Monday, May 29, 2017

Revisiting: Braminar (1987)

United States
Independently developed; distributed via mail order by PC-SIG
Released in 1987 for DOS
Date Started:  8 November 2010
Date Ended: 28 May 2017
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 13
Ranking at Time of Posting: 19/253 (8%)
Braminar is a game that invites us to consider the nature of choice in an RPG. At first look, we are tempted to call it "primitive" because most of its options are simple "Yes/No"--a style that its manual calls "Boolean Interactive Fiction." But then you consider a game like Ultima in which you, say, exit a king's castle, walk a bit to the east and then to the north, and enter a dungeon. During that trip, you have the ability to go north, east, south, or west, but you don't, because other than the dungeon there really isn't any place to go. Braminar would cut out the middle man by having an option to "Enter the dungeon? (Y/N)" immediately upon exiting the castle. Do we really lose anything with such greater efficiency? Are all of the other options offered by Ultima truly "options" if they wouldn't have resulted in anything productive?
Braminar's title screen.
We could say the same about combat. I claim to like "tactics," and I do, but in this era, all combats occur in a closed system, and despite the myriad combat actions and spells that the games give you, there's usually one clear "best" path that still involves a fair amount of random luck. Is a game truly more "tactical" because you can "power attack," "regular attack," or "defend" instead of just "attack"? Until we enter the era in which game physics allow possibilities that even the developer couldn't anticipate, aren't "tactics" really just an illusion? Why not just let the computer slug it out and get it over with?
Reading combat results is almost as fun as participating!
There are good counters to these points, largely having to do with enjoying the journey rather than jumping to the destination, but Braminar at least effectively raises the questions. It doesn't do much else because the game really sucks and getting me to replay it was the greatest prank the commenters on my original Braminar post ever pulled. But it did make me think about these issues for about 20 seconds.
A Braminar character towards the end of the game.
Braminar takes place in a kingdom of the same name, where an "evil overlord" has "raised taxes, enslaved villages, and outlawed hamburgers." The player "plays" a warrior who sets out to raise an army and overthrow the overlord. To do this, he has to raise his own character level to 20, find the Staff of Aviatar, learn the staff's "prime command," and amass enough resources in gold, slaves, and weapons that his army poses a serious challenge to the overlord.
"Character creation."
The player chooses a name and sex during character creation, but everything else is random, including starting gold and hit points, starting "mecidine," the cost of male and female slaves, hair color, and whether the player has "good looks." From there, the random encounters start coming.

  • You come up to a hollow tree with a door. Enter? (Y/N) 
  • You come upon an enchanted forest. Enter? (Y/N)
  • You find a statue of Pan. Approach the statue? (Y/N)
  • You come upon a grass hut. You hear sounds from within. Will you enter? (Y/N)
  • While you are walking along, the weather suddenly changes. A tornado comes. Will you take shelter? (Y/N)
  • You come upon a city. Do you want to enter? (Y/N)
  • Do you want to go to the slave market? (Y/N)
  • Sell slaves? (Y/N)
  • Things seem strangely quite [sic] when out of no where [sic] jumps A [sic] band of orcs. They look grumpy. They say they will let you pass if you give them 7 male slaves, 6 female slaves, and 4 gold pieces. Or you may fight their champ, and win their horde [sic]. Do you wish to (F)ight, (G)ive, or (R)un?

In between these turns, the game keeps you constantly updated with your current statistics and status. You can't save the game; it's meant to be played and won within an hour or so.
While there are no tactics during these options, experience does teach you which options lead to what sorts of encounters. You always want to seek shelter during weather events, or you lose slaves and food. Hollow trees with doors might be occupied by friendly gnomes or vacant. If vacant, they tempt you to steal food or a chest, but about 1/3 of the time, your god is watching and punishes you by lowering you a level if you steal and rewards you with something if you just leave.
For doing a good deed, my diety [sic] gives me a box of Duncin' [sic] Doughnuts [sic].
Gazing into a river leads you to find an item or fight an encounter with monsters. The "winding mountain path" always leads to a guru who asks if you "seek powers of good." If so, he zaps away both your enchanted ring and staff (more below). The gypsy camp is a waste of time that at best lets you win a knife game with 50/50 odds. Grass huts usually have a helpless puppy or a sick man inside, allowing you to please your god by tending to them. Thickets almost always lead to combats and a nice haul of slaves and gold if you win. The Dark Castle of the Mad King always leads to three options: a dungeon where you can find a few gold pieces, a throne room where you can try to steal gold, and a "gallery" where you might find an artifact item and always find some food. The throne room option offers a kind of "quick time event" where you have to enter a combination of unfamiliar keys to simulate stealing gold.

