Saturday, September 29, 2018

Die Dunkle Dimension: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

The end screen suggests a sequel that probably never came.

Die Dunkle Dimension
"The Dark Dimension"
German Design Group (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 29 August 2018
Date Ended: 28 September 2018
Total Hours: 35
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 36
Ranking at time of posting: 223/305 (73%)

From one perspective, for the last three days, Die Dunkle Dimension has taken a higher percentage of my waking hours than any other game since I started this blog. I've had it running essentially constantly, in a desperate gambit to make this entry my last one. This was important to me because having two long-running games going at the same time feels like a bit of a grind.

From a different perspective, the game occupied so little of my active consciousness that I really only "played" about 2 of the 18 hours I logged since the last entry. The rest of the time, I was mindlessly grinding while watching television, enjoying the fall weather on my deck, and walking on my treadmill. (I'm starting a major exercise effort this week, greatly assisted when I found a way to rig a laptop stand in a way that I can use it while walking.) This is all to say that the game is extremely grindy. Of the 35 hours that it took me to win, easily two-thirds were spent fighting one mindless combat after another, and half the remainder was spent in translation. The actual game content falls reasonably short of 8 hours. But I did enjoy that small portion of time.
Surrounded by dragons. Once I had the magic armor, even situations like this weren't really dangerous.
When I last blogged, I had visited almost all the cities and had found all but one letter of the Evil One's name. As an anonymous commenter guessed, the full name was TROFNIH, the last letter discovered in the island town of Madraskan. The town also held an armor shop, where after asking me some copy protection questions, the proprietor handed over a suit of magic armor. It was a little overpowered. Once I put it on, hardly any enemy was capable of more than a couple hit points of damage per blow.

After that, I settled in for a period of grinding until I had enough money to purchase the Elvenbow and the location of the Sicaria Draconem sword. Since the max difficulty of enemies scales with the character, I stated to get mummies, dragons, and demons. I bought the Elvenbow first, but I never got much use from it. It's theoretically quite valuable, as its arrows pass through obstacles and in the right terrain, you can slaughter enemies without even letting them approach you. But since enemies aren't really dangerous (after you get the armor), once I had the magic sword, it was easier to attack them with the better weapon. Also, the bow requires a "loading" round in between attacks.
The Elvenbow will still hit that guy. I don't think the magic bow in Ultima IV does that.
Mohammed gave me the location of the Sicaria Draconem at the edge of a desert. That left me broke, but then I remembered I hadn't told the king about the location of Mubrak. When I returned to him and gave him the coordinates, he rewarded me with 2,000 gold.

Now rich yet again, I took the time to train my intelligence up to 15 and then hit both of the Magic Circles, learning spells (for a few hundred gold a pop) from the various wizards, then buying the various reagents necessary to cast those spells. I had to find mandrake in a swamp and buy nightshade (or whatever the game's equivalent) from a dealer in Mubrak. Herb dealers mostly sold the others.
Learning a spell.
For all the difficulty acquiring enough intelligence to cast spells, then the spells themselves, then the reagents, spells really play a minor role in the game. They don't work for any of the major boss combats. "Cure Poison" is a blessing, and you need magic to cast "Spellbreaker" at some key locations, but that's really it. The "Magic Bomb" spell--which kills every enemy on the screen--was useful for grinding, but it drains mana fast, so you can't cast it every combat. Almost every other offensive spell simply saves you a few attack rounds with a regular weapon.
Killing 6 guys at once with "Magic Bomb."
After leveling and training some of my stats, my next step was to save the princess from the riesenlindwurm ("giant dragon"), who occupies a cave in the middle of some mountains. To get to him, I first needed to fly, so I went to Gaht and bought a unicorn, and only then realized that I was once again confusing unicorns with pegasuses. The unicorn was unresponsive to my commands to "lüfte!"
Wondering what I overlooked, I began circling the continent again and ultimately realized I'd missed a maze of corridors--accessible only by boat--in the northeastern peninsula. These led me to a castle called "Burg Fulgar" ruled by a fire demon named Fulgar. His couple of minions repeatedly stressed that technically he wasn't a demon, but more of a fire elemental, but Fulgar did admit to a certain antipathy towards people (his dialogue was somewhat amusing, and I'm sure I missed a lot of the nuance). He first asked if I'd received an oaken dagger from his minion T'Kul in Mubrak. I hadn't, so I had to go back and collect it. Fulgar then asked me to invade the castle of the vampire Prince Kroloc and kill him.
I hope someday I'm powerful enough to build a huge sign that reads "CHESTER" behind my throne.
I hadn't previously found the castle, but I soon discovered it amidst the swamps to the south. It was another dungeon, only three stories, and on the top level I killed Kroloc without any trouble.
Kroloc looks remarkably like a balrog.
Fulgar rewarded me with the Firering, which allows me to walk through lava ("unfortunately, it only protects against lava, not other fire"). The first place to use it was in Fulgar's castle itself, where a river of lava blocked me from his herd of flying fire lizards. I "boarded" one and had the ultimate transportation.

