Sunday, August 30, 2015

Questron: Some Messed-Up Values

That's because I killed everyone else.
Well, given this was a Charles Dougherty game, the outcome was inevitable: at some point, I emerged from the royal castle, my mace dripping with the mangled blood and brain matter of several dozen castle guards...a hero. Knighted, even. It's a brutal world we inhabit, and only the strong survive.

As I closed from my first post, I was making my way around the island continent, visiting each city and cathedral, fighting monsters along the way. My fortunes waxed and waned as I won a hand of blackjack here, lost a spin of the roulette wheel there. If money got too low, I did my "Double or Nothing" trick until the guards attacked, and it turns out it's not very hard to kill them. I felt a little bad about that, but they were clearly in the wrong. I mean, we'd all be in an uproar if the Atlantic City Police Department tried to kill everyone who won a few keno hands at Harrah's, right?

A mace appears on the list.

Weapons and armor slowly improved. Armor availability went from rawhide to shields to chain mail to plate mail. Weapons upgraded from a flail to a club to a mace to a cutlass. At each city, I talked to prisoners and slowly built a lore book of hints and tips. A sample:

  • There are keys for every door
  • Find the trumpet at all costs
  • The treasure room can make you wealthy
  • Cathedrals reward only the good. [If killing guards doesn't do it, I don't know how to be bad.]
  • Find the castle to find Mesron.
  • You must travel through the northern fog, but only when ready
  • You should put money in the bank in case of death
  • You can steal, but plan your exit carefully
  • The phazor spiders hate the whip
  • There is a leaden key in the castle. Steal it.
  • Only the club kills the piercing pungie easy
  • Give to the evil priest--or he will kill you

A prisoner imparts a bit from the lore database.

As I got stronger, I found myself getting attacked by multiple copies of the same monster at once, and their hit points seemed to increase, too. But despite this, combat slowly became easier and less deadly.

Eventually, I started getting the same message every time I bellied up to a shopkeeper's counter: "MESRON WANTS TO SEE YOU." Around the same time, Geraldtown was destroyed. All shops and people were completely wiped out.

I returned to the castle, explored a bit, and found Mesron in a place I'd missed during my first explorations. When I spoke to him, he promoted me to soldier, increased my strength and stamina by 5, and gave me 5 jars of magic powder. He said that "one use" of the powder was to slow down guards in the castle. I'm not sure what the other is. He also confirmed that Mantor had destroyed Geraldtown.

When I spoke to him again, he said, "You're missing one piece of the puzzle. Find it, and I'll help you continue."

Sigh. I knew what was next: looting and killing. I built up some more funds and returned to the Swamp Cathedral, trading everything I had for about 25 holy water potions. Each gives you 100 hit points, but the starting character has a cap between 500 and 600 hit points. 

Returning to the castle, I found my way to a random treasure chest and opened it. This put every guard in the castle on alert, and they all headed my way to attack. I learned quickly that I wanted to channel them to me one-by-one, and let them come to me so I could get the first attack. Sometimes, I got lucky and killed them in a single hit. Other times, I missed 4 or 5 times in a row and a single guard knocked more than 100 hit points off my total. I drank the holy water when I got low. I saved the magic powder for when my holy water ran out, but fortunately that never happened.

There must be a better way.

I lost track of how many guards I ended up killing. It was more than 50. Among the chests, I found ruby, silver, emerald, lead, and gold keys, and more than 8,000 gold pieces. The keys opened various doors to special encounters. Namely:

  • A doctor offered to increase my strength for 10 holy waters. I was reluctant to sacrifice that many, but I ultimately said yes and my strength went from 20 to 40. This made the rest of the guards a little easier.

  • A princess increased my charisma from 15 to 35 for 2,000 gold. Thanks to her father's coffers, I had plenty!

  • In a "map room," I paid 500 gold pieces for small images of Questron and what I assume is the Land of Evil. I used the Questron one to annotate the cities and cathedrals I'd found.

The Realm of Questron.

  • A treasure room held a couple thousand gold pieces but automatically spawned 8 more guards I had to kill.

They were particularly dutiful guards. They wouldn't cross the threshold into the treasure room.

When I was done looting, the gold key got me into the king's throne room, where I killed about 10 more guards to reach the king. He was understandably unhappy.

But I needed to be there. Behind his throne was a small room with a chest containing the Trumpet, an artifact that I needed to find "at all costs"--according to the word of some random prisoner in a jail.

It turned out to be true, though. This was the other "piece of the puzzle" Mesron wanted me to find. When I re-visited him, he told me that I was now "the most powerful soldier in Questron" and asked me to take on the quest to destroy Mantor. Since I had recently saved, I decided to see what would happen if I said "no." He told me that was wise, then called me a wimp, then petulantly took his magic powder back.

