Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Game 383: Heroes of the Lance (1988)

Including multiple characters in this dragon battle turns out to be inaccurate.
Heroes of the Lance
United Kingdom
U.S. Gold (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released in 1988 for Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, and DOS; 1989 for Commodore 64, PC-88, PC-98, and Sharp X1; 1990 for FM Towns; 1991 for MSX, NES, and Sega Master System
Date Started: 26 September 2020
Date Ended: 26 September 2020
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 23
Ranking at Time of Posting: 155/392 (40%)
Since I'm playing the final Dragonlance RPG, I thought I might use the occasion to try again with a pair of SSI-published side-scrolling action titles that were contemporary to the earliest Gold Box games: Heroes of the Lance (1988) and Dragons of Flame (1989). I'd previously had issues emulating them, but that was back when I was Level 1 with emulators, so I figured I'd try again.
Heroes takes place during the War of the Lance, a time when the dark queen Takhisis schemed to take over Krynn using armies of evil dragons and draconians. Opposing her are the titular heroes--although the manual makes a point that they're not heroes yet; they'll deserve that title when they've achieved their quest. Said quest is to obtain a set of holy relics called the Disks of Mishakal from the lair of Khisanth, an enormous black dragon. The Disks will somehow restore faith in the other ancient gods and thus weaken Takhisis's hold on the land. I am informed that this plot comes from the first Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight (1984).
The game was ported to a lot of systems. I thought I'd throw my Amiga fans a bone by favoring their version of a game for once, but I couldn't get anything but "Guru Meditation" errors when I tried to boot the disk, no matter what configuration I used. I moved on to the Commodore 64 version, but I found the graphics so bad that they bothered me, which is really saying something. Finally, I started up the DOS version to remind myself what had gone wrong previously, and this time I had absolutely no problems with it.
The game gives some background on each character as it starts.
Heroes lets you play all eight of the heroes in turn, and as the game starts, you get a little character summary of each hero. The manual expands upon these summaries with a list of the characters' attributes and equipment. The characters are:

  • Tanis, a male half-elf fighter, carries a long sword and bow. Raised by elves but full of wanderlust, he is the de facto leader of the companions.
  • Caramon Majere, a male human fighter. Brother of Raistlin. Carries a long sword and spear.
  • Raistlin Majere, a male human mage armed with a Staff of the Magius.
  • Sturm Brightblade, a male human knight. Swings a two-handed sword.
  • Goldmoon, a female human cleric who has a magical crystal staff. Wife of Riverwind.
  • Riverwind, a male human ranger with a longsword and bow
  • Tasslehoff Burfoot, a male kender thief with a hoopak and sling
  • Flint Fireforge, a male dwarf fighter who has both a battle axe and throwing axes
The characters' attributes and weapons are completely immutable, which disqualifies Heroes as an RPG by my definitions, as well as the game's: the manual says explicitly that "this isn't an RPG" but that "it is based around the concepts of what is probably the most widely played [RPG]." Even MobyGames no longer lists it as such. But it still appears on enough RPG lists that I would have eventually had to do a BRIEF, and that frankly takes as long as playing the entire game. 
Character selection from the C64 version.
After a copy protection exercise, gameplay starts at the entrance to the lair of Khisanth. Goldmoon is the default character, but the SPACE key brings up a menu, and among the options are switching to another hero. Outside of the menu, you move with the joystick or the keypad. Holding down the joystick button (or ENTER) changes the keypad into a battle menu, with commands for attacking high, medium, or low depending on the direction you're facing.
A junction. As I move side to side, I'm moving south to north, but here I can transition to a west-east corridor.
Navigation can be a pain since everything is side-scrolling. You have to watch the compass carefully and note the direction you're traveling. When one of the top or bottom compass directions change to blue, the up and down keys let you move into those corridors, switching the side-scrolling direction 90 degrees. For instance, going right (north) in a south-north hallway might lead you to an "up" (west) exit, thus moving you to a west-east hallway. It gets more confusing on a couple of levels that have razor walls, so that moving south from an east-west corridor mysteriously puts you in another east-west corridor without an intervening north-south corridor. That probably doesn't make any sense, but it really won't until you play it.
The game can't really decide whether the heroes are individuals or a collective. Although you only control and see one at a time, all of them are assumed to be in the area, and one will fluidly step in if another is killed or (in some cases) even injured too badly. Anyone in the first four slots can take damage in combat, even though three of them technically aren't on the screen, and Raistlin and Goldmoon have to be in the top row for any of the characters to cast mage or cleric spells, respectively. Casting spells is explicitly done with Raistlin and Goldmoon's respective staves, both of which have limited power, rather than through the usual memorization process.
The game's selection of magic user spells.
Monsters include humans, Baaz and Bozak draconians, giant spiders, trolls, small black dragons, evil dwarves, and wraiths. Some of them are at fixed positions, but some randomly generate, particularly when you transition between corridors or reload a saved game. A lot of the game's fun, and also its frustration, is figuring out what characters and what attacks work best against which enemies. The human and half-elf fighters work best against human enemies. The two characters with bows work well against dragon hatchlings, which continually back off out of melee range. Flint is best against other dwarves, which tend to barrel in too close for humans and their swords. Anyone with missile weapons is ideal against Bozak draconians, which explode (and also try to back away from melee combat). I couldn't find any use for Tasslehoff Burfoot at all, but experienced players probably know secrets that I don't.
Dwarf vs. dwarf in a hall of statues.
I never quite became an expert on the spells; I didn't even notice "Raise Dead" until I'd already won the game toting two dead characters. I preferred to save the cleric spells for "Cure Light Wounds" and the mage spells for "Web," which reliably paralyzes enemies for a few rounds and is a must for trolls and Bozaks.
Approaching a troll caught in a "Web."
