Friday, November 29, 2019

Game 348: Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny

Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny
Released in Germany as Das Schwarze Auge: Die Schicksalsklinge
attic Entertainment Software (developer); Fantasy Productions (German publisher); Sir-Tech (U.S. Publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS, 1993 for Amiga
Date Started: 13 November 2019
Where Britain and France mostly created their own styles of RPGs, and largely failed at it, German developers found more success analyzing and modifying the mechanics of the most popular U.S. releases. In the few years after Germany's RPG industry really got started in 1988, we saw games inspired by Ultima (Nippon, Die Dunkle Dimension), The Bard's Tale (Legend of Faerghail, Antares, Spirit of Adventure), Alternate Reality (Fate: Gates of Dawn), Dungeon Master (Dungeons of Avalon), and Demon's Winter (Sandor). Each of these games introduced its own innovations, to be sure; there are plenty of times, as in Fate and any of the Bard's Tale-inspired games, when the German adaptation exceeded the original.
Starting out in Arkania. The screen is nearly identical to Might and Magic III, although none of the gameplay is.
Realms of Arkania strikes me as the apex of this process of adaptation, drawing not from just one source (like most of the German titles) or two sources (as Faerghail did with both The Bard's Tale and Phantasie) but rather at least four. Building on the engine previously used in Spirit of Adventure (1991), attic has combined the basic exploration of The Bard's Tale with the main screen arrangement of Might and Magic III, the inventory interface of Dungeon Master (or perhaps, more directly, Eye of the Beholder), and a combat system inspired by the Gold Box while looking more graphically advanced.
The inventory interface recalls SSI's Eye of the Beholder.
Arkania is a licensed adaptation of the best-selling German tabletop RPG Das Schwarze Auge ("The Dark Eye," although I always have to remind myself that it's not "The Dark Age"). It started as a relatively obvious adaptation of Dungeons and Dragons (the developer, Schmidt Spiel & Freizeit, had first tried to get a license to publish D&D in German), but it got more innovative as the editions moved forward. In particular, I find that the inclusion of "negative traits" (introduced in the third edition) creates more memorable characters.

Arkania followed the by-now common 1990s tradition of telling one backstory in the game manual and another one--complementary but usually not identical--in the animated opening scenes. The opening is set in Thorwal, an ancient free settlement "populated with indomitable warriors and seafarers, rich in treasures from innumerable forays." Thorwal is surrounded by plains in which orc tribes roam freely and occasionally semi-organize into a threatening confederacy. This is currently the case, with a "great chief" gathering orcs on the steppes, planning "the utter conquest of Thorwal."
Evocative graphics introduce the setting.
Somehow this threat is going to involve a certain captain named Hetman Hyggelik who lived a couple centuries ago. He made a fortune pillaging the "hated slave trader towns of the south." After a particularly successful expedition, he had a magic sword forged in the Cyclops Islands, then took it with him into the orcish lands, where he and his band were slaughtered. I suspect that his sword is the titular Blade of Destiny, and that it will be needed to fend off the invasion.
If it was just left sticking out of a dirt mound, someone's probably taken it by now.
Either way, very little background is given regarding the party. Your group of six simply arrives in Thorwal seeking fortune and glory.
Character creation offers some good graphics for each of the classes.
Character creation is complex enough to tie in knots even an experienced CRPG player. There are 12 classes, which the system calls "archetypes": jester, hunter, warrior, rogue, Thorwalian, dwarf, warlock, druid, magician, green elf, ice elf, and sylvan elf. (Female versions have slightly different names in the manual, even when spectacularly unnecessary, as in "she-jester," "she-rogue," "dwarvess," and "magicienne.") Among them are five different magic systems. There are seven positive attributes (courage, wisdom, charisma, dexterity, agility, intuition) rolled on a scale of 8 to 13, seven negative attributes (superstition, acrophobia, claustrophobia, avarice, necrophobia, curiosity, and violent temper) rolled on a scale of 2 to 7.
Allocating numbers to attributes as they're rolled.
There are 52 skills, arranged into seven categories: combat, body, social, lore, craftsmanship, nature, and intuition. I have been jaded by a long string of Paragon games into suspecting that a lot of them will turn out to be useless. My money is on "Dance" and "Carouse," but I'm also suspicious of "Self Control," "Streetwise," "Human Nature," and "Tactics." "Ancient Tongues" sounds like a skill that will come in handy exactly once, but on that one occasion it will be pivotal.
Selecting skills to increase during character creation.
When creating a character, you can choose the class you want, but if you do, you only get the minimum attributes necessary for that class. The other method, which generally results in higher attributes, is to let the game roll the numbers and you allocate them to the attributes as they arrive. You could get unlucky and end up with worse than minimum statistics, but you can always start over. One positive of the character creation process is that you can take its steps in any order. You can wait until you see what kind of character you have before assigning name and sex, or you can start with those answers and then take whatever you roll.
After spending far too long studying the materials, I went with:
  • Female Thorwalian
  • Male dwarf
  • Male druid
  • Female green elf
  • Female magicienne
  • Male ice elf
My analysis was that if Realms is like similar fantasy games, spells will be more important than physical skills, and this configuration gives me the most spell options. I lack only the warlock/witch. I thought they had the smallest selection of spells, many of them sounding more like solutions to puzzles than typical RPG magic ("Witch's Eye," "Heal Animal," "Camouflage," "Fire's Bane"). It may turn out that I'll miss the position for just this reason.
Choosing my green elf's starting spell skills.