There's something awesome about getting the ability to fly over terrain you could previously only explore by land. Enemies couldn't attack me while I was in flight--they didn't even spawn. The boat had already given me the ability to fight combats only when I felt like it, and that went doubly so for the fire lizard. Unfortunately, the fire lizard didn't have any response to the same key that fires cannons on boats. I thought he might breathe fireballs or something.
Sailing over mountains on my fire lizard.
The fire lizard, which can only land on squares of grass, got me across the mountains to the lair of the riesenlindwurm, which Google Translate amusingly kept rendering as "giant Indian worm." His cave is a large one-room affair with the dragon taking up most of it and the princess chained nearby. You have to walk up and defeat each head in turn while all three heads constantly breathe fire at you.
This trip didn't work out for me.
Unfortunately, I was here too soon and was soon crispened. Thus began my second major bout of grinding. It took me over four hours to get from Level 12 to Level 15. I spent most of it outside Mubrak, using "Magic Bomb" whenever I faced a large or difficult group, then frequently darting into town to re-stock on reagents. The most annoying thing about grinding is getting attacked by animal enemies and having to waste time trying to get them to flee, so I generally stood on my boat (which provides the best combat terrain anyway) and used the cannons to blast any horse, cow, or snake that approached. The game's message seems to be: "It's bad to kill animals, unless you kill them with cannons."

At Level 15 (and after training the associated attribute upgrades), I returned to the cave and still died, but I came close enough that I was encouraged. Two tries later, I succeeded in killing the dragon and freeing the princess. She in turn thanked me for saving her and told me that the dragon had discovered the splinter of the crystal and had hidden it in his treasure house, in the cave called Höhle, which I had previously discovered and mapped. She said that his treasure room was blocked by a magic door that requires a dragon's claw to open, and she cut one of the dead lindwurm's claws off and handed it to me.
Sheila, demonstrating very little PTSD, considering I left her in the cave with the dragon for months while grinding.
It was time to explore Höhle again, and that wasn't so hard. The many combats in the dungeon were more annoyances than actual challenges. I got to the ninth floor, inserted the dragon claw in the doorway, and played my glass flute to attract the splinter.
There was a little animation of the splinter descending from the ceiling, but I missed it.
At this point, the game threw me a curve ball by deleting the ladder back to the earlier floors. A brief thread on my last entry confirmed this was a bug in the original, and I downloaded an updated version. I had to reload an earlier save, and do the dungeon again, but I was able to pick up from there.

There was nothing left but the endgame. Unfortunately, I wasn't ready for it. The Evil One's lair was on an isle with no grass strip, so I had to purchase another boat and sail to the island. The interior was full of magic barriers that I needed "Spellbreaker" (the only spell that works in the area) to dispel. In between barriers were combats with invisible phantoms and tough golems, and unlike the outdoor combats, there was no way to flee these. It soon became clear I wasn't strong enough.
As the game makes clear, "Spellbreaker" is the only spell to work in the final area. "Heal" would have been nice.
Back for another bout of grinding. After about 3 hours and 2 levels, I tried again and was still defeated. It took me almost another 3 hours to make one more level, and this time I determined to try as many times as necessary until I won. Fortunately, the number of combats you face in the final dungeon is variable, and I got lucky on my third attempt, reaching the endgame with just enough hit points to spare.
Swarmed by golems in the final area.
As you enter the final area with the crystal, the Evil One (represented only by a pair of eyes) repeatedly zaps you with magic. But you need only to make it to the square next to the place where the splinter was cut out. You use the splinter and then chant the evil one's name backwards (HINFORT, which according to commenters means "begone!" in German), and the endgame commences. I don't think I mentioned that the master of the White Circle walks you through all of this. I visited him a few entries ago, but I see now that I never blogged about it.
Would "Enogeb" be a good demon name in an English game?
The endgame text is long:
You lift the splinter high over the scar in the crystal. The splinter blazes up. Your fate will soon be fulfilled. The splinter pulsates warmly in your hand. The crystal begins to vibrate and hum. what do you shout while healing the crystal? (HINFORT). You look at the horrible archdemon firmly in his indescribable eyes and shout "HINFORT!" Then you hurl the splinter down.

Done! The crystal glows and melts with the splinter back to a unity. At the same time, you feel how an unimaginably strong power accumulates in it. The archdemon cries desperately, "NO!" Then the crystal explodes in pure white light.
Chinese version: "NICHT WOLLEN!"
The power of the crystal has flung the demon back into the dark abyss of Hell from which it came. Along with the demon vanishes all the evil that bothered the balance of the world. You, too, are caught and thrown up by the force of the crystal. From a great height, you can watch as the damage caused by the demon around the crystal is destroyed. The cloud cover breaks and bright sunlight floods the land. The balance is restored and this dimension is no longer dark.
I'm just glad the presence of the sun in our world is not dependent upon a crystal hovering over some lava.
Your task here is thus fulfilled. You won but what will become of you? You no longer fit into the balance of this world. The power of the crystal also takes away all your items and skills acquired here. You are flung out of the world into the infinite swirling of time and space. Where will you land? Back home? Or perhaps also in the second part: The Black Fortress. Coming soon on this screen.
The protagonist hurtles through space and time.
So once again, in its final moments, Die Dunkle Dimension cribs from Lord British: Immediately upon saving the world, before I can enjoy a proper party or any sort of reward, I'm flung out of it, and I don't even get to keep the magic items, gold, or skills I acquired. But of course they'll want me to save the world again in the sequel.

