Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Game 358: Ishar: Legend of the Fortress (1992)

Ishar: Legend of the Fortress
Silmarils (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS, Amiga, and Atari ST
Date Started: 22 February 2020

I've been wanting to play Ishar for a while now, partly because I bought the entire series in 2014, and partly because while I thought Crystals of Arborea (1990) was pretty awful, I also thought it had some lovely graphics. Until they reach a certain point, I don't get excited about graphics. I mostly want them to be functional--show me where the enemies are and help me figure out what door I need to enter. If your graphics are just repeating textures, to me they're not much better than wireframes.
Walking through some pretty beach trees.
When we get to the era in which graphics actually establish an ambiance and pull me into the setting, that's when I get excited. And Ishar's are almost there. Like Arborea's, they border on impressionistic. The opening screen shows a field lush with grass and flowers, a tree filled with branches and leaves, wispy clouds on the horizon, and other trees, dimmer, further away, partly hidden in a mist. I'm not prepared to say that they're the best graphics we've seen, but they certainly come close.
Some of the best water graphics we've seen so far. They don't move or anything.
Ishar is first of a trilogy for which Arborea was a kind-of prologue. In that game, you play Jarel, Prince of the Elves, and your goal was to find four crystals and use them to raise the island of Arborea--the only land left after the gods destroyed the world. Along the way, you had to kill the fallen angel Morgoth. You were aided by five companions.

The backstory of Ishar tells us that Jarel renamed the land Kendoria. He ruled for a while but was killed in a hunting accident. After his death, the land fell into anarchy. A "shady and powerful figure" named Krogh took advantage of the chaos, gathered wealth and power, and built a temple on the borders of Kendoria. The temple's name, Ishar, means "unknown" in Elvish. Your mission is, I guess, to stop Krogh. Honestly, the backstory took the bloom off the graphics almost immediately. Aside from being overly derivative of Tolkien (I don't know what I expected from a developer called "Silmarils"), it explained essentially nothing, including who the main character is.
The starting character.
There is no character creation process. You start as a human warrior called Aramir, presumably the third son of Denethor. He carries a sword, 2000 gold, and has no other inventory. He has 16 strength, 14 constitution, 16 agility, 12 intelligence, 11 wisdom, and 12 vitality. Temporary statistics are physical power and mental power. Statistics for "level" and "experience" at least assure me there will be some character development. Clicking around, I find that I also have skills: lockpicking, orientation, first aid, one-handed weapons, two-handed weapons, throwing, shooting, and languages. Aramir is best at the two weapon categories and worst at "Languages."

The game comes with no kind of map or even description of the world. Am I on an island? Are there towns? There's a guy standing in front of me in the field, so I head towards him. He greets me with a nonsensical phrase ("Warm Tear!") and tells me about a village to the south, "in Angarahn country," where there's a tavern called "The Thirsty Barbarian." I try to recruit him and it works. His name is Borminh, and he comes with a dagger, single-digit attributes, and strong skill in lockpicking. The manual suggests that micromanaging the relationships among my NPC companions is a big part of the game. They can reject and dismiss each other and apparently murder each other.
The first NPC has a nonsensical greeting.
Following Borminh's instructions, I head south and soon come to a town. In the first shop, my 2000 gold suddenly doesn't seem all that much. A light helmet sells for 1,200 and a suit of leather armor sells for 1,800. Even a loaf of bread is 320, which makes me think the economy is really out of whack. The shopkeeper also bids me "warm tear" when I leave the shop. What the hell.
These prices don't make a lot of sense in proportion.
Orcs attack as I explore the village, and I'm disappointed to see that the series has changed the flawed-but-intriguing tactical grid used in Arborea for real-time combat in the style of Dungeon Master. There's nothing particularly wrong with Dungeon Master combat, I hasten to add, but it's not well-adapted here. The spell menu is harder to get into than it should be, and cool-down periods are not made obvious by the graphics. I also soon find that the famous "combat waltz" doesn't work at all; enemies don't even appear if they're not facing you.
First-person combat means hitting the "attack" buttons repeatedly.
Nonetheless, I successfully kill the orcs and loot their gold, spending some of it to rest at the tavern and recover some lost hit points. The tavern serves as a location for rumors; this one tells me that one of Jarel's companions lives in the village. You can also recruit NPCs in taverns; this one offers only one, a warrior named Kyrian. When I select him, Aramir and Borminh both "vote" and agree to let him into the party.

The town has a place where I can train strength, and later I find another one where I can train agility. I also find a hut occupied by Akeer, who seems to give me the main quest:
My name is Akeer. I am one of Jarel's mates, who once braved, then destroyed the evil dark lord Morgoth. But today, we have to face a brand new danger . . . This threat has a name: Krogh. He murdered our good prince Jarel [so much for him dying in a hunting accident] and sat on his throne in Ishar, an evil temple unleashing hordes of monsters all over our beloved land. Now the time has come for revenge. If you manage to destroy Krogh, you'll be able to use Ishar's tremendous powers, and soon you will reign over the whole kingdom . . . The companions are old, but they still may help you. In Lotharia, near the Four Birches, Azalghorm the Spirit could give you some advice . . . Warm tear, my friends . . .
When I'm king, I'm going to abolish that stupid phrase, whatever it's supposed to mean.

I spend some time trying to get oriented. The "action" menu allows me to bring up a map of Kendoria, but it doesn't show our current place on it. It does show the starting position, on the far west side of either an island or peninsula crisscrossed by rivers. It looks like the starting are has two bridges that cross an eastern river to new territories.

