Sunday, August 25, 2019

Treasures of the Savage Frontier: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Reminder: It is possible to play this game with "evil" characters.
Treasures of the Savage Frontier
United States
Beyond Software (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released in 1992 for Amiga and DOS
Date Started: 20 July 2019
Date Finished: 2 August 2019
Total Hours: 31
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 51
Ranking at time of posting: 318/343 (93%)

One of the last Gold Box games, this one is competent but not terribly memorable. All of the Gold Box strengths (variety of enemies, combat interface, character development, interface) and weaknesses (bad economy, no environmental graphics, limited sound) are present, with a few minor additions such as weather affecting combat, the ability for enemies to join combat in subsequent rounds, and a romance between the lead character and an NPC.


If the Gold Box series was a political dynasty, its founder, Pool of Radiance (1988), would be like a bold, innovative president whose genius and integrity are remembered for generations. Curse of the Azure Bonds would be like his son who only ever made it to vice president. Every other game would be a bunch of descendants who had served as cabinet secretaries and representatives--each perhaps distinguished when considered individually, some even more physically attractive than their famous forebear, but none rising quite to his level of prominence.

Treasures of the Savage Frontier added a handful of tweaks to the Gold Box experience and told a competent story. It was in no way a shame to the family--not like those Buck Rogers cousins. But neither did it offer anything, in real terms, that we haven't experienced already. Since what we experienced already was pretty good, this isn't exactly a problem, but in some ways it's too bad that the lineage didn't continually improve over its lifetime the way that, say, the Ultima series did. Perhaps the comparison is inapt because Ultima used different engines for every release.

I said that Treasures told a "competent story," but even that is only true up through the end of my last entry. The Zhentarim/Hosttower/Kraken plot didn't keep me on the edge of my seat, but it did at least keep me interested. The final battle of this segment was a worthy challenge. Then, all of a sudden the Lords' Alliance leaders started talking about The Gem and the importance in keeping it out of the hands of the Zhentarim. I promise that The Gem had never been mentioned at any point in the story before, but all the journal entries acted as if everyone already knew about it. "It was this magical Gem that was used to destroy [a white dragon named] Freezefire centuries ago," King Steelfist said. "The powerful magic item may still be there, awaiting adventurers with the strength and courage to come find it in the barren wastes."
I expected him to turn on me, but mostly I forgot he was even there.
And thus the last chapter of the book had the party traipsing through villages and caverns of the frozen north. Accompanying us was an NPC fighter named Kriiador, servant to the human leader of Mirabar. A previously-unavailable dock in Neverwinter now sold passage to the northern city of Fireshear.

When we arrived, we discovered that the city (which occupied two levels with multiple ladders) had already been sacked by the forces of evil. We slowly retook it from the various yeti, ice hounds, remorhazes, and umber hulks that had made homes in the former shops and businesses of the residents. Umber hulks--which look weirder here than in any other game in which I've seen them--did their usual "confuse" trick.
An umber hulk, looking very cartoonish.
The hardest battle--and this became a recurring issue--was with a large group that included about half a dozen yeti chiefs. I guess the creatures get a chance of "terrifying" each party member when the battle starts, and with so many of them, it was common for every one of my party members to get terrified. Terrified characters flee the battlefield. They ultimately return, but only after four or five rounds in which the remaining characters have to hold out. There seemed to be no way to protect against the effect, and so the battle occasioned several reloads before I got enough party members to stick with it.
This is what finally frightens my party?
Even after I finished this battle, I had to immediately fight another one with a beholder and more yeti. Fortunately, my characters were under the effects of "Haste" (I used it so often that the party ended the game in their mid-30s having started in their early 20s). Resisting the beholder's more serious attacks, my three lead fighters ran up and pounded him until he was dead.
This guy wasn't as hard as he could have been if the dice had gone the other way.
Once Fireshear was clear, the shops and services opened up again, including a boat offering passage further up the coast to the Ice Peak. This area consisted of four maps, including three interconnected towns: Aurilssbaarg, Bjorn's Hold, and Icewolf. The areas featured numerous encounters with tribal northerners, and I regret to say I was done with the game at this point, so I stopped meticulously recording everything that happened.
The type of encounter I got in the final maps. I probably didn't even read the entry.
The tribesmen were nice and didn't give me any trouble about pronouncing "Tempos" as "Tempus," and there were more battles with ice creatures. Ultimately, I found my way to the passage that led to the final area.
My ranger gets impatient.
The final map, Freezefire's Lair, had a lot of secret doors but not a lot of special encounters. One exception was a combat with a creature I'd never encountered before (in any game) called a "gorgimera"--a cross between a gorgon and a chimera.
These guys were pretty bad-ass.
The penultimate battle occurred when we stumbled into a cave containing Freezefire's corpse. A bunch of mages, spies, and priests had beat us there, and fighting them was about as hard as the last battle in Mirabar. It all came down to who drew first and paralyzed everyone else with "Hold" or negated their spellcasting abilities with "Ice Storm" or "Fireball." I'd gained a level or two since the final battle in Mirabar, however, and this one had fewer enemies suddenly appearing in later rounds.
My ranger is taken out of the action, but we were victorious in the end.
When it was over, there was a scripted scene in which the party drooled over the piles of treasure in Freezefire's chamber before remembering that their duty was to collect The Gem. (The game never gave any indication of what, exactly, it did.) Ghost pried it out of the dead dragon's claws, which somehow caused the dead dragon to come back to life.
I like how the game tries to make the dragon scary, as if we hadn't been fighting dragons since Level 2 in Gateway.
The actual "final battle" with Freezefire was laughably easy, as battles with single dragons tend to be in Gold Box titles. He had a few dozen hit points, which the dancing blades of my hastened fighters depleted before he could even breathe once.
I swear his name is spelled "Freezefire" everywhere else.
The endgame screens then commenced. A group of dwarves carried us victoriously back to Icewolf, where we had a feast. The two rulers of Mirabar showed up to lay plans for dividing Freezefire's treasure among the Lords' Alliance cities, plus the northern tribes.
Yeah, that's going to pretty much ruin the local economy.
The party was offered 40 jewelry, 250 gems, and 15,000 platinum pieces (but why)? The Lord's Alliance took charge of The Gem, and the Zhentarim, Krakens, and Hosttower forces all slithered back to their homes. After the final screen at the top of this entry, the game allowed me to keep playing.
That's nice, but just once I'd like someone to call us by our names.
As I noted in the last entry, the ending felt tacked on. On the other hand, without it, the title didn't make any sense, as the game preceding it wasn't about any treasures. On yet another hand, it still doesn't make any sense, because while the ending is about treasures, the treasures are not "of the Savage Frontier." Then again, hardly any of the game took place in the Savage Frontier. 