This is a long post already, but I don't feel like saving the GIMLET for a separate entry, so here we go:
  • 5 points for the game world. The manual tells a competent story that is reflected repeatedly in the game.
The story says the Black Circle master was burned to a crisp when he summoned the Evil One, and sure enough you can find his body in-game.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. No matter how you start, every character probably gravitates to the same basic mold over the course of the game. Leveling makes you more powerful but doesn't seem very rewarding at the time, particularly since harder monsters attack you.
  • 5 points for NPC interaction. It's a strong system, drawn from the Ultima series, and I always appreciate keyword-based dialogue. But unlike the Ultima series, we don't really see any dialog options or role-playing choices inherent in the NPC interaction.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are fantasy standard, again many drawn from Ultima IV. They are well-described in the manual, but again in a way that's mostly plagiarism. There are no serious non-combat encounters.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. I like the tactical grid, but there just aren't many combat options. Magic only works when you don't really need it. Turning off spells during the game's hardest encounters was a poor decision.
Fighting a cyclops in the dungeon.
  • 3 points for equipment. There are a small number of upgrades, and a small number of special items, but it doesn't play a huge role in the game.
  • 4 points for economy. For most of the game, it's pretty tight, though not complex.
  • 3 points for quests. There's a main quest and at least one side quest, but no role-playing options or alternate endings.
The king is grateful for my rescue of Sheila.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics and sound are serviceable, and the keyboard-based interface is easy to master. I'll never criticize a game that maps each action to a sensible key.
  • 3 points for gameplay. The first half is nonlinear, but the second half isn't. As such, it really isn't replayable, and it requires far too much grinding.
That gives us a final score of 36, just above my "recommended" threshold. In a week where I was in a different mood, I'd subtract some extra points for all the grinding that it requires, but for some reason it didn't bother me this week. Grinding, for all its tedium, requires no ambiguity or complexity, no chance of failure. Sometimes it's just the thing.

Dunkle isn't nearly as good as the games it's based on, but it does retain something of the spirit of those games, and I could see how it would be a good introductory RPG for German players, many of whom have offered fond remembrances in the comments.

The game was originally release on Golden Disk 64 in 1989. Later that year, German Design Group boxed it and offered it to market directly. The primary (perhaps sole) author behind the game is Hendrik Belitz, who would have been in his early 30s when the title was originally released. [Edit: Belitz later contacted me and said that he wasn't the author, just the host of the fan site.] Belitz ran a web site dedicated to the game from 2001 to 2017, but at some point he lost the domain and it was taken over by junk ads. He seems to have remained active in tabletop RPG gaming, but I can't find evidence that he's worked on another CRPG, not even the suggested sequel to Dunkle that would have been called Die Schwarze Festung. I'm glad the game sold so well (I have a note that it sold around 30,000 copies, but I'm not sure where that came from), but it irks me a bit that nowhere in his documentation--not even on his dedicated site years later--does he give any credit to Richard Garriott or Origin Systems for developing the original games from which he copied almost all his mechanics and themes.
He even stole the gremlin bastard who steals food.
I'm grateful for any opportunity to get more exposure to German, as I've just booked a trip to Munich in early December. It will be my first visit to the country.

"But, Chet!" I hear you saying. "You finished this too quickly! We love your coverage of German Ultima clones! We wish your blog was nothing but that!" Well, I'm happy to please. We turn now to Kayden Garth (1989).

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: Gorn and Scumbles

As I arrive in a new dungeon, the game again tells me my own thoughts.
My trip to the Holy City of Munkharama didn't last very long. I mapped the small temple area, but my progress was impeded by a series of doors that had cups attached to them--they clearly want me to drop something in. There was also a group of four urns in each corner of the temple that also clearly want something.

Progress to the east was impeded by an inability to swim multiple squares at a time. There was a wishing well that had this riddle:
I know a thousand faces, and count the tallied heads, feasting bright upon the eyes, of the many who have died. Wielding well a mighty power, who hath but humble stature, masses fall upon their knees, to scarce behold my only side!
The game asked what I wanted to shout into the well, but I didn't know what it was looking for. If the text is supposed to be a riddle, I suppose the answer might be COINS, but somehow this didn't occur to me when I was there. I left the temple exploring the forest to the south, but overly-difficult combats turned me back.
Nothing in particular. Is shouting in a well something you typically do?
A few of my characters got extra levels during this process, and my alchemist finally got something I'd been waiting for: a mass-damage spell. In this case, it was "Acid Bomb," which does damage to every enemy in a group for several rounds in a row. I decided to head back to New City and try storming the jail one more time. This time, it worked. I defeated the Dark Savant's groups of guardians and troopers and got the jail key. There was a colored keypad blocking access to the jail, but I figured out the code from a "black wafer" I had previously found in the city.
Rescuing this prisoner set off the entire "Gorn" episode.
The prisoner turned out to be a Gorn captain named Boerigard, who said he had been betrayed while trying to find a secret fortress called Orkogre Castle. (The game is inconsistent and sometimes spells it "Orkorge.") Upon further questioning, he begged me to travel to the castle and warn the Gorn king that "the Dartaen Alliance is broken." He gave me a letter to show Lord Galiere--the Gorn we all have the hots for--and thus get safe passage through the forest.

