Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Kingdom of Syree: Acceptance

The King of Syree bestows the main quest.
Facing an Ultima clone often sends me into a process akin to the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief. 
  • Denial: "Aw, hell. Not another Ultima clone. What--it even has a (Z)tats command? No. No $&@#!* way."
  • Anger: "What the hell was wrong with independent developers of the period anyway? Why did they all have to clone Ultima? Why aren't there more Gold Box clones? Bastards!"
  • Bargaining: "Okay, if someone has posted a world map to a spoiler site, I'll play the damned game. Otherwise, I'm going to find a reason to reject it."
  • Depression: "Of course not. No one's ever heard of it. Well, I guess I'll start character creation. Oh, just a name? That's original. Let's enter the starting town. There's an NPC. NAME. JOB. Good god, how many times am I going to have to do this?"
  • Acceptance
The world of Sheol.
Once I resolve to making maps, taking careful notes, and tracking a "to do" list, I almost always start to enjoy the game more than in its first few hours, when I'm just half-playing it and hoping for a quick win like Zerg.

So now that I'm settled into it, I can see that Syree is competently-created. It borrows heavily from Ultima, sure, but in a way that's more clever allusion than direct adaptation. For instance, in the last entry I made fun of the fact that the game had "mantras," but it really doesn't. It just has one mantra, in the opening town, and it's a solution to a different kind of puzzle than is presented in Ultima IV. Similarly, although the game has a town called Yew, a dungeon called Deceit, and a spell called SEQUITU (which it takes from Ultima III), from the other town, dungeon, and spell names, it's clear that the author was capable of originality. He just decided to pay homage once in a while.
Was the jester really necessary?
The world of Sheol turns out to be 100 x 100, occupying coordinates 0-99 on both axes. It wraps. The same size is used for all the city maps, and I find it too big. I can't possibly justify the time it would take to map each city the same way I did the outer world, and yet it's big enough that you can overlook entire buildings as you explore. (Frequent twisty mountain passages and dark forest squares don't help.) Plus, NPCs have a very wide wandering range in the cities, making it easy to overlook them. For a while, I pinned my hopes on the ability to cast the EIDO spell, which provides a magic map, but when I got it, it turns out it shows only a slightly larger area than the regular view window. I just had to resign myself to looping each city multiple times.
Specifically, EIDO shows a 17 x 15 area where the regular view shows a 9 x 7 area.
The game world (Sheol) consists of two major continents: Syree (north) and Garrett (south). Syree has six towns, a castle, and two dungeons. The towns include the starting town, Ludden, where I have a house. Barren Sheol on the east peninsula is where I spent a lot of time healing and buying food, as the dungeon I used for grinding was nearby. It's one of the easiest towns to navigate, as it's arranged in a simple block with four exits and services in the middle. The town of Lost is cut off from the rest of the continent by mountains. Coel is nestled in some southern mountains. It seems to consist of one huge building with a locked door, which I can't access until I find some keys. Emara is the fourth town, and the fifth, Phanteo Eifcon, is on an island in a lake, so I'm not sure how to reach it. The two dungeons are Mysti and the Dungeon of Fire (borrowed from Ultima III).

On Garrett, we have the castle, where King Dakar and Queen Cirrey rule, the town of Yew, and two other towns called River Bend and Doe Shameh. There's a dungeon called Deceit and another on an island. (It must be the Dungeon of Water, but I don't know how to reach it.) The only location not on one of the two main continents is a dungeon called Kehol in an archipelago of mountains.

About half this session was spent grinding in the dungeons. The dungeon called Kehol has a particular purpose, which I'll cover in a bit, but most of them seem to exist for just gold and experience. They're all multi-leveled, the highest I've found going to Level 9. It's probable that they all go that deep and I just didn't find the ladders in all of them. As you descend, the monsters get harder but the chests have more treasure. More important, the dungeons are seeded with fountains. Some of them harm you, some heal you, and some do nothing. You have to find and record the positions of those that heal you, at which point you can grind nearly indefinitely on those levels.
Opening multiple chests while I approach a fountain.
Via grinding, I slowly assembled better equipment, culminating in a crossbow and plate armor, and then saved enough for a ship. (The game is like Ultima II in that killing enemies with cannons still rewards you with gold and experience. But it makes things fair by requiring you to shoot from an adjacent square, allowing them to attack you at the same time.) I then mapped the world and revisited or re-visited most of the locations. I was stymied in many of the cities by locked doors, and only late in this session did I finally find a guild shop, where you can buy keys, in the city of Yew.
I blast a dragon off the map with my cannons.
It also took me a while to figure out the magic system. I kept getting hints about spells and spell names, but I was unable to cast them because I didn't have any magic points. It turns out that to cast spells, you have to develop a "wisdom" statistic which is set to 0 at the outset of the game. To do that, you have to descend into the dungeon called Kehol. At various level intervals, you find altars that increase your agility, stamina, and strength by 1 for every 100 gold pieces that you sacrifice.
Approaching an altar in Kehol.
On Level 9 of Kehol is an altar that gives you 1 point of wisdom for every 1 point of strength that you sacrifice. So you want to pay to build up your strength first, then trade it for wisdom. This involves multiple trips to other dungeons to collect money first, since Kehol has no chests of its own. Once you have wisdom, your spell points start to generate--1 for each point of wisdom. Spell costs start at 15-20 for basic offensive and healing spells and go as high as 99.
Sacrificing strength for wisdom.
On the main quest, one element of frustration is that NPCs are extremely obtuse in regards to the keywords they respond to. One says, "I used to forge armour." The prompt for the next point is not FORGE or ARMOUR or even ARMOR, but rather USED. Late in the session, I discovered that if you only feed a single letter, the NPC will automatically fill in any keyword that begins with that letter and answer to it, so if you find yourself talking with a particularly taciturn NPC, you can get information out of him by just going through the alphabet.

