Sunday, April 28, 2019

A Personal Note

I got behind in entries and ended up having nothing to publish today at noon, for which I apologize. I am of course still working on Dark Stone Ritual and Star Control II while investigating some interesting off-list options.

I thought I'd take today to let you know about an interesting change in my life. When I started this blog in 2010, I was employed full-time in a public sector position. I really enjoyed my work, and was good at it, and rose to a leadership position in some professional organizations that covered my area of expertise. I got lots of offers to consult and train in my field. My employer was very generous in giving me extra time off (without pay) so I could indulge in these opportunities, but eventually that got to be too much, and I ended up quitting my job so I could pursue consulting and training full-time.

Self-employment is an interesting lifestyle. It hasn't worked out great for me. First, what no one tells you is that you need to charge about three times your previous hourly rate to "break even" on your full-time salary. (This part only applies to the U.S., of course, although I'm sure every country has its self-employment pitfalls.) This is partly because you're now paying your own social security taxes and health insurance but mostly because there is no longer such a thing as an "off-day." You have to be able to justify hours spent with actual product. You can't have a bad day where you "phone it in" and get paid anyway. There are, needless to say, no sick days or vacation days. You're free to take them, of course, but at a quantifiable cost.

The worst part about self-employment is that every hour becomes a work hour, or at least a potential work hour. I don't think I've actually worked harder in the last 8 years than in the 17 years before that. But I have had more of a constant pressure of work. Days, nights, weekends, weekdays all blend into each other, and all could conceivably be spent on my computer doing what someone is willing to pay me to do. Only some inherent laziness and, of course, my CRPG addiction, has kept me from making triple what I actually did make during this time.

The biggest factor about my particular brand of self-employment has been travel. I talk about it occasionally on the blog, but not as much as I used to, because early on I got some criticism for revealing too much personal information. The hard facts are that between 2011 and 2018, the minimum number of nights per year I spent in hotel rooms was 204. In 2017, I was on the road for 257 nights out of 365. I'd like to say I got paid for all those days of travel, but unfortunately I chose to live in one of the worst possible areas of America for someone who travels a lot. You cannot leave Bangor, Maine (if you can even get a flight out of Bangor) early enough to get anywhere (except maybe New York) and still get work done that day. Nor can you get a return flight unless you leave in the morning. A 2.5-day workshop in California translates into an entire week on the road--longer if there are delays.

So what's the change? I just signed a contract for a full-time job. Starting in the fall of 2019, I will be a full-time university professor. This will require another move, but one that Irene and I are both happy with. 

I have no idea what to expect from my new circumstances in terms of free time. The university expects me to teach 4 classes a semester, which is not a lot. I've done adjunct teaching since 2001, and there were times I had 4 classes in addition to my other full-time work. But working full-time for a university comes with other duties that I've never had, and I have no idea how much time they take.

The university is off for 5 months a year, which sounds like I'll have a lot of free time during those months, but they expect me to finish my PhD within three years. Plus, to be able to afford to take the job, I've had to keep several of my existing contracts (mostly those that don't require a lot of travel). So it's a toss-up, and I have no idea of all the consequences for my life.

On the whole, I'm really looking forward to my new life. I like teaching, and the students and faculty at this university seem great. I'm not looking forward to the dissertation. I'll be glad to spend more time at home, but conversely I've really grown to prize my SkyMiles and Hilton Honors statuses, and giving those up is going to be painful. I don't mind the thought of a daily commute, not with all the great audio stuff to stream these days.

This blog will continue, of course. The new job isn't going to cure my CRPG addiction. And I have a feeling that a regular schedule will help me better structure both my playing and blogging and my work on the book I announced a few months ago.

Thanks for listening, and regular CRPG coverage will resume soon!

Friday, April 26, 2019

Star Control II: We'll Have to Destroy Them Ship-to-Ship

The ship stood no chance.
For me, Star Control II's combat system is the most difficult and disappointing element of the game, and yet I recognize that it isn't "bad." To the contrary, it was a genius idea to take the ship-to-ship combat of Star Control and embed it in in a world with a complex, developing story. I'm struggling to think of any other series that has done the same thing--that started with a game that was good at principally one thing, then made a sequel that preserved that element but within the context of a much more expansive experience.

I'm simply not any good at this kind of gameplay. I'm not really good at anything that requires quick reactions, which I suppose is why I've never played any competitive sports. (There was a time I could have buried 99% of you at pool, but I wouldn't consider that a "sport.") Back in the early 2000s, it became fashionable among the young men in my office to play a couple of hours of Team Fortress or Counterstrike after work (to be honest, there were times we were flexible about the "after" part). I really enjoyed those sessions, but I was always last in the standings. 

I certainly don't mind a little action in RPG combat, mostly because in a true RPG, you can compensate for a player's weakness with character buffs, healing, and so forth. In fact, in an open world RPG (where combat and exploration are integrated), combat often becomes extremely strategic despite its action-oriented nature. You just have to carefully choose your approach and terrain, and use options like traps, stealth, explosives, summoning, leading two hostile enemies into each other, and so forth. 
Is there a gameplay method by which a player could literally destroy all those ships instead of doing things the diplomatic way?
But there are no such options in Star Control II. When combat begins, your two ships appear on a field of stars, and there's nothing but you and your reactions. Thus, I end up reloading a lot. Things are worse whenever combat begins near a planet. The planet's gravity well exerts an influence on the ships, but not in any way that seems to me consistent or predictable, particularly when your ship changes screens. The planet itself isn't always visible, but when it does appear, you have to struggle not to bonk into it, and trying to fly directly away from it almost never works. You're trying to figure all this out, of course, while the enemy is shooting at you.

The only tactic you get is the choice of ship, which makes a huge difference in the difficulty of combat, particularly for someone like me. Your choice of ship depends heavily on the enemy, of course, which requires taking careful notes about each enemy and what it can do. If you're facing off against an enemy with weapons of limited range, you want to choose a ship with long-range options. If the enemy is slow and cumbersome, you want something lithe and maneuverable. If the enemy's ship has only a few hit points, maybe it's best to choose a ship with a lot of hit points (like your flagship) and be willing to absorb a little damage while you wait for a one-shot opportunity.