I returned to where I had met Galiere and showed him the letter. He let me pass but warned me that the Gorn Empire was embroiled in a civil war and that I'd find plenty of hostile Gorn. He also mentioned that the Gorn wizard Murkatos had recently been assassinated.
My map of the land I've explored so far.
The land beyond Galiere opened up into several large branches. Orkogre Castle ended up being just a short way to the northwest, but owing to my exploration pattern, I got pretty far afield before I found it. The road split into major northeast and northwest sections, and only an increasing combat difficulty kept me from exploring in those directions indefinitely. Ultimately, the combats had the effect of funneling me to Orkogre, but it took several hours.
These guys were way too hard for me.
Orkogre Castle took up several small underground levels. I had to find a series of keys and levers to open the necessary grates to move forward. One puzzle involved a caged ape, to whom I had to give a bunch of bananas (found elsewhere in the dungeon) to get him to open the lever to his cell. There were numerous combats with hostile parties of Gorn.
Using keys to open a door.
The level culminated in an encounter with the old Gorn king, who sat feebly on his throne. I transcribed his speech to give you a sense of the game's long-winded approach to text:
So the gods have decided to put the old king out of his misery at last, eh? Look you now upon this soulful guise, but once it were not so. How the orchard blossoms have faded in the fields. Though my army still stands strong, their strength is but a shallow weakness, for their spirit is broken. And now they wage war upon themselves, having lost that fleeting essence which fuels the heart and makes possible all loves and desires. The vision of their destiny has been broken. Shattered by the crushing presence of you who come from the stars. What grim irony that your visage now stands so mockingly before me. Shall you be the ghosts of my tormentors to haunt my dreams in the hereafter? Or merely be you that come to put the sword in my heart and end this mortal suffering. I see it all now, so clear. Worlds within worlds continually unfolding. The boundaries of time crossed and overlapping as easily as one might step from the garden into the forests. Like simple fish in the oceans, flipping and darting, living out their days unaware of the unseen universes which lie in the sky above their heads, so near and yet so far. How likened unto every man, that all these galaxies swing and orbit around him, continually in his sight and yet never seen nor glimpsed. Save that small portion which leaks into his momentary vision and births a thousand tales of miracles and divine conception. I pray you, grant this King these ramblings. Would that I could take my mind and thrust it upon you! But instead am forced to fling only the feeble stones of words. But tell me strangers, what cause brings you this day? 
Finally, I had my chance to tell him that THE DARTAEN ALLIANCE IS BROKEN, only to get hit with another monologue:
What's this?! The Dartaen Alliance at end?! Then the prophesy is indeed come. So be it. We shall all play our part as was foretold. And meet in the infernos of the hereafter. But perhaps there be slack enough for dangerous sport with the oracles in this. For who is to say that an end is naught but a gateway to some new beginning. And the pages yet unread be but deliberately concealed! I think I see much mischief in the fates. And perhaps it not be too late to learn their game. But what say you, be you willing to take a part?
YES, I offered, and got a key to his treasure chamber, where I might find a "sacred piece of parchment." The king decided to rouse himself and "find sport amongst [his] troops." I later encountered him a few times in the hallways, where I amused myself by selling him the various bits of weapons and armor I'd looted from his own castle.
Selling the king a cuirass from his own armory.
It isn't just the volume of text, nor David Bradley's bardic aspirations, that make the readings a little tiresome. It's more the way the text is presented, about 10 words at a time in a huge font, every sentence ending in an ellipse. It frequently looks like you're done, because a sentence will end three words into the screen, but then it just picks up again on the next screen, as if the developers wanted to make sure every sentence started on a fresh screen. When you see it all written out above, it perhaps doesn't look so bad, but when it's being fed to you one line at a time and you don't know when it will ever--for gods' sake--just end, it's like Chinese water torture.

When you meet an NPC, you sometimes just get dialogue options. Other times, you get options to do things like steal, trade, and share lore. I haven't done much with the latter, but when I tried it with the Gorn king, he gave me several pieces of information, some of which seem like they conflict with each other:
  • Mick the Pick has formed an alliance with King Ulgar. (Ulgar is the king giving this information to me.)
  • Our party has been fighting Mick the Pick at Orkogre Castle. (Mick the Pick is a ratkin NPC who I encountered but couldn't get anything useful out of.)
  • The "Legend" Map is rumored to be hidden near Old City.
  • Captain Boerigard has been sighted at Lost Temple.
  • Captain Boerigard has been sighted at Ukpyr.
The king's chest was a bust. I opened it to find it empty."Someone else has been here recently," the game noted. Some commenters warned me that this could happen. I only hope it's both possible to get the item later and obvious when the opportunity appears.

