Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Plot Continuity Across Sequels (ft. Crusaders of the Dark Savant)

Crusaders of the Dark Savant is the first game for which this import process has implications beyond character attributes and equipment.
If a developer allows meaningful choices in the game, how does he reflect the consequences of those choices in sequels? This question grows more and more pertinent as the years pass, and meaningful choices become a greater expectation among RPG players. Indeed, it is common on today's blogs and discussion forums for players to insist that meaningful choices--affecting the direction of the plot and the ending of the game--are an essential part of a role-playing game. Such a claim ignores most of the history of RPGs, in which the only choice most players had was whether to attack with a sword or an axe, but I'm willing to allow that true role-playing choices might become an essential characteristic of a twenty-first century RPG.

The issue becomes pertinent for essentially the first time in Crusaders of the Dark Savant (1992), a sequel to a game in which the player's choices could produce one of three different endings. This isn't quite the first time this happened, but previous "alternate endings" were either just creative deaths (i.e., ways of not winning the game), such as the "bad" endings of Dungeon Master (1987), Ultima V (1988), Pool of Radiance (1988), or The Magic Candle (1989), or alternate paths that funneled to the same basic ending, as in the Quest for Glory series (1988-1992), Dragon Wars (1989), Sword of Aragon (1989), or Disciples of Steel (1991). Prior to Wizardry VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge (1990), the only game I can think of that offered true alternate ways of winning the game was the roguelike Omega (1988), and it didn't have a sequel. Slightly earlier, however, Phantasie II (1986) and III (1987) chanced some introductory dialogue depending on whether the party was created or imported, reflecting the player's choice to have finished the previous games at all.

Phantasie III has Filmon say that Nikademus would "never suspect you" if you're a new party. If you're imported, he tells you that he chose you because you'd already defeated his minions before.
I haven't played a lot of games post-1992, but my read is that alternate endings aren't necessarily common even through the modern era. The Elder Scrolls games, excepting Daggerfall, basically just have one. The Infinity Engine games may have offered a lot of roleplaying in between the beginnings and ends, but they all ended basically the same. There are some notable exceptions--Fallout New Vegas, Fallout 4, the Mass Effect series, and the Dragon Age series all come to mind--but I'd be surprised if more than half of modern RPGs, no matter how many branches they offer along the way, end in more than one place.

On the other hand, even games that don't offer multiple endings tend, these days, to include significant player-influenced changes in the world state between the beginning and the end. The main quest of Skyrim might end in the same place for everyone, but along the way either the Empire or the Stormcloaks won the war, the Dark Brotherhood is either destroyed or has just assassinated the Emperor, the Thieves' Guild either revived or hiding in some sewers, the world either plunged into eternal night or not. These are not factors that will be possible to ignore in any sequel just because every player "defeated Alduin."

So now that The Elder Scrolls VI is at least partly announced, what is Bethesda going to do? Based on previous games, there are several options:

1. Adopt one set of possibilities as canon. This option renders many players' choices meaningless, but it's easiest on the developers. It also tends to fit with what most players did by default anyway. So although you can end Baldur's Gate with any of about 20 NPCs in your party, the developers figure at least 50% of us are going to have played with Imoen, Minsc, Jaheira, Khalid, and Dynaheir, and Baldur's Gate II begins accordingly. In a less-obvious use of this option, most sequels assume that the players finished all the side quests and expansions in the course of winning the previous game, and thus have no problem introducing NPCs, enemies, and objects that some players may never have encountered (e.g., the player of Ultima VII Part Two starts with the Black Sword even if he never played the Forge of Virtue expansion to the first part). The developers basically have to choose this option if they want to include the game as part of a larger universe along with films and books.
A line in Skyrim assumes the player finished the Shivering Isles expansion.
2. Set the sequel so far away in time and space that it doesn't matter. Based on player choices, the world state at the end of Oblivion might look quite different from one Hero of Kvatch to the next, but 200 years later, during the events of Skyrim, no one cares who was head of the Fighter's Guild in a different province at the end of the Third Era. Similarly, Fallout IV makes no references to the choices made by the protagonist of Fallout: New Vegas because there's no communication between Nevada and Massachusetts, and both places have their own problems.

3. Account for all the possibilities. This one is pretty rare, and insane when it happens, but it's featured quite notably in Oblivion and Skyrim to explain the events in Daggerfall. Depending on player choices in that game--the only Elder Scrolls game so far to offer multiple endings--the giant golem Numidium is activated in support of one faction (or not) and political boundaries are reconfigured to the favor of one or more factions. To deal with all possibilities, future games feature a book called The Warp in the West that basically says at the end of Daggerfall, time "broke," Numidium was seen at multiple places, all possibilities occurred, and a trio of gods had to intervene to untangle the mess, resulting in a stable political state among four new kingdoms. 