Once selected, your choice of ship is difficult to change. You can hit ESC to warp out of combat, but it takes a few seconds, and the enemy can often destroy you in those few seconds. Of course, if your ship is destroyed, you get an option to choose a different one, but then you've lost the crew and have to re-build the ship back at the starbase.

During this session, I found myself facing a regular Ur-Quan dreadnought. The ship has devastating cannons, but with a relatively short range. Its secondary attack is to launch mini-fighters that bombard you like gnats, but they're relatively easy to out-run. Since I had saved the game just before the encounter, I took some time to grade the performance of each of my ships against the dreadnought. (Instead of saving and reloading, there's also a separate program that lets you practice combats; I used this a little but found the bouts annoying to set up.) These were the results:

1. The Earth Cruiser. It was promising at first. The ship's main attack is a homing missile that, if shot from far away and on a reasonably straight path towards the target, almost always hits. I'd had a lot of success with it against the VUX, which have limited-range attacks. But the ship is slow and hard to maneuver, and it's a nightmare to pilot when the gravity well of a planet is nearby to muck things up. Its secondary attack, point defense lasers, rely on proximity to the target, which is a bad idea with the Ur-Quan. C.
The cruiser scores a hit, but it lacks enough maneuverability to get out of the way of the incoming Ur-Quan shot.
2. The Orz Nemesis. This is a relatively fast ship with a mid-range cannon. It became much more useful once Wonko instructed me how to rotate the cannon so you can fire it from the rear. Since the Nemesis cannon has a greater range than the Ur-Quan cannons, I could turn my tail to the dreadnought and keep him just in range of my own weapons, although actually hitting him required a precision in aiming that I was rarely able to achieve. The best part about the Orz Nemesis is the secondary attack, which fires a pod containing a "space marine" who latches onto the enemy ship, boards, and kills as many crew members as possible before getting killed himself. (Basically, it's a missile that costs you one crew member and does a variable amount of damage.) The Ur-Quan fighters nibbled away at my hit points, but I was able to prevail 2 times out of 3. B.
The Nemesis stays out of range while firing its cannon to the rear.
3 The Pkunk Fury. This was a horrible choice for the dreadnought. Although the main weapon shoots out of three sides (which helps someone like me), it has an extremely limited range, so you have to bring it close to the enemy, and "close" is a bad idea with an enemy like this. When the batteries run dry, you have to mash the secondary attack option to re-charge them (the option for some reason casts audible insults at the enemy). The only benefit is that when it's destroyed, it is sometimes resurrected. D.

4. The Zot-Fot-Pik Stinger. Not only was it useless against the dreadnought, I can't imagine the ship ever being useful for anything. Its only benefit is speed and maneuverability, but its weapon is weak and its range is laughably short. The secondary attack just seems to fire a laser beam so small that you'd have to be within boarding range of the enemy for it to hit. F.

5. The Ariloulaleelay Skiff. Flying this one is weird. It has no inertia, so you have to hold down the thrust button constantly. It's very maneuverable, and its main weapon is an auto laser that aims itself, which is nice, but it dies in one hit from the dreadnought and probably any other ship. C.

6. The Spathi Eluder. As others have pointed out, sometimes this ship almost makes it too easy. The ship's secondary attack, BUTT missiles, have a decent range and do a great job homing in on the enemy. You can even arc them around other obstacles. The ship is fast and agile, and it's easy enough to stay just outside the Ur-Quan's range while you fire off bursts of missiles. A.
The Spathi does its best to "elude" the enemy while firing its rear missiles.
7. The Flagship. There are no universals because its strengths and weaknesses depend heavily on what you buy. The ship's primary advantage is that at a full crew complement, it can really take a beating. I have trouble aiming the cannons, but as long as I'm willing to temporarily forget that my hit points are really people, I can usually wait around long enough to fire at just the right moment. Against the Ur-Quan specifically, it wasn't a great option because the dreadnought also has a lot of hit points, and the main weakness of the flagship is that if it's destroyed, the game is over. B.
Going nose-to-nose was a bad idea.
By the end of this trial, I was feeling pretty good about my developing skills and knowledge base, but later I was reminded that you have to essentially repeat this process with every ship you encounter. The next "new" enemy I fought was the Mycon podship, and the thing absolutely devastated me. Most of my strategies revolve around not having to be very quick, but you can't go that route with the Mycon because they're capable of generating new crew members (growing them from spores, I guess) in the middle of combat. Their homing missiles are tough to dodge. I was unable to reliably defeat them with any ship and eventually had to flee combat.

As this session began, I had just dealt with the Slylandro probes once and for all. (I met a few more before they disappeared entirely, but I had destruction codes to transmit.) I was on my way back to the Ariloulaleelay in "quasi-space" hoping that they'd give me a "portal spawner," which would let me enter quasi-space from anywhere in hyperspace instead of just the one weak point. I hoped this would make travel faster and less costly in terms of fuel. In fact, I was counting on it, because I didn't have nearly enough fuel to get back to Earth as it was.

Well, I was in luck. The Ariloulaleelay gave me the spawner.
This is true, but it uses nothing while in quasi-space itself.
It took me a while to figure out how quasi-space works. You always enter at coordinates 500,500. Exit points surround you. The exit points seem to have no correlation with the positions at which they dump you in hyperspace. I spent a lot of wasted time trying to figure out a formula, but it seems instead that you have to simply try each quasi-space exit and record where you land. I ultimately did that, but because entering quasi-space takes 10 fuel units, and I was down to 32, I had to reload a bit.