I soon find that one of the bridges leads to another town, and this one is guarded by a hulking barbarian. But my party of three manages to defeat him.
A tough enemy, but it was three-on-one.
The town consists of a bunch of building situated on docks. In the tavern, I learn that Krogh may be Morgoth's son. As Morgoth was a withered skeletal creature, ick. This tavern has five NPCs to recruit. I first try a lizard-looking thing named Xylaz but everyone votes "no." I'm not sure how I feel about my own characters overriding my orders. I try again and everyone agrees to a mage named Dorian and a warrior named Golnal. 
A bunch of damned racists, that's what you guys are.
I explore the area a while longer, killing some orcs and bandits and bears, finding loose gold strewn in bushes and empty huts. I walk into a teleporter at one point, but it didn't take me very far because I soon found myself in the same basic area. I lose some characters in a fight against werewolves and then I suffer a full-party death against some bandits.
Is that supposed to be Krogh? That's messed up.
Dying has significant consequences in this game because you have to pay 1,000 gold pieces to save. We just left a game where it cost experience points to save (Blade of Destiny) and I'm concurrently playing another game with saving limited by turns (Ragnarok). It's interesting to see three different approaches in three consecutive games. I'm all for making things more challenging in this way, but it cuts particular deep here where things cost so much and you start with comparatively so little gold. From what I can tell, monsters do seem to respawn, so at least there's some way to keep earning money.
I can also report positive things about the interface. The developers clearly want you to use the mouse, but unlike Arborea, they've given an analogous keyboard command to every mouse click. The commands aren't as intuitive as some games, but they're there. I've complained repeatedly about having to click the buttons in Dungeon Master-style combat, and here finally is a game where you just have to hit a series of F-keys in quick succession if you prefer not to use the mouse.

Also, the sound complements the graphics superbly. I'm a sucker for a game that offers good ambient sound, and here we have it: the chirping of birds, the swell of water near the river, the croaks of frogs, the murmur of background conversation when I enter the tavern. Even if I don't end up liking gameplay much, Ishar at least looks and sounds pretty.

I think I'll start over and see about mapping the island. A rough estimate based on the map would put the island at around 100 x 400. That's big but not unmappable. I want to be able to annotate what I find and what I don't understand. After the first few hours, it's clear that it's more of a game than Arborea, but I don't know if it's necessarily a better one.

Time so far: 3 hours

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Ragnarok: Gods and Giants

About how it goes every time I face a new monster.
Playing Ragnarok is a process of repeatedly convincing yourself that your character is getting stronger and you're getting better and then suddenly getting torn apart--quite literally--by the next level of foe. That's not quite a complaint, but it's inescapable that while the main game is about as difficult as NetHack, its worst foes would have the Wizard of Yendor for lunch.

I spent the bulk of this last session finishing up the dungeon beneath the opening forest. The dungeon consisted of 3 levels and 27 screens, and the key plot reason to be there was to obtain Odin's spear, Gungnir, from Vidur. As I closed my last session, I was having no luck even scratching Vidur let alone killing him. I tried it hastened with Potions of Speed; I tried it invisible; I tried it under the influence of a Potion of Phasing, which doubles your armor class. He still kept killing me in one round.
Maybe don't eat random mushrooms.
I took time to explore the rest of the dungeon to strengthen my character and hopefully find more valuable items. Some notes from that process:

  • The levels aren't all randomly generated. Even when they are, there are rules set on some of them to avoid exits on certain sides of the map. The Temple of Vidur on Level 3 is only supposed to be accessible from a hole on Level 2, not any of the other Level 3 maps. However, a Wand of Tunneling or a pick-axe can undo such intentions--sometimes.
  • More intrinsics: fire dragons confer fire resistance; "blurs" make you faster (although I think just temporarily); wraiths give you level increases, although at a certain point they stopped working. Through other means that I didn't fully note, I have also acquired resistances to petrification and death rays.
This sounds so unappealing.
  • There's one mushroom that fills you up when you eat it. The others are not worth experimenting with.
  • Kalvins are horrid, hateful monsters who swipe one of your eyes out with every hit. It turns out that a blessed potion of curing will regrow an eye, but I was so traumatized by my temporary blindness that the next time I found a Scroll of Extinction, I used it on Kalvins.
  • Worse than Kalvins are Zardons. They can send out a piercing wail that hits you for about 50 hit points at a time from anywhere within the dungeon level. Guess what else soon went extinct? 
I'm not sure I should have this kind of power.
  • One damned hit from a werewolf is enough to give you lycanthropy, which requires a blessed Potion of Curing to cure. Scrolls of Blessing aren't so common that I like wasting them on this.
  • On the matter of Scrolls of Extinction, I can't be the only roguelike player who has secretly thought that if I just find enough of them, I can genocide every monster in the game. 
  • I keep finding Amulets of Quickening, which double my speed and are thus incredibly useful. But they have limited duration, and then they run out, they turn into something called "Eyes of Sertrud." I have no idea if they do anything in their "Sertrud" form.
  • A couple of enemy types are capable of reproducing faster than you can kill them. One is these little tiny things called "secitts." The second are tree creatures called "faleryns." I had to abandon a dungeon level to the latter creature when they wouldn't stop multiplying, but I gained about 15 levels trying to kill them all. If I need to grind, I'm going back there.
You guys can have this dungeon level. I'm just trying to get to the stairs.
  • The best spell scroll combination I've found is a Scroll of Blessing with a Scroll of Enhancement. Use the former on the latter and then the latter on a piece of armor or a weapon, and you soon have a +13 (or higher) item. I'm carrying a +14 mirror shield and a +13 silver sword because of that combination.
  • Some of the scrolls are "diaries," which give you hints. 
Glad I got this hint because I would have thought this was bad.
  • Something weird happened with my strength. For a long time, it was stuck at 18.99, and I figured that was the highest, but at some point it rolled over to 19-something and has been continuing to grow towards 20 ever since.
  • At some point, I acquired the "Psi Blast" power. I have no idea when it happened or why. It doesn't seem to do very much damage.
When I hit Level 20, I got the "Fletching" skill, which allows me to make arrows out of woods. Since "Terraforming" allows me to turn any square into woods, I basically have all the arrows I want. Anyway, I took the game's offer to change classes and changed to a conjurer. I spent 20 levels as a conjurer, skipping the first offer to change, because I hardly gained any spells. Even after 20 levels, I can only cast "Set Recall" (which only helps if you have a Scroll of Recall), "Reflect," "Draw Life," and "Illusory Self."
Casting spells. I thought I'd have cooler spells.
At Level 40, I changed to a blacksmith. Somewhere along the way, I read a couple of Scrolls of Knowledge and obtained the "Fennling" skill, an extremely useful skill that lets you combine the charges of two wands of the same type. I also got "Relocation," which lets me teleport on demand, "Ironworking," and "Taming." I haven't really experimented yet with the latter two. 