The game has a bit of a rough start. Until you master the controls and figure out issues such as the optimal distance from an enemy in combat, it's easy to burn through a lot of characters very fast. My first couple of attempts, I lost all of them on the first couple of levels, sometimes several of them in a row in the same combat. There's a lot of luck associated with combat, too. Face off against an enemy one time, and you might lose two characters. Reload and re-engage him, and one character might kill him without losing a hit point. Small variances in distance makes the difference between a character who can't even hit an enemy (even though it looks like he should be able to) and one who kills the enemy in one blow. However, the ability to save and reload wherever you like (except the dragon's lair) makes it fundamentally easy even if the individual battles are hard.
I hit the draconian with a "Web," then turn to deal with the fighter.
As you explore, you find some items, but only some are useful. Most, including additional weapons and shields, just count towards your endgame points. There are a variety of healing, strength, and heroism potions (color-coded) and some scrolls that only Raistlin can use and seem to cast "Magic Missile." It's possible there are other items. I'm sure I didn't find every corner of the game.
After I deal with these guys, I'll have a couple of potions and a couple gems to pick up.
There are a few navigation puzzles, including traps that fall from the ceiling, jets of fire that spout from the floor, and pits that you have to jump. Each character has a different jump radius. Raistlin has a kind of "magic jump," and there's one pit that I'm convinced only he can clear. 
Clearing a pit on Level 2. It's unclear how all the characters are presumed to have jumped over when they all have different jump lengths.
Part of the fun of the game is that although it's not very big--only five levels--there are multiple paths to the final level. A player who adopts a "rightmost path" approach at the beginning faces a very different game than one who adopts a "leftmost path." Entire levels might be skipped depending on what corridor you take. The game is meant to be replayable, and I suppose the highest score would involve finding every treasure and killing dozens of monsters, but every monster you engage depletes resources that you might need for the endgame.
Transitioning between levels is not subtle.
Ultimately, you find yourself in the lair of the dragon Khisanth. It took me a long time to figure out how to kill him. I suspect it's possible with regular characters and regular weapons, but the only way I could figure out how to do it is to activate Goldmoon, cast "Deflect Dragon Breath" (which takes a lot of magic power), and have her throw her blue crystal staff at the dragon. The manual doesn't give you this clue, but it goes on at length about the staff in several places, so you get the idea that there must be something special about it. I also figured Goldmoon must be the default character for some reason.
Defeating the dragon.
Beyond the dragon are the Disks of Mishakal in a stack. Once you pick them up, the endgame screen appears with your score, and if you achieved a high score, you can enter it on the leaderboard. It only took me about 4 hours to learn and win the game, and my winning game from beginning to end was a bit less than an hour. Heroes is meant to be replayed and mastered rather than "won." I thought it was a reasonably fun diversion even if I don't understand why the developers couldn't let the characters gain levels--even one or two--from all the monsters.
The winning screen.
Heroes isn't an RPG, but I'll apply the GIMLET anyway:
  • 3 points for the game world. It doesn't mean much to someone who isn't a fan of the series, but the manual goes into a lot of detail anyway.
  • 0 points for character creation and development. You don't create them, and there is no development.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. There aren't many, but they represent a good cross-section of what the Dragonlance universe has to offer, each with clear strengths and vulnerabilities. The jumping puzzles might be worth half a point.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. It's action-oriented, but it does draw from each character's underlying attributes, there are tactics associated with each foe, and magic adds some strategy to the game without overwhelming it.
Reacting quickly to a dragon hatchling.
  • 2 points for equipment. Most of it is fixed, but there are scrolls, potions, rings, and wands to use and treasures to find.
  • 0 points for no economy. Finding treasures doesn't really count.
  • 3 points for a main quest with an ancillary quest of trying to improve your score.
Party statistics late in the game.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and input. There was no system on which I didn't find the graphics to be at least a bit grainy and ugly, but I admit the Atari ST and Amiga versions look nicer than DOS, and I'd bump it a point for those platforms. Sound effects are rare but fine. The controls are a little clumsy and didn't always work the way they were supposed to. I would have preferred separate keys for movement and combat instead of holding down a key to switch between them. Switching between melee and missile weapons doesn't always work consistently. 
  • 5 points for gameplay. It has some nice nonlinearity within its limited geography; it's designed to be replayable; and it poses the right kind of challenge for the right amount of time.
That gives us a final score of 23, low for an RPG, not bad for an action game rated on an RPG scale. I liked it more than some RPGs from the same year. In general, though, I don't think action games age as well as RPGs, and I think it would be hard to enjoy this today against lots of other titles that offer similar experiences with better graphics and sound and more complex controls.
It was popular in its era, however, breaking sales records at SSI. In the same issue (December 1988) that Computer Gaming World offered warring perspectives on Pool of Radiance, it had nothing but positive things to say about Heroes. The platform made a huge difference, however. Ratings were low for Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC editions and for both console ports. The Atari ST version (which was the one that CGW played) got consistently high reviews. Amiga and DOS were in the middle.
What surprises me most about this game is that SSI gave it over to U.S. Gold, Ltd., a British company known chiefly for distributing U.S. games in Europe. SSI didn't have a strong history with action games, so I can understand why they subcontracted it, just not why they went across the sea to a company that had only ever published titles from other developers. Neither product manager Jerry Howells nor design coordinator Laurence H. Miller have any previous credits that I can find. Whatever the reason, U.S. Gold delivered well enough that they got the contracts for two sequels: Dragons of Flame (1989) and Shadow Sorcerer (1990), both of which I have rejected as RPGs despite MobyGames continuing to insist otherwise. I may try one or both at some point, particularly if Dark Queen drags on, but please remember that making an exception for one game does not obligate me to do the same for others.
I'd always been curious about this one, my previous attempts to play having been thwarted, so I'm glad I could finally give it a shot. Let's see what else awaits us in the world of Krynn.