There are more than a couple hints that the developers were setting up a sequel to occur in High Forest. First, there was the mystery to do with Siulajia and how the Axis of Evil knew her family. Second, the mages and priests we encountered at the Ice Peak appear to have been sent not by the Zhentarim conspiracy but by "the Masters of Hellgate Keep," as one captured enemy squealed. Hellgate Keep is on the edge of the High Forest. Even the cover, showing Siulajia holding a magic gem, seems to be from a sequel more than the current game.

After I won, I took a few minutes to create a new party out of my massively-overpowered characters from Pools of Darkness. These were characters so powerful, you'll recall, that at the end of Pools, they were basically sent into exile. They were all around Level 30-40, some of them in their second classes, and the mages among them had Level 9 spells. Treasures read their character files, including all their equipment, as if they were native characters.
The imported party. Look at those ACs!
The game wouldn't let me outside until I won the big battle in Llorkh. There were a lot more enemies than the first time, but I'm not sure if that's because Treasures "read" my party as being more powerful, or if it was because I didn't clean up the side encounters first. Either way, the large party still went down quickly to "Delayed Blast Fireball."
A lot more foes than last time, but that's just more fodder for a "Fireball."
I immediately brought the party to Luskan and attacked the Hosttower. Despite the level of my characters, the defending mages still mostly acted first, suggesting that the initiative rolls are rigged for this battle. It didn't help them much, however, as they mostly cast "Ice Storm" and I had "Resist Cold" on every character. Although multiple new enemies joined each round, my vorpal swords and spells like "Meteor Swarm" cut through the masses faster than they could replenish them, and I won with minimal damage in just a few minutes.
I forgot how much I like vorpal swords.
The battle earned me 19,751 experience per character. When it was over, I was taken back to the 3-D screen where a message said, "The great gates slam shut!" I then had the option to bash them again for, presumably, another battle. So much for that. I'm sure this combat could be won with native characters, particularly late in the game. "Resist Cold" and "Haste" would do most of the work.
The whole point of fighting that big battle was to get through those gates.
I always like to check out the uncircled journal entries to see which are likely to be fake. There aren't many here. Out of 88 entries, I checked off 73, and at least 5 of the remainder fit known story developments and events, so it's likely that I just missed them. Of the few obvious "fakes," one has the dwarves of Llorkh betraying and imprisoning the party. Another would have the party waste time looking for a beholder in Port Llast. There was a fake map, and a misleading entry about the pirate Redleg. That's about it. I miss some of the older games' fake entries, which often had an entire fake sub-plot running through them.

With all the corners explored, it's time to get on to the GIMLET:
  • 5 points for the game world. It makes good use of Forgotten Realms themes, adequately continues the story from Gateway, and does a reasonably good job evolving the world as the game progresses.
The Forgotten Realms campaign setting says Mirabar is ruled jointly by dwarves and humans, and that's how the game presents it.
  • 5 points for character creation and development, which is essentially the Gold Box/AD&D1 average. Only the Dragonlance games do significantly better with their unique races and classes. Here, I thought some of the level caps were a bit low.
  • 6 points for NPC interaction. This series has never featured classic NPCs (with their own icons, independent existence, etc.) so much as "encounters" with memorable characters in them. But this game does better than most by allowing so many characters to join the party, including one who will engage in a romance with the lead character. The romance is a bit dull and progresses mostly in the background, but it has actual consequences for statistics and behavior in combat.
  • 6 points for encounters and foes. Most of that goes to the foes. I really do like the AD&D bestiary, with its incredible variety of special attacks and defenses that constantly change up combat tactics, and this game had some creatures I'd never heard of. Non-combat encounters aren't as thick or memorable in their role-playing options as some of the earlier titles, but the game does feature at least a few.
Monsters are introduced in memorable fashion . . . 