Once you have a little experience, the game becomes relatively easy, and I can't believe I didn't at least pursue it to the finish line in 2010. Combats, though entirely random, almost always end in the player's victory and the accumulation of levels. Exceptions occur with dragons and demons. For them, you want to have found some poison; if you have poison, the game always offers it as a pre-combat option for an instant win.
Killing Cerberus with poison. My god is impressed.
You gather slaves from victories and (if you want) from buying them in the slave market. They're nearly impossible to keep fed, so if you have more than a couple of dozen, you almost inevitably get a message every round saying that some of your slaves have died from hunger. They also die from diseases unless you keep a stock of expensive medicine to cure them. There are no in-game consequences to letting your slaves die, but it's generally best to just sell them all every time you enter a town or village, at least until you near the endgame.
"Enchanted forest" visits rarely go badly.
Every time you stumble upon a city or town, you want to visit the bar and have a drink, which has a chance of increasing your hit points, and also rest in the inn in the finest bed, which restores some of the hit points you may have lost in combats. (I never once had any success socializing in the bar despite my "good looks.") You have the option to purchase swords, daggers, bows, arrows, horses, and carts in towns, but as the options are always (Y/N), you can only buy one each per visit. Encounters with rust monsters destroy your accumulated swords and daggers, and encounters with dark elves warp your accumulated arrows and bows. I'm not sure if any of these things really make a difference in combat anyway. 
Buying things one-at-a-time in town.
Finding the artifacts necessary for the endgame isn't very hard; you almost always encounter them in the gallery of the Dark Castle of the Mad King or by gazing into a river. A little harder is getting the word of activation for the Staff of the Aviatar. You have to successfully answer a riddle from a Statue of Pan, but the riddles are always nonsense and the "correct" answer is simply randomized. 
Neither the riddle nor any of its answers make any sense.
None of this sounds horrible, and I would agree that perhaps a compelling game could be made with this approach. Unfortunately, Braminar isn't it. Its humor is just groan-worthy, not actually funny. The game is riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes. The encounter types are too few, too repetitive, and too predictable. What happens in the game is mostly random, not a product of intelligence, strategy, or role-playing.
This is supposed to be funny, I guess. I just don't know how.
But it was pretty pathetic that I didn't win it the first time. To win, you simply have to find the Overlord's Keep after achieving Level 20 and finding at least the Staff of the Aviatar. Two optional artifacts are the Talisman of Braminar and a magic ring. You're almost certain to find the Talisman during the game, and there's no way to drop it, so it would be tough to reach the end without it. The ring--which during the game automatically destroys the evil wizard Anthrax--can't be dropped, but it can be removed from you via the "mountain path" encounter. Unfortunately, that same encounter also removes the staff. So if you want to reach the endgame without the ring, and get the "best" ending, you have to find or re-find the staff and then find the Overlord's Keep before finding or re-finding the ring.
The ring is useful in an encounter with Anthrax.
Once you reach the keep and invoke the Staff of the Aviatar, all of your resources--slaves, gold, weapons--are converted to a generic "army strength" and then pitted against the overlord's. You then sit there for a few minutes and watch the two armies battle, with occasional messages like "the enemy uses a magical weapon against you" or "your soldiers are high on moral!" [sic] flashing at the top of the screen.
This author Has an interesting relationship With capitalization.
Assuming that your party wins, you then find yourself in one-on-one combat with the overlord, but he dies immediately if you have the Talisman. I'm not sure what happens if you don't have the Talisman as I was unable to make it to the end without finding it.

Braminar is famous for sending the winning screen to the printer at this point, but that only happens if you lack the magic ring and thus get the "good" ending. If you have the ring, the "bad" ending is displayed on screen: the Ring of Doom takes over your mind, bends it to cruelty, and causes you to become the very overlord that you just defeated.
The "bad" ending of the game, although with this game, no ending is truly "bad."
But yes, if you managed to get rid of the Ring of Doom, you'd better hope that you configured LPT1 correctly, because that's the only way that you see your final statistics and learn that you are now the new King of Braminar and that someone has passive-voice gifted you with the Wand of Wonder, whatever that is.
The game inoffensively passes an afternoon, but when someone writes to me that "this is actually one of my favorite PC games of all time; I played it daily for about two years when I was six or seven, and still play it every now and then today...It's an amazing game and I expect to play it for a long time still to come," I have to believe he's trolling because otherwise my heart would break. Meeting the bare minimum requirements to even be considered an RPG, it earns only 13 points on my GIMLET.

The name of Braminar's author seems to have been lost to the ages, although the documentation that comes with the game mentions previous Boolean Interactive Fiction games called Fantasia, Universe, and Astroman; whether these are from the same author is uncertain.

I'm not sure if Braminar was ever distributed by itself. The only distribution I can find for sure was via a shovelware disk called Adventure Addiction offered in the PC-SIG catalog (a company that published independent or "shareware" titles), where it was packaged with titles like Under the Ice (a text adventure on a submarine), Quest of Kukulcan ("an Indiana Jones-type adventure"), Gymnasium Adventure, and Palace Adventure. Braminar is marketed here as a "Fantasia-type adventure," so its predecessor must have been better known at some point. I'm afraid the phrase "Boolean Interactive Fiction" never took off, either; Googling it returns only results for Braminar.

Thus we see that not every game I abandoned in 2010 was a gem that deserves to be revisited. Let's take a look at what else 1987 was offering with Deathlord.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Magic Candle II: The Four and Forty: Summary and Rating

I confess I never thought of the candle's prisoner as roasting in the candle. That makes what we did to Dreax seem cruel.

