Monday, June 1, 2020

Abandoned Places: Turnabout

In this session, I saw the "full party death" screen for the first time.
I tried hard to finish Abandoned Places for this entry, pouring almost 16 hours into it over the last six days, but I'm not quite there. It's been very frustrating, and I wish I'd just wrapped it up when I was toying with it last time.
The frustration has come more from length and size than difficulty. If a game isn't giving you what you want, the last thing you want it to do is persist, but Abandoned Places has unearned dreams to be epic. It started in the Hall of Light, which was about as big as a single regular dungeon level. The "proving grounds" at Souls Abbey was another level, then another at the library of Kal Kalon. The Steps dungeon had two levels, and that's where I learned that I would need to find three Ruling Symbols--sword, orb, and staff--each broken into three pieces and secreted in three different dungeons. Each was only one level, but that was still another nine dungeons. Then, each Symbol required a fourth dungeon where I'd find an altar to assemble them, so that was another three. Once I had all three Symbols, Bronakh appeared and challenged me to get through a dungeon called the Halls of Rage.
The Ruling Symbols came together on their respective altars.
All told, I've been through 18 dungeon levels. That's five more than Dungeon Master already. If you're going to make a game in this style, you've got to supply something to keep it interesting. Options could be:
  1. Challenging combat. Make the player really fight for every inch. Make every foe memorable. Require the player to explore the full range of spell capabilities. Improve enemy AI and tactics on each new level.
  2. Challenging puzzles. Really work the player's mind with the mechanical puzzles. Force him to take a lot of notes and maps and make leaps of logic.
  3. Interesting environment. Make the dungeon immersive. Blow the player's mind with scenes and vistas that he's never seen before.
  4. Interesting stories. Give each level a backstory and character. Populate it with lore and encounters that fill in an ongoing narrative.
Dungeon Master made itself famous with the first two options, particularly the second. Ultima Underworld went largely with the latter two but also had some interesting puzzles. Abandoned Places, at least for most of its run, does none of them. For 14 of the 18 levels I've experienced so far, the enemies have been staggeringly easy, and for 17 of the 18, the puzzles have been entirely of the rote mechanical kind. Push a switch here to open a door somewhere else. Dungeon Master had puzzles like that, too, but it kept you guessing. That switch might open one door but close another. Or you might need two switches to open the door. Or the switch might have multiple settings. Or it might only open the door for a limited period of time. I learned to play Dungeon Master and most of its lineage (e.g., Eye of the Beholder, Knightmare, Black Crypt) by carefully mapping without touching anything, then slowly testing things out. In Abandoned Places, you might as well pull a lever the moment you see it because there isn't going to be any trick to it.
The game has some interesting wall textures. Sometimes it's tough to tell what's interactive and what's not.
Some of the levels got highly annoying in their attempts to artificially stretch the length. A switch in the southwest corner opens a door in the northeast corner, for instance. Going through that door leads you to a lever that opens a door back in the southwest corner. Solving most of Abandoned Places' levels means making multiple "loops" through the dungeon, checking for what changed since the last time you were there. In that sense, the dungeons have been relatively linear and I've only been mapping spottily, mostly during those times when I ran out of options and I needed to make sure I hit every square and studied every wall again. Some of the buttons and switches are awfully hard to see.

