Friday, December 27, 2019

Seven Horror's: Won!

Six months after he won the game himself, I finally followed commenter Buck's instructions and won Seven Horror's, the first RPG from the German developer Motelsoft. It only took me about 20 minutes and resulted in only a few new screenshots, so I just appended the rest of the narrative to the end of the original entry. Always nice to switch a loss to a win.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Camelot: What Makes Us Unique

This particular Camelot character has probably never existed before or since.
Back in 2004, I was meeting a friend at a bar in Boston. I opened the door to look in for him, saw that he wasn't there, and backed out, elbowing in the stomach the man behind me. I turned around and saw that it was the governor of Massachusetts. Since then, I've liked to think that I'm the only person to have ever elbowed Mitt Romney in the stomach while he was walking into a bar. I'm sure plenty of people have elbowed him in the stomach on other occasions.

This is the kind of story I like, because it's an assemblage of circumstances that has probably never occurred to anyone else. I look for those in life. I may not be the world record holder in any sport or hobby, but there's a decent chance that by the end of my life, I will have published more blog articles on CRPGs than anyone else alive. If that turns out not to be true, I'll only need one other modest qualifier ("than any other Mainer") to make it true. I guarantee that I'm the only person in the world to have my particular combination of jobs (if you include CRPG blogging as one of them). I don't hold the record for the number of airline miles flown between 2010 and 2018, but I've got to be within the top 10%, and when you're in the top 10%, you only need one or two additional circumstances to make yourself unique. It's possible that I'm the record-holder out of Bangor, Maine, for instance.

My enthusiasm for unique experiences filters into CRPGs and probably explains why I like open-world sandbox games so much. I don't like the idea that I've reached the end of a game in the exact same position and circumstances as everyone else who has ever played the game. When you can't even name your character, this is particularly infuriating. Look at my recent review of Deadly Towers, for instance. How do you really know it was me playing that game? I could have taken those screen shots from anyone. At least Dragon Warrior displayed the first four letters of "Chester."

These issues got me thinking about the peculiar trade-off that exists between player and character. Think of a game like Pac-Man. When a champion like Billy Mitchell achieves a perfect score, we don't say, "Wow, you created a great character there. You put a lot into him." The very statement is absurd; every player's Pac-Man is the same as everyone else's. Instead, all praise goes to the hands and eyes of the player himself. In contrast, when we watch the ways that various players have won the Mulmaster Beholder Corps battle in Curse of the Azure Bonds, we look for clues in the characters--their levels, their spells, their weapons, their movements. We're aware that there's a player behind it all, of course--perhaps a very intelligent and strategic one. But his success is slightly diffused by the imposition of the characters. We are aware that his strategy only "works" because of the allowances of the game. Perhaps most important, we are aware that we could have done the same thing, whereas no studying of his technique is likely to make most of us like Billy Mitchell.

It is for these reasons that I don't think it's really possible to be "good at" a game like Skyrim. Experienced, sure. Patient, definitely. But "good"--what does that even mean? Early in its existence, some players proudly posted images on Reddit of their characters clad in leather armor and wielding pick-axes (possibly the worst weapon in the game) killing dragons. I thought it was silly. Either the game has enough flexibility to allow you to do such a thing or it doesn't. It says nothing about your skill as a player that you were able to do it except that you were willing to use the game's resources to grind, or enchant that pick-axe, or improve that armor, or carry and drink a hundred potions, or whatever you did to make it possible.

I just bought Irene the Myst 25th anniversary collection for Christmas. That is a "good at" game. A player that possesses the strength of puzzle-solving to blaze his way to the end without any spoilers is an impressive player. But his end-game screenshot is the same as everyone else and the "character" of the game is essentially invisible, a no-one, a ghost.
In many modern games, "uniqueness" extends quite literally to the character's appearance.
In case it's not clear, I'm not particularly interested in being "good at" CRPGs. I don't play them for competitive reasons. I play them to enjoy the strategy, tactics, world-building, plots, and sense of character development. I like a challenge, but only a modest one--a temporary bump in a game that, because of its very nature (particularly because of reloading), you're almost certain to eventually overcome.

Many people prize the opposite. I suppose even I do, in different circumstances. The value of most competitive games is that everyone's playing the same game under the same circumstances, with no real imposition of "character" between the player and the performance. A king in chess isn't a "character"; he's just a piece. You don't give him a name, and he doesn't acquire new abilities as he defeats pawns and levels up. When he moves to take a rook, there are no probabilities associated with the encounter. When he wins, all glory goes to the player who moves him.

When my king reaches the end of a game, on the other hand, I want him to be my king--a unique character that no other player has won with. I want my endgame screenshots to look different from everyone else's. And in those screenshots you should be able to tell something about how I played the game. Was I careful or daring? Did I rely on brains or brawn? Did I favor equipment or skills? What role-playing choices did I make along the way?

To me, some of the worst RPGs are closer to chess. Your "character" is just a gambit that you've moving across the screen, offering you no sense of connection or identity. These are essentially arcade games with a few nods to RPG mechanics. We've seen a million of them: Caverns of Freitag, Gateway to Apshai, Sword of Kadash, Sword of Fargoal. Even worse is when the game offers RPG-style inventory and leveling, but at fixed intervals along a linear plot, so that "character development" is just an illusion and everyone does reach the end the same as everyone else.

The best RPGs, however, offer plenty of opportunities to make your character your own:
  • Name
  • Selection of race, sex, alignment, and class
  • Attributes
  • Skills and talents
  • Inventories, especially those with multiple slots
  • NPC interaction, dialogue, and role-playing choices
  • Choice of what order in which to do quests and side-quests
  • Ability to grind, or not (only meaningful without artificially low level caps)
  • Customization of character appearance
  • Statistics, achievements, and trophies
The multiplication of these various factors means that many modern RPGs feature characters as unique as the humans who create them, finally achieving some of the sense of ownership and identification that tabletop RPGs allowed from the outset.
Every player may have had to do exactly what I did to win Ultima IV, but at least my name and the number of turns are unique.
Camelot is an early game, and thus not as advanced in the originality of its characters. But of the single-player PLATO games, it comes the furthest. When I play it, I do not feel as if I am feeding so many characters into a meat grinder, as I did with The Dungeon, The Game of Dungeons, and Orthanc. Its allowances for stealth, magic, and multiple fighting styles, paired with the strategic nature by which you must explore dungeon exploration, create as close to a unique experience as anything we're going to get for many years. If nothing else, the combination of items in the 13 inventory slots likely creates characters for each player that no one else has ever played.

I've put about 12 hours into the game since the last Camelot entry and I've gotten a lot more powerful--enough to take on dungeon Level 5 with relative ease--but it's still slightly frustrating how long its' taking to finish the game, much more so because I keep dying and resetting my score back to -99,999. But I recognize that it was designed for different players in different circumstances.