I reloaded and said yes. He told me that I would have to go through the northern mists to find Hidden Port, and from there take a ship across the sea to the Land of Evil. Holy water would be useless there, he said, so I would have to find some way to buy hit points. He dramatically finished with, "Your quest: Seek out Mantor. Destroy Mantor!" He finished by increasing my dexterity from 20 to 40 and suggested I go get knighted.

After I spoke to Mesron, the guards (who had respawned) stopped attacking. I went back to the throne room where, unbelievably, the king called me a "worthy adversary" and said I deserved to be in his service. He knighted me, my stamina went up by 15, and my hit point cap was removed.

Is that your way of saying that you're scared of me?

On the way out, I noticed that guards still beat me and took my gold if I spoke to them. What is wrong with this place?

I had one more stop to make before heading off into the northern mists. The map from the map room showed an island in the middle of Questron, and sure enough I was able to buy a raft in Lake Centre. The island held the Island Cathedral, where I was able to buy hit points directly from the priest--no need for the holy water intermediary.

Having a character refer to them as "hit points" in-game kind of breaks the fourth wall.

Moreover, the cathedral had a fun minigame that increased my intelligence. It was a variation of Mastermind (a variant of which also appeared in Galactic Adventures, another SSI game) where you have to guess the placement of 4 squares of up to 4 colors among 8 slots. After each guess, the game tells you how many you got right in both color and placement and how many you got right by color alone. Slowly, you deduce the pattern--but you only have eight guesses. I'm pretty good at Mastermind, but I also got lucky with my first few guesses, and I was able to beat it in 6. My intelligence increased by 8 points.

After 4 guesses, I knew I was going to make it. The white squares indicate both correct color and placement; the gray squares indicate correct color only. If you use save states here, you lack the character to be reading my blog.
I was just about to head off to the Land of Evil when I got a message that Mesron wanted to see me again. I returned and learned that Mantor was currently attacking the city of Lagoon. I recalled that this exact same thing happened in Questron II, at Seaside. But unlike that game, where I drove Mantor away and saved the city, by the time I got to Lagoon, it was too late.

I'm sorry. I tried.

The "northern mists" are a series of squares that lead from the mainland along a narrow isthmus to the city of Hidden Port. Every step you take in the mists has a chance of moving you in a random direction instead of the one where you were going. After a period of frustrating bumbling about, it occurred to me that the Trumpet might have some use here. Sure enough, blowing it cleared the mists. I made my way to the city.

The trumpet clears the mists and allows me to pass.

There, I was dismayed to find that a clipper cost over 2,000 gold pieces, and I had spent so much on hit points that I only had 1,300 left. I briefly thought about wagering it on an all-or-nothing blackjack hand, but I first decided to see what happened if I tried to take just a raft across the ocean. It turned out to be no problem at all. I might have consumed some extra food, but that's all.

Fighting a whale from my raft.

There were lots of combats with water creatures along the way, but ultimately I arrived in the Land of Evil, where presumably the king will knight me for rescuing maidens and the guards will pat me on the back when I win at roulette.

In the Land of Evil!

This session, though brisk and fun, reminded me of some things I don't like about the Dougherty series. It's not so much the slaughter of castle guards--I can hand-wave that by pretending that they were traitors working for Mantor--but rather the intertwining of character and plot developments. Attributes and hit points increase more from achieving the next stage of the plot than from all the fighting and grinding you do in between. We also have the issue with weapons, armor, and transportation becoming available only after passage of time instead of when you can afford it. At the same time--and frankly just like in Ultima and Ultima II--hit points are all over the place. Their maximum isn't dependent on your overall character strength, but rather how many you can afford. It's a bizarre, slightly uncomfortable dynamic.

I look forward to seeing what the Land of Evil has to offer. I assume I'll find the first dungeons here, but I otherwise have no memory of this place.

Time so far: 6 hours
Reload count: 9

Friday, August 28, 2015

Game 200: Questron (1984)

United States
Quest Software (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released 1984 for Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and Commodore 64
Date Started: 28 August 2015

There's an entire generation out there--maybe even two generations, depending on how you define it--who have always had computer games and have always had RPGs. People who were born the same year Fallout was released are eligible to vote; those born the same year The Elder Scrolls came into existence can now drink. You could have no original memories of Gold Box games and yet have children of your own, on purpose. It's hard for me to imagine what it must be like to always remember a computer in the house, a live Internet connection, and as many games as you had time to play.
I'm not old enough to remember a time before Pong existed, but I am old enough to remember a time before arcade parlors and widespread ownership of consoles. I remember playing Galaga and Pac-Man at mall arcades and fantasizing about the day that I would be wealthy enough to bring an actual bucketful of quarters to the place and play as long as I wanted--and it turned out those weren't even the kind of games I liked!

Try to imagine being that kid, in an era where all video games were new, whose video game experience was primarily arcade shoot-'em-ups where getting the "high score" was the goal, encountering a role-playing game for the first time. Think of discovering, all in one afternoon, that a game doesn't have to be about "lives," points, increasing difficulty, and inevitable death. It can have a story. It can have a persistent hero who gets stronger as the game goes along. You can get richer, better equipped. Success is less about reflexes than strategy. If you screw up, you can reload, and if you don't screw up, you can actually win!

