Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Magic Candle II: Back to the Shadows

An NPC gives directions that speak to the convoluted nature of the Dungeon of Dorak.
I spent the entirety of this most recent 10-hour session in the abandoned dwarven mines of Dorak, a dungeon so big it could probably support its own game. Even with my hand maps, I'm not sure I explored it all. I mapped 13 separate "sections"--some larger than any previous dungeon level in a Magic Candle game--but I know there weren't that many levels, because some of the sections are just inaccessible parts of the same level. It doesn't help that Magic Candle stairways don't really distinguish visually whether they're going up or down, and that you can often transition levels by walking through doors, with no stairway in view.
Some flavor text highlights where we are.
I thought I'd use this post to cover the dungeoneering and combat systems in detail, since that's about all I did. As we'll see, the actual plot elements of the dungeon are few and ended (for me) in tragedy.

Magic Candle dungeons aren't quite the "megadungeons" that I described in my second post on Alternate Reality: The Dungeon. Special encounters and NPCs are rare; despite being sprawling, they are relatively linear; and what happens is mostly predictable. That doesn't mean they're not fun, but they're fun in a somewhat different way. 
Doors on south and east walls are represented with arrows. This makes them easy to miss.
Having done a bit of reloading and replaying, I'm convinced that there are no "random" encounters in Magic Candle dungeons. Every encounter is triggered either by walking into a room or stepping on a fixed point in the dungeon corridors (the latter are always ambushes), and once you clear them, the levels remain clear. In the first Magic Candle game, reaching a particular plot point in the main quest caused all the dungeons and outdoor areas to re-spawn. I'm not sure if anything like that happens in this game.

Of the encounters, the ambushes in the corridors are the most difficult, and they're rendered more annoying by the fact that you don't get any good treasure from them. You constantly have to cast the "Sense" spell to make sure you don't stumble into them unaware, giving the enemies a free round of attacks. But the developers were somewhat diabolical in their placement of the encounters. You might have several long corridors with none of them, and then three of them bunched together in the same room. It's easy to get either too complacent or too paranoid.
This always sucks.
Room encounters are more predictable and rewarding. The enemy never surprises you, and you usually have a chest or spell fountain to loot after the battle. With only a couple of exceptions, such as the final "boss" battle of a given dungeon, I find that room encounters are generally much easier than random ones.

Good combat strategy begins before combat with a few elements of preparation on the player's part. First is ensuring that you have enough of each valuable spell memorized. Fortunately, this is pretty easy since every room, post-combat, can be used for uninterrupted rest. Second, you want to make sure every character has enough resources, including mushrooms, potions, and (for ranged attackers) arrows. Third, during dungeon exploration, you want every character to have his default weapon drawn, since this otherwise wastes an action. Since you have to sheathe weapons to talk to NPCs, it's easy to forget this step. Regular use of the "Fix" command while resting, generally for less than an hour, will ensure that the weapons are in good shape. Finally, you want to regularly cast the "Shield" spell on each character to keep their shields to as close to 99 as possible; shields directly absorb magical damage until depleted, and they're vital against enemies with damage spells like "Fireball" and "Zapall."
A gaem's "Zapall" destroys the rest of Subia's shield. She had 15 left, so his 18 damage reduced it to 0 and did 3 damage to her, reducing her from 33 hit points to 30.
Most important, in terms of preparation, are the mushrooms and herbs that you have in your system. Sermin mushrooms restore stamina to 99, and since stamina serves as both a fatigue reservoir and "spell points," Sermins are absolutely vital. But they're also one-time use and don't remain active. The others do. Gonshi mushrooms will ensure the character will get 4 actions in each combat round; the most you otherwise get is 3. Nift leaves cause the character's skin to absorb the next 3 physical blows. Mirget leaves cause the character to do about triple damage if the next blow connects, and Luffin flowers ensure that the blow lands. Turpin mushrooms increase the potency of spells.
This would be a waste of mushrooms. Most of the enemies are melee fighters and the one zorlim is a low-level spellcaster.
(Until I just re-read the manual, I thought all of these herbs were mushrooms. I've been describing them as such throughout my Magic Candle and Magic Candle II postings.)