My primary angst is over the first two characters. I felt that for role-playing reasons, I ought to have a Thorwalian given the setting. I felt that the second character would need to be more of a rogue, but I didn't want to leave the party too weak in physical combat, as a rogue would be, and dwarves seem a bit like warrior/rogues. I'm happy to take recommendations, though, since I haven't gone very far into the game.
The city of Thorwal.
Gameplay begins at the Temple of Travia in Thorwal. In Arkania, it is at temples rather than inns where you can manage your party members. Thorwal is a 16 x 32 map with ocean to the south and west and rivers and ponds taking up some of the inner space. The buildings create irregular patterns in a way that goes back to the original Bard's Tale. Also adapted from that game is a tradition by which nearly every square of building can be entered, although many are houses occupied by offended Thorwalians who immediately tell you to leave. Sometimes, the residents give you a hint. Sometimes, the houses are locked and you have the option to break in.
This manual conditioned me to expect something else when I encountered a "Thorwalian."
There are numerous taverns, inns, inn/tavern combinations, armories, banks, supply shops, temples, and healers. (I bought some standard items like torches and rope at the supply shop.) These seem redundant, but each has its own unique name, and I suspect there will later be quests that require me to visit a particular location. I enjoy some of the location names, including the taverns "Drunken Emperor," "Boisterous Welsher," and "Red Morrow." There's also a temple called the "Temple of Tsa," which in the game's all-caps font makes it sound like it was founded by the one person who respects American airport security. The temples are all named after the names of their gods, which also seem to be the names of the setting's months.
I don't know how well I'm going to sleep tonight.
The taverns are quite odd. When you enter, you have options to order drinks or talk, but whatever you choose, events have a way of unfolding on their own. For instance, if you order drinks, you'll probably end up with a clue anyway, but if you choose to just start talking, some bartender will say, "Aren't you going to order anything?" Anyway, the "leave tavern" option seems to disappear a lot, so you get trapped in a loop of ordering round after round until your party members get drunk. (I guess this is governed by the "Carouse" statistic.) Also, if you have any talent in music, dancing, or acrobatics, you have options to engage in those activities for the amusement of the patrons, and thus have a little money thrown your way.
I don't want to know what kind of dancing Bramble was doing.
There are no combats on the game map, which distinguishes Arkania from most of its predecessors, including Spirit of Adventure. There are occasional random encounters in the street, such as traveling merchants, beggars who ask for a ducat, and a weird repeating encounter where a "small fellow" dances around a "table containing a mass of floral arrangements" and then falls down dead.
A random event. No, that is totally not "OK."
There are a number of unique buildings and oddities among the doorways on the map. These include:
  • Three estates with multiple entrances, all blocked by guards who refuse entry. Two are called "otttaskins" and are owned by groups named the Stormriders and the Windrunners. I don't know what "ottaskin" means; a Google search suggests the game may have invented it.
Can you just tell me what it is?
  • A large monolith at the end of the street that seems to have no entrance.
  • A post office called the "Beilunk Riders." It was closed.
  • Two "embassies," one from the "Central Empire," one from the "New Empire," both closed.
  • A couple of closed towers.
Maybe this will become important later.
  • A shipbuilder's where you can have your own ship made for way more money than I have.
  • An academy of magic where you can purchase potions and get artifacts identified.
I thought this harbor scene was particularly well-drawn.
There are four exits from the city, oddly placed. Only one is at an obvious point at the end of a road at the edge of the map. Two others are found in the harbor and a fourth in a random building in the northwest. Each exit seems to take you to a different option for moving forward on the overland map.
Each exit takes you to the outdoor map, but to different destinations on it.
As I mentioned, some of the random denizens offer a bit of intelligence when you open their doors. Everyone seems to be talking about the gathering orcs, and it's rumored that they've sacked a city called Phexcaer, but we also heard a little about other people and locations in the town.