When I was done exploring, I went back to the Temple of Vidur. He still killed me instantly, but this time I had one new item: a Wand of Death. It only had two charges, but one of them took care of Vidur nicely (unfortunately, not before he killed my new companion, whose release so enraged Vidur in the first place). Gungnir was on his body, and apparently I'm too weak to wield it.
The first god falls.
I headed back to the surface and found the forest absolutely swarming with monsters. They're low level, and no danger, but they're so thick that I can barely move. Thankfully, my teleportation abilities get me through. They seem to respawn as fast as I kill them. I wondered if Ragnarok had started while I was in the dungeon or whether carrying Gungnir brings them to me.
My reputation must have taken a hit while I was underground.
While I was in the forest, I happened to note an icon I hadn't seen before. I (L)ooked at it and the game told me it was Thokk, the giantess who refused to cry for Baldur, meaning I'd have to bring her soul to Hela to get Baldur out of hell. I slipped on my Ring of Soul Trapping and killed her with a single blow. I made the mistake of not taking off the ring afterwards, and her soul was immediately replaced by the new slain enemies'. That required me to reload a significantly older game and replay Vidur's temple again. The second time, I found Thokk in the same area and took off the ring after capturing her soul.
Part of one quest down!
Lacking guidance on exactly where to go, I escaped the monster horde by jumping through a portal. It took me to Slaeter's Sea and some other outdoor maps that kind of wrap around the opening forest, including the River Vid and the River Gioll. I can just stroll across the water because I have Skidbladnir (the magic boat) in my pocket.
The River Vid is mostly water.
I soon found out that if you go the wrong way out of these areas, you wind up in the open ocean and you immediately get attacked by Jormungand. The first time I found him, he damaged me for -60302 hit points. (I had a maximum of 452 at the time.) I tried the Wand of Death on him but it didn't work. He's also inescapable. I suspect you're just not meant to go into these areas.
I suppose if I could kill Jormungand, I wouldn't need to do anything else.
But there's an enemy that roams the rivers and lakes of this "outer rim" that's almost as deadly as Jormungand: the lorkesth. He gets like 5 attacks per round and does massive damage. He's the reason I can't just blithely stroll through the areas (the other enemies are relatively easy at my level). I have to watch very carefully for their appearance and use my teleportation ability to get to a safe square of land. There's no outrunning them, since they can move three times for every move I make. If I stand one square away from the water, I can defeat them with throwing weapons and wands, but like any monster they may auto-generate at any time. If I get another Scroll of Extinction, they're going to be strong candidates.
I like to think I'm skipping these shurikens along the water.
To the west, the world ended at the Bifrost. (Which I have been unable to take seriously since I discovered it's properly pronounced "beef roast," although I think it's cool that the Norse conceived it as a rainbow. So many things in mythology are dark and dreary.) I figured it was too soon to go to Asgard, so I went the other way. Mapping in this game is complicated; I'll explain more thoroughly in my next entry. Suffice to say that the particular section of maps I was in ended to the west at the Bifrost and east at the River Gioll. The Gioll map had some patches covered in fog and a river swarming with lorkesths, but oddly no other enemies or items on the map. For some reason, my Ring of Locus Mastery doesn't work, meaning when I teleport, I just teleport to a random place. Something is also causing me to teleport frequently even if I take off my Ring of Relocation.

In the middle of a patch of fog on the east side, I ran into a character named Harbard. He was rooted in place and didn't pursue me, but if I walked up to him, he killed me in a couple of blows. So I stood a couple squares away from him and hit him with the second and last charge in my Wand of Death. His body disappeared in the fog, but when I walked and stood upon it, the game told me that there was a staircase. Taking it led me to Niflheim.
Hell looks a lot like Maine in April.
I immediately had one of those moments that I described in the opening. I had been killing fire dragons and frost dragons in single blows, so I wasn't bothered by the "hel dragon" heading in my direction--not, at least, before he killed me in one attack that left me with -1,006 hit points.
My brief foray into hell.
Upon reloading, I tried again, taking pains to avoid the dragon, and I did come across some luck when I stumbled on a Wand of Wishing with three charges. I immediately wished for another Wand of Death, and while it worked fine against the next hel dragon, it did nothing against the unique enemies of the area, including Konr Rig and Plog. I reluctantly returned to the surface and decided to try again when I was stronger, although given the fact that I've already maxed in most of the game's classes and I have incredibly powerful equipment and near-max strength (I assume, since it's now going up by decimals instead of integers), I don't know what "stronger" is going to look like.