. . . and the manual tells you what you need to know.
  • 7 points for magic and combat. Few changes to a very good combat engine and magic system. I didn't feel strongly enough about the two additions--consideration of the weather and the ability of enemies to join the combat midway--for it to affect the rating either way.
  • 5 points for equipment. I like the variety of equipment, but I don't like that every item is predetermined and fixed in location.
  • 2 points for the economy. There's more interesting stuff to buy than in the typical Gold Box title, but it's so cheap that you end up with the same problem as every other game: too much gold, not enough to spend it on. A party could easily get through this game with its starting allowance.
The party defeats six orcs.
  • 4 points for a main quest and a fair number of side-quests and side-areas. I never finished whatever the dwarves wanted me to do.
  • 6 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics and sound effects are both adequate, though I'm getting sick of empty environments. Most of the points here go to the extremely intuitive interface, which manages to accommodate keyboard, joystick, and mouse users.
  • 5 points for gameplay. I like the quasi-nonlinearity, and I thought the challenge and length were about right, or maybe just a tad too easy. I don't see it as very "replayable."
The final score of 51 is about middle-of-the-road for a Gold Box title. I'm surprised to see it only two points higher than Gateway, but I can't pinpoint where I expected Gateway to do worse. At this point, it's clear that no Gold Box game is going to outperform the first entry, Pool of Radiance (1988), which got a 65. It has the most interesting world and story of the series, the most memorable and challenging battles, the best non-combat encounter options, and the best variety of quests.
It doesn't appear that Computer Gaming World even bothered to review this one. Scorpia offered some hints in the July 1992 issue but not a full review. In an October 1993 summary of CRPGs on the market, she said that the game had "a couple of twists" but was "otherwise pretty much a yawner." Dragon gave it 4/5 stars in an August 1992 review and said that while it was "enjoyable" and "satisfying," there was "nothing really new."

(A couple of weird things about this issue of Dragon: 1) it features a screenshot from SSI's Sword of Aragon from 1989 but labels it from Treasures; 2) it has a joint ad for Twilight: 2001 and MegaTraveller 3, neither of which were ever released.)

I would venture that Treasures is more fun today, when the player isn't really expecting innovation, than in 1992, when the Gold Box engine was 4 years old and players were excited by more immersive environments as in Ultima Underworld or even Eye of the Beholder and its sequel. Such attitudes surely pervade the horrid series of reviews that the game received from European Amiga magazines, the best being the 69 in the June 1992 Power Play and the worst the 34 afforded by the November 1992 Amiga Power. Amiga magazines, and particularly the British ones, never really "got" the Gold Box, and it annoys me that the reviewer (Les Ellis) seems to define "playability" as the ability to immediately start playing without reading the manual. Otherwise, the review is oddly forgivable in its historical context, opening with the rhetorical question: "After the likes of Eye of the Beholder 2, is there really any need for games like this?" I rated Eye of the Beholder II lower than Treasures, but even I kind-of get where he's coming from.

In my ignorance as a non-programmer, I have to wonder why the Gold Box couldn't have evolved better than it did. For instance, why couldn't a player exploring the tiled maps of Neverwinter be treated to some of the same menacing background sounds, perhaps growing when enemies were near, that he receives in Eye of the Beholder? Why couldn't the graphics have featured more environmental clues? Why was it so important to stick to 16 x 16 maps? I know some of my helpful commenters will try to give answers, but I suspect they'll sound to me more like excuses than explanations.
"Players can now interact with NPCs--they can even have romances!" is a bit misleading.
Ah, but it's too soon to bemoan the loss of the engine--we'll do that after Dark Queen of Krynn. For now, we say goodbye to Beyond Software, soon to rename itself Stormfront Studios. It will develop one more RPG in the near future (1993's Stronghold) and nothing again until the 2000s. SSI, the most prolific RPG publisher of the period, will continue to entertain us with RPGs of all types until 1995, when it will suddenly get out of the RPG business for good.

I move now to The Magic Candle III, of which I know virtually nothing. My entries may continue to be a bit spotty for the next few weeks (though hopefully without any more very long breaks) as I adjust to a new job and schedule.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

SpellCraft: I Can't Always

This session saw me kill four "minions," some of whom cursed their masters.
One of the notable features of CRPGs in contrast to some other genres is that they almost always support a Plan B. When one way of playing doesn't work out, you can almost always resort to a more boring, more banal, grindier method of getting something done. I tend to mentally preface these fallback plans with "I can always . . . ." Having a tough time with the final battle? "I can always reload again and again until the initiative rolls go my way." Can't overcome the evil wizard at your current level? "I can always grind." Running out of resources? "I can always retreat from the dungeon, head back to town and buy a ton of healing potions."

Some games subvert the most common possibilities but usually leave you a way out. NetHack, being a roguelike, doesn't allow saving and reloading, but even there, "I can always mess around on lower, easier levels until I assemble my ascension kit." Sometimes what comes after "I can always" is an exploit: "I can always do the import/export trick to make copies of my best equipment and then try the final battle again." For some, it's a blatant cheat: "I can always hex edit my character." "I can always kill the enemy with console commands."
During this session, I nearly acquired the full complement of "aspects."
There's almost always some way to finish that sentence because of the nature of the genre, in which you are the only player. Oh, it may seem like you have an "opponent" in the game and its artificial intelligence, but it doesn't really care. It was made to be won, after all. You can't really lose a CRPG any more than you can lose a maze or a crossword puzzle. You can only stop trying. 