Some of the quest lines I'm following:

  • Grover the Terrified was hiding in a cave in Yew. He said that he was hiding from King Dakar of Garrett and his "hallucinations." He recommended that I find a dispel spell to reveal the king for what "it" is. This spell might be the same as ALETHEIA, which "forces a liar to tell the truth." ALETHEIA requires "infinite" magic points, but I met a former wizard named Donnal in Lost who said that he used to have "infinite magic" and that by talking with him I acquired his power to "cast one infinite magic spell." I don't know if that means one spell one time or one spell as many times as I need it. In any event, casting ALETHEIA and then talking to King Dakar doesn't seem to do anything.
I did hear he's HYDRA.
  • At the healer in Barren Sheol, I find a king's guard named Swiftwind who was injured trying to slay the wizard. Of the wizard, he'll only say that he's not where one expects him to be. But anyway, to defeat him I will need the Sword of Emara, forged by King Emara ages ago. (Emara is also the name of a city.) At the castle, King Telbor of Syree tells me that the Sword of Emara was stolen by Rancit (the evil usurper from the backstory), but King Emara might know where it is. This confused me, as King Emara is dead and buried in a sepulcher in the same castle, but another clue that "white blocks mark the tombs" inspired me to try talking to the tomb. When I did, I somehow ended up conversing with Emara, who told me to ask around the city of Coel for the saber.
Speaking with King Telbor about the Sword of Emara. He'll HEAL me if I ask.
  • I visited Coel late in this session because it requires a key to enter the main building. Coel is hidden amidst dark mountains and forests. The people are obsessed about their own safety and beg me not to tell other people that the city exists. No one responds to SABER, EMARA, or SWORD, but there's a wizard on an island that I don't know how to reach.
In keeping with their desire to remain isolated, Coel's prices are 10 times higher than anywhere else in the kingdom. I don't even think you can amass that much gold. I think it caps you at 9,999.
  • Among the spells that people have told me about are EIDO (magic map), THERAPENO (heal), HAELAN (heal a lot), SEQUITU (escape a dungeon), THANATOS (kills an enemy), and HORATOS (see around trees--basically "lights up" dark forests). MAVETH causes "unnatural death," but it just seems to kill me, not enemies.
A wizard teaches me a new spell.
My biggest obstacle at this point seems to be an inability to cross water without a boat. There's one town, one dungeon, and at least one NPC that I can't reach because of local water squares, so there must be some spell or device that I've missed that allows crossing water. I'll have to circle the towns and try again.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Ultima had a problem by which you could find artifacts by just searching at obvious places even if you hadn't received a clue about them. Syree gets around this by making you specify what you're searching for when you hit (S)earch.
  • One of the things you can search for is books. There are two libraries in the game where you find books by standing to the right of the appropriate letter. It was a book called Treowth that gave me information about the ALTHEIA spell.
Searching for a book in the library.
  • About half of the game's files are music files. It apparently has different tunes for different situations. I can't get any of the music to work, owing to some kind of Adlib problem. I wouldn't play it anyway, but I at least wanted to mention it. 
  • Like a few of the early Ultima games, you can (T)alk to enemies as they attack. They shout insults and threats. 
  • Last entry, I couldn't enter the castle because I was a peasant. The solution seems to be purchasing and wearing chain or plate armor, which marks you as wealthy, if not nobility.
  • Other past kings named in the sepulcher: Donovin, Sharella, Favren, and Basilikos Mnemeion. 
I speak to a dead king among the remains of his ancestors and descendants.
  • You occasionally run into enemies frozen in place in the dungeons. You miss them with every attack and they don't attack you at all, but they will insult you if you talk to them. I'm not sure if these are bugs or if they have some other purpose.
I'm just going to have to find a way to live with not having access to that fountain.
  • One interface improvement over most Ultima clones (and Ultima itself): turns don't automatically "pass" at regular intervals if you just stand there doing nothing. I appreciate not having to hunt for a "pause" if I want to take a break.
  • You cannot save in dungeons or towns, only outdoors.
  • If you try to cast a non-existent spell, the game wipes all your spell points. That seems a harsh punishment for a typo.
  • Supposedly, "taphouses are a great source of rumors," but I've never gotten a bartender to respond to a single keyword. I'll have to re-visit them all and try the "one letter" trick.
  • The game preached to me at one point. I don't know if this is a reflection of the author's beliefs or if I was supposed to get something in-game from this. I tried all the keywords from the resulting passage and got nothing.
Why would this world even have the Christian bible?
In the end, Syree has shaped up into a fair Ultima-like treasure hunt. I like the character development system (experience goes directly to maximum health) and the way that the altars serve as a near-endless money sink after you've bought the best stuff. If I can conclude it in another session, it will be a satisfying game.

