Thursday, September 28, 2017

Game 263: Chaos in Andromeda: Eyes of the Eagle (1991)

Chaos in Andromeda: Eyes of the Eagle
Kirk Moreno Multimedia (developer); On-Line Entertainment (publisher)
Released in 1991 for Amiga, 1992 for Commodore CDTV
Date Started:  21 September 2017

This is the first time I'm offering a pre-game header block, and we see a couple of new things in it. First, this is the first Danish RPG that we've seen--and one of only two on my entire list, although I originally had it as a UK title (for the publisher). There could be others that I've incorrectly labeled. The other new element is the "Commodore CDTV," which I'd never even heard of until today. It was apparently a short-lived console/PC hybrid, based on the Amiga, and Chaos in Andromeda might have been the only RPG released for it. We have to be grateful for that release, however, as it's the only way that I have a manual, courtesy of reader Alex A. I have not been able to find any documentation for the Amiga version.

I don't know what the CRPG scene was like in Denmark in 1991, but Chaos in Andromeda has no clear origin. The attributes are D&D standard (strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, charisma) with the addition of intuition and quickness. I suppose the interface vaguely recalls the MegaTraveller titles, but not so much that I'm convinced the developer played them. There is a vague similarity to Japanese console games, but not in any of the mechanics.

The backstory is either poorly translated, written by someone with a poor command of English, or deliberately written to be weird. The game takes place in the future, amidst an interstellar civilization called the "Ralon Universe." Humans are a minority, dominated by a race called "Berounars." (For some reason, the documentation calls sentient beings "capes.") A government faction or organization called CAMASC is seizing power. (Covenant Against Moral and Scientific Corruption.) The ruler of CAMASC seems to be called Dmar'Kne--I'll leave it to you to puzzle out that anagram--and they've been trying to gain influence in the Andromeda system. A terrorist group called the "Moon of Or'Yim" has been opposing CAMASC and has recently used (or is being accused of using) chemical weapons against a civilian population.

Into this chaos, CAMASC has decided to bring an agent, and for some reason they're using technology to snatch their chosen hero out of the distant past and bring him forward in time. Something about the "technology and health of mind" of the past era providing "conditions for the development of personal qualities vital to our needs." I warned you it didn't make any sense. I don't know if the whole "time transfer" thing is supposed to be taken literally, or more as a metaphor for the player moving forward in time to play a science fiction RPG. Anyway, shortly after the transfer through time, the ship retrieving the agent is attacked by terrorists and the agent, in a gruesome scene, loses his eyes. Fortunately, the future offers cybernetic replacements. No word on whether they came from an eagle, but there is some language about how I'll be able to see more with the new eyes, and clearly there's supposed to be some link here to the subtitle.
This part of the backstory seems needlessly complicated.
The backstory is fleshed out during the character creation process in which the player gives the agent a name and assigns a pool of points to each of the eight attributes, which can be set anywhere from 1 to 18.
Character creation.
The agent's first (only?) mission is to go to the planet Koranis 12 and find a missing scientist named Noko Yai. The manual notes that he might have been kidnapped, might have disappeared on his own. Either way, I'm to bring him back or kill him if he refuses. I'm also supposed to destroy any chemical weapon production facilities on the planet.
A brochure I found later in the game tells me about the planet.
The game begins as the Ralon Navy ship Concorde V touches down on the surface of the planet and the PC steps outside. His pilot is running around the area and has a few lines if the "Talk" button is pressed: "Good luck, Ace"; "Rember the stuff we unloaded on the platform"; and "I only had to bring you here and await orders from above." Other buttons, all of which have redundant keyboard commands, are "Look," "Barter," Get," and "Mood." The last one is an odd option, changing the character's face from a neutral expression to a snarl, signaling hostility to everyone around him. I don't know what actual uses it has in the game, but if done near the pilot on the starting screen, the pilot attacks and easily kills the agent.
Setting out. The ship is gone when you leave this screen and return.
The manual offers an overhead shot of Koranis 12, and I have no idea whether this is just the starting area or the entire game world. It depicts a number of tunnels, pathways, and buildings to explore, and I tried to move about in a systematic manner.
The map of the starting (only?) area given in the game documentation.
It soon became clear that Andromeda is something of an adventure-RPG hybrid, with what appears to be numerous inventory puzzles. I say this cautiously because I'm getting the "inventory" part all right, but not the "puzzle" part. Meaning I'm picking up a lot of stuff but not finding much use for it. You can't see objects in the environment, but the "eye" icon opens up when there's something for you to look at, and a message explicitly says "there is something here" when you've stepped near an item. The radius isn't very large for finding such items, so you really have to poke around into every corner and crevice.
It's a good thing I checked this little corner. The rope turned out to be a key quest item.
The character started with a "shortblade" and a suit of "Fhron-armour," which afforded an armor class of 2 (unarmored is 1). Later, I found some "yolted armour," which bumped me up to 3. I also found two other weapons, a club and a carpenter's axe, but I don't know how to tell which weapons do the most damage.
The game's inventory screen.
Some of the miscellaneous items I've collected include a fishing rod, a brochure about the planet, a medallion that's supposed to bring luck when you rub it, a souvenir "Amorf" tree, a pile of ashes, a pile of sand, and a "Rose of Reunion." Some of these things I bought from NPCs with my growing number of credits. I had so much stuff by the end of the session that I was running up on inventory limits.
Yeah, that's a message you want to see in the third hour.
Some items are meant to increase your statistics. I've found two batches of "natural spinach" that each increased my strength by one point. News reports increased my wisdom when I read them.
I purchase some souvenirs in what I guess is a shop.
NPCs roam about the map, and walking near them often triggers an automatic dialogue. So does walking into their houses. If they don't speak to you spontaneously, you can try to engage them with the "Talk" button, although in doing so I often get the mysterious message, "Your appearance prevents communication."
Are you trying to say that I'm ugly?
The interface is a bit maddening, because NPCs or environmental messages often pop up by surprise, and hitting any key dismisses them or moves on to the next screen (if it's a multi-screen dialogue). Since you're not expecting the message, you accidentally immediately dismiss it if you're holding the directional arrow. I have to keep reloading and seeing what I missed.

