Thursday, November 30, 2017

Knights of Xentar: Vanilla Casanova

The game's basic attitude.
One of my favorite holiday tunes is the old Frank Loesser standard "Baby, It's Cold Outside." I have about 15 covers including the sublime Dean Martin version. Because I like it so much, I get a little irked at the customary annual reminder that it's basically about an attempted date rape (or perhaps even a completed one; the song ends before a definitive decision). This article is particularly noxious. Talk about overanalyzing! I mean, yeah, the woman clearly wants to leave and there's an implication that the guy slipped her a roofie, but come on! It's just a light holiday song with clever lyrics! Bing Crosby sang it! Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt did it with a clever role-reversal! Do you politically-correct m#%@##$ers have to take everything?

I think the comparison to Knights of Xentar is apt. The game affects a tone similar to the song. Yes, women are depicted in the throes of sexual assault, but it's not serious sexual assault. They're saying, "no, no, stop," but they're doing it with a wink and a smile. I mean, if they were really traumatized, they probably wouldn't be so eager to offer sex to Desmond as a reward for "rescuing" them, right?

This is all to say that I get the negative backlash. If you like the Japanese eroge genre, and you've managed to play games like this for years without displaying any sociopathic tendencies yourself, you don't appreciate some guy coming along who nobody forced to play this game--a game that is 100% clear about its content and purpose on the box--and find him criticizing it for doing exactly what it says its going to do. I recognize that I'm the interloper here. Knights of Xentar was intended for a certain audience, and that audience probably appreciated what it got. It satisfies the same market as cheap 1980s sex comedies like Zapped! or Hardbodies: lots of nudity, and enough jokes and plot in between the nudity that you can plausibly claim that you're watching it for the comedy and the plot.

I also want to make it clear that I'm not coming down on the side of people who say that video games directly influence behavior. Plenty of studies have shown that playing violent video games doesn't make someone more violent, so why would I believe that playing video games that are at least a little insensitive about rape would affect the plight of any real women? I wonder sometimes if there are more subtle effects that the standard studies don't measure, but I don't have a strong opinion either way. It seems likely that video games, like all art and entertainment, affects attitudes, but it seems equally likely that video games, like all art and entertainment, could serve as an outlet for desires that might otherwise claim a real victim. I don't know.

In any event, this blog is about the mechanic and content of role-playing games, so that's what I write about. If a game is about dragons, I write about how it handles dragons. If it's combat heavy, I write about the combat mechanics. If it's primarily about sexual content, I write about my reactions to the sexual content. It would be absurd to cover a game like Knights of Xentar and not focus to some degree on the way it handles sex and nudity. I'm not interested in any more comments that suggest I'm "overanalyzing" or that I'm somehow worthy of ridicule for even discussing the primary content of the game.

If you don't agree with my analysis, fine. You might not agree with how I analyze dragons, either. All I can do is report on what I experienced and what I thought of it. I don't mind disagreement. What I mind is the amount of negativity, the amount of anger, the amount of ridicule, in that disagreement whenever I write about nudity or sex. If I say that a full-frontal shot at the end of the game is unnecessary and a poor substitute for real plot, and you disagree, you ought to feel about as angry as if I said I prefer red dragons to blue dragons. If not, consider that perhaps it's you, rather than me, who is over-invested in the issue. Maybe delay commenting until you can figure out why it bothers you so much in the first place.
In that spirit, here's what I can say about the sexual content in Knights of Xentar: Regardless of the intended humor or tone, I find many of the images creepy. The girls, to the extent that they look like people at all with their enormous eyes and bouffants, look child-like. They are often depicted in the throes of molestation by groups of men. The protagonist kills the molesters, which makes the game's ethics mildly superior to Rance's, but he then usually enjoys sex as a reward. I have never rescued a woman from sexual assault in real life, but I suspect that few of them are eager to immediately turn to sex to display their gratitude to their rescuers. Humor or not, as a player, I don't like the role-playing implications of that scenario.
I don't care how old the game says she is, this does not look like a sexually mature female.
As for the humor, I find that the jokes, never thigh-slappers in the first place, get old relatively fast. Desmond is universally presented as sexually insufficient, unspectacularly endowed, far more "vanilla" in his preferences than the women he encounters. But they still want to sleep with him, about one in every town, village, or hut. The occasional "small penis" joke can be funny. Eight "small penis" jokes in an hour--and I say this realizing that I'm a little "vanilla" myself here--just might be crossing the line into too many "small penis" jokes.
Ah, every man's fantasy.
Xentar is never content to simply let the joke be the joke. The dialogue has to go on forever and make its point with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. I'm going to make up this example because I didn't write it all down, but at one point Desmond rescues a woman who has been tied up by her attacker. A clever game would have Desmond defeat the enemy and then say, "Let me untie you!" to which the woman might reply, "Now, why would you do that?" Wink wink, fade to black, and we'd all get the idea. But Xentar handles it like this:
Desmond: "Let me untie you!"
Girl: "Now, why would you do that?"
Desmond: "Because you're tied up! Don't you want to be untied?"
Girl: "That depends what you're going to do with me."
Desmond: "I don't understand."
Girl: "Are you always this dense?"
Desmond: "Are you saying you want me to leave you in knots?"
Girl: "Only if you know how to tighten them."
Desmond: "What do you mean?"
On and on for a dozen more lines. The jokes never really end on a punchline; instead, they just kind of play out. I might chalk it up to cultural differences, but I had the impression that the western release was completely re-written by English-speakers.