Time so far: 11 hours

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Game 329: Darklands (1992)

When you start up the game, this woman says "Welcome to Darklands" in a digitized voice.
United States
MicroProse (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started:
24 May 2019

Excited about killing orcs and finding treasure, I fire up a game and crack open the manual. Three hours later, I could give a university lecture on political intrigue in the court of Emperor Frederick III in the 1470s. If it hadn't already been made clear by the box and title screen, I would know for certain: I am playing a MicroProse game. One of these days, I'm going to add a column to my game rating sheet indicating whether the game manual comes with a bibliography, and thus determine whether it has a correlation to the GIMLET. I suspect it will.
Darklands is perhaps the most anticipated game on my blog, so much so that when I went to do my customary pre-game search of player comments, there were far too many to review. Readers were telling me that they were looking forward to the game back in my first year. There are many who feel that it marks the beginning of a new era in both mechanical complexity and quality of role-playing.
A brief animated scene shows a gargoyle awakening and flying through a medieval city.
The game is set in the Holy Roman Empire, staring in 1400. For those who haven't had much excuse to think about the Holy Roman Empire since high school, it was a political organization in central Europe that existed for about 1,000 years, between 800 and 1806 or between 962 and 1806 depending on what you regard as the beginning. (Pope Leo III revived the Roman title of "Emperor" for Charlemagne in 800, but his empire fractured afterwards and wasn't put together until 962 under Otto I.) At its height, it included modern-day Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Czechia, Slovenia, most of Italy, and parts of France and Poland. The Holy Roman Empire and its emperor never had the centralized authority of the earlier Roman Empire; kings and dukes and princes existed within it and sometimes had more real power than the putative emperor. The HRE was universally Catholic (Martin Luther wouldn't vandalize any doors until 1516), feudal, and caste-obsessed. Its political machinations are the stuff of legend, and thus it serves as a great place for an RPG. Kingdom Come: Deliverance (2018) will later be set in the same era.

The gimmick of Darklands is that the game isn't really set in historical reality, but in the era as the people of the era believed it to be. Thus, witches and demons are real, werewolves prowl the forests, mixing alchemical ingredients produces results, and saints occasionally deliver miracles. Otherwise, the game adopts realistic terms and concepts from the era. Money consists of florins, groschen, and pfenniges. Knowledge of Latin is an asset. And the player has to get comfortable with terms like schulz (local leader), dom (cathedral), raubritter (robber knight), and zeughaus (barracks).
The game map reduces the complex borders of the HRE into a convenient square.
The player controls a party of four characters, generated through a complex system that recalls MegaTraveller. After specifying a name and sex, the player chooses the character's social background, from nobility down to rural peasantry. He then spreads a pool of points among six attributes: strength, endurance, agility, perception, intelligence, and charisma. I would note that these are the same attributes as the later Fallout, minus luck, but there is a "luck" statistic in the game in the form of "divine favor." Attributes exist on a scale of 0-99, although only a range of 10-40 is available on starting. They are dynamic throughout the game, as wounds cause direct damage to strength, endurance decreases with fatigue, and agility goes down with encumbrance.