I get attacked at regular intervals by what seem to be randomly-spawning enemies, none of whom are named, and the icons are too small to really figure out what they're supposed to depict. Combat occurs either on the main screen or in a sub-menu of (oddly) the inventory screen. If you fight on the main screen, the game shows what Alex A. characterized as a "big ball of violence" (link to the TV Tropes page). You have no options but to stand there and let the computer duke it out.
Fighting on the main screen.
Fighting from the inventory screen is more tactical. You can set a shield icon over the part of your body that you want to defend, and then click on the parts of the enemy that you want to attack. I've had much more success fighting from this screen. In fact, combat seems a bit too easy; a lot of the enemies only have 1 hit point and thus die in a single hit. Post-combat, health regenerates slowly but steadily from walking or even just standing.
Fighting from the inventory screen.
I fought probably 20 combats in this session. Victory gives you both credits and experience points. Once I crossed 1,000 experience points, I moved up to Level 2 and my constitution increased by one point.
My stats after my first level-up.
The special encounters are mostly bizarre and nonsensical, and if they're in service to a larger plot, I can't figure out what it is. For instance, right outside the area where your ship lands, I encounter an old man and a young woman that he introduces as his daughter. The daughter makes me uneasy, and looking at her makes me faint. When I awaken, the NPCs are gone. Later on the same path, I "feel the presence of many people gathered for a holy ceremony, but see none." What?
What does that even mean?
In a "temple to the ancient gods," a priest lectures me about the limitations of physical strength, then pours me a drink that makes the character run around randomly (out of my control) for a few minutes. Travelers around a fire talk about a feared and respected rebel leader named Snowdancer. A man rushes up to me and says that "they" have killed the daughter of "Two-Dreams" and that there will be a holy meeting in the caves for all "true believers."
Why are you telling me?
The best I can piece together, there are a decent number of colonists in the area, but corporations and/or government entities have stomped over them while setting up facilities for chemical warfare, thus inspiring rebellious factions. I keep getting directed to the "City of Nimne" and the "Dungeons of Ghima."

In one house in the north of the area, I encountered a man who looked like me and introduced himself as the object of my quest, Noko Yai. He claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack and asked if I remembered it, then the screen then depicting a flashback of my character getting his cybernetic eyes. He then vanished into thin air.
I have run into a few dead ends. A circle of stones led to an underground area, but passage is blocked by two NPCs who won't move and who kill me in one hit if I attack. In the southern areas of the map is a compound where I get attacked by a mob and killed every time I approach. The overhead map provided by the manual shows an entire area to the west that seems to be blocked by mountains, and I can't figure out how to reach it. A passage in the mountains is blocked by rocks. One building has a mail slot in which some item is stuck, but I can't find anything to fish it out (the fishing pole doesn't work). A "sacred altar" clearly wants me to do something, but I don't know what.
This robot blocks passage into a building. I don't know what he wants.
On the main screen, there are spaces for what at first I took to be three other party members. At one point, though, an NPC offered to sell me a "D-probe" for 60 credits. I purchased it, and when I activated it, it took up one of the slots. I couldn't view its stats or inventory or anything, but I could send it around to do some scouting (it wouldn't cross water, unfortunately). Switching to the probe shows a much more zoomed-in area. Other than moving, it apparently can't do anything except self-destruct.
The world through the eyes of a probe. He doesn't have the Eyes of the Eagle.
In one house, an old man told me that Noko Yai was last seen in Nimne, and I'd need a password to get into the city. He gave me a "cartridge" that he told me to attach to "Weather Station Zendor" to get the password.