From my experience, the most valuable herbs are Gonshis and Mirgets. Between the two of them, and a particular spell I'll discuss anon, my party feels invincible. Attacks don't miss often enough to bother much with Luffins--I certainly wouldn't waste money on them--and the physical damage avoided by Nifts stops being your primary threat after the first third of the game. (Even then, healing is a fairly trivial process; you have spells, potions, and simple resting.) Turpin mushrooms would be more useful, I suppose, for players who prioritize magical attacks, but most of the magic I use is binary--it works or it doesn't--and doesn't depend on potency. The Gonshi/Mirget combination, on the other hand, is extraordinarily deadly. It ensures that your melee tanks will be able to strike multiple times per round, and the first strike will generally kill the targeted enemy.
This party, on the other hand, is almost all spellcasters, and it's going to take me at least two rounds to get into melee range. I wish I had some Gonshis in my stomach.
In a hallway encounter, the party starts in the center of the screen, in its default formation, with enemies scattered randomly. Combat begins immediately.

Room encounters are more strategic. Both the enemies and the party start on separate halves of the room, like pieces on a chessboard, and they can arrange themselves as desired anywhere in their respective sections. A single strip of squares serves as a "no man's land" between the sides, so you can't start combat directly adjacent to any enemy. A pre-combat "phase" allows the player to position party members, identify enemies, set the active spell, and draw or change weapons.
Pre-combat. It sounds like these guys might be up for a bribe.
The Magic Candle II added some additional options to this pre-combat round, including talking to enemies and trying to rally the party. The latter rarely works, in my experience, and it carries a risk that the enemy will get a free surprise attack while you're trying to make your speech. Talking to the enemy often produces an offer to leave the room for a bribe, or even an offer to pay the party to let the enemy leave, depending on relative strength and the enemy's initial disposition.
This zorlim is over-valuing the risk his party poses to mine.
Combat actually begins when you select "Begin." In a tremendous advantage to the player, the entire party acts first in each round. And although the game will guide you in the default order of the players, you can establish your own order by selecting the player that you want to act--you can even do this in the middle of a character's series of actions. For instance, if Gia has a Gonshi in her system and can act 4 times in a combat round, I can have her act twice, then switch to another character to act, then return to Gia for her final two actions. I can't think of another game that does this, and it supports an incredible level of strategy that you rarely need.

During their turns, characters can attack, cast spells, move, or use items (including mushrooms). Since enemies generally arrange themselves towards the rear of their room halves, you almost always waste a round moving towards the enemy if you favor standard melee tactics. If the enemies are entirely melee fighters, you can "Pass" and let them come to you, but most enemy parties feature at least one spellcaster or ranged attacker, and you often want to close ranks as quickly as possible.
Eflun casts an "acidball" against a gaem demon.
Players who favor ranged attacks probably want to line up their characters in the rear of their halves and use spells and arrows from a distance. I find these attacks so underpowered compared to melee attacks that I don't consider it a viable strategy, but I might be missing something.

There's a spell in the "Vannex" spellbook, which I acquired in Drakhelm, that makes most combats almost trivially easy: "Jump." It allows the spellcaster to teleport any party member to any place on the battlefield. Used in concert with Gonshis and Mirgets, it ensures that even the most difficult combats rarely last more than two rounds, partly by ensuring that no party members' actions are wasted in movement. It's particularly frustrating when a battle begins and everyone has Gonshis in their systems, and they burn all of the Gonshis' extra actions just moving towards the enemy. "Jump" ensures that doesn't happen.