This is what I learned one day, probably in 1985, on my friend's Commodore 64. The game was Questron. I didn't know the term "role-playing game" at the time. I hadn't played my first tabletop D&D session yet, so I wasn't even familiar with the basic conventions of fantasy gaming. Among other things, I thought my character was acquiring a chemical spray when he bought a "mace." I didn't know Questron's enemies were made up for this game. When I played other games, I kept wondering where the "dirt weirds" were. But despite my deficiencies, I was addicted immediately.

A typical Questron screen. My character stands between a cathedral to the northeast and a city to the southwest. I'm being attacked by a bandit.
I think I can remember the specific day--although it's possible, 30 years later, that I might be conflating more than one occasion. I was grooving on my friend's sister's friend at the time (he was a bit older than me; she was my age), and during a planned sleepover at his house, I had it on my agenda to make some kind of move. But he showed me the game, and those plans went out the window. I spent all day and night playing the game--I remember he got pissed at me at one point--and it would be six more years before I kissed a girl.

It was probably on the strength of this game alone that I pressured my mother to buy me a C64 and disk drive, and I guess I must have copied Questron from my friend. Things that happened when we were younger tend to loom larger and longer in our minds. In reality, I might have only played Questron for a week or two before winning, but in my memory, the game seems to have been around for years. I remember the same thing with Ultima IV, which I would have acquired around the same time. There was no pressure to "win" the game--heck, I'm not sure I even knew, in those early days, that the goal was to win. I was just happy to wander the lands, fight, buy better equipment, and level up. It seems to have taken forever before I discovered the Land of Evil, and even longer before I experienced the awesome winning sequences, which still stand out in my mind as better than 99% of the games I've played since.

I have no excuse for waiting this long to re-visit it as part of this blog except for my own pathology. When I first started the blog, I was afraid of non-DOS emulators and refused to make an exception, not even for the first RPG I ever played, not even for superior versions of other RPGs. Later, when I changed my rules, I insisted on reaching the game naturally instead of prioritizing it. However, I did engineer things so that it would be my 200th game.

Starting the game a few days ago, for the first time in 30 years, was a surreal experience. I hardly remembered anything substantive about it, just random things like the basic placement of the castle, the way my friend and I used to laugh at a monster called a "flesh feeler," the use of "rawhide" as the most basic armor, and the "rope and hooks" that serve as both a weapon and a tool.

Questron was written by Charles W. Dougherty of Michigan and published by SSI. At the bottom of the first menu screen, we have a note that "game structure and style used under license of Richard Garriott." In Dungeons & Desktops, Matt Barton says "to their credit, SSI took the precaution of securing a license from Garriott," which is how I always understood it. A couple of sites, however, including Wikipedia, suggest that the licensing was a result of a lawsuit from Garriott's end. None of these latter claims are particularly well-cited, on the other hand, so I'm afraid I still don't know what the real story is. Given how blatantly other games copy elements from each other without such licensing agreements, it's certainly an unusual credit to find in a game.

The main menu with the odd legal notice.

In any event, whether SSI should have been legally and financially obligated to Garriott, Questron is clearly inspired by Ultima. From it, the game takes its basic look and feel: iconographic exploration transitioning to 3D dungeons, little enterable towns and temples, various NPCs to speak with (some in jail), guards to contend with, a constantly-dwindling food supply, and purchases made at little countertops. It takes the same approach to single-letter commands (though it also supports a joystick). And like Ultima, its combat system is a pretty rote affair in which you stand right next to enemies and slug it out with the "fight" command.

But I think it would still be unfair to call Questron an "Ultima clone," because it makes a number of modifications and additions to the Ultima template. Some of them work and some don't, but all are relatively creative. Some examples:

  • Monsters are mostly original creations rather than deriving from Tolkien or D&D.
  • Monsters are resistant to some weapons and particularly vulnerable to others.
  • There's an extensive gambling system with three different kinds of games.
  • Not all weapons and armor are available at the outset of the game; higher-order items become slowly available over time.
  • Character development is largely based on plot developments rather than traditional experience and leveling. 

For the most part, these features carry to all four of the games in this little sub-series: Questron, Legacy of the Ancients (1987), Questron II (1988), and The Legend of Blacksilver (1988). I'll have more thoughts on the series in a later post.

The backstory is well-told via a series of letters and testimonies found in the nicely-produced game manual. The game takes place in the Realm of Questron, in the aftermath of a bloody coup d'etat known as the Baron Rebellion. It began when Baron John of Blind Pass killed King Gerald during a spring pageant. [He is likely named after Gerald Wieczorek, credited with "game theory" and artwork.] Years of fighting followed, in which Gerald's queen, Kristene, was also assassinated. But the traitors and their armies were suppressed through the magic of Mesron and Mantor, two court wizards (and half-brothers), and eventually Prince Aaron ascended peacefully to the throne.