Monday, September 28, 2020

The Summoning: Blow by Blow

My last inventory nerve is tested.
I continue to have a good time with The Summoning but also continue to have very little to blog about, so this entry is going to be one of those kinds where I go into extraordinary detail about a single level, capturing the intricacies of gameplay and my decision-making process along the way.
The level I'll be describing is the third one I cleared in this session. As I began, I was in the realm of the Five Knights, a quintet of color-coded warriors who each rule one level and each have a medallion that I need to ultimately enter the citadel. I cleared the Blue Domain and killed the Blue Knight last session. This one opened in the White Domain. Like all of the levels in this part of the game, it was a multi-sectioned area, with each section connected to the others with teleporters, many of which had to be activated by weighing down pressure plates and whatnot. That's all getting pretty rote at this point.
The White Domain opened with a tough battle against a couple of samurai and a mage, the mage being the most difficult, but my strategy of casting "Freeze" and running away to heal once my hit points get too low has worked reliably, and it did so here. I ran into a couple of NPCs that told me about a local warleader named Korguz, saying that if I met him, I needed to honor the traditions of his homeland by removing my boots before entering his chamber. From the conversations, Korguz seems to be unaligned with Shadow Weaver.
The White Knight approaches even as a skull warns me about him.
I encountered the White Knight in his domain. The battle against him was the toughest of the game so far; he could whack away more than half my hit points with a single blow. I defeated him mostly with spells. A few uses of an Ashwood Wand (which shoots fireballs) coupled with my own spells was enough, but it took me two tries. I otherwise haven't had to reload much in this game. I found a scroll of "Lightning Bolt" ("DUDE, use a LITTLE HOOK for a LITTLE fish") in his chambers. I also found the fourth mage's-skull-embedded-on-a-pole, Zakiel, and he gave me the fourth symbol for "Gateway."
In a kind-of basement for the White Domain, I met Korguz and showed him the proper respect. He related that to defeat Shadow Weaver, I would need to seek out the sword Warmonger, "in a hidden area in the caverns below the levels controlled by the five knights." He said that using the sword was a risk, being inhabited by a demon and all, but he didn't know of any other way to defeat the sorcerer.
What do you bet the game doesn't even have a way to test for "pure of heart"?
I had a good idea what he meant about the cavern. The two knights' domains so far had both offered ladders down to an area labeled "Crossroad Cavern" on my map. At first, it appeared to be a small linear level with a single corridor connecting the two domains. But when I tried the Gebo rune (which teleports you to the closes Gebo glyph), I found myself in an area of large, interconnected rooms. The primary enemies here were statues of snakes that came alive and spit fire at me. Every one of them had a brief cinematic when they died. I took the opportunity to use up a bunch of Bloodstones, which cast "Fire Shield," even though I knew the spell.
A little animation accompanies the death of each statue.
After killing what seems like a billion of these things, I finally found a rusted sword. I assume this is Warmonger and I have to do something to polish it up later. For now, I traced my way back to the exit from the White Domain. At this point, my detailed account begins.
A skull warns me about picking up Warmonger.
First, however, I was determined to get rid of some excess weight. Even with the Bag of Lightness, Jera was carrying 97 kilograms against a maximum of 90. I also wanted to take stock of her statistics.
Jera has just become a "Warder" (9/12) and has to earn as much experience as she's already earned in the game for the next level, "Hero." She'll have to earn 9 times as much as she's already earned for the top level, "Vanquisher," which doesn't give me a lot of hope that the five medallions will lead to a one-level citadel with the final battle. She is a "Savant" with edged weapons (8/10), "Adept" with axes (7/10), "Skilled" with missile weapons (5/10), and "Average" with polearms (4/10). There frankly haven't been a lot of polearms.
On the spell side, she's a "Maren" (9/10) with healing magic, an "Adept" with wizardry (7/10), "Skilled" with sorcery (5/10), and "Average" with enchantment (4/10). I do cast a lot of healing spells, but I think that category is mostly high because of Perth runes. I'm surprised enchantment is so low given all the "Freeze" spells I use.
Jera's strength and talent are 18, her agility, endurance, and accuracy are all 17, and her power is 19. She has a maximum of 154 hit points and 168 spell points.
Some of Jera's stats and items.
As I take stock of her inventory, she has her items spread across six sacks, two chests, and one Bag of Lightness. They are:
  • Great plate helmet (worn)
  • Enchanted chainmail (worn)
  • Chain gauntlets (worn)
  • Shell boots (worn)
  • Quiver with 3 arrows, 2 poison arrows, 1 barbed arrow (worn)
  • War axe (carried)
  • 2 great shields (one carried, one in my Bag of Lightness)
  • Bow
  • Flanged mace
  • Tempest. A magic sword that does like a lightning bolt attack (with limited charges, I'm sure)
  • Rancor, another magic sword. 
  • Silver sword
  • Shield of Spell Absorption
  • Shield of Swiftness 
  • Shield of Teleportation
  • Rusted Blade. I assume it's Warmonger in disguise.
  • 5 Gebo runes, 5 Raido runes, 4 Thurisaz runes. All of these teleport you to their associated glyphs on each level. Sometimes they're the only way to progress. I'm just not sure I need this many.
  • 2 Berkana runes. This completely restores spell points.
  • Sowelu rune. Cures poison and confusion.
  • Dagaz rune. Casts a spell of slaying. I was planning to use it on the next knight.
  • Skull of Zona, Skull of Searaven, Skull of Erastus, Skull of Zekiel. I don't know if I need to keep these. It seems rude to leave them on the ground.
  • Wizard's Hat. This restores spell points when worn and I'm anxious not to wear it out.
  • Wizard's Staff. Also restores spell points. I assume it has a limited number of charges.