The most frustrating moments in CRPGs are when you suddenly find yourself with no way to finish "I can always"--when there is no Plan B, when luck alone will never save you, when there isn't even a long way around. I think of the baffling final battle in, say, Dungeons of Avalon (1991), and I wonder how anyone was ever supposed to win it, or the helplessness I initially felt at the final battle in Pools of Darkness (1991), where you have to fight three combats without saving, and the second two take your magic away.
Swarmed by orcs, some of which don't seem to die no matter what I do. Is there any color difference?
SpellCraft got very frustrating this session because it negated my Plans B. It's also forced me to confront a sobering fact: I'm a lazy tactician. I like to have a lot of tactical options, but I want the same thing to work 95% of the time. I appreciate all the spells that the Gold Box engine offers, but I want "Fireball" to solve most of my problems. When it doesn't work, I want to be able to reload, cast "Bless," "Prayer," and "Haste," and then rely on "Fireball" again. Oh, I do occasionally love those battles that take you out of this comfort zone, that require you to explore uncomfortable weapons and unusual spells and different ways of outsmarting the enemy, but I want this to occur maybe once or twice per game.

SpellCraft, in short, is not what I want. It offers about 85 different spells, and you'd better damned well know the ins and outs of every one of them, because some don't work in different domains, and some don't work against different enemies, and some don't work in various circumstances. You can't rely on a standard set of combinations. You can't even, as I had been doing until now, rely on your sword and endless batch of healing spells.
Messed up an Earth spell!
Last session, we already saw how the wizards--or simulacra thereof--defied expectations by creating an endless supply of minions. The process I had used for clearing the maps--find a clear corner, engage enemies one at a time, retreat to the corner to wait and heal--is useless when the enemies never stop. 

Simulacra and then wizards' apprentices continued to be problems during this session, but they were supplemented by a worse one: magical obelisks that generate a constant stream of enemies. I had to destroy eight of these obelisks in a row; this is the kind of game that has no problem giving you a mission to destroy four obelisks, one in each realm, and then upon victory saying, "Well done. Now go destroy four more obelisks!"
Trying to approach an obelisk "generator" as it continues to create more enemies.
The obelisks generate enemies faster than you can kill them--but only just so, so you keep getting to the point that you can nearly approach the damned things unimpeded. You can theoretically destroy them with your weapon, but it takes forever and you get pushed away by newly-generated enemies after a few whacks. The better solution is to destroy them with spells, but spells are so damned hard to target in this game, and a lot of damage spells you can't target at all with adjacent enemies. Meanwhile, enemies are surrounding you shoving you this way and that, so you've got to watch your position and make sure you don't get shoved into a chasm, or that your hit points don't dwindle too much, all while switching between various spells to figure out how to damage the damned obelisk. Each map took me hours as I tried various spells to confuse or block enemies while I dealt with the obelisks and wizards. I had to abandon maps more times than I can count.
I trick a NUKE into falling into a chasm. The pathfinding of this particular enemy is very direct.
Then the game went and introduced NUKEs--"nigh-unkillable enemies." That is, enemies that mysteriously don't respond to the same attacks and spells as other enemies that look just like them. (There might have been a red/green difference, but I can't see it.) I mostly encountered them in the Earth Domain: regular orcs who suddenly wouldn't die. I had to lead them to chasms and trick them into falling in to kill them. There were plenty of times in which these enemies swarmed me and made it impossible to progress anywhere. I could do nothing but watch them whittle away my hit points until I gave in and warped off the map.
These enemies have cornered me in the water. I can't get out because of their presence. I can't attack or cast because I'm in water.
The obelisks and NUKEs together killed both of my previous "I can always" statements. I can't always rely on copious numbers of healing spells when there's an object capable of generating infinite enemies, and I can't rely on killing enemies one at a time with my sword when they won't die by the sword.

The game has otherwise progressed as before. Garwayen keeps giving me different missions in the different domains. After a few, the lord of the Earth Domain showed up personally to challenge me, and introduced the concept of obelisks, or "generators." After I destroyed each one, the Earth Domain lord had something to say, generally suggesting that they were deliberately made too easy to test my mettle or something.
The Earth Domain wizard's reaction after I destroyed his generators for the time being.
After the obelisks, minions started showing up. They look and act the same as the previous simulacra, casting a constant stream of spells until I find and kill them. The minions themselves were interesting, often not looking much like wizards in their portraits. The Earth Domain lord employed a woodcutter named John Cartwright who, upon death, cursed his own master for making him face me. "Stop them all!" he added.
Well, now I feel bad.
The Air Domain minion was a woman named Anya Bavarich, dressed in 18th-century garb, who also cursed all wizards and wished me well when I killed her.
Garwayen has a little something to say about every minion I defeat.
The Fire Domain minion was named Timmy Flanagan, and both his garb and speech indicated that he had been a member of Al Capone's gang.
He doesn't seem much like a wizard's apprentice.
The Water Domain continues to be the most annoying because of the need to cast "Water Breath." The wizard's minion was named Mahmoud, and he was the easiest to defeat. 
Fighting the water wizard's minion. I somehow got close to him with no enemies around.
As I destroyed each minion, I got the third words of their elemental schools, an extra 25 maximum hit points, and their "totems," which I have yet to figure out how to use.