That isn't to say that I haven't been laughing at all. Desmond's clueless comments are occasionally amusing. "Do you want it hard or soft?" he says during one sexual encounter, perhaps qualifying for the most inept dirty talk in history. Here's a guy responding to a request for directions:
But the good jokes are few and far between.
At the end of the last session, Desmond had been defeated by a wolf attacking a girl in a cabin. I leveled him up a few more times, tried again, and defeated the wolf. The girl naturally slept with Desmond as a reward, and offered her cabin should he find himself in the need of lodging again.

Continuing counter-clockwise around the game map, I next ran into the city of Dreadsden, where I got some minor item upgrades but not much else. Nearby, in yet another cabin, I found a woman being assaulted by seven dwarves (perversion of fairy tale classics is something of a theme with this game). The graphic that accompanied this, in which all seven of the dwarves managed to occupy themselves in one way or another, left me wanting to take a shower. 
Sorry about this, little guys.
I killed them. The woman introduced herself as Priscilla. She said that she lived in the cabin with the dwarves and normally they were friends, but an evil mage named Visel had cast a spell on them, making them lecherous. That made me feel bad about killing them, although Priscilla didn't seem to care. After sex (of course), she asked me to kill Visel, noting that I would have to get a magic marble from a hermit in Dreadsden to bypass the entrance to Visel's cave.
See, I feel like this crosses a line somehow.
I did as instructed, killed Visel in a long battle that took most of my healing potions, and got a "magic nut" from him. When I returned to Priscilla, she gave me a magic mirror.
The epic battle with Visel.
As I headed down to the next town, called Coventry, the random wilderness combats started to get a bit harder, both in quantity and quality. It gave me a chance to experiment a bit with the different settings. The game is somewhat unique in that it offers a "knowledge" setting for each enemy. Every time you face an enemy of that type, the percentage increases a bit. "Knowledge of the enemy's strengths and weaknesses" is one of the combat modes, and I've found that once your knowledge of an enemy passes 50%, the mode is extremely effective.

Otherwise, I've had the most luck with offense-heavy settings. It seems to burn my healing potions at the same rate as more defensive settings, but combats are over much more quickly. A lot of enemies have the ability to restore their own health a few times in the middle of combat, and a strong offense often prevents this.

In Coventry, I heard of a nearby demon named Tymm, who guards a passage east, and a knight named Arstein told me I could kill him with Priscilla's magic mirror. In the far southwest, by some cliffs, a well-meaning NPC assumed I was there to kill myself and suggested I visit some place called "Nero's Retreat" instead.
Buying weapon upgrades in town.
Moving east, I ran into Tymm but killed him immediately with the magic mirror. He'd been holding a woman named Marie captive; she seemed to know Desmond from a previous game. She rewarded him with sex.
The authors named him "Tymm" after presumably rejecting "Stievve" and "Fraynk."
Through Tymm's pass, I came to the city of Phoenix, where Dragon Knight II had been set. Desmond is apparently something of a celebrity there, with many of the buildings and other things named in his honor.
I get the idea.
I ran into a woman named Kate, who also appeared to know Desmond from the prior game. She immediately slept with him despite being married to someone named Pietro. Understand that all these encounters are scripted and do not give the player any options. You move near an NPC and you're committing adultery, role-playing be damned.
Pietro, I've got some bad news, buddy.
Most important, I ran into a brawny, horned man named Rolf who had apparently been a companion in a previous game. After some persuasion, he joined the party. I outfitted him with some extra items that I had. He frankly doesn't seem to make combat any easier; on the contrary, he's using far more healing potions than Desmond.
The game seems oddly fixated on pig gristle.
The second character's attack options are tracked separately from Desmond's, but I think the "knowledge" variable applies to both of us. There seems to be room for one more NPC. So far, neither Desmond nor Rolf have any items or options that would fit with the grayed-out magic menus at the bottom of the combat screen. I have managed to get Desmond to Level 26, where he was before he lost his levels in the scripted event early in the game.
The two friends take on some "evil sprites."
I don't find any of the RPG elements in Xentar particularly outstanding, but neither are they bad. The rapid leveling provides a constant sense of character improvement. I wish there was more to do in combat, but at least it has the virtue of brevity.

After I had written most of this material, a reader sent a manual, which I'd been unable to find, so I look forward to seeing if it explains some of these NPCs. I wouldn't mind if I could wrap this up in one more entry, but I'll give it at least two.

Time so far: 8 hours

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Bard's Tale Construction Set: Summary and Rating

The Bard's Tale Construction Set
United States
Interplay (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga
Date Started: 20 November 2017
Date Ended: 25 November 2017
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 30
Ranking at Time of Posting: 155/271 (57%)
It turns out that Star Light Festival, the sample scenario accompanying the Bard's Tale Construction Set, is both depressingly unoriginal and horribly imbalanced. It took me more than three hours of grinding in the wine cellar before I made Level 2. Leveling up is free, but with most of my money going to healing, I'm nowhere near having the 2,000 gold necessary to purchase more spells.