Pressure plates on floors tripped me up a couple of times. You can't see them; you have to listen for them. There are times I unthinkingly started playing without my headphones on and thus didn't note when I walked over a floor plate. This isn't a big deal if you only walk over it once--it probably just opens some door that you needed open anyway. But if you walk over it a second time, it closes the same door. Only if I wasn't wearing my headphones the first time and was the second time, I might think I just walked over it for the first time and thus avoid it in the future, unknowingly locking myself out of an area until I get the whole thing sorted out.
The game is fond of occasional messages, most of which have no relevance to the level.
I said "for 14 of the 18 levels" above. Things changed a little after I recovered all of the Ruling Symbols. The next three levels required me to find the altars to unite the pieces of each symbol. The location of each dungeon was revealed to me as I exited the dungeon where I found the third piece. The game had a bug where it told me the Tower of Scions twice when it really meant to give me Draken Tor for one of the two, but I sorted that out with an online walkthrough. Anyway, the enemies in the three "altar" dungeons were much harder than those I'd encountered previously. They weren't hard compared to Dungeon Master or any other game of this subgenre, but they were harder than before. I had to be a little more careful in combat and a couple of times rest between battles.
Exiting each dungeon after you find the third piece of the Ruling Symbols brings up a message that tells you the location of the altar to unite them.
On the subject of resting, theoretically the hunger system ought to discourage you from doing it too often unless you bring a huge supply of food with you from town. But I discovered through experimentation that the characters' health regenerates faster than hunger depletes it. The ratio is about 1.4 to 1. So as long as you don't mind dealing with everyone saying "oof!" about once a minute as hunger pains drain a hit point, you might as well ignore the whole system. Spell points regenerate much slower than hit points, unfortunately, and there were a couple of times that I parked my party in a corner while I did something else for 20 or 30 minutes so their spell power would regenerate.
A random shot of opening a treasure chest.
Let me take a diversion to complain about spells. While warriors suffer a "cool down" period after physical attacks, there is no similar pause after spells. The mage's ability to destroy every foe with whatever offensive spell she chooses to cast is limited only by her mana. Because a player with a normal index finger can double-click the mouse about five times a second, it really doesn't matter whether the mage is casting "Electricity," "Fireblast," "Mage Bolt," "Ice Strike," or whatever. The spells that cost more points do more damage, but you can cast them so fast that it hardly matters whether you cast three "Fireblasts" at 8 points each or four "Electricities" at 6 points each (or, for that matter, twelve "Mage Bolts" at 2 points each; and yes, I really do need to standardize when I use digits and when I spell it out). There might as well have just been one generic "Blast" spell for mages.
My cleric has lagged well behind the others in character development because he can't swing a weapon to save his life, even though I bought an amulet and a ring meant to improve his abilities. He currently has 52,877 experience points compared to my primary warrior's 269,512. He gets some offensive spells, but I needed to save most of his spell points for healing, particularly as the foes got more difficult. "Cure of Gods" came along just as I was getting sick of having to cast "Minor Cure" dozens of times, and then he got "Healing," which restores all hit points for 10 spell points. Equally important are his exploration spells, including "Swimming," "Walk on Fire," and "Jump," the last of which lets you jump over a square. That became vital in the Halls of Rage.
How is walking on fire a spell, but general fire resistance isn't?
Before I get to the Halls, I'll just talk a bit about the economy. It's relatively generous as long as you save and sell extra weapons, gems, and jewelry. (Oddly, extra armor can't be sold.) There's nothing useful to buy in the armory, but jewelry stores sell Rings of Mighty Attack, Amulets of Strength, Amulets of Speed, and Rings of Protection, and I was able to give each character some new item every two or three dungeon levels. Now my inventory slots are full, so I only need to keep a little money to buy passage into towns and the occasional meal or room at an inn. I'm thinking about dumping most of it because it weighs you down, and I think slows you in combat.

I don't want to suggest that none of the dungeon levels prior to the Halls of Rage had anything interesting. The Summer Vale had 12 small interconnected levels (all of them together still equaling the size of one standard level) which were a challenge to map. The dungeon near the Lake of Dreams had a maze of single squares in which three of the four walls had levers that activated teleporters. There was a way to find your way through using messages, but I mapped the whole thing by dropping items on the floors. Still, until the Halls of Rage, that's about as exciting as it got.

Once I united the three Ruling Symbols, I got an image of a crown for some reason. The Symbols themselves disappeared from our inventories. Then the weirdest thing happened: the game said that I had "new powers"--specifically, we could all transform ourselves into bats and fly across the landscape, avoiding random encounters and no more relying on boats to get between islands. (For some reason, the option to transform into a bat is activated by a button that looks like a hot air balloon.) I mean, I guess I appreciate the ability, but it really came out of nowhere. Perhaps it has some root in the frequent representation of vampires in Hungarian folklore? If so, it's the only Hungarian-influenced thing I've seen in the game so far.
Maybe now that we have the "Ruling Symbols," we're now "rulers"?