Eventually, I found that the quasi-space exit at 492,492 took me to hyperspace/true space coordinates 191,93, which are pretty close to Earth. I stopped at Alpha Centauri on the way and met with the Melnorme, selling some accumulated bio-scans for technology that helps defend my lander against the life forms it encounters. I had just enough credits left for a little information, and they told me that the Pkunk are an offshoot of the Yehat. This ended up being somewhat timely.
A starmap of quasi-space. All the exits are clustered together in the center.
Back at the starbase, Commander Hayes told me that the Ariloulaleelay had joined us and given some of their ships and ship schematics. My fleet of attached ships was now full with the addition of two Ariloulaleelay Skiffs. He also related that there had been a hyperspace disturbance near the edge of Pkunk space, as if hundreds of ships had entered hyperspace at once.

Some of my commenters have mentioned checking the starmap repeatedly. As you meet new species, circles appear on the map showing the species' relative territories. What I didn't realize until this session is that those circles can move. In this case, they showed the Pkunk territory swiftly moving "eastward," towards the VUX and Yehat, though for some reason the Yehat weren't marked on my map.
The status around the beginning of this session.
I flew down to see what they were up to. It didn't take me long to find a Pkunk vessel in the Ptoloemae constellation. They had decided "our Yehat siblings are in need of our love and good counsel" and that they intended to sail to Yehat space and "greet our Yehat brethren with warm hugs of affection." I knew how that would go, but they wouldn't listen to me until I told them that I'd consulted a Ouija board and it spoke poorly about the timing of this voyage. The alarmed Pkunk agreed to return home and read the signs once again.
This part was a bit alarming.
After this, it was time to return to my "to do" list. The next item was to visit the Spathi homeworld, for which I had exact coordinates. Giving the password supplied by my Spathi ally, Fwiffo, it wasn't long before I was talking with the High Council. I asked them to ally with me, but they quite frankly admitted that they were "too afraid of the Ur-Quan to consider such an alliance." When I pressed them by boasting about my own strength, they said they'd join if I would rid their home planet of the "Evil Ones."
The aliens in this game are often goofy, but you can't deny that they have a certain consistency of characterization.
A little backstory followed: the Spathi used to be somewhat dormant, lazy mollusks living on the planet Spathiwa. But eventually a race of carnivores evolved on the same planet, and they apparently liked eating mollusks. The Spathi "fled across oceans, from continent to continent, but the Evil Ones always followed." Eventually, they fled off-planet, to their own moon, and abandoned Spathiwa to the carnivores. They wanted me to visit the planet and get rid of them.
Zapping the "Evil Ones."
Despite the absurdity of scooping up an entire race in my lander, it wasn't hard. The "Evil Ones" turned out to be lemur-looking things that didn't even move. I collected them all and returned to the High Council, which expressed gratitude and said they'd begin moving back to the planet immediately--but then almost immediately reneged on joining the Alliance. I had to threaten to release the Evil Ones from stasis to compel them to keep up their end of the bargain.
The Spathi concede to my Alliance.
During the conversation, they mentioned that they'd taken a HyperWave Caster from the Umgah--presumably the same one that the Umgah had been using to impersonate the Ilwrath gods and convince the Ilwrath to attack the Pkunk. I had made a bungled visit to Umgah space hoping to secure this device. But I got no dialogue or other options that would have allowed me to obtain the Caster from my new allies.

Dialogue with the Spathi also revealed the existence of yet another species, the Thraddash, "a weak and obnoxious race from the Draconis group of stars." I had a note to visit Draconis to see about an un-aligned species, so that was useful intelligence.

My next stop was Vela I, the Precursor world where I'd grown up, which I visited thanks to the completely innocent suggestion by commenter Viila that my folks might be wondering what happened to me. When I arrived, I was dismayed to find a red shield around the planet, plus an Ur-Quan dreadnought guarding it in orbit. A brief dialogue conveyed what I already suspected: the Ur-Quan had found the Earth colony and forced them to accept the same fate as their relatives on Earth itself. A combat ensued, which I recorded at the beginning of this entry.
I audibly gasped when I saw the planet, which is a tribute to how well the game set up the red shields as a plot device.
My last stop was at Beta Copernicus, the old Syreen homeworld, where I hoped to find some evidence of what had destroyed the planet. I found it quite quickly: the remains of a huge egg shell. I'm 99% sure the Mycons destroyed the planet by sending some kind of spore to penetrate it and crack it open--the planet is actually called a "shattered world," and I later encountered several more of them in Mycon space. 
My crew discovers evidence.
I met the Mycons themselves somewhere in the Brahe system. They're an arrogant species, convinced of the superiority of their type of lifeform over non-fungal life. When I asked about the shattered worlds, they told me about their "deep children" who "build" new homes for Mycons, apparently by destroying existing ones, so I was right. Anyway, every dialogue with the Mycons ended in combat, and I was unable to defeat their extremely fast, maneuverable, regenerating ships. I gave up and fled.
And the Mycon incriminates himself. Case closed!
I assumed when I returned to the Syreen commander, news of the destruction of her world might motivate them to break their treaty with the Ur-Quan, but she had no new dialogue options. I thus reloaded and headed for Draconis, which has 14 freaking stars! The second one I explored, Epsilon Draconis, finally gave me one of the mysterious "Rainbow Worlds." It had some minerals and life forms but wasn't otherwise special. I assume the Melnorme will give me credits for it.
Captain Chester finally makes the "Rainbow Connection."
I ran low on fuel before I found any Thraddash, but I returned to Earth with my storage pods bursting with minerals and life. Commander Hayes told me that the Spathi had arrived as promised, and had given us plans for their Eluder starship, so I can make more.

At this point, my flagship is "full," in that all the module bays are used. I have:
  • 4 storage bays
  • 4 fuel tanks
  • 2 crew pods
  • 1 point defense system
  • 3 dynamo units
  • 1 ion bolt gun
  • 1 fusion blaster
I'm happy to take opinions on a more optimal configuration. My plan is to next try to solve the VUX Admiral Zex's quest to find a special life form in the Lyncis constellation.

Time so far: 27 hours

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Dark Stone Ritual: Might and Magic Jr.