  • Palimpsest. Shows the auto map.
  • Mirror. I used it for the gazers a while ago, and I don't know if there's any reason to keep it.
  • 6 rubies, 3 emeralds, 2 pearls, 4 amethysts, 1 diamond. These gems create various potions but are also often the solutions to puzzles.
  • Moonstone. Creates a lightning shield. Once I have the spell, I can get rid of it.
  • 30 gold coins. I occasionally run across an NPC who takes them for this or that, but I haven't found any kind of true money sink yet. It's a lot of space and weight to be tying up with money I might not need.
  • Rabbit's foot. I don't know why I keep it.
  • Sprig of nightshade. It restores magic, but I'm keeping it more in case a puzzle needs it.
  • Dr. Jojo's Snake Oil. No idea what it does. I assumed it was a puzzle solution, but I've had it for a while.
  • White medallion, blue medallion. Two of the five I need to move out of this area.
  • 2 Figurines of Resurrection. I don't know what they're supposed to do, but they don't seem to resurrect me when I die. Maybe I need to be holding them.
  • 2 empty flasks. I need at least one for healing potions. 
  • 2 ashwood wands. They cast a limited number of "Fireballs."
  • Boots of Levitation. I haven't used them since the one level that required them.
  • "Invisibility" parchment. It's my first spell that requires six hand movements. ONE LITTLE ROCK CRUSHES PAPER, WAITER.
If you're wondering why I'm using a regular axe and shield when I have magic versions of these things, the answer is that I've been trying to break the basic stuff and save the good stuff, but I just keep finding more basic stuff. I have the heaviest stuff--most of the weapons and shields--in the Bag of Lightness.
The next level turns out to be the Green Domain. A centaur attacks as soon as I enter. He dies in a couple of hits from my axe and shield and drops a Moonstone when he does. Since I already have one in reserve and I'm not taking any new items now, thanks, I just use it right away. A couple of nearby skulls tell me what I already know: "Beyond this tunnel lies the domain of the White Knight." 
Not anymore!
The corridor heads to the east. I note that there's a hidden door in the north wall, so I hit it with a "Kano" spell to open it so I won't forget later. Another centaur comes spilling out, and he drops another Moonstone. This makes me think there's going to be lightning later on. Against my better judgement, I keep this one.
A few more steps, and there's an exit from the corridor, with skulls telling me that it leads the way to the domain of the Ebon Knight. I'm not ready to leave yet, of course, so I turn back and enter the door I opened. It leads to a long northern corridor in which another skull informs me I am entering the Green Knight's domain. That reminds me: what happened to that film with Dev Patel? The trailer looked awesome. I guess it's been delayed indefinitely because of COVID. Is there nothing this epidemic won't ruin?!
The corridor turns to the west, where another "Kano" is necessary to open a door. A rolling black ball immediately greets me on the other side. I pause and note that it goes back and forth along the corridor, returning every few seconds, so the corridor can't be very large. I wait for it to pass me heading south and then dart into the northern branch. It swiftly ends in a little nook with a Jera potion (healing) and two Algit potions (cure poison). I can cast both on my own, so I don't really need them. I swallow the Jera. I wait for the rolling ball to come back, then follow it back down to the original corridor, step aside, wait for it to pass heading north, and then continue my journey to the south.
Waiting for the ball to pass so I can go the other way.
The corridor bends west and ends at a pressure plate. I step on it and a door opens to the north. There's a pressure plate on the other side. This is a common construction in the game--two plates on either side of the door, both opening and closing the door--and no puzzle to it.
The room beyond has another pressure plate, a lever, and an NPC. I talk to him first. This is our dialogue:
Him: "You have finally come, Jera. Welcome to my realm, the realm of the Green Knight. Are you surprised that I know your name? I should also tell you that I know your cause. My spies have been keeping a close eye on you." 
Me: "Spies? I do not recall being spied upon."
Jera really didn't think this sentence through.
Him: "I knew about you the moment you spoke to Malachi. He had better beware. If Shadow Weaver knew of Malachi's true allegiance, he would be skinned alive." [Malachi was the first NPC I encountered, a "messenger from Rowena" stationed in the antechamber of the labyrinth.] 

Me: "If you are aware of the cause that I serve, then why do I still live?"
Him: "You live because I do not care who wins this war. Power is what I seek, and your help will give me greater power. To continue past my realm, and those of the other four knights, you need the medallion each of us wears. Only all five of the discs will open the gate."
Me: "What are these counterparts you speak of?"
Him: "Why, the other four knights. Who else would I speak of? We were the strongest of Shadow Weaver's horde when he first waged war upon the lands. For our skills, and as a reward for our services each of us was given control of an area of the labyrinth. There is the Ebon Knight; he is the strongest of the five. There is also the Blue, White, and Crimson Knights. And then there is me, the Green Knight, the weakest of the five. Until now, for our pact will make me the strongest!"
Me: "I will not make a pact with one such as you!"
Him: "Spare me your noble words. You have no other alternative. If you wish to succeed, you must have all five medallions, including mine."
Me: "How can you be so sure that I will not simply take your head as well?"
Him: "I am sure that you could. But if you do, you will have failed. I told you, I have known about you and your plans from the start. I have also gone great lengths to hide your movements from the others. I am no fool. You see, I have hidden my medallion where no one, especially you, shall ever find it."
This sounds like it's headed some place disgusting.
Me: "I must say, you are very clever. Tell me then, what must I do?"
Him: "Naturally, you must meet the other knights in combat and best them. That will give you four of the medallions."
Me: "Aye, four. And what of yours, the fifth medallion?"
Him: "I will give it to you when you bring me the Ebon Knight's head. He is the strongest, thus he is my greatest opponent in this game of power. If you bring me his head, I will know that you are strong enough to overcome the other three. Not much of a risk on my part, for I know you must kill the others. My only concern lies in your ability to defeat the Ebon Knight. He is very strong."