Still, I moved north from the River Gioll to what turned out to be the mountainous realm of Jotenheim. I expected to meet a lot of giants but mostly found the same creatures from previous areas, including a lot of faleryns, who fortunately didn't seem to be as interested as replicating as they were in the dungeon. Teleport control still doesn't work, which makes it hard to explore systematically.
The transition to Jotenheim.
After I cleared most of the map, there remained an impenetrable rectangle of mountains and trees. Figuring it must hold something interesting, I used my "Terraforming" ability to change a tree into regular ground. Inside the rectangle was a small building populated by a large foe named Gymir. He had the decency not to kill me in a single blow, but his attacks were capable of doing more than 100 damage each. I quaffed a Potion of Speed and a Potion of Curing and proceeded to kill him in legitimate combat. He left behind Mimming, Freyr's sword. I'm too weak to wield it.
My character doesn't just chop down trees; he changes the very nature of the landscape.
Jotenheim continued for two maps to the north. To the north of that was "Mimer's Realm," a map of mountains, lava pools, and fog. A new monster called "iridorns" were introduced. They can kill in a single hit by ripping off your head, although they die pretty easily if you can strike them first.
With Mimer's Realm, I found Mimer's Well, mentioned in the backstory as the residence of the serpent Aspenth, the transformed version of Gjall, Heimdall's horn. But I need the "Swimming" ability to navigate there and I don't have it yet.
My character at the end of this session.
At some point, while exploring Jotenheim, Heimdall's voice bellowed from the sky:
O great heroes of the world! I must have Gjall to rally the forces of good. Time begins to grow short. The sea rages with the anger of Jormungand. The earth quakes mightily. Loki seems ready to burst his bonds. The moon and sun shall soon be swallowed by the mighty wolves Fenrir and Garm. Surtr is honing his sword of destruction. The evil ones are gathering their forces.

To speed you in your quest, I will use my powers over nature. The lesser creatures of the realm shall grow weary and despair. They shall no longer wish to battle against your might.
This announcement suggests the game has a time limit (and also that Heimdall just removed my ability to easily grind). I'm going to explore to the north a little further, but if nothing pans out, I'll use my Wand of Wishes for Scrolls of Knowledge and see if I can pick up the swimming ability. At this point, I have three of the six quest items. If I can get one more, it might be worth heading to Asgard.

Time so far: 15 hours


B.A.T. II: The Koshan Conspiracy was going to be next, but I'm not sure how it got on my list in the first place. None of my sources call it an RPG, not even a hybrid. I can't find evidence that any commenter defended it as an RPG. I'm dumping it unless someone can make a persuasive case. The Adventure Gamer already covered it if you really need to read about it.

That means we get to our first random roll for the next game on the list! Pulling up the list, adding a "Random" column, filtering out games I've already played or rejected, we get . . . Xenus II: White Gold (2008). But of course I'm not going to play a game before its predecessor, which in this case is Boiling Point: Road to Hell (2005). That's also the first game on my list from Ukraine. I can't find mention of any other necessary precursors. But I'm just kidding because I'm not going to let myself jump that far ahead in one go. The actual next game needs to be in the next year I have not yet played, and a random selection from that year brings us to Shadowkeep 1: The Search by the same author as the Bandor series. Meanwhile, Planet's Edge gets moved up a notch to Game 358, but I'm having trouble with that one. DOSBox crashes every time I try to leave the intro screen. So the real next game might be Ishar while I try to solve that problem.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny: Summary and Rating

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
Date Ended: 7 February 2020
Total Hours: 38
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)


First in a lineage based on the German tabletop RPG Das Schwarze Auge, Blade of Destiny is a gem waiting to be cut and polished. A party of six, comprising familiar races but original classes, stops a horde of orcs from razing the city of Thorwal by finding a legendary sword that defeated the orcs in the past. In an effort to offer a computer game that adhered closely to tabletop rules and gaming style, Blade perhaps errs too much towards obtuse statistics, lengthy character creation and leveling, myriad spells, and exhausting tactical combat. Yet the developers managed to create a large, open game world and populate it with interesting encounters of a variety of length and difficulty, thus feeling a lot like a series of tabletop modules. Nothing in the game--first-person exploration (in Bard's Tale style, but with an interface drawn from Might and Magic III), paper-doll inventories (looking a lot like Eye of the Beholder), axonometric combat (clearly inspired by SSI), dozens of skills and spell skills--works badly, but almost every part of the game needed a little tweaking, editing, or tightening. I enjoyed it more as I became more familiar with its conventions, and it left me looking forward to its next installment.

I grew to enjoy Blade of Destiny more as the hour grew later (the opposite of what usually happens), although the game never really did manage to solve some of its early weaknesses. In the end, I'm struck at how much it reminds me of Pool of Radiance, the first attempt at a serious adaptation of another tabletop system. Both feature the standard party of six. In neither game do the party members have a direct, personal connection to the main quest. In both, the main quest is somewhat low-key--the fate of a city versus the fate of the world. Both keep character leveling in the single digits, and both err towards keeping faith with their tabletop roots, even when it might have been best for the computer game to improvise a bit.

I don't know whether to blame Das Schwarze Auge or the computer game for my chief complaints, most of which can be rolled up into three words: combat is exhausting. Combat is a major part of any RPG, so you don't want your players doing things like reloading to avoid it, which I did a lot. I abandoned entire dungeons because I was sick of all the fighting, so it's a good thing I didn't need an extra character level to win. The primary issues are:
  • The axonometric perspective doesn't work well for combat. It's hard to separate the characters and enemies from each other and particularly hard to move to a specific tile.
  • Everyone misses too often.
  • Attacks don't cause enough damage.
  • Spells, which would make the whole thing go faster, eat up so many magic points that you can rarely cast more than three or four before needing multiple nights' rest to recharge.
In light of these things, the "quick combat" system was a good idea. Unfortunately, combat is hard enough (at least until the end) that you can't really use it until there are only a couple enemies left. Even then, quick combat isn't really "quick." (To be fair, I guess they don't call it that; it's something like "Computer Fight.") You still have to watch the computer take all the actions and monitor your characters' status. It just means you can watch a television show at the same time.
If you can make out individual characters in those blobs, your eyesight is better than mine.
The spell issue had more consequences than just a difficult combat experience. The developers took the time to put several dozen spells into the game, and I never used more than about 5 of them. I kept meaning to find a good place to save near a known combat and then just keep reloading and experimenting, but I never identified an ideal position for this. Most of them would have failed anyway because the nature of the spell skill system means that you can't possibly specialize in more than half a dozen. When I play the sequel, it will absolutely be my priority to more fully investigate the spell catalog.