The authors pay homage to their inspiration.
As I write this, my first entry on Magic Tower I: Dark Stone Ritual has not yet posted, so I don't know if some helpful commenter will appear with a 27-year-old manual for the game. What I do know is that a lack of a manual had a reasonably comical effect this time around.

When we left off, I was exploring the city of Umure. Some gnome living in a hut outside the city warned me that 9 "marauding groups" could be found there, and I should return to him once I'd destroyed them all. I was attacked repeatedly by these groups in between my visits to town services, which include a weapon shop, a tavern, a temple, and a training guild. The town as a whole ended up occupying 15 x 10 coordinates with "worm tunnel" walls (where the walls themselves occupy at least a square of space), so it wasn't very big.
The extent of Umure.
The monsters were unnamed. Even when you cast "Identify Enemies" (erkenne gegner), you only get their stats, not their names. I think that's going to be a problem throughout the game. Whatever they were, I found that if there were three or fewer, I could keep up on their damage with my priest's "Cure Wounds." Four or more, and someone would die, which I allowed myself to solve with a reload. The problem is that there's no "load" in this game, only a "save." Loading is a long process of quitting the game and rebooting it, which is nice for discouraging save-scumming in the first place. 

(Save states don't help, even though the Steem emulator handles them perfectly. This is one of those games that generates its next n random values upon loading, so if you reload from a save state, you face the same number of enemies again in the same locations and even have the same chances to hit and same hit point damages assuming you engage in the same combat actions.)

Eventually, I rose to Level 2, which allowed me to survive against four or five enemies at once. I cleared the town and returned to the quest-giver for a nice experience reward.
A gnome rewards me for clearing a nearby city.
Shortly after that, I had a good laugh at my own expense. I had assumed that the asterisk to the left of some weapons and armor in my inventory meant that I had equipped those items. It turns out that the asterisk only means that the items are equippable by that character. When actually equipped, a different symbol appears to the right. I had been fighting unarmed and unarmored the entire time. I should have been doing about 4 times the damage against enemies and taking about one-quarter of the damage from them. What I thought was a very hard game (which, after all, would have been well within the Might and Magic tradition) became much easier after this revelation.
I can equip both the small knife and the +3 slingshot, but only the latter is actually equipped. I'm not sure what a "schwinger" is except that I can't equip it and it sounds like something that would have been featured on Wayne's World.
You find a lot of weapons and armor, but whether a character can use them is dependent upon both class and skill. I'm not sure if "skill" refers to a particular skill (as in, no one has yet trained me in "axes") or if it has more to do with level. Either way, I find a lot of stuff that no one can use. I mostly just sell it.

There are several other items I remain confused about:
  • The only difference I can determine between fast and strategic combat is that in the latter, you can position characters around particular monsters and each participant gets multiple actions per round instead of just one. Since the party always goes first, this would seem to offer a major advantage to the party, particularly if you can kill anyone in the top half of the round. But are there other differences between the two that I don't know?
  • None of my characters are at their maximums in any attribute. For instance, the game says that a "normal" strength for my paladin is 17 but his aktuell strength is 13. It doesn't seem to be an encumbrance issue, sleep issue, or disease issue.
  • There are several places with question marks, which indicate a special encounter or chest, where stepping on them does nothing. There isn't a "search" option or other obvious feature to use.
Nothing happens when I walk over this.
  • As I note later, I'm not sure what some of the spells do.
  • There's a little tilde symbol next to some of my items. I wonder if it means they're broken. But the "Fix Item" button never seems to do anything in stores.
  • A lot of the doors are locked, but there seems to be no lockpicking or bashing mechanic.
  • I paid for the "Forestry" skill and it allows me to walk on some of the squares with more wild terrain, but not all of them. How do I get better at the skill?
  • What do the various "conditions" mean? "Stoned" and "weak" are obvious, but how am I to interpret "~~?~"?
At least he suffers a -0 penalty for it.
But I soldiered on. As I mentioned, clearing Umure got me a nice experience reward. I started exploring the other buildings in the area. "Kalak the Strange" sold me a number (4579) for 5,000 gold pieces. He insisted it would be important later. In another hut, a Lady Miriam said that she lost her wedding ring near a cave and asked that we find it and return it. As we received quests like this, they began to appear in our quest log, which does one better than Might and Magic III by putting the coordinates of the quest's source.
Coming upon a new city.
I decided to explore a set of caves. Since none of my characters are trained yet in cartography, which I am led to believe will provide an automap, I mapped the dungeon myself. This one was about 30 x 15. As with most games that use the worm tunnel approach, a major closed-off area was a good sign of a secret door, which in this game you find by just striding forth. Oddly enough, there wasn't a single party of monsters to be found.
My first cave map.
There were a lot of treasure chests in the dungeon, and my thief only had about a 50% chance of opening one without it exploding in our faces and causing both damage and some kind of condition like weakness or paralysis. I spent a fair amount of time returning to Umure for healing.
At least it's not that expensive.
Four-digit number combinations written on the walls opened three doors. Behind each door was a special encounter and associated quest. "Father Selaman" complained that "Zappo the Common Cur" (my translation of gemeine schuft) kidnapped his daughter. He promised to teach me some magic if we rescue her. "Harib the Magician" had lost his sight and wanted us to bring him the Ring of Light. Finally, "Baltus the Huntsman" wanted us to return once we have the "Town Portal" spell.
A message on the wall is very much in the Might and Magic tradition . . .

. . . but this mechanism for entering a combination seems original to this game.
Moving on, I found myself in the city of Samara. As with Umure, a gnome in a hut near the city told me how many wandering parties it had (7) and said to return once I'd defeated them. The monsters here are squat little things, easier than those in Umure even considering my weapon/armor blunder.

Samara has the same services as Umure but with the addition of a shop selling magic spells for my sorcerer, plus a guild that you have to join to get access to the shop (another Might and Magic motif). Oddly, only a few of the spell names are in German, and some are a bit mysterious:
"Soft Ghost"? "Nothing vs. Nothing?" (in Spanish). And what could "Hoemopatus" possibly mean?
Even more mysterious, both Knorr (my priest) and Laura (my sorcerer) seemed capable of buying the same spells, making me wonder if there are truly separate spell systems.