Even Level 2 characters can't survive for very long in the wine cellar, but I survived long enough to map most of Level 2, which--like Level 1--turns out to simply use the same map as the beginning dungeon of The Bard's Tale, right down to certain messages on the wall. My enthusiasm for continuing with the scenario took a major blow when I ran into this inscription:
This was not cool, Interplay.
You'll recall that the "IRKM DESMET DAEM" message in The Bard's Tale is one of the game's most enduring mysteries. No satisfactory anagram or cryptogam seems to work. Speculation is that the developers were just trolling players, but I'm not sure if we've ever had confirmation of that.

In any event, this game changes one letter in the final word, making it "IRKM DESMET DAGM," which just serves to aggravate the issue. Was the original flawed and now they're making a correction? Can we derive meaning from the new version? I note that it makes GAME and GAMES possible in a new anagram. If it was just nonsense in the first place, then why change it? What are they trying to tell us?!
Here's another one. This one had a purpose in the first game, but I suspect the developers left it here just because they were lazy.
Meanwhile, the Level 2 encounters weren't offering more experience than the Level 1 encounters. They were riskier because the exit was farther away, but not more rewarding. For comparison, I fired up The Bard's Tale. There, an average in-town encounter offered around 100 experience points. When I played it back in 2010, I was able to grind up to Level 7 in a couple of hours, never leaving sight of the temple. In this version, an in-town battle gives an average of maybe 10 experience points.
This is a real encounter on the third level of the dungeon.
Once you're strong enough to reach the wine cellar in The Bard's Tale, you're earning several hundred experience points per battle; here, you earn maybe 20-30 on average. 

In some ways, the slow pace of character development is of course balanced by reduced monster difficulty. But easier monsters can only take you so far as you get farther from the dungeon entrance. The bard can only play one song per level before he needs a drink. Spellcasters can only cast a few light or "trap zap" spells. It's frustrating to go deep into the dungeon, map only a dozen squares, and then have to retreat for the exit.

Equipment upgrades are also nerfed in this version. I don't know if it's a consequence of the construction set or this specific implementation, but I never seem to find "random" equipment drops post-combat. Instead, certain fixed encounters always produce the same thing. The pack of 4 goblins north of the guild always have crossbow bolts. The fixed encounter just before the Level 2 stairs always produces leather gloves. Random encounters produce gold only. By this time in The Bard's Tale, I had dozens of magic weapons, armor, wands, monster-summoning devices, and other items to help me with tough encounters. In this game, I rejoice when I find a "medium shield" because the store only sells small ones.
My hunter's equipment 8 hours after he started doesn't look much different than when he started.
Discouraged from the default scenario, I started looking into some of the other games made with the construction set. I should mention that I was either wrong in my last entry when I said it wasn't possible to make your own title screen, or a couple of developers found ways to do it that the game doesn't support. Either way, both games I investigated had their own title screens after the main Bard's Tale Construction Set title.
Major points for anyone who can find this location in Sweden.
The first was The Bard's Lore: The Warrior and the Dragon (1997) by Swedish developer John H. Wigforss, who followed it up with The Bard's Lore II: The Dark Tower (1998). There are definitely things to like about it. Wigforss took the time to code a bunch of original spells--far more than exist in the default scenario. The town map is efficient and doesn't screw around with a bunch of empty residences; most of the key services are on one street.
The"MO" at the end is the first part of the password "MONARCHY."
The first goal is to get the password to enter the castle, which is found at the bottoms of four statues in town commemorating fallen heroes. With the password, you can visit the king and get the main quest: rescue the kidnapped queen. First, you have to find the stolen key to get out of the city. The ensuing game takes place over one level of a pub cellar, two levels of a dragon temple, several small wilderness areas, and four final dungeon levels with a lot of secret doors, teleporters, and spinners.
I suspect this is the author's own image.
Unfortunately, a lot of the game is just juvenile. There are spells that summon Princess Leia, Kalle Anka (the Swedish version of Donald Duck), and Captain Kirk. The author thought it was funny for every chest in the first dungeon to produce nothing but "rat shit." In the town, you can find a door to a brothel that offers a very explicit picture of services rendered (it would not have been allowed in Xentar), and the ultimate reward for winning seems to be a topless picture of the queen.
Funny the first dozen times.
Ultimately, what deterred me from continuing was the same issue as in Star Light Festival. Although I brought my Level 3 Festival characters to the scenario, it would have taken hours more grinding before I could have survived the rat hordes in the first dungeon.
18 rats is a little excessive.
The second game I looked at was The Bard's Quest: Dungeons of the Unknown (1994) by Alex Ghadaksaz and "VisionSoft." (It's subtitled The Legend of Isil Thania in the documentation but Dungeons of the Unknown on the title screen.) I want to be careful about accusing anyone of plagiarism, but what I can say is that from all appearances, it certainly looks like Mr. Ghadaksaz simply copied the default Star Light Festival that shipped with the construction set, re-named it, and sold it as shareware. Since you don't have to purchase the Construction Set to play games created with it, it's entirely possible that no one purchasing the game realized that it was plagiarized.
This took some guts.
Now, I haven't even finished Star Light Festival, let alone The Bard's Quest, so I can't say for sure that they remain identical throughout. What I can say is that the quest given in The Bard's Quest documentation is the same, including the fact that the party is in town to visit the "Star Light Festival." The name of the city is the same. The city map is the same, including all fixed encounters. The first two dungeon levels are the same, including all fixed encounters and messages. The documentation for The Bard's Quest is simply copied from a section of the Construction Set manual. Finally, the directories for both games have all the same file names and sizes.