Next, the character can take one or more occupations for blocks of 5 years. Available occupations are limited by skill, attributes, background, and previous occupation choices. After each 5-year term, the player can allocate a pool of points among the game's 19 skills. These skills are organized into three groups: martial (e.g., Edged Weapon, Throwing Weapon), intellectual (e.g., Alchemy, Religion, Latin), and crafts (e.g., Stealth, Riding). Some of these skills are adjusted automatically based on occupation. They exist on a 0-99 scale. Since the game does not have levels as such, I assume increases in these skills are the primary means of character development.
Improving a characters' skills between occupations.
You can stop the character's career at any time. Older characters will start the game with more skills but will also age and die. My understanding is that the player may end up replacing characters several times throughout the game, particularly since there's no such thing as resurrection, so I didn't waste too much time trying to get it right the first time. I came up with:
  • Chestremagne: Heir to a noble house, strong and fit, schooled in edge and impact weapons, Latin, reading and writing, and riding. From ages 20-25, he was a student and developed all his skills a little more. He is presently 25.
  • Lothair the Lender, an unscrupulous trader and moneylender. He comes from a background of urban commoners but used his high intelligence, perception, and charisma to work his way up from peddler to trader to traveling merchant to merchant-proprietor, along the way developing skills in both common language and Latin, streetwise, woodswise, and artifice. He is now 35.
  • Tabitha, the child of a wealthy urban family pledged to a religious and healing order. She worked for 5 years as an oblate and then 5 as a novice nun. She is moderate in all attributes and skilled only in religion, healing, virtue, and alchemy. She is 30.
  • Adelaide the Ant, a famous thief. Ugly but shrewd, perceptive, and agile, skilled in streetwise, artifice, stealth, and the use of edged and thrown weapons. She has alternately been a thief and bandit for several decades, and is the oldest of the group at 40.
I can see a couple of weaknesses in the party. First, I have no one obvious "warrior." Chestremagne was headed there, but I stopped his education early. Second, I have no one particularly strong in alchemy. I tried to get Tabitha there, but I guess there really isn't a lot of affinity between alchemy and the religious occupations; I should have moved her along a more "student" track. I probably have too much duplication between Lothair and Adelaide; there really aren't that many thief-specific skills, and I could have combined what I was attempting with the two characters into a single character. Nonetheless, I'll go with this party for now.
The first party.
Darklands has no particular backstory, so you have to decide for yourself how this weird crew came together and what they're trying to accomplish. The game has them starting at table in an inn. I think the location is randomized; in my case, it was the Rheinischer Hof in the city of Dortmund. Anyway, as the game begins the group has just sworn "a pact as blood brothers, to seek good and avoid evil, and to bring everlasting honor and glory to our names." They then spend some time debating next steps, such as getting jobs locally to acquire more training, improving their equipment, or hunting for street thieves at night.
The party unites in a vague quest for fortune and glory.
The game then hands control over to you, and you can start exploring the city via a series of nested menus. For instance, if you head out to the main street, you have options from there to visit the stadtplatz (the political center), the alter markt (central market), the churches, the guilds, an inn, a scenic grove, various side alleys, and the city gates. Each of those locations opens up a new series of options. For instance, in the stadtplatz, you can view local notices, listen for rumors, or go to the stadthaus and try to get an audience with a local official. Each option costs time, and the days pass quickly. There are different options at night than during the day.
Some of the options specific to an inn.
My party first went to the market to check things out, but I was a bit too concerned about finances to make any purchases. We then went into a back alley and nearly immediately entered combat with a group of thieves. Darklands features a real-time-with-pause combat system that I'm still figuring out, but it anticipates the Infinity Engine titles. You basically hit SPACE to pause, select each character and issue orders, and then hit SPACE to watch them carry out those orders to the best of their abilities. At the beginning of the game, I can't do much more than attack.
The party and the thieves engage in the very definition of "melee."
With the thieves, that was enough. I killed them without taking much damage and looted their bodies for some useful pieces of armor and excess weapons to sell in the market. The game is pretty light on types of equipment, incidentally. You get a melee weapon, a missile weapon, "vital" armor, "limb" armor, and a shield.
Hear that? My massacre of the thieves was ordained by God.
The next day, I visited the stadthaus and got an audience with the ältere herren. He confided that there is a plot to take over the city. His men had intercepted some reports going to the fugger (banker) in Fürstenberg. He wants me to go to that city and "steal prior reports." From the map, Fürstenberg is quite a distance to the east. My understanding is that you might get similar quests from churches, guilds, and other important people in the town.
How do we know that Fürstenberg won't rule the city better than you? Which of you favors universal health care?
I left the city to check out the wilderness. (Entering and leaving the cities involves a bunch of options depending on whether you want to pay the associated fees or hide from the guards or whatnot; I'll cover that later.) Outdoor travel takes place on a world map full of landscape features and roads. There are miscellaneous encounters with friends and foes every few minutes. I was able to bluff my way past a couple of hostile parties as I headed east.
Lothair bluffs his way past some bandits or worse.
Everything I've described adds up to a game that's an awful lot like a medieval RPG version of MicroProse's Pirates! There are direct analogues in the menu towns and the randomization of quests. Just like the earlier game's Spanish Main, here we have a rich backcloth in which somewhat random events transpire, with or without the player's involvement, thus creating a different experience for every player.
Hiking around central Germany replaces sailing the Spanish Main.
Even the goals are similar. It appears that as I solve quests and slay thieves and whatnot, I'll gain fame and reputation specific to each territory. I can "retire" the party at any point with that fame score, just as you can with the main character in Pirates! There's also a main quest to find, lurking somewhere. Still, it's clear that part of the game's legendary length is related to the dynamic, somewhat random way the game world evolves.

I may roll a new party and choose to stay more local before getting a quest, or just go with it and see what happens. There are lots of things I have not yet explored, including the alchemy system and the praying system. Since the plot can't really be spoiled (I assume), I'll be happy to take plenty of opinions on this one.

Time so far: 3 hours

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Game 328: The Kingdom of Syree (1992)

The game starts with an Ultima IV-like scene except that unlike Ultima IV, nothing happens in the view window.
The Kingdom of Syree
United States
Everlasting Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 20 May 2019