I had a few lingering questions after the last entry, such as what happens if you try to kill the orc champion with a weapon other than Grimring, and what happens if you don't honor the rule that only your champion fights. Unfortunately, the final save prompted me to overwrite the save game I'd taken just before the battle. My next-most recent save was from before exploring the orc caves and getting the message that led to the endgame. I'm not willing to do all of that again, so we'll have to leave it a mystery unless someone has some experience with it. But I was able to check out the alternate "bad" ending, which I would have experienced had I lingered for an extra year in the quest. As I typed the rest of this entry, I had my party sleep at the inn for batches of 99 days until the game woke me up with the fateful message:
So the orcs are the "Vikings" of this setting.
Overall, I felt that the time constraint was generous enough that it wouldn't have impacted my approach even if I'd been more eager to explore every trail and sea lane. This is a good thing because there was quite a bit more to find. I took a look at a cluebook for the game, and among entire dungeons that I overlooked were a "wolf's lair" between Ottarje and Orvil, a six-level "ship of the dead" that I would have found if I'd taken more boat trips, and a three-level "dragon's hoard" on Runin Island. This latter location sounds like it would have been especially lucrative, with an option to do a side quest for the dragon and receive four magic items as a reward.

But I've always been fine with missing content. It's practically necessary in modern games, lest you exhaust yourself before the end. It also enhances a game's replayability. It's nice to see the number of titles with such optional content growing.

Let's give it the ol' GIMLET:

1. Game World. I didn't find the Nordic setting terribly original, but I enjoyed it just the same. The backstory is set up well, and as previously mentioned, I liked the low-key nature of the main plot. The main quest did a good job encouraging nonlinear exploration of the large world. The problem is that the game itself doesn't quite deliver on the backstory (or the tabletop setting in general). The various cities and towns are too interchangeable, the NPCs too bland. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. Well, I can't complain that it doesn't give you enough options. The leveling-up process in Blade of Destiny is probably the longest in any game to date. Not just longest, but most frustrating, with the caps on the number of times you can increase a particular skill per level (even if you neglected it in the early levels) and frequent failures as you try to increase. The caps in particular make it feel like the characters are never really getting stronger or better. (I think the final battle could be won by a Level 1 character.) Hit points and spell points, in particular, are almost imperceptibly slow to increase.
No, not now! I have an appointment in 90 minutes!
Still, I like the nature of character classes in the setting, including the use of "negative attributes" and the plethora of skills. I just wish I had a clearer sense of what skills, attributes, and negative attributes came into play in what circumstances, which bits of equipment compensated for them, and so on. The game text is obtuse enough that sometimes it's not even clear whether you succeeded or failed. When it is, it's almost always because you failed. Honestly, how high do I need to jack up my "Treat Wounds" skill before it has a greater than 50% chance of not making the character worse?

Back on the positive side, I think different party compositions would make a considerable difference in gameplay. I think you could have fun with some interesting combinations, like an all-dwarf party or an all-magician party. It's just too bad the different race/class templates didn't have more role-playing implications. Score: 5.

3. NPC Interaction. This was a really wasted area of the game. The developers give you the ability to talk to every bartender, innkeeper, smith, and cashier, but most of the dialogue is stupid when it isn't confusing. I'd blame the translation, but my German readers report that it was stupid and confusing even in German. The few dialogue options are either false options that lead to the same outcome or confusing ones with counter-intuitive results (e.g., asking to see the map makes the NPC give it to you; asking for the map makes him just show it to you). That said, you occasionally get an important hint from your various NPC interactions. I just wish it had been more consistent and that the developers had used the system to give more blood to the game world. Score: 4.
This conversation made no sense as a whole, and these individual responses made no sense in detail.
4. Encounters and Foes. The game shines, though sometimes with a marred finish, in this area. I really enjoyed the variety of encounters, some fixed, some random, that the party gets on the road and as it explores dungeons and towns. I like that some of them are a single screen, resolved instantly, and others lead you off on a multi-hour digression. In contrast to the dialogue, the text of these special encounters is usually evocative and interesting, and I can even forgive the occasional shaggy dog joke like the "wyvern" encounter. I just wish for a few more role-playing options in these encounters.
These diversions and side areas never stopped being fun.
Foes were mostly high-fantasy standards with similar strengths and weaknesses that we've seen in a thousand RPGs but at least they appeared in appropriate contexts. We've come a long way from the days when we were inexplicably attacked by parties of 6 orcs, 3 trolls, 2 magicians, and a griffon right in the middle of town. Score: 6.

5. Magic and Combat. Very mixed. I like the combat options, the variety of spells, and the turn-based mechanics. I just didn't like the execution, which was partly due to interface and partly due to the game rules. Either way, combat was generally a tedious, annoying process rather than the joyful one I typically find in, say, a Gold Box game. As for spells, the game really needs some in-game help to assist with them, perhaps annotating the spells in which each class is supposed to specialize. Every spellcasting session and every level-up was a long process of flipping through the manual. It's too bad because the spells are so varied and interesting on paper. Score: 4.
I only ever tried about 6 of these spells, which coincidentally is the number of spells I got above 0 in my ability to cast after 5 levels.
6. Equipment. Another disappointment. I like the approach to equipment, with a number of slots, but you get upgrades rarely and it's extremely hard to identify them when you do. This is something that perhaps no game has done very well up to this point. I don't mind if it's hard to identify a piece of equipment--if you need a special skill, or spell, or money, or whatever--but I mind if it's annoying. I mind if I have to swap the item around to multiple characters to try different things, especially when the interface makes swapping annoying and time-consuming. I mind when there's no symbol, color, or other mechanism to distinguish weapons and armor with different values. 

