Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Fate: Combat in the Wilderness

Talking to snakes produces an expected reaction.
I kept getting killed in the catacombs, so on advice from readers, I returned to the outdoors to explore the area, find treasures, and level up. I had no idea what I was in for. The starting area, encapsulated by mountains (that's why I have to solve the quest to fix the "Cavetrain"), occupies about 100 x 100 squares, giving me 10,000 squares to map. Now before you argue that Fate doesn't actually use all those squares, consider that the twisty, irregular-shaped, impenetrable mountain ranges and copses of trees take considerably more time to map than empty space or rectangular corridors.

The wilderness so far. I've mapped all the roadways and I'm trying to get the perimeter.
In fact, the game fundamentally seems too big to map--and yet I've found just enough stuff in those pockets of wilderness that I feel like I have to keep doing it. Among my discoveries in the roughly 1/3 of the starting outdoor area so far:

  • A deep pit with a dead man lying at the bottom. My characters can climb down the hole, but none are strong enough to bring out the body. (I assume I want to try to resurrect him.) I need to build strength or find a stronger NPC to join for a brief time.
  • A fountain that heals all wounds and conditions.
  • The ruins of the inn whose destruction started the game. There were some miscellaneous treasures nearby.
  • A "station" that probably won't be accessible until I solve that Cavetrain quest.
  • Another city, called Laronnes, much smaller than Larvin. I explored and mapped it but didn't find any additional hints or quests.
The odd-shaped Laronnes.
  • An area called "Herman's Wood" where a banshee roams as a protector. I couldn't get anything to happen here but I assume it's important for a later quest.
Kenny, you're up.
  • Numerous magic treasures, including the Icesword, Icegloves, a crystal bow, and a magic helm.

Every time I'm about to say, "this is ridiculous" and give up, I find one more thing that keeps me mapping.

As I mentioned before, the game's use of sound is excellent and atmospheric, with realistic thunder and rain effects during storms, and birds, crickets, and frogs depending on the time of day. One particular looping tree frog effect sounds like the frogs are saying, "That's basic hazing" over and over. I might be going a bit mad.

Winwood is up to Level 9 and most of his companions are close. Combats in the wilderness are feast or famine. I might go an hour or more without encountering a single enemy, but then all of a sudden the game will fall in love with one particular type of foe--thieves, mages, rats, or snakes--and just keep hammering you with them. I'll typically win 6 or 8 of these encounters before someone gets an unlucky roll and dies, and I'll reload, which causes the map to reset, and the monsters leave me alone again for a while. 
Winwood levels up after a battle with some rats.
In a typical longer game, I might offer one blog entry that primarily covers combat. I'm doing that here, but with the understanding that with a game this long, I'll probably have to offer another midway through the game, as more options and tactics become available. Right now, I'm not using a lot of the options.

Combat is only one potential outcome of an encounter. The other major possibilities are a conversation--the mechanics of which I'll discuss next time--and just walking away. Aside from obvious rules, like you can't talk to animals, the game draws a blurry line between "enemies" and "NPCs." I routinely find that classes who are clearly primarily supposed to be enemies--robbers, thieves, padfoots, murderers, assassins, gral wizards, rain witches, and so on--are happy to occasionally have a chat instead. Some even offer hints or help one my characters increase an attribute. I rather like the approach and wish more games adopted it. It seems silly that literally every bandit or forsworn in Skyrim comes charging at you the moment he sees you.
Usually, this is what happens--but not always.
The initial encounter menu gives you three options that correspond to the three major outcomes described above: "Fight," "Talk," and "Disengage." "Disengage" brings up its own sub-menu, with options to "Run Away," "Ignore," "Hide," "Pray," "Bribe," "Chant," and "Joke." I haven't really spent a lot of time exploring these options, mostly because I usually want the experience or benefits that come with talking and fighting.

There are two other options on this main menu: "Forward" for times when foes start further away, and "Action." "Action" brings up options to "Mock," "Warcry," (use a) "Scroll," "Suicide," "Dig in," "Close Eyes," and "Laugh." I've played with these a bit. I guess "Mock" and "Warcry" are both legitimate options to influence the subsequent statistics in your favor. I haven't found a scroll to use yet, and the rest of the options just seem to produce silly results.
This ought to help.
Once combat begins, characters and foes seem to go in an initiative order determined by dexterity. Winwood goes first much of the time because NPCs have been increasing his dexterity. During their turns, characters can attack, cast a spell, use an item, shoot a missile weapon, throw a weapon, defend, change their weapon, or engage in a number of "special" actions I'll describe in a minute. If there are multiple groups of enemies, you have to specify the group.