The Magic Candle II: The Four and Forty
United States
Mindcraft (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS
Date Started:  3 April 2017
Date Ended: 21 May 2017
Total Hours: 71
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 43
Ranking at Time of Posting: 214/253 (85%)

The Magic Candle II is far from a bad game--it has most of the strengths of the first game, really--but I didn't enjoy it for reasons that are hard to quantify. It hits all the right notes in a technical sense, and should get a relatively high GIMLET score because of it, but there was something ineffable that made me not look forward to my sessions. Was I just in a bad mood during the last two months? Or are there subtle issues of balance that my approach to rating games doesn't address?

I'm inclined to think that it's more of the latter, and I addressed some of the issues a few entries ago. Combat is either too easy (with the appropriate mushrooms in your stomach, casting "Sense" as you explore) or too hard (no mushrooms, lots of ambushes), and unlike games in which you're at least rewarded with experience for battle after battle, The Magic Candle series imparts so little in the way of actual character development that it feels like you're fighting for nothing. As a consequence, there weren't many battles in the game that I actually enjoyed.
Ambushes like this were all too frequent and frustrating in the later parts of the game.
My overall indifference to the game can be seen in the numerous things that I didn't explore, do, or take the time to learn. For instance:

  • The game gives you "mindstones" to communicate with party members you've left in other areas of the map, but unlike the first game, it's so easy to get around the game world--and there's no time limit--that I didn't feel it was necessary to communicate over large distances.
The "mindstones" are a good idea that I did nothing with. I don't even know who the first two people are.
  • A new music system allows characters to learn half a dozen songs which are supposed to enchant or stun various types of enemies. I couldn't get it to work and didn't really care since it's easy enough to just kill those enemies.
  • I didn't wake up half of the gods in the game. It turns out that one of them would have demanded Brennix, and another would have demanded that the sorceress Somona was in my party, so he could kill her. I could have run around talking to NPCs a second time and ensuring that I had the gods' passwords, but the extra attribute points just didn't seem worth it.
  • I only bothered to use trainers a couple of times. Some skills advanced by use alone, and for others, the need just wasn't there. 
I honestly don't even know what "stealth" is for. Fewer wilderness encounters?
  • There was something called the "Horn of the Tundra" that I could have found in Maratul and used to call nomads to my side as allies. I never even heard about it.
  • There were a few other magic weapons that I could have found if I'd been more careful in my dialogue notes.
These issues are all the more notable given that I played with a sub-optimal party. I suppose the best way to make the game truly challenging would be to play with a single character, or just two or three.

The story is okay. This is an era in which most games didn't invest much in stories at all, so for that alone, I'm grateful for the detailed backstory, paragraph book, and NPCs. At the same time, aspects of the story didn't make any sense. Why did Zakhad's forces slaughter the forty guardians of the candle and kidnap the Eldens anyway? Why imprison the Eldens in magic candles? Why did Zakhad think that he had successfully led us into a trap when it depended on so many elements outside his control? Consider, too, that freeing the Eldens was only necessary to defeat Zakhad in the game's own Rube Goldberg plot. Otherwise, they were completely unconnected to the Orb of Light.
This didn't quite "ruin" the game, but it came close.
Before we get to the GIMLET, let's consider some of the paragraph book entries that I didn't find. I assume most of them are fake, but it's hard to tell; I might have just missed some. Unlike the fake entries in the Gold Box games, which are purposefully designed to lead you astray, most of the ones here could easily have been part of the game: a tavernkeeper calmly discusses his city's resources as a brawl breaks out behind him; the party frees some halflings, who immediately start looking for food; Zakhad taunts the party from atop Rebnard's throne (offering more text here than he does in the real game); the nomad king pretends to be enraged at the party but then turns out to be joking; a goblin tells the party about Deadwood.

There are only a couple that are directly misleading, and both would have you think that the elves of Llendora are evil. One of them depicts the party being captured by the elves and forced to survive for 7 days while the elves hunt them. Another has the sorceress Somona warning the party about the elves' treachery.
I never even found the "real" Somona in-game.
On to the rating!

1. Game World. I covered this above. The sheer amount of text is impressive, and I love when the backstory integrates well into the actual gameplay. It was just silly at times. The physical world is well-designed, with Gurtex separated into various logical sections. Score: 6.

2. Character Creation and Development. I loved the ability to import the heroes from both previous games, but there otherwise isn't very much to character creation. Development occurs in a few ways, by getting attribute boosts from awakened gods, by training characters in their skills, and (for some skills) by employing those skills. In all cases, the development is extremely incremental, barely felt in the game, and (for weapon skills) too-easily maxed. I suspect I could have won with the starting party even if they hadn't developed at all. I did like that there were a few places in which the party composition mattered to the plot, but in general there weren't any role-playing options related to class or race. Score: 3.

