Sunday, August 4, 2019

SpellCraft: A Long Apprenticeship

If you die, Garwayen is kind of a jerk.
At this point, one of two things is true about SpellCraft:

1. Almost the entire game is about you being a student of Garwayen, and in the last 10% or so, I'll graduate and battle the wizards who want to invade the Earth.

2. This is a really long game.

I say this because 10 hours into it, I'm still taking tutorial lessons from Garwayen. I assumed that after a few such lessons, the game would open up, and I'd have a variety of missions of varying length and complexity that I could accomplish at my own pace. But instead, it's been a very linear, step-by-step process by which Garwayen feeds me one or two spells or items at a time, I learn them, and then I do the next step. When I visit the various domains and fight wizards, I'm not even fighting real wizards--just simulacra that Garwayen himself created.

In the 7 hours since the first session, the game has required the following steps in a precise order:
  • Returned to Teotihuacan with the fire opal and received from the medicine woman the second magic word for the "Mind" college. (There is no first word; all mind spells start on the second level.)
Great. I can now go to the restroom.
  • Used this new word to create the "Dispel" spell
  • Visited new locations available on Earth, bought more reagents. Got a quest from Dr. Chen Xiong at Great Serpent Mound, Ohio, to get a Scroll of Thoth. Got a quest from Ali ibn Mustaph in Giza to find the Plaque of Quetzalcoatl, for which he promised the Scroll of Thoth.
Garwayen disses my new NPC friend.
  • Explored the Earth Domain again. Found the Plaque of Quetzalcoatl.
  • Took the Plaque to Ali. Got the Scroll. Took the Scroll to Chen and got $15,000. Took a copy of the Scroll to the medicine woman in Teotihuacan who told me it was a fake and that the real one was in the Fire Domain.
  • Explored the Air and Fire Domains and killed their respective wizard simulacra created by Garwayen. Found the real Plaque in the Fire Domain. Returned to the medicine woman, who translated it. This got me the first-level magic words of all the elemental domains.
Fighting the Fire Wizard simulacrum in a rare moment with no other enemies around.
  • Defeated the simulacrum in the Air Domain and was rewarded with the Scarab of Nefertiti, an equippable item that increases combat damage.
  • Visited the hippie at Stonehenge and got a Hauberk of Safety.
  • Created first-level attack spells: "Ice Arrows," "Magic Sword," and "Lightning Bolt," plus the non-attack spell "Cure Poison" and the conjuration spell "Create Orc."
  • Cleared the Air, Earth, and Fire Domains of a ton of enemies using my new spells.
Just wanted to point out this completely useless bridge in the Fire Domain.
  • Committed suicide to visit the Death Domain and find the second-level magic word for water spells.
  • Created "Water Breath."
  • Used "Water Breath" to explore the Water Domain and defeat a wizard simulacrum, found the second level fire magic word, the Cap of Defense, and several new spell recipes.
  • Defeated four more simulacra in each of the domains. 
Do you suppose he says this all the time? Because my spellcasting was pretty clumsy and wasteful.
Garwayen prompted me to the next step in each of these locations, so there was no way to get lost or to go out of order. The domains are only available to visit when he opens them for you.
Occasionally, you have a choice as to the order in which you visit domains.
Everything got progressively harder, of course. When there are 25 enemies per map, you can no longer kill them one-by-one and wait for your health to regenerate in between. You have to fend off several at once with various spells and heal yourself as necessary. Some undead thing started showing up, capable of poisoning the character, so a few "Cure Poison" spells became necessary.

Combat occurs in real time but the game at least pauses when you select and target spells, giving you a little time to think and plan. I'm not liking it as much as I'd like the same game in a turn-based environment, but it's still fun and quite tactical. It's also quite hard, but it would be harder if you couldn't escape the domains at any time with the "X" key. A few false starts are actually good, as they give you more combat experience and reagents.

Terrain is as much of an enemy as the enemies themselves. Falling in chasms in the Earth, Water, and Fire Domains automatically kill you. Falling off a cloud in the Air Domain--even thin little slits that you can barely see--kills you. Falling into water or pools of fire does continual damage. As you fight enemies, they're constantly battering you this way and that, and they can easily knock you over an edge.
Killed by a combination of summoned creatures.
When wizard simulacra are present--and, I assume, when actual wizards are present--strategic and tactical considerations completely change. They're capable of creating their own monsters, so there's no point trying to clear the map of other enemies until the wizards are dead. They send a constant stream of spells spewing from wherever they are, including fireballs (which home in on you and are impossible to avoid), lightning bolts, steam vapors that wander the land, evil clouds that blow freezing or burning air at you, various types of monsters, and spells that create deadly chasms and barriers. Amusingly, their spells often hit their own creations, or monsters already existing on the map, so you often find maps littered with the little pouches you get from dead enemies, even if you didn't kill anyone.

You have to track down the source of these attacks and do your best to kill him with your own spells or in melee combat. An easy (if blunt) way to do this is to pour a lot of your resources into healing spells, then just run up to the wizard and enter combat mode, stopping to heal as necessary until he's dead. After the wizard is gone, you can take a more conservative approach to the rest of the map.

Entering the Water Domain adds an additional twist in that you have to have "Water Breath" active at all times or you swiftly die.
Mixing "Water Breath."
Each time you enter a domain, there are fixed numbers of monsters to fight, regular chests to find, and special chests to find. (Special chests usually contain quest objects.) Once you get all those down to 0, you've "cleared" the domain for the time being. Pixels flash on the automap to show where remaining monsters and chests are, but some of them are awfully small and hard to see. (These have been automatic so far, but something Garwayen said in my last mission makes me think I'm going to need to learn spells for them from now on.) For the first time, I find myself playing a lot in enlarged or full-screen mode. When you kill the last monster, the character jumps up and down for joy a few times.
The level information screen shows that I have a lot of enemies to go.
If you die, you enter the Death Domain, which has its own monsters to fight and its treasure chests to collect. If you can find the circle of stones in the Death Domain, you can return to Stonehenge (and life) again. If you die in the Death Domain, it's permanent, but as a commenter pointed out, your new character gets the old character's spellbook. I'm not sure if this is deliberate or simply a consequence of saving the spellbook as a separate file than the game save. This causes other weird things to happen. For instance, the other day I entered a domain, cast a bunch of spells, but soon found myself on the verge of death. Since I was going to quit playing soon anyway, I just shut down the emulator and re-started the next day. Even though I had reloaded from before entering the domain, the spells that I had cast there were still gone.
Fighting a revenant in the Death Domain.
Spells themselves continue to be a fun challenge. For instance, in creating the "Dispel" spell, Garwayen would only tell me that I needed two of the aspect and some proportion of jewels, candles, and stones. I didn't know what the aspect was or what category ("Defense?" "Terrain Modifier?") it would be in. Nonetheless, I scanned the list and found three potential candidates, all Level 2 "Mind" spells that required some number of jewels, candles, and stones. One of them, a defense spell, was based on the aspect of "high hopes" (green liquid), which was one of the objects I'd found in the last quest. I figured that must be it.

Still, the book only told me the number of jewels (5) and stones (9) that it required, not the number of candles. After a disastrous attempt with a random number . . .
This is why you wear protection, kids.
. . . Garwayen suggested I consult the "second volume of Shar Adrazar's Advanced Magical Alchemy." I didn't have the book, of course, but the manual has quotes from various books, and two of them referenced Advanced Magical Alchemy. One of them was cited as volume 2, book 5, chapter 7, verse 9, so clearly the book, chapter, volume, and verse numbers have something to do with the aspect and ingredient proportions. I tried the formula again with 7 candles and got it.

So far, from whatever hit I receive, by consulting the spellbook (which has partial information filled in), I usually only have one x factor, if any. The little animations that pop up when you get things wrong are amusing, but I don't think they have any permanent consequences. At least, not so far.
Continuing to fill in the spellbook.
It turns out that the NPCs on Earth have continuing conversations with the player--Selina in Salem even seems to be flirting with me--so it's fun to watch their stories progress. I've become much more liberal with spending money on these trips, especially since I'm always finding pomegranates, and Cheech seems to have an infinite supply of cash. A few new locations opened up just as this session was ending. The full list so far is:

  • Stonehenge, where I meet a hippie named David.
  • Salem, where I meet a museum tour guide named Selina who seems to be into me.
The cost of transatlantic flights is getting prohibitive. Maybe you could come visit me once?
  • Great Serpent Mount, Ohio, where a professor named Chen Xiong is interested in magic maps. I honestly didn't know anything about this location before playing this game, it being in Ohio. It's just a mound of dirt piled into the shape of a serpent about 1,400 feet long, but it's been around for 2,400 years. That's the kind of thing that gives me chills. A bunch of earth, shoveled into a pile, will outlast all your dreams and will still stand when your descendants have forgotten your name.
  • Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, where I meet a paleontologist named Jack Hendricks. He sells stones, which I'm always running out of because of healing spells. I can't imagine anything mystical about this park except the suggestion from the manual that the dinosaurs may have used magic.
Do Canadians use "ain't"? I'm not sure I've ever heard it from one.
  • Teotihuacan, Mexico, which is often described as an "Aztec" ruin but was actually already in ruins before the Aztec civilization arose. There, a medicine woman--who has just now given her name as Senora Espirita (I suspect it's a pseudonym)--has helped me already on several occasions. Just now, she gave me another spell formula.
  • Machu Picchu, Peru. Here at this Incan site, I incongruously meet a Navajo Indian who tells me that the spirits have a present for me, but I must first give them a present: a feather from the Air Domain.
If I can meet a Chinese man in Ohio and an Englishman in Italy, why not a Navajo in Peru?
  • Mount Fuji, Japan, where I meet a geisha named Lotus Flower, which probably has nothing to do with the film Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), but everyone should go watch it immediately anyway.
  • Giza, Egypt. My contact, Ali ibn Mustaph, just sold me a tablet for $1,000 that has more spell formulas. Or, at least, he sold me the promise of a tablet. He seems a bit of a con man, so I may have just wasted that money.
  • Transylvania, Romania, where I meet a woman named Natalye, another tour guide, this time at the castle of Vlad the Impaler. She doesn't seem to believe in magic, but she does sell some reagents.
We're only a few years past the Romanian Revolution here.
  • Pompeii, Italy, where my contact, an English tourist, just gave me a magic formula that has something to do with "solidifying Neptune's realm."
It's getting pretty expensive to do this circuit, but everyone almost always has something new to say or offer every time I visit.
As the game went on, I could feel myself falling into a familiar trap of over-relying on certain spells, so I started to make a concerted effort to do more thorough testing. Some conclusions:
  • "Boil Blood": Decent offensive spell that often kills enemies outright.
  • "Cure Poison": Vital when needed. No power levels; it's a binary spell.
  • "Dispel": Dispels enemy spells. Theoretically. I can't quite figure out the rules of when it works and when it doesn't. 
  • "Dragon Flame": Sounds awesome, but it's basically "Lightning Bolt" with fire and doesn't do as much damage as you would think given the component cost.
  • "Fire Barrier": Creates a barrier of fire that damages anyone who moves through it. Seems tough to guarantee that anyone will move through it, and it's tough to target during the chaos of combat. I could see where it might be useful to "box in" an enemy.
  • "Fireball": Very difficult to target. Technically, it hits not the enemy you point it at, but rather "seeks out the most threatening enemy." Theoretically, you can cast these in any direction from a fixed starting point, and they'll wander around until they find someone worth hitting. Functionally, they often hit an object or a less-threatening enemy first. I get hit with them a lot but don't get a lot of use out of them myself.
My fireball angles towards an Air Wizard.
  • "Ice Arrows": I think this one is bugged. It's supposed to send out "a series of arrows" that, like "Fireball," seeks the most difficult enemies. In practice, it often sends out one arrow that then just sits there on the map. 
  • "Lightning": The only Level 1 offensive spell that you can directly target. Unfortunately, it seems weak. It never kills anyone.
  • "Magic Sword": Pretty awesome. It creates a magic blade that goes after the nearest creature and fights until one of them is dead. Great for occupying one enemy while you fight another.
Apparently, if I can get this to a higher level, it will poison enemies.
  • "Orc": A creation spell that summons a weak orc. Not quite as good as "Magic Sword," but there doesn't seem to be any limit to the number you can conjure, which is helpful when dealing with a wizard and the minions immediately around him.
My summoned orcs aren't doing very well against a couple of ghosts.
  • "Star Healing": Absolutely essential. Makes up a lot for poor skill or planning in other spells.
  • "Steam Vapor": Creates a hot mist cloud that roams around and scalds enemies. I like the idea, but in practice I guess I prefer spells that directly target specific enemies.

That's my arsenal for now, but it keeps growing, giving me new options with each map. I have about six formulas right now waiting to mix.
Formulas are often provided after solving quests.
I haven't spent much time modifying the spells yet. I don't even really understand the "elasticity" system. For instance, for "Magic Sword," jewels and powders have "average to good" elasticity and candles and stones have "good." What does that translate to? How many extra ingredients can I use? What will they do? Is there any benefit to reducing ingredients? It feels like there are too many possible permutations to test. It appears, however, that you can always modify a spell by increasing the level of its magic word (once you learn it), which is less ambiguous than the ingredient elasticity.
Now that I know IGNIS, I can upgrade all the spells that originally used LUX.
One spell I did want to modify was "Water Breath," since it doesn't last very long. The base spell uses 11 jewels, 5 powder, and 8 candles. Garwayen tells me that I can increase the duration by increasing the candles, so I try 15. It works. I try 20. It blows up in my face. Where's the cut-off?
Another mixture goes badly.
For the next quest, Garwayen wants me to kill four improved simulacra in the four domains. Man, I had a hard enough time with the last set. I think I need a Treasures of the Savage Frontier break before I continue.

Time so far: 10 hours


  1. If I were you I wouldn't be worrying about or looking forward to many more adventures after this "tutorial period". I've seen a lot of RPGs here (the one that comes to mind being Alternate Reality: The City) that end just when it seems things are ramping up, oftentimes with a plug for the sequel.

    Also calling it now, Garwayen is evil.

  2. As a German, the magic word for earth sounds hilariously non-arcane. But I suppose, to an ancient Roman that'd be true for almost all of them.

    1. The word for Mind magic sounds rather sexist also. Though who knows, maybe women's mind is just higher level.

    2. "Mens" is Latin for "mind", as in the saying "mens sana in corpore sano". Frankly, looking over the FAQ, that's one of the few magic words in the game that DOESN'T sound completely stupid.

    3. I was just making a bad pun.

    4. They are all terribly unimaginative.

  3. It is indeed a somewhat longer game, I'd say 10-12 posts or so.

    The manual describes the elasticity system on pages 35-36. You will need to experiment to find the actual limits, but roughly:

    Limited: 1-5
    Average: 6-8
    Good: 9-10
    Excellent: 11+

    1. 10-12 posts?! That's a hard "no." Maybe 3 games in my entire history have gone that high. This one doesn't have enough variety to justify 50 hours of play time. Damn you, Stillq.

    2. :) I aim to please.

      With the caveat that it HAS been quite a while since I played it - so I might be misremembering things - I'm pretty sure Zardas is wildly off the mark. If I have to make an educated guess, I'd say 3 more posts, 4 tops.

      The core gameplay loop can grow somewhat repetitive from what I remember - though personally I didn't feel like the game overstayed its welcome, and enjoyed it until very end. YMMV, of course.

    3. Some extra info regarding spell elasticity:

      Using higher level magic words doesn't just improve the spell's power, but its elasticity as well. It makes for a nice way of keeping low-level spells relevant until late in the game. Notice that the manual states that just pumping the max number of ingredients into a spell isn't the optimal way to go about things (as increasing one characteristic reduces another).

      Speaking of magic words,I believe you can use them as a rough guide as to how far along the game you are. 8 out of 23 suggests you're about 1/3 of the way through. Sounds about right.

  4. Garwayen is either has some contingency plans or thinks what he is really good at judging character. If Robert defeats those mages, who can stop him from ruling the worlds or at least the Valoria?

    The whole concept of a hero who humbly steps down after defeating a powerful Big Bad is quite flawed, if you ask me. To become a hero you need some backbone, not being a yes-person to some wise mentor. Even if a hero is not remotely evil or overly ambitious, he can still decide what he can rule for awhile to, say, abolish the monarchy.

    1. Bárbara Hambly does in Dragonsbane an awfully great example of the humble hero, if you ask me.

    2. Not to spoil anything, I'll just say that there's a 1992 rpg that does a delightful twist on this trope. I just hope that Chet's disdain for systemic puzzles won't stop him from finishing it.

    3. I'm not even sure what "systemic puzzles" are let alone that I had a disdain for them.

    4. The Amazon series The Boys, which I just started watching, has an interesting twist on this theme.

    5. I believe he's referring to Dungeon Master-style puzzles, based on teleporters and switches and other game mechanics, as opposed to riddles and other "lateral thinking" (your words) puzzles.

    6. Yep.
      Although for me the opposition is not in the type of thinking but between puzzles built of repeating elementary blocks (DM-style) and puzzles that are unique setpieces (Adventure-style).

    7. I would say that Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus would strongly disagree with Vladimir.

  5. Theoretically, Natalye's tendency to leave out articles in her English is a very realistic representation of the quirks Eastern Europeans have when speaking the language, as Slavic languages don't use articles. But Romanian is a Romance language, not Slavic, and they don't make that mistake quite as often as the Slavs. Still, very cute detail!

    I also googled the Great Serpent Mount because it sounds pretty interesting (and I never heard of it before either), and apparently it's called Great Serpent Mound in reality. Looks like the game misspelled the last word there.

  6. Reading your picture captions and some Canadians use ain't, I know a lot of older Newfoundlanders do but not heard many Albertans use the same. Regional dialects are pretty strong in Canada, especially among rural peoples.

    1. I haven't heard it either, but the are a lot of Texans in Alberta due to the oil, so he could have just met a Texan who happens to be in Alberta.

      Oddly the best page I've seen on Canadian accents is

  7. Has anybody seen the nails on that Garwayen character? If that doesn't spell "bad guy" I'll eat a prepared for a plot twist I say ;-)(disclaimer: I have no knowledge of the game whatsoever, so this is pure conjecture, not a spoiler)


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