As I explored each realm and got the special treasure chests, my weapon and armor items improved, allowing me to sell the old ones to various NPCs for much-needed cash. I found a ton of spell clues, and got more from the NPCs, and continued to build my spell arsenal. New additions include "Icy Storm," which supposedly damages everyone on the map and "Explosion," which does a lot of damage but I can't figure out how to target correctly. I had to learn "Read Map" and "Revelation" to see treasures and enemies on the game map again, but once you mix these spells once, their effect is permanent.
A weapon upgrade! It still doesn't do anything against the NUKEs.
I've learned a lot of spells that modify terrain, such as "Create Lake," "Remove Lake," "Gel Water," "Create Lava," and "Remove Lava." Enemy wizards are always casting spells like these, and it is one of the more interesting aspects of the game that you can mess around with the mission maps to your tactical benefit, or nullify enemies' attempts to do the same.

Easily my favorite new spell is "Create Dragon," which does what the name suggests. Unfortunately, the created dragons have minds of their own and often just fly off to engage enemies on the other side of the map rather than attack the ones that are currently bothering me. 
My summoned dragon breathes fire at my enemies--but continues on before destroying all of them.
Each batch of missions puts special treasure chests in the Death Domain, too, so at least once per set of missions, you want to kill yourself so you can explore this domain. Garwayen then makes fun of you for getting yourself killed.

My maximum health keeps increasing, but at fixed intervals based on the missions I've completed. It would be fine if all the false starts and the extra grinding they entail paid off in character development, but they don't. They do pay off in extra reagents and funds, however. I suppose one new "Plan B" might be "I can always grind until I have so many reagents that I can mix so many spells that it doesn't matter how ineptly I use them."
My character towards the end of the session.
Mixing spells wrong started killing me outright, so I stopped experimenting as freely with the mixtures. I've found that you usually get two sets of hints for each spell, so if there are too many unknown factors with the first set, you just wait until you get another corroborating hint. For instance, one hint may say something like, "A second-level water spell uses stones, powders, and jewels." I find a likely candidate in the spell list, which has a "12" in the "powders" column and question marks for the other reagents. It tells me that the spell's "aspect" is cats' feet. There are too many potential combinations of the reagents for me to start messing around, but later I get a hint that says, "To freeze enemies, use cats' feet and 9, 12, and 15. So now I know the spell either uses 9 stones and 15 jewels or vice versa, which narrows it down enough to give it a shot.
A chest offers some spell clues.
I've been upgrading spells every time I learn new magic words. I kept the old "levels" for a while before realizing that they were just cluttering up my spellbook and I'd probably never use them again.
No point keeping all three levels of "Lightning." I'll probably never use the first two again.
On Earth, there was some light plot progression with my NPC friends. They gave me spell clues and occasionally items of equipment. Several of them gave me sets of numbers that seem to be clues for a puzzle that hasn't been presented to me yet. A new NPC named Pendragon Clerke showed up in Istanbul; he gave me a clue about a weapon called the Damascene Sword. As this session went on, some of the NPCs started to suggest that they were getting harassed by the elemental wizards and might have to eventually disappear for their own safety. "Last night a rainstorm caused a flash flood that swept away our pickups," said the Albertan paleontologist. "And today the side of the hill almost buried my crew." In Salem, Selina says that someone tried to "torch the museum."
Pendragone Clerke, who I just met, threatens to leave.
Before sending me off to explore each of the domains and defeat the four minions, Garwayen had told me to look for a magic orb that allows teleportation or something. But I still hadn't found it when I defeated the last minion. (I assumed it would be in one of the special chests.) After I defeated Mahmoud, Garwayen noted that I hadn't found the orb and then said:
You will never be able to complete the quest I set for you. You have shown yourself to be deaf to my advice, and so I denounce you! Go! Back to your boring world of Terra! Let the Lords have you and your world! I am finished! Farewell, Robert. I expect to never see you again!
This was followed by a screen that told me I lost and invited me to reload and start over. Wow, that was pretty mean. Garwayen tells me repeatedly I'm the "chosen one" and then fires me because I didn't do things in a particular order. As some commenters have pointed out, he's probably going to turn out to be worse than the other wizards.
I'm really tempted to end it here. SpellCraft is one of the most original and interesting games I've played in a while, but it's also extremely frustrating, seems to be taking forever, and grows in difficulty with every mission. If it gets much harder, I think I'm just going to be paralyzed when I visit the domains, unable to clear enough enemies fast enough to destroy the wizards and obelisks generating them.

On the other hand, I could probably make things easier by changing my tactics. I rarely do this, but because I had such a difficult time with this session, I watched a few LP videos from YouTuber Garg Gobbler. This one is a good representation. Until I watched the video, I didn't really "get" the purpose of the stone circles in each domain, which is specifically to serve as a place of refuge for me. Enemies can't enter, and they get destroyed if they try (although the circles can take damage, which is why they have a health bar). I've also been under-utilizing the "Magic Wings" spell to get around maps quickly, and I've made things more difficult for myself by insisting on "clearing" each map rather than just accomplishing the mission. Apparently, for instance, I could have just killed each of the minions and gotten out of there--I didn't have to destroy the generators.