The "magic number" from above turned out to open a combination door in a cave called Talmos. It was a small cave, using only about half of the squares in its 12 x 17 area. I had to trip a lever to open a secret door--the closest thing we've seen to a Dungeon Master-style puzzle. There were some non-interactable alcoves with mystifying graphics.
Any idea what that's supposed to be?
Like the first cave (which was called Brelock, if I forgot to mention that), Talmos had no random combats, but it did have one fixed combat in the final square. Graphically, it looked like three undead and a cleric. The cleric died easily, but the undead had hundreds of hit points and lasted many rounds. They were also capable of some serious damage. It took me a couple of tries to win without a character loss. I had to keep up with healing each round and use spells like "Individual Shield" to improve each character's armor class. The battle was about as satisfying, tactically, as any battle using this system could be.
I really wish the game had given the monsters names.
When it was over, I was rewarded way out of proportion with the combat difficulty, with each character getting more than 1 million experience points (the average until now had been around 1,500) and the party getting 741,000 gold, or about 7 times as much as we'd already collected in the game. We also got the Ring of Light.
The post-combat reward screen has never been more rewarding.
I returned to Brelock and gave the Ring of Light to Harib, and I re-visited Baltus now that I had "Townportal." Both offered much more modest experience and gold rewards. Baltus suggested I use "Townportal" with the keyword VERTIGO.
Ooh, 1000 gold. I'll just add it to the pile of 700,000 we got when we found the ring.
Back at Umure, they trained me one more level and then said they didn't have the ability to train me anymore. This is another Might and Magic borrowing, where you have to find progressively more advanced training academies.
Sounds like you guys need to level up.
VERTIGO ended up being the name of a town nestled in dense thickets, so I never would have gotten there on my own until I find teachers of more navigation skills. As usual, a gnome in a hut nearby told me how many marauding parties there are and invited me to return when I'd slain all of them. I entered the town, hoping to visit the trainers, but I was almost immediately attacked by a party of 8 monsters and soon killed.
The full-party death screen is freaky . . . and for some reason shows the bartender in the tavern.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • Nobody ever completely misses in combat. You always do, or are hit for, at least 1 point of damage. 
  • The game has no sound at all.
  • You can get hints in the taverns.
I have no idea what this hint is saying, however.
This one solves the character creation mystery. Motelsoft apparently sold a separate "character editor" for 19 gold pieces.
  • I have yet to find any gems. Nor have I had to use any.
  • The "Townportal" and "Caveportal" spells require you to type in the names of towns and caves, so you have to have visited or at least heard about a location.
Teleporting to the town of Vertigo.
  • Each cave has presented me with a four-button puzzle at the entrance. You have to hit the buttons in the right order to open the entrance. So far, I haven't found any clues to these doors, but since there are only 24 possible combinations, it doesn't take much effort to get in.
Only 23 more to go.
  • Although some of the indoor areas have no monsters and some can be cleared of monsters, if you want more combats you can always hit the "ambush" button on the main screen, which has you lie in wait for a suitable party.
I've been enjoying regular equipment upgrades throughout the game, too. I often find an item or two after combat, and I regularly check the city armories for new items that seem better than what I already have. The game has been generous enough economically that I don't feel constrained from buying things. At first, I thought that all the German I had learned from previous games had been forgotten, as I was only recognizing half the words in phrases like Uta schild, Brelum stiefel, and Ramin kappe. But it turns out that the first words in each of those phrases are (usually) made up by the developers--this game's equivalent of "mithril."
Some of Monky's items at the end of this session. I need to evaluate whether an Uta shield is better than a small Holzschild.
I'm having about as much fun with Dark Stone Ritual as I did with the first Might and Magic, perhaps with the small exceptions caused by the things I don't understand, and also subtracting my usual annoyance at having to do everything with the mouse (the Atari ST had both arrow keys and a numberpad; it's unforgivable that the developers didn't at least map movement to these keys). I like the variety of encounters and the regularity of character progression, in both attributes and equipment. There's no sign of a main quest yet, but as a reader pointed out on my first entry, that's also very much in keeping with Might and Magic.

Time so far: 8 hours

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Star Control II: Why Can't We Be Friends?

Home planet encounters make it clear that you're not getting on the ground without going through a lot of combat first.
Star Control II is easily the most information-rich game that we've had so far. The two Starflight titles were well above the average RPG, but even they didn't have half the dialogue and lore of this one. That's good for me as a player, but not so much as a blogger--and perhaps not so much for you as a reader. I could describe what I did in the last six hours in about two paragraphs; what I discovered will take many more, and I'm not sure if you want entries that long. You're going to get this one anyway, but I welcome your feedback on whether it's too much.

Imagine when I get to the modern era and a game like Skyrim. The simple act of entering a dungeon, reading two skill books, killing a draugr, and finding a shrine to Clavicus Vile might take 10 minutes of game time, but I could get 10,000 words out of that with the associated descriptions and lore. As the genre as a whole becomes more information-rich, it's going to be difficult to determine where to draw the line.
Even with the dialogue summaries the game provides, you have to take a lot of screenshots.
But I have no complaints as a player. One of the finest moments I've ever had with an RPG came with Morrowind about 15 years ago, the first or second time I'd played, before there were wikis all over the Internet that spoiled plot developments. One of the great mysteries of the game is what happened to the dwarves, whose ancient ruins dot the landscape, and I found myself more interested in solving that riddle than progressing with the next official quest. I looked at the map that came with the game, identified every little dome that even hinted at a Dwemer ruin, and started to explore them systematically. And the amazing thing is, my explorations bore fruit! The developers rewarded this kind of "side-curiosity" with enough evidence among the ruins that you can basically piece together the story (although you need some plot-related events to make it 100% clear).

