Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Deathlord: Mizu no Sekai

The party nears the solution of the first major quest.
After my negatively-toned entry about Deathlord last time, I decided this time to slow down and try to re-create how I would have felt about the game if it was 1987 and the only game that I'd purchased that year.

In that sense, it performs better. Yes, the game map is indecently large, but it's worth noting that an enormous amount of content is optional (including, I think, all the dungeons on the main continent except the one under the castle), so you could explore and discover without feeling too bad about missing things. Yes, the permadeath still makes it crazy difficult, but that makes every new level feel like a major victory. And in fairness, I should note that the spell system gives you more tactical opportunities in combat than the typical Ultima clone, including some spells that allow you to retreat from hopeless combats. I should also note that the game is not stingy on gold. It knows that you're going to need to resurrect, cure poison, and cure paralysis a lot, and it gives intrepid players enough money to do that.

Still, I can't force myself to play with permadeath rules intact. I just can't. I've tried to limit my saving to once every 30 minutes, which is hard enough given the difficulty of some foes. Repeatedly during this session, I thought I was doing fine, felt that I was finally over the hump, enjoying some dungeon level or another, and then suddenly encountered an enemy capable of mass-damage spells or critical hits that wiped out half my party in the first round. Back in the day, I would have suffered two or three such incidents and then spent 200 hours grinding before even trying to explore the rest of the game.

As it happened, I did start this session with a fair amount of grinding, trying to recover from last session's level drains. When I was up to Level 4, and starting to get two attacks for some of my fighters, I took on the "diamyo" of Kawa, allowing myself to save before the battle. Battles within cities are particularly hard because you have to give the enemy the first attack. If you pre-emptively attack, no matter how hostile the enemy is, the entire town turns against you.
A daimyƍ was a feudal lord. I'm not sure what this is.
It took about five reloads to get a favorable outcome. The diamyo's death rewarded me with a Rod of Death, which I guess is a pretty good weapon.

Kawa also had another surprise. In an area hidden by secret doors, I found the "Yakuza Guild." Upon entry, I was swarmed with parties of yakuza. These thieves aren't trivially easy, but neither are they particularly hard, and they served as good test objects for my spells. They both delivered a reasonable amount of gold and were guarding piles of treasure chests.
Fortunately, the exit is just one step away.
The guild had a lower level with even more groups of enemies, some of them a little tougher. These included ninjas capable of critical hits. But smart use of spells and occasional retreats to safe ground allowed me to clear them enough to get their treasure. Because the parties kept respawning, the guild was a great place for grinding, and I got to Level 6 in short order, which opened up a new level of spells for my spellcasters.

Feeling stronger, I decided to chase rumors about someone named "Kawahara" lurking in the dungeons beneath the emperor's palace. I wasn't expecting the size and length of the complex, which consisted of six large levels with multiple secret doors, illusory doors, teleporters, and pit traps. I'm sure I didn't find close to everything. Some highlights:
In fact, both doors descended to different areas and neither led to my doom.

A secret door leads to a single square surrounded by water. Guess what's to my right?
A long time ago, an NPC had told me to "step east on the second drop."
Whatever's over there, I guess I don't want it that badly.
A teleporter in the corridor kicks you back one step without warning, so it seems like you move "south" forever. You have to find the secret doors on the side to get around.
In general, the dungeons in this game are well-designed. There's only so much you can accomplish with tiles and 1987 technology, but the developers pushed that envelope, and I think the results are superior to both Ultima (at least through V) and Wizardry. Secret doors mostly mask optional locations (e.g., treasure rooms) rather than mandatory ones, so you only have to exhaustively search the walls if you care about every last gold piece. The number of combats is challenging but not overwhelming. The walls make interesting patterns and encircle underground lakes, forests, pools of lava, and other fun environmental features. Treasure is plentiful, although I wish there were more equipment upgrades amidst all the gold.