The weather station was on a mountain peak on the other side of a bridge. When I initially crossed the bridge, it collapsed and killed me instantly.
In one of the few inventory puzzles I was able to solve, I used a rope to strengthen the bridge and was then able to cross.
I'm not sure how I did this without stepping on the bridge.
Once I got to the mountain peak, I inserted the cartridge into the weather station and got both a weather forecast and a password to Nimne, wherever that is. So that was a bit of a victory.
This feels like a reasonably large step on the main quest.
Andromeda is a very weird game so far, and like many hybrids, a bit unsatisfying as an RPG. Since it's so poorly documented online currently, I feel a certain obligation to see it to the end, but I can't promise it will hold my interest if it turns out to be too large or too long. If anyone has played it before, I'll be happy for ROT-13'd hints on the puzzles because I really don't want this one to drag.

Time so far: 4 hours
Reload count: 15 (3 from combat deaths, 6 to experiment with inventory items, 6 to see missed messages again)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Might and Magic III: Mudcrabs and Mud-Slinging

Disgusting creatures. I hope to never see another.
Most CRPG fans know of Scorpia, Computer Gaming World's preeminent reviewer of RPGs for over 15 years (c. 1984-1999). I consult her reviews after every game that I complete. I generally find myself agreeing with her--anyone that names Ultima IV as her favorite RPG has unimpeachable taste--and even when I don't, I can usually see her point. That is, except when I can't. Every once in a while, she fires off a review that comes out of nowhere, often complaining that a game lacks features that literally no game of the era offered. (Her comment about "no true role-playing" in one of the Krynn games continues to baffle me.) Despite high praise for Ultima IV, for instance, she gave a negative review to Ultima V, which 99% of players would call superior except perhaps for the plot.

If a positive review for Ultima IV but a negative one for Ultima V seems odd, it wasn't the only time this happened. Her April 1987 review of the original Might and Magic is nothing but praise. Even when she acknowledges the early game's legendary difficulty, she's clearly (like me) more exhilarated than annoyed by it. She's enchanted by the encounter-packed maps, the detailed combat, and even the minimalist plot. You could pull quotes from the review that would shame the most hyperbolic movie poster: "One of THE most extensive computer RPGs around . . . world-touring on a grand scale! . . . its scope and complexity are amazing . . . highly recommended!"

The second game introduces NPCs and skills and has updated graphics, but keeps enough of the core gameplay that it's hard to imagine liking one but hating the other. Thus, Scorpia's largely negative review in the March 1989 issue seems to come out of nowhere. Sure, the whole NPC mechanic is a little unnecessary, but kiddo, where were you finding any games in 1989 in which NPCs had "personalities of their own"? She criticizes the game for offering extra quests and areas not essential to the plot and criticizes the plot as "simple," apparently forgetting that the first game, until the final screen, had no plot at all. She lambastes getting an extra 50 million experience points upon finishing the game. I mean, I guess I agree that they're kind of useless if you don't want to keep playing (and by the way, how many games offered the ability to keep playing after you win?), but they don't exactly hurt, do they? I think Scorpia's primary issue--I see this in a lot of her reviews--is that she gets hung up over a bad element or two--bugs or mechanics that don't work exactly like they're supposed to do--and it casts a pall over the rest of her enjoyment of the game. I remember how she went on for like a page analyzing combat rolls in the sewers section of Curse of the Azure Bonds, for instance. Here, apparently a couple of side quests were broken on the first release.