Rumors swirled in the subsequent years that Mantor had actually supported the rebels. Over two decades later, Mantor suddenly disappeared. Shortly thereafter, dangerous monsters started appearing in the countryside, attacking travelers, towns, and castles. It soon became clear that Mantor was directing them. Somehow, he had traveled to another world (perhaps another time) and returned with an evil book of magic, which he used to take over another continent called the Land of Evil (one assumes it had another name before Mantor) and then start harrying Questron. One night, he stormed the castle throne room and challenged the king himself, killing the queen and one of the princesses before Mesron drove him off.

A bit of the backstory as the game begins.

King Aaron has sent knight after knight to the Land of Evil on quests to kill Mantor, but all have failed, and monsters still roam the land. You play a serf from Geraldtown who, sick of all the carnage, sold his ox, bought a suit of rawhide armor, and embarked on a quest to bring Mantor down.

Character creation consists solely of providing a name. Each character starts at 15 in 5 attributes: strength, stamina, dexterity, intelligence, and charisma.

All there is to character creation.

The opening act of the game takes place throughout the continent of Questron, a twisting, irregular landscape of peninsulas, mountains, lakes, and isthmuses. Maybe a dozen cities, one castle, and a handful of cathedrals dot the landscape. As you explore, you get attacked at regular intervals (every 10 steps, roughly) by one of the game's many monsters, all described in some detail in the manual. Almost all of them have two-word names, usually a regular word preceded by an adjective: Wrention Warrior, Bloodhound Ghoul, Leopard Yeti, Phazor Spider, Faun Nymph, Strangler Fiend, Woods Ogre. (My favorite is "Irish Stalker," which sounds like a drink.) Unlike in Ultima, you don't see them until they appear in the square next to you. If you try to flee, they sometimes move to block you, but you can usually get away after a few attempts.

Fighting a Woods Ogre. Different monsters appear depending on what terrain you're standing on.

In a tradition that carries through the rest of the games in the Dougherty series, the monsters don't really have a lot of special attacks. Grassland creatures tend to be easier than jungle creatures which are easier than mountain creatures, but overall not a lot differentiates them except their names. Some of them do have defenses against most weapons, and NPC dialogue helps determine what weapon works best against what creatures. All of them, even the animals, carry gold pieces. Because you don't get experience from killing monsters, accumulation of gold seems to be the only real reason to fight them.

In an innovation new to this game, you occasionally meet someone in the wilderness who doesn't want to fight you, such as a high elf, monk, or merchant. (S)peaking to these NPCs might give you the ability to buy a weapon or piece of armor, some information, or some hit points.

The cities have names like Wimp Cave, Blind Pass, Lake Centre, and Gamblers Grotto, and each features a different layout, a different number and positioning of guards, and a different selection of shops and services. These include weapons, armor, transportation, food, banking, and gambling. As the game begins, only "rawhide" armor is available, and the only weapons are slings and whips. After you've played for a while, "rope and hooks" become available--which also allow you to cross mountain ranges in the wilderness--and then flails. That's as far as I've gotten so far. I don't know if the availability of weapons is purely based on the passage of time, or if there are other factors at work such as enemies slain or areas visited.

Transportation is important because food depletes very quickly on foot. Horses are the first to appear, then "Wam Lamas." I assume I'll eventually get watercraft options.

I thought I once heard that a one-l lama is a priest.

A few of the cities have prisoners in little barred cells. If you talk to the nearest guard, you can bribe him for one or two chats with the prisoners, who might provide some one-line intelligence. If you try to talk to the prisoners without bribing the guards first, an alarm goes off and all the guards converge on you and attack. This isn't really survivable in the game's opening stages. You also generally don't want to talk to other guards because there's a decent chance they'll hit you and/or steal some of your money. Guards in this game are real bastards.

Bribing a guard to talk to his prisoners.

Gambling is a big part of the game, and I spent a while trying to find exploits in the system, since fighting enemies is both boring and risky. Also, I remembered that Questron II had a game with ridiculously favorable odds. The first game here, blackjack, uses standard Vegas rules (dealer has to hit on 16, must stand on 17), which means your odds are about 50/50 if you know what you're doing.

Actually, with no "split" or "double down" options, the odds might be worse than 50/50.

The second game, "Double or Nothing," has literal 50-50 odds. You bet a certain amount of money and watch a cursor jump quickly (too quickly to time) between "win" and "lose." You hit a button to make it stop and have a 50% chance of either.

The third game, roulette, offers the best odds. Basically, you pick one number that pays 25-to-1 if the ball lands on it. But you also make an even/odd bet and get paid 2-to-1 if you win that. Like any good roulette wheel, this one has a 0 that is a "lose" no matter what you bet. But, weirdly, there are 16 odds and 15 evens among the other numbers (1-31). With 32 numbers, including the 0, your chances of winning if you bet "odd" is literally 16/32 or 50-50. But if you place your 25-1 bet on an even number at the same time, your average payout ends up being 1.78-to-1.