3. NPC Interaction. Definitely a solid part of the game. Talking with NPCs is vital to advancing the plot, and an impressive number of them can be recruited to the party. Even though party-splitting options were reduced for this one, it's still neat that you can spin off your party members to have them study, develop skills, or earn a wage--I just wish there had been more actual reasons to do this. It's also fun the way NPCs comment during exploration; we're almost at the "banter" era perfected in the Infinity Engine titles here. If the game overall were better, it would be fun to replay it with different party combinations. I have no idea why you'd ever favor a hireling over a regular NPC companion, though. Score: 6. 
The party learns about the final areas from some NPCs.
4. Encounters and Foes. This is one of the areas that sounds better on paper than in the actual game. There is an impressive array of original monsters, well-described in the manual, each with their own special attacks and defenses. But having your shields maxed, eating Gonshis and Mirgets before each combat, and using the "Jump" spell in combat work so universally that none of these special attacks and defenses really matter. Outside of combat, there really aren't any special encounters or puzzles that provide role-playing options. Score: 4.

5. Magic and Combat. Again, good at face value. You've got a tactical combat grid, different types of weapons and attacks, considerations of deployment, movement, and terrain, and an impressive variety of spells. Perhaps if the mushrooms weren't so effective, or if the party didn't always act first in every round, or if any number of other variables had been better balanced, I would have entered combat eagerly each time instead of groaning. Score: 5.
The pre-combat options were a welcome addition, but they almost always backfired.
6. Equipment. Weapons, armor, clothing, helms, mushrooms, utility items (shovels, picks), and quest items pretty much exhaust the equipment list. I liked that there were more artifact weapons and armor here than in the first game. The "wear and tear" system doesn't really add anything to the game since it takes a trivial amount of time to repair items. Score: 4.

7. Economy. As with most CRPGs, this category starts out well. You have limited funds and lots of things to buy, including equipment, mushrooms, spellbooks, and training. There's a real incentive to have some characters work an "honest" wage, or to engage in multi-city trade. But after a few successful dungeon crawls, the party is swimming in funds and can keep a stock of 99 of everything. Score: 4.

8. Quests. The main quest is relatively well-done. You start off with one mission (find out what happened to the four-and-forty) but soon find that it's dovetailed with another: help Rebnard conquer Gurtex. While there are no real role-playing options, branches, or alternate endings, there are enough optional elements that I would consider them authentic "side-quests." Score: 4.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The iconographic VGA graphics look fine; the bloopish sound effects are only okay. While I appreciated the keyboard interface, there were elements of it that continually annoyed me, such as the inability to pool no more than 99 of an item (and thus make even distribution among all characters impossible), the cumbersome system of transferring items between players, and the need to save the notepad independently of the game (I almost never remembered). There were a number of oddities with the way that text scrolled and/or the way you have to read dialogue that continues off the screen that had me missing half of it most of the time. There were other quirks that I didn't talk about in my postings because I had a hard time nailing down what was happening, but I'd frequently use some pre-memorized keyboard combination to do something common, look at the screen, and find I was in a completely different section of the interface. I'd go to eat a Sermin, for instance, and realize that somehow we had camped and I was in the spell memorization screen. Overall, it was somewhat frustrating. Score: 4.
The notepad was a good feature. Losing it every time you reload was not.
10. Gameplay. I have to give it a lot of points here for being open and nonlinear. It's at least somewhat replayable (with different party combinations). But I also found it too easy and just a tad too long. Score: 5.

Add them up, and we get a subtotal of 45, but I feel the need to subtract a couple of points. One area that my GIMLET doesn't handle very well is the quality of dungeon exploration. When I've wanted to award points for the creative puzzles of a game like Dungeon Master, I've had to shoe-horn them into "Encounters and Foes" or offer bonus points at the end. Here, I have to do the opposite. Although I liked them in the beginning, by the end of the game, I thought The Magic Candle II's approach to dungeons just sucked. They're too big, they take forever, and they're a nightmare to navigate. To ensure you don't miss an important object or encounter, you have to hit every room, and because teleporters are so common in the dungeons, you have to step on practically every square, which involves a lot of "Repel" and "Walkwater" spells as well as creative party configurations. All the teleporters and ambushes got old fast, and the rooms are all relentlessly predictable--it would have been nice to occasionally enter one with no combats.

Thus, subtracting 2 points, we get the final score of 43, 6 points lower than the original Magic Candle but still not bad. There are enough good elements that it deserves to be in my "recommended" zone; it's just oddly unsatisfying.
More than usual, I was curious how the reviewers of the time felt about the game. I was gratified to see Scorpia, in the June 1992 Computer Gaming World, expressing much of the same angst. While expressing admiration for many of the game's elements, she found dungeon-crawling a "tedious chore," largely because of all the ambushes. She also found the music system "too complicated to bother with." Overall, she found it "an uneven sequel" that needed "more some areas." It sounds like the original release was terribly buggy, too.

As we've noted several times previously, by the early 1990s, CGW wasn't letting Scorpia have the final word on anything, so they published a follow-up review by Stefan Petrucha in the August 1992 issue. His experience with CRPGs is so limited that the review is almost embarrassing to read, far too concerned with graphics and sound, annoyed that he occasionally had to break immersion by looking things up in a paragraph book. (An editorial interpolation helpfully noted that such attitudes are not universal.) This line is particularly irksome: "Those who want a great musical score and the capacity to push the limits of their new 486/33 boards with SVGA graphics will be sorely disappointed." What you mean here, Stefan, is that non-CRPG fans will be sorely disappointed. But even though he clearly didn't win the game, he expresses the same praise I did for the world-building and NPC contributions.