In a less dramatic option, games after Morrowind don't take a stand on whether the Nerevarine killed the gods of the Tribunal. They're gone, sure, but maybe they disappeared on their own.

(As an aside, one of the things I love about the Elder Scrolls lore is how many distant past events can be interpreted as if they were the results of multiple player choices retconned into the same kind of a "warp" that the developers used to explain the end of Daggerfall. Take, for example, the many conflicting characterizations of Tiber Septim. Who was he originally? Where was he from? Was he the noble hero who united an empire or the lecherous villain who seduced Barenziah and then forced her to abort their love child? Did he become a god? What about the events at Red Mountain? Did Vivec kill Nerevar? What happened to the dwarves? The implication is that major characters of Tamriel's past, like Tiber Septim and Vivec, were player characters whose stories could have gone multiple ways. Their games just haven't been developed.)

4. Dynamically adapt the plot and world state of the sequel to reflect the player's choices. This is the rarest and most admirable option, and I can't think of any series that does it better than Dragon Age. The games certainly have their flaws, but attention to player choice isn't one of them. Inquisition is particularly well done. Choices both major and minor in the two previous games determined everything from the leaders of nations to the specific NPCs the player encounters, and where. (If you didn't play the previous games, you just got defaults.) The effects on the world state, the available NPCs in the game, and the direction of the plot are significant enough that players who made different choices in Origins and Dragon Age II face very different games when they get to Inquisition. (I should also note that this dedication to adapting the world state extends to the minor expansions as well as the major titles; both Awakening and Witch Hunt for Origins start very differently depending on choices made during the main campaign.) I understand that the Mass Effect series offers the same attention to this kind of detail.
The "Dragon Age Keep" web site lets you set the world state from the first two games, greatly enhancing continuity as you begin Dragon Age: Inquisition.
While I characterize Option 4 as the most "admirable," it's also somewhat understandable when developers don't take it. It greatly expands the amount of content that they have to create, much of which will never be seen by most players. It's probably unsustainable across more than three games; certainly, it's hard to imagine Bioware accounting for all choices in Inquisition plus the two previous games if they make a fourth one.

On the other hand, it's horribly disappointing for the player to start a sequel and find that his choices in the previous game are ignored. Some games adopt a compromise between Option 1 and Option 4, using player choices in previous games to tweak a few variables (which might affect dialogue options) but otherwise offer the same gameplay experience. I seem to remember Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II going this route, changing a few scenes based on the result of some (clumsy) dialogue options at the beginning, but otherwise making some assumptions about how the first game progressed.

It's easy to think of Option 4 as the most advanced option, and thus the one we expect to see later in the development of RPGs. In fact, if it was going to be commonplace, its best chance was in the 1990s, just as meaningful choices became more common, but before reacting to those choices meant significant chances to graphics and voiced dialogue. A developer can afford to be generous with simple text adaptations.

And thus we begin Crusaders of the Dark Savant with three separate sets of opening scenes, each with different text, but sharing many of the same graphics.
All opening narratives show this scene, but they all use different text depending on whom the party is with.
If the party ended Bane of the Cosmic Forge having rejected the queen, overseeing the suicide of the vampire king, and heading off into space with a friendly dragon named Bela, they soon find that Bela has made friends (over the radio) with the Umpani, a race of intelligent pachyderms. He relates the story of Guardia and the Astral Dominae and warns the party of the other factions seeking to possess it, including the Dark Savant and his T'Rang allies. They arrive at Guardia at the same time as the Dark Savant. Bela drops the party off in the forest to start looking for the Astral Dominae while he himself chases after the Dark Savant to find out what he's up to.
Bela talks about his new friends.
If the party ended Bane by trying to take the Cosmic Forge only to be intercepted by the android Aletheides, Savant begins by having Aletheides explain that he's been sent to retrieve the pen by the Lords of the Cosmic Circle. He relates the threat to the universe now that Guardia has been discovered, and he enlists the party to accompany him so they can find the Astral Dominae before the Dark Savant. Since he has to return to the Lords with the Forge, he drops off the party in the woods on Guardia and then takes off.
Aletheides lays out his plan.
If the party ended Forge by killing everyone and boarding Bela's ship on their own, they're soon swallowed up by the Dark Savant's frigate. The Savant clearly states his intention to challenge the Lords of the Cosmic Circle and "end their stranglehold on the Destiny of the Stars." He demands that the party assist in his search for the Astral Dominae and has them fly to Guardia on a T'Rang ship, where again they land in the woods to begin their adventure.
The Dark Savant offers no chance to object.
Finally, if the player didn't complete Bane at all--or didn't play it--the game assumes that they're treasure-seekers who found the Cosmic Forge in a temple on a random world. Just as in the second option, Aletheides reaches them just before they take the pen and enlists them in his mission. As with everyone else, the party begins in the woods.