Roulette offers the best odds.

I tried this out by betting 5 gold pieces per round and recording the results of 100 spins. I ended up winning 58 times and losing 42, a bit higher than the 53/47 the odds would have predicted, but the ball landed on my chosen number only twice instead of three times. Thus, from 500 gold pieces bet, I walked out with 815 in winnings. Not bad. It took me about 15 minutes, and I could arguably have made the same amount fighting creatures during the same time, but I would have lost hit points and food during that process.

But let's go back to "Double or Nothing," because something was tickling my memory. I remember a time, after I got my C64, that I figured out a pattern to the game. I thought it went like this: the "win/lose" selection always starts on "win," so although you can't time the selection, if you hit the button immediately after the game starts, it will never leave "win" and you'll double your money. I have a fairly vivid memory of running out of my room after figuring this out, encountering my mother, and saying something like, "Mom! I'm playing this game where you hardly ever have more than 500 gold pieces, but I figured out how to cheat the gambling game, and now I have like 5,000!" My mother, as you might imagine, was unimpressed.

Double-or-nothing is the easiest way to build your finances, but it comes at a price.

Anyway, my strategy didn't work the way I remembered. The cursor moves off "win" too quickly to hit the button before it leaves. BUT you can still time it so that if you wait just a split second before hitting the button, it will return to "win" in just the right time. After a few practices, I found I could get it right about 7/10 of the time. That is, of course, more than enough to return big winnings.

I soon found out the downside to winning too much money: the casino closes and all the guards swarm you and kill you. Actually, the guards might swarm you and attack even if you don't break the casino. You just have to win a certain amount. That's bogus. Different towns have different numbers and configurations of guards, and in some of them it might be possible to reach the exit before they can kill you. I haven't studied them all yet.

It would not be a good idea to annoy the guards in this town.

I'm spending all this time talking about money because money is power in Questron. With no experience points or leveling, the only way you develop is purchasing more gear and purchasing hit points (in the form of holy water potions) in the various cathedrals that dot the landscape. You get one potion for every 75 gold pieces that you donate, but you have to drink one right away in order to leave the temple.

Visiting a cathedral. Donating money at the altar gets me holy water in the room to the northwest.

There is one other way to develop, but it also costs money. In a cathedral near the starting point, Swamp Cathedral, you can play a skeet-shooting game for 50 gold pieces. You get a certain number of pulls, and then you aim a gun and hit the button to shoot a volley at the 1-3 clay pigeons that appear. If you do well enough, your dexterity goes up a few points. On subsequent visits, you have to beat your previous score to see any increase. I haven't encountered them yet, but I assume there are similar minigames for the other attributes.

Playing the skeet-shooting minigame.

And reaping the rewards!

After I figured out the basic gameplay mechanics, I started exploring the island in a counter-clockwise pattern and ultimately came across the land's castle--a large, maze-like fortress full of guards, trapped chests, and locked doors.

This was right where I remembered it.

I couldn't find anything useful on the first visit, and I assume, just like in Questron II and Legacy of the Ancients, I'll eventually have to pillage all those chests and kill all those guards looking for keys. (Opening any chest causes the guards to attack.) A careless disregard for the lives of castle guards is something that this series regrettably inherited from the first Ultima.

I guess I shouldn't have opened that chest.

Anyway, I'm still a bit too weak to take on castle guards, so my current plan is to finish circling the island, create a crude map, re-visit all the cities, increase my funds, talk to more prisoners for intelligence, buy new weapons and armor as they become available, and build up my stock of holy water potions.

My character at the end of this session.

A few other notes:

  • When you enter the altar room of a cathedral, it warns you that "sinners" aren't welcome. I'm not sure how the game determines that you're a "sinner." I hope killing guards isn't considered a sin, because that seems almost inevitable.
  • "Rob" is another command that you have while in cities. Maybe that's how you sin. I haven't explored it yet because it seems easy enough to make money other ways.
  • If you die, Mesron resurrects you in a random place with 15 gold, 200 hit points, and a small amount of food. Your weapons are gone but your armor remains. Better to just reload.
  • The game is a lot more colorful than I remembered. Were there versions that were more monochrome? Probably not. I tend to remember Ultima V with drab colors, too, and it's quite the opposite.
  • In Ocean Cathedral, I found an enchanted flute that said "play me but thrice!" I saved and played it to see what would happen: it causes a pilgrim to appear who offers food, medicine or gold. I reloaded so I wouldn't waste one of three chances. Anyway, the flute seems to be a way to get out of a bad situation in an emergency, at least three times.
  • I haven't seen a hint of a magic system yet, and there isn't a keyboard option that has anything to do with magic. It's possible that spells show up as inventory items later that you (H)old and (O)perate.
  • "Vacate" is a useful menu option while in towns. It allows you to immediately leave when you've concluded your business. (It doesn't work if the guards are aroused, alas.) "Kill self," on the other hand, has questionable utility.