The dialogue isn't bad, but I would prefer to have choices. I wouldn't have refused to make a pact with him initially, for instance.

The lever and the pressure plate do nothing more than open the doors near them--there's not a lot of complexity so far this level. I exit to the north. The short corridor ends at a door with a skull next to it; he offers, "One must tread the safest pass, or he shall pay the price of a misplaced step."
Isn't this always true?
I "Kano" the door open, and immediately three things that look like fireballs come spilling through the doorway. I think they are fireballs and try to outrun them, but when they refuse to disappear, it becomes clear that they're wisps. They start zapping me with electricity, so I quickly use a Moonstone to make a lightning shield. I then attack them with my axe and shield. My encumbrance makes my movements slower than normal, and I should really drop something during combat so that doesn't happen, but these guys aren't hard enough to worry about.
The skull's warning soon becomes clear as I enter the next room. There are a bunch of glyphs on the floor that do 1 point of damage when I walk on them. By staying on the non-glyph spaces, I'm safe. Not much of a puzzle, although it's possible that I miss something because I encounter several places where it was impossible to pass without stepping on a glyph. The room turns out to be a fairly large diamond, but with walls that force you to traverse it in a clockwise manner There are numerous will-o-wisps along the way. I use up my Moonstones repeatedly casting the lightning shield. I have to "Freeze" and heal once.
Fighting will-o-wisps while avoiding the glyphs.
The room ends in a closed door that resists "Kano," but I have a good idea how to open it. There's a pressure plate near the entrance and the room is strewn with boulders. Two of them are enough to weigh it down which, as I suspected, opens the door. This is exactly the kind of puzzle that would have been much harder in DarkSpyre.
The door opens to a long eastern corridor with another closed door at the end. This one opens to "Kano," my last saved version of that spell. I'm also low on "Freeze" and "Liquify," so I stop to prepare a few more castings of all three. I also prepare an "Invisibility," just to see how it works.
The corridor bends to the south before ending in another pressure-plate activated door. Two balls are rolling through the room on the other side. There are three boulders lined up on the north end of the room, and beyond the north wall seems to be three small "cells," each too small for a person or object. I'm not sure what to make of it. Boulders can't block the path of the balls, which are easy enough to run past anyway. This game often sets up something that looks like a puzzle and turns out to be nothing, so I simply walk past the balls and continue on.
If there was anything special to do here, I never figured it out.
A centaur attacks as I leave the room, and drops a gold coin, which is the last thing I need, plus a war axe. This makes me realize that I'll probably never run out of regular weapons, and I'll thus never end up using my magic weapons. I put both war axes into the Bag of Lightness and equip the sword Rancor instead.
In the room beyond, I meet an NPC named Torhan, an ex-guard who was thrown out of Shadow Weaver's forces because his tends to spill secrets when he drinks. He asks me to bring him wine skins if I ever find any. I have not seen any in the game so far, but I suspect I'm about to. 
Torhan's room has exits to the northeast and south, and I take the southern one. The passage ends with a door to the west and another corridor to the east. A boulder lies in the middle of the floor. I "Kano" the door to the west, but since my "Kano" spells are under my "Invisibility," I have to waste that first. The long room beyond is full of pressure plates--seventeen of them, lined up side-by-side in two rows. It's impossible to enter the room without walking down at least one row. Some of the plates seem to open things (judging by sound), and others launch fireballs, lightning bolts, or poison globs from the ends of the room. I find that walking on the bottom side of the top row of plates makes these spells miss me.
I stand invisible (you can see my boots) as two fireballs zip by on either side of me.
This could be a nightmare, but it soon becomes clear that only one plate is necessary.. The second from the right in the top row opens the door at the west end of the room but closes it when I step off. The one boulder from the corridor isn't enough to weigh it down, so I go back and grab a second from the room with the rolling balls. This does the trick, and the door stays open. I walk down the corridor, dodging balls and bolts, and walk north through the door.
The next room has a Raido glyph on the floor, indicating I could have used the rune to teleport here. There's a lever that simply opens and closes the door I just came through (it would have been necessary if I had teleported). Some kind of wizard-looking NPC sits at the north end of the room, surrounded by equipment. He introduces himself as Sidonius, a master wizard, who specializes in casting "Battlerage" on Shadow Weaver's soldiers just before battle. He voluntarily teaches it to me, but it's hard to imagine using it. It's like the "Berserk" ability of barbarians in D&D: it gives you extra power for a while but leaves you exhausted.
Preparing to talk with Sidonius. Note the Raido glyph to the south.
I investigate the items around him even though the last thing I need is more stuff. One chest has a +3 amulet of talent, which I put on despite knowing that it will disappear within minutes. It also has a Healer's Tome, which elevates me to a "Master" (10/10) in healing magic, and several sprigs of nightshade, which I use to restore my spell points. A second chest has three runes: Berkana, Eihwaz, and Wunjo. Berkana is worth keeping, since it restores all spell points. The other two have temporary effects (+2 accuracy, fire shield), which I care less about, so I leave them for later in case some puzzle needs those runes. The chest also has a rabbit's foot, which I leave because I already have one, and a "four-way fireball" spell, which I learn.
Finally, a pile behind Sidonius has the Skull of Firefang and two wineskins. Firefang gives me the sixth gesture in the "Gateway" spell, although I note that I still don't have #5. I return to Torhan with the wine, but two skins apparently aren't enough to loosen his tongue.
Do you suppose these are given names?