The documentation for The Bard's Quest promises hint books and copies of two sequels in exchange for the shareware fee. These are given as The Bard's Quest II: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and The Bard's Quest III: Dungeons of Darkness. I haven't been able to find evidence that they were actually produced.

[Ed: Eight months after I posted this, I heard from one of the developers who worked on The Bard's Quest. He claims that while he and his colleagues--who were all aged 12-14 at the time--started with a "Starlight Festival" nucleus but created a full, original game from it. He also says that the two sequels were produced and sold, and that the trio made $12,000 - $14,000 in profit selling nearly 2,000 copies. As for my experience, I'll quote directly: "The one you claim as 'plagiarized' is different from the one that was sold and that was probably due to a mixup when someone downloaded the game from an Internet FTP site that the Tour de Force BBS sysop had uploaded it to, and then unzipped it and decided to upload it to CompuServe but rezipped a new archive instead of the original one from Tour de Force. I can only assume that maybe they were comparing it to the BTCS sample game and zipped the sample game, probably by mistake." I don't fully understand all of this, but I can't imagine that a real plagiarizer would take the time to write about a 27-year-old game to defend his friends' honor, so I accept his account. I asked for permission to post his entire e-mail but never received a response; If I do, I'll put it on my blog somehow.]

Back to the default scenario. Having decided it wasn't worth my time to do the grinding necessary to finish, I hex-edited my characters to higher levels and attributes so I could zip through the first dungeon and identify the fork where the game diverges from The Bard's Tale. Most of the messages on the sewer levels were the same, but when I got to the location where in the first game, I learned the Mad God's name, in Festival, I got a message that said "ROY G BIV." Later, in a place where the original sewers went down to a fourth level, here there was only a message in which a gerbil ran through the room saying "The Runt" had sent him. Even the lower levels of the sewers offered combats no more difficult than the town.

"THE RUNT" ended up being the answer necessary to enter the Obsidian Tower in the northwest corner of the town map. ("Who sent you?") The tower had different foes, including "Bramashavers" and "ytiruces," which is "security" backwards, but they weren't really much harder than the enemies i the sewers, and the number of experience points per combat still hovered below 50. I was looking at more than 80 combats to get to the next character level. The game seem determined to give them to me. Combat in the tower is a lot more frequent than the sewers--literally every step, almost every time I turned, and even if I stood still for more than a few seconds. Clearly, the developers learned nothing from the "grindfest" reputation of their previous games. I soon threw in the towel, but not before I verified that the Obsidian Tower, at least, seemed to use a map not found in the original game.
Do you think they were going for "Burmashaver"?
Ultimately, because of its limitations with encounters, treasure, and equipment, I suspect it would be impossible to replicate any of the original Bard's Tale games using the construction set. Even if you could get close, you certainly wouldn't improve upon them except perhaps a little in graphics and sound. Thus, even with an excellent plot and better-paced character development, the most a Construction Set game would earn on my GIMLET is the original Bard's Tale score of 37. (Today, that seems a smidgen high. It was the first game I rated with the GIMLET and I tended to be generous early on.) I just ran through my experience of Star Light Festival so far and got a 29, highest in "economy" (5) and "graphics and sound" (5), although the sound effects slow things down so much that most players probably play with it off. It earns the lowest scores in NPCs (1), game world (2), quests (2), and gameplay (2). It's simply too long and grindy and doesn't reward the player with a real plot.

I'm going to wave off the encouragement some of you have made to develop my own adventure. If I'm going to take the time to do that, it will be with a kit I really enjoy, like Stuart Smith's (1984) or the upcoming Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures (1993). 
But in an era in which Smith's Adventure Construction Set was seven years old and no one knew FRUA was coming up, The Bard's Tale Construction Set clearly filled a hole. In the July 1992 Dragon, the reviewers gave it 5/5 stars and called it the "finest fantasy role-playing game construction set we've used." In the February 1992 Computer Gaming World, Scorpia was a little more tempered. She covers both its strengths and weaknesses (I mostly echoed her in my last entry), concluding that while it's "definitely rough around the edges and somewhat lacking in polish, it is still a good dungeon editor."
The problem is, I don't see myself as "the ultimate gamemaster."
I was curious how Amiga magazines rated their version, particularly since turn-based gameplay never seems to interest them. The best review (A-) comes in the July 1993 Amiga World, which praises the ease of the editor but predictably (and, to be fair, accurately) calls tile-based movement and "combats up the wazoo" relics of yesteryear. The April 1993 Amiga Format and the March 1993 Amiga Power both said essentially the same things while offering much lower scores: the kit is good for what it does, but The Bard's Tale is no longer an impressive game.