Van Caneghem was naturally surprised upon reading the review. "We had worked so hard on Might and Magic II, and it was a big step up from the first one . . . it had everything that Might and Magic I had, elevated," he said in an interview earlier this year with Matt Barton. (Incidentally, he remembers the review incorrectly, thinking that it all came down to the cryptogram puzzle at the end of the game. This is in fact only one thing Scorpia complains about, and not anywhere near the most serious.) Surprise festered into anger. The May 1989 issue published a long letter from Van Caneghem in which he attacks Scorpia's very qualifications as an RPG reviewer, suggesting that she would be more interested in adventure games. He correctly points out that the end of the game, though odd, was a deliberate attempt to avoid the very "foozle" that Scorpia coined the term to denigrate. He expresses (deserved) bafflement at her comments about too much combat, noting that "approximately half the time spent in any current fantasy role-playing game is combat time." His penultimate paragraph is quite a roast, and I suspect he was thinking of Ultima V when he wrote it:
Maybe a different reviewer should oversee the CRPG genre. Of the reviews Scorpia has done of CRPGs, even those with a favorable end have been thrashed within an inch of death before earning the "recommended" status . . . The majority of these have been sequels to classic games and have gone on to become classics themselves and favorites of game players everywhere, bereft of Scorpia's approval.
To her credit, Scorpia gives a measured reply to the letter, defending her obligations as a game journalist, and if I didn't think she was simply wrong about the qualities of Might and Magic II, and the way she reviewed it, I would think that she came out looking better from the whole episode.

Van Caneghem wasn't finished, which brings us to the present game. This is a monster encountered in the dungeons of Swamp Town:
You think the artists were influenced by The Little Mermaid's Ursula?
I had heard for years about Scorpia's inclusion in Might and Magic III, but I thought she was a one-off NPC. I thought I remembered her out on the ocean somewhere. Instead, she's a whole class of monsters capable of poisoning the party. You have to kill about 15 of them in the town's dungeon.

If Scorpia ever reacted to her depiction as a morbidly obese witch with bad makeup and horrendous fashion sense, I haven't been able to find it. In the same interview linked above, Barton asked Van Caneghem whether she'd had any reaction, and Van Caneghem said, "Said she was flattered to be included in the game, which I thought was wonderful." (That does admittedly sound like Scorpia. I read a interview with her once in which the interviewer tried repeatedly to get her to say that she'd suffered belittlement or discrimination because of her sex, but she refused to rise to the bait.) I was hoping that she'd reviewed Might and Magic III, but the magazine's editors, probably thinking politically, assigned it to someone else. She did have praise for the game in a October 1993 summary of dozens of RPGs on the market, but she stuck to her guns on its predecessor, saying that Terra's positives "turn the series away from the excesses of the past" and result in "a big improvement." Anyway, it's all a fun piece of CRPG trivia, particularly given that it doesn't sound like anyone is still bitter.
My reward for donating at all the temples was a few iron weapons and a coral shield.
As I played through this session, it became somewhat clear to me that the developers intended the player to visit each of the towns before doing any serious outdoor or dungeon exploration. This is the sensible approach in both previous games, and there are a lot of clues that they intended the tradition to carry forward, including the availability of a boat from the starting island to Swamp Town (unnecessary if the party has already acquired "Town Portal" or even "Water Walk"), the fact that the magic mirror password to Blistering Heights appears in the Swamp Town dungeon, and the fact that your reward for donating at all five temples is a set of equipment that even a Level 4 character would find useless. Also, the enemies in both remaining cities were laughably easy at my level.

Corak's notes on Swamp Town indicated that the city had been taken over by undead after VonEmosh, "master of the walking dead," had destroyed it. The ninja clan, which made a truce with the undead master, "remains undisturbed." This translated to the town's services being located behind secret doors, guarded by kicking ninjas.
True to the theme, even the trainers in Swamp Town are undead.
The rest of the town had encounters with ghouls and ghosts, the latter immune to most physical attacks. There were a lot of graves to search, some of which cursed my characters or produced enemies, others of which delivered treasure. One of the things I'm growing to dislike about Might and Magic III is the pre-determined nature of treasure and traps. There are some chests with basic traps that require a thief's skill to disarm, with random treasure inside, but the larger percentage of chests, graves, coffins, coffers, and so forth seem to offer a pre-determined, inevitable outcome, with no way to search, anticipate, or avoid. Since you have to test and open everything, just in case, you simply have to suck up and deal with every ill the game wants to throw at you. I know it's too early to expect a title like Fallout 4, where if you look carefully you can see the tripwire, but it would be nice if traps were something that you could role-play instead of just endure.
Alas, this was not just a saying.
In addition to Scorpias, the Swamp Town dungeon had phantoms that cause magic aging. I never suffered it because I was able to kill them in one or two blows. Two long spiraling hallways ended in altars that conferred 20-point boosts in strength and endurance for all party members.

A statue in Swamp Town had the first reference to the "main quest" in a long time. A statue of Prince Smallberry, "explorer of the swampy lands," said that, "When Princess Trueberry was abducted by Sheltem the Dark, Prince Smallberry was the first to come to her aid, and the first to fall dead at the dark one's feet." I've otherwise heard nothing of Sheltem all game. Two other statues, in response to riddles so easy I'm not even going to repeat them, gave me passwords to the "Main Engine Sector" and the "Beta Engine Sector"--of what, I don't know.