The moment I fire up a game and see that it's an Ultima clone, I subject it to the "(Z)tats Test." This involves hitting the "Z" key on the keyboard. If doing so produces a screen with the character statistics, I know I'm not dealing with some half-assed "inspired by the look and feel" title like Questron. Any game that passes the "(Z)tats Test" is a proper goddamned clone. There's going to be a wizard with a freaking gem. There's going to be boats with cannons. There's going to be mantras.
The Kingdom of Syree is about as much of an Ultima clone as you can get. It not only passes the "(Z)tats Test" but the "(K)limb Test" besides. It's so much of a clone that "T" stands for "Transact" rather than the more obvious "Talk." It has a main menu command titled "Return to the View" even though the view doesn't actually show anything happening. We're dealing with a developer who took a desire to be unoriginal, doubled down on it, and then doubled down again. [Ed: I regret the harshness of this particular sentence, particularly since the game does show some original ideas and ended up being rather fun. See my next two entries.]
A bunch of clerics chant a mantra around a fire. I think I've seen this before.
As for that developer, I spent a long time following a trail of breadcrumbs and eventually concluded that it is one Thomas Himinez, currently a writer, actor, and script editor for The Doctor Who Audio Dramas, an audio spinoff of the long-running television series. He would have been 25 when The Kingdom of Syree was published. There is no primary author credit in the game except for the company (Everlasting Software), but it is said to be based on three books called The Lost King of Syree, The Sword of Syree, and A Queen for Syree by "Lord Steven." A simple Google search shows that these books never existed in published form, although the first one is quoted on, of all things, a legal discussion forum for landlords. The poster on the forum is named "Lighthope," which is also the name of an NPC in The Kingdom of Syree. Meanwhile, the only publications I can find by "Lord Steven" are a series of books called Tigers' Quest, which were turned into audio plays and films, directed by Thomas Himinez of "Everlasting Films," who according to one magazine goes by the AKA "Lighthope." Q.E.D., as they say. Sorry for the digression, but the authorial mystery was more interesting than the game.
The Kingdom of Syree takes place a few decades after the nation of Syree, in the Land of Sheol, threw off a tyrannical ruler named Rancit in favor of a good king named Telbor. Telbor has ruled for 30 years in wisdom and peace, but now the beat of war drums pulses over the hillsides, and monsters have been appearing across the land. This leads to my favorite paragraph in the backstory:
The court wise men soon discovered that the evil was not the work of some warmonger seeking to overthrow the kingdom, but rather the work of a powerful, malevolent wizard. The approaching storm marked his growing power. Secretly, this wizard worked his evil magic, growing in power every day. What his intentions were were obvious: the conquest of Syree.
Got that? It's not a warmonger seeking to overthrow the kingdom; it's a wizard seeking to conquer Syree! The distinction is clear. Anyway, no knights have gone off in pursuit of the wizard, although many heroes have embarked on quests to find him. These heroes have not all failed to return, although none of them have ever come back.
Not only do I start off with just a dagger and cloth armor, the dagger isn't even christened.
Character creation consists only of a name. The character is assigned 20 points each in strength, agility, and stamina, and starts the game with 100 food, 100 gold, 100 hit points, a dagger, and cloth armor.  He starts next to the town of Ludden, which is apparently his home town, given the number of NPCs who say "welcome home" when he talks to them. There's also a large house with his name written on it, which I admit is something I've never seen in Ultima or any other Ultima clone.
This is rather cool, if also a little ostentatious.
NPC interaction is a mix between the one-liners of Ultima II and III and the keyword-based dialogue of Ultima IV. When you find yourself talking to the latter type of NPC, he of course responds to NAME and JOB, and then you can usually pick up the rest of the keywords from those responses.
Shops in town sell weapons, armor, food, ale, and a night's rest. Food is crazy expensive--like 15 gold pieces per ration, although rations admittedly deplete slowly.
It will be a long time before I can afford that plate mail.
The NPC discussions in Ludden centered around the attribute of agility. One NPC warned me that adventurers with low agility won't survive long; another said that the guards are very agile people and I should ask them about it. It ultimately transpired that a cleric named Shalea was searching for a mantra, and if I could give it to him, he would give me a spell to raise my agility. I found some other clerics chanting the word--AHRHEM--and fed it to Shalea, who gave me a one-use spell word that raised my agility to 60.
That was a big boost.
Lacking anything else to do in my home town, I began exploring the continent. Like any good Ultima clone, Syree is a twisting landscape of peninsulas, islands, mountain ranges, and forests, with vision often obscured by terrain. Combat is relatively rare, and with the types of monsters you're used to from Ultima, including skeletons, thieves, and evil clerics. Combat regresses to the original Ultima: you just hit (A)ttack and specify a direction. Presumably, once I learn how to cast spells, I'll be able to do that, too.
Fighting a thief just north of a dungeon entrance.
There's no inflation of experience here. A thief is worth 1 point, a cleric 2, a skeleton 3, and so forth. There doesn't appear to be any fixed leveling. Instead, your experience points are continually added to your maximum hit points, although using a formula that I haven't yet figured out. (Since the game began, I've earned 53 experience but only 21 additional max hit points, if that helps.) Hit points restore slowly as you move around, or you can pay healers and inns to restore them faster.

An NPC eventually told me that there are 5 towns, 3 villages, and 2 castles to explore, but only a few are accessible from the starting mainland: Ludden, Emara ("City of Kings"), and Barren Sheol. There's a castle, but I'm unable to enter because apparently peasants just can't go entering castles--which makes sense when you think about it. I always thought it was odd that just anyone could wander into Lord British's throne room and bedchambers.
How rude.
Among my explorations, I learn that EIDO is some kind of mapping spell, I can learn about magic in the town of Lost (which is rumored to be just a rumor), and that I'll need keys to jimmy locks.
An apprentice cartographer gives me a spell name.
There is one dungeon (Mysti) accessible on the opening mainland. Dungeons break the Ultima style by being top-down, but movement is a little different because dungeons track facing direction while the outdoor areas and towns do not. The facing direction determines who you're attacking when you hit "A" and down which hallways you can see. It also creates a bit of a "stutter" as you move around, because when you change direction you have to hit the appropriate arrow key twice. It's innovative but not terribly necessary.

Dungeons have both monsters and chests, and they respawn when you leave and return. Chests on Level 1 seem to have 0-10 gold pieces; those on Level 2 have 11-20, and so forth. It's pretty easy, if time consuming, to enter, grab a lot of gold, leave, and get healed if necessary. Slowly, I upgraded from a dagger and cloth to a mace and leather, and soon I'll have a sword and chainmail. This opening phase seems to be largely about improving weapons, armor, and maximum hit points, and then ultimately saving enough gold for a boat.
Fighting a cleric in a dungeon.
The Kingdom of Syree is hardly the worst Ultima clone, or even worst game, that we've seen, but it just happens to reach me at a time when I'm thoroughly exhausted with this particular sub-genre. At least, unlike The Seventh Link, it doesn't appear this one is going to take very long. The game files themselves suggest about 10 towns and castles and a few dungeons. If I can wrap it up in two, that will be good.
Time so far: 3 hours

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Journey: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