Although all parties start in a forest, they're different forests, on different maps, and thus begin the game with quite different experiences. And because my understanding is that Savant is quite nonlinear, they probably continue with different experiences as well. What I don't yet know is whether choices made in Bane affect anything in Savant other than the backstory and starting location. Do the various factions begin predisposed to like or dislike you? Does Bela show up again if you didn't kill him? Those types of adaptations would be admirable, but perhaps a little too much to expect this early in the era.

I was able to download other players' saved games to experience the different beginnings above, but in 1992, I would have been out of luck. Knowing that there were different beginnings to Savant would have made me eager to re-play Bane, independently of what I thought of its replayability as a stand-alone game, the same way that Inquisition has made me want to replay the previous games in the Dragon Age series. Thus, we see that good attention to continuity can increase the replayability of not only the current game but previous ones in the series.

Continuity of character is, of course, a separate consideration from continuity of plot. It is also far more common. We saw it as early as 1979, with the ability to move the same character among multiple Dunjonquest modules, and most classic game series--Wizardry, Ultima, Phantasie, The Bard's Tale, the Gold Box games--have allowed you to continue the same character or party across at least one sequel. There was even a period in the mid-1980s when you could move the same characters between franchises. As a kid, this was far more important to me than it is now. Today, I find that such games either reduce imported characters to the point that they're hardly better than new characters or they're so overpowered that they ruin the game. A few franchises--the Gold Box and Baldur's Gate come to mind--have done a good job achieving balance, but on the whole I like that the modern inclination is to retain the universe but start each game with a new hero.

In that spirit, for my "real" Savant party, I'll be starting over from scratch with a new set of characters, partly because I enjoy the early levels the most, and partly because the game assumed I did that anyway (I must have screwed up something with my saved game in Bane). We'll pick up with the adventures of the new party in New City after a detour to investigate the German Die Dunkle Dimension.

In the meantime, which continuity options do you prefer? What games best exemplify them? What other methods have you seen for reflecting player choices across the game's universe?

Monday, August 27, 2018

Citadel of Vras: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

That verse / is all over the place with its meter and rhyming scheme / but what's even worse / is that I spent 15 hours on the game and only got this winning screen.
Citadel of Vras
Independently developed; distributed by Megadisc
Released in 1989 for Amiga
Date Started: 5 August 2018
Date Ended: 22 August 2018
Total Hours: 15
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 24
Ranking at time of posting: 117/305 (38%)
Citadel of Vras started with a quest from the Galactic Federation of Planets to find the Talisman of Truth before the pirate Sarkov could get to it. By the time I reached the end of the game, I had essentially forgotten the framing story (referenced only obliquely throughout). This is par for the course with the Bard's Tale line, which has always been more about combat mechanics and inventory than story.
The game consisted of 3 levels of the Nigris moon, 1 level on Vras's surface, 2 levels in the ruins of Vras, and 3 in the titular Citadel of Vras, all with relatively convenient teleporters (with codes you have to discover) back to the Nigris base for shopping and leveling. Each level requires some amount of puzzle solving before proceeding to the next level.
Getting from the Citadel back to Nigris involved inserting a floppy disk into a computer and getting the code.
The three citadel levels each introduced a new demonic foe. Level 1 has the Demon of Greed, Level 2 the Demon of Fear, and Level 3 the Demon of Power. All are immune to psychic attacks and must be encountered multiple times. When you fight them, they inevitably kill one character, but combat with them only lasts one round before they take off. After a few such combats (and associated resurrections), you finally defeat them. If you haven't defeated them by the time you reach the last square in the level, they remain there and block you until you do.
The Demon of Greed attacks me in a random encounter.

Finally defeating the Demon of Power.
The other obstacles are mostly doors that require a special key or codeword. Usually, the codewords refer to lore within the game or its framing story, but occasionally (as we saw with the Thorium riddle), you have to bring in outside knowledge of mythology or science. "Red, Green, and ______," one door on Level 2 demanded, testing your knowledge of additive color models. At another one, you have to know that Jedi use the FORCE (though not in this game).