Of course, you know where I stand. I don't think that games get worse just because time passes. I don't think that an engine can no longer be fun just because new ways of designing engines have come along, any more than I think that Casablanca sucks in comparison to Avatar. My problem is that The Bard's Tale was never a good game in the first place. It was always too grindy, too limited in encounter mechanics, and too boring in plot. A kit based on a mediocre game was never going to produce anything but more mediocre games, which is probably why so few Construction Kit games have been completed and cataloged. The same will not be true of the Gold Box engine, but it will unfortunately be some time before we get there.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Game 271: Knights of Xentar (1991)

Knights of Xentar
Elf Co. (developer); MegaTech Software (publisher)
Released 1991 for PC-98, 1992 for FM Towns and Sharp X68000, 1994 for DOS
Date Started: 22 November 2017
If there's some subset of readers chortling in anticipation about what the Puritan CRPG Addict is going to say about an erotic role-playing game, I suppose I'm going to have to disappoint you. Context is everything. Yes, it's a bit weird for nudity to appear in a mainstream RPG, and so I've commented on it when it happens. Commented--not expressed outrage or demanded apologies or indicated that I was somehow scarred by the experience. Then I get a dozen comments misinterpreting what I said, and I spend so much time responding to them that it seems like I care more about the issue than I do.

Rance was an exception. That game actively bothered me. It wasn't about sex or nudity; it was about rape. In a genre where the driving game mechanic is murder--mass-murder if we're being honest--why should we care so much about rape? That's a legitimate question--one that I wrestled with and perhaps did not satisfactorily answer. Perhaps it's that sexual violence is always gratuitous in a way that regular violence is not. Perhaps it's that enjoying scenes of rape has implications that enjoying scenes of regular violence does not. Perhaps it's that there's a good chance that rape has occurred to someone you know--perhaps you yourself--whereas comparatively few of us have been stabbed with swords. All I know is that if there was a version of The Punisher in which Frank Castle systematically sodomized everyone who had wronged him instead of killing them, it would feel messed up--unwatchable and unenjoyable as entertainment--in a way that the regular Punisher does not.

Knights of Xentar doesn't quite have these problems. While there is still something vaguely creepy and exploitative about the number of nude women depicted in the opening stages of an assault, the game at least depicts such situations as wrong, and the hero (at least so far) intervenes to save the women. His own sexual adventures are consensual. As for the nudity, anyone buying the game knew what he was getting. It's not gratuitous; it's half the point of the game. I won't be showing uncensored images in this entry, not because I care but because I don't want Google to flag my blog as containing adult content. Such images are easily searchable.

A typical Xentar scene. At least in this game, the protagonist rescues women in this situation instead of putting them there.
Knights of Xentar is part of the Dragon Knight series from Japanese developer Elf. It was known as Dragon Knight III in Japan, and it's the only game in the series to receive a western release. That release wasn't until 1994, so some of the shots below are a bit more advanced graphically than we typically see for a 1991 game, although they reflect their original PC-98 counterparts. A lot of the text was apparently changed to incorporate more North American references, and the graphics were at least slightly censored, although this is reversible with a patch. To confuse things even more, in 1995 the North American publisher released a second version on CD-ROM with recorded dialogue. I'm pretty sure I'm playing the patched version but without voiced dialogue; I listened to a bit in a YouTube video, and it's pretty bad.

The original Dragon Knight series comprises five titles between 1989 and 1995, all with adult themes. The hero is named Takeru in the Japanese originals, but the default name is "Desmond" here. Dragon Knight was a first-person game in the style of Wizardry in which Takeru saved the all-female kingdom of Strawberry Fields from the titular Dragon Knight. Dragon Knight II is also first-person and concerns Takeru's liberation of the town of Phoenix from a witch queen.
The title screen in the Japanese release.
This third edition changes the interface completely to a third-person oblique-angle perspective. It's the uniquely Japanese style, favored by console games of the era, in which a childlike protagonist bustles about on squat little legs and interacts with people and objects mostly by running headlong into them. The style goes back to the proto-RPG Tower of Druaga (1984) and was made famous in RPGs like Dragon Slayer (1984), Hydlide (1984), and The Ancient Land of Ys (1987) as well as non-RPGs like The Legend of Zelda.

The protagonist in this game is named Desmond (unless you change it), and there's no creation system (which is also common to this type of Japanese RPG). He starts at Level 25 with 255 hit points, 49 dexterity and speed, 56 strength, 25 intelligence, an attack score of 56, and a defensive score of 6.