The series has been good enough that I'm curious to see how it evolves in The Magic Candle III (1992) and Bloodstone: An Epic Dwarven Tale (1993), which I understand use the same engine. 1992 also saw the release of Siege, a strategy game set on Gurtex, which I'm hoping doesn't have a lot of plot elements necessary to understand the series. Magic Candle creator Ali Atabek moved to Interplay in 1994, taking more of a management role, and he seems to have departed the industry later in the 1990s, moving to the medical software field.

Up next on the 1991 list, we have our first Italian CRPG, Time Horn.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Cosmic Soldier: Psychic War: Summary and Rating

A victory screen that I didn't get, courtesy of Old PC Games's YouTube review.
Cosmic Soldier: Psychic War
Kogado (developer and publisher); Brøderbund (U.S. distributor)
Released in 1987 for PC-88; 1988 for MSX, PC-98, and FM-7; 1989 for DOS
Date Started:  19 May 2017
Date Ended: 23 May 2017
Total Hours: 7 (unfinished)
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 22
Ranking at Time of Posting: 85/253 (34%)
Ranking at Game #457: 178/457 (39%)

It's possible that this one wouldn't have taken too long to win, but it was already getting pretty boring after the first space station and got even more so in the second. You have to be so quick-on-the-draw to hit SPACE the moment enemies appear that I ended up just holding down SPACE as I moved around the levels. There are really no tactics beyond that, at which point you watch your enemy's health slowly drain away. What killed my enthusiasm was watching a YouTube video of the endgame in which the enemies have thousands of hit points and it takes like a minute to kill some of them. The combat is no more dangerous during these encounters--just longer and more annoying. I wasn't interested in subjecting myself to it. As I think my track record shows, I will be challenged, even frustrated, even infuriated beyond my six hours, but I will not be bored.
Combat got boring fast.
I explored four levels of the second station, Sivad, found a "VIP Card" in one room and a locked door I couldn't get past on one of the levels. Judging by a walkthrough I consulted after giving up, the space stations are all fairly small, but multi-leveled, with numerous interconnected elevators that form a maze. The departure pad is always in a different location than the arrival pad, so you have to find that at the very least. Progress is slowed by enemy attacks, which occur both at fixed points and fixed intervals.
One of the space stations, from a Japanese walkthrough. The numerous up and down elevators create a vertical maze.
The rest of the space stations would have delivered a variety of passcards, passwords, and NPCs with special powers. At some point, I would have found a "turbogun" needed to kill "biochemical" monsters; this just adds one more key that you have to hold down to the combat "tactics."

Eventually, the player finds his way to "Melser," the final space station. There, he disables something called a "psycho-shield," navigates a maze, and inserts crystals found throughout the game into a computer to destroy it. (One wonders if this was influenced by Exodus: Ultima III.) At that point, he has limited time to escape the station before it blows up, and apparently this must be done with the "Mind Jump" abilities of an NPC named "Zupreen" as well as some object called a "Beefun." Upon achieving the victory screen, the game's NPCs do a happy line dance along the bottom of the screen.
Destroying the evil machine had something to do with slots.
As I was preparing this final review, commenter Daniel Spitzley helpfully provided the game manual. It offers a longer backstory than I covered last time, but most of it is just padding and unrelated to anything that happens in the game. Attempts to be dramatic come across as laughable in translation ("The 'ESP Battle of the Galaxy' destined to be talked about for many years to come will now begin"). A section called "secret information" provides outright spoilers for the game, including the locations of key items, and there are even maps of each of the stations so you can just annotate them instead of drawing them from scratch.
In the GIMLET, the game earns:
  • 2 points for a bare-bones framing story that's not really referenced in-game. I could have been anywhere, fighting anyone, for any reason.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. Characters do get notably more powerful as they level, but that's about it. There are no creation options and no role-playing.
  • 3 points for NPCs who will join the party or impart some hints. Different types of NPCs have strengths and weaknesses I didn't fully get a chance to explore.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. Enemies are distinguished by icon and not much else. Puzzle-solving is relegated to finding the right card to pass the right door.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Combat couldn't be more boring: one button for psychic attack, one for blaster attack, one for shield. Just hold it down. And I'm not sure when you'd favor "Shield" over an attack. The non-combat psychic powers--basically spells--adds some small interest to those portions of the game.
  • 3 points for equipment. Mostly plot items and navigational aids. I guess there are some armor items and psychic enhancers, too.
Since "yontry" is both a healing/mana potion and occasional currency, this is an important find.
  • 1 point for the economy. There are a couple of times you can spend healing potions, which also act as a currency.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I don't like the graphics at all and there are no sound effects, so it gets both those points for an interface that isn't hard to figure out.
  • 2 points for linear, non-replayable, boring gameplay, but I suspect it would have at least been short.
That gives us a final score of 22. As I suspected at the outset, it underperforms its Japanese counterparts from this year that also had western DOS releases: Sorcerian (25), The Ancient Land of Ys (35), and Zeliard (37).
The cover to the Cosmic Soldier manual looks cooler than the game.
I can't find much evidence that the west took note of the release, but then again it was handled by Brøderbund, which had no experience with CRPGs by 1987 and wouldn't have much more after that. If it was ever reviewed or even publicized in a western magazine, I haven't been able to find it.