Most of the time, your effort in an RPG rewards the character, which in turn rewards the player somewhat vicariously. When you have a curious player, however, and you reward that curiosity with information, you are directly rewarding the player. This is something that Bethesda does exceedingly well and, in my opinion, does not get enough credit for doing. Whether you like Fallout 4 for its RPG mechanics, you have to admire how information-rich its world is. Every building has a story to tell. You'll stop by one building and read a computer log about how they were expecting some kind of shipment on October 23. You know that's the day the bombs fell. A few hundred yards down the road, you find the remains of the truck carrying that shipment. It clearly ran off the road into a tree. There will be a skeleton a couple dozen feet beyond the tree, as if ejected from the cab of the truck. If you just tromp from quest to quest, blowing through all the areas in between, you're cheating yourself out of a world of detail. 
Star Control II doesn't quite reward random exploration this way. Particularly given the time limit, I don't think you could solve the game by simply visiting random systems. You have to follow some kind of quest track. And I suspect that most of the information I'm discovering will turn out to be necessary, not ancillary, to the plot. I also prefer my plots a bit more serious than Star Control's. But even with all those limitations, this game is a welcome relief from era titles that are nothing but combat.

A recap is in order. I am a young starship captain in an era when the human race has become "fallow slaves" to the squid-like Ur-Quan, confined to Earth under a red shield that prevents off-planet travel. The Ur-Quan give conquered races a choice between "fallow slavery" and "thrall slavery" in which they fight for the Ur-Quan Hierarchy as battle thralls. I grew up off-world, son of a marooned group of scientists studying the ruins of an ancient race called the Precursors, and I've been able to stay alive because I'm flying a Precursor ship. Now based out of a starbase in orbit around Earth that the Ur-Quan mysteriously abandoned, I have been collecting advanced technology, improving my star-ship, and finding allies to throw off the yoke of the Ur-Quan.
My starmap has been annotating various territories as I discover them.
I originally assumed those allies would come from races that were part of the old Alliance against the Ur-Quan, but it's becoming clearer that all races--including Ur-Quan allies and non-affiliated races--are up for grabs, partly because the Ur-Quan have been distracted by a distant war. This is the rundown of the races I have so far:
  • Androsynth: Old enemy of Earth because they had once been Earth's slaves. They seem to be gone now, destroyed by the Orz who now inhabit their system.
  • Ariloulaleelay: An old Alliance race that mostly disappeared after the Ur-Quan victory. Classic "little green men" who may have been responsible for abductions and experiments on Earthlings in the past. Current whereabouts unknown. They may not live in regular space.
In fact, as we're about to find out, they do not.
  • Chenjesu: Crystalline beings who originally drew Earth into the old Alliance against the Ur-Quan, now trapped on Procyon under a "fallow slave" shield, along with the Mmrnmhrm.
  • Kohr-Ah: Some new race that the Ur-Quan are currently fighting, distracting them from my attempts to rebuild the Alliance.
  • Ilwrath: Cruel spider creatures, allies of the Ur-Quan, whose only weakness seems to be a fanatical belief in their gods. The Umgah are currently exploiting that weakness.
"Subtlety" does not translate well in Ilwrath.
  • Melnorme: A neutral race that trades in information. They're responsible for half my clues.
  • Mmrnmhrm: Robotic species, member of the old Alliance. Now trapped with the Chenjesu on Procyon under a "fallow slave" shield.
  • Mycon: Fungoid race allied with the Ur-Quan. I haven't met them yet in this game, but they've apparently taken over the old Syreen system, and I suspect they had something to do with the destruction of Syra.
  • Orz: Weird yellow fish-flowers who come from the same alternate dimension as the Ariloulaleelay. Seem to have destroyed the Androsynth and taken over their space. They appear to have allied with us, but it's hard to understand what they're saying.
  • Pkunk: An unknown race currently being attacked by the Ilwrath.
The Pkunk end up being somewhat weird, but no more than most of the creatures on this list.
  • Precursors: An ancient race within whose ruins the main character grew up. Members of the "sentient milieu," Their technology built my flagship. Probably extinct.
  • Shofixti: Cat-weasel warriors given advanced technology by the Yehat. Destroyed their own star to avoid surrendering to the Ur-Quan. One lone male warrior with a thin hold on sanity still keeps a vigil from orbit. A group of females are possibly in the hands of a VUX admiral.
  • Slylandro: New to the galaxy, this race has sent probes all over the place. The probes, after first claiming to be on missions of peace, are attacking everybody. In the last session, I got a clue as to where they might be coming from. One of their damned probes is almost always on my tail when I sail through hyperspace.
Captain Chester has lost all hope when it comes to these probes.
  • Spathi: Race of cowardly mollusks who surrendered to the Ur-Quan despite having decent ships and technology. Now serve them as battle thralls. One of them was assigned to monitor Earth but instead joined my crew early in the game.
The Spathi have a particular outlook on life.
  • Syreen: All-female race of buxom sirens. Joined the old Alliance after their planet, Syra, was destroyed by what they thought were natural disasters. After they surrendered to the Ur-Quan, given a new homeworld called Gaia. Accepted fallow slavery (red shield) and unwilling to break their treaty.
  • Taalo: Another member of the "Sentient Milieu," a cooperative of ancient races. Probably extinct, though I had this theory that they're the "Talking Pets." I have one of their artifacts, a stone that blocks psychic influence.
  • Talking Pets: Little frog-like creatures who do all the communicating from the Ur-Quan because the Ur-Quan feel it's beneath them to speak directly to lesser races. Unknown if they have their own history or world.
  • Umgah: Blob-like creatures with a cruel sense of humor. Allies to the Ur-Quan. Lately amusing themselves by impersonating the Ilwrath gods with something called a "HyperWave Caster."
These guys turn out not to be the likeable kind of jokesters. They're just jerks.
  • Ur-Quan: Putative enemies of the game. They want to conquer every other race in the galaxy. They've been around a long time, as they were also "Sentient Milieu" members. Willing to let conquered races live out their own destinies as "fallow slaves" under red shields, and demand that the decision be put to a popular vote.
  • VUX: One-eyed, snouted race allied to the Ur-Quan. Humanity apparently insulted them the first time we met, leading to an enduring hatred. I hadn't met them yet when this session began.
The VUX are maddeningly vague on the nature of the supposed insult.
  • Yehat: Race of pterodactyls who chose to be battle thralls under the Ur-Quan.
  • Zoq-Fot-Pik: Cooperative of three small races from one planet. Caught in the crossfire between the Ur-Quan and the Kohr-Ah, glad to ally with us in the last session.
I'm going to relate what I found this session below, but as I do, it's important to keep in mind that I usually only had a constellation, sometimes a star, as a hint. This means that for every encounter, I might have had to explore several stars and dozens of planets before finding it. Naturally, I mined those planets that had minerals and took life forms when I found those, but those tasks have become so rote and procedural at this point that there's no point narrating them. I still haven't found a "Rainbow World" yet.
I've learned to prize heavy "biological" worlds as much as mineral ones, as it gives me more to sell to the Melnorme.
As this session began, I had "to do" items related to almost all of these races, if only to make contact and find out where they stand. Because I was sick of spending so much money on fuel (I hadn't even had enough money to purchase the "Fusion Blaster" the Melnorme gave me), I prioritized the locations closest to Earth, at least at the beginning, which is how I found myself in the Giclas constellation, looking for a rumored other neutral race. It turned out to be the Pkunk, a race of hippie birds who believe in reincarnation and positive energy and all that New Age stuff. My negotiations with the first ship I encountered went well, and they directed me to their homeworld.