There was an interesting moment the other night where creator Josh Tabin happened to be logged into the system at a moment that I got stuck. I had teleported into a section of Level 4 that offered only one exit: a downward chute. Unfortunately, I had taken a Potion of Levitation upon beginning the expedition (you always want to use Scrolls of Protection, Potions of Cepacol, and Potions of Levitation at the outset of each expedition if you have them). It turns out that Levitation stops you from using chutes, even deliberately. The condition doesn't wear off until you return to town. There were no other exits from the area, and I was out of Scrolls of Recall. The only solution I could come up with is to wait until the turn of every hour, when the dungeon levels respawn, and kill everything in the half-dozen rooms I had access to, hoping to get a Scroll of Recall at some point. But since Josh was there, I informed him of my trouble and he opened a secret door for me, then spent some time patching the game so that even if you're under the effect of levitation, you can manually choose to take a chute.

Other things about the game since I last wrote:
  • As I previously mentioned, the game occasionally gives you a specific monster to kill before it will let you level up. It's very erratic. I had a period from roughly Level 10 to 20 where I got a quest every level. Then I didn't get any at all between Levels 20 and 29.
  • A "Palantir" tells you at what level you can find the object of your quest. If you're already on that level, it tells you the specific coordinates. Of course, if the hour turns while you're still seeking the quest creature, everything resets. 
  • As you move downward, enemies get harder but rewards get better. Some of the magic item rewards are awesome. I've had a couple of Wands of Fire that completely clear out rooms in one turn. The problem is how frequently they require recharging and the expense thereof. The game's economy is still excellent. I make a lot of tough choices between leveling up, recharging, and purchasing new items.
  • It turns out that items don't have a fixed number of charges but rather a small probability of running out within any given use. High intelligence seems to lower this chance.
  • Some of the best items that you can find increase your attributes. Manuals and tomes increase them permanently by one point while various potions increase them temporarily for several points. I have maxed out my strength, intelligence, and constitution with these items, and I must be close on the other two.
A Manual of Bodily Health raises my constitution.
  • Scrolls of Taming, Orbs of Entrapment, and Wands of Charming all work on different creatures. I've learned that when I lose a companion (or one leaves), I want to head down to the lowest dungeon level on which I can survive to start hunting for another. About six hours into this session, I was able to charm a succubus, and it's remained with me ever since--an extremely powerful ally.
  • I probably mentioned this earlier, but there are special rooms on each level that the creator calls "stud rooms." They feature enemies 2-3 levels harder than the normal ones on the same level, but with rewards 2-3 times greater. Any new expedition needs to begin with clearing the stud rooms that you know you can clear.  
In one of the "stud rooms." Seven green dragons are a little much for me. The Scroll of Identification gives grim odds.
  • There's a magic item called a "Tardis" that resets the dungeon in between the normal hourly resets. It allows you to quickly hit the stud rooms multiple times in a row until it runs out of magic. It's incredibly useful but back in the day when there were multiple players hitting the dungeon at the same time, it must have been very annoying for some of them.
The two players on the leaderboard who have won the game both have Level 60 characters, so I assume that's the game's level cap. Thus, I'm halfway there. I probably won't have much more to say about Camelot until I win, so hopefully I can get it done this week while I also wrap up Challenge of the Five Realms. I'll say this for Camelot: it's the first PLATO game that I've enjoyed lingering with, rather than blasting through it just to document its historical value.

Time so far: 40 hours

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Challenge of the Five Realms: River, Phoenix

Ah, the glamor of adventuring.
As we wrapped up the last session, the party had emerged from the undersea kingdom of Thalassy with the emperor's crown and the emperor himself. That was the second crown out of five that we need to retrieve before confronting Grimnoth.

This session began with the party moving on to Thornkeep. Despite its name, it wasn't so much a "keep" as a collection of houses. The residents belong to an odd cult called the Children of Shamar. They believe that the return of the ancient Emperor Shamar is at hand. The populace seemed divided as to whether I am an obstacle to his return or the vessel of it. This is a good place to note something that I have forgotten to highlight in previous entries: In any given village, about half the NPCs are indoors, where they're relatively easy to find, but another half wander fixed territories in the outdoor map. Sometimes, their territories seem boundless, and if you're looking for a specific NPC, it can be hard to track him down. This was a "feature" of MegaTraveller 2 as well.

Ultimately, in Shamar's Temple, we found a priest named Malocchius. He was the grandson of the Malocchius who had cursed the knights of Commington Forest, turning them into trees. He gladly gave us the Ring of Transformation to undo the curse.
Damn it. This would have been the perfect closing screenshot for my previous entry ("Sins of the Father"). If only I'd played 15 more minutes.
The head of the cult asked us to retrieve the sacred Scrolls of Shamar in return for the Spell of Restoration, which ages ago Cagliostra said I would need to defeat Grimnoth. The scrolls are supposedly hidden on the grounds of Castle Thiris (which I already visited and found empty), but a descendant of one of the builders of the castle might know where they're hidden. He is north, in Arinor.

It was time to go back to Commington Forest. As I transitioned between the two locations, Duke Gormond's knights attacked me but weren't very hard. After their defeat, a quick screen showed Gormond "seething in anger." I can't wait to deal with him.
Keep sending them, though. They're good practice.
Back in Commington, the Ring of Transformation did its job and the trees became knights again. They immediately offered to join my party. I can't remember who I dismissed (one of the Monteplai prisoners, I think), but I was surprised to see that the result was a group of five knights in my party, sharing a single character portrait and inventory screen. Although they show up as a collective, you must individually place them on the battle screen. You also have to amass a stack of five of whatever you want them to equip before they can equip weapons, armor, shields, and other items. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it in an RPG.
A collective "NPC."
With the trees gone, we were able to pierce further into Commington Forest, until we found a portal in one of its clearings. It took us to the elven kingdom of Fraywood, a realm "filled with mischief and magic," as Cagliostra reported from her mirror. She said that in addition to the crown, we would need a symbol of "the innocence and goodness of this realm"--perhaps the horn of a unicorn. Unfortunately, unicorns will only appear to virgins.
Everyone uncomfortably avoids looking at Chesotor.
In conversation with NPCs, it transpired that power in the elven kingdom is based on one's ability to tell jokes and pull pranks. Some wit recently pulled a good one on the new king, Wilric, by slipping a laxative into the food served at his father's wake. (Grimnoth apparently killed him, too.) King Wilric was still stewing over this humiliation when we met him, plus he was concerned about the men burning sections of Commington Forest. (We had met them in the last session; they all claimed my father hired them.) The elves' souls are apparently linked to the trees in the forest. For his help, he wanted me to identify the prankster who had embarrassed him and to stop the destruction of the forest.
I had to return to the surface to deal with the forest burners. One made me kill him, another wouldn't leave unless I bribed him, and a third (who said he had always felt guilty about the job) agreed to stop based on a moral argument alone.
This one was not long for this world.
Finding the prankster took several steps. We had to first find the alchemist that sold him the Dyell Root (the laxative). I had to threaten him to reveal the buyer: the king's cousin, Brodo. Upon hearing this information, King Wilric concocted his revenge. He had me go to a different apothecary and purchase a large amount of Broche powder, which causes uncontrolled urination.