By this point, the trainers in Swamp Town were unable to advance my characters any further, so I went right for Blistering Heights, the last city, nestled in the midst of a volcanic island. Outside, which I only explored for a few steps, characters take fire damage with every move. Inside, fire lizards and demons roamed the halls. But statues cheerfully offered +50 boosts to elemental resistances, making what would have already been an easy area very easy.
These guys look a lot harder than they are.
Aside: I've never really understood resistances in the Might and Magic games. Here, a 50-point resistance is enough to block all damage from the fire-based attacks inside and outside of the town, so perhaps it's not so much a percentage as an hard threshold? Later, in Might and Magic VI-VIII, the opposite is true: no matter how high your resistance, you always seem to take some damage from elemental attacks. 
The Isles of Terra are noted for their six-legged spiders.
The caverns below Blistering Heights (presented in Corak's notes as the husk of a giant spider rather than a man-made formation) offered combats with "fire stalkers," who are immune to physical damage but who fell easily to my cold-based spells. 
I have no idea what's going on with my lead character in this screenshot. I don't remember anything driving me insane in the area.
There was another Scorpia or two, plus pools of fire on the floor. (As with some of the traps in other dungeons, I reflected that the pools of fire are there to separate the true role-players from those who really want a completed automap.) At the end of each of the spider's "legs" was an altar offering a permanent increase in resistances.
At this point, I was a bit lost. Other that really needing to find the "evil" castle to get rid of a bunch of Ancient Artifacts, I didn't have any compelling reason to choose any of the maps. Thanks to combinations of "Town Portal," "Lloyd's Beacon," and "Water Walk," I could pretty much go anywhere. Incidentally, right about this time, I figured out that "Lloyd's Beacon" is specific to each character, meaning that I could have two beacons active at once. I had my archer set his in the midst of the attribute-boosting wells in B1 so it wouldn't cost me so much time to visit.

Ultimately, I succumbed to lawnmowing tendencies and made my next visit to C1. The area was about 50% water, with two small islands in the middle, crawling with trivially-easy sprites and absurdly difficult cyclopes. There were no dungeons, just a couple of treasure chests and spawn points for the enemies.
The frozen tundra of the northern isles is about a day's walk from the palm trees and sand in the south.
The eastern island held an altar to the full moon. Corak's notes warned me that desecrating it would draw the wrath of werewolves, and sure enough, that's what happened. The creatures cause disease and have a ton of hit points, and my party probably deserved the grief they brought me. Why did I desecrate the altar? Who has a problem with the full moon, for gods' sake?
Flinging a fireball. Note the diseased characters in the middle.
Problems started in C2. The Isle of Fire in the middle of the game world encroaches on at least four maps--C2, D2, C3, and D3--and the spires of brimstone that ring the island form a hard wall. You can't just walk across them like mountains; you have to thread through them like a maze. ("Teleport" and "Etherealize" also don't work.) Unable to reach the interior without returning to Blistering Heights, all I could do was map the northwest contours of the island and the water squares around it.
The exterior of the volcanic island is impenetrable.
The water squares held a few whirlpools, but unlike the ones on a previous map, they didn't send the party to some distant shore. Instead, they held floating boxes of treasure. The problem was, every time I opened one, I summoned a handful of monsters. In this case, they were "dragon worms," perhaps the toughest creature I'd faced in the game so far. Despite that appellation, they weren't that tough, and though I relied more on damage spells that with previous enemies, I was able to kill them without much problem.
These guys are going to become a lot more annoying in VI.
Map C3 was a different story. It was almost a mirror of C2, outlining the southwest coast of the Isle of Fire, and offering more floating chests. These didn't summon "dragon worms," however; they summoned something called "kudo crabs" which I'll be happy never to face again. My party members couldn't even hit them (or couldn't penetrate their hides). Every physical attack failed. And as they had more than 2,500 hit points, even magic attacks weren't very useful. Moreover, almost every one of their devastating attacks shattered my armor. Even hopped up on well water, I was no match for them. It took me about 25 minutes and all my (artificially elevated) spell points to kill even one.
The bartender really understates things.
Nothing was forcing me to open the chests adrift on the water, and I could have dealt with the issue by simply saving them for later or bypassing them, but for some reason I was feeling stubborn this time. I claimed the experience due to me for the Ancient Artificacts of Good and Neutrality that I was carrying, leveled up (level average is around 25 at this point), and returned to Blistering Heights to visit the magic guild because I'd forgotten to do that before. There, I bought the rest of the game's most powerful spells--names like "Inferno," "Incinerate," "Dancing Sword," "Implosion," "Moonray," and "Star Burst."
#$@*, yeah. It's almost too bad the crabs only attack one at a time.
I visited the wells that increased levels, hit points, spell points, armor class, strength, luck, and dexterity. I donated at the temple in Baywatch enough times to get the various blessings cast on each of the characters. I un-equipped my armor. Then I returned to the map and confronted the crabs.

