Thursday, December 31, 2020

Secrets of Bharas: Reboot

Success in this game means filtering through a lot of dialogue, most of which I've now lost.
The state of Secrets of Bharas is a mess. I played a lot of it in November and early December and then took a few weeks off without blogging. Somehow, in that time, I managed to lose (or overwrite) a notepad file in which I'd been keeping my game notes. Even worse was a decision I'll describe below that lost me most of my screenshots. So I'm approaching this brief entry without notes, images, or even recent memory.
You'll recall that in my first few entries, I explored the first of what turns out to be six continents. I met an oracle named Yajiv the Big-Nosed, who first told me to return when I had a ship. Once I had a ship, he told me to return when I had three items: the Gem of Vision, the Amulet of the Third Eye, and the Helmet of Goat Empathy.
I turned my attentions next to Dharthi, the continent of the dwarves. It had four cities--Normandy, Toulon, Parthenay, and Amiens--plus the royal palace. That was a lot of NPCs to record, and I was tired playing one night, so I decided that instead of taking notes on every NPC, I'd just screenshot all their dialogue and sift through it later. I'm using an emulator called ActiveGS to play the game, and I used its internal screenshot tool to capture the images. What I didn't realize was that it will only take 99 of them before it stops generating new ones and just keeps overwriting the 99th file. I thus lost a lot of dialogue and probably have to go through at least two of the villages again, not to mention the ones in Surya for which I've lost my notes. 
If anyone ever told me where to find Scrolls of Wisdom, I don't remember.
There are a lot of NPCs in this game who have interesting things to say but not particularly pertinent things to say. For instance, here is the total dialogue of Awad the Nomad in the Palace of Dharthi:
When I was young, I sought my fortune in many places. I could never stay in a single place for very long. I had an urge for travel, an urge for knowledge. I wanted all the knowledge that Dharthi had to offer. I soon realized that the only way I could have this was to visit each city and village in the continent.
When I was fifteen, I lived in Amiens. I worked in the village grocery. I saved up my money and bought a small boat. I hid this in the shop I worked in so my family wouldn't know what I was doing. One day, I took all my possessions and loaded them up on the boat. I then rowed myself away. After Toulon, I headed to Parthenay by the rivers. Parthenay is a bit bigger than Amiens. I liked staying in Parthenay. I made many friends there. One of them started calling me "the Nomad." I kept that nickname even after leaving Parthenay. I left Parthenay when I started getting bored of the same old routine.
From Parthenay, I rowed to Normandy. Normandy is quite a large port city. Normandy was much more interesting than I had expected it to be. Most of the trade of the Dharthi flows in and out of Normandy. In Normandy, I saw my first Suryans and Hawans. They sure look different from Dhartiens!
In Normandy, I first heard of the land of Wairan. The sailors told me that Wairan was full of nomads. I thought that Wairan would be perfect for me. I became friends with some sailors on a ship headed to Wairan. They let me sneak aboard their vessel. When I landed in Wairan, I expected a nomad's paradise. I instead found a harsh and forbidding desert. I tried to live in Wairan, but no matter what I did, I could not be a nomad in the hot and dry climate of Wairan. I headed back to the port and stowed away on the next ship to Dharthi.
Now, that's 339 words for a single NPC, and I think I may even have missed some of it. While it accomplishes some world-building, it doesn't really tell the player anything particularly new or important. Still, there are plenty of situations in which I would praise a game for extraneous world-building text, and for giving their NPCs some real character. I don't know why my first instinct with Bharas is to do the opposite. I have trouble getting immersed in its world despite the authors' world-building attempts. It feels sterile to me, and I don't know why. It's not the graphics; if I cared that much about graphics, I never would have become immersed in the worlds of Ultima IV or Might and Magic. I worry instead that it's prejudice: that this obscure 1991 game--which I wouldn't have even known about if the author hadn't told me while I was writing to him about a different game--by virtue of not being famous, somehow doesn't have the right to try to immerse me, to hold me back from "more important" games. It's because of this concern that I've stubbornly stuck to it, despite a relatively good reason to quit.
That reason is the dungeons. I had been largely avoiding them because I wasn't even sure they were mandatory. That changed in Dharthi, where several NPCs suggested that the artifacts I needed would be found in dungeons, although they didn't name specific ones. I started back in