The way that the game handles throwing is unique and fun. Almost every weapon or shield can be thrown a short distance--maybe 6 to 10 yards. It's a great option when enemies start outside of melee range. The best part about it is that characters automatically pick up and re-equip the items post-combat. I would have given real money to see that happen in Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder. Oh, and if I want to reclaim those weapons during combat, my warlock has a spell called "Getback" that does it.

At this point in the game, combat tends to be pretty quick. Most of my attacks hit, and most of them kill the enemy in a single hit. Unfortunately, enemies get lucky this way too, sometimes. A thief's thrown dagger might immediately kill one of my lower-hit point characters, like my cleric. But if all goes well, the typical combat against half a dozen foes generally only lasts a couple rounds and less than a minute of real time. Given the sheer number of combats in the game, that's a welcome speed, although it keeps things (so far) from getting very tactical.
Magic is simply going to have to wait for a later discussion. I have three spellcasters--a priestess, a magician, and a warlock. I'm still trying to get a witch and a banshee to join me. The priestess has four extremely useful status spells: "Heal 5," "Cleanse," "Cure," and "Sober." She mostly attacks in combat. My magician has "Entangle," "Armor," and "Paralyse." The latter is occasionally useful, but I really need him to get a direct-damage spell. My warlock gets a lot of use out of "Mageclub," an offensive spell, but not so much out of "Warpower."

I'm still trying to figure out if the options on the "Special" menu are worth it. Maybe they will be at higher levels. "Warcry" can cause enemies to flee. "Steal" gives you the ability to pickpocket your foe during combat--I don't know why I'd do this instead of just killing him and getting his stuff that way. "Mock" has the effect of "enraging" opponents; I assume that makes them clumsier. "Grope" has never worked, and I don't even know if I want to know. "Dupe" and "Enchant" never seem to work for me, and my characters always refuse to "Hide" ("I'm not a coward!" they say).

My priestess reviews her "special" abilities.
After a successful combat, you either get one equipment item or money (piaster), never both.
Post-combat rewards.
Equipment will also have to wait for a later posting, but for now let me say that the game outperforms almost every other title of the era by giving you a set of precise statistics and facts when you "Examine" items. The screen even clearly tells you which current characters in your party can use the item. Brilliant. 
Not much to report on the main quest, since that's going to involve me clearing out the catacombs and figuring out the "Cavetrain" quest first. I'm thinking maybe I'll go back to that now instead of continuing to map the wilderness.

Lots of miscellaneous notes:

  • I keep losing little bits of progress because I forget to shut down the game and emulator properly, which causes my saves to not actually save.
  • Just a random thing here:
  • Inns offer a variety of different lodging types (e.g., stables, cot, room, suite) and time periods. No matter what I choose, my characters seem to get fully restored when they sleep. Maybe this isn't true at higher levels with more hit points to restore.
  • Here's something I won't mind a spoiler about: are there ever "secret doors" outside? I'm wasting a lot of time walking headlong into every tree and mountain if not.
  • Characters get experience for casting spells outside of combat, as well as for talking with NPCs. That's a great system.
  • A fun thing happened in Laronnes. I found a fountain that immediately killed a character who drank from it. After that, none of my other characters would drink even when I told them to.
  • Although I've leveled up many times, I haven't been using the guilds to improve because I haven't figured out the best way to do it yet. Non-spoiler advice welcome.
  • NPCs only ever seem to improve wisdom, intelligence, and dexterity. Do I ever find any who improve strength, charisma, stamina, or skill? 
  • The game has a kind-of automap feature using "magic jewels" that you can find or buy. Using them and then reloading is, of course, the height of lameness.
Making sure I didn't miss anything in Laronnes.

  • Every time I try to buy keys in a shop, the shopkeeper says they've all been stolen by a thief. So far I haven't run into anything that requires keys anyway.  

Let's be frank: Fate simply doesn't have enough features to justify its size and length. But it reliably passes the time, and I don't mind continuing to make progress in between brisker games--a designation that I hope applies to The Magic Candle II.