This is how the combination might work, assuming that my characters have swallowed Gonshis and Mirgets before combat. When it begins, instead of having Gia go first, I immediately switch to Eflun, who has multiple instances of "Jump" memorized. Since he also has a Gonshi in his system, he can cast it up to 4 times in the first round. He'll use it to move the strongest melee fighters--Gia and Sakar--into locations where they can strike multiple enemies at once, ideally also next to the strongest enemies.
Eflun prepares to "Jump" Gia past the slimes and next to the spellcasting enemy.
Having been jumped, the melee fighter now gets 4 attacks. She directs the first one against the strongest foe, using the Mirget's power to often kill him in one blow, then beats at the others. Based on her progress, Eflun then teleports the next melee fighter to the next group of enemies, and so forth. (Or, if the enemy distribution didn't allow the first character to use all 4 of her attacks, she can stop after 2 or 3 and Eflun can jump her somewhere else.) This combination of strategies ensures that I get 16 attacks against the enemies, none wasted on movement, and 4 of them at 3 times the normal power. It's a rare enemy party that can survive even a round of this. Even if I don't have Gonshis and Mirgets in my system when combat begins, if the melee fighters use their first two actions to swallow Gonshis and Mirgets, Eflun can still teleport 3 of them and they still get to attack twice, once at high power. This generally works well enough.

The Gonshi/Mirget/Jump strategy became more vital in Dokar, which features a particularly annoying monster called a "doombeast." This bastard is capable of a "drain" attack that permanently reduces one of your party member's skills. Moreover, when combat begins he mirror images himself into 6 copies, and it's impossible to tell visually which is the real doombeast. Fortunately, attacked copies immediately disappear.
My characters aren't fond of doombeasts, either.
I learned to use a modified version of this strategy against doombeasts. I have my weakest fighter, Subia, draw her bow and act first. Hopped up on a Gonshi, she can fire 4 arrows at 4 doombeast icons, and in the process either identify the real one or reduce the total number of options to 2. If she does the latter (or if, gods forbid, I face 2 doombeasts), Eflun can then teleport my second-weakest fighter (Buzbazgut) next to the remaining doombeasts to use his 4 attacks and trim down the rest of the options. Either way, once I figure out where the real doombeasts are, it's time to jump Gia or Sakar next to them. The doombeast has too many hit points to die from even a Mirget-enhanced attack, but not so many that he survives 2 or 3 attacks. 
A doombeast sestuplicates himself as combat begins.
I find that combat is only really deadly if it drags. After more than 2 or 3 rounds, enemies can blow past your Nifts and wear down your shields. The AI is reasonably good, and enemies will often concentrate physical attacks on the character with the lowest number of hit points and magical attacks on the character with the lowest shields. Fortunately, "Resurrect" doesn't seem to have any penalty except in the stamina it takes to cast it.
An ogre ignores all the melee fighters around him to hurl an axe at Subia (with the bow) and kill her. Just because he knows he can.
Post-combat, you get a "Resurrect" round if anyone died, and if you don't use it, that character is lost forever. Then you get to loot enemy corpses. About 50% have something--usually gold, but sometimes mushrooms or potions, rarely weapons. Finally, you can open any chests or investigate any fountains in the room, reaping their rewards. My time in Sakar filled me with so many jewels and gems that I don't imagine I'll need to conserve on Gonshis and Mirgets any more.
Sakar breaks a pick to get more picks.
In fact, I suspect I was supposed to explore Dorak later in the game. It seemed a natural next step for me after learning about its existence, and its passwords, in Drakhelm, but its size and difficulty--plus the fact that I didn't know the password to awaken the sleeping god Rhokan--suggests it was intended for a more experienced party. Oh, well. At least I cleared the monsters for a later visit. I hope they don't respawn.
I'll have to awaken this god later.
Beyond its combats, dungeons throw a few navigation puzzles at you, most easily solved. They sometimes block passages with magic snakes or spiders, and you need "Repel" to get past them. Often, there will be a whole corridor full of these, and you'll be sure that some treasure must await you at the end, but after exhausting dozens of spells, you reach the end and find nothing. Another common tactic is to block a corridor with magical barriers that you need "Pierce" to...well...pierce.
A rare occasion where repelling all those spiders actually led to a reward.
Some dungeons are heavy on teleporters. They're invisible unless you have "Reveal" active. Dorak only had a couple of necessary teleporters, but it did have a section in which teleporters served as a different type of puzzle; see below.