When it comes to games with plots as thin as this, I like to imagine that the story is being told in a more conventional way, perhaps around a fire or at the knee of a loving grandfather.
Storyteller: Once, an evil empire built an evil machine. But a cosmic soldier infiltrated the space station and destroyed it. The End.

Listener A: Okay, that isn't much of a s--

Listener B: I must hear more about this cosmic solder! I love him so much!
If it wasn't for Listener B, we wouldn't have half the sequels that we do, including Psychic War 2: Great Ash (2001) for Windows. A good article on the entire series at Hardcore Gaming 101 describes the plot as so:
There's now a cold war with the Quila Empire, which seems to never die. A terrorist group has obtained "great ash", which is something important, and wants to sell it to the Empire unless they get their demands met. The Alliance sends out 4 scantily clad women and an android to sort things out.
The same article notes that the universe of Cosmic Soldier is shared with a "text-heavy space strategy game" series called Schwarzschild (1988-1993) and that the Japanese computer magazine POPCOM briefly offered an unsuccessful comic based on Psychic War, "mainly featur[ing] naked drawings of the android."

At this point, I've played almost a dozen RPGs from Japan, but I've yet to play a classic "JRPG," with a heavy focus on plot using pre-defined characters. It's possible that with my PC-only rule in effect, I'll never encounter them. By 1987, we're not seeing enough similarities in games developed in Japan to consider them a "genre"; the four 1987 games are as different as any four titles could be: a side-scrolling single-character platformer, a side-scrolling multi-character dungeon crawler, a first-person dungeon crawler, and a top-down action RPG. As I said in my first post on Cosmic Solder, each title has been innovative in its own way, but not always in a good way. I've never seen anything quite like Cosmic Soldier's combat system, and I won't be disappointed if I never do again.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Magic Candle II: Won!

What would victory be without food?
In a comment on last week's entry for my 250th game, Tristan Gall thanked me for "250 LPs for people who enjoy being part of an adventure when they don't have the time or energy to go on their own." My entries on a game don't quite constitute an "LP," of course--I don't cover every twist and turn--but I do try to be somewhat detailed and hit upon the major plot points.

At times like this, I feel bad for readers looking for something like an LP. Towards the end of a game, impatient to finish, I often push myself well past the point that I should have stopped and written one, two, three, sometimes even four entries. Then, when it comes time to write something, I balk at the idea of covering so much detail and end up summarizing more than I intended. This will be the case with the remainder of The Magic Candle II, which took me just shy of 20 hours to finish after my last entry, most of that time navigating several maddeningly-large dungeons.
A party member summarizes why winning the game took so long.
Let's do a quick plot recap. The Magic Candle concerned a quest to shore up the titular prison of wax and tallow in which the demon Dreax had been kept for thousands of years, after he tried to invade the peaceful land of Deruvia from his homeland of Gurtex. That game started just after the "four and forty" warriors and mages guarding the candle suddenly disappeared.

After that quest was completed, King Rebnard of Deruvia decided to take the fight to the enemy, crossed the eastern ocean, and established his court on the island of Oshcrun, just off Gurtex's western coast. At the same time, the hero from the first game (Gia, in my case), decided to join the expedition and search for the fate of the 44 guardians. I assumed Gurtex would be a demonic hellscape, but it turns out that it has enclaves of humans, elves, dwarves, Eldens, and Aletsens (the latter two both ancient races presumed dead). Even the monsters, like goblins, orcs, and trolls, are organized into towns and villages.
The demon Zakhad rules from Castle Katarra.
Over the course of the quest, we've learned that 40 of the guardians were slaughtered during the attack on the original magic candle, but the most powerful 4--all Eldens--were taken prisoner by the demon lord Zakhad, shipped across the ocean, and imprisoned in candles of their own. One of them, Zidoni, escaped during the journey.

During my quest, I've found three ghosts from the slain "forty" occupying various rooms in various dungeons, each with a scroll that, when researched at one of the game's three libraries, imparted the information necessary to free the associated Elden from his candle. In the middle of my quest, Zakhad sacked the king's throne room at Oshcrun, blinded the queen, and demanded Prince Jemil as a hostage. Zidoni showed up in the middle of the fight and disappeared with the prince. Later, I discovered a prophecy which indicated that the prince would defeat Zakhad, but would need the fabled Orb of Light to do it.
Freeing one of the "four" from a magic candle.
As I was wrapping up my last entry, I had just found the necessary tools and information to complete the rest of the game, including the gray scroll, which I needed to free an Elden from the Candle of Anguish (in a dungeon I'd already cleared) and a magic conch shell needed to calm the southern waters and allow my party to sail to some uncharted islands.