Brodo confessed to the entire plot when I confronted him, but he was still dumb enough to take a tankard of ale from me. Soon, he was wetting his pants and unable to control it. Despite the fact that his "revenge prank" was both derivative of and less impressive than the original, King Wilric was overjoyed and joined the party, contributing the third crown.
Bathroom humor wins the day.
During these adventures, we encountered a female elf named Gwin whose father had locked her in a chastity belt before getting killed in a prank gone bad. She asked my help finding its key. Her father's friend, Tyrnoth, agreed to help us for 27 gold pieces. But when we followed his directions by entering a particular house north of the castle, we accidentally freed a "shaggy beast" that we then had to kill. Embarrassingly, I spent a lot of time afterwards digging up the floor before I realized the entire thing had been a prank.
One for you, Tyrnoth.
I eventually resorted to casting "Truth" spells to figure out who could help me. It turned out to be Rianen, Gwin's sister, who had been jealous of Gwin's beauty. Rianen found the directions to the key among her father's effects, but she couldn't read it because it was written in an ancient elven language. My Ring of Translation did the trick, although as you'll see below, it's unclear exactly how.
What part of this was "written in an ancient elven language"?
I dug up the key at the indicated location and returned it to Gwin, who joined the party in gratitude. Assuming she was the virgin needed to lure a unicorn, I wondered how we were going to find a unicorn, but it turned out that I didn't need to worry: one showed up the moment we left Gwin's hut. The beast sacrificed itself to allow us to gather it's horn, an act that I hadn't imagined was necessary until that moment. I'm reminded of how I didn't realize that the bull was killed at the end of a bullfight until I was well past the age of 30.
This doesn't feel good at all.
I also met an elf named Turry Startide who described himself as a "muse." "Before the portal closed," he said, "I frequently appeared to human creators and aided their imaginations." Recalling the novelist's request in Silvermoor, I added Turry to my party and took him with me when I went back to the surface to deal with the forest-burners. The author, Dorian Schick, was delighted to have a muse and gave me a diamond in return. This went into my spell components and allowed me access to a few new spells, including "Resurrection."

Another NPC elf was named "Woody," had the portrait of Woody Allen, and spoken in Allen-esque quips about his inability to attract women. After a few pages of one-liners (ex: "She hates jokes. I asked her to go for a walk with me in the woods and she said, 'Don't make me laugh'"), he gave me his collected Comedic Works. I remembered some gnome back in Alveola who wanted a book of jokes, but upon revisiting the gnome kingdom, I couldn't find whoever it was.
This was a little too on-the-nose.
We returned to Alonia through the portal and moved on to the next stop in our exploration pattern: the Cathedral of Equus. Our trip was short. The cathedral was completely deserted, and I could find no sign of the monks and nothing to do. Later, in Havenshire, the mother of one of the monks told me of rumors that the monks had turned to sorcery and it was they who had summoned Grimnoth.
It was a nice graphic, though.
Thus, we continued on to the harbor village of Galraven, across a narrow channel from Gormond's castle of Vinazia. I found some shops and spent some time selling amassed equipment and getting some better items for a few of my characters. NPCs told me that Gormond had threatened ship captains against bringing my party to Vinazia. A broke tavern denizen sold me a treasure map for 50 gold pieces; it refers to a bank of a river in a mountain village.
Gormond has apparently never heard of "Teleport."
I couldn't find much else to do in Galraven, so I teleported clear across the map, and slightly north, to the island of Jupiles and its castle, Ventrax. I hadn't heard much about the location in previous encounters, but it transpired that the island is "ruled" by Emperor Kuvey Lyter. Lyter used to be a friend of my father's, but the two had a falling out, and Lyter retreated to Jupiles, declaring it an independent state and allowing the practice of magic. The island successfully repelled the first few attempts to take it back, and it appears that Clesodor simply decided to let the matter go.
It turns out that Lyter uses the title "emperor" ironically, so it's okay.
The kingdom was a weird cross between Oz and a Montessori School, with meandering colorful walkways and a happy populace of "artists, free thinkers, fun seekers, wanderers, and outcasts" allowed "the freedom to grow and learn." Everyone loved Lyter and no one was unhappy to hear that Clesodor had died except Lyter himself.

The only thing Lyter wanted was knighthood, so he asked me to bring him my father's knighting sword, which I had fortunately picked up in Castle Duras. In exchange, he gave me two more "group companions"--a set of knights and a set of archers. I had to get rid of Queen Neika and Sir Valakor to accept them. This means that while I have 10 character portraits, I functionally have 22 people with me--more of a "company" than a "party." These individuals make combat easier but longer, since they're placed and act individually despite sharing a single portrait.

Lyter has been building a wall to keep out the encroaching darkness, so he asked me to find a supplier for stone and mortar. The game didn't give me an option to tell him that such a plan was both foolish and futile.
"Together, we might come up with less silly names for our two kingdoms."
I consulted the map. The final sequence of visits seemed destined to go as follows: the village of Ragmar, the village of Havenshire, Castle Vinazia, Mount Shaska, and finally the northernmost village of Arinor. I knew I would have to return to Castle Thiris to find the Scrolls of Shamar and bring them to Thornkeep before returning to Thiris again for the endgame, and I suspected there would be some other secondary "return visits" in the meantime. Also, somewhere in that sequence, I'm going to need to find the passage to Aerieus, the final realm.

Ragmar, a dilapidated, vandalized, and suspicious village, turned out to be the source of the thieves' guild who has been raiding surrounding villages. The mayor begged me to find the guild and recover the village's treasury, which they stole.
As we're about to see, I apparently had trouble finding the guild, too.
One of the NPCs was the wife of Felron, one of the prisoners I released from Monteplai. She begged me to release her husband, but the game gave me no option to tell her that I'd already done so, and I had dismissed him from my party some time ago. This reminded me to remark that a game with this many NPCs needs some central place to organize them. They just disappear when you dismiss them; they don't return to their original locations.