To answer the obvious question, no, the game isn't quite as good as I remember. But that's to be expected, since I had no basis for comparison back then. Many of the conventions it introduces are silly and contrary to what I generally like about RPGs. However, I do admire the things it built on the Ultima template, and even though I'm not having as much fun as I do playing, say, Ultima IV, I can certainly see how this game addicted me to the genre.

Time so far: 2 hours
Reload count: 7 (elevated because I did a lot of messing around and experimenting) 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Death Knights of Krynn: Final Rating

Death Knights of Krynn
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1991 for DOS, Amiga, and Commodore 64; 1993 for PC-98
Date Started: 13 August 2015
Date Ended:
24 August 2015
Total Hours: 23
Reload Count: 19 (plus another 10-12 while "rest-scumming" in the challenge dungeon)
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 54
Ranking at Time of Posting: 188/196 (96%)
Raking at Game #437: 425/437 (97%)

As I closed my last post, I noted that my characters were 2-4 levels below the maximum they could have achieved in this game, despite having completed all the side quests I could find. I prematurely downloaded The Dark Queen of Krynn and created some new characters. I was happy to see that they started at about half my party's experience totals, so importing veteran characters does impart some benefit, but I still wouldn't mind another level or two. I was also eager to try out a variety of higher-level spells on more monsters, so I could properly update my "Gold Box: Spells and Their Uses" posting.
A commenter clued me in to a special dungeon called "Dave's Challenge" that opens up only once you've won the game. (The "Dave" in question is likely Dave Shelley, co-credited with "game development.") The documentation says nothing about it, so you have to be thorough enough to re-search the entire overworld map after winning to find it. It's in the far northwest corner, above some mountains, the middle of water. It looks like you shouldn't even be able to walk there. Getting there was no picnic. Soth may be gone, his plans in ruins, but the countryside is still crawling with undead and evil warriors.

Finding the challenge in the far northwest.
The dungeon is described as a "dim and decaying temple dedicated to Takhisis." As I entered, the spirit of a knight named Sir Vansward told me that he had died trying to make it to the altar of Takhisis and destroy it. He said I'd find a special amulet, capable of destroying the altar, with his body.

The dungeon was only one 16 x 16 level, but the "challenge" took on several forms:

  • There were numerous secret doors (trapped) and trapped chests. My thief worked overtime, after hardly being used at all for this purpose during the game.
  • Several places in which a thief had to sneak across a room or hide in shadows, skills not called up on in any other Gold Box maps that I can remember.
Why couldn't we have more stuff like this in the main game?
  • Turning doesn't work at all and there are numerous spectres and vampires in the level. These monsters can naturally drain you, and you have to decide whether to suck it up or reload. (I reloaded; after all, I was there specifically to get experience, not lose it.)
When turning doesn't work, it's not easy to defeat a large group of vampires and spectres without any of them touching you.
  • A hallway of battles against flesh golems and iron golems that respawn the moment you leave the squares.
  • Resting is nearly impossible throughout the dungeon.
The "challenge" dungeon was one of the few I bothered to map during the game.
Both the material rewards and experience rewards were quite good. I found several +4 weapons and armor, a +3 hoopak (Coral had been using the +2 one brought over from Champions the entire game), and more gems and steel than I could carry. Before long, most of my party members' names had changed color, indicating they could level up.

Approaching the end of the level. Note the typical "tell instead of show" approach of the Gold Box games.
Defeating the level meant finding the dead knight's necklace in a pit in the middle of the map (avoiding fake ones) and bringing it to the altar room at the top. There, I had to fight a battle with 3 spectral dragons, 4 vampire mages, and 4 death knights, scattered around the map when the battle began. The spectral dragons can drain levels just like the vampire mages. The death knights, of course, were fond of casting "Fireball" every round, and they were mostly immune to spells. The vampire mages cast high-powered magic missiles, drain levels with physical attacks, and have a gaze attack that charms characters.

Death knights, vampire mages, and spectral dragons appear in small groups around the final combat map.
Given the state of my party when I arrived at the altar room, I didn't stand a chance. I probably wouldn't have even been able to make it back through the golem fights to the entrance by then. I was only able to prevail through "rest-scumming"--attempting to rest and restore health and spells and reloading if I got attacked. This took a while. Thus restored, I cast every buffing spell at my disposal and was able to win the final battle on the third try. I particularly enjoyed the hastened Midsummer running around the map and killing all three spectral dragons in one round.

When the final battle is over, the altar is destroyed by the necklace, the dungeon collapses, and you find yourself outside. The first time I won, I made the mistake of not saving and walking one step. My beleaguered party was immediately attacked by a large group of hatori (sand crocodiles) who killed two of my characters in the first two rounds. I had to reload from an earlier save in the dungeon and fight the final battle again.