The back story isn't very inspiring: Desmond wanders drunk into the city of Squalor Hollow (that name's got to be tough on property values) and is immediately set upon by a gang of thugs who steal his weapons, clothing, and jewels. He awakens in the home of an old man named Larrouse and immediately sets out in his birthday suit, determined to recover his gear.
Already, I can identify with the lead character.
The NPCs and shopkeepers in town have various comments on Desmond's state of undress. The town is small, consisting only of a couple of residences, an inn, a tavern, and a weapon shop/pharmacy.
Your clothes. Give them to me.
Desmond's first ribald adventure comes as he enters the tavern, where a gang of bandits is assaulting the tavernkeeper's daughter, Mona. Dialogue is mostly on the main interface screen, but for longer encounters it transitions to full-screen graphics, lightly animated (e.g., the speaker's mouth), with the dialogue text below.
At Level 25, Desmond doesn't need a weapon or clothes.
This encounter resolves automatically, with no player input, as the unclothed Desmond somehow manages to brawl the gang to submission. Before he can reclaim any of his property, they run off, but Mona tells Desmond that they live nearby on Mount Litmus. There, a great demon protects them, and in return for the favor, the bandits "impregnate women with his evil seed," creating half-demons who "do not reveal their true nature until their 19th birthday, when they take a knife to their parents." The town's baron--Don Frump--is offering a bounty to anyone who can end the raids. This being the kind of game it is, Mona conveys all of this while barely concealing her exposed chest with one hand.
Desmond makes a resolution.
Desmond can get 50 sovereigns from the tavernkeeper and then see Don Frump for a leather suit and a knife as an advance on killing the bandits. Frump promises to reclaim Desmond's weapon and armor from the pawn shop if he succeeds in the mission.

For commands, the interface uses menus that can be activated with either the mouse or the SPACE bar. I wish there were keyboard shortcuts for the sub-menu commands, but I have to live with such omissions in most titles. I have no idea what the bar to the right of my name is showing, but everything else is relatively straightforward.
Desmond checks out a menu while wandering the wilderness.
A child NPC told me that the mountain was to the west, so I left the city to try to find it. Leaving brought me to a smaller-scale map, and the mountain wasn't very far. On the way, I fought my first combat--or, more accurately, watched my first combat. Particularly at the beginning of the game, there really isn't anything to do in combat, as the character automatically attacks using the default settings. "Tactics" are found within those settings. The first is an "attack gauge" that, if I understand it correctly, balances speed (lower settings) with power (higher settings). The second sets the balance between offense and defense, and the third determines how you prioritize multiple enemies: weakest first, strongest first, or mix it up to "scatter" everyone.
Doing battle with some giant clams, which seem tougher than they ought to be given the lack of appendages.
For now, I've left the settings at the defaults until I have time to experiment more. It appears that later there will be more in-combat options as I acquire magical capabilities; I assume that's what the grayed-out options like "Earth," "Fire," "Blizzard," and "Thunder" are along the bottom. Right now, the only thing I can do in-combat, other than watch, is use an item like a healing potion.
This enemy, on the other hand, would terrify me in real life.
The mountain led to a windy corridor in which I fought numerous "giant clams" and picked up experience, gold, and the occasional healing potion to keep me going. I leveled up during this process and got boosts to my maximum hit points and attributes. Treasure chests supplied items like smoke grenades and healing potions. I soon ran out of the latter, though, and towards the end of the maze, I had to flee from combats to avoid dying.
Entering my first dungeon.
Eventually, I met the "bandit leader," who revealed himself as a demon and intimated that he had known my mother. He suggested he knew the purpose of the jewels I had been carrying (and lost to the bandits) and mocked me for my own ignorance. I'd assume that he's my father except that he calls me "heavenspawn" at one point. "Why am I so important?" Desmond asks, and he replies, "Why? You truly do not know? That explains why your few thoughts are always nestled between your legs." Ouch. One for you, demon.
Is it just me, or does this demon have a really small head?
Promising that his pillaging was done for now, the demon banished me from the mountain. I returned to Squalor Hollow to learn that Don Frump had gone to some other village to sell jewels--my jewels? Either way, I stayed at the inn to restore hit points, then went to the shop and bought a shield.
The shop menu.
I wasn't sure what to do next, but an NPC told me about a village called "..." to the North. (She acknowledged that an ellipsis was a stupid name.) Heading north, fighting easy battles with slimes, battle bees, and "daos" along the way, I found a passage through the mountains. Don Frump had set up guards to block me, but Larrouse was there and gave me a magic medal that, if I kissed it, would stop time long enough to run past the guards.
That turned out to be a bad idea.
On the other side of the mountain, my health (both current and maximum) depleted rapidly as I entered the nameless city. Checking Desmond's character sheet, I found him busted back down to Level 1, with 0 experience and single digits for all his attributes. As Desmond reacted with despair to the situation, I entered the village and found Frump in what looked like an inn. He said that he had my sword and asked me to follow him into a basement. There were numerous levels of stairs, passing skeletons, before I caught up with him. He called me a fool and revealed his true form as "Byrt, master of hatred." He said that the medal I had kissed was "poisonous to the spawn of Light," accounting for my level loss.
I guess this is the same as the last demon? There's no way to be sure.
The demon prepared to kill me, but some blinding light appeared and drove him away. A woman's voice explained that a group of demons had orchestrated the theft of my equipment and the reduction of my skill, and that I should continue on my quest to find my jewels, sword, and armor. She disappeared, and on the way out of the dungeon, I found Frump restored to his own body, promising to give me a reward for the bandits if I returned to his mansion in Squalor Hollow.