The Pkunk are aware that the Ilwrath are only attacking them because someone is impersonating the Ilwrath gods. They didn't seem to mind much. They happily agreed to join my Alliance, gave me an artifact called a Clear Spindle, and also gave me four ships (with crews) for my fleet. (I'm going to have to stop using my flagship for every combat.) Before I left, they predicted my future and said that the Ariloulaleelay would give me the ability to summon dimensional doors and travel in a way that's even faster than hyperspace.
Well, that sucks.
The "other dimensions" thing gained even more traction with another visit to the Melnorme. I sold them the bio scans I'd made since our last contact and used my credits to buy plans for some kind of laser defense system for the Prydwen plus some information. One of the things they told me is that there is a "weakness in the division between dimensions" that manifests itself in between the Chandrasekhar and Columbae constellations on the 17th of each month (we'll just ignore the absurdity of that).

My next trip, again based on proximity, was to the VUX (no idea why that's always capitalized) worlds, hoping to find the Shofixti females and otherwise gauge their status. Conversations with the ships were mostly futile; the captains refused to explain the specific nature of the offense we gave them, only that they hate us forever, and even if they didn't, they'd destroy us because that's what the Ur-Quan want. One of them did mention that if I wanted to meet a "friendly" VUX, I should try Admiral Zex at Alpha Cerenkov. VUX encounters inevitably led to combat, so I didn't stay in their system long.
Maybe I'll just skip those planets.
At Alpha Cerenkov, Admiral Zex proved to be an affable, if perverted, member of the species. A hero of the earlier war, he retired to a hedonistic lifestyle years ago and seems to fetishize other races. He was willing to give me the Shofixti females if I could bring him some animal from a planet that "basks in the yellow light within the eight-star constellation of Linch-Nas-Ploh," which he translated as "the snake-like creature who has swallowed the elephant beast." Studying the star map, I think this probably refers to Lyncis, way up at the "north" edge of the galaxy.
Unfortunately, I think he means that last part literally.
I next went to the Yehat space nearby. When I finally encountered a Yehat ship, they were surprised to see a human outside the red shield around Earth. The crew of the ship I encountered was reluctant to kill me because of our former friendship, but their desires were at odds with the mandate from their queen to follow Ur-Quan orders. They seemed to respond when I told them that the Shofixti were still alive, but they demanded proof that I didn't have.
At least they feel bad about it.
Around this point, I returned to starbase, where Captain Hayes told me that they'd received a distress call from the Zoq-Fot-Pik, whose home planet was under attack from a "black destroyer." I bought an extra fuel pod, fueled, up, and headed for the ZFP homeworld.
While at starbase, I was able to buy the "Fusion Blaster" and "Point Defense" upgrades.
On the way, I encountered a Spathi ship in hyperspace. They said they wouldn't attack but begged us not to tell the Ur-Quan that they'd let us go. Conversation with them solved one mystery: why they, as cowards, accepted "battle thrall" slavery instead of "fallow slavery." They said they'd meant to do the latter, but the Umgah had interfered with the voting as a joke. I still have to visit the Spathi homeworld.
The Spathi and Tyron Lannister would get along.
The first major surprise came when I arrived at the ZFP world, encountered the black ship of the Kohr-Ah, and found myself speaking to an Ur-Quan! (Or, more accurately, to his Talking Pet.) It turns out that the Kohr-Ah are a faction of Ur-Quan, not a separate race. They call the regular Ur-Quan the "Kzer-Za," and the two sides are fighting over "supremacy of Doctrine and possession of the Sa-Matra." "We cleanse," the captain explained. "You are the filth."

When I asked why they were destroying us, he gave me a big info-dump of Ur-Quan history. It basically went that their species is hostile and territorial by nature. Even civilization among their own kind came late to them, and only with great difficulty, and it was even worse when they started to explore the stars and meet other races. Their only friends were the rock-like Taalo, "the only people we could stand with, or talk to, without the hunter inside us screaming, 'Kill the interloper! Rip out its life!'" (Their description of the Taalo as sentient rocks makes me wonder if I don't have a Taalo, rather than a Taalo "artifact," on my ship.) Eventually, a psychic race called the Dnyarri wiped out the other "Sentient Milieu" races. They enslaved the Ur-Quan and used them to destroy the Taalo.
The Ur-Quan goes through his history.
Twist #2 came in further conversation. The Dnyarri are actually the Talking Pets! (At this point, my Taalo=Talking Pet theory was completely debunked.) They kept the Ur-Quan as slaves for thousands of years, experimenting on them genetically and splitting them into two species: green ("effete scientists and bureaucrats" and black ("the builders, the fighters, the doers"). The green became the Kzer-Za and the black became the Kohr-Ah. The Ur-Quan eventually discovered that excruciating pain could block the Dnyarri influence, so they created devices called "excruciators" to wear and thus maintain their independence.