Continuing to explore the castle, I was attacked by the spirit of the wizard Murkatos. He had some powerful draining attacks and it took me a few attempts to defeat him. As he faded away, he told me (as part of a long speech) to seek the Tomb of Vilet Kanebe in the church of Nyctalinth. "There you will find a hidden part of what you seek." His rooms had a lot of magic treasure and a Bonsai tree.
"Borne of Gorn" would be a good name for a rock band.
During this process, I lost about one-quarter of the combats that I fought (meaning at least one character died, a condition I couldn't cure until the end of this session, when I found some resurrection scrolls). I'm finding the combat system a lot more frustrating than previous titles in the series. First, there's a lot of variability to the difficulty. I remember this was true of Wizardry VI as well.You wander into a square and face 4 Gorn leaders, 4 Gorn shamans, 6 Gorn rangers, and 6 Gorn lancers. Thoroughly trounced, you reload, re-enter the same square, and get 3 Gorn rangers.
This was one of the unlucky times.
But even the easy battles are never throwaway battles. The game is genre savvy. It knows you can rest after every combat if necessary, so it's not content to try to whittle down your hit points with endless parties of easy foes. And thus you can't just blow through the combat with a series of physical attacks. With every other enemy capable of poison, paralysis, blinding, itching, stamina drains, or something worse, you have to strategize almost every battle. This almost always means casting at least one spell.

There are a lot of useful spells--so many that I'm only beginning to explore them. I'll leave a longer posting about magic for later. For now, suffice to say that the mana bar is a bit misleading, because you really have separate pool of points for each spell "realm" (fire, water, air, earth, mental, and divine). Within each realm, you can only cast one or two spells (at least, at a decent power level) before needing to rest again.

In the rare case that you do just want to use physical attacks, the animations and sounds slow things down enough that you can't simply hold down the ENTER key and blow through it.
Three of these hateful bastards destroyed me.
I don't want to complain too much because so few games offer truly tactical combat. Crusaders is a bit exhausting in the number, lengths, and intensity of the combats, but I suppose that's preferable to games that offer no tactics at all. 

The final issue is that character development doesn't seem to make as much difference as I feel it should. A couple of my characters are maxed in their primary weapon skills, but it doesn't feel like they hit more often or do more damage than when they only had 25 points. Of course, it doesn't help that leveling slowed to a standstill after everyone passed Level 9.

At some point, I noticed that Gideon had enough points to change from a fighter to a lord, so I made the switch. Now I'm toying with moving my bard to a proper mage; I feel like my major weakness in combat is a lack of traditional mage power. The problem is that I'm still getting plenty of use out of his lute, but then again my alchemist has a "Sleep" spell now and plenty of points in that area. I'm also running out of reasons not to switch my thief to a ninja. I was thinking about doing both when they cross Level 10. As for the rest, I sort of like their existing classes, frankly.
Bix puts a bunch of T'Rang to sleep.
I'm not sure I put enough time into thinking about how to handle class changes strategically. When you switch, you lose a lot of attributes (to the minimums of the class you're switching to) but not your health, stamina, mana, spell points, spells, or skills. Part of me feels that the best way to "game the system" would be to keep switching at Level 2, thus keeping the number of experience points needed for the next level low and maximizing the frequency with which you earn points to put into skills as well as new spells. Then, after switching a lot at low levels early in the game, finally settle on one class for the bulk of the game and try to get a high a level as possible. Unfortunately, I didn't approach it that way and will probably have most characters switch only once and some not at all.
My lord has managed to gain some high attributes since switching to this class.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • My characters haven't really aged much since starting the game, but I have no idea how far I am, and all the resting is giving me the heebie-jeebies. I wonder if there's any real chance of dying of old age.
  • I got so sick of not being able to swim more than one square at a time that I spent a lot of time swimming and resting (since the skill goes up with use). Almost everyone is over 50 in the skill now, but I still can't swim more than a few squares without stamina running out. I'm guessing you can never build the skill to such a level that you can swim long distances with no trouble.
  • The game re-uses a lot of art. At least 6 creatures use the "giant bug" animation and at least that many use the "giant black bird" animation. This makes it hard to keep track of the enemies. I always forget whether a "Dragon Rook" is worse than a "Vampire Rook" or vice versa.
  • It's frustrating that you can't target specific enemies. If a group has 4 enemies asleep and 1 awake, I want to target the awake one, not spread my attacks out so that everyone wakes up.
  • I've learned to hit the "search" key at just about every environmental message. If there isn't something to find, there's often a supplemental message. 
This is exactly the sort of place you want to hit the "S" key.
For my next move, I can go back to Munkharama and try the potential answer to the riddle. I still have several squares in New City for which I need keys and clues. When I was there, I wasted some more time with Professor Wunderland but still couldn't figure out how to get the key to the Old City. If this is something I should know by now, I wouldn't mind an explicit spoiler. Finally, I have at least three forest directions (two north of Munkharama and one south) left to try, in addition to the poppy fields near New City that I still have no way to navigate.
I really don't know how any of this stuff ties in with the backstory yet. My party seems to have gotten embroiled in local matters and lost sight of the whole Astral Dominae business.