Blade offers perhaps the largest variety of "adventure" equipment that we've seen so far, which makes it all the more frustrating that either so much of it is useless, or the game doesn't bother to tell you when a piece of equipment has saved the day. Finally the encumbrance system is geared towards making most characters chronically over-encumbered. The ability to make potions is nice, but again the system is a little too complicated. Score: 4.

7. Economy. Blade almost perfectly emulates the Gold Box series here: money is plentiful from the first dungeon and you hardly have any reason to spend it. My party ended the game with well over 1,000 ducats. Even potions don't serve as a good "money sink" because they don't stack and you have the constant encumbrance issue. A rack of +1 weapons, the ability to pay to recharge spell points, or temple blessings that actually did something all would have been nice. Score: 3.
I just donated 999 crowns!
8. Quests. Generally positive. Blade is one of the few games of the era to understand side quests, and they sit alongside an interesting-enough main quest with multiple stages. It just needed a few more choices and alternate endings. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I know that some readers will defend the game here, but I found all three to be somewhat horrid. Graphics are perhaps the least so. Some of the cut scenes are nice. Regular exploration graphics aren't bad, but the inability to distinguish stores from regular houses is almost unforgivable. Combat graphics are a confusing mess from the axonometric perspective. Any virtues the sound effects may otherwise have are obscured by the jarring three-note cacophony that accompanies opening any menu. And there's no excuse for the interface, which occasionally gives some nods to the keyboard but really wants you to use the mouse throughout.

Aside from my usual complaints about mouse-driven interfaces, the game is full of all kinds of little annoyances. When you find or purchase a piece of equipment, it always goes to the first character. You've got to then go in and redistribute it. It's annoying to transfer equipment between characters, especially if one is over-encumbered. Messages often time out before you're done reading them, or pop up so quickly that you don't have time to read them before you accidentally hit the next movement key, making them disappear. There's a lot of inconsistency, particularly in dungeons, about when you need a contextual menu and when you need to use the buttons on the main interface. There are dozens of other things like this. The developers took the appearance of the Might and Magic III interface but none of its underlying grace.

The auto-map didn't suck. I'll give it that. Score: 2.

10. Gameplay. We can end on a positive note. This is one of the few open-world games of the era, and in between the opening screen and closing combat, it's almost entirely non-linear. The many things that a first-time player doesn't find makes it inherently replayable. And the length and difficulty are just about perfect for the era. I particularly love that you have to lose experience points to save (except at temples), which discourages save-scumming. Score: 8.
This NPC seems to think he's living hundreds of years in the past.
That gives us a subtotal final score of 46, a respectable total that would put it in the top 15% of games so far. But I'm going to administratively remove 2 more points for an issue that really isn't covered by my GIMLET: a lack of editing that created unnecessary confusion at numerous points in the game. There are numerous places that go unused, such as the tower and "Ottaskins" in Thorwal. NPCs frequently tell you things in dialogue that aren't true. There are numerous false leads on the map quest, and I don't think they're there to challenge you--I think the developers changed things and didn't update the dialogue. All of the NPCs in Phexcaer were clearly written for an earlier game in which the nature of the backstory and quest were quite different. It's common now, but relatively uncommon back then, to find a game released in what was clearly its "beta" stage.

So that gives us a final score of 44, which still puts the game in the top 15%. It had a lot of promise, and I'm sorry that the developers didn't find more time to tweak and tighten it.
This is not the sort of game for which you really want to emphasize "conversation."
Blade of Destiny wasn't released in the United States until 1993, so Scorpia didn't take it on until the October 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World. It's one of her more ornery reviews. After saying that the English translation of Das Schwarze Auge, "The Black Eye," "might be appropriate," she goes on to spoil the entire plot in the next paragraph, including the one-on-one combat at the end. She found the plot unoriginal and wasted three days trying to figure out how to find the orc cave, noting that there are no clues to be found anywhere. (Remember: I had to use a walkthrough for this.) She hated the failures when trying to level up, complaining that one of her fighters "made no advance in swords on two successive level gains." She noted a lot of discrepancies between the manual and actual gameplay, particularly in the area of spells, and she agrees with me that combat is a "tedious, frustrating, boring, long-drawn-out affair."

She liked the automap, the ability to reload in the middle of combat, and the extra experience you get the first time you face a particular monster. That was about it. I was surprised to see how much she hated the experience cost for saving. She says she wouldn't have minded if the creators had awarded a bonus for not saving, apparently seeing a difference there that I don't. 

But her worst vitriol was for a bug that I didn't experience: apparently, if you quit in the middle of the final battle, you get the victory screen anyway. "This is not just a scam; it is the Grand Canyon of scams," she sputters. "How did the 20+ playtesters manage to miss this one? If they didn't miss it, why wasn't it fixed?" In summary:
Those who worship at the mythical altar of Realism often end up sacrificing fun and playability on it. That is what happened with Blade of Destiny. In their attempt to make the game "like real life" (something few players want in the first place) the designers went overboard in the wrong direction more than once. I would not recommend Arkania to any game player, but I do recommend it to game designers as an example of what to avoid in their own products. Let us all hope we don't see another one like this any time soon.
Ouch. I don't disagree with the elements she didn't like, but I found more that I did like.