Monsters encountered on the last levels included Dark Jedi, Shambleaus (which drain levels unless you have silver amulets in the party), Galactic Grues, Martian Erms, Trimantars, and Light Worms (which blind you). Combats got progressively more ridiculous. Basically, after the second Vras level, any combat is capable of wiping out the entire party if the enemies get the initiative. You don't get any chance to react or prevent it. "Greet" or "Retreat" are horrible options because when they don't work, the enemy gets a free round and kills everyone. Every battle becomes a quick-draw in which either the party acts first and is able to kill or incapacitate the enemies while taking no damage, or the enemy acts first and the party is destroyed and must reload. I must have reloaded 100 times on the final three levels alone. 
Fighting a Sith lord toddler.
The game also became fond of life-draining traps such as pits, walls of fire, and corridors that sap hit points for no reason. Fortunately, I had spells like "Heal All" when things got too low. I also found healing crystals and energy crystals that, when in your possession, greatly increase spell and hit point restoration rates.
I lost far more hit points to these than to enemies.
On Level 2 of the Citadel, I encountered the pirate Sarkov, who died quite fast and had on his body a sonic key, needed to progress to Level 3.
Poor little guy. He doesn't even have any minions.
Level 3 was mostly just a standard maze of rooms and corridors. The compass went haywire and stopped working. Some of the doors required a blue diamond to open, and I only ever found two of them. I kept getting stuck and having to reload earlier saves to explore new rooms.
My map of the final level.
Ultimately, after about 25 resurrections, I defeated the Demon of Power. I made it to a final loop of corridors in which a pit, wall of fire, or hit point-draining square dogged me just about every step. A final door asked me what I sought, and I had to re-consult the documentation to recall that I wanted TRUTH. That brought me to the single endgame screen at the top of this entry. After that, I was returned to the Nigris spaceport. The party could re-enter the maps, level up, and keep playing if I wanted.
The final puzzle.
An interesting but mostly flawed effort. On a GIMLET, it gets:
  • 2 points for the game world. The framing story is highly derivative of popular science fiction, as are the themes found during gameplay, which freely mixes lightsabers, sonic screwdrivers, and Vulcans. There's no consistency to the theme and few in-game references to the plot.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. You get 5 slots for 6 classes. Creation is otherwise pretty RPG standard. Leveling up during the game feels rewarding because of the extra hit points, spell points, and attacks.
My final stats for my Lamian Elfin character.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. Enemies are mostly goofy, but some have special attacks and defenses. Scripted encounters are sometimes interesting, at least graphically. The puzzles weren't challenging enough to be truly satisfying, but they punctuate otherwise-monotonous levels.
Special encounters like this didn't offer any options, but at least they broke up the game.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. A boring Bard's Tale derivative in which tactics don't matter and (random) initiative is everything. The game entirely wastes its system of mental abilities, since most direct-damage abilities under-perform physical attacks. You basically need healing, resurrection, a couple of incapacitation spells, and a couple of navigation spells.
I only ever used a few of these powers.
  • 3 points for equipment. You get one weapon, one piece of armor, and a variety of utility items. Weapon class and armor class statistics help determine effectiveness. Weapons have interesting names--towards the end of the game, I was wielding death rays and wearing shimmer fields--but are otherwise distinguished only by damage.
  • 1 point for the economy. You need credits mostly for leveling up, and I always had plenty.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no choices.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. All were adequate.
  • 2 points for gameplay, mostly for its moderate length. It was otherwise very linear, not replayable, and not very challenging. Despite what I said about the insane difficulty of combat in the final levels, you can also save every step and reload when things go astray.
That gives us a final score of 24, which is admittedly the highest score out of Australia so far. The other two were The Stone of Telnyr (1990) and Dungeon of Nadroj (1991). I'm compelled to note that two out of three Australian games so far have featured the developer's name reversed in the title.
We only see a dozen more Australian RPGs through 2009 (and I'm not convinced that some of them, like 2008's Neopets Puzzle Adventure, are true RPGs), so I'm glad I had a chance to fully document a somewhat rare origin. I hope that the country eventually has a chance to develop its own traditions within the RPG titles instead of copying American RPG mechanics and popular culture.
The author offers whatever the opposite of "fan service" is.
As commenter 6530 helpfully pointed out, the game was reviewed in the January 1990 Australian Commodore and Amiga Review. It had been sent to Megadisc with a note that said, "Put it in your public domain collection or throw it away." Megadisc decided to publish it. The reviewer, Paul Campbell, uses the term "no frills" at least six times in his discussion of Vras, but he seemed to like it overall, failing to note any of the issues that I've discussed.

What's more interesting is that the article names the author as "Gyan Sarvagata," whereas the documentation that came with my download uses the name "Sarva Engelhardt," sometimes abbreviated "Sarv." The latter name is also given as the author of 1995's Sword of the Elder Isles, a strategy game that seems to have been inspired by Warlords. Deepening the mystery even further, an e-mail address in the "Read Me" file for Sword suggests that the author's name is in fact Lutz Engelhardt. It's possible that "Sarva Engelhardt" was a pseudonym for two people working together, but on the other hand, someone named "Sarv Engelhardt" wrote a letter to the same magazine in April 1991 looking for help finding the ninth tear in Drakkhen (I had the same problem!). Googling "Gyan Sarvagata" and "Sarva Engelhardt" produce no substantial results not related to this game, but there's a Lutz Engelhard living in Western Australia in the 1990s who would have been 47 when Vras came out. Meanwhile, "Gyan Sarvagata" seems to be a Hindu term meaning "knowledge pervading all things" rather than an actual name. My best theory is that Lutz Engelhardt used both of the other names as pen names and just switched in the middle of all this. Barring a visit from the man himself, I guess we'll never know.