I'll try, but win or lose, I think the next entry will be the last.

Time so far: 21 hours

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Treasures of the Savage Frontier: Confederacy of Dunces

This should have been clearer a lot sooner.
Treasures consisted of three major phases. The first was the introductory section in Llorkh, Loudwater, and Secomber. The second was the foiling of the evil plots in the various Lords' Alliance cities: Waterdeep, Daggerford, the Way Inn, Leilon, Triboar, Yartar, Longsaddle, Port Llast, Mintarn, Orlumbor, and Neverwinter. (Of these, Port Llast is odd in that it seemed to be completely optional.) This also involved trips to Luskan and Ruathym. The section culminates at a council meeting in Mirabar, where you present your evidence on the Hosttower/Zhentarim/Kraken scheme and thus forestall war in the area. Part three has you explore a few villages and a cave in the frozen north to recover a magic gem from a dragon named Freezefire. I'll cover the third phase in my final entry.

Part two manages to be satisfyingly non-linear. Amanitas gives you the next-easiest city every time you contact him, but you can do the towns in any order. More important, visiting cities "out of order" does not trigger events prematurely or otherwise break the plotline. You can go to Mirabar early in the game, for instance, but it's just a regular town with various shops and services until events elsewhere trigger the council meeting and the Zhentarim presence.
Good descriptions replace banal graphics as we arrive in Longsaddle.
In my case, I went from my last entry to Longsaddle, a somewhat goofy "frontier" town in which honest, plain-spoken folk run farms and ranches and use words like "reckon." Members of the Kraken Society had been invading farmsteads and tying up the residents, but I kicked in front doors and liberated the places one-by-one. The ruler of the town, Malchor Harpell, wasn't around--his doorman said he was at the Tower of Twilight to the west--but after I defeated all the enemies in the town, his apparition showed up to congratulate me.
Residents of Longsaddle are mostly caricatures.
Amanitas suggested I hit Mintarn next, but that's an island and I wasn't sure which port town would take me there. Thus, I decided to complete the loop of road I was already on, which took me prematurely to Mirabar. I was happy to find a couple of stores selling magic items. One sold +1 magic weapons, including magic arrows, which are the traditional "money sink" of the Gold Box series. Here, they screwed it up a bit because they made 10 of them cost only 30 platinum pieces, not the several thousand per batch that you find in other games.
This shop took a small percentage of my money.
These magic shops showed up in a couple of other towns, too, some of them selling some +2 items. I did my best with them. I bought anyone not wearing a cloak a Cloak of Protection even though I don't think they stack with leather armor. I bought everyone Belts +2 even though they also don't seem to do anything with armor. I upgraded my two clerics to staff slings +1. I bought hundreds of arrows +1 for anyone with a bow. I bought my wizard Wands of Ice Storm and Lightning Bolt for occasions when he can't cast, and I also bought him every mage scroll I could find to increase the spells in his book. I bought Potions of Giant Strength for everyone and would have bought dozens of them to use in front of every battle but they don't stack and I was already having issues with inventory space. Despite all these purchases, I never exhausted my supply of gems, let alone having to sell the more valuable jewelry. In fact, at one point I actually lost my entire pile of gems by accidentally having an NPC pick them up (you can't trade items or wealth from an NPC), and yet I still made up enough in the subsequent hours that I never had to appraise a piece of jewelry.
This shop would have taken a lot more of my money if scrolls and potions stacked.
Mirabar is divided into north and south sections, the south run by humans and the north populated by dwarves. The dwarves work a mine, and even though I was visiting the city prematurely, there were some mine-related encounters that had nothing to do with the Zhent plot. After I fought some giants and purple worms, the dwarves rewarded me with a two-handed sword +3.
One of the few battles available in Mirabar this early in the game.
I took a break between Mirabar and continuing on, which turned out to be lucky. When I reloaded the game, the copy protection question asked me for a word after the heading "Tower of Twilight." This reminded me that the Tower is a real place and not just a throw-away reference in Longsaddle. So I backtracked a bit to find it, which wasn't hard.
The Tower of Twilight, directly west of Longsaddle.
It was a small, weird experience. After I entered the tower, a voice said we'd have to overcome some beasts before he'd help us. These turned out to be a bunch of electric spiders and (in a separate encounter) an iron golem. The electric spiders were annoying, firing lightning bolts with every attack, but I managed to take them out with swords, "Hold Monster," and "Charm Monster." The iron golem fell to physical attacks from anyone with a +3 weapon or higher, slowed with a "Lightning Bolt."