The east branch of the passage south of Torhan's room leads to a teleporter flanked by two skulls, both of which say, "Restricted area. Enter at your own risk!" I toss an extra flask into it, just to see if it has an effect on this side, but nothing happens. I return to Torhan's room and head northeast. This leads to a square area with east and north exits. I go east first and get attacked by a centaur, which drops a +2 Amulet of Protection. His room is otherwise a dead end. The north exit leads to a corridor with an east-west split. East takes me to a room with a skull who announces I'm entering the "training grounds."
Beyond him is a pressure plate and a lever. The plate seems to activate the lever, which opens a door. I see several centaurs beyond, so I drop a few containers to fight. There are ultimately five centaurs in the room, but they're not hard; they die in one or two sword swipes and shield bashes. They collectively drop a full wineskin, an empty wineskin, two throwing knives, a round key, and an Ansuz rune. Only the full wineskin and the key really interest me.
The large room from which they attacked me has some interesting features. There are pressure plates in the northeast and northwest corners and levers in the southeast and southwest. Flame arrows fire continuously between two small walls in the middle of the room. There are four skulls, each of which gives me a combat tip: creatures that fight with fire usually have defenses against the same; skeletons are weak against axes; polearms negate height advantages; and swords may be the most common weapons, but the most common defenses are designed with swords in mind. The pressure plates turn out to activate and deactivate the flame arrows, and the two levers open the doors on their respective ends of the room.
Why are the skulls programmed to say this? It's not like the good armies use skeletons.
I return to Torhan with the wine, but I guess it's still not enough. I don't even know what secrets I'm plying him with wine for. Back in the corridor, a keyhole accepts the round key but doesn't seem to have any immediate effects. The door that would have been obvious to open with it opens with a "Kano" instead. Two will-o-wisps attack me on the other side. Two more doors open to "Kano." One leads to a chest with another wineskin (and two empty ones), but Torhan still offers nothing.
The other door leads to a series of rooms at the top of the level map labeled "barracks" by a skull. The area has four levers that open four doors. The first leads to a battle with three centaurs, one of which drops another war axe. I don't even pick it up. The second door releases another centaur, which drops a wineskin and two gold coins, which I also leave. There's a cross key in the room beyond him that unlocks a door at the west end of this area.
Centaurs are pretty lame opponents at this point in the game.
The third lever opens a teleporter in front of the room I just left. The fourth seems to activate the keyhole that takes the cross key. Another room offers three more centaur combats, giving me another wineskin, an Eye of Sight, which I don't need, and an Odin rune. Odin runes are the only thing with which I allow myself to save-scum. I don't want to change sexes, which is the first thing that happens when I try it. I reload and try again. My power attribute goes up to 20. I would have preferred strength, but that's good enough.
An unacceptable outcome of using Odin.
A skull announces the final room--the one opened by the cross key--as a "storage area." When the doors opened to reveal five piles of things, the camel's back broke. Without touching anything, I run back to Torhan and give him the two wineskins. This is finally enough to get him drunk enough to spill his secret: at some point, I'll run into a specter guarding a door, and I'll need to use the password ZARF to get by.
Torhan justifies his discharge.
Then I start going through my inventory. I have a wineskin left over, so I drink it, which confuses me, so I use the Sowelu rune to cure that. I toss all but 10 gold coins, 2 of each gem, and 2 of each teleportation rune. I drop my parchments and any rune that casts a spell I'm capable of without it. This consolidation allows me to get rid of all my chests. When I'm done, I've managed to trim myself down to 83 kilograms from a maximum encumbrance of 90. That doesn't seem like much.
Back to the storage room. The first thing I pick up is a quiver. It has two arrows and two poison arrows; I use them to fill up my own quiver and then discard the extra. I leave another war axe and warboard (shield) behind. A third war axe also stays on the floor, but a Shield of Striking seems useful. I replace my great shield with it and dump the former in the discard pile. There are two more wineskins I don't need. A suit of elven chainmail is better (and weighs less) than my damaged magic chainmail, so I replace it. Chain leggings and chain gauntlets do nothing for me. Neither does a horsehair helm.
At this point, the only thing I haven't tried is teleportation. I make a save and jump into the teleporter that I previously skipped. It takes me to a corridor with fire glyphs (I guess) on the floor and a specter who demands a password. I didn't expect to meet him so soon. I use ZARF and he lets me pass through an open door behind him, into a room that contains three chests and a pile of runes. Man, this game does not let up when it comes to inventory. 
Jera displays a bit of arrogance.
Chest 1 has a Wizard's Tome and the Skull of Silvanus. The Wizard's Tome increases my wizardry level to "Sage" (8/10). Silvanus teaches me the seventh part of the "Gateway" spell and says that once I find both pieces of the Staff of Summoning I'm going to need to mend it and then use it to summon someone who can save the world from Shadow Weaver. To do this, I have to hold something of importance that belonged to the person I wish to summon. Shadow Weaver plans to use a necklace that once belonged to the God of Magic to summon the god.

The second chest has three sprigs of nightshade and three gold coins. I leave them all. The third chest has a diamond, two rubies, an emerald, and an amethyst. I take the diamond because I otherwise only have one, but leave the rest. Finally, the pile of runes. Eihwaz temporarily increases accuracy by 2 points. Yay. I use it immediately. Tejwaz does the same for endurance. The third is Raido. I don't even need it to get out of here because the portal is still open.
Back in the main dungeon area, I attempt the Thurisaz and Gebo runes, but there are no destinations nearby. A scan of the map suggests I missed a door near the entrance. I return, "Kano" it open, and kill a couple of centaurs with my bow, which for some reason I've decided to prioritize for a while. They drop Moonstones. Through another door, a skull warns me that I am in the "Green Knight's Domain." An exit lies beyond him; I test it and find myself in the Crimson Domain.
The final map of the Green Domain.
I check my numbers. I've gained only about 5,000 experience points on this level, so I'm still far short of the 125,000 I need for the next. Other than the two magic levels I gained with books, I only gained one sorcerer level (I'm "Accomplished" now). Worse, nothing broke! 