That was a load-bearing altar.
When it was all over, I made my way to Cekos, sold all my excess equipment, gems, and jewelry, and bought all the arrows +2 and Darts of the Hornet's Nest that I could afford. (I look forward to seeing why these are particularly valuable in Dark Queen.) I then returned to Gargath Outpost, leveled up four of my characters, memorized new spells, and made a final save in preparation for Dark Queen next year.

"Dave's Challenge" was suitably challenging. I cheated a bit, I guess, but the real game was over at that point, wasn't it?

This is the only time I remember a message like this appearing in a Gold Box game. We could stand more of them.
Before moving on to the GIMLET, let's check out the fake journal entries. Perhaps reflecting the developers' abilities to put more text in the game, there aren't that many total journal entries this time around. Champions had 88 entries and 57 "tavern tales"; Death Knights has only 66 entries and no tavern tales. But a full third of them--23 entries--were ones I didn't encounter during the game. Some of them might have been real and I just missed them. Obvious fake ones included one in which the commander of the Kalaman garrison was revealed as Soth; a pair of entries in which Durfey and Lenore are tortured by the "Snake King"; a trio that would have had the party wasting time plodding around the mountains searching for the Rod of Omniscience in an non-existent city called Sudulto; and one in which Maya is revealed to be a servant of Soth. They're all reasonably clever.

A pair of bogus journal entries.
As we discussed a couple of posts ago, I expect the game to GIMLET at around the same level as Champions and Curse of the Azure Bonds, but not as good as Pool of Radiance. Let's check it out:

1. Game World. The setting is the same as Champions, of course, and the Dragonlance universe brings a lot of lore and backstory to the game. But I was alternately bored and annoyed with this particular game's approach to the story. The plot is both bland and nonsensical, and relies too much on characters you'd have to read the books to understand. It is, on the other hand, a responsive game world, with actions taken in some areas leading to repercussions in others, and NPCs reacting appropriately to the party's accomplishments. A mixed bag. Score: 5.

A knight greets me appropriately after I've won the game.

2. Character Creation and Development. As I discussed in the first post, I like the Dragonlance approach to characters better than the Forgotten Realms. There are few racial level caps, and the various races, sub-races, and classes have clearer and more interesting strengths and weaknesses. It's much more fun playing a Silvanesti Elf cleric of Kiri-Jolith than just an "elven cleric."

Like most sequels, the game suffers from the fact that you have more fun going from Level 1 to Level 8 in the first game than from Level 8 to Level 12 in the second. But the rewards are still pretty good, particularly in terms of spells, extra attacks, and backstab multipliers. I also like that there are several places in which you gain experience for non-combat solutions to problems. A strong part of the game. Score: 6.

3. NPC Interaction. There's a cast of characters who flesh out the story and impart bits of lore and quest assistance. The writing and characterizations are somewhat bland, and the series remains weak in dialogue and role-playing options. The couple of NPCs who joined the party--including squads of Solamnic Knights at various locations--were a welcome addition. Score: 5.

One wonders why the game bothered to give me a "talk" option here.
4. Encounters and Foes. This category is relatively strong, just like most Dungeons & Dragons titles. We have a well-stocked menagerie of monsters with various strengths and weaknesses, all well-described in the manual. There are maybe a few less than the previous game. I mourn the loss of the non-Sivak Draconians and I hope they reappear in Dark Queen.

Non-combat encounters are only average, with several role-playing options on each map. Although none of them are real nail-biters, few other games of the era are offering encounter choices at all. Score: 6.

5. Magic and Combat. Gold Box standard. There's not much I can say that I haven't said in the five previous games. Even through the modern era, it's rare to see this good a turn-based, party combat system, offering innumerable options with attacking, spellcasting, using items, and special abilities. The challenging nature of combat in Death Knights encourages the player to make full use of all his options, including carrying multiple weapons and trading them as the situation demands.

I feel like Death Knights offered fewer resting opportunities than previous games, making it important to conserve energy and spells through an accumulation of combats. Overall, a well-balanced use of a great combat system. Score: 7.

Magically, my characters are starting to feel pretty powerful.
6. Equipment. No new ground in this one. Every map brought one or two new equipment rewards, and with the dragonlance and "Olin's quarterstaff," we have two of the few artifact items in Gold Box games. As always, the items are all in scripted locations, which I don't care for, and there wasn't really anything interesting to buy. Boots of Speed made an appearance; still no helms. At least the Knights of Solamnia didn't commandeer all my good stuff at the end. Score: 5.

My lead knight's inventory as we end the game.
7. Economy. Not only does Death Knights make no improvement here, it somehow gets worse than the previous games. Healing and training don't even cost money, and the knights don't have to tithe any of their earnings. There is only a single shop worth buying anything at, and all they sell are magic arrows and darts. Meanwhile, I left millions glittering in the sun because it was too heavy to carry. Gold Box remains horribly disappointing in this category.