Let's head back to our headliner now while I simultaneously try to figure out Die Dunkle Dimension.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Game 302: Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant (1992)

Ahem. The correct term is autistic African-American.
Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant
United States
Sir-tech Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1994 for FM Towns and PC-98, 1995 for PlayStation; re-released in 1996 for Windows and Macintosh as Wizardry Gold
Date Started: 20 August 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant is the second 1992 game that feels like a new era. The first, of course, was Ultima Underworld. Underworld is the more groundbreaking of the two, but the state of hardware, software, and programming wasn't quite ready to capitalize on all its innovations, and thus in some ways it feels like a few steps backward accompany all its steps forward. Savant, on the other hand, is all forward, albeit towards what will ultimately be a dead end. Between this game and Might and Magic III (1991), it's hard to imagine what else can be achieved with the traditional multi-character party moving as a unit over a tiled terrain.

I was surprised to see that it's nearly five years since I completed Bane of the Cosmic Forge, entry VI in the Wizardry series. Savant, of course, is entry VII, although the game avoids putting the number in the title. It is the third and last Wizardry contribution from David W. Bradley. I spent a lot of my Forge coverage (which begins here) making fun of Bradley for somewhat intrusive authorial presence in the game materials, including a cluebook interview that defines "cringe." I'll forgo any such ridiculing here because he really has put together an impressive game, and his dedication is not to his mother this time, but to "those who would stand against the weight of a universe to rise but one step further over its horizon." Yeah, don't waste a lot of time trying to parse that.

Forge had a pretty convoluted plot, but we have to get it in our heads because Savant picks up directly from its ending--or endings, as we'll see. The party in Forge, unconnected to any previous Wizardry, decides to explore a ruined castle and gets tangled up in the mystery of the Cosmic Forge, a pen with the power to write things in and out of existence. It was stolen by a king and his wizard as part of their interplanar plundering. They used it to make themselves immortal, but each suffered a "bane": the wizard was split into two beings, and the king became a vampire.

Meanwhile, the king's vicar fathered a half-demon child named Rebecca, who became the king's ward and ultimately his lover. The ghost of the queen lies to the party about Rebecca's origins and gives them a silver cross with which to kill the king and Rebecca. If the party decides that they don't believe the queen, they must show it by discarding the cross, which creates a different set of encounters than if they keep it.

Playing Forge blind, I was oblivious to all of this, and I still think it's a little opaque. First of all, few games of the era had stories at all, let alone those that require the player to judge the validity of an NPC's claims, so I wasn't really prepared for this kind of choice. Second, I thought it was somewhat counter-intuitive to demonstrate such a choice by throwing away an inventory item instead of through dialogue or other more traditional choices.

Forge ultimately has three potential endings (not counting the "Dumb Boffo Ending"). Those who disbelieve the queen and toss the cross get the so-called "best" ending, where the king voluntarily ends his own life, Rebecca leaves peacefully, and the party takes to the stars with Rebecca's brother, a dragon named Bela.

Instead, my party killed the vampire king and Rebecca left sadly. I experienced both of the other two endings: In the first, the party tried to take the Cosmic Forge, but a glowing dude appeared and said, "I'll take that!" and the game was over. In the second, we moved past the Cosmic Forge, defeated the angry dragon Bela, and took off in his spaceship on our own.
See, I thought those first two items were the same thing.
Action in Savant moves to a planet called Guardia, where centuries ago a "scientific genius" named Phoonzang discovered a secret so powerful it could make or destroy universes. (Its relation to the Cosmic Forge, which can do the same, isn't entirely clear.) He hid his secret on Guardia in a "stellar globe" called the Astral Dominae. Some group called the Lords of the Cosmic Circle caused Guardia to be hidden, but it has been re-discovered, and several factions are attempting to find the Astral Dominae. These include the mysterious Dark Savant ("one of the most powerful enemies alive"); a militaristic, lawful race called the Umpani; a greedy spider-like race called the T'Rang (who seem to be allied with the Dark Savant); a robot agent of the Lords of the Cosmic Circle named Aletheides (who I guess is the one who snatches the Cosmic Forge in the second ending); and a mysterious female descendant of Phoonzang named Vi Domina, who is either the Dark Savant's ally or his prisoner.
It sounds like we're going to become Crusaders against the Dark Savant.
Well, she has the Infinity Gauntlet. Game over.
Depending on how you ended Forge (if you did at all), you get one of four opening narrations--three for each of the three Bane endings, and one for a new party (or a party that didn't finish Bane). I'm not sure how the three "beginnings" affect the nature of the story and quest, nor whether they result in the party landing in different physical locations. I'll explore that more next time.
The party touches down with their robot friend.
Although I won the game two different ways, and presumably saved after the last one, the game treated my imported party as if it was a brand new one, and the introduction ended with Aletheides dropping me off in the forest. I'm not sure what went wrong. Again, I'll try to troubleshoot for the next entry.
The party begins in a dark forest.
Savant keeps the same races and classes as Forge and the same attributes as all previous Wizardry games. Namely:
  • Races: Human, elf, dwarf, gnome, hobbit, faerie, lizardman, dracon (human/dragon hybrids), rawulf (canine humanoids), felpurr (feline humanoids), and mooks (Wookies)
  • Classes: Fighter, mage, priest, thief, ranger, alchemist, bard, psionic, valkyrie, bishop, lord, and ninja
  • Attributes: Strength, intelligence, piety, vitality, dexterity, speed, and personality
Each character also has a selection of skills (a system introduced in Forge), including ten different types of weapons, eight physical skills (e.g., music, scouting, disarming/lockpicking), ten academic skills (e.g., mythology, alchemy, theology), and six special skills (e.g., firearms, mind control). Two of the physical skills (swimming and climbing), five of the academic skills (theology, theosophy, kirijutsu, mapping, and diplomacy), and all six special skills are appearing in Savant for the first time.