Time so far: 23 hours

Monday, September 24, 2018

Die Dunkle Dimension: The Name of Evil

Our hero meets a "dame der nacht."
Things are coming together in the Dark Dimension. You will recall that I've been warped to this land to save it from an Evil One who shattered a crystal that previously "kept the land in balance." I need to find the crystal's splinter and then somehow unite it with the crystal to restore the sun and save the land. Along the way, I might need to solve a couple of side quests, like rescuing the princess from a dragon.

As I wrapped up last time, I was recalling a clue that said to talk to the mages of the Black and White circles about the Evil One. I began this session with such a discussion and received, in turn, a major part of the main quest. It turns out that the Evil One was conjured by the master of the Black Circle (no matter how much German games try to sell you on the idea that black and white don't necessarily mean good and evil, the black mages are always up to something sinister). When he realized what a mistake he'd made, he wrote the name of the Evil One on a clay tablet, which shattered when the Evil One crispened the Black Circle's master. Each piece was given to a druid and hidden in one of the seven major cities.
A druid knows the order of one of the tablets.
Last time, I was a bit mystified as to the use of the druids and mages in each city. It turns out that the mages know the location of the tablet in their cities, and the druids know the order of the tablets. Together, I've figured out six of the seven letters, spelling TROFN_H. I haven't found the final city yet. I'm frankly surprised it wasn't MONDAIN.
Finding another one of the pieces.
I continued my systematic exploration of the main island. In the city of Ackbah, in the southwest, I met a prophet named Mohammed who preached about the god Rastullah. Mohammed said that he used to be a warrior, wielding a dragon-slaying sword called Sicaria Draconem, but after Rastullah told him to lay down his weapons, he buried the sword. He'll reveal its location for 1,500 gold pieces. I left the city with three major financial goals: 1500 for the location of the sword, 1000 for the location of the magic elven bow, and 1000 for a ship.

I did buy a horse in Ackbah. When you spur it to a gallop, it goes double speed and finally I could outrun monsters. 
Coming upon a dungeon entrance while on horseback.
I ran across the first dungeon I've found, called Höhle, but I couldn't explore because I didn't yet have a "Magic Light" spell or any torches. I also suspected I wasn't smart enough to learn the spell even if I could find the White Circle.

I thus settled in for a period of grinding, focusing mainly on the bridges. Trolls deliver a reliable 12 experience points per troll plus often double that in gold. I soon had over 1,000 gold and rose two levels. Last time, I said that enemies scale with you, but that isn't quite true. The maximum size of an enemy party seems to scale with you, and some individual enemy types don't appear until higher levels, but you still often find parties of one orc or a single skeleton. It thus seems that the maximum difficulty scales rather than the minimum, which in my opinion is the way to do scaling.
Large enemy parties like this are more common as you level up.
Horses make it possible to cross swamp without inevitably getting poisoned, and thanks to my horse I was able to cross a swampy patch in the northeast to find a new city, Muspel, populated by dwarves. Unfortunately, I spent all my hard-won gold on a magic lamp (300), the location of the reagent Alraune (500), and the location of the wreck of the Windjagd, where I can supposedly find a magic axe (500). I also found an intelligence trainer in Muspel, but I had only leveled enough to increase by two points, and when I finally found the White Circle tower nearby, that still wasn't enough.

Back I went to grinding, but this time (now that I had the magic lamp) in the dungeon Höhle. As in the game's source, Ultima IV, dungeon exploration is in the first person. Levels are a small 11 x 11 and use the "worm tunnel" approach. Progress seems to be about navigating all the up and down passages and finding copious secret doors.
There's a secret door in practically every wall.
Unlike Ultima games, enemies don't appear in the environment. Neither do traps or treasure. Instead, any step has a possibility of generating a monster, gold, or a pit, even ones you've already been over.

Combat is much quicker and more direct than on the surface. You only face one enemy at a time, directly in front of you. There's no consideration of terrain or distance. It was much faster to grind in the dungeon, except that I kept getting poisoned by zombies or slimes and had to keep leaving to walk to the druid's hut for healing.
Fighting a headless in the dungeons.
You can't save in dungeons, so I didn't get very far. I left when I had over 1,500 gold again and could finally purchase a ship.