Unfortunately, Arkania seems to have dropped Spirit of Adventure's keyword-based dialogue for more traditional dialogue options, some of which are either poorly translated or deliberately nonsensical.
Dialogue options allow us to insult the innkeeper for no reason.
During one visit to a tavern, a guard entered to announce that Hetman Tronde Torbensson, ruler of the city, is looking for heroes to take on a dangerous quest. We found our way to the Hetman's house at the west edge of town. There, Torbensson reiterated the danger posed by the orcs, united under a single chief, amassing in the Upper Bodir Valley.
The party learns of the main quest.
Noting that orcs are a superstitious lot, Torbensson suggested that their federation might collapse if a hero showed up wielding Hetman Hygellik's lost sword, called Grimring. "It is said that the sword put the fear of the gods into the orcs and their shamans or whatever they call their religious leaders," the Hetman recounted.

The sword is probably buried in Hygellik's tomb, and the Hetman suggested we start by visiting Hygellik's last surviving descendant, Isleif Olgardsson, in the city of Felsteyn. He gave us a writ allowing us to take a certain number of weapons from the city's armory. I always like it when a game has an answer to the common and obvious objection of forcing characters to fund their own adventures when the fate of the world is at stake.
The Hetman lays on the main quest. I love how my characters can say they have "just one question" when I have no idea what the question is.

There is one dungeon--the lower levels of an old fortress--accessible from Thorwal. The captain of the guard (or something like that) asked us to investigate the lower levels because someone keeps stealing supplies stored on the upper levels.
It took me a while to figure out how to light a torch. You can't just "use" the torch, nor can you use the tinder box. You have to pick up the torch, then right click on the tinder box and "use" it. This is annoyingly undocumented. 
Coming across a chest.
Anyway, the first dungeon level had a couple of combats and one chest. I'll write more about combats in the future, but for now suffice to say that it blends several systems. The screen uses the axonometric 45-degree rotation that feature heavily in British adventure games (Knightlore, Cadaver) and RPGs (HeroQuest, Legend) of the period. Characters move on discrete floor tiles, and action is turn-based, with the player selecting both movement and attack options from a menu. There's an auto-combat option called "Computer Fight" that puts your players under computer control, with or without magic. Overall, it plays a lot like the Gold Box games, and a "Guard" command (the player stands still until an enemy comes in range, then gets a free attack) particularly points to a Gold Box origin.
The combat interface.