I ended Forge with the following all-female party:
  • Nysra, a female dwarf ninja
  • Nofri, an elf priest
  • Harquin, a faerie mage
  • Lashi, a Mook ranger
  • Paisley, a Dracon Valkyrie
  • Selky, a Felpurr Samurai
The characters were all Level 11, having achieved that level for the second time (the game lets you switch professions as often as you want). Upon importing them to Savant, they were all reduced to Level 5. This still makes them far more powerful than the Level 1 characters you create here. Most of their equipment was stripped, although a few powerful items (including my valkyrie's Avenger Sword) remain. Still, since I didn't get any of the beginnings from having won Forge, I'm toying with creating a new party.
My converted faerie, busted down 6 levels.
My game began in a forest. I'm not sure where Aletheides went, but he's not with me. After equipping my items, I started exploring systematically, contending with creatures like giant ravens and plant-based enemies called "bambiphoots." I noticed immediately that the game frequently pauses to give you atmospheric messages, enhancing the much-improved graphics. Some examples:

Text interludes like this enhance the feeling of playing a tabletop RPG.
Forge used the same textures for everything, but Savant has some of the best images we've seen in a tiled first-person game, including some great encounter animations that transcend the silliness of their Forge counterparts. One limitation, though, is the inability to see enemies in the environment, like you could in Might and Magic III. Combats just suddenly come upon you.
The animation makes the birds seem scarier.
As we explored, a blonde woman came flying down in an air car, welcomed us, proclaimed it "the time of the coming of the Crusaders!," and flew off. Based on the manual's descriptions, she would appear to be a Helazoid, an enigmatic native population on Guardia.
I suppose the game had to have some goofy elements.
Continuing my explorations, I soon ran into a dungeon. Normally, I'd be more interested in finding a town and getting a bead on the main quest, but I figured it would help me get used to the controls. The dungeon turned out to be two levels, both small enough that I didn't have to map, with a variety of combats and special encounters. It was a good introduction to the game and its conventions.

The interface is okay. It's primarily mouse-driven, but with keyboard backups for the most common commands. (You can disable the mouse and arrow around the buttons, but that's a lot slower.) I'm sure I'll get used to it. Switching between characters is a little annoying, and you can't do it at all when you're in a sub-menu, such as skills or spells.