After crossing the continent to Thorwal again, I finally had my ship. Just like Ultima IV, it comes with cannons, but you don't get any experience or gold from blasting enemies with them. Still, they're a great way to take out parties that you'd rather not fight, leaving only more desirable foes. It's also convenient to fight from the ship because the limited terrain helps ensure that you can funnel them to you.
I'll blast the horses but fight the orcs.
I begin exploring counter-clockwise around the continent, checking out various islands. I found the wreck of the Windjagd and its magic axe, which just as in Ultima IV (sorry to sound like a broken record with that phrase) serves as both a melee weapon and ranged weapon and returns to your hand when thrown. It's handy, but not noticeably more likely to hit or damage foes than the regular axe I'd been using previously.
I'm not really sure how I'm searching.
An island off the west coast is this game's version of Buccaneer's Den. Called Mubrak, it offers illegal reagents, prostitutes, gambling, and a peep show. I had to bribe guards just to enter. Paying money for the peep show was necessary to see this town's piece of the clay tablet. Meanwhile, one of the prostitutes said she'd been with a druid and confirmed everything the Black Circle representative told me about the tablets, the druids, and the mages.
I hope Google doesn't slap a "mature audiences" tag on my blog for this.
The gambling game was a fun little version of blackjack (called teufel, or "devil") where the goal is to reach 13 rather than 21. I lost more than I won, however, so I didn't spend a lot of time there. A broke gambler sold me a compass for 150. A warrior named Arnor confirmed that I'd need a magic weapon and armor to kill the evil dragon (I've heard nothing about magic armor yet). 
This was not a smart wager.
I also found a beggar playing a magic glass flute and bought it from him for some large amount of gold. In another city, a bard had told me about losing the flute and said that it had something to do with making crystals vibrate. I suspect I'll need it at some point.

After Mubrak, I continued searching islands and one of them turned out to be the lost island of Uyrp, yielding a 1000-gold piece treasure. That gives me enough for the magic bow. I need to grind some more for the dragon-slaying sword.
Searching every island pays off.
I know there's at least one city left to explore, but I think I've hit most of them, which means the hard part of the game (all the translation) is mostly over. I need to keep grinding, raise my intelligence some more (I found a charisma trainer, but I can't see wasting slots on that), buy the magic items, and then see about heading towards an endgame.

Time so far: 17 hours

Friday, September 21, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: The Next Square

My map of New City.
I didn't mention this in the last entry, but I initially explored New City without mapping it. As I made my second pass through the city, to ensure I'd found everything and properly annotated locations for later exploration, I found myself enjoying the game a lot more. Again, I am reminded that the simple act of mapping makes a huge difference in my enjoyment of a game. A good map serves not only as a literal map but a comprehensive set of notes and clear delineation of where you can and cannot go next. Uncovering each new square then becomes a goal in itself, imparting a sense of progress even when the game's plot doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

The maps for Crusaders have been intriguing so far. The outdoor map twists and turns through forests, leaving huge unexplored areas--the game has no interest in the predictable n x n grids of its predecessors. It uses the "razor wall" approach for indoor areas but the "worm tunnel" approach for outdoors (in that every "wall" of trees occupies a block rather than just a wall). As you transition from the outdoors to New City, there's a clear demarcation at the "Entering New City" sign, but the same isn't true when you later reach Munkharama, and this opens the intriguing possibility that the world exists on a single scale. I haven't found anything that would give me coordinates and help me confirm this. I don't yet think we've had a large first-person game in which the entire territory could be represented on a single map page, cities and outdoor areas together, without transition between areas messing up the scale and coordinates. Perhaps Wizardry VI was like that and I just don't remember.

When I last wrote, I was back in New City, trying to figure out how to cure my fighter's disease without reloading an earlier save and losing a lot of progress. The solution turned out to be simple, if expensive. When speaking to the priest at the Thesminster Abbey, he asks if you're willing to sacrifice a little or all. If you say just a little, you get access to a healing fountain that restores your health and stamina. If you say "all," you get access to a fountain that also removes all conditions. I figured I could make back the gold easier than redo so much of the city, so I gave it all up and cured my disease.

With my stamina at maximum, I was able to swim to the statue in the middle of the temple's courtyard. It was dedicated to Phoonzang (from the back story, creator of the Astral Dominae), and searching it revealed a "moonstone." I'm not sure what's for, but I have no doubt it will turn out to be an important quest object later, perhaps the Sacred Stone from the story below.
I wonder if this will teleport me from place to place if I plant it.
Meanwhile, I took greater notice of an area whose importance I had missed earlier. In one of the southern buildings, there's a plaque with a bunch of letters missing, but it's clearly supposed to be "Old City," and there's a keyhole in the same room. In the city's library, I met a ratkin NPC named Professor Wunderland, who had a long speech telling me more about the Old City. Apparently, all races on the planet used to live there in peace, worshipping a Sacred Stone, but they eventually broke into sects with their own interpretations of what the Stone wanted. Old City was abandoned as the sects settled in other areas and began to war with each other. Eventually, some strangers called the Higardi appeared from the mountains, and they worked to re-unite the various sects by creating New City. But then the Higardi disappeared and no one knows why. Unfortunately, nothing I could think to say or do would get Professor Wunderland to give me or even talk about the key to Old City, so perhaps I have to get that somewhere else.
"Something called the Sacred Stone"? Was it perhaps a sacred stone?
I should note, in keeping with the theme of my last entry, that the story I summarized above is very long--about 25 screens of text--and several potential questions elicit the entire story from the beginning, with no way to break it. It's possible that if I'd kept at it, I would have found the keyword that would have led me to the key, but after four times cycling through the entire narrative, I was done with Professor Wunderland.