I would finally note that the game has a decent automap, with walls, corridors, and doors clearly annotated by color. This helps make up for the fact that it's hard to see some doors when they're to the party's side rather than directly in front of you.
The automap alerts me to a couple of doors that I missed on my first loop.
Realms of Arkania is a thick game, meaning it has a lot of little elements that I may forget to talk about if they don't play a big role in my experience. When starting, it offers basic and advanced modes of gameplay; the primary difference seems to be that the computer controls your skill and spell leveling (and character creation) in basic mode. I've been playing on "advanced." Money is in gold ducats, silver crowns, and copper bits at a 1:10:10 ratio. At temples, you can donate and pray for miracles. There's a food and drink system by which you "feed" characters by picking up items and clicking on their mouths. You can split the team into two or more groups. An adventurer's log keeps track of major plot points. When camping, you assign various characters to guard duty for the hours of the day. Wounds, sickness, and poison can be treated with skills as well as spells. Armor and weapons degrade and must occasionally be repaired. You can pocket-pick shopkeepers. If I never mention any of these elements again, it means they weren't really important.

I thought Spirit of Adventure had a lot of promise, so I'm going to remain optimistic about Realms even though the first few hours have covered a lot of well-trod ground.

Time so far: 5 hours

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Challenge of the Five Realms: Walking Shadow

The party teleports to a new location as the darkness slowly creeps northward.
In the city of Greenberry, Challenge started to hint at a greater depth of role-playing than it had delivered (or, at least, that I had perceived) so far. In contrast to the squalid conditions of the other cities in Alonia, Greenberry was clearly the New Rochelle of the kingdom. As we arrived and started at the mansions, Cynna Bane commented that, "these self-satisfied, well-fed nobles are the very type I mean to fight. They eat and drink well every night while I and my people must scratch for every meal." The damned place had a candy shop, even.
I'm not sure about Chesotor's taste.
I had come to the city to retrieve the scroll on which my father had written his edict against magic. Mayor Zamtine--who stressed repeatedly that he supported my claim to the throne--was happy to give me the key to the archives where he'd stored the scroll. (I had already broken in, killed Zamtine's guards, and taken it.) But he clearly assumed that I wanted it so I could enforce the edict, not rescind it.
The battle against the mercenaries guarding the decree.
Similarly, I soon ran into the mayor's son, pining for the harbormaster's daughter in Pendar. I had already delivered her to Deostrus, but the mayor's son wanted me to return and kill Deostrus in return for a lot of money.

As I often do, I must note here that a truly awesome game would make such an "evil" path more attractive by having strangled money on the "good" path. Imagine if I'd reached this wealthy city after eight hours of an exhausting game in which I was scrambling to keep my party fed, where Doomsday was coming ever closer by the hour, and I couldn't even afford horses for my party to speed up the journey. Then I find a group of wealthy people ready to help me if I just help them maintain their status at the top of the food chain. That would be a role-playing choice. Instead, I already have 5000 gold pieces that I don't know how to spend. Thus, there's little to dissuade me from the "good" path that I'm naturally inclined to follow.
Later, you can refuse to help the wizards and slaughter them instead. But for what?
Greenberry was full of NPCs offering vocal support (one of them even gave me a whole 15 gold pieces), but it turned out they were playing both sides. Gormond had secreted warriors throughout the village. I got this news from my cousin, Peppercorn, in exchange for a Ring of Protection. Peppercorn offered to join the party, and I accepted her. In accordance with her tomboyish looks, she excels at stealth, riding, dodging, and missile weapons.
Welcome, proto-Imoen.
I figured Peppercorn filled up my party, as I ran out of spaces for portraits, but soon I was joined by a seventh companion, Barilla Beggarlove, "she-wolf with a sword." I checked the manual, and it turns out that I can have up to 10 characters. I guess the others just don't get portraits.