While I was in Ragmar, the gnome King Amarcam piped up that he had joined my party to help fight Grimnoth, not to solve all the problems of my realm. I thought it was a particularly realistic bit of NPC dialogue. I started to wonder whether I really needed the kings of the other four realms in my party, or whether their crowns were enough.
I'll remember that next time I waste hours on a gnomish murder mystery.
I took a break of a few days after my visit to Ragmar, and when I reloaded, the party was in Havenshire. I can't remember why I decided to move on from Ragmar, but I know I didn't solve the thieves' guild quest. Maybe I couldn't find them. I have vague plans to return later, I guess. 
A sheep gives me a new quest.
In Havenshire, NPC dialogue indicated that their phoenix, normally a protector, has recently gone crazy and started killing the town's livestock. It is apparently immune to regular weapons. Sure enough, every time we engaged it, it killed my party members one-by-one without suffering any damage.
This was a good way to remind myself who's in the party. I keep losing track.
One villager told of an ancient hero named Tyro who defeated the beast with the Armor of Valor, the Sword of Malokor, and the Shield of Blotgar. A farmer named Silverfox Tenderfoot said that all the talk of magic items was nonsense, and that the phoenix could be defeated by a giant who lives on Mount Shaska, "the greatest warrior ever." However, I learned from one NPC that the sword and shield were buried and the map to them entrusted to a "family of sailors that lived in a harbor village," which sounds a lot like the map I received in Galraven.
An NPC lays out the problem.
The Armor of Valor, meanwhile, was in the museum in the center of the town. The curator had hidden the artifact but agreed to give it to me if I could provide "proof that the phoenix can be stopped." I'm not sure what proof he was looking for, but I didn't have it. I thought it might be the sword and shield.
The king bargains for stuff he should just be able to take.
"South of the watersprings on the bank of the river," the map had directed. I soon found a pool alongside the bank of the river and dug to the south of it. Oddly, I found not a sword and shield but a diary of someone named Sir Creyar, who discovered that when the phoenix goes mad, it must be killed "in order for it to regenerate into a greater form." Fortunately, I kept trying and ultimately found the sword and shield more to the southeast than to the south of the fountain.
Does that shovel look "south" of the fountain to you?
Nearby, we talked to an NPC and found ourselves in conversation with the Avatar from the Ultima series, who complained of his lot in life. It ended with Chesotor telling him, "You probably have an adventure or two left in you. Rest up. Maybe we'll meet again someday." I don't know exactly what the creators were going for in this encounter. It seems too silly to be serious, too grim to be parody, too detailed to be a simple homage. Maybe they were hoping to get jobs at Origin.
The poor Avatar has no idea what's coming for him.
With the artifacts in hand, I returned to the curator, who gave me the Armor of Valor. I briefly thought of investigating the rumors of the giant, but I realized that to accept him in my party, I'd have to get rid of one of the group "characters," one of the kings, Felrid (who Cagliostra said I'd need), or one of my powerful spellcasters. I decided to deal with the phoenix myself, but I don't know what I'm going to do when I meet the King or Queen of Aerieus.

I found and attacked the Phoenix, who died in a single blow.
Chesotor fights the phoenix in the upper left, while the rest of the party mills around in the lower-right.
The curator told me to keep the magic items until I had defeated Grimnoth, then return them so the bird could be killed again when the time came. Other NPC dialogue changed to reflect the fact that I had killed the creature, which is a nice touch in this game.
I'm not sure I'd call the battle "epic."
Unfortunately, this session highlighted the exact problem I outlined at the end of the last session: it's becoming much more an adventure game than an RPG. These seven hours featured no character development and only three combats, two of them against single enemies who died almost instantly. Nonetheless, perhaps more than any other game I've played this year, I'm excited to see how the plot resolves for the young King of Alonia. I don't know about you, but I think it's time to kill my cousin.

Time so far: 29 hours

Note: I started Realms of Arkania far too early. It was irresponsible to begin it with two games already active and my time so limited by end-of-semester activities. So it's going to sit on the back burner while I wrap up Challenge and hopefully Camelot. I hope to get to the second entry on the game late next week.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Camelot: That's How Conditions Are

I thought it was time for an update on Camelot even though I don't have much to report. It remains a hard game, made only slightly easier by very favorable resurrection odds when you die. I haven't lost a character permanently in ages, although I have lost attributes and my score hovers at the game minimum, which is -99,999. I keep expecting to "get over the hump," but now my thinking is that the metaphor is wrong and I'm not facing a "hump" so much as a long, slow, technical mountain climb that only gets harder.
The resurrection paragraph. I always breathe a sigh of relief when it doesn't include language to suggest I've lost an attribute.
I've gotten to Level 16, which feels pretty powerful, but there's never a time that you don't have to be careful. Even when you can destroy them with barely a pause, green slimes can still eat through your weapon and destroy it, messing up your odds against more difficult creatures. Items that you find post-combat can still be cursed, replacing good items in your inventory that you were counting on. I lost my shield and a Wand of Frost to careless item grabs.

Even though my second account allows me to see my position on an auto-map, I've continued to make my own maps, mostly because the auto-map doesn't annotate secret doors, traps, chutes, or teleporters. These are becoming more common as I descend. Level 3 had a teleporter that took me to Level 7, which will be handy later on when I'm actually ready to visit Level 7.

My primary problem is large parties of monsters. A worst-case scenario might be stumbling into a room with a party of 6 demons and having them surprise me. Each gets a whack at me and each does 20% damage. I have no way to escape while they're attacking, and I die. An only slightly-better scenario is stumbling into the same room and not having them surprise me, but I don't realize how dangerous they are, I make an attack, and then they kill me during their turn.
Fortunately, these demons are friendly; otherwise, their "surprise" would have killed me in the first round.
Usually, when facing a difficult party, I hope to kill one of them, then flee the room to heal before taking on the rest. A third problem is when I encounter those 6 demons, attack, get my health reduced to 20% on the follow-up, and then accidentally hit another attack key (or any other key) instead of fleeing the room, and the monsters kill me in the next round.

Monster difficulty seems to practically double between levels. I might do 73% damage, with a 60% chance to hit, for the average monster that I meet on Level 3, but that drops to 23% damage with a 25% chance to hit on Level 4. To advance to the next level, I need to kill a theurgist, but every time I consult a palantir, it tells me that the nearest theurgist is on Level 4 or below, and every time I head down that far, I die.
The palantir tells me the level of my next quest.
The reset of the dungeon every hour, on the hour, creates some unique challenges. I try to keep the shortest paths between levels clear, but there are certain monsters that I loathe to fight, such as slimes and thieves, because of what they can do to your equipment and wealth, so some hours I have to decide whether to risk it or just wait for the next hour. There's a special treasure room (with much harder enemies) on each level that's worth a visit when it resets, although my character is still regularly killed by the denizens of that room on Level 1. In general, you have to keep your eye on the time because you don't want to get caught in the middle of a level, thinking you've already cleared it, when the clock turns.

The other day, I complained a bit to creator Joshua Tabin. He looked at my character and suggested a few things, although most of them are more complex than he suggested. For instance, among his suggestions were:

1. My elf is supposed to be more of a spellcaster than a fighter, and I seem to be relying on melee combat. This is true, but you can only equip one spell item at a time, it runs out of charges quite fast, and it costs a lot of money to get it recharged. Plus, it's vulnerable to being replaced by a cursed item. (When you pick up a cursed item, it automatically equips, replacing what was in the slot before it.) I had a Wand of Frost for a while that was massacring large groups--but it cost almost 20,000 gold pieces to recharge every half dozen uses.