Nonetheless, I'm going to reluctantly give it a score of 2 rather than 1, since it does feature a potentially-useful "money sink" in the form of the +2 arrows, which sell at a crazy 15,000 steel pieces for 10. They could be part of a legitimate combat strategy in this game and apparently have a lot of value in the next. Score: 2.

8. Quests. Probably the best approach since Pool of Radiance. The main quest is only so-so, and with only one outcome, but I loved the number of side quests. Fully half of the game world is optional. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The interface remains excellent, with redundant keyboard and mouse options, and a few improvements that I outlined in the first post. Though the game doesn't take advantage of VGA yet, it didn't really lose any points on that account, and overall the graphics were fine, although I'm still a bit sick of bland corridors and rooms. Sound effects are tolerable but optional. Score: 6.

The cut scenes and monster portraits are well-drawn and animated; I just wish the game showed more in the normal environment.
10. Gameplay. I loved that Death Knights returned to a mostly open world. Although certain plot events trigger in a prescribed order (as they do in, you know, real life), I like that you can visit areas ahead of their importance to the plot. In this, it felt a bit less linear than Champions. The game lasted exactly the right amount of time for its content, and the difficultly level was perfect: usually challenging, but almost never unfair. Score: 6.

That gives us a final score of 54. This is actually lower than I would have thought; I gave Champions a 56 and Curse of the Azure Bonds a 60. I don't see anything I want to change, though, so we'll go with it. It still puts the game on the "Highest Rated" list, which is going to be dominated with Gold Box games unless the other franchises start bringing it.
By this time, I guess clue books were pretty much standard game accompaniments. I could understand buying one for something like Eye of the Beholder, but anyone who needs one for this game is pathetic.
For a truly annoying contemporary review, we have to turn to our old friend Stuart Campbell of Amiga Power. In the November 1991 issue, he rated the game at 60%, apparently after creating characters and fighting one combat. He spends half the short "review" discussing why he should have never been given the assignment in the first place. His main point is that he can't enjoy the game because he's not a Dungeons & Dragons fan, ignoring the fact that his most serious under-qualification is not knowing anything about CRPGs. "You could argue that there's not much point in my reviewing it at all, and I'd tend to agree," he says. So would I. What kind of idiotic magazine was this?

Scorpia's July 1991 Computer Gaming World review calls it "standard 'Gold Box' fare," which surprises me a bit because I didn't know the term "Gold Box" was in use that early. She complains about all the level draining, which I suppose ought to have made an appearance somewhere in the GIMLET because I did find it annoying. She praises the open world nature of the game and suggests there are more things to find post-winning than just "Dave's Challenge." (I think she's mistaken and is describing places that are in the game proper, but I could be wrong.) She concludes:

In general, there's a humdrum feel to the game. We've been this way before and play tends to have a mechanical quality. There are no puzzles to speak of, little scope for true role-playing, and even the side quests begin to look depressingly similar after a while. So, perhaps it's just as well that SSI is now experimenting in new directions with their Legends line (Eye of the Beholder) and the rumored Citadel of the Black Sun project.
Now, on the one hand, I find these comments a little mystifying. This was 1991. What games was she playing that did offer "true role-playing"? You could count on one hand all the games through 1991 that had side quests at all. She's writing like someone who already has Baldur's Gate and Morrowind on her computer instead of schlock like Elvira II and HeroQuest. And having played Eye of the Beholder the previous month, she must have been fully aware that it wasn't anyone's savior when it came to role-playing. (As an aside, here is an interesting account of what happened to Citadel of the Black Sun.)

On the other hand, perhaps she simply feels some of the angst that I've felt with every Gold Box game since the original. I think there's one respect in which I'm different than most reviewers: I don't punish games for using the same mechanics as previous games, even many previous games, unless the mechanics are bad. If the engine is good, I don't complain that it's old. I wish there were still Infinity Engine games being released in 2015.

But I am critical of titles that don't reach their full potential even within the confines of their engines. Death Knights, though highly rated in comparison of the totality of games I've played, could have been better. Secret of the Silver Blades could have been better. There's nothing about the Gold Box engine that requires bland writing, lackluster storytelling, limited encounters, and an awful economy. There's no reason that every title since Pool of Radiance couldn't have improved on the original instead of falling short of it. Every time I play a Gold Box game, I enjoy the satisfaction of a good engine--perhaps the best of its time--and yet simultaneously lament what could have been. Perhaps that's where Scorpia is coming from. The Gold Box series is like a lazy genius who always tops the class in grades but still under-achieves.

It'll have plenty of chances to rouse itself yet. We still have Gateway to the Savage Frontier, Neverwinter Nights, and Pools of Darkness this year; Treasures of the Savage Frontier, The Dark Queen of Krynn, and Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed in 1992; and some Unlimited Adventures modules in 1993. I'll probably check out Gateway in another 10-12 games, then Neverwinter, and play Darkness towards the end of 1991.

I guess I'd better play some more Antares before I forget how, but I hope it's escaped no one's notice that we have a major landmark coming up.