Using my new power to cross the land.
The Halls of Rage was the final dungeon I explored for this entry, and it completely changed all the rules. It showed that the developers were capable of extremely challenging environments; they just didn't implement them for the 17 previous levels. It was one of the most hateful dungeon levels that I've ever experienced, full of things that the game hadn't even hinted were possible before. Fireballs roar continually down the hallways. Plants suddenly come alive and eat you when you're adjacent. There are perpetually spinning squares in which you have to fight enemies coming at you from all directions without being able to stop yourself spinning. There are teleporters that dump you into the middle of fire or water. If you try to outsmart them by having "Swimming" or "Walk on Fire" active, they up the ante by dumping you on squares that cancel magic and are on fire. There's one long corridor full of fire with one square in the middle that cancels magic and another just after it that spins you around, so you go racing through it at a panic when you lose "Walk on Fire" only to find that you've just returned to where you started. One whole section of the level features a puzzle where you have to push or pull planters around to clear a path, but one wrong move can leave you in a "walking dead" scenario. Getting through this level took me about six times as long as any other level. It was like playing an entirely different game.
The party walks into a fireball.
Check out this particularly awful area. You come into here from the western corridor. The moment you step on the "T@" square, it teleports you to one of the spinners ("@") on the north or south ends of the room. They spin continually, so you have to try to walk off of them while they're spinning. If you're lucky, you walk into one of the safe corners. If you're unlucky, you walk into one of the "FB" squares and fireballs--the kind that kill your entire party in seconds--come roaring out of the opposite end of this north/south section. Meanwhile, the plants in the two "P" planters are alive and biting you while you stand adjacent to them.
A particularly vexing section of the Halls of Rage.
Your only hope moving forward is to get to one of the doors on the east end, but there are enemies behind the doors--ghosts--and if they step into the doorway and block the path, you have to try to fight them while getting slammed with fireballs. That doesn't work. So you have to lure them out into one of the corner squares, deal with them, and then get to the end of the room.
Plants attack you in this dungeon, and you can't fight them back. They've always been non-hostile before.
The middle room has a secret wall behind it with a treasure chest on the far side. This is the ostensible goal of the area. But the only way to get into this area is to step on three successive fireball squares, each one of which continually launches fireballs as long as you're on the square. So somehow you have to quickly sidle to the door, press the lever to open it, and hope that the enemy on the other side stays back long enough for you to walk through the door and escape the fireballs. Oh, and the one right in front of the door ("FB!") also cancels magic, so you're doing this with no protection and in the dark. I don't think "Mage Shield" and "Walk on Fire" and other spells really help in this situation, but it would have been nice to have some false hope.
The treasure chest, by the way, is entirely optional. I mean, this is the sort of game where you have to check everything, but it turns out that you don't even need to be in this area. The problem is that once you step on "T@" and get teleported to one of the edge squares, there's no good way to escape. You can linger in one of the western corners forever, but you can't get out by entering "T@" from the north or south because you immediately get teleported. You have to cast "Jump" to get across it from the square in between the two planters--which is a perpetually spinning square. Half the time, your "Jump" won't work because it will try to send you in the direction of a planter, one quarter of the time it will put you back in the doorway to the east, and the final quarter it will actually get you out of the room. You only have to somehow survive three fireball squares to make it in the first place. I couldn't do it with all my characters alive. Maybe if I'd grinded more. I had to reload from outside the dungeon.
The whole purpose of the Halls of Rage was simply to find the stairway out. Once I'd achieved that, Bronakh again appeared and said "now let me see what you can do in my lair" and automatically transported us to his lair in the middle of a volcano, with no option to return to town to level up or anything.
Our intro to the final dungeon.
Miscellaneous notes, many dealing with bugs:
  • I am particularly grateful for the ability to fly as a bat because it was getting increasingly hard to get anywhere on the overworld. You can't just move smoothly across the map. The party gets hung up on all kinds of obstacles that you can't even see.
  • The game weirdly divorces the overland features from the dungeons you have to find. For instance, I had to find the dungeon beneath the Tower of Scions. The tower is a feature on the map, but if you walk directly to the tower, you just get the "town menu" but with no menu options. You have to root around in the scrub surrounding the tower before the game finally tells you that you've found the dungeon.
The regular Tower of Scions menu offers no option to enter its dungeon.
Instead, you have to hunt around its periphery until you get this.
  • The game deletes unused keys from the previous dungeon when you enter a new dungeon, thus saving you from bulking up your inventory with extra keys that you're too afraid to throw away.
  • In an early entry I said that the "combat waltz" was impossible because "enemies are always facing you." This turns out not to be true. You can approach enemies from the side and rear. The waltz still doesn't work though, for reasons having to do with the fact that there are actually four "positions" in each square, and you can only hit enemies if they're in the two positions adjacent to you, which do require them to be facing you.
  • The graphic depiction of the cool downs frequently glitches, often showing that the weapon is available even when it isn't. 
  • There's an occasional bug in shops where accidentally clicking off the menu takes you to a blank screen. At this point, you can't do anything and have to kill the game.
I hope I saved recently.
  • I've been avoiding the "Terror" spell because I don't see any purpose in sending enemies running off for other parts of the dungeon, where I'll just have to fight them again. However, I accidentally cast it (I was going for "Toxic Cloud" below it) on a dwarf. It somehow turned him invincible. Once it wore off, I was unable to hurt or even hit him with melee attacks or spells. I had to reload an earlier save.
  • In treasure chests, I found several suits of robes that told me they were the "wrong armor for this class" no matter what character I tried to equip with them.
  • A couple of times in the Halls of Death, my lead two warriors froze and refused to do anything when I clicked on their weapons. Both times were fighting ghosts. I don't know if the game glitched or if ghosts have some kind of paralysis or terror effect. There's nothing in the character sheet that tells you what kinds of conditions you're under, and up until then (other than hunger), there hadn't been any conditions.
I have mixed feelings as I move forward towards the end. On the one hand, I'm glad I played Abandoned Places long enough to find out that the creators were capable of some Ördög-level cruelty. On the other hand, that was a lot of boring sludge to make me wade through to get to the good stuff. I don't know if I hope that Bronakh's fortress continues in the vein of the Halls of Rage or if it offers a quicker wrap-up.
Time so far: 25 hours