Sound effects are also quite good (yes, I'm using SoundBlaster for the effects and Roland MT-32 for the music), with satisfying clangs and crunches during combat. There are a sparse number of background sounds, like drips in dungeons and howls of wind in the forest. There hasn't been any background music so far, just a well-composed main title theme and brief melodies punctuating the beginnings and ends of combat. At first, I thought the music was unnecessarily delaying the transitions in and out of combat, but they didn't happen any faster when I turned it off.
This is accompanied by an appropriate "crunch."
Combat is otherwise similar to all of the previous Wizardry games. You specify an action for each character (fight, cast, use an item, parry, and so forth) and then watch them execute, along with the enemies', in order of initiative. Spells offer a lot of tactics. A lack of permadeath and an ability to rest between combats means that the difficulty is in individual battles rather than accumulated ones.
Menaced by giant insects.
The dungeon had easy battles with insect creatures, cruds, and birds. I barely even had to touch my spells. There was a healing fountain, a couple of buttons and levers, a door for which I had to find a key, and a skeleton clutching an advertisement for "Paluke's Armory" in New City.
A crummy commercial?
A couple of chests defied my ability to disarm their traps--that's a whole process I'll have to describe later--so I had to suck up their damage.
I have to read the manual more carefully to make heads or tails of this minigame.
The dungeon culminated in a chamber where a skeleton or ghoul named Ra-Sep-Re-Tep (the developers must have known someone named Peter Pesar) came to life and attacked me with some black ravens. They succumbed easily to "Sleep" and he was destroyed by "Dispel Undead." A chest in his chambers had some potions and other magic items. My character with the best "Artifact" skill isn't very good, so I'm hoping there's a way to pay for identification once I reach a city. I didn't gain any levels in the dungeon, but I imagine a new party would have gotten a couple.
The priest does what we have a priest for.
Continuing on, I fought off an ambush by some "rattkin" thieves and eventually ended up on a road that brought me to New City. It looks like it's been taken over by the Dark Savant. A sentinel asked my business in the city, and on a whim I tried "Paluke's," and it worked. I'm not sure if this means that I had to explore that dungeon, or if there's another way to get into the city. Either way, soon after entering I got into an impossible battle with "Savant guards" and decided to call it quits for the night while I figure out whether to continue with this party or create a new one.
Other notes:
  • I guess you want to build up that "Swimming" skill as soon as possible. My entire party drowned when I accidentally stepped into a small patch of water. It was my only reload this session.
I guess what my grandmother used to say about a teaspoon of water is true.
  • Loot distribution takes a little longer than necessary. I wish there was a default button. Also, you can't leave the loot screen until you've taken all the items. You can drop them later, but you can't leave them sitting there in the chest. "Leave" doesn't work until it's empty.
My party divides a bunch of unknown items.
I gather from previous comments that this is a long one, and I'm going to be (as usual) playing it completely blind. I can see that there's a mapping skill (and one of my characters started with a map book), but I don't have any points in it yet. Ultimately, is the automap good enough to rely on, or should I start my Excel sheets as usual? I'm also happy to take opinions on the party situation. Next time, I'll let you know what I found in New City.

Time so far: 4 hours

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Citadel of Vras: There at Last

We finally arrive at the Citadel.

After my first session with Citadel of Vras, I expected a somewhat boring 9-level, 3600-square dungeon crawl. The game has ended up being a bit more than that, although not so much more that it really breaks any new ground. As with many games of this era, I typically play with Netflix going on another monitor, which is rarely the sign of a masterpiece.

It turned out I was a bit confused as I started Vras. (In the first entry, incidentally, I failed to note that the name is the reverse spelling of the developer, Sarv(a) Engelhardt.) My initial outing was not in the titular citadel; it wasn't even on the planet. Instead, the first three levels of the game are on the spacestation on Vras's moon of Nigris. Level 4 is on the surface of Vras. Levels 5 and 6 are in some ruins beneath the surface. Only when you reach Level 7 do you enter the citadel itself. I'm assuming there are three levels of the citadel, but you could read the manual to say that the citadel itself has 9 levels, not counting the ones outside. I really hope that's not the case.

Moving from level to level generally involves solving some kind of puzzle. The three Nigris levels introduced a weird convention for hidden doors. At key points in the dungeon, you find doors that are only visible from one side. Once you open them, they become accessible from both sides. This allows the game to force you along a particular track for a while, but then provide an easy shortcut back to the beginning.

Another important exploration option in the Nigris levels has to do with a "weird gadget" that removes the wall in front of you. These gadgets are one-use only and cost 30,000 credits, and you need a handful of them to open the way to all of the station's hidden areas.
This special encounter was relatively easy to defeat.
On Level 3 of the spacestation, I found a "matter transmitter" with 5 buttons. These ended up beaming the party to different parts of the third level, ultimately allowing us to explore all of it. At some point, we killed the "moonbeast" that a note on Level 2 had warned us about.

The level culminated in an encounter with an old man. The game asked me what I wanted to talk with him about, and because of a note left on a Jedi on Level 2, I knew the answer was COORDINATES. He asked me to pay him, and another note had suggested that the amount he wanted was 65,000 credits. When I offered that much exactly, he gave me the 5-digit code to beam to Vras. 
Until now, I didn't realize I wasn't on Vras.
Teleporting to Vras meant using a second matter transmitter found in a walled-off area of the first level. You need to use the gadget to get in. Any code other than the correct one kills you instantly. But with the right sequence, I soon found myself on the surface of a brown planet.
This place looks bleak.
The 20 x 20 map of Vras's surface held only one single-square building, plus a message with the code necessary to return to Nigris. (The only shop and place to level up, at least so far, are there.) The building was a weird 99-story tower of one square per story. When you reach the top and go through the door, you find yourself back out on the surface, at the same place you came in.