I don't know if New City's current state of depopulation is a result of the Dark Savant taking over (about a third of the buildings have a red emblem indicating his guardians are inside) or some other factor. Either way, I killed a lot of his guardians, which probably means I won't be a part of his faction.
The troopers have stun-lances, which are hard to counter.
I left New City with about half a dozen areas unexplored or tasks unfinished:
  • In the northwest, a locked door proclaims that it is "T'Rshieche's House" and "Property of the T'Rang Empire." The door lock is too powerful for my thief to pick.
  • In the southeast, a building marked "Umpani detache" also has a lock too hard to pick.
  • I still can't defeat the assemblage of Dark Savant troopers and guardians who guard the jail.
  • In a building across from a jail, there's a door with some kind of control panel that needs an object I don't have.
  • In a southern building is a locked door too difficult to pick.
  • The Curio Museum has two puzzles I haven't been able to solve. One involves a set of "twisted heads" and the other involves a glowing wand surrounded by balls of light. Either way, there seem to be too many possibilities to figure out the answers by trial and error, and I don't have any other clues that I know of.
None of these sound like good options.
At least some of these tasks can be solved with a stronger party, so I headed out of New City's east exit intending to return and try again after a few more levels.
The outdoor area between New City and Munkharama.
The forest east of New City served plenty of battles with giant bugs, Gorns, giant ravens, giant moths, and a whole class of plant-like creatures called "phoots," including "gumbiphoots" and "alliphoots." I'm trying not to let all the David Bradley nonsense ruin the game for me, but it's tough when practically every monster or NPC seems like it was named by a four-year-old.
Exhibit Z.
My fighter reached a skill of 100 in his primary weapon (sword) and got an extra attack per round. Eventually, so did my thief. The thief got good enough with "artifacts" that he was finally able to identify most of the stuff I've been lugging around, but disappointingly it turned out to be regular equipment. Equipment upgrades, at least from combat, have been very slow to arrive. Since the beginning, I've replaced maybe two weapons and a couple pairs of pants with slightly better versions.

Like the forest west of New City, the eastern one had a clear, marked road that broke into two branches. Forested areas that deviated from the road inevitably just led to small dead-ends with nothing important to find. The first major branch brought me to a Gorn NPC named Lord Galiere who warned me that I'd be attacked if I went any further into Gorn lands. The game didn't give me a chance to talk with him before he galloped off. Sensitive to angering a potential faction, I declined to keep exploring in that direction for now.
This guy really turns me on. Apparently.
Incidentally, upon meeting Lord Galiere, this was the description I got:
Soon, a part appears in the crowd of leathered men, and striding up the open channel a tall regal figure walks with the poise and stature of seasoned nobility. Although he appears like the others, deep ochre skin, round barreled body, and short tusks ascending out of his mouth a from a wild boar, there is something more concentrated about him, and despite your misgivings about the situation, you feel an unmistakable attraction.
As I mentioned last time, I don't really like being told what my characters are feeling, and that goes doubly true when they're being unwillingly enlisted in David Bradley's homo-bestial erotic fiction. Let's hope this doesn't continue to go anywhere.

On the other branch, I ran into a river crossing guarded by Brother Tshober. The priest at Thesminster Abbey had told me to repeat some words (SLAY NOT HE THAT CANNOT HEAR) to Tshober, but when I did, Tshober just said he didn't understand what I was getting at. After I explored the rest of the forest, I tried again, and this time he reacted. Maybe I accidentally said "WHO CANNOT HEAR" the first time. Either way, my commenters had warned me that he was long-winded, and my were they right. The gist of it was that we needed to visit the hidden temple of Munkharama, beneath the Holy City. The temple guards the Holy Work, which I assume is the Astral Dominae. He said that once I find it (which is apparently going to involve dealing with some flooding), I should take it to Master Xheng, "Lord of the 5 flowers." He finished his speech by giving us a "cable trolley" that allows crossing the river. Mercifully, he disappeared after that, so we don't have to deal with him every time we approach the river.
The game's text has me seeing double-entendres everywhere.
The path beyond the crossing led to Munkharama, where I ended this session. So far, the game has been pretty linear. I don't know if it opens up later or if it continues like this throughout, but the paths have basically funneled me from place to place, with the only alternatives blocked by a lack of swimming skill or an inability to deal with the poppies on the first map.
We arrive in the next map.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • The door animation gets old fast. It slows down quick travel from place to place.
  • This is probably an emulator issue, but the game frequently registers double-presses of movement keys and thus faces me in the wrong direction, often screwing up mapping if I don't notice it right away.
  • The inn in New City sells rooms for 50 gold pieces. I'm not sure what the advantage is, since you can rest anywhere.
  • A new NPC named D'Rang T'Rang keeps appearing but never wants to talk with me. I have to keep walking away from him.
Yes? Can I help you?
  • The sound effects include a consistent background drone that repeats every few seconds. I have no idea what it's attempting to depict.
  • There is perhaps nothing in this universe more annoying than having your character successfully score a hit in combat but then achieving "no penetration."
I've been at a conference all week, so my experience is a bit limited by the small fractions of time that I have to play. I should be back to a more regular schedule in October.

Time so far: 15 hours