2. I should make more use of Scrolls of Identification. You can use these any time. If you're in an empty room, they tell you something about the room. If you're in combat, they tell you about the monsters. If you're about to pick up an item, they tell you what it is (and whether it's cursed). Enormously handy, yes, but they don't grow on trees. I use them when I have them but I don't have them a lot of the time.

3. My equipment isn't good enough. I agree, but it's not like I can will new stuff into existence. The prices at the shop deter me from purchases since I need most of my money for level-ups. Because of the lack of Scrolls of Identification, I take a chance on unknown items sometimes to my woe. I lost a second suit of mithril mail this way and a good pair of boots.

4. I should have a companion. No argument there. I have had one for most of the last 8-10 hours (although I didn't when Joshua made the suggestion).  I had a pseudo-dragon for several hours. When it died, I cycled through a series of them before getting a white dragon, which remained with me for about three hours before it "got bored" and left. I just had a bulette die in combat against some great orcs, and I soon replaced him with an "iron cobra," who so far has been awesome. Companions are converted to your side with Scrolls of Taming, Orbs of Entrapment, and Charming Scrolls, and I forget a lot what item works on what type of creature.
My white dragon helps me against a group of dragons.
5. I'm not negotiating enough. Every level has some rooms with monsters guarding treasure chests. In many cases, the monsters will depart for a negotiated fee, and the chest is yours for the taking, and very often the price to get the monsters to leave is a lot less than the chest is worth. I've been largely operating via a classic RPG mentality of "clearing" every room even if the monsters are initially friendly.

Despite my "counters" to each of Joshua's suggestions, a common theme emerges from them, which is the need to explore the dungeon strategically instead of methodically. The typical RPG encourages you to clear out every room on every level, and by the time you get to the end of the level, your character has improved enough to go on to the next one. That type of exploration is counter-productive in Camelot. What you want to do instead is to identify the special rooms on each level that have higher-level treasure and otherwise scout levels for the best treasures (distinguishable by icon) rather than insisting on hitting every square. Fight when necessary, not because you feel like you must. This is a difficult way for me to play. I'm not a so-called "completionist" who insists on hitting every corner of every level, but the idea of leaving enemies in my backpath is still anathema to the normal way I play.

I'll keep Camelot on the active board for a while longer and hope my luck turns. If nothing else, it's a good game to have going while your wife insists on watching The Muppet Christmas Carol for the 25th time.

Time so far: 28 hours

Saturday, December 7, 2019

My 10 Most Controversial Opinions

Counting down to my ten-year anniversary in February 2020, I offer this quick retrospective on my 10 most controversial opinions. I base this on the number of comments I've received arguing back at me when I've made certain statements, as well as what people have said about me on other web sites.

I was originally going to title this article "10 Reasons to Despise Me," but I feel like we have enough invective slung back and forth about fairly trivial issues. Indeed, if you find yourself "despising" me for any of these opinions, I would suggest that you're taking the entire subject too seriously.
10. I think there's a "right" way and a "wrong" way to play even single-player games.
In my entry on "Cheats & Liars," I used an analogy with crossword puzzles. The "point" of a crossword puzzle is not to fill in the blocks with letters; it's to use your knowledge, intuition, and puzzle-solving skills to interpret the clues and derive the only possible answer. Thus, you are doing crossword puzzles wrong if you use a crossword puzzle dictionary or some other source to help you finish the puzzle. An unfinished puzzle is preferable to a puzzle that you finish by cheating, because at that point you've sacrificed the ability to ever finish it properly.
No one disputes that people should follow the rules when it comes to competitive sports. I can't ride a bicycle along the route of the Boston Marathon and expect the same recognition--or any recognition at all--when I have the fastest time. Nor is there any other aspect of life where we say that it's okay to break the rules if no one else is watching. A practitioner of a religion, an alcoholic in recovery, or someone on a diet does not get to argue "but I was alone!" when he (respectively) neglected his morning prayers, drank himself under the table, or ate an entire cheesecake. 
Playing single-player RPGs may be a solitary activity, but that doesn't mean there are no rules. Sure, breaking them doesn't harm anyone but you, but then neither does breaking your diet. That doesn't mean it isn't at least a little shameful when you do it.
9. I wouldn't mind if modern RPGs still made us take notes and make maps.
The other night, I was playing GreedFall with Irene. Some NPC was giving instructions to a character about a potion, and she said something like "note the ingredients carefully." Irene immediately reached for a piece of paper and a pen, and I laughed. I don't care what the NPC said, I knew there was no way the game was going to make a player depend on an external note to properly finish the quest. I was right, of course.

But I wouldn't have minded if the game had required us to write down the ingredients. I would have welcomed it. I miss the days of gaming with a notepad and graph paper by my side. Quest markers have ruined modern RPGs. Even "hardcore" modes generally don't turn them off.
8. I don't like music playing during my games.

That's not the same thing as saying "I don't like game music." I very often admire the compositions; I just don't want them playing during the actual game. I think this is largely because I'm very music-oriented generally, and I see listening to music as an active experience. I only want it playing when my primary task is listening to music. To me, "background" music is like having someone constantly talking at you while you're trying to focus on something else.

So I play my games with the music off. Sorry. I know--I miss so much.
7. I don't like games about rape.

You wouldn't think that one would be so controversial, but on at least one site it makes me a laughingstock.
6. I don't like Japanese graphics.

I don't know if it's because I was born too early or because I never owned a Nintendo, but for whatever reason I missed out on the era where Japanese animation and tropes became normalized among American youth. I look at the result and I'm baffled. (There was a time when I would have said "disgusted," so perhaps I've made a little progress.) Part of the issue is the artwork itself, perhaps more of it has to do with what the artist chooses to depict--and what players are apparently okay with. If I'm going to play a racing game, I want to race racecars, not goofy little go-karts piloted by mustachioed plumbers. If I'm going to pit monsters against each other in gladiatorial matches, I want them to look like monsters, not characters from the Island of Misfit Toys. And if I'm going to play an action-adventure, I want to play a classic hero, not an effete little elf with bare legs and a pointy hat.

I have a lot of readers that want me to play Chrono Trigger. I've watched videos of it. It looks like a bunch of children running around. If I was a fan of the game, I would not be clamoring for my review.

5. I think computer RPGs are superior to console RPGs.

The primary issue is the nature of the input. A controller naturally limits the possibilities of a game. You cannot offer the complexity of NetHack's or even Ultima's interface with a controller (at least, not without annoying nested menus), nor can you move, look, and click with the same precision as a keyboard and a mouse. Entire styles of gameplay, such as Ultima IV's keyword-based dialogue, or text-based inputs for adventure games, or even most point-and-click adventure games, become impossible on the console. Nowadays, because successful games must be offered on both computer and console platforms, these limitations functionally inhibit even computer RPGs.