NPC dialogue is clearly a major part of the game, which I admire, but sometimes it goes on a bit too long. Having to take it in one line at a time is a little annoying. Humor is, of course, a key part of the dialogue. Mostly, it pokes fun at Desmond's characterization or RPG and fantasy tropes in general. None of the jokes have been gut-bustingly funny so far, but neither have they been groanworthy. I smirked a few times.
An NPC from the town of ...
On the way back to the city, the same enemies that I'd blown through before gave me much more trouble now that I'm starting over from Level 1. I spent some time hanging around the city--where I can rest to restore hit points--and grinding before heading out to explore more. It didn't take more than 30 minutes to get to Level 6.
After a couple of kills. I acquired a leather helmet at some point, too.
I was just beginning to think that the game's reputation as an eroge was overblown; then I wandered into a random building and found a sentient wolf assaulting an unclad girl on a bed. He killed me in the ensuing combat. Guess I'll have to grind some more.
Did it have to be to the groin?
After the first session, I'm on the fence as to how well Knights of Xentar plays as an RPG. It has some decent elements but no truly outstanding ones. The NPC interaction is nice, but all of the conversations are scripted. Because of that and minimal character creation, there's a strong sense of simply watching the plot rather than participating in it. While I don't care for the graphical style, I admit that in both graphics and sound it feels more like a 1990s game than most of the titles we've seen so far. I hope it doesn't last into the dozens of hours, but I'll be glad to see where it goes for at least 10-12.

Time so far: 3 hours


I had to skip Quarterstaff temporarily while I work out some issues with Mac emulation so I can play the earlier version alongside the later version. It'll probably be the next game.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Game 270: The Bard's Tale Construction Set (1991)

The Bard's Tale Construction Set
United States
Interplay (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga
Date Started: 20 November 2017
Of all the game engines that existed by 1991, The Bard's Tale seems like an odd one for a construction set. The last Bard's Tale game was three years old at this point, and the engine--which had been based on Wizardry--was showing its age even then. Interplay had released several titles in the intervening years with more complex mechanics, including Wasteland (1988), Dragon Wars (1989), and Lord of the Rings, Vol. I (1990). Then again, the only other major commercial RPG construction kit so far--Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set (1984)--had been roundly criticized as being too complicated.

The Bard's Tale kit is odd for a couple other reasons. We learned a long time ago that Interplay's Dragon Wars (1989) was originally going to be The Bard's Tale IV, but Electronic Arts, the publisher for the first three games, held the rights to the name and wouldn't let Interplay use it unless EA was the publisher. (Honestly, has EA never not had a rubbish reputation?) I'm curious what changed in the intervening two years, as here we are with a Bard's Tale title with no EA involvement.
Games made with the construction kit look and play like a combination of the three games in the series.
Nor, I should add, is there any involvement from the creators of The Bard's Tale and its two sequels. The names showing up on this title are names that we'll remember--names that will appear on titles like Fallout and the Infinity Engine games--but we're mostly seeing them for the first time.
I don't know if I would have been excited about a construction set using the Bard's Tale engine in 1991. It was adequate for its era but only adequate. It offers nothing on Wizardry except for graphics. More than any other series, I think The Bard's Tale benefits from a nostalgia factor that overpowers the reality of average games with minimal lore, goofy plots, and far too much grinding.
The first one is the best of the lot. The second and third, by starting characters at extremely high levels, basically negate any sense of accomplishment that come with character development. Thus, I've had a reasonable amount of fun with the sample scenario, titled Star Light Festival, and the difficult opening stages that it offers. There's something about a game that makes you play for a couple of hours before rewarding you with a pair of leather gloves. Minus 1 AC for one character, baby!
Building a dungeon level with the map editor.
I don't know how much time I'll spend messing around with the construction set itself. It has too many limitations. There's no way to abandon a high fantasy setting. The races, classes, and attributes are hard-coded. All maps have to be 22 x 22 (though of course you can wall-in some of the space). You can't adjust the pace of leveling or the advancement of rogue skills. You can't tie the effectiveness of spells to the level of the caster. You can make your own items and spells, but you have a list of effects more limited than the original three games. Stores will only sell the first nine items on your equipment list. You cannot rename shops; the equipment shop is always Garth's. Perhaps most annoying given the title of the game, you can't define your own list of bard songs.
The shop never has more than one small page of merchandise.
The list of special encounter options is reasonably long. When you tag a map square with a special encounter, you write a script to go with it, which can consist of various conditional tests or even user prompts (e.g., for riddles) and can result in text, bestowal or removal of items, bestowal of experience, and modification of attributes. Still, the potential for navigation puzzles is fairly weak, as it is in the original series, and while you can include spinners and darkness squares and such, you can't construct puzzles involving pits and pressure plates a la Dungeon Master. That would be a cool construction set.