The next stop was the Mines of Signor, although on the way I went back to Southfrost just to see what had become of it. The game wouldn't let me into the city, noting only that Grimnoth's plague of darkness had devoured it.
I hope the Eskimos got away.
The Mines of Signor were a small, indoor area. The title card noted that the mines had been closed for several decades. The corridors were full of traps, but fortunately my orb absorbed them. There were a lot of spell components to pick up, some of which allowed me to learn new spells.
There are at least a few of these on every map.
Eventually, we ran into Stellerex, the leader of the outlawed mages hiding in the caves. He was skeptical of the prince's sincerity, requiring first that I tear up the decree in front of him and then that I submit to a "Truth" spell. Once he was convinced, he joined the party, bringing a lot of spells and ingredients and the skills to learn and cast them. One of them is "Teleportation," which allows me to go anywhere on the map. Given the time limit, I'd use it exclusively except that the necessary reagents (a grasshopper, a fly, a homing pigeon, and a black rose) are somewhat rare. If I ever find a shop selling them, I'll spend most of my gold on them.
I don't know what's worse: that I made such a scene out of tearing up a simple piece of paper, or that I spelled it with a "w."
Other mages teleported out of the caves, and back to their homes, once they learned about the revocation of the ban. (How in the world did my father enforce this ban?) One of them, Vandar, told about my mother's spirit roaming the Cliffs of Mahor before he left.
One by one, the wizards went home.
The Cliffs of Mahor were on the other side of the game map, but they seemed to be the place to go next. The map was tiny--a small path and a small bridge. A female NPC wandered alone. "Mother, is that you? I've missed you," Chesotor said. "My son," the apparition said, and then my mother faded, to be replaced by Grimnoth. "Don't betray me," he said. "Deliver the crowns or you will suffer a slow death!" I want to point out that Grimnoth is changing the agreement; now, apparently, I have to deliver all of the crowns to him, and not just my own.
Auntie Em!
Anyway, there was nothing else to do at the Cliffs, which makes me wonder what the purpose of the whole episode was. Moreover, at this point I was out of clear directions for where to go next.

Consulting the map, I saw that the darkness had already started to devour the town of Fremont and would soon hit Greenberry. I decided to line up my next visits in east-west strips, hitting the southernmost locations first. This meant first renting ships in Pendar and hitting the island of Monteplai off the western coast.

I screwed up the visit. Apparently, Monteplai is the site of a "supermax" prison that my father ran, complete with a warden and quarrymaster. I spoke to them but couldn't find a way into the prison, so I assumed the visit was just a waste of time. Then, as I was preparing this entry, I happened to notice in a screenshot a door I'd missed. I need to re-visit the location once I finish my current area.
The prison is right in front of me, but somehow I couldn't find it at the time.
At the time, I shrugged and moved on to the town of Buntonderry, the location of several large farms and ranches. It seems like everyone wanted to sell me meat.
Okay, your pitch is just creeping me out.
Three of the ranchers were involved in some kind of land dispute. A recent storm had blown over a fence, and the rancher Elturo claimed that his two neighbors, Pengar and Felrid, ran out after the storm and rebuilt the fence but in doing so stole a bit of land for themselves. "It's a small amount of land, but I won't be made a fool of." However, Pengar and Felrid told essentially the same story, with themselves as the victims.