It was a useful exercise. First, it taught me how some of the spells work. "Mass Distortion" is a particularly useful one that halves an enemy's hit points no matter how many it has. The only thing is, it doesn't work (or, at least, not to its maximum effect) every time. You can't get discouraged; you have to keep casting it. I also determined that some spells increase the spell point cost with the character level, and since my levels were artificially inflated, it was costing a lot. My mage could cast "Dancing Sword" maybe three times and then he was out. I settled into powerful but less costly spells like "Incinerate" and "Fiery Flail," expending more gems on 9 crabs than all of the prior enemies in the game.
"Identify Monster" disabuses me of the notion that I've made any significant progress in this battle.
It took several trips back to the fountains and temples, but ultimately I was victorious, and got some pretty good loot for my trouble. Everyone has something of obsidian--the best material in the game--at this point. The experience rewards were decent, too, although not as much as the difficulty of the enemy warranted. Even while juicing on well water, though, my characters couldn't land a blow on the damned crabs. I hope I don't encounter more of them--or something worse--on the other side of the island. I'm sure I will.

I capped the session with a visit to C4 and one of the desert islands to the south. It had a fountain that increased my accuracy by 60 points, which would have been nice to know about before the crabs. (I know, I know--it's my fault.) There were a handful of treasures, combats against barbarians and dino beetles, and Greywind's Castle. I had been told to visit the castle on Day 50 to sit in his throne, and it turned out I got there on Day 53. Blast. I thus saved the castle for next year. If I head right to D4, though, I might get to Blackwind's castle before Day 60.
I felt bad telling him that I wouldn't be back for a year.
Miscellaneous notes:

  • Even in Blistering Heights, the store offers equipment less useful than what my characters had at Level 5. I haven't bought anything from the shops except identification and repair since the game began.
I outgrew steel and silver about 30 hours ago.
  • The inventories of my first four characters are now fully taken up by quest items, including 7 Ancient Artifacts of Evil, 4 "Precious Pearls of Youth and Beauty," and 3 "Hologram Sequencing Cards." I know that I have to deliver the artifacts to the evil castle, but I don't know what the other two batches are for. I realize that if things really get out of hand, I can stash excess items on NPCs hanging out at inns.
  • It occurs to me that each map, outdoor or indoor, has featured (I think) exactly three enemy types. 
  • I laughed at this "Guild Info" paragraph in the last town. I'm not even sure what the option is there for.
"Premium" meaning "extremely high."
  • A lot of things curse you. I'm not entirely sure what effect cursing has. I thought it caused 50% of your actions to fail, but it never seems to stop me from casting spells.
About half the game world explored!
With only one dungeon in the entirety of Column C, the game does seem to be moving a bit quicker. I'd guess I've now explored about 50% of it. I really like the feeling of standing in the first square on a new map, wondering what treasures and special encounters you'll find this time. If the Might and Magic series knows how to deliver one thing, that's it.

Time so far: 34 hours
Reload count: 13 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Inquisitor: Shade of Swords: Won? (with Summary and Rating)

The winning screen offers an explanation of "the mystery."
Inquisitor: Shade of Swords
Dan Sureau (developer); Chip (publisher)
Released in 1987 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started:  17 September 2017
Date Ended: 20 September 2017
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 16
Ranking at Time of Posting: 48/263 (14%)

Having reached something of the end of Shade of Swords, my best guess is that it was programmed by a younger developer who wanted to tell an epic story through interactive gameplay but lacked the experience and wisdom to both write a good story and program an adequate game to tell it. The ambitions of the title far exceed its execution, and even at the end, I'm baffled by much of what I experienced.
My first party fails to kill the gladiator.
After the first session, I started the game over and made a new party in which every character favored physical attributes. If I lowered everything else to 5, I could devote 35 combined points to dexterity, intelligence, and constitution (giving two a score of 12 and one a score of 11). This had no effect on the characters' starting equipment.

