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


  1. That reminds me, the Bard's Tale series recently received a remastered version with many quality of life improvements (automap, save anywhere, etc.), available on Steam and GOG. Probably not worth a revisit, but maybe someone's interested.

    "I could see era players getting stuck there."

    I certainly would've, as I was in 3rd grade when this game released, and Chemistry classes started in 7th. We probably didn't even own a periodic table.

    1. I'm actually playing that now, contrasting the changes they made for modern audiences with my memory of the original (I played and beat the c-64 version back when it was released for that platform). I like what they've done to "modernize" it, but am also glad they included a LEGACY mode, so it can be as closely played as the original :)

    2. Well to be fair, there's only one element named after a god, which should make it quite a bit easier.

    3. Plutonium and Uranium would also make for far more easily guessable answers.

    4. Not to mention that traditionally lot of the metals were associated with planets/divinities (iron - Mars, copper - Venus, tin - Jupiter, lead - Saturn).

    5. In defense of Steve, I think Neptunium, Plutonium and Uranium were named after the planets, which were named after the gods, instead of being directly named after the gods. In offense of Steve, I doubt knowledge of ANY of these elements was common among RPG players in 1989. 90% of them would have needed a chemistry textbook handy or they were screwed.

    6. Even if the names of the elements were a plausible expectation (Uranium and Plutonium might have been for political reasons, Thorium and Neptunium would certainly not be), their atomic numbers would certainly not be.

    7. Helium was also named for a god (Helios), and selenium and tellurium for goddesses (Selene and Tellus) -- though it's arguable, since all those words have (as I understand it) some overlap with their respective generic meanings (sun, moon, earth).

      BTW I would've gotten the clue as a kid, but I was a periodic table junkie.

    8. I guess I'm the only on here who carries a period table in my wallet >.>

    9. More than that, actually. Vanadium, Iridium, Promethium, and, in a broader definition, Tantalum, Titanium and Cobalt (Palladium is apparently named after an asteroid).

  2. Good grief - games and flashlights...

    We can have a handheld box that can telelport five people over distances of hundreds of thousands of kilometres, but a power-efficient light source with a decent battery? That's crazy talk!

    1. Reminds me of the Unreal game. An energy gun with infinite, regenerating charge? Sure, no problem, a standard-issue firearm. Flashlight? You got a battery good for one minute, and it starts to dim after 30 seconds. A big handheld searchlight? A bit better, good for about 30 minutes.

  3. I'm enjoying the aesthetic of the game. Interesting to see a BT/Wiz-like interface done on the Amiga. I wonder if there is any story behind the look/feel here.

  4. "To enter, speak slowly."

    "What's the Elvish word for 'slowly'?"

    1. "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."

      In games like Dungeon Master this is pretty standard, except that there will be a lever or something on the far side that opens the door to the starting zone.

      I recall in Dungeon Master there was a staircase from Level 7 or so straight down to the bottom, but you had to go through each level to open the next landing down.

  5. The game has a soothing look to it.


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