On the continent, the game had polarized reviews. Some thought that the designers went overboard in the right direction, or perhaps didn't go overboard, or perhaps only did it once. Whatever the case, the ASM reviewer (92/100) said that he'd "rarely seen a perfect implementation of an RPG that also remains really playable on the computer." PC Joker (90/100) said that it is "only surpassed by Ultima, leaving the rest of the genre competition far behind in terms of freedom of action and complexity." But not all German reviews were positive. PC Player (48/100) recommended that players "close your eyes, put the lid on, and wait for Star Trail."

(At least there were some positives in the reviews for the original game. A 2013 remake by German-based Crafty Studios came out to almost universally negative reviews despite improved graphics, voiced dialogue, and other trappings of the modern era. It was apparently quite unforgivably bugged. Crafty went on to remake Star Trail in 2017.)
Combat in the remake. At least you can identify the squares a bit easier.
The original game sold well despite a few bad reviews and certainly justified the two sequels, Realms of Arkania: Star Trail (1994) and Realms of Arkania: Shadows over Riva (1996). Together, the trilogy established the viability of Das Schwarze Auge setting, which continues to produce RPGs into the modern era, including The Dark Eye: Drakensang (2008), Deminicon (2013), and Blackguards (2014). Lead developer Guido Henkel would eventually tire of the setting, quit attic, move to the United States, join Black Isle studios, and produce Planescape: Torment.

I haven't attempted to reach out to Henkel, as his work on the Arkania series has been well-documented elsewhere. In his 2012 RPG Codex interview, he explains that the publisher of attic's Spirit of Adventure, StarByte, originally approached the company about creating a series based on Das Schwarze Auge, claiming they already had the rights. The attic personnel were reluctant to work with StarByte after a dreadful Spirit experience ("a horribly crooked company that cheated us and all of its other developers"), so they were delighted to find that the company had been lying about the license. attic managed to get it for themselves, although at such an expense that the three Arkania games barely made a profit despite selling well.

From a 1992 perspective, I would call Blade of Destiny "a good start." I look forward to seeing how things change in the sequels.


B.A.T. II will be coming up next. For the next title on the "upcoming" list, we reach back to 1981 for Quest for Power, later renamed King Arthur's Heir. Come to think of it, the Crystalware titles are so similar and quick that I might try to cover Quest for Power and Sands of Mars in a single session so I can be done with 1981 entirely. Again.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Ragnarok: Temple of Doom

You win some, you lose some.
Ah, roguelikes. There's no other sub-genre in which this kind of narrative makes any sense:
When I walked into the room, I saw a deadly asp on the other side of it. I didn't want him to get too close, so I killed him with my shurikens. I wanted to eat his corpse to get intrinsic poison resistance, but I didn't have any artificial resistance, so I knew trying would kill me. I had three unidentified rings, one of which might have been a Ring of Immunity, which would have protected me from poison while I ate him, but I only had one Scroll of Identification, and I was hoping to hold onto until I found a Scroll of Blessing because blessed Scrolls of Identification identify everything in your pack. I tried one of the rings blind, but it turned out to be a Ring of Relocation, and it teleported me to another part of the dungeon. While I was trying to make it back, I stepped in quicksand and started to drown. The only thing I could think to do was drink an unidentified potion, hoping it was a Potion of Phasing, but it turned out to be a Potion of Lycanthropy, and my character dropped all his stuff when he changed into a werewolf, then ran around the dungeon killing everything he encountered for a few minutes. Eventually, he turned back into a man, but I got killed by another deadly asp before I could get back to my equipment. C'est la vie.
There's so much to learn, and enough that works differently from NetHack that I'm not sure if my previous NetHack knowledge is a blessing or a curse--an apropos phrase, as I spent forever trying to figure out how to use Holy Water to remove curses and/or bless things before coming to the conclusion that it simply doesn't work that way in this game. As far as I can tell, Holy Water just increases your luck. You have to find Scrolls of Dispel Hex and Blessing to do the other things. But if you do find a Scroll of Blessing, a good use for it is to bless your Scroll of Identification, because blessed Scrolls of Identification identify all your items, not just several as in NetHack. To find monsters on the level, I don't want a Potion of Monster Detection; I want a Potion of Depredation, which sounds like a bad thing. If you do find any "bad" potions, don't save them to throw at enemies because that doesn't work here.
And maybe stay away from mushrooms entirely.
The worst part is the monsters. While NetHack and Ragnarok have a lot of overlaps in terms of equipment, the bestiary is almost entirely new. It makes good use of Norse mythology, yay, but I've got to learn every enemy's special attacks and weaknesses again. I started keeping a list of enemies to particularly avoid, but it ended up including almost all enemies. Jacchuses give you a disease that prevents you from healing. Kalvins pluck your eyes out. Pale Mosses destroy your brain tissue, which causes you to forget potions, scrolls, and such that you've already identified. Ramapiths toss fireballs. Red oozes devour your weapons and can't even be killed by regular weapons. Ulls disorient you; Predens give you fevers; Retchweed makes you hungry; Gas balls deafen you; Pelgrats suck charges from wands that you carry. I've barely gotten started.
I had lycanthropy for a while. It was worse for the other creatures in the dungeon.
I've spent a lot of time debating whether to try to eat slain enemies or not. Ragnarok doesn't seem to have as many enemies whose corpses give intrinsic protection, but they're definitely there. The aforementioned asps will give you poison resistance if you can survive eating them. Fire dragons confer fire resistance. I haven't found much else. What I can tell you is that troll corpses do not confer regeneration, wight corpses do not give you experience, and giants do not give you strength.