The winning screen you've been desperately anticipating for 8 years.
United States
Infocom (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for DOS, Amiga, Apple II, and Macintosh
Date Started: 20 March 2011
Date Finished: 21 May 2019
Total Hours: 23 (including 9 in 2011)
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 17
Ranking at time of posting: 53/332 (16%)
Yeah, this one requires some explanation.
I was sitting around the other night trying to decide what game to play with the couple hours I had available. I had made some progress with Kingdom of Syree but wasn't loving it (it's another Ultima clone), and I was holding out hope I could dispense with it in a single entry. The self-imposed deadline for my next entry was looming and it didn't look like I'd be able to win that fast. At the same time, I wasn't keen to start on a complicated game like Darklands. So I did a quick scan of all the games I'd skipped and abandoned over the years to see if I could find a quick win. House of Usher (1980) looked promising, then The Amulet (1983), but both ended up as "NP" (and on my "Missing and Mysterious" list) when I couldn't get them to emulate.

My eyes then fell on Journey, an adventure game that I blogged about in 2011. By the time I was a few hours into it, I realized it wasn't even really an RPG (and MobyGames has since removed that designation). But I'd numbered and rated it anyway, so its loss was counting against my statistics. I began to wonder what the problem was. How hard is it to win a freaking adventure game? Why would I have abandoned it? Was I too proud to get a hint? How long could it possibly take to turn this loss around? That last question was particularly important because, as often happens, at this point I had spent longer trying to find a "quick win" than it would have taken me to just play a regular game.
Infocom called this a "role-play chronicle." What does that even mean?
I read my first and second entries from 2011 and began to remember the title, as well as the core problem: you have to reach the endgame with a sufficient number of reagents still in your possession, or you can't cast the final spells necessary to win. Since there are a fixed number of reagents to find during the game and plenty of opportunities to use them, you can put yourself in a "walking dead" situation as early as the first 5 minutes and not know until you reach the end, two or three hours later. I was apparently so disgusted with that prospect that I refused to re-start and took the loss. I was more willing to do that in 2011 than I am now.

So I restarted Journey with a willingness to play it through a couple of times if necessary, and it wasn't long before my "quick win" had taken over not just my few allotted hours but rather the entire afternoon, evening, and night until about 03:00. During this time, I restarted not once or twice but about 30 times, filled pages with notes about cause and effect, broke down and consulted two walkthroughs and still couldn't win because the walkthroughs were wrong, and finally--14 hours after I started--ended up with the set of actions necessary to get a party from the beginning to the end. And make no mistake--there really is only one.
In case you forgot, Journey is the game that canonically establishes that orcs and grues are the same thing.
By the end, I had a much clearer picture of the game than I did in 2011, and I reached an obvious conclusion that I'm surprised I missed back then: this is the worst adventure game ever made.
Journey hides this fact with nice graphics and typical Infocom-quality prose, but the game's approach is all wrong--fundamentally an insult to anyone who cut his teeth on both text adventures like Zork and graphical adventures like King's Quest. Every option it suggests is a complete sham, every hint of an RPG influence a complete farce. And its story isn't even that original--so much is lifted from Tolkien that he ought to have a co-author credit.
I feel like I've seen this somewhere before . . .
Journey (whose subtitle of The Quest Begins exists only on the box, not the game screens) tells the story of a ragtag band of village peasants who set off on a quest to determine why their crops have failed and their water has gone foul. A better-equipped, better-qualified band, led by the village blacksmith, Garlimon, left the same village the previous year and was never heard from again. This new effort is headed by the village carpenter, Bergon, and includes a wizard named Praxix, a physician named Esher, and a young apprentice food merchant named Tag. The game is mostly told from Tag's perspective, and the game lets you rename him in its one nod to RPG-like "character creation."
The party later finds Garlimon insane and living as a hermit.
The title differs from previous Infocom outings in that you do not type any of the commands. Instead, you select them with the arrow keys from an interface that distinguishes between high-level party commands (most of which move you to a new place or situation) and micro-level individual commands, aspected to the skills and abilities of each character. Thus, the party leader, Bergon, can almost always "Ask for Advice." Praxix has a perpetual "Cast" option, and Tag has most of the inventory options. I find the interface inoffensive, but not as revolutionary as the developers were clearly intending.
Some of the options in dealing with a party of orcs.
The party's initial quest is simply to find their way to a powerful wizard named Astrix who lives on Sunrise Mountain. Once they arrive, Astrix explains that the land is being threatened by the return of the Dread Lord, and he gives the party a quest to find seven magical stones. They must first find four (Nymph, Wizard, Dwarf, and Elf), which will lead them two others, which will lead to the final one, called the Anvil. Astrix believes that the stones are the key to defeating the Dread Lord. In their quest to find them, the party has to negotiate with dwarves, befriend elves, defeat bands of orcs, and explore ancient tombs. In these adventures, they make use of the special skills of several NPCs that swap in and out of the party.
Astrix gives the party its final quest.
If they recover the first six stones, Astrix tells them to seek the Anvil on the Misty Isle. The party must travel to the port city of Zan, dodge agents of the Dread Lord, and convince a captain to take them to the Misty Isle. Praxix has to cast some spells to help the ship navigate. Eventually, the ship crashes on the island and the Dread Lord attacks. Praxix is knocked unconscious, and Tag must figure out how to mix the right reagents to call a lightning bolt and smite the Dread Lord.
Tag saves the party in the final combat.
Just about every episode has some Tolkien source, though mercifully not in the same order as The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. There's a dwarven mine that recalls Moria and an escape that not only feels but also looks like the bridge at Khazad-dûm. Another moment recalls the discovery of Balin's tomb. A ranger named Minar joins the party early on in an Aragornesque episode. There are echoes of Gandalf in Astrix and of Bilbo in the initially-hapless but ultimately-competent Tag. There's an episode that mirrors the Fellowship hiding from evil crows, and a tense episode in a tavern at the end that recalls the hobbits in the inn at Bree (the solution even involves turning one of them invisible). There's a Tom Bombadil-like figure named Umber whose nature remains a mystery until the end. The Dread Lord is, of course, an exact analogue of Sauron, and the stones are the game's equivalent of rings.
Crebain from Dunland!
Tag, just like Frodo, freaks out when he sees some suspicious characters in the Prancing Pony. If they stay at the inn tonight, the party will be killed.
The whole thing is reasonably well-written and would make a serviceable young adult novel, but as a game, it's nothing but endless frustration. Here is a small list of its sins:

1. It is completely linear. The one saving grace of difficult adventure games is that they are rarely linear. Usually, you can move back and forth between locations and solve puzzles in a variety of orders, taking the time to figure out what must be done in each place. Journey subverts this tradition entirely. You have to choose the right options the first time you arrive in a new location or you cannot return. For instance, there's one castle where you have the option to go to a left room or a right room. If you go to the right room, you see a chest full of jewels. If you're not exactly sure what to do there and leave the room, you can never enter it again. This happens repeatedly throughout the game.
The second screen invites you to enter a tavern or "Proceed" down the street. In any other adventure game you've ever played, if you proceed down the street, you can later turn around and go back to the tavern. Not here. Hit "Proceed," and you're out of town and on your way. It's pretty easy to hit some of these options accidentally, by the way; one too many ENTERs while scrolling through text will accidentally activate the default option on the next screen. An "undo" option could have helped a lot.

2. A "Back" option doesn't really take you "back." Most screens have a "back" option, and sometimes this returns you to a previous screen so you can choose a different direction. But much of the time, it serves as simply another way to go, usually one-way.
A simple choice to go left or right has enormous consequences for the rest of the game.
3. You're almost always walking dead. As I previously mentioned, if you don't reach the end of the game with the right number of spell reagents, you can't win. It is very easy to miss some of the reagents that you might otherwise pick up along the way, and also very easy to accidentally burn too many reagents casting spells. One of the options that burns too many reagents, by the way, is asking the wizard to "Tell the Legends" of magic. Usually, the "Tell Legends" option produces some useful lore about the game world, but if you ask him about magic, he does a little magic demonstration as part of his tale, which wastes necessary reagents.
The reagents are the most egregious example, but there are plenty of others. Fail to purchase a map early in the game--a map that the shopkeeper himself encourages you not to purchase--and you can't find your way to Astrix. Fail to ask a dwarf companion about some elf legends at the right time, and you don't have the right words to speak to an elf woman and thus miss your chance to get the Elf Stone. Fail to do a number of things just right in an early encounter with a nymph and you miss the Nymph Stone. Fail to accept a suspicious character into the party early in the game, and you miss later encounters because you don't have his scouting skill.
The shopkeeper tells you that a required inventory item won't help you.
Not only does the game give you no warning when something like this happens, but lots of other things happen that seem like they might be mistakes. In particular, party members disappear, get lost, get wounded, and even die on occasion, and you feel like you need to reload--only to discover, 20 turns later, that you can find or heal them in a different location.
4. Some of the walking dead criteria make no sense. Except in a single place where the dwarf Hurth has to "die" (or seem to die) only to be found alive again later, no character can die in a successful game, even if that character is no longer needed. This particularly bit me towards the end, in the city of Zan. If you don't do the exact sequence of events correctly in several locations, the Dread Lord's thugs are able to find your party and kill Hurth before the rest of the party members can escape. Even though Hurth's skills are no longer needed for the rest of the game, his death prevents you from winning.
5. Not only do you get no notifications of walking dead situations, a lot of text is wasted in such situations. It feels like fully half of the game's text would never be seen by a party destined to win because such text only appears when the party is already walking dead. There are entire areas of the game that, if you enter and experience any of the adventures to be had there, you've already gone the wrong way and cannot win.
A lot of text and programming--not to mention the graphics--went into a battle you're not even supposed to fight. You're meant to take a different path.
6. A lot of the options are completely nonsensical. Basically, on every screen, at every option, and at every encounter, you have to try every potential option and note the result--keeping in mind that its implications might not be fully realized for several scenes--and then try to assemble the "best" list of options in the right order. Some of the "successful" options you'd never hit upon by logic alone. Most involve the use of spells. For instance, Praxix encounters a stump on the ground in his explorations. If he casts "Tremor," the stump splits and reveals a passage into the Earth. It's both nonsensical to assume (without any other evidence) that such a passage would be revealed, and that "Tremor" would be the spell to reveal it. Later, you have to use the "Wind" spell in a random cave to reveal a hidden rune. Other encounters force you to discern at the outset whether you can cast a regular spell or need the extra "oomph" that comes from mixing the regular spell with grey powder, only the game has given you no gauge to determine the normal strength of spells.