  1. Sounds like my time with Anvil of Dawn. I wanted to like that game and it started off strong enough with some NPC interactions and a small keep dungeon full of traps, but then became this slog where every dungeon floor was twice as big as it needed to be. Its mechanics felt a bit antiquated by 1995 too, but at least that means you won't encounter it for a while.

    That said, the most recent one of these I played was Vaporum, and that was excellent. I think it matters less how hoary a four-directional movement dungeon crawler feels as long as it has new ideas and some good execution to go with it.

    1. Anvil of Dawn is game that I in theory dislike, it being an evolutionary dead end of the real time blobber genre, with only one character and having step based movement.
      But in practice I thought it was quite an enjoyable game, which sadly bugged out for me very near the end.

      As for AP, I'm glad I didn't persist with it.
      Of all the games I've skipped on my own game list and which Mr. Addict have played, my hunches have nearly always turned out to be correct.
      One exception I can think of is Disciples of Steel, a criminally underrated game.

    2. Yeah, personally Anvil of Dawn is one of my all time favorite crawlers. It's colorful and atmospheric like Lands of Lore, but unlike Weswood, Dreamforge has always excelled at puzzles and level design, this time making use of detailed graphics for some point-and-click goodness.

    3. Yeah, part of the reason I was looking forward to it was the glowing reputation from those a bit more versed with the genre. Maybe I wasn't in the right mental place for it at the time, but some areas - like that underground city hub type area that linked to many others - felt so unnecessarily huge and lifeless.

      I did like DreamForge's Menzoberranzan though, which is probably a lesser regarded game and a bit more of a mess, so take that as you will. (War Wind too, but this isn't really the venue for that series.)

    4. Right now I am playing The Legend of Grimrock and I am also rushing to the end, because I feel bored seeing the same walls and not so inspired enemies... Even though is a decent game, I prefer the dynamic pace of Might and Magic 3- 5.

    5. One thing I liked a lot about Grimrock 2 was the greater variety of environments. There's just something about dungeon walls looking different that makes new areas more exciting.

    6. "Menzoberranzan"
      That sounds cool!
      "City of Spiders"
      Never mind...

    7. @PetrusOctavianus

      The bug in Anvil of Dawn towards the end of the game is the result of hoarding healing potions and mana recovery items. Usually happens then you enter the Warlord's Tower from the Quagmire. The solution is to restore an earlier save and use those items up. Having about 20 or 30 of each of them is OK. Might also happen with some other items, but nothing else is that plentiful.

    8. Hmm...I recall thinking that the bug was due to me doing things in the wrong order.

      It's more than six years ago, so my memory is not fresh, but this is what I wrote about it:
      "I tried to backtrack to the Graveyeard, but the game keeps crashing when trying to enter the Underground City, and there's no way through Gorge Keep from the north since I never explored it before."

    9. Yes, the same type of crash can happen at the Underground City, but it is not that bad at the beginning of the game. It can be bypassed at that time and player can enter this area.

      Anyway, the cause seems to be the hoarding of items in the inventory. I encountered this bug at the both places, but was able to complete the game in the 2013.

    10. And so it turns out, unlike Petrus claims, Anvil of Dawn did follow the Ultima Underworld formula in some ways.

  2. Seeing that Legacy is coming up on the list, I'd suggest you push it down a couple of positions. It'a similar type of game - real-time grid-based crawler - but a much better and more original one, so it's better to make sure your fatigue with AP won't spoil your experience of Legacy.

