score." This was a bit lazy of me (and, of course, I was speaking from ignorance since I didn't experience more than a bit of Level 1). They may have the same engine, but they're not the same game. I'd rate I higher in character development and the quality of the main quest but II does much better with equipment, offering a wider variety of magic weapons and armor and special items. Among them, the item I most prized was a "Wand of Mages" that, when invoked, reset my available spells so that my mage had 9 in each level, including priest spells. It only worked a few times, but wow, did it make a difference when spelunking those lower levels.
I'm going to complete a quick GIMLET without looking at what I gave Wizardry back in 2010:
  • 2 points for the game world. The story isn't nearly as interesting as the first game, and nothing of the civil war or the figures involved in it makes their way into the gameplay itself.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. For creation, it's still one of the best of the era, offering a full set of attributes, interesting classes of mixed abilities, and an alignment system that prevents mixing good and evil characters. As I said, leveling was very slow in this game, so I never felt I was really getting anywhere with the combats.
  • 0 points for NPC interaction. Unfortunately, there still aren't really any. (I'm not going to give a point for the single sage on Level 2.) They wouldn't come until Wizardry V, and then they were stupid.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. There are no scripted encounters aside from the riddles, but there are a few fixed combats. More important, the variety of enemies that you face, and their specific strengths and weaknesses in combat, won't be rivaled until perhaps the "Gold Box" games. You can never just blow through combat--not if you want to avoid being poisoned, petrified, or level-drained. You have to plot a particular strategy against each enemy.

The fire dragon was immune to fire damage but fell quickly against my Sword of Dragon Slaying.

  • 6 points for magic and combat. For such a basic system, the Wizardry series does combat exceptionally well. Its major strength is the spell system, where you have just enough spells per level to plot a reasonably successful expedition, but not so many that you can get cocky. I love that first-level spells, like KATINO (sleep) and MANIFO (paralyze), don't stop being useful even against high-level enemies. I love that the priest's "dispell" has a chance, however small, of working against almost any foe. This game delivered more objects that were useful in combat so the rear three characters weren't so useless during times they couldn't cast spells. Overall, the combination of combat options and overall difficulty makes combat wonderfully tense and tactical.
  • 6 points for equipment. Except for the Knight of Diamonds' pieces, which you can equip, all the good items appear randomly after combat. As I said, this game increased the variety of items available and their potential uses, which you have to test carefully on some guinea pigs. In the first game, I thought the equipment rewards were a bit paltry; most of my characters ended the game with +1 weapons at best. This one did a much better job.

Some of my bishop's items mid-game. A bishop is still the only character who can identify items.

  • 1 point for economy. You get so much money from selling equipment that you never want for gold--not even when you sleep in the most luxurious room at the inn or have to resurrect a character every hour or so. I wish it had done a better job here.
  • 2 points for quests. There's a basic main quest with no alternate outcomes, and it really isn't all that interesting.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound and interface, and really all of it goes to the interface. The keyboard commands were intuitive enough that I didn't have to think about it for more than a few minutes at the beginning of the game.
  • 3 points for gameplay. I dock it a little for being too hard. It was only winnable for me because I allowed backups; no way would I have suffered through multiple creations of characters in the first game whenever my II party suffered a full-party death. The pacing is good, though; it only took me about half the time as its predecessor.

This gives a final score of 32, reasonably lower than the 37 I gave Wizardry. This basically works, and I'm happy to see that most of the categories are consistent. (Though I gave the first game a 1 for NPCs; I have no idea what I was thinking about here.)

To stave off the inevitable questions: no, this doesn't mean that I will make another attempt at Wizardry III; no, it doesn't mean I'm going to eventually win Faery Tale Adventure or whatever other sorry excuse for a game you were hoping I'd revisit. This replay was a product of a specific desire to experience Wizardry again, and it served its purpose. 

Say what you want about Wizardry's descendants--Might & Magic and Dungeon Master are better in many ways--but I've rarely played another game that manages to maintain a sense of tension from beginning to end. If you play without cheating (or even just mildly cheating by allowing periodic backups), it's scary to wander the corridors of the dungeon, never knowing what kind of enemies you'll encounter in the next square, never knowing when a trap is going to halve your hit points, watching your health dwindle as you battle a powerful stack of enemies and trying to decide whether to spend your last seventh-level mage spell on a TILTOWAIT (the most powerful mass-damage spell in the game) or whether to try to save it so you can MALOR your butt to the surface as soon as the battle is over. You sweat playing this game. Wizardry II had me hunched over my keyboard, staring intently at its wireframe graphics in a way that no VGA game of the 1990s can compel.

All right. Diversion over; back to Crusaders of Khazan!