Then again, I do occasionally like playing a game on the couch, with my wife, next to the fireplace. If a keyboard is better than a console controller, a console controller is better than any attempt I've ever seen to make a keyboard, mouse, and PC setup work from a comfortable position with a television. So there are situations in which the console is better than the computer. I just prefer action games in those situations.
Even I admit: time for a console RPG.
4. I don't care about voiced dialogue--in fact, I wish it would go away.

I'm convinced that voiced dialogue, more than any other factor, is keeping modern games from greatness. The necessity of getting an actor into a studio to voice every possible line of dialogue is what prevents developers from creating more quest dependencies, creating alternate endings, fixing bugs, and including a lot more NPCs in games that feel very sparse without them. It also keeps the character's chosen name from ever appearing meaningfully in the game.

The Infinity Engine games had the perfect balance. Key dialogues were recorded with voice actors, but most of the time the text was unvoiced. It shouldn't have progressed beyond that.

3. I don't mind about re-use of engines.

I mostly want new content, not an entirely new gameplay experience. I grant you that a few series have taken it too far--the Gold Box comes to mind--but in general I think developers should be getting a lot more use out of interfaces and mechanics already developed. It never bothered me for a second that Might and Magic VIII had basically the same interface as Might and Magic VI. I doubt any fan agrees that the "upgrade" in Might and Magic IX did the series any favors. I think it's basically insane that developers only issue two or three expansions for titles like Fallout 4 or Dragon Age. I would pay as much as the original game for a new story set in the exact same world using the exact same locations. Surely, I can't be the only one.

2. I don't hate Bethesda--or, at least, I don't hate them for the same reason you do.

I love nonlinear, open world games, and there's no one that's shown they can do them as well as Bethesda. I don't mind if some of their other features are a little rough around the edges. Many, many years ago, in the midst of the most addictive period I spent with the game, I opined that Skyrim was "perhaps the best CRPG I have ever played." That got quite a reaction from my own commenters and commenters on other sites.
I later had reason to regret the statement; I was basically high when I wrote it. It was the equivalent of telling some guy you practically just met, "you're my best friend, and I love you, man" when it's 3:00 AM in a bar and you've both been drinking gimlets all night. But having qualified the original statement somewhat, I have to admit that it's still one of the best CRPGs I've ever played. If that upsets you, I'm sorry. It gives me what I'm looking for.

That said, I do hate Bethesda a little. Not because of what they produce, but because of what they don't. Skyrim sold over 3 million copies in its first two days. It won "game of the year" from practically every magazine and site that offers that award. It ultimately made over a billion dollars. What the hell kind of management decision delays the next game in the series for over ten years?! I've rarely seen a company that financially irresponsible with its intellectual property. George Lucas before he sold Star Wars to Disney comes to mind, but even he allowed a generous Expanded Universe.

Sometimes I wish I didn't have my chibi hangup and I could be a fan of Pokémon or Zelda instead. Lovers of those franchises must lose track of all the main series games, expansions, off-shoots, and remakes. You know who knows how to run a brand? Marvel Studios. In a decade, they issued 23 films and 11 television shows, plus associated web series, comic books, and novels, and still none of its fans are complaining of "oversaturation." Bethesda needs to sell to Disney, hire Brandon Sanderson, or otherwise do what it takes to get their heads out of their asses and start producing.

1. I not only think Fallout 4 is better than Fallout: New Vegas, I think it's much better.

I say this believing that New Vegas is already an excellent game. But I listen to its fans describe how much better it is than Fallout 4 and I don't know what they're talking about. How can they argue that it has more factions, when 4 has essentially the same number? How can they argue about role-playing choices when all your choices in New Vegas collapse into the same battle at the same location? Do they honestly think that Boone and Cass and Gannon are more memorable than Nick and Cait and Deacon?
One of the 10 best NPCs ever.
Every time I get into an argument about this issue with someone, I offer basically the same list of why I think 4 is a better game:
  • No ridiculously low level cap--no level cap at all, in fact
  • The ability to keep playing after the end of the main quest, with bonus content depending on what factions you went with 
  • A much larger, more open world with more locations to find; the game really rewards unfettered exploration
  • Boston is a huge, dense city rather than Vegas's three buildings
  • The Settlement/building/settlement defense system
  • A perks system that actually encourages different character builds
  • Better item crafting
  • Much cooler power armor (with jetpacks!)
  • No invisible walls
  • An excellent "survival" mode; I can't imagine playing without it
  • Flying around in vertibirds
  • Along with the jetpacks and vertibirds, just a more "vertical" game in general; there's a lot to find on building tops and elevated highways
  • Behemoths and mirelurk queens
  • A gun that shoots actual cannonballs
  • The ability to call artillery salvos on enemy fortifications
  • Can blow off enemies' individual body parts, allowing for more interesting combat tactics overall
Against this, I accept the arguments that the dialogue system isn't very good and that whoever nerfed the deathclaws ought to be fired. Beyond that, Fallout 4's superiority is so obvious to me that I feel like I must be living in another universe when I get into a discussion with most fans of the series.

So there we are: my 10 most controversial opinions. Everyone will probably be enraged at something. Even if you don't agree with me, I hope you admire my honesty and the risk I'm taking with my Patreon account. 

Coming up: Ten years of upsetting people with more controversial opinions, starting with fans of the Arkania series.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Challenge of the Five Realms: Sins of the Father

A jester outlines three rumored fates of my father, any of which he would have deserved.
I spent a very long session with Challenge on Tuesday, in the midst of a snowstorm back home. I had hoped to win it, but I still have a few areas left and a number of open side quests. I quit when I started to get a bit impatient with the game, but for most of the session I was having a lot of fun. Challenge definitely feels like a new era in the complexity of the story and the density of the plot. It's one of only a couple of games so far in my chronology that I find it difficult to blog about because I have to elide so much of the NPC dialogue. I also have to take a lot of screenshots to help me remember what happened. I might finish the typical 40-hour game with 250 screen shots, but for Challenge, I already have more than 1,000.

Throughout this session, I continued my pattern of visiting new locations in east-west strips, working northward, away from the creeping darkness. I used "Teleport" to move between areas whenever possible, saving actual time for healing and rest instead of traveling.
The final location I visited this session.
When I began, I was still in the gnome kingdom of Alveola, trying to figure out who murdered the local brewmaster, and how to convince the gnome king to join my cause and give me his crown. This was a king whose own people described him as a miser who rejected any suggestion of charity, who refused to acknowledge poverty and inequity in his own kingdom. Back when we had arrived in the kingdom, Cagliostra had said that, "We need to teach the Alveolans the power of charity, of giving, and we need a symbol of that change of heart."