    1. Plus its probably better to put it after an easier game, not one with a weird difficulty curve.

    2. I'd already started on it a bit. It's different enough that I don't think my AP experience will affect my enjoyment.

    3. Just keep in mind that it's a proper horror game, so you have to approach it with a different mentality than heroic fantasy. In other words, don't try to fight everything, it's a sure way to turn into a walking dead and burn out. You can press past most enemies (the Dodge skill determines how successfully) and you'll find more efficient ways of dealing with them as you explore.

    4. Yes, its best to approach Legacy as a survival horror game wearing a RPG as a skin.

  3. From this entry, it really sounds like the game has taken on a new persona as you near its conclusion.

    Is it possible, this kind of slugfest was originally slated for the whole game, however, they've then run out of steam, or the publisher patience so they've just rushed the rest to get a game released?

    You've an incredible knack of tracking down designers and programmers during your research. Is this a game you've had any such luck? I'd be fascinated to hear their take on it.

    1. The way the dungeon is described gives it a really strong "we did this first" vibe. I've seen this in TTRPGs and RPG Maker projects, where the person in charge wanted to avoid Xen Syndrome* and also provide a meterstick for what they're supposed to be progressing toward (to give a more consistent difficulty curve). Most of those projects petered out anyway, or just got underwhelming earlier parts shoved in.

      * Named after the bland final area of the original Half-Life, this refers to a tendency for games to fall apart in the last third due to deadlines or developer fatigue.

    2. Yeah that's not what Xen is known for at all. It's too long and overuses a different kind of challenge than the game presented before (jumping puzzles). It's definitely not half-baked due to budgets/time.

      So actually it's pretty similar to how Chet described the Halls of Rage.

    3. Half-Life also did definitely have jumping puzzles before. The room with crates hanging over an abyss comes to mind, as does parts of Blast Pit, and the cliff section with the helicopter.

  4. I guess those were the Halls of Ragequit for many players.

  5. "I mean, I guess I appreciate the ability, but it really came out of nowhere. Perhaps it has some root in the frequent representation of vampires in Hungarian folklore? If so, it's the only Hungarian-influenced thing I've seen in the game so far."

    Well, Transylvania, the birthplace of Bram Stoker's Dracula was part of Hungary until WW1 after all. The more likely explanation is that it was really was about hot air balloons first, then someone came up with the idea of (vampire) bats, because vampires are cool.

    "the creators were capable of some Ördög-level cruelty"

    Did you know that Ördög (Devil) and its variations is a legit surname in Hungary? Not sure about the exact etymology, but you can literally call yourself the Devil here.

    Anyway, since the game is wrapping up soon, here are some links for your usual developer hunt:

    - Programmer Ferenc Staengler is now working for a Finnish company.
    - AP2 download and some insider information from István Fábián.
    - Translation of an interview with musician György Dragon.
    - Miklós Tihor only made one dungeon level so he might not know or remember a lot, but he founded and I believe still works at Beholder Fantasy, a Hungarian fantasy/RPG/CCG developer.

    1. I would like to expand on Zardas comment.

      I think that the "frequent representation of vampires in Hungarian folklore" is actually an Irish idea.

      If I understood correctly, when the Irish writer B. Stoker published "Dracula" around 1899, he mixed up elements from different cultures:
      1) The novel setting is in Transylvania, that is traditionally part of Hungary, but today is in Romania.
      2) The historical prince Vlad III Dracula from the history of Wallachia/Romania.
      3) Many features from Yugoslavic vampires: sexually active, death by wooden stake, etc.
      4) Bat-like vampires from Indian tradition.

      Whenever we think of a vampire, we actually think about the Irish novel "Dracula", even if we don't know it.

      In conclusion, I think that the bat transformation in this game really came out of nowhere.


    2. Even as I typed that aside on vampires, I suspected it was a dead end. Still fun to talk about it, as there are no Romanian games on my list.

      On Ördög, I just knew he was from Hungarian folklore. I didn't know that the word literally meant "devil."

  6. It's a shame that Abandoned Places seems to be so abandoned, for lack of a better word. A lot of cool ideas execute in a less-than optimal fashion. There's nothing worse than a dungeon crawler with boring dungeons and easy combat.

    Those Halls of Rage, though . . . whew. They don't seem to be Wizardry IV levels of annoying, but that room you described is getting there.

  7. Funny this DM clone has too easy fights, while a previous one (which name eludes me) was way too hard. It really makes you appreciate the Goldilock difficulty of Dungeon Master just by readying your articles alone (and to think the DM was the first of this type of games...)


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