Finally, every dungeon features at least one teleportal chamber, where you can use combinations of cubes, pyramids, cylinders, and spheres to move to other parts of Gurtex. NPCs need to give you the codes to these chambers, and I only have three so far.
This dungeon's teleportal chamber.
Plot-wise, here's the setup: the dwarves had been driven from Dorak some years prior by a demon named Vankruh. Vankruh is explicitly not allied with the other Forces of Darkness on Gurtex; it's stated several times that he's dangerous to good and evil alike, and even Zakhad fears him. Naturally, there's a whole Moria/Khazad-dûm vibe to the story.
Finding Dorak in the mountains.
I tromped around the Demonspine Mountains until I found the western entrance, which I entered with the password I found in Drakhelm. I had no idea I wouldn't be leaving for nearly a dozen hours real-time, and more than a week in-game. The dungeon exhausted my ability to accurately map it, and I mostly explored with a "follow the left wall" strategy. I'm sure I missed some things.

On the way down, there were only a few plot elements and most of them didn't make any sense. I kept encountering an insane mage named Strephonio who babbled on about something called the "Hodli ducks." In the corridor before the final battle, I had to use "Walkwater" to cross a small pond, he said it was the pool where the Hodli ducks fly to the moon.
And later this.
A sign directed me to dig in a particular corner, where a scrap of paper purported to be written by Vhan, who was in love with the goddess Leahandria. That's about as far as it got before the writer's "memory faded" and it abruptly ended. Maybe I was supposed to hear something about that elsewhere.
I never figured out what this was about.
An NPC named Moruk was trapped in a corridor and said he was starving, but every time I tried to give him food, he just complained that without food, the food would do no good. That's a heck of a catch-22. "Without food, I'm too weak to eat."
My gift is food, you fool!
The only major treasure I found in the entire dungeon was another set of Pearl Plate, which I gave to Sakar. 

A particularly annoying puzzle came about halfway through the dungeon. There was a long, winding corridor full of teleporters that all took me back to the same corner on the first level. Even with "Detect" active, there was no way to avoid them with a party of 6 members. I avoided some by changing the party formation, but ultimately I had to have Gia kick out every other party member, move to a safe space (but still in visible distance) and then invite them all back into the party. I had to do this repeatedly.
After threading their way through part of the maze, the party is abandoned by Gia so she can get farther down the corridor on her own.
Vankruh's voice spoke to me once or twice as I descended, and then again outside the door to his chambers. An NPC in Drakhelm had suggested that if I simply sheathed my weapons and spoke to him respectfully, I could get past him. Indeed, that's what happened. I was hoping he'd have some interesting dialogue, but he just congratulated me on adopting a non-violent solution and let me through his chambers. 
Vankruh intimidates me as I enter his dungeon.
Naturally, I had to reload and try attacking him. What happens is, he has 2,000 hit points and magic doesn't work in his chamber. I'm sure it's possible to beat him with repeated attempts, but for role-playing purposes I decided to move on.
Vankruh, unaware of the concept of "reloading," congratulates me for my peaceful solution.
Sakar had some philosophical comments on that. I wonder how Gimli would have felt if Gandalf had just spoken respectfully to the balrog and everyone had left in peace. The rest of the story would have been a lot different.
"I wanted to kill Vankruh, but I'm glad we didn't have to," he finished.
The final room of the dungeon brought me to combat with a doombeast, several other demons, and a new enemy called a "naur," who has 700 hit points and is capable of three "Zapall" spells per round (3-4 such spells bring down my shields; after that, it's all direct damage). I took out the doombeast and minions with my usual Gonshi/Mirget/Jump strategy, sucked up the naur's damage for a round or two, then surrounded him with melee fighters who gulped Mirgets every round. He fell after a half dozen attacks or so.
Subia shoots at doombeast images to identify the real one.
When the debris cleared, I found myself facing a magic candle! Specifically, the Candle of Despair in which one of the Eldens is supposed to be trapped. I knew from previous dialogue that I was supposed to use the white scroll, previously recovered from the ghost in Deraum, to free him. But when I used the scroll, it just said "the scroll is blank."
Hasn't anyone in this world heard of "prisons"? With "bars?"
Well, I knew that it wasn't blank. I'd spent some time researching it at the library and apparently scribbled a bunch of stuff on it. Had I not saved the game after that? Sighing, I used a nearby teleportal chamber to return to Oshcrun. I visited the library in Telermain again, went through the whole process, then walked back to Dokar and made my way to the bottom again (to simplify the teleporter maze, I just kicked everyone out and had Gia go alone). But the message was still the same.
Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis?
In a normal game, I'd figure I just needed to do something else for the scroll to work. But something about the specific message--"the scroll is blank"--bothered me, since I knew it wasn't. I Googled a bit, found a walkthrough, and confirmed from it (I think) that the scroll should work. The walkthrough also indicates that the mage Ziyx should have told me where to go to find information about the pink scroll, but he didn't do that. Is my version bugged or corrupted somehow? Or am I misinterpreting the walkthrough, and I need to do something else before I can free the Elden from the candle? The thought of starting over fills me with despair, but neither do I want to keep playing if the game is unwinnable. I guess this is my punishment for happily accepting the ability to walk on water.