To figure out what to do, I had to turn and face every wall until I found a little diagram on the wall on one of the upper levels. This showed me the correct path to walk before trying to enter the building via its blank west wall. Following these instructions takes you to the first level of the ruins.
Interpreting this was a fun challenge.
The first level of the ruins comprised four major areas accessible by doors, each of which posed a riddle. Three of the four can (and must be) discerned with no in-game information:

  • "Name the visible energy." (LIGHT)
  • "To enter, speak slowly." (SLOWLY)
  • "God of the 90th element?" (THOR)

To get the last one, I had to look up a periodic table online. I could see era players getting stuck there.
The query on the last door was "Meet me at the ______ Factory." I had to explore one of the other areas to find that the level contains a Dalek factory, along with an accompanying battle with 55 Daleks.
I think this might conflict with Doctor Who canon.
The culmination of the level involved paying a hermit $200,000 for a "molecular key," which in turn opened a door to another matter transmitter, allowing me to go back and forth to Nigris. A simple ladder led down to the next level.

Level 2 of the Vras ruins was a maze of small walls, with the wall configuration spelling "OM" in the center. Throughout the two Vras levels, I kept finding "power cells" at the ends of corridors and in significant-looking rooms. By the time I reached the end of the level, I had so many they were crowding out my regular inventory.
Inserting power cells into a machine.
At the end of the level, their use became clear: I needed 20 of them to power a machine. It removed some kind of protective barrier around the Citadel of Vras, and then saying OM transported me to the structure.
At least they're "Old Ones" and not "Ancients."
There were a million combats amidst these 6 levels, of course. If commenter T.R. hadn't written to me off-blog and told me how to map the poorly-documented "Warp" mode to a function key, I probably would have given up, because combat otherwise cycles way too slow. In warp mode, it's over in seconds.

Enemies on Nigris included Daleks, Graids, Wurglepups, Fungoid, Durges, Combat Robots, and Vegabats. On Vras, they were joined by Vrashoppers, Graid Bosses, Klingon Warriors, Vulcan Mentats, Leucomorphs (Jack Vance's Dying Earth), and Wurgles (obscure reference to an Australian kids' book).
These guys don't look dangerous.
None of them have been very hard. They started off on Nigris attacking one at a time, and by the second level of Vras there might be 10 or more in a party, but no matter how many enemies are in a party, they all respond to psychic powers like "Freeze" and "Sleep," so it's trivial to take them out for a couple of rounds while my melee fighters pound on them. The only real concern is running out of psychic points, but they regenerate fast enough that hasn't become a concern yet. 
The Durges somehow got the drop on me.
It's a good thing, because some enemies are powerful enough to kill my characters in one round if they actually get to attack. The only time I've really been in trouble is on rare occasions when enemy parties go first in combat (I'm not sure why that happens). But by the end of this session, I had several powerful healing spells and even "Resurrection."
The powers of my Lamian Elfin.
Weapons have gotten more powerful, progressing past the "neuronic whips" of the first session to giant hammers, "VoltBolts," "Shatter Rays," and "Shock Lances." You basically have to watch the damage to figure out how powerful the items are. At the beginning of the game, some weapons affect only one enemy and some affect them all, but once the characters hit Level 6 or 7, all weapons affect all enemies. All in all, combat hasn't really been much of a challenge, but in some ways that's a good thing, because the game doesn't really give you many tactics to overcome such a challenge.

A few other notes:
  • Exploration needs escalated as I went downward. On Levels 1 and 2, a regular compass worked fine, but after that I had to find and use a "gyrocompass." Similarly, sonic screwdrivers and diamond saws worked to open lockers on early levels, but an atomic laser was necessary by the third.
  • Random lockers stopped appearing on the second Vras level.
  • Flashlights last so briefly (about 50 moves) that on Nigris, I had to pretty much fill the inventories of every character with them just to successfully map a decent portion of a level before returning. Later, I realized the store sold something called an "Ever Glow" that does what it suggests.
Puff's inventory before I noticed the more useful item in the store.
  • There are occasional pit traps for which you need the "Levitate" ability to get over.
Thankfully, you get a warning.
  • In combat, the game oddly subtracts your psychic energy the moment you designate the action rather than when it executes. This means that if you change your mind after designating actions for all characters, you've lost those points. 
There's nothing horrible here, but I really won't be sad to see the end of the era of Bard's Tale clones with their endless random combats and messages on the walls.
In this case, scraps of paper on the floor. Google the reference. It's a fun story.

If I could go back in time and make one change to RPG history, I'd force the developers of Wizardry to put a one-paragraph title card at the end of each level, advancing the plot bit by bit as the player moves forward. That trope would likely have propagated to the Bard's Tale and Dungeon Master lines and would make playing clones of both a lot more tolerable.

Time so far: 10 hours