Now I have to make a decision between the Crimson Domain and the Ebon Domain. I suppose I'll try Crimson first. I hope all this detail was at least a little interesting even if there were no significant puzzles.
Time so far: 26 hours

Friday, September 25, 2020

Game 382: The Dark Queen of Krynn (1992)

The Dark Queen of Krynn
United States
MicroMagic (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released in 1992 for Amiga, DOS, and Macintosh
Date Started: 21 September 2020
The Dark Queen of Krynn is not quite the end of the Gold Box--we still have Unlimited Adventures and its sample and fan scenarios to investigate in 1993--but it's mostly the end. I find myself not quite as sad at the prospect as I was when I picked up Pool of Radiance (1988), the first Gold Box game, nearly a decade ago. It's a great engine, of course, and I don't know when we'll see another combat system this intuitive and faithful to the original rule set. On the other hand, I can't exactly complain that there aren't enough Gold Box games. The series put out two or three games a year for the five years of its life; if that isn't the most impressive work ethic we've ever seen, it has to be close. If you played nothing but Gold Box games, you'd probably forget enough of the first one by the time you got to the last one to just start the series fresh again.
Some might say that the engine was "showing its age" by 1992, but I'm not sure that's the problem. I think parts of the engine were always old-fashioned. We just forgave it because of the good stuff. Once Dungeon Master (1987) allowed you to see and hear enemies in the distance, no game that allowed you to "stumble upon" an encounter with 6 dragons was ever going to seem cutting-edge again. This is an issue that the engine never solved. Nor did it ever design a decent automap, and it's absurd that we still have to refer to a paper journal in 1992.
The game's opening screen.
But of course the good outweighs the bad, particularly in the series' adaptation of combat and spell rules and its robust character development. However, even these elements are best (in my opinion) in games where you're going from Level 1 to Level 8. There are times that playing with high-level characters starts to become boring, and I particularly worry how this dynamic is going to play in the Dragonlance series, where I already find the draconians a bit tiresome. I want the series to go out with honor, so you can understand why I'm beginning this game less optimistic than usual. It doesn't help that SSI turned development over to MicroMagic, a long time contractor whose involvement thus far had been limited to Amiga conversions of the other games.
Dark Queen is the third of the Dragonlance titles; the previous two were Champions of Krynn (1990) and Death Knights of Krynn (1991). The series takes place after the War of the Lance, a major event in the universe's literature and tabletop gaming, in which the goddess Takhisis tried to conquer the world of Krynn with evil dragons and a race of creatures called draconians, created from the corrupted eggs of good dragons. The famed Heroes of the Lance arose during this period, and they defeated Takhisis with the help of an ancient chivalric order called the Knights of Solamnia.
I guess this is probably Takhisis, but it could also be some minor NPC.
The games are set in the aftermath of the war. The characters are members, or at least contractors, of the Knights of Solamnia. In Champions, they foiled a plot to start a new war with a new horde of draconians. Death Knights dealt with an attempt by Lord Soth to conquer the land with an undead army. There was a weird wolf involved that I never really understood.
Dark Queen begins two years later, the party having been summoned to the city of Palanthas to meet with the elven general Lauralanthalasa, one of the Heroes of the Lance. Her letter warns of forces still loyal to Takhisis, the titular Dark Queen.
The party meets General Laurana.
As usual, the party imported smoothly from Death Knights, including all of their high-level gear. It looks like I spent most of my money at the end of that game on arrows +1, because I have several hundred, which of course will go very fast. My party in summary:
  • Midsummer, a human female lawful good Knight of the Rose of Level 11. She wears Solamnic plate, a Girdle of Giant Strength, and carries a footman's dragonlance plus a mace +4.
  • Dutch, human male lawful good Knight of the Rose of Level 11. He has Solamnic plate, a mace +4, a long sword +4, a shield +2, and Boots of Speed.
  • Grave, a Silvanesti elf male chaotic good cleric/ranger of Levels 12/12. He has something called Olin's Quarter Staff and plate mail +4.
  • Atmos, a Qualinesti elf male lawful good cleric/white mage of Levels 12/12. He has a mace +4, plate mail +4, and a shield +4.
  • Squirrel, a Qualinesti elf female true neutral red mage/thief of Levels 13/15. She has a short sword +4, bracers AC4, and Gauntlets of Ogre Power.
  • Coral, a kender female neutral good cleric/thief of Levels 12/15. She has a chain mail +4 and a hoopak +3.
Characters imported about the same level as newly-created party members, but they're at the upper ends of their levels, while newly-created characters are at the lower ends (or one level lower) with about half the experience. The implication in the journal is that leveling in this game is limitless, or near so, just like Pools of Darkness. On the other hand, despite starting with so many more points, only half my characters became eligible for a new level in 4 hours of playing, so perhaps advancement won't be that rapid.
This last entry revamps the character creation process.
I tried out the character creation process just for fun and noted a few changes. Options for race, sex, class, and alignment are all on a single screen here. You no longer have the ability to create unique icons for the characters; instead, you select from a set of 49 prepared icons. I'd complain about that, but I never had any luck creating good-looking icons in the first place, and the pre-rendered ones look better than anything I'd ever come up with. All of my characters had been converted to the new icons, and I was happy enough with their new look.
The new system has fewer icon options, but arguably better ones.
The windows have some new textures, and it looks like the developers threw keyboard mavens like me a bone by letting the initial letter work for all commands. In previous games, they worked for some commands but others you had to arrow through. The images in the exploration window take full advantage of VGA and are some of the nicest artwork in the games to date. So far, the portraits have been considerably less cartoonish than the previous games.