As this final session began, I returned to the first god I had awakened, Marior, who gave Lupi and Eflun the same boosts he had previously given the rest of the party, including +1 strength. This was enough to allow Lupi to wield her own bow. I then returned with the gray scroll to Telermain and researched the Candle of Pain.
Wow, 5! Don't hurt yourself with all that power, Lupi.
Hopping aboard a ship, I sailed it to the islands south of Gurtex, using the conch shell to clear the storms.
There were two islands, one quite large, and for some reason the "Teleport" spell didn't work on either of them, so I ended up fighting a lot of random combats. The largest island held a town called Pentyne, populated by the mysterious Altesens. They didn't want anything to do with the outside world and seemed upset by both my presence and that of some sorceress named Somona, whom I heard about but never found.
Lady, if I hadn't figured this out by now...
The centerpiece of Pentyne was a temple. As soon as I entered, the Altesen priest howled that I had fulfilled the prophecy, shoved the Orb of Light into my hands, and showed me the door, glad to be done with their part. They were happy enough to recite the Orb's prophecy, though, which included lines indicating we would need to "stride along the lands, [searching] for signs of pain and power...on arm, on head, on limping leg" and that by offering the Orb to the people so afflicted, "a touch transforms the glowing globe."
The Altesen washes his hands of the whole thing.
I instantly knew two of the people that the prophecy was talking about: Wartow in Wanasol, who bore the sign of the sun on his hand, and a lame boy named Timm in Telermain, who had a mark of a star on his knee. Returning to them with the Orb, I offered it to both of them, and sure enough something happened when they touched it.

I didn't know who the third person was supposed to be, but both Wartow and Timm had given me full paragraphs (from the paragraph book) when I originally spoke to them, so I reasoned that the third would do the same. Searching for "mark," I unfortunately came upon a paragraph I hadn't received in the game, indicating that it belonged to someone named "Moongold." The context of the paragraph made it clear she was in the nomad's camp. I returned there and hunted around until she appeared, gave her the Orb, and finished that bit of the prophecy. I cheated a bit there, but I'm glad I didn't have to run around talking to every NPC again.
The Orb turned out to be a pretty stupid plot device. Fair warning.
A quick return to Ruz--a dungeon I'd already cleared--freed the Elden Zulain from the Candle of Anguish. He said to meet in Wanasol Hall once I'd freed the last one. I assumed he must be in Namaz, a dungeon on the island next to Pentyne, whose password I had obtained in that city.
Entering the dungeon Namaz.
Namaz was six small interconnected levels. It was full of snakes that required the "Repel" spell, and another annoying area where I had to treat the party configuration as a puzzle and carefully thread my way through a corridor full of teleporters. In the end--and I'm glossing over a lot here--I freed Zewinul from the Candle of Pain.

Back to Wanasol Hall. There, the three Eldens told me that Zakhad had imprisoned Zidoni in the Candle of Death. Since Zidoni had been running free just a little while ago, I'm not sure how he ended up in Zakhad's clutches. They gave me a blue scroll to free him and told me to reach Zakhad's castle, Katarra, by going through the dungeon of Mandarg, for which they had the password.
Another nice summary of the final dungeons.
Mandarg was another huge dungeon, and my only goal within it was to find an iron key and then find my way to the door to Katarra. Katarra consisted of a single large level with two towers with a few smaller levels. The towers were named after Dreax and Dragos. Dragos, you probably don't remember, was the name of the villain in developer Ali Atabek's first game, The Rings of Zilfin (1986), and one of the NPCs in this game actually makes the connection, describing the events of Zilfin as happening "long ago, in a land far away."
Reis was indeed the name of the PC in that game.
Both Mandarg and Katarra re-introduced Doombeasts, who make five mirror images of themselves as soon as battle begins and permanently drain your attributes. I described the strategy I used to identify and defeat them a few entries ago. Worse was a new enemy--"Deathknights"--which seemed to be waiting at every corner of Katarra. Their ambushes were so numerous and deadly that I finally started quitting in frustration and reloading when I met them. For those that couldn't be avoided--and for all rooms--I kept Gonshis (multiple attacks) and Mirgets (first attack does 3x the damage) burning at all times.
A new and relentless foe.
By far, the more difficult part of the final dungeons--Namaz, Mandarg, and Katarra--was simply finding my way from level to level and to the dungeons' objectives. They were all full of teleporters, some of which could only be activated by particular party formations that allowed stepping on otherwise inaccessible squares. You basically have to have someone in your formation step on every square in the dungeons--which means triggering every ambush, dispelling every snake, and so forth--just to be sure. By the end of the process, I was playing like a jackass, reloading after every unwanted teleport and unnecessary combat.
This party configuration is the only one that will let me move one square to the south--where there's a necessary teleporter.
The culmination of the Tower of Dreax was a room labeled "Chamber of Zakhad," but inside was just a bunch of pathetic orcs who paid me to let them flee. I couldn't find anything else to do in the tower, so I returned to the base level of Katarra and eventually found my way up the Tower of Dragos.
This was a bit anti-climactic.
That tower culminated in an actual final battle with Zakhad and a host of spellcasting enemies. He didn't have a villain's speech or anything--just a note that he locked the door before combat so we couldn't flee. I entered the battle hopped up on every type of herb and mushroom the game offers, and I had Eflun cast "Jump" to put my best warriors as close to Zakhad as possible, although he made it hard by starting out in a corner. With a combination of "Jump" and swallowing Mirgets before each attack, I was able to take out Zakhad's allies in the first round.
Killing the big bad in the game's final battle.
Zakhad wasn't so hard despite having nearly 1,000 hit points. He made himself invisible and cast spells like "Forget" and "Acidball" and "Zapall," but with my Mirget-fueled attacks, he only lasted a couple of rounds. I was confused when he actually died. Dreax, his underling, had been set up as an enemy so powerful he couldn't be slain--only imprisoned in the candle. 

With Zakhad dead, I read the blue scroll and freed Zidoni from the Candle of Death (in the same room). He told me to go get King Rebnard and meet all the Eldens back at Wanasol Hall.

I reluctantly gave up Lupi to make room for Rebnard. Via a couple of teleportal chambers and a boat ride, it wasn't long before we were back at Wanasol Hall with Rebnard himself in the party.
Rebnard kind-of sucks at everything.
There, Zidoni revealed a plot twist so goofy it's hard to believe I'm writing it: to protect Jemil, Zidoni "placed him inside the egg of the giant Oolau bird." He instructed me to find the Oolau's nest, use the Orb of Light to scare the bird out of the nest (like our swords couldn't have done that), and have Rebnard whisper "Jemil" to free him from the egg.
"The Eldens stared stonily at us for a few seconds, but then their facade broke. 'We almost had you!' they shrieked, amidst howls of laughter. 'Trapped in an egg! You should have seen the look on your faces!'"
Of course, Zidoni had nothing to say about where the Oolau nest could actually be found. Fortunately, I remembered researching the topic at the Telermain library early in the game, probably at the behest of some NPC, consulted my notes, and learned that the bird nests in the Gull Islands off the northwest of Gurtex. Another teleportal trip brought us close enough that I could cast "Teleport" to get us to the island.

There, we found the nest and did as Zidoni instructed, shooing the giant bird and freeing Jemil from its egg. Afterwards, Jemil expressed an intense desire to hold the Orb of Light. With no other options, I gave it to him. The game's writers hadn't been batting 1,000 in these final hours, but in this last section, it's like they completely forgot how to write. Here's a transcript.
I have a bad feeling about this.
Suddenly the demon Zakhad appears! "Just as I planned," the demon snarls. "The King, the Prince, and the despised Gia, all in my power! Prepare for your doom!"

Eflun says: "A trap! We should have known that the demon was not truly dead! But we have the Orb of Light to protect us!"

Prince Jemil raises the Orb. Its glow focuses into a beam of purest light. Jemil aims the beam at Zakhad and says: "Go far, far away!"
"The prince's lack of precision sent Zakhad back to Deruvia, where he now rampages unchecked" would have been a good setup for The Magic Candle III.
The demon shrieks and slowly fades away. "This time for good," says Eflun. "Zakhad cannot be killed, but he can be banished. His Highness did very well!"

"Better than you may think, Eflun," says the Elden Zidoni, appearing from nowhere. "It will be many ages before the demon can even approach the world of mortals again. Zakhad's pall of Darkness has departed from Gurtex completely," Zidoni continues. "One happy effect is that your human Queen can see once again."

"Was Momma blind?" cries prince Jemil. "Oh, how sad! We must go home to her at once!" 

"As you wish, young Prince," says Zidoni. The elden begins to whisper, and the party is magically transported!"
What kind of mama's boy spells it "Momma"?
So let's unpack this a bit. Prince Jemil managed to fulfill the Prophecy--which, by the way, is the laziest storytelling trope imaginable--in only the most technical of senses, was completely inept at it ("go far, far away!"), and still somehow managed to banish the demon to another dimension. Eflun knew that Zakhad couldn't be defeated in combat but didn't bother to tell the party when it actually mattered. Meanwhile, it was somehow Zakhad's "plan" or "trap" to get us together at the bird's nest, except that in order for that to be true, he would have had to be working with Zidoni, which he clearly wasn't, and in any event his "plan" didn't count on us having the Orb of Light, although if we hadn't had it, we wouldn't have have all been together in the first place. The queen is magically healed of her blindness despite the paragraph making it clear that the blindness is physical (i.e., her eyes were ripped out). Oh, and Zidoni is capable of transporting us all immediately across vast distances but doesn't offer this power when lives are on the line.
For 95% of the game, I barely thought about Prince Jemil. Now, I hate him.
The final scenes redeemed the game a little bit. They depict the party at a banquet with Rebnard, who recites the names of each of the party members and says something nice about them: "Strong and trusty Eneri; the mighty warrior Sakar; Buzbazgut, the most unusual companion, but the most loyal; the Great Eflun." I half expected Buzbazgut to jump up, reveal his secret plot to get close to the king by joining Gia's party, and then stab Rebnard with a fork. That would have been a twist ending.
He was the worst fighter I had. I have no idea why I kept him the whole game.
Fittingly, Gia also insists that the assemblage toast the other NPCs who participated at various points along the way--in my case, Rimfiztrik, Princess Lupi, Lady Subia, and Perin the halfling. Unfortunately, the literal final words concern Jemil being sent to bed by his mother, at which point the player has no options but to save and quit.
These should be no game's final lines.
I don't know why I'm being so hard on it. The game offers an actual plot and a proper conclusion, which is more than we can say for 90% of the games of the era. In the summary and rating, we'll have to explore how a game like this can be good, yet still somehow unsatisfying.

Final time: 71 hours