Eventually, I found my way to Kawahara. Of course, he proved about 20 times more difficult than any other enemy in the dungeon, launching a spell that killed three characters in the first round of combat. Playing honestly would have meant escaping from combat, returning to the surface (without getting killed by other monsters), and resurrecting the three characters. If I wasn't going to do that, I should have at least fled after reloading and forced myself to grind some more. But instead I kept reloading and trying different buffing spells until either that or luck kept us alive for enough rounds to kill the wizard. I felt a little pathetic after the battle and decided that will be the last time that I abuse saves in such a way.
My first attempt didn't go so well.
Kawahara had a note on his corpse that read as follows:
To his most noble countenance, the Emperor of Demons and Lord of Death!

Greetings, master! I have done your bidding and sent forth the initial wave of creatures that were readied for the invasion of the kingdom. I have also ordered a contingent of skeletons to loot and pillage the surrounding area. 
Part of the incriminating document.
It is my duty to inform you that your legions have met with stiffer resistance than was anticipated and although they managed to raze the town of Gold Rock, the wizard somehow escaped, destroying fully half of the army in an explosion the like of which I had not known was possible.

I am currently in the process of restoring the bulk of the army sufficiently to allow me to crush the Emperor and send his soul to your domain, that he may suffer for the inconvenience that his treason has cost.

Your servant, Kawahara.
Interesting stuff there. "Gold Rock" would seem to be a proper name that was overlooked in the conversion to Japanese. I think it probably refers to the town called Yokohama elsewhere, though it doesn't seem to be a translation of the original.

I took the letter to the Emperor. I was hoping that he'd give me a reward, but he just told me to go to "Oceanspray," take a boat, find the Deathlord, and "don't return until he is no more!"
This may be a good time for everyone to recall that I'm doing you a favor.
"Oceanspray" is another English name that was missed in translation, and it took me a while to realize that it referred to the town of Tokushima. (If I'm not mistaken, this translates as something like "profit island," which would have been a better replacement for "Gold Rock." Even more confusingly, the map that came with the game labels the boat city as Tokugawa and an eastern city as Tokushima, but from in-game text, I'm 99% sure the names are supposed to be reversed.) Boats normally cost 10,000 gold there, but after the Emperor's decree, I was able to board one without paying.
Or maybe I just stole it.
Before I spent any time on the high seas, I wanted to finish exploring the mainland. I spent a lot of time in the ruins called Wakiza, which supposedly hid pirate treasure. I found a secret passage I had missed before (probably because you have to walk through deadly swamp to get to it) and found myself in another multi-leveled system of caverns and corridors. I got down to the fifth level, which opened up into a maze of canals (with boats supplied) and thin walkways of land between them. But I got attacked there by "sea dragons," capable of killing my characters in one hit, and I adhered to my previous vow not to save-scum to defeat them. I marked the area for later return and limped my way back to the surface.
If I was playing under the game's intended rules, I would now have to somehow escape combat, make it all the way back up 5 levels with one character and 4 hit points, and make my way to the castle for resurrection. Or, more likely, start completely over with a new party.
I also explored the ruins of Yokohama. Even though the town was destroyed, the game still saved every time I initiated an attack against a party of skeletons or whatnot, just as it does in "real" cities. The whole area was filled with poison squares and I soon got sick of threading my way through them. I need to spend more time there to discover if there are any remaining NPCs amid all the monsters.
Note the subtle difference between poison squares to the left of the sign and non-poison squares to the right.
Finally, I retrieved the boat from Tokushima. Before leaving, I explored the northwest quadrant of the city, accessible only by boat, but it just had a tavern and a small treasure chamber. I then took the boat around the continent to the city of Tokugawa, which I'd already explored except for a small island in the southeast.

The game does something interesting with cities that I forgot to mention. Unlike Ultima, you don't enter a city by standing on it. Instead, you stand next to it, hit (E)nter, and specify a direction. The position from which you enter the city determines where you end up once the city map loads. If you enter from the north, you'll end up at the north side of the city map.