Palanthas was just a menu town. My party was fully rested, equipped, and trained, so there was nothing to do but head right for the palace and speak with Lauralanthalasa, or Laurana for short. (The Dragonlance writers seem to do this a lot; "My name is Chestricradrolicanardafluffle, but you can call me Chet!") While happy to see us, she dismally warned us of a new threat. Draconians have recently been seen hanging around the city of Caergoth to the south. She asked us to check it out. 
Yes, we're still using "journal entries."
Moments later, we found ourselves on a standard 16 x 16 map, though with more than half of it blocked by forest. The forest textures were as complex as anything we've seen before in this engine, but as usual I don't get terribly excited about textures. It turns out that Caergoth was a smoldering rubble, recently sacked by an enemy that left pools of acid behind--a clear sign of Kapak draconians. I like to think that my party was muttering "f****** Kapaks" at the same time that I was.
"Without a 'kill them' option, it's not really role-playing!" -- some sick bastard, probably.
There were a few minor encounters around the town, such as helping townsfolk bury their dead. But the enemies weren't gone, and it wasn't long before we found ourselves in the first combat of the game, with two blue dragons and one green dragon. Midsummer made short work of them with her dragonlance, which does damage to dragons equal to the wielder's current hit points with every hit. If she doesn't miss, she can slay two per round--four if she's hastened.
No easing the player into combat here: the game's first battle is with dragons.
At the docks of the city, the party was ambushed by a bunch of sailors. Their leader introduced himself as Daenor, captain of the Silver Shark. The sailors had returned after the battle, but survivors told them tales of draconians and dragons. Daenor's sister, Crysia, was kidnapped. He asked if we wanted to accompany him in pursuit, and for some perverse reason I said no. The party returned to Palanthas instead, to report to Laurana, but she just sent us back to Caergoth. Daenor was still there, and we had no choice but to join his expedition. Daenor became a seventh character in the combats throughout the rest of this narrative.
I wonder what happens if you "attack" here.
Not far out of Caergoth, Daenor spied the wreckage of a ship, and we dropped anchor to investigate. It appeared that the ship had crashed, and captors and captives alike had fled into a nearby cave. The subsequent cave network was set on a fairly large 30 x 30 grid (though with only about half the squares used). As we chased the draconians, we ran afoul of several types of cave denizens, including giant beetles (easy), purple worms (moderate), and greater otyughs (surprisingly hard). There were some giant spiders who actually poisoned some of my characters, which feels like an awfully n00b thing to have happen. Fortunately, I had a couple of "Neutralize Poison" spells memorized.
Even with "Fireball" spells, these guys were hard.
There were also several battles with draconians, and while I'm already a bit sick of them, I do appreciate them a little for the unique challenges they create. Baaz turn to stone when they die, often trapping the weapon that killed them. Kapaks dissolve into a pool of acid when slain, messing up the battlefield. Sivaks can fly and have the power to shape-shift, which often makes them plot-relevant but poses no extra difficulty in combat. Bozaks explode when killed, damaging everyone around them, and it's always fun in combat to get a chain reaction of Bozak explosions going.
The Bozak dies and explodes, causing more damage to other Bozaks, which die and explode.
Auraks are more difficult than all the rest put together. They're spellcasters, to begin, and will fry the party with "Lightning Bolt" if they get the initiative. You have to try to damage or "Silence" every one of them every round to stop them from casting, which is tough because they have a permanent "Invisibility" that often prevents you from targeting them. If you get close to them, they "Immolate" every round and damage everyone in the periphery.
Once you kill them the first time, they immediately resurrect with 20 hit points. Kill them a second time and they resurrect again, this time rooted in place. After three rounds, they explode in fireballs and are dead for good. You have to keep careful track of which ones are about to go nuclear and get the party members out of the way.
I feel the Aurak here is unnecessarily specific about how they'll dispose of us if they achieve victory.
"Fireball" takes care of a lot of this, of course, but I found that my party had fewer slots for both the base spell and its "Delayed Blast" alternative than I had remembered. I ran out quickly, and there were a lot of battles. This forced me to get creative with other spells, which of course is a good thing. My fighters used up a lot of those arrows.
We spotted Crysia a few times during the pursuit, but she seemed to be aiding the draconians. One group of freed prisoners confirmed that she was working with them. (They also credited a sailor named Aolan for crashing the ship while the draconians were distracted.) Later, a dying old man named Sensilan said that Crysia was under the influence of a "Charm" spell and thus not responsible for her actions.
Come to think of it, the character on the cover looks a lot like Crysia.
We finally caught up with Crysia, but just then some blue dragons arrived. One of them told her to "go with Zzrivanth" and that they would meet her "at the rendezvous on Taladas." The resulting battle was supposed to be hard, I guess, but again I made such short work of the dragons with the dragonlance that I didn't even bother to take a screen shot. The average draconian battles were harder.
I realized I hadn't included a shot of Daenor yet, so here he is.
As we exited the caves, we committed to joining Daenor in a pursuit to Taladas, which I guess is an entirely different continent, the action in the series so far having taken place on Ansalon.
On the way to Taladas, we ran into a storm that caused the ship to founder and the party to fall beneath the waves. We woke up underwater, somehow able to breathe, and I'm sure it's going to turn out that sea elves or Sahuagin or some stupid thing is behind it. Seriously, have I ever talked about how much I hate underwater levels? Either there are no special rules about moving and fighting under water, in which case they make no sense, or there are, in which case they're just annoying. I don't know why developers insist on doing this. Anyway, I realized I was exhibiting a bad attitude and decided to knock off for the night.
This is probably going to suck for a few hours.
So far: It's okay, I guess. It has most of the Gold Box strengths and weaknesses. It's been very linear, but then again most RPGs are linear during the first few hours. I hope the underwater episode is short, and the game opens up when we get to Taladas. We'll see.
Time so far: 4 hours