I paid more attention to the scores this time to see what caused them to change. "M," representing mental ability or morale, never went anywhere. I can only assume that its uses were never actually programmed into the game. "P" seems to be the traditional hit point total. The top line, "E," seems to be some kind of prediction of how many combat rounds the character will last if he takes the average amount of damage per round. 

I also figured out how healing worked. It had nothing to do with the urns and bones and other weird things in some of the rooms; I guess they served no purpose at all. Instead, health just seems to regenerate as you walk around, but the screen doesn't refresh to reflect the healing until you enter an encounter again. It doesn't take long for health to regenerate--one point every few steps.

With my newly-maxed party, I swept through the dungeon, clearing out the same encounters I'd defeated last time, picking up their equipment and keys. Enemies with keys are always named, it seems. I also discovered that if you choose the "barter" option with friendly NPCs early in the game, they offer health potions.
I took this for a ring at first.
I defeated the gladiator without too much trouble. I had to drink a couple of health potions during combat, but that was it. If I'd had those potions with the last party, they might have been able to defeat him, too. He had a trident, which I assumed was better than my swords and thus gave to a character.

His key unlocked an area on the second floor that ultimately led me to Crassus himself. I thought Crassus was supposed to be the "bad guy" of the game, but he greeted me with a hearty "salut!" and sold me a key.
When asked where he is, Crassus himself says "here or there."
At this point, I reached a dead end again. Crassus's key opened a door on the third level, but there was another keyed door just beyond it for which I never found a key.
Va au diable!
Reading the instructions more carefully, I saw a note that if you choose to end the game with the last icon on the main screen, the game will give you a kind of "epilogue" of your adventures. I didn't notice it last time because you have to rewind the tape and let it cycle to the right track to generate the text.

Ending the game in the middle of the dungeon just produces a note that "four adventurers entered the Tomb of the Gods; none returned." But if you end the game at the same square that you entered the dungeon on Level 1, the game assumes you made it out. When I tried it at this point, I got a screen that said four entered, four made it out, and I had a score of 1/5. "Less than half the elements of this adventure have been discovered."
Not quite a winning screen, but at least an ending.
Looking over my maps, I figured I must have missed something in the dungeon level. The level otherwise has no reason to exist; the only key I found on the level opened another door on the same level and led to a dead end. Returning, I forced myself to test every wall and found a secret door--the only place in the game where this occurs.
This just screams "secret door," doesn't it?
It led to a stairway down to a bizarre level where the wall textures indicated futuristic technology. We were immediately greeted by a robot who said to "choose the right path."

I didn't know what that meant, so I saved the game and began exploring. It was a good thing I saved. Many of the doors were labeled with colors: black, gold, and red. I didn't find any pattern to what I found beyond the doors, but a lot of the pathways in the level led to dead ends with bones on the floor and no way to turn around. 
Yeah? So?
There were otherwise no combats or encounters on the level, but there were a ton of one-way doors and a bunch of rooms that, like Level 1, had objects in them that looked maddeningly like they should be interactable. They included a book, several swords stuck in the floor, something that might have been people hibernating in pods, orbs, a rocket ship, and even a house! None of the commands produced any results in these areas, though.
Seriously, what is going on with this? And why does that particular house icon look so familiar?
Eventually, I made my way back to the entrance with (I thought) nothing to show for it. But when I checked my party's chest, it turns out they did have a book that they picked up somewhere.

I returned to the starting square at Level 1 and ended the game to see if it would say anything different. Hoo boy. I was presented with several text-heavy screens that presumed to fill in the larger story. Most of it was textual narration of my party's progress through the dungeon itself, starting with some dialogue from the characters:
Had Alton led them to the citadel by pure luck, or did he act according to a deliberate design which he had been careful not to unmask?

Alton contemplated with satisfaction the line of attributes on the screen of the computer. "I knew that I was intelligent!" he said.
Not in the version of you that I created, Alton.
Elisabeth: "Does God exist? Are we, the poor adventurers of the planet Astul, created by a transcendent and omnipresent entity?"

Jofil: "Since the beginning of this adventure, I've felt that someone is watching us!"

"Anyway, we're going to spend the treasure we've found!" said Eddy.
There was no text related to the first level, but the next screen recounted the party's discovery of the secret door in the dungeon:
The adventurers arrived in a very dark and empty room. There was no other door except the one they came in. Damn. Where is this famous crypt--the remains of the tomb of the gods? It cannot be found! But one of the party members who had mapped the cellars looked at it and said nonchalantly, "Look there: there is a room and we have not found any door leading to it!"