In the case of Tokugawa, there's an island in the southeast part of the city, and I wanted to see whether I'd be able to access it if I entered the city while still in my boat. It worked, making Deathlord the only game of this type that I know where you can sail your boat into a city. The island had a sign labeling it "Bone Island," and it just had one NPC. That NPC, when given gold, told me to seek Senju "between the two rivers," somewhere to the north.
North on this continent or north to another continent? Or north within this city?
Other NPCs had previously told me to "find Senju," and I suspect he's the wizard mentioned in Kawahara's letter.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • I don't care what game you're playing, there is little more infuriating than casting the equivalent of "Cure Light Wounds" on a character who really needs it and having it heal 1 hit point.
  • The maximum amount of gold a single character can carry is 10,000. Not 9,999: 10,000. What the hell?
  • Speaking of gold, my failure to adhere to permadeath means I have a lot more of it than I probably should. I can't think of anything to spend it on. Perhaps the other continents will offer opportunities, or perhaps the various NPCs will turn out to be right and my ships will get stolen frequently, forcing me to spend 10,000 on new ones.
There would be more joy in these moments if I knew there was a naginata +5 waiting in some weapon shop.
  • I found a sword called "Dragonslayer" at one point and took a screen shot of finding it, but I can't remember what circumstances preceded this.

Now I just have to find a dragon.
  • There are multiple creatures, pit traps, and chest traps that result in poison. Given that, it takes an awfully long time for characters to get a "cure poison" spell. I won't have it for two more character levels; I have to rely on a "slow poison" spell and healers until then.
  • Environmental changes are permanent in this game. There's no looting the same treasure room multiple times. I have noticed, however, that smashed doors seem to get repaired and closed again eventually.
  • When you step on a staircase, you automatically ascend or descend. Once you get to the destination, you have about two seconds to move before the game automatically "waits" a turn and sends you back to where you came from.
Trapped in an endless loop.
I started exploring the ocean, and all I can say is, the actual map bears no resemblance to the back of the box that someone linked me to. I went hundreds of squares in multiple directions and found no other land at all. Finally, I pushed off from the northern coast and figured I'd sail until I hit something or returned to where I started. After like three minutes of holding down the north button and going through multiple loading screens and one disk change, I finally came to the southern shore of a new island. If there's this much space between landmasses, I may have to break down and look at an online map.
I know it's a new shore because I've never seen those mountain textures before.
I didn't save here, though, because I have a lot left to do back on the first continent, including the lower levels of Wakiza and the eastern caves. Some wizard named Yang still menaces the southeast quadrant of Tokushima, and there's an imprisoned demon in the Emperor's palace. I don't know if any of it is necessary for the main quest, but I think I'm going to stick around until at least the fourth spell level.
Time so far: 32 hours


  1. Well the game box says 16 continents maybe this is one of those games that allows you to sail anywhere while giving you a teleporter at convenient plot points ?

  2. One more thing Mizu no sekai transliterated is water world but unless you also find the right kanji it also means complite gibberish for google to translate it seems.

    1. It could be a world filled with sporting goods from a Japanese brand.

    2. Google Translate gets really confused by spaces in terms that are written with a mix of kana and kanji in Japanese, since in the original the change of alphabet serves as punctuation, actual spaces are very rarely used.

      Type in "mizunosekai" and it should work.

  3. Well, the difference between poison and non-poison squares is actually quite big for me: both are green, but one are quite dark green, and other are much lighter green. When they are next to each other, there is no way I'd mistake one for the other, and I guess even if I only saw one of the textures at once it would be quite easy for me to tell the difference. But since both are still very much green, I guess this is one of those times where old-time games just aren't very considered about color-blindness...

  4. It is my duty to inform you that your legions have met with stiffer resistance than was anticipated and although they managed to raze the town of Gold Rock, the wizard somehow escaped, destroying fully half of the army in an explosion the like of which I had not known was possible.