Time so far: 29 hours
Reload count: 28

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Swords & Sorcery: Summary and Rating

Swords & Sorcery
United Kingdom
Personal Software Services (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for ZX Spectrum, 1986 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 31 May 2016
Date Ended: 5 June 2016
Total Hours: 14
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 26
Ranking at Time of Posting: 98/223 (44%)
Raking at Game #453: 227/453 (50%)

It pains me to admit defeat with Swords & Sorcery because I tried my best with it and I sunk about 10 hours into it after the first post. I think I'm reasonably close to winning--if the game is even winnable--and I exhaustively documented every room, treasure, and encounter in the game. No one who's played it showed up to comment on my first entry; I can only hope that some later commenter comes along and solves the game's mysteries.
This message would crop up occasionally, and I had no idea what it was talking about.
As noted before, the "first level" (the only one present in this game) consists of 4 quadrants and 88 rooms. Your stated goal is to find four pieces of the "Armour of Zob"--two greaves and two sabatons. You also apparently need three keys. I only found three pieces of the armour--I missed a greave--but I really didn't see any obvious way to end the game anyway.

Everything about Swords & Sorcery is a bit weird, starting with its approach to character development. As you kill monsters, your combat and magic statistics are supposed to increase, but I found that the game would only increase the statistic that was already highest in the first place. If you start the game with higher combat ability than magic, your combat ability goes up with each kill but your magic never does. The same is true if you start the game with more magic than combat ability. I favored magic--the ability to cast "Heal" a lot is fairly essential--so I started with 20 combat skill and 25 magic skill. By the end of my session, my combat ability had gone down to 19 for some reason, but my magic ability was at 88.

Throughout the game, you have to watch carefully for enemy traps and effects. If you get hit with a "Weakness" spell, your strength is halved permanently, drastically affecting your carrying ability and movement speed. The effect never wears off. Poison causes you to lose a couple hit points per round until you die; it's only curable at higher levels of magic, so it's basically a death sentence at lower levels. "Curse" drops your defense statistic a few points. I generally reloaded when these things happened because they're all so irrecoverable.

It's possible that the game's many potions and items were meant to help with these conditions, but I found the system baffling. The manual suggests that you can test the effects of crowns, rings, pendants, and other wearable items by putting them on and looking at your numbers. Of a couple dozen of the items that I found, I only ever saw one effect on my statistics. A hint guide I found somewhere online refers to a Ring of Jumping, but when I found it, it did nothing to my jumping statistic. (As a side note, I had mentioned that jumping did nothing for one of my characters. That seems to have been a bug with the character, as it worked for later ones.) The manual also goes on about how you can make friends with monsters and get them to assess your items, but all they ever seem to do is to tell you how much they're worth, not what they do.
At one point, I found a Ring of Invisibility or something. Monsters didn't attack me until I acted first. The word "silence" would appear frequently as I walked.
You're supposed to be able to "taste" potions to get a sense of what they do; healing potions, for instance, are supposed to taste like peppermint. The mechanic simply never worked for me. I'd taste potions and the game would just say "OK."

The game has a pretty serious bug by which if you accumulate too many items, it crashes when you try to use one. The number seems to be close to 25.

Very few items did anything for me at all. I got one upgrade to a magic sword at one point, and a shield provided some defensive options. I found that armor was too heavy to be worth the extra defense. Many of the game's items--gold, platinum, gems, crowns--seem to be designed just to bribe monsters to get them to talk with you. This process takes so long, and produces such inconsistent results, that I cheated it: I bribed the hell out of a single monster, created a save state just before asking him for information, and then asked him. I noted his answer, reloaded the save state, and asked again. With a single NPC, I thus managed to get all of the game's hints--I think. It's possible that there are special monsters that give you hints that the others don't, but I spot-checked in a few different quadrants and I didn't get anything new.
"Greeting" a monster is one of the only ways to find out exactly what it is.
I did solve one item puzzle. One of the NPCs' hints is to leave cups in The Dining Room. When you finally find The Dining Room in Quadrant 3, there's a note saying that it's closed and to use The Banquet Hall in Quadrant 1 instead. If you drop a cup in either of the two rooms, you get a message that says "ping!," the cup disappears, and your magic ability increases by 2. A hint I found online suggested that something similar might happen from dropping excess swords in The Guard Room, but when I did that, they just made a pile on the floor and nothing happened.

A couple of items were just mysterious. Quadrants 3 and 4 offered a couple of buckets and brooms (oddly, one of the insults monsters sling at you is "bucket-and-broom man"), but there was never any clear place to use them. The last two quadrants also had a number of fish in various treasure chests and bags, but they can't be eaten.