Miscellaneous notes while I wait for opinions:

  • As I mentioned in a recent comment, there is some attempt to build consistent languages in this game. All Elden proper names begin with a "Z," for instance (probably a reference to the developer's first game, The Rings of Zilfin), and all dwarven proper names have a "K" in them. Demonic figures on Gurtex, as well as the continent itself, tend to feature the letter "X" (though not in the case of the main enemy). It's a step on the way to more complex, realistic languages. N'wah!
  • In previous posts, I characterized occasional NPC comments as "chatter," but we should really stop to acknowledge what the developers did here. Each NPC has a host of comments that trigger when visiting particular places. The dwarf Sakar had a lot to say about Dorak, at least one comment per level, and I suspect his dialogues are different than what other dwarven NPCs would have said. This not only enhances the personalities of the NPCs but also makes the game more replayable. Only the Ultima titles have featured this many comments from your own party members, and even they tend to shut up once they're actually in the party. It's an important step towards the "banters" that are a staple of Bioware titles.
Sakar admires the handiwork of his people.
Eflun is condescending.
  • For role-playing reasons, I'm probably going to stick with my current party even though better NPCs are available. Subia is slowly getting better but is still pretty weak. Buzbazgut almost never hits.
He's slowly improving.
Depending on what I hear from your comments or my research, I might end up shelving The Magic Candle II for a little while, because I can't imagine starting over and replaying over 30 hours right away. (I suppose there's a possibility that my saved games will work with a patched version.) I really hope I just overlooked something.
For those of you who've been bugging me for years about a better system for reviewing comments, I took a step forward this week with a new comments page that shows the last 250 of them. Let me know if it makes it easier to participate in discussions, particularly on old entries.



    Problems discovered using magical scrolls have been fixed.
    Rare occurances of party members disappearing on assignments and incorrect
    coordinates when using mindstones are also fixed.

    That's from text file about version 2.0. Sounds like you may be using the extremely buggy 1.0 version. You might want to get a copy of the patched version and hope your saves work fine with it. There was also bad inventory bugs in first version iirc, ran into any inventory problems?

    1. That's what I feared. I'll find a 2.0 version and hope for the best. Thanks.

    2. Thankfully, the patched version seems to work with the new saves. The Elden is out of the candle. Thanks!

    3. Cool. Did that fix the boats issue as well?

    4. And apparently some imbeciles who probably play games with a tray in front of their faces to catch the drool needed "mouse support," so the game now captures the mouse and has a stupid icon on the screen all the time.

    5. My system is mouse with right hand, clean drool with left.

  2. I'm always so impressed with the depth of these write-ups -- especially about a TEN HOUR SESSION with a repetitive, grind genre. I wish I had your ability to focus and persevere. I read this blog in the hopes of maybe finishing a long game someday, just to be like you.

    1. It's important to understand that when I say "session," I mean "one or more sessions that produced the material for this entry." As for perseverance....it's a game.

    2. As for perseverance....it's a game.

      Forgive me, but it has to be done:


  3. Ouch if you have to restart, hope that's not the case. The mines of Doral was a place I could never find on my first play-through for some reason. Years later when I retried the game and found the mines I liberally abused the excellent Andrew Schultz maps that are floating around the internet. Made life a lot easier and it still took me some hours to complete the dungeon.

  4. Yeah, Dorak is supposed to be a later dungeon. I remember wasting hours and hours trying to defeat Vankruh. It might be possible but I'd have to see it on youtube to believe it, Vankruh constantly reheals himself, and I could never inflict enough damage to do it. It would have to be a pure melee party, mostly Dwarves.

    1. "I'd have to see it on youtube to believe it' - that's actually exactly the opposite of what we're trying to teach our kids, and not to believe everything they see there or read on the internet :)

  5. I can't think of another game that does this

    Memory suggests that you could do this in Gold Box combats while eg. Hasted, but you have sure played dozens more hours of those than me this decade, so perhaps memory is misleading me.

    1. Some modern games do it (X-COM comes to mind, at least the new one, not sure about the original)

    2. In Gold Box games, you can delay character's turns, but you otherwise can't act in a specific order. And you cannot interrupt one character's series of movements or actions to have another character act.

    3. Once you start moving the 'delay' option disappears?

    4. The "Delay" option means you don't act again until the end of the round. You can have multiple characters keep trading Delays as long as you want, but no one who Delays will take the rest of their action before all the enemies have acted that round.

    5. So, yes, by using "delay," you could APPROXIMATE what MC2 offers, but only at the end of a turn, after all the enemies have acted. MC2 remains the only game in which you can thread your characters' actions in any order without sacrificing your initiative. I like it. With strategies like the one above, it makes you feel like you're really working as a team.

  6. The other day you commented that when someone posts a comment on a page as opposed to a blog post it breaks the recent comments widget. Well, somebody has already commented on your new "recent comments" page, so I think it has broken it again and the page is only showing 3 comments. Is there some way to turn off comments for these pages so it doesn't break the widget?

    1. There is, but the page is highly unstable and every change I make to may cause it to malfuction. Google doesn't like the code and throws an error at me. I can dismiss the error the first time and the page works, but if I dismiss it a second time, it stops working. That means I can't edit the page after I initially create it. Easier just to delete the comment.

  7. MC2 is mad fun. To me it felt like a way to show us how MC1 could have been, if graphics had allowed at the time. I wrote to the author Ali Atabek about the series. It´s a pity I couldn´t tell if he received my message or not. I put it up there with the greatest, from the first to the third of the main series. Most people find 2 and 3 a little easier to navigate. I guess the addict here finds the same.

  8. Hello, would you recommend jumping directly to mc2? I've been thinking about giving this game a shot.

    1. Most people consider the first game the best in the series and there's a lot of crossover from 1 to 2. Do you not like 1 or something? 2 is fairly similar although it probably plays a bit faster and has less npc's to talk to iirc so probably has more % of game spent in combat.

    2. The manual does a decent job of filling in the backstory, but in general, I have a hard time recommending that someone start in the middle of a series.

  9. "My time in Sakar filled me with so many jewels and gems..."
    That sounds weirdly erotic until I tried to imagine the logistics and anatomical possibilities which caused my mind to break from considering non-Euclidean solutions.

    1. All these stupid made-up proper names. I'm not even going to fix it.

  10. "I can't think of another game that does this"

    Try Laser Squad.

    Not really an RPG, but if you enjoy squad-level tactical combat you'd probably find it entertaining for a while. Not much of any plot to it as I recall, just a series of tactical maps and enemies to overcome. No leveling, just the ability to purchase gear for your squad based on mission and available cash.


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