7. The game randomizes some variables. Even if you can make an exhaustive list of the "right" options in the "right" orders, you'll still lose the game because each new session randomizes some of the variables. The most obvious is early in the game, when you're trying to navigate the paths to get to Asterix's tower. There are six choices of left or right, or 64 possible total paths, and you don't know if you've chosen right or wrong until you arrive. Each new game generates a different combination of correct paths. Now, technically you can bypass this navigation by casting a "Glow" spell on the map you hopefully purchased in the first town, but after a few sessions of this game, you're so paranoid about conserving reagents that you're more likely to sigh and start working your way through all 64 possible combinations.
The name of the boat captain you need to ask for at the end of the game is also randomized.
One of the things that the game randomizes is the color of the reagents that correspond with the different "essences": wind, fire, water, earth, and so forth. At the end of the game, Tag has to figure out what reagents to mix, and only a throw-away line in an earlier scene about brushing some color of powder from his hands keeps him from, again, having to reload multiple times and work through dozens of possibilities. 
Failing to note the "fine orange residue" early in the game makes it nearly impossible to cast the final spell.
The one nod the game makes to its own difficulty is by letting you view Tag's "musings" once you've lost the game. This screen lets you go one-by-one through all the things you did wrong, but only those things that led to your particular demise, and even then it's maddeningly vague with advice like "conserve reagents," not "you used reagents when you didn't have to in this specific place."
Tag muses on the many things the party did wrong.
Given all I've described, I have to highlight this particular paragraph from the game manual:
Your Journey will provide you with many hours of enjoyment and many hundreds of difficult decisions. But unlike other games you may have played, there are virtually no dead ends. Any action you take will advance the story toward one of its many endings. But there is only one ending that is the best.
I've never read such a blatant lie in a game manual before. There are no "alternate" endings--every single ending except the victory screen above has the main character reflecting on the literal destruction of the world. And the only way it can say that "there are virtually no dead ends" is because the damned game lets you keep on playing as long as possible even when you're in an unwinnable situation. That's not a virtue!
"Not a dead end."
These various failings are why it took me ultimately 23 hours to win a game that only lasts about 1 hour if you hit all the right options. And that's with using walkthroughs to help in some areas. With Journey, what you basically have is a cruel Choose Your Own Adventure book that you have to read 25 times, each time getting maybe an extra paragraph. It's barely a "computer" game, and of course certainly not an RPG. It has no character development, hardly any inventory, and the combats are all scripted.
The most frustrating part is, I'm the only one who sees how bad this is! In the June 1989 Computer Gaming World, Roe Adams--Roe &@&$*# Adams!--practically wets himself, calling it "the best effort to date of any game designer struggling to find a new way for the game to interface with the player," although he does caution about the use of reagents and mentions some of the more illogical puzzles. He seems to have been seduced by the interface--which is innovative but not all that great--and the plenitude of the graphics. European Amiga magazines gave it in the 80s and 90s.
Only more modern reviewers have failed to be lured in by its promises. In 1998, All Game Guide rated it a 40, called it "shallow," rejected its RPG credentials, and said that "it fails to take advantage of what a reactive computer can do that a non-reactive book cannot."
When I got done typing all of this and started searching for other modern takes on the game, I was delighted to see that Jimmy Maher ("The Digital Antiquarian") had covered it in 2016. As I read his piece, he at first scared the bejesus out of me by calling his initial reactions "a unique and very pleasant experience." But his opinion evolves as he plays, and eventually we get to the good stuff:
[T]here inevitably comes a point when you realize that everything Infocom has been saying about their game and everything the game has been implying about itself is a lie. Far from being the more easy-going sort of text adventure that it’s purported to be, Journey is a minefield of the very dead ends it decries, a cruel betrayal of everything it supposedly stands for. It turns out that there is exactly one correct path through the dozens of significant choices you make in playing the game to completion. Make one wrong choice and it’s all over. Worse--far worse--more often than not you are given no clue about the irrecoverable blunder you’ve just made. You might play on for hours before being brought up short.
When I rated it in 2011, I gave it a 23 without even bothering to explain the GIMLET. I don't know what I was thinking with some of the ratings. I gave it 2 points for "character creation and development" when it deserves 0 and 4 points for "magic and combat" when it deserves maybe 2 (some of the uses of magic to solve puzzles are at least well-described). A revision brings the score down to 17. It does best in the "game world" (3) despite being derivative, and in the graphics, which are credited to Donald Langosy. I agree with Adams that they're well-composed, and the game didn't skimp on them: practically every scene has a different set. 
Evocative graphics are one of the game's few positives.
The most surprising thing about Journey is that it was written by Infocom-founder Marc Blank, author of the original Zork series as well as the Enchanter series and several other Infocom titles. It certainly has his quality of prose, but it's hard to believe that he didn't understand why the basic approach was so much worse than the open-world games for which he was famous. Maher's account of the game's development suggests that the developers were in love with the interface: "an experiment to find out whether you could play an interactive story without having to type." There's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't explain why the interface had to so relentlessly drive the player forward, to punish him so severely for minor mistakes, and to waste so much of his time in unwinnable scenarios. Fortunately, it didn't begin a trend. I like to think that Blank himself was dissatisfied with the result, which is why we saw no more games in the "Golden Age Trilogy," as the secondary title screen has it. 
I like to think that the next two would have been Destination and Return.
So there it is. In an attempt to get a "quick win," I managed to waste a lot of time and get myself highly frustrated on a non-RPG, for no benefit except to increase my "win" percentage by 0.31%. This does not bode well for an eventual return visit to, say, Wizardry IV, but we'll see.