Worst of all, you can't even give a name to your compiled game or create a title screen with your name. Every completed game, including the sample one, just starts with the main Construction Set screen. On the plus side, once you compile the game, it runs directly from an executable with no need for the original disks or engine. A BTCS game can be shared with anyone regardless of whether they own the Construction Set. I gather that isn't true of most kit games.
Defining a monster with the monster editor.
Anyway, the CRPG Addict is addicted to playing RPGs, not building them. Thus, I've been spending most of my time with the sample scenario. I figured it would be short and inconsequential, but it's shaping up to be as long as the original Bard's Tale. The setup is that your amateur party has come to the village of Isil Thania for an annual "Star Light Festival," but something ominous seems to be happening in town. At a bar, the party hears a rumor to ask the bartender for wine, thus opening the way to the first dungeon.
The game mostly uses the updated engine from The Bard's Tale III. Enemies can start at range and there are ranged weapons, neither of which was possible in the first Bard's Tale. Graphics have been updated to VGA. Sound is weird. They went through the trouble of recording advanced effects that you need a proper sound card to hear, but there are only about five of them. Every enemy has the same Wilhelm-esque death scream. Every spell sounds like a magic missile thwapping someone, including healing spells and the bard's restoration of his vocal cords when he buys a drink. Sound slows down combat so much that it's better to play with it off.
The party lights up the wine cellar.
Although all five spellcasting classes from the original game are here--conjurer, magician, sorcerer, wizard, and archmage--there are far, far fewer spells, basically two per level through level 3, and then one per level after that. To cast spells, you need to know their four-letter code, so you have to have the documentation.
Gone is the ability from the second two Bard's Tale games to save the game independent of the characters. You have to return to the adventurer's guild to save. I like the difficulty associated with this, but not the limited gameplay, as basically the dungeons never "clear" and the only way to measure progress through the game is via inventory.
Characters start at Level 1. There's a default party, but I scrapped it to make my own. Races are human, elf, dwarf, hobbit, half-elf, half-orc, and gnome. Classes are warrior, paladin, rogue, bard, hunter, monk, and the five spellcasting classes, although you can only start as a magician or conjurer (you have to switch to the others later). Attributes are strength, IQ, dexterity, constitution, and luck, and the attribute rolls during character creation are not generous. There is no explicit option for sex, and all portraits show male characters. You can make up to 7 characters, but as with the previous games, you generally want to leave a slot open for NPCs.
Rolling a new character.
Isil Thania is a 22 x 22 city full mostly of empty houses, although it does have more going on than the original game's Skara Brae. In addition to the guild and equipment shop, there's a separate archery shop, Roscoe's Energy Emporium (which recharges spell points), the Review Board (increases levels and confers spells), four bars, and three temples. There's an odd building where you can get random rumors. 
This is new to this game.
The streets are far less deadly than Skara Brae, thankfully. Most enemy parties are easily defeated at the first level. The downside is that they don't offer much in the way of gold or experience. It costs 2,000 experience points to get to Level 2, and the average town party might award you 5 or 7. So unlike the first game, you don't want to spend a lot of time grinding in town; you want to go right for the dungeons.
This is sure going to take a while.
There are signs that there will be several. The first is the wine cellar of the first bar; just like in The Bard's Tale, you enter by ordering wine. The first level even uses the same map as the wine cellar in Skara Brae. Elsewhere in the city, denizens of a tower demand to know who sent me, a giant slab appears to want some kind of code, and one entire quadrant is blocked by locked gates. I assume these will all have dungeons behind them.
I guess I'll be back later with the key.
The default monsters in the kit, and the ones used by Star Light Festival, are standard D&D-style creatures like goblins, orcs, giant rats, and skeletons. This is unusual for the series, which until now has reveled in creating hundreds of bizarrely-named creatures like "muck-yuckers" and "hell minks" whose strengths and weaknesses you must learn through extensive trial and error. 
I don't think this is anyone's understanding of what a "goblin" looks like.
Combat is unchanged from the second two Bard's Tale games (or Wasteland or Dragon Wars for that matter). Initial encounter options are to attack in melee range, attack with a ranged weapon (if you have one), advance closer (if the enemy starts at range), or flee. Once in melee combat, you have options to attack, defend, cast a spell, use an item, play a bard song (for bards), or hide in shadows (for rogues). You line up your action for each character and watch them carry them out, interspersed with the enemies' actions, in sequence. (FYI for those considering playing, it's an undocumented feature that the + and - keys speed up and slow down the speed of the message scroll; you'll definitely want to speed it up.)
Combat actions scroll by in a bout against some wolves.
The magician in Star Light Festival gets a healing spell at Level 1, which is nice, but you can only cast it about three times before you're out of spell points, and spell points restore slowly: one every five minutes in real time, double that if the bard is playing the "Rhyme of Duotime," but only outside during the day. There's no "rest" mechanic to restore health or magic. Thus, most of your gold goes to the temples and Roscoe's.
Roscoe has gotten a bit weird.
Even in the first level of the dungeon, experience rewards are paltry enough that for a long time your only mechanisms for development are inventory acquisitions. It's a real treat to find that first pair of gauntlets, or to swap out your starting broadsword for a magic sword.
The first level of the Wine Cellar.
I mapped the first level of the wine cellar while only getting about one-quarter of the way to the second character level. There were some fixed treasures and combats but no special encounters or messages. I haven't quite hit the six hours yet, so I guess I'll give it a little longer while I research a bit more about the reception of the Construction Kit and what kinds of games were made with it.

Time so far: 4 hours