When these creatures were dead, Malchor Harpell agreed to tutor my mage, Monitor. She went away for a little while and then came back "very satisfied" with a new Black Crystal Ring. The game said she got experience, but it wasn't enough to rise a level. She didn't get any extra spell slots from the ring or otherwise, and the ring never seemed to do anything. I'm not sure what the entire purpose of the side-journey was.
Are you sure you've been studying magic, Monitor?
My first visit to Luskan was a bust. All the high captains wanted tribute, but none were available to just attack. Trying to bash my way into the Hosttower of the Arcane just triggered an impossible battle against a bazillion mages who all went first, blasting us to smithereens with "Ice Storm" or paralyzing us all with "Hold Monster." I want to see how this battle plays out with my Pools of Darkness party later.
Attacking the Hosttower is a good way to get hit with 50 "Ice Storms" in a row.
Port Llast was similarly uneventful. There were a few random battles. I had thought to find the ship to Mintarn here, but the only thing I could do in the city was take a sea tour, which led to an episode in which pirates attacked the boat, which led to us firing a cannon (through text menus) at the pirates and sinking them, which gained us some experience.

That finally brought us to Neverwinter. I had only explored a little of the city when I visited Lord Nasher and he had us arrested, apparently still believing that we had kidnapped the ambassadors. There was no opportunity for us to show evidence or plead our case, so we were treated to another scripted sequence in which Nasher declined to execute us because of our heroism in Ascore. Instead, he had us exiled to Farr Windward.
So maybe listen to our pleas of innocence now? Are we even pleading?
Farr Windward turned out to be on the same island as Orlumbor--the two cities are connected by a series of caverns. It was easily the most bizarre sequence of the game. Our boat crashed as we neared the city, which turned out to be a good thing, because we had to crawl ashore. If we'd entered through customs, they would have branded us with a mark that basically made us permanent outcasts. Everyone in Farr Windward had this brand, and their exile had either driven them insane or that's why they were exiled in the first place. As we arrived, the town was having a parade for one of its members who had died. Everyone we talked to was slightly goofy. Unfortunately, the city seems to have been invented for the game and is not otherwise discussed in Forgotten Realms lore.
A shop selling "Certificates of Normalcy" was par for the course in Farr Windward.
A weird fighter/cleric named Ougo joined the party. Or, I guess, he was just acting weird. As we explored the town and defeated a series of Kraken spies, it turned out he had a plan to free the people of Farr Windward. It involved recovering the brand used on the exiles in the first place, then using it on Tulgar Wrighttson, leader of Orlumbor, so that he'd have to either go into exile himself or annul the entire branding system and thus free Farr Windward. At the same time, the party was trying to convince Wrighttson that the ships blockading his harbor were not from Waterdeep, despite their false flags, but rather the Luskan pirates.

It all worked out, but the plot started to annoy me a bit. It seems far too easy for the evil forces to convince the members of the Lords' Alliance that they're being betrayed. Has this part of the world never heard of false flags and stolen uniforms before? If my party hadn't come around, would they have even bothered to contact each other and straighten things out? And here's a tip for time travelers: When you go back to 1930s Germany, just kill Hitler. Don't try to stop the Holocaust by slipping a Star of David armband on him at night. There are ways for the wealthy and powerful to get around such things. This is the second game I can think of that uses this trope, the other being Dishonored, and it didn't make any more sense there.
"Guards, take him away!" "Sorry, sir, we have to arrest you now, even though if you had acquired that brand through any legitimate process, we almost certainly would have heard about it."
A store in Farr Windward sold indecipherable equipment called "Farrberjiks." But because I had more money than I knew what to do with, I bought everyone "Farrberjik Lined Boots," and damned if they didn't subtract a point from armor class.
I have no idea.
The caves in between the two cities had some interesting encounters with enemies I've never heard of before: giant kampfults, great vilstraks, and rock reptiles. Kampfults seem like giant collections of vines; vilstraks look like earth elementals; and rock reptiles are, like their name suggests, giant lizards made out of stone. None was terribly hard, but kampfults seem to have some kind of "smothering" attack, much like shambling mounds, that keep a character immobile until the beast is killed.
Both responded satisfyingly to "Fireball."
As we prepared to sail away from Orlumbor, Siulajia got kidnapped by some sailors who hauled her off in a burlap sack. The captain of the transport ship refused to follow the kidnappers, and I had options to stay or take the ship to its original destination. Since the game didn't give me enough information to determine which option would get me closer to Siulajia, I decided to stay with the ship and head for Mintarn. Broadside was sad.

The problem in Mintarn was the same as in Orlumbor: Luskan pirates pretending to be the Waterdeep navy, blockading the port. About half of the city's available squares were water, and it didn't take long to clear out the rest of the buildings and warehouses of the various groups of giants, Hosttower mages, Kraken spies, and Zhentil lords that were gathered there. One battle introduced an efreet.
The "Lucky Paper" outlines the group's plan for Orlumbor. But do the Luskan pirates and the Waterdeep navy really use the same ships? Is the flag itself really the only way to tell?
We were joined for a time by Princess Jagaerda of Gundarlun, also a companion from the first game, who as a powerful fighter was a nice replacement for Siulajia. I found her late in my explorations of the city, though, and she departed when we returned to the mainland.