    That is a really cool sentence, especially the last part about the explosion.

    1. I thought the same thing. The entire letter is quite well written and evocative, to the point where I felt a short but intense desire to play this game, despite the ample warnings I received through Chet's accounts of it.
      This latest entry really made it look much better in general. Back in the day (if I hadn't been only a year old by the game's release) I would have enjoyed the game a lot. That said, I would have found some way or another around the permadeath, as that concept strikes me as simply absurd for a game of this scope. Hell, if it wasn't for the clunky UI, I could actually see myself playing it today, just to experience the apparently well-constructed world firsthand (half-assed pseude-japanese shenanigans aside). For a number of reasons though, reading about Chet's experience will do nicely.

  5. I do recall having fun playing this game. I didn't get off the first continent though. It was fun and frustrating. I hated leveling up and only getting one or two additional hit-points, and like you said casting a heal spell and getting a one point. I think I stopped playing this game when I got Wasteland... and never looked back after that. Oddly enough, reading your post today makes me want to fire up the C64 emulator and go back and play this game again. I already downloaded the manual character reference card... just need to track down the software. I'm sure Lemon 64 will lead me to what I need.

  6. It's good to see you got a rhythm going with this one, I'm interested to see how it ends!

    The title though... it makes me laugh, it reminds me of the terrible generic action movie in Seinfeld called "Deathblow". Why would they go to the trouble of crafting a complex CRPG that actually exceeds Ultima's IV and V in some areas only to give it such an insipid and generic name?

    1. Probably because kids like me in the late 80s would have seen that name and said "That sounds rad as shit!"

  7. I wouldn't feel too bad about using save states. I once read an interview with the developer where he regretted the permadeath feature. Even he thought it was silly in retrospect.

    1. I would love to read that interview. I'll have to go looking for it.

    2. It's on RPG Codex. I link to it in the next posting which, unfortunately for the enthusiasts in this comment section, will be the last posting, at least for a while.

  8. I just googled for a world map of this game and it looks like the other continents may be difficult to find by random sailing. And yes, it doesn't look much like the back of the box

    1. The world is actually like the back of the box (I remember the world map being inside the covers), just with a lot more water between the islands/continents. I've never finished the game, but I would guess crpgaddict is about 25% of the way through.

    2. "A lot more" being "so much more that you have absolutely no hope of finding those other continents/islands if you rely solely on the box's positioning."

  9. Deathlord was a mix of fun and frustration for me, as these posts and more than one commenter on them have said. I loved the idea of an Asian-themed RPG and found the game, despite the crudity of its graphics and sound, to be weirdly atmospheric.

    The interface wearied one after a while, though, and perma-death just frustrated the hell out of me. Never got beyond the first continent, but re-started the game several times, determined to get it right...obviously never did. (My characters were always named after Sithi from Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy as they had a strong Asiatic flavor to them.)

    This might be fun to play again in odd hours here and there.

  10. Long time reader.

    I've had a major love/hate relationship with this game. Priding myself on beating just about every CRPG I've put my hands on, this one the "W" eluded me. I've come back to it via emulator a couple times over the years. My best effort got me to some crazy pyramid dungeon that felt, for all intensive purposes, unmappable. I know I was pretty far along that attempt.

    Anyway, great game despite it beating me. I'm hoping I can vicariously get my win through reading your posts. :)

    -- Adam

    1. I too ended inside a labyrinth in a pyramid in which there seemed to be no way back out. I also think often of going back to this game for another try. Playing via emulator and thus having save states would, at the least, be easier than playing on the Apple IIe with the drive door open.

  11. The Exile series supported entering locations by boat. The second game in particular used this capability to design some very memorable locations (there's an entire setpiece called "Black Waters" that is probably the most effective use of water/boats in RPG history).

    I wonder if Jeff Vogel ever played Deathlord. In a lot of ways, Exile resembles it more closely than Ultima. No permadeath, though!


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