All that remained was to push the walls of the room in question to find the secret door. They entered a new room. A staircase descended again. They took it and reached a strange room with metal walls. The Crypt of the Ancients!
The next screen tried to make sense of that bottom level:
The adventurers then meet a robot who saluted them as if he had seen his creators yesterday. Then, according to his program established centuries before, he said in a metallic voice: "Choose the right path." They understood that they had to study all the clues left by the elders to avoid the traps of the crypt. 

In the third room, two doors leading to antechambers offered inscriptions: red, black. "Since we are in the graveyard of the gods, let us prefer black, the symbol of religion, to the red symbol of war." At the back of each room there were two doors that opened onto two antechambers, and they continued to interpret the writings, as they seemed to them to be the path traced by the gods.

The doors of paradise are narrow and in addition you have to choose the right one! They crossed at once a strange room made of alcoves. In each of them was a perfectly preserved body in a glass cage. Are these the gods? The temple of the symbols said we had to await their return from the stars!
I think this is what the text is talking about.
The last room contains strange machines and incomprehensible documents that they take with them. This room leads directly to the first room of the crypt. They had at last the solution of the mystery of the gods!
Finally, the last screen elucidated the so-called "mystery":
The "gods" came from an Earth civilization (Earth is not a legend!), the second to travel into space in the 21st century. They built several bases on the planet Astul, the crypt being one of them, on which a city and temple were later built.

Then the planet was cut off from the rest of the galaxy. The inhabitants of the bases took off in an interstellar ship. The ship crashed back onto the planet--goodbye to Earth! Some of the survivors chose to place themselves in a state of hibernation until contact was restored; these are the ones that the adventurers found in the crypt. The others were the ancestors of the inhabitants of Astul.

The last of these originator, when the days of barbarism came, placed in the crypts the traps that you discovered, and a robot to prevent encroachment. And it became the Tomb of the Gods.
After all that, the screen then gave me a score of 3/5, suggesting that there was still more to find. Presumably it was behind that locked door on the third level for which I never found a key. 
It's as if the author wrote a book first, then decided to make a game.
Looking through the game files, I did find two screens that I didn't get at the end. One was titled "LES BRIGANDS" and it depicts the party executing the bandit chief. The second is titled "CRASSUS" and depicts the party killing the character. Perhaps I could have achieved this one if I'd attacked Crassus instead of returning his friendly greeting. I tried returning to his chamber, but it didn't give me the encounter again.

Well, I'm going to call that at least a partial win. It took longer to translate the endgame text than to play the game. As I said, the developer clearly had a story he wanted to tell, and he was going to shoehorn it into the interface, sense or no sense. I guess the question is whether it's an original story. Certainly, it feels derivative of something, but Googling the proper names doesn't produce anything.

As an RPG, it's pretty miserable. The entire dungeon is as big as maybe three levels of Wizardry, and there are only about 10 combats with hardly any tactics. What looks to be a magic system was never finished. There is no character development or leveling despite a "level" statistic, and no use that I can see of most of the character attributes. There are only a couple of equipment upgrades, and for all the thousands of gold pieces you find (in a single batch), nothing to spend it on except a couple of potions and keys.

The graphics and sound are minimal and the interface is inexcusable--the computer you're designing for has a keyboard, people! Pretty much the only thing I can admire is the character portraits; adjusting these to reflect currently-equipped items is rare for the 1980s. I can only think of two other games--The Black Onyx (1984) and Galdregon's Domain (1989)--that do it.

On a GIMLET, I give it a 16, earning the best scores in story and quest (3s). As weird as the whole thing is, this might be the first RPG that offers different text in the endgame depending on what the party accomplished during the game. Everything else gets a 1 or 2.
Actual production values were afforded to this weird half-game.
From everything I've described, you'd think this was a shareware effort, but in fact Inquisitor (who, by the way, is the "inquisitor" of the title?) got what looks like a reasonably thorough production from its publisher. I don't know much about "Chip" except that it was headquartered in Paris and published a handful of games between 1987 and 1990, including an adventure game based on Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1988) and three strategy games with interesting settings: Joan of Arc: Siege & the Sword (1989), Day of the Pharaoh (1989), and Khalaan (1990). Inquisitor seems to be their only attempt at an RPG, but they thought enough of it to give a name (CLONETRON) to the interface.

Dan Sureau is even more of a mystery. I've found several possible candidates online, including one who died in 2015, but none for sure. I can't find that name attached to any other video games. If any of my French readers have Facebook accounts and want to message the several other candidates on that platform to see if they'll take credit for the game, I would really love to hear from the author. I feel like he owes us some answers.

In case you hadn't had enough of the inscrutable French, Karma, the sequel to Tera, is coming up next. Before then, we'll see if I can make progress in another fantasy/sci-fi hybrid.