Eventually, we found the necessary enemy papers to prove that they were using fake Waterdeep uniforms and flags, and we presented these to the leader of Mintarn, ominously named The Tyrant, who gave us a +3 trident as a reward. My ranger used it for the rest of the game.
My party really is just the most pathetic group of do-gooders.
We returned to Neverwinter. During our absence, Lord Nasher apparently discovered the truth about things, as he was extremely apologetic for disbelieving us and exiling us in the first place. He asked us to hunt around the city for the missing ambassadors, and we found them both in secret areas after defeating their captors in battle.
This has never gotten old and never will get old.
We went back to Luskan at this point but still couldn't find anything new to do in the city, with one exception. We ran into Princess Jagaerda again just as she defeated a band of evil forces, and she recommended that we take a ship for Ruathym, where the leader, Captain Redleg, had either been captured or turned by the conspiracy. It was another map of clearing buildings before convincing the leader of our cause and getting his support.
Now I want to rewatch The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Redleg joined the party for a while and helped us clear out the rest of the town. He departed just as we ran into Jagaerda again, and she joined us for the second time.
Jagaerda tempts a blogger to devolve into crudity.
My party had gained a couple levels, and I wanted to try the Luskan Hosttower again. Unfortunately, upon return to the Hosttower, it was just locked. I couldn't trigger the same battle again. Fortunately, the game now let us assault the homes of the pirate captains and otherwise have our vengeance on the city. In some building, we came across a bunch of guards holding Siulajia. She and Broadside were joyously reunited--just as Ougo decided to return home. Jagaerda also left us when we left Luskan.
The male NPCs have a strange way of bowing out every time female NPCs appear.
Some documents suggested that the conspirators had kidnapped Siulajia because of her family, which confused her because she said they were just normal people living in the High Forest. As we'll discuss next time, I'm pretty sure the developers were establishing High Forest as the setting for the sequel.
For the record, that's not very far from where we started the game.
At last, it came time to visit the council in Mirabar. On our second visit to the city, we ran into numerous encounters with enemy forces not present the first time. They culminated with our visit to the Council Chambers, where the representatives were talking of war--until we presented the various "lucky papers" along with our report on the conspirators' activities.
The game is being kind here. I didn't save all 10 lucky papers.
The leaders were in the middle of thanking us for our work when the doors burst open and a very large group of Hosttower sorceresses, Kraken agents, and Zhentarim lords attacked. They were the same types of enemies I had faced in countless previous battles, but they were very hard in this one.
The final battle starts you with groups to the north, west, and east of the party. More appear after the first round.
The key problem--as a couple of commenters have pointed out--is that if enemy spellcasters get the drop on you, the battle swiftly becomes unwinnable. This one featured at least 12 mages in the opening round, and maybe another 8 joined in subsequent rounds. (By the way, I came to hate that particular addition to the game mechanics.) They started in three groups in different locations, so they couldn't all be targeted with one "Fireball" even if my mage had a chance to act. Almost all the spellcasters started with "Hold" spells, and each spell was capable of targeting three or four characters. On my first two attempts at battle, I ended up with all or most of my party held and slaughtered by the end of the first round.
Properly prepared this time.
It was only after a few reloads (informed, now, with buffing spells) that I got a handle on the battle, using hastened fighters to charge and occupy the mages and hastened clerics to charge and "Hold" them long enough for my mage to get a chance to damage them en masse. But I made the mistake of wasting all my best spells in the first couple of rounds, thus having nothing left to deal with groups of mages gating in during the third and fourth rounds. Altogether, it took me five attempts to win the battle. Both this battle and some of the others late in the game require you to carefully note the location and status of each spellcaster, and in particular whether you've already damaged him or he's already cast a spell that round. You have to be willing to pull characters out of melee combat (giving enemies a few free swipes) and switch them to ranged weapons so they can target undamaged spellcasters who haven't acted yet. Since the original Pool of Radiance, only the final battles in Pools of Darkness required this much attention to detail.

Miscellaneous notes:
  • Gateway and Treasures have seven locations in common. Of them, Llorkh, Yartar, Luskan, and Neverwinter use the same maps between the two games. (And as a bonus, Neverwinter's is the same as used in 1991's Neverwinter Nights.) There are only a couple of minor changes, such as doors where there were once arches. Neverwinter's map in Treasures adds a couple of docks. The map of Secomber in Gateway is half of the map of the city in Treasures. Loudwater is unrecognizable between the two games, as is Port Llast, although in the latter case I think the maps are showing two different areas of the city.
  • One consequence of having two characters in love: when either gets knocked unconscious or killed in combat, the other "frenzies" and is taken out of my control.
  • "Quick" combat is pretty good about transitioning between melee weapons and missile weapons as necessary, with one exception: It does not recognize staff slings. Characters who possess them and cannot get to enemies in melee range just dither around doing nothing. It otherwise works well enough that I don't know why the developers couldn't give me a command to toggle between missile and melee weapons rather than forcing me to go into the inventory screen.
  • For a series that does a great job overloading you with so much money that you never have to worry about it, there are an awful lot of times where you're asked, "Who will pay?," and you have to try several options because you don't remember exactly how much each character is carrying, and then sometimes you have to leave and go find a shop to sell a gem because you can't pay in gems or jewelry even though they're worth a lot more that what you're being asked for. Why does the party have individual wealth at all?
I have a theory that the events described above, culminating with the battle in Mirabar, were originally supposed to end the game. The battle was about as difficult as an endgame battle should be, and we clearly resolved the main plot. The only reason I can see for phase three, which feels completely superfluous, was that someone decided that the game wasn't long enough. See if you agree when we wrap up the game in a few days.

Time so far: 23 hours