Eventually, I did what I often do in adventure games, and I simply went through all of my equipment to see if I already had anything that qualified. I paused on the "spirit lamp" I had purchased from a beggar in Farinor, gave it a try, and was pleased to find that it worked.
Well, that sounds like a downer.
The lamp made everyone viewing it see the world from the perspective of its last owner. When the gnome king realized what it was like to be a neglected, ostracized beggar, his whole demeanor changed. He gave me a coin to give to a human beggar. While he insisted that I'd have to "cut him open" to get his crown, he did offer to join my party--at which point I simply plucked his crown from his inventory and put it in my own.

Unfortunately, I had to kick someone out to accept him. I ultimately chose Barilla Beggarlove, who had been with me since Greenberry. This became a theme throughout this session. Although the game is very generous with the number of party members (10), it is extremely generous with the number of NPCs who will join the party, and I spent most of this session agonizing about who I should take and who I should leave. More on that as we go on.
Booting one NPC to accept another.
As we searched various houses, we discovered that the root that had poisoned Kito Pona had come from Shika, one of his nurses. Shika was a former lover of Danzo, Kito's son, and her plan was to get Kito to will everything to Danzo, then murder Danzo's wife and take her place. She killed herself when I exposed her. The whole enterprise got me a whole 20 gold pieces from Kito's family, a paltry sum that the Prince complained about but to no avail.
Maybe wait for your attorney to arrive.
We left Alveola and warped back to the island of Monteplai, where as I surmised last time, the door to the prison was waiting for me in the back of the front office. In exploring the prison, it became clear that my father was not just arrogant and negligent, but actively evil. In contrast to the prison's reputation for housing the worst murderers and most nefarious criminals, I found that it was mostly stocked with my late father's political enemies and people who couldn't afford to pay their taxes.
This is not the worst thing that Chesotor will find out about his father.
Inmates included an actor who dared make fun of Clesodor in a play; Felron the Cooper from Ragmar, who interfered with some knights who were hassling young maidens; a brewer whose yellow beer was unlucky enough to fall under the Beer Tax and the All Yellow Tax; a sea trader who had protested a new tax on trade; and a tutor who had unknowingly violated the king's edict against anyone mentioning his late wife's name. The only true criminal seemed to be Kendric the Terrible, leader of the Commington Forest thieves, who admitted his crimes but protested that his sentence of life imprisonment was unjust.
Did you make any particular jokes about the prince?
The last cell held a prisoner named Kothstul. During conversation, he revealed that he was actually the warden and that he would earn Duke Gormond's favor by killing me.
Regrettably, he was not a madman.
I had a lot of trouble with the subsequent battle. Once the battle map is established, enemies can appear anywhere, even in walled-off areas inaccessible from the rest of the map. Yet in an engine oversight, enemies can shoot missile weapons and cast spells over walls. I had under-prioritized missile weapons in my own party and didn't have much to shoot back at them (you run out of spell points fast). I had to try to station knights in all sections of the map and then provide enough support to keep them from dying.
Some of Kothstul's men start on the left side, some on the right side, and Kothstul himself is in a cell in the middle.
In my best combat, I managed to kill Kothstul with "Explode" spells while taking out his half dozen guards with melee attacks, but I lost Glenwin Ironbelt. Since I needed space for new party members, that turned out to be not such a bad thing.

A very annoying sequence followed. I found the cell keys on Kothstul's body, but the game's normal mechanism for unlocking doors ("Use" the key, then click on the door) didn't work in the prison. The only way I could free any prisoners was through dialogue, and that only worked on a couple of them. I had hoped to free all of them. Both Felron and Kendric would join the party, the latter promising to help me out when I got to Commington Forest. I took them both, dismissing the relatively useless Peppercorn.
Perhaps the gnome king hasn't undergone as much character growth as we thought.
Castle Thiris was next in my exploration pattern, but all I found was a large, empty building with nothing to do. A portal appeared as I explored the building, but I wasn't able to activate it without all five crowns. The endgame happens here.
I'm here a little too early.
We moved on to Commington Forest, where I soon encountered a bug. It became clear that some outlaw leader named Ogdoth was supposed to pilfer my belongings, and I was supposed to kill him to get them back. But all I got were a lot of NPC messages congratulating me for having already killed Ogdoth. His various thieves were all planning to leave the band and start their lives over elsewhere.
I have no idea what this guy is talking about.
The map had several people who had been hired by my father to raze the forest in preparation for a new castle. But most important was a clearing guarded by a group of living trees--knights who had served my grandfather but who had become disgusted with his indolent ways. For their opposition, my grandfather's sorcerer, Clitax Malocchius, had turned them into their current states. They begged me to find a Ring of Transformation and return their forms. Apparently, Malocchius's descendants live in Thornkeep.
A tree is blunt.
Onward to the town of Silvermoor, a community of actors and artists, or at least people who fancied themselves such. There were also beggars in the town, and the first house that I wandered into was occupied by a rich jackass who bragged about leading a secret society responsible for killing the beggars at nighttime. He offered me 500 gold pieces to finish the job by killing the last five. I declined the mission and killed the man in combat instead. Later, we were attacked by other members of his society.
A large combat in the middle of an artisans' village.
As for the beggars . . . I'm not sure. Each told a sob story and had a reason why 25 or 75 or 125 gold pieces was all he needed for a fresh start in the world. I was generous, but I couldn't help but notice the beggars were still hanging around their old posts even after I'd given them the money they said they needed. I don't know if this is an engine limitation or an attempt to model the behavior of actual beggars. I've noticed that lots of them who only need "$10 for the bus," upon acquiring the $10, curiously do not get on the bus.
I'm sounding a bit like this woman, aren't I?
One of them gave me a Ring of Translation, though, which turned out to be important. Another sold me a painting and a third a mermaid statue after I quickly warped back to Monteplai to get a block of marble for him. I got a set of musical instruments from a craftsman. A novelist hanging out in a tavern wanted me to bring him a muse if I ever found one.
Only in an RPG would I believe this story.
Chesotor got to meet his favorite author, Shanna Nobokov (I'm pretty sure that should be "Nobokova"), author of Lost Labor of Love, who's now working on a book about "corruption in the royal family." A librarian didn't want to speak to me unless I had "something new" for him, but he wouldn't accept a copy of Nobokov's book nor a new book of philosophy that I got from another NPC, so I'm not sure what he was looking for.
Chesotor needs to work on his pickup lines.
An old knight named Sir Balthazaar was guarding a theater, where a director and several actors were staging a play called The Forest Tale; more on that below. Chesotor knew Balthazaar from his childhood and wondered why the knight had left his post at Castle Duras. Balthazaar said he'd been scared off by a ghost, but he offered to join us. I didn't have any room, so I declined, which Balthazaar interpreted as calling him a coward. He was sad.
That's quite a career change.
In the end, I'm not sure I got anything absolutely necessary out of Silvermoor, but it was an interesting stop nonetheless.