Bangity-bang. I said a-bang bang bangity bang.
Quadrants 3 and 4 greatly increased the navigational challenges. It turns out that the "bang!" I was experiencing in Quadrant 2 was from "mine fields." These are invisible, but as long as you walk on them, you get injured. You can't jump over them. The only thing you can do is try to skirt them or run through them quickly, casting "Heal" until your spell points run out. There are a lot of pits of various sizes that you have to jump over, respawning enemies that block the corridors, and teleporters that whisk you to other quadrants or other places in the same quadrant.

My annotated map of Quadrant 4, with pits, teleporters, and mine fields. Room #81 had a key and Room #75 had a greave.

A centerpiece of Quadrant 3 was a section of wall that blinked in and out of existence. To make things more difficult, it was surrounded by pit traps. To get past it, you had to jump over the pits, turn, and jump off the square before the wall returned. Not unfair in general, but a real pain with this game's command system.

I fail to make it off in time.
Quadrants 1, 2, and 4 all had pieces of the quest armor in chests, so it seems like Quadrant 3 should be a logical place for the fourth piece. There's even a room in the quadrant called "A Place to Greave," which you think would be a hint. But the chest in the room just has a sandwich, a fish, and a cup. I looked everywhere.

Even if I'd found all four pieces, I'm not sure I'd know what to do with them. The manual mentions bringing them to the Hall of Ascension, but I never found a room by that name. One of the hints is that you need 3 keys to open the exit, but I also never found an exit. Finally, there's the issue of that password, which I've become fully convinced is "COAL," but was never asked for anywhere in the game.

In a GIMLET, I award the game:

  • 2 points for the game world. There's hardly anything to the back story. A few paragraphs of text describe the fate of an unfortunate adventurer, but little else is given about the dungeon or the mysterious Zob.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Most of that goes to the creation mechanic, where you can choose from a variety of trainers to set your opening statistics and thus your basic approach to the game or "class." In-game development, as described above, is disappointing.
  • 4 points for NPC interaction. As described last time, it was an original idea that needed some additional care. The game's insults will last in my memory longer than the gameplay.
This never got old.
  • 4 points for a variety of encounters and foes with different strengths and weaknesses, decently described in the game manual. Some limited respawning of skeletons in the corridors allows you to grind if necessary.

The manual's gallery of the foes in this game.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. A very basic system that could have used more refinement. Too many of the results are random.
  • 3 points for equipment, with the issues I describe above.
  • 2 points for economy, which mostly consists of finding valuable items to give to NPCs.
  • 1 point for a confusing main quest that may or may not even have a resolution in the game.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. It goes to the barely-adequate graphics. The rare sound isn't worth hearing, and as I covered last time, the interface is simply awful.
  • 3 points for gameplay. The challenge is right, and I could see some replayability with different "classes," but overall it's quite linear and too long.
The final score of 26 puts it in the range of games that tried to do something interesting but didn't do it well enough to make it to "recommended" territory.

As I mentioned last time, contemporary reviews from the U.K. and Europe were quite good, and despite my reservations about the game, I can see why. When 1985 rolled around, Europe still didn't have many good RPGs. There was a port of Rogue that doesn't seem to have made much of a splash; the Ultima clone The Ring of Darkness, a handful of gamebook adaptations that made poor RPGs, and a bunch of odd, minor titles like Out of the Shadows, The Valley, City of Death, and Mandragore. Lacking their own Wizardry or even Dunjonquest series, Swords & Sorcery might have been the first game to come along and at least try to replicate the tabletop RPG experience on the computer. Particularly given that Swords & Sorcery owes nothing to any obvious precursors, it's a somewhat impressive achievement.

I practically had a walkthrough finished before I had to give up.
As we discussed last time, though, the developer promised far more than he could deliver. Four additional modules advertised in 1985 never shipped, nor did the planned sequel, HeroQuest. No more titles followed in the MIDAS "adventure concept" series.

Nonetheless, the game was in no way the end for developer Mike Simpson or his publisher. Simpson remained at PSS through 1987, when it was acquired by Mirrorsoft, then worked for Mirrorsoft until it was sold in 1991. He transitioned to Psygnosis in 1991, then joined The Creative Assembly in 1996 and remains there today as Creative Director, overseeing the Total War series. We'll run into two titles that he produced: Psygnosis's Obitus (1991) and Hexx: Heresy of the Wizard (1994).

And that wraps us up for 1985, with the exception of a return visit to Wizard's Crown, a game I abandoned prematurely back in 2010. I continue to make slow progress in Fate: Gates of Dawn and I don't really have enough material for another posting yet. I'll spend another few hours with it before getting started on The Magic Candle II, so the next post should be about one of those two games.