I found the bandits hiding in Pengar's silo, holding hostage the sheriff of the town, Glenwin Ironbelt. After we killed the bandits, Glenwin joined the group. The cowed Pengar confessed that he and Elturo were in the wrong and Felrid was innocent. Felrid, in gratitude, also joined my party, bringing us up to the maximum. As he did so, Cagliostra appeared in her mirror and told me that, "Felrid is very important to our mission. He must accompany us when we face Grimnoth."
Looting the spoils after the destruction of the bandits.
The town was grateful for my destruction of the bandits, and here I have to note that the game does a good job adapting NPC dialogue to the actions of the party. A lot of games even in the 1990s had immutable dialogue, with NPCs often talking about problems that you've already solved. Not here. It's very gratifying.
In a lot of games, this NPC would still be telling me about the bandit problem.
The next stop was Al-Bahdri, an oasis in the middle of a small desert. Most of the "buildings" were tents. Residents complained about two problems: some kind of thief who keeps stealing food and ale, and drought conditions. I'm not sure if the conditions were supposed to be worse than normal for a desert, or if the village isn't even normally in a desert. The thief was variously described as a dwarf and a hideous monster.
There's quite a variance in terrain in this kingdom.
I figured out what to do about the second problem right away: I had Stellerex cast "Create Rainstorm." It produced a few minutes of rainfall, and from then on the villagers thanked me for helping with the drought. A number of them called me "Rainmaker." Oddly, the game didn't have me teach anyone in the village the "Create Rainstorm" spell, which you think would have helped.
It was such a simple spell, too.
I also solved another quick puzzle when a man named Stilis Fletcher reported that he had recently just escaped 50 years of captivity in a crystal, only to find that his girlfriend, Ilse, was now an old woman. "She is as beautiful as ever, but her years are numbered." Without even asking for my input, the game had Chesotor respond by teaching the man the "Youth" spell that we had recently learned. I had wondered what that could possibly be for. He rewarded me with a magic axe.