We continued west to Castle Duras, once my family's summer castle. Upon arrival, we were immediately attacked by the garrison commander, Sir Osborne, another flunky of Duke Gormond's. We killed him without much trouble. The castle cook had heard a rumor that Clesodor died choking on a chicken bone. I made a jester happy by letting him keep his job. On the upper floor of the castle, we found Clesodor's "knighting sword."
When the entire known world is one unified kingdom, why do we need castle walls?
On the lower floor, we found the ghost of my mother. She had a long speech in which she said the "chains of her worry" had bound her to the earthly realm. "I could not move on to what lies beyond without seeing you again, without making sure that you were safe from your father." She related what I'd already suspected--that Clesodor had overlooked poverty and suffering, her persecuted innocents, had banished magic for no reason except that he couldn't cast it. "Your father killed for pleasure and gain," she said. "He was an evil man."
My mother was apparently Veronica Lake.
She went on to say that she had not accidentally fallen from the Cliffs of Mahor. Instead, King Clesodor had told her to meet him at Castle Duras to discuss the issue with Sir Valakor, and when she arrived, she was attacked and strangled to death by a hooded executioner while Clesodor "watched with a cruel eye." Clesodor had been driven to the act by the queen's friendship with Sir Valakor, which admittedly sounds like an emotional affair even if it was never physically consummated.
Yeah, sounds like dad was jealous for nothing.
She asked me to bring Valakor to her so she could say goodbye before departing the worldly realm. Since Valakor was already in my party, she immediately made her farewell. "I will await you, my love. We will have our day." (Valakor, oddly, had nothing to say.) But before she left, she dropped one other bombshell: Cagliostra was not just her friend, but her older sister. Cagliostra immediately confirmed this. As my mother ascended to heaven, her chains appeared in my inventory as a spell component.
Chesotor immediately regrets certain evenings spent with that magic mirror.
Off the northwest coast of the city lay the Sea of Belgror. I couldn't "Teleport" there, but fortunately a ship was still available in the port city of Pendar. When I arrived, the game told me that we immediately found a portal and went through it to the underwater realm of Thalassy. I think I needed the "Swim" and "Breathe Water" spells, but the game didn't force me to cast them. It seems that having them in my inventory was enough.
Thalassy had its own "world map" with three areas.
The warlike Thalassians turned out to be blue fish-men who lived in the skeleton of a giant sea-creature, with small buildings made from shells, sponges, and arrangements of bones. I found that they were a segregated society, with women living in a separate city. (The region had an entirely separate "outdoor" map with two cities and a shipwreck.) The men were in an uproar because a giant whale had recently appeared and started patrolling the perimeter of the city, repelling all attacks against him by the Thalassians.
The local spell shop was in a giant skull.
I soon met the Thalassian emperor, Claret III, whose father (like mine and the gnome king's) had recently been slain by Grimnoth. He agreed to help me if I could get rid of the whale. I swam up to the beast and looked through my inventory and spells for anything promising. I decided to try the "Friends" spell. To my surprise, it worked immediately, establishing a telepathic connection that allowed me to speak with Voolz, the whale.
This was an original plot twist.
Voolz related that he wasn't there to threaten the Thalassians but rather to help them evolve. By patrolling their borders, he will protect the city from all external threats, allowing the Thalassians to concentrate on arts and skills other than martial ones.

Ironically, that wasn't quite enough for Claret III. He made me explore the shipwreck to find a prototype spear gun before he'd come with us and thus allow access to his crown. I also got the leader of the females, Neika, to join us by stealing the two Great Seals for the male-dominated town. I had to dump John Oldcastle to fit her in, but in many hours, he hadn't said anything except to insult me by calling me a girl's name. I think the Thalassians could only leave their kingdom because I had "Breathe Air" and "Walk" in my spell inventory.
Fortunately, Claret has "Sword" and "Shield" skills to rival Oldcastle's.
Miscellaneous notes:          
  • There were two amusing references to previous RPGs. In Alveola, a gnome objected to my bursting into her home uninvited. She noted that "someone named Avatar was through here not so long ago," and had looted the home of its valuables. This would be funnier if the Ultima wasn't the one series that defies this common trope and actually punishes the Avatar for stealing from random houses. In the other, the play The Forest Tale in Silvermoor was about a wizard named Temeres, which is also the name of the main character in Paragon's Wizard Wars (1988).
  • I'm having an ongoing interface issue with hailing and speaking. I can't seem to figure out exactly how the system works. Usually the two commands do the same thing. Sometimes, I'll be sitting next to an NPC pounding the (S)peak key and nothing happens. Other times, I'll hit the key at the edge of a screen when no one is around, and then suddenly an NPC will automatically pipe up when I walk into range. Sometimes I have to click and target the NPC I want to speak with, sometimes I don't. Sometimes the NPC's portrait remains on the side of the screen long after I've stopped talking to him and wandered away.
Shika's face remains to the left even though I last spoke to her 15 minutes ago in another building.
  • The food and armor stores in Thalassy refused to sell me anything because I was a human and thus had an incompatible physiology. I guess that made sense.
  • I'm pretty sure something is bugged in the economy. My money doesn't seem to decrease as I spend it. 
  • Multiple transitions show Grimnoth observing my progress.
You told me to bring you the five crowns! How do you know that I'm not just doing your bidding?!
As I mentioned earlier, I think Challenge has more words--at least, more NPC words--than any prior game. Unlike with, say, Crusaders of the Dark Savant, I have no complaints about its wordiness because the words are well-written and serious. The characters have unique and realistic personalities. The game also probably sets the record for unique, joinable NPCs and manages to continue to have them comment on the action on a regular basis. Finally, it's one of the few games of the era to really understand the concept of "side quests."
Inside a Thalassian sponge-house.
Aside from a few interface issues and bugs, the only place that it really fails--and this is keenly felt--is in character development. It has the same problem as the team's MegaTraveller games, in which skill development is erratic and inconsistent, and by the end of the game the team isn't notably stronger than at the beginning. In the entire game so far, none of Chesotor's attributes or physical skills have increased. I guess they simply don't. His "Sword" skill has gone up 7 points. His "Large Blade" skill never increased despite the fact that I equipped him with an axe for half the game, nor has his "Shield" skill gone up at all. "Morality" hasn't budged despite the many role-playing choices, nor have "Reading," "Observation," "Persuasion," "Charisma," or "Courage" gone up despite the many uses of those skills. Then, on the other extreme, "Leadership" has gone up 29 points, "Spell Casting" 20 points, "Bargaining" a whopping 30 points despite the fact that someone else almost always steps in to do it, and "Learn Spell" about 80 points. Why does that last skill increase almost every time you learn a new spell, but "Sword" doesn't go up with the same rapidity?

There also isn't much of an improvement in terms of equipment. The game seems to feature no unique or magic weapons or armor. You can buy everything in its inventory in shops, and you have plenty of money to do so. Altogether, this means that Challenge--much like Paragon's previous games--feels more like an adventure game than an RPG. It's a better adventure game, I would add, but it's still hard to get excited about side quests when the game has no experience points and such a paltry approach to improving skills.

Time so far: 22 hours