Once the Ur-Quan achieved victory over the Dnyarri and enslaved them in turn, they decided they'd better destroy all other life in the galaxy to avoid ever being enslaved again. The Kzer-Za faction insisted that they only enslave or neutralize (i.e., fallow slavery) other races, while the Kohr-Ah demanded that they kill them outright. The schism led to the Kohr-Ah fleeing the galaxy until just recently.

The captain attacked when he was done with his speech. The huge Kohr-Ah ships fire giant throwing stars, which linger until something hits them. But you'll be happy to know I was able to destroy the dreadnought with the BUTT missiles of the Spathi ship. I'll talk more about combat next time, but suffice to say that I'm starting to get the hang of it.
The Ur-Quan dreadnought spams giant iron swastikas.
The ZFP were grateful for their rescue and gave me several more ships for my fleet. My flagship now has about as many escort ships as I think it can accommodate.

When the battle was over, I checked my notes and found that I was pretty close to a few other "to do" items. I started with the Umgah. I don't know what I was expecting. Clearly, I wasn't going to have an encounter in which they just handed me the HyperWave Caster with instructions on how to use it. Instead, in about six encounters in a row, they laughed at me and attacked. Each battle involved multiple Umgah ships. Their primary weapon has a limited range, but they have a special weapon that can suck you into proximity. I got pretty good at destroying them with the Spathi, but eventually the attacks became too much and I fled the system.
BUTT missiles home in on the Umgah ship while his weapon fires in vain.
The 17th of the month was near, and I was near the weak point in space, so I headed there. Sucked through it, I found myself in a place called "quasi-space." Time passes there, but it doesn't seem to use any fuel. The map showed a bunch of small blobs and one big blob. The small blobs were portals back to hyperspace, but the big blob was a portal to a planet.
Beyond hyperspace.
The planet turned out to be the homeworld of the Ariloulaleelay. The representative who contacted me explained a bit about the history of our two species, which came across as less sinister than I expected, although of course I was hearing his side. He suggested that the Ariloulaleelay had been guiding human development for a long time, and that they made themselves known, and joined the old Alliance, as a way of protecting us against other hostile species. When they were no longer needed because humanity was "safe" under the red shield, they disappeared for a while. I'm the first human to reach their homeworld. There was this chilling sequence, which may be the best RPG text so far in my chronology:
Part of what we do on Earth is for your own protection. There are parasites. Creatures who dwell Beyond. They have names, but you do not know them. They would like to find you, but they are blind to your presence, unless you show yourselves. The Androsynth showed themselves, and something noticed them. There are no more Androsynth now. Only Orz. Ignorance is your armor. They cannot see you now. They cannot smell you. Much of our work with your people involved making you invisible, changing your smell. If I tell you more, you will look where you could never look before, and while you are looking you can and will be seen. You do not want to be seen.
Traveling in quasi-space is how the Ariloulaleelay get around so fast. The alien said he'd give us a "portal spawner" so that we can use quasi-space, but we'd need to find a warp pod first. He suggested we'd find one on the wreck of an Ur-Quan dreadnought at Alpha Pavonis, not far from our current location. He mentioned that the Ariloulaleelay had recovered a Talking Pet from the same wreckage and had given it to the Umgah for care. He wanted us to stop by the Umgah and see how it fared.

We returned to hyperspace, sailed to Alpha Pavonis, visited the right planet, and got the pod.
My lander crew loots the wreckage.
At this point, I noticed that I wasn't too far from Vega, which was one of the possible sources of the Slylandro probes. It actually turned out to be nearby Beta Corvi, but I found it. The Ariloulaleelay had said that the probes came from a world with no surface, so I hunted for a gas giant until I found the right one.
This looks promising.
I was surprised to find myself talking to a friendly group of gaseous creatures named "Content to Hover," "Joyous Lifting," and "Sullen Plummet." They explained that they hardly get any visitors since the "Sentient Milieu" races were destroyed eons ago. (They went on for a while about a race that used to visit them called the "Shaggy Ones" that seemed worried about something and seemed to be seeking something.) Lonely and unable to leave their planet, they were excited when the Melnorme visited and sold them a probe.

In further discussions, it transpired that the Slylandro had mis-programmed the probe. It was supposed to seek out life forms and communicate as its top priority, but somehow "self-replicate" got set as the probe's top priority, which means that it sees every ship that it encounters as a source of replication materials. Horrified, the Slylandro promised to try to recall the probes. In the meantime, they gave me a self-destruct code to use if I encounter any more. I thought these probes were the main quest, but it really just turned out to be a side quest.
The Slylandro reach a horrifying conclusion.
I end here, poised to swing by the Umgah (though I'll probably just get attacked again) and then return to the Ariloulaleelay. I might need to use that portal spawner immediately because I'm running pretty low on fuel. I have three questions on my mind:
  • When I joined the Orz to the Alliance, did I give some unspeakable evil from another dimension access to Earth?
  • Are the Melnorme necessary? Meaning, are the clues that they offer exclusive to the Melnorme, or do they exist largely as a kind of backup in case a player spends more time randomly visiting planets than following the initial clues? It feels like most of the things they've told me have been double-confirmed in later encounters.
  • I've mostly been diplomatic in my encounters with other races, but there are also some very aggressive options. Is there a more aggressive path through the game? If I was better at combat (and enjoyed it more), could I be subjugating the other species? Could I beat Admiral Zex into submission instead of doing his quest?
Captain Chester briefly considers a different path.
The game began in January 2155, and Earth is scheduled to be destroyed in January or February 2159. It is now November 2156, so I'm about halfway through my available time. I'm hoping this portal spawner allows me to accomplish more in less time. We'll soon see!

Time so far: 21 hours