Ragnarok seems to offer more items and monsters that rearrange the physical environment than other roguelikes. In NetHack, you could take a pick-axe to just about every solid part of a level, and you can do that here, too, but there are also traps that fill rooms with water or lava, cause the ceiling to collapse, or replace all the external walls with monsters. There's a scroll that summons lava, and another that randomly plants trees wherever you are. There's an artifact called a "disruption horn" that you can use in the doorway of a room to cause the ceiling to cave in, killing whatever monsters are there (you get the experience!). A creature called a "mudman" leaves gobs of mud everywhere. There's a wand that just blasts the hell out of everything you point it at, including floors, walls, and anything in between.
Using my horn to collapse the ceiling on a roomful of deadly moss.
I spent seven hours exploring the dungeon beneath the forest, and I have nothing at all to show for it yet. It's three levels with nine maps per level--as big as Rogue by itself. Commenters were right: the game got a lot harder once I left the forest. I've been trying not to abuse the backup system too much, but thank the gods it's there. Some of my more amusing deaths include:

  • I stepped on a mist trap, which confused me. Confused characters in this game sometimes randomly use their items, and in this case, I ate a mushroom that turned the whole world hallucinogenic before killing me.
  • I ate some creature that turned out to be made of lava.
  • I stepped on a trap that turned all the surrounding walls into wizards, who quickly surrounded and killed me.
At least the hill giant probably won't make it out, either.
  • The one below didn't kill me, but it made life hard enough that I reloaded.
What kind of potion was that!?
One of my most heartbreaking deaths came late in this session, when I had just come across a Wand of Wishing. These are as useful here as they are in NetHack except I don't really know the specific names of the best equipment to wish for. Since I'd already activated the first wish by using it at all, I wished for one of the only high-level items whose name I reliably knew: Mjollnir. For some reason, I got a sword instead. Before I even had a chance to investigate it, a bartok came wandering into the room and killed me with a sonic wail. My previous save was well before this area was seeded with equipment. Lesson learned: save after you find Wands of Wishing.
In retrospect, the best answer would have been: "I wish I wasn't so excited about having found a Wand of Washing that I'm failing to notice the dude coming up from the southeast."
A lot of my woes are equipment-related. I'm constantly over-encumbered, made worse by the fact that I don't understand how a lot of stuff works. But there are good things to report. I have a full set of armor, including a "holocaust cloak," which protects against fire and I think is an homage to The Princess Bride. I have both a Ring of Locus Mastery and a Ring of Relocation. This means that every 12-100 rounds, I get teleported, but I can direct my destination location. It gets me out of a lot of fights and traps, and if I don't want to move, I can just specify the next square I was going to walk into anyway. It would be nicer to have these powers as intrinsics, but with the ability to equip 8 rings, you don't feel like you're wasting a slot as much as you do in NetHack.
Thankfully, my Ring of Translocation will eventually get me out of here.
In other good news, a blessed Scroll of Enhancement empowered my silver sword up to +9. In bad news, a red slime then ate the sword. Then I found another blessed Scroll of Enhancement and got a spear up to +15. You have to roll with the punches in roguelikes.

Two Scrolls of Knowledge bestowed my character with the "Terraforming" and "Identification" abilities. I haven't tried the former yet, but the latter seems to render Scrolls of Identification moot. I wish I'd known to wish for Scrolls of Knowledge back when I had that Wand of Wishing.
That's one logistical concern I no longer have to deal with.
On Level 2, I found an enemy named Scyld, who was so powerful that I assumed he must be some kind of "level boss" and likely in possession of one of the quest items. I reloaded half a dozen times before I finally killed him, but it turns out he didn't have anything special.
This seemed like a unique enemy, so I thought there would be more to him.
The real conclusion of the dungeon came via a hole I found on Level 2, which led to some kind of temple, preceded by a title screen. The game strikes a good balance between random level generation and some fixed level content, as this particular level shows. Its enemies are chiefly "guardians," who root in place unless you walk next to them, at which point they become hostile and generally kill me in two or three blows. My teleportation abilities plus careful navigating led me to avoid most of them.
Entering the temple. These special screens help create an atmosphere lacking in a lot of roguelikes.
I soon encountered a warrior named Hrethel, standing on a stump with a noose around his neck. He pleaded for freedom, but I had options to kick out the stump and do nothing instead of setting him free. (Note that the developers, finding no good way to operate this encounter with the usual game commands, just provided a special options menu. In both this and the graphics, the authors of Ragnarok show more flexibility than a lot of roguelike authors.) Of course, I chose to free him. The grateful Hrethel joined my character, but before I had a chance to figure out what that really meant, the god Vidur attacked and killed me instantly.
I like that the game supports these special options in addition to the usual plethora of roguelike commands.
In subsequent trials, I learned that Vidur always gets angry and appears if you rescue any of the three captives on the level. If I chug a Potion of Speed, I can act as often as Vidur and can wound him, but he always pounds away my hit points in two or three turns. My Orb of Imprisonment doesn't work on him. Neither (it seems) do several wands. He has no special attacks (so far), but his physical attacks are devastating. I'm going to roam around the dungeon some more and try to build my resources before giving him another run, as I have several unexplored screens on Level 3.

I'm still enjoying Ragnarok, but I have a feeling it's going to be way too long. I also forgot how exhausting roguelikes are. You have to watch every step, pay attention to every message, and stop and think before every combat. Life and death can hinge upon whether you take a beat before entering a room, or whether you take a corner using a diagonal movement key or two lateral movement keys. NetHack taught me to stop, pause, and think between moves, which serves me well here, but it also means that it seems to take forever to get through a level and yet you still have to pay rapt attention.

The lack of permadeath helps, of course. I'm quite careful to save every 200 turns and usually glad that I did. It means that I have a reasonable chance of getting through the game without having to look at spoilers, since underestimating an enemy or misdiagnosing a piece of equipment doesn't mean that I'm starting over from scratch. But 200 turns are more to make up than they sound, and it's especially jarring when, thanks to the nature of randomization, the same stuff doesn't happen the second time.

Because of reader comments, I never did switch to the Valhalla version of the game. It's a more apt name, since far more of my characters will have ended up there than at Ragnarok.

Time so far: 10 hours