To deal with the thief, an NPC suggested that I leave meat and ale as bait. I had plenty of meat from Buntonderry but no ale. Someone suggested that I could get it in Skyhold, which was going to be my next stop anyway.
I got this on a random transition between areas.
Skyhold was a wealthier town but also reported several problems. The ineffectual mayor, Gorvas, is being challenged by Baron Wintermore. Both of them have thugs roaming the streets. Neither is dealing with a group of Dark Acolytes who keep raiding the town from the mountains. Some NPCs supported Gorvas, some Wintermore. At least one was disdainful of both, saying that "they're both sons of Ragmar, come here to seek their success. Now their struggle for power threatens the very town they claim to love."
I get what I came for.
Both Gorvas and Wintermore wanted me to assassinate the other. An NPC suggested a third solution where they could be convinced to work together, but I couldn't find any paths that led me there. I decided that for all his weaknesses, Gorvas was the actual mayor of the town while Wintermore was attempting a coup d'├ętat, so I killed Wintermore. But it didn't sit well with me and I ended up reloading a few minutes later. Still thinking about the problem, I swiped a bottle of ale from a brewery and returned to Al-Bahdri without solving the issue.
I'm not sure I like either of them.
Back in Al-Bahdri, I laid out the meat and ale and soon caught a gnome apparating in to steal them. He claimed to be from Alveola, one of the other kingdoms of Nhagardia--finally--and he told me where to find the portal to his realm in some nearby caves.
"I had as a child," Chesotor says, leaving out that he was reading one of those "picture books" just a few days ago in the castle.
Entering the caves, I was beset by lions, snakes, and ogres, and I couldn't defeat them without losing at least one party member. I reluctantly let Beggar go and moved on.
I wish we'd known your actual name.
He was nearly immediately replaced when I found Sir Valakor--my mother's old beau--living in the same caves. He wouldn't believe I was Feya's son until I showed her my mother's diamond ring, which he insisted on taking. I'm glad I didn't sell that to the pawn shop.
My maybe-father joins the party.
A casting of "Revisibility" made the portal appear, and we entered it to find ourselves in the underground gnome kingdom, a large map with numerous entrances to various gnome burrows. As we entered, Cagliostra appeared to offer: "[Gnomes] are known for their pessimism, grumpiness, and greed. To strengthen our spell against Grimnoth, we must change the heart of the Alveolan leader. We need to teach the Alveolans the power of charity, of giving, and we need a symbol of that change of heart."
Alveola and its various gnome holes. Note the gnome "artifacts" on the screen that I discuss below.
I wasn't sure what she meant, but I pressed forward. The big drama in Alveola is that the owner of the brewery, Kito Pona, was recently murdered after abruptly changing his will to leave everything to his son Danzo. He was killed by a poison called Nevi Root which takes a lot of time to work and makes the victim susceptible to suggestion towards the end. Danzo's siblings, Caldo, Harpo, and Neena, suspect foul play, although most of the gnomes think that it's too obvious to be Danzo's doing. Caldo has taken control of the brewery and refuses to turn it over. I've been running around talking to everyone, searching everywhere, casting "Truth" spells on everyone, but I can't seem to get anywhere with the mystery.
One of Kito Pona's children.
Meanwhile, I met with King Armacan, and he's not interested in turning over his crown even though--and this was quite a twist--his own father was also murdered by Grimnoth. Is this going to be true of every holder of a crown? "You have no proof you're a king," Armacan said after a long diatribe. "No proof this Alonia even exists. You ask for money in charity . . . I reject charity and, further, the need for charity." I wonder if I need to retrieve my own crown as "proof" before Armacan will help me.
Tonight, you will be visited by three spirits . . .
Miscellaneous notes:
  • While in the various areas, you can switch between a micro-level map (the screen that usually appears in my shots) and a smaller-scale map that shows the basic outline of the region. If you travel on this smaller-scale map, small, inconsequential obstacles like most fences and trees are ignored, and it's easier to get from one place to another.
Traveling on the mid-scale map.
  • You have only 100 days to solve the quest before the plague of darkness reaches Castle Thiris, but as we've seen, certain locations become inaccessible a lot sooner. I'm on Day 24. I assumed the bar on the left side of the screen would get shorter as Doomsday grew nearer. Instead, it just gets darker.
  • There's some graphic glitch in Alveola where every time a gnome appears on the screen, random gnome images appear all over the place, even off the exploration screen. It often makes it hard to tell who's "real" and who's a glitch. Fortunately, entering inventory and exiting refreshes the screen.
  • Every time Cagliostra appears in the mirror, a classic "witch cackling" effect precedes her even though she's not really that kind of witch.
This is preceded by the cacophonous cackling of an old hag.
  • The game uses a variant of the "PAL" system at work in the previous Paragon titles, where NPCs with particular skills are supposed to pipe up when they see an opportunity to use them. So far, however, this has only occurred every time I enter a shop, when the NPC with the highest "Bargaining" skill suggests that he do the negotiating. No one with "Tinkering" skill has ever spoken up near a locked door, on the other hand, nor has anyone with spell skills said anything when a spell was the obvious solution to a problem. 
A rare use of the PAL system.
I leave you trying to solve these various quests in Alveola. While there is much I like about Challenge, including the game world and evolving plot, it is shaping up to be much more an adventure game than an RPG. In this, it shows the weaknesses of most of the developers' previous Paragon titles. Combat is a rare punctuation rather than a regular part of life, and its outcomes are heavily based on luck rather than skill or character attributes. Spells are so limited by available reagents that you don't want to cast any if you can avoid it.
The party versus lions.
Most important, character development is extremely flimsy and inconsistent. Since the beginning of the game, Chesotor has not increased at all in any of his attributes or physical skills. His "Sword" skill is the only combat skill to have increased (by 4 points) despite the fact that he's been armed with a shield the entire game and an axe for most of it. Only his personality skills, "Leadership" has gone up 10 points but none of the others. "Bargaining" has seen a 16-point boost and "Reading" a one-point bump, and "Learn Spell" seems to go up every time I learn a new one, for 32 total points since the game began.
These numbers have hardly budged since the beginning of the game.
With so many NPCs in the party, everyone specializes in enough stuff that it doesn't really matter if anybody gets better, but this does go against the core mechanics of the traditional RPG, which the old Paragon crew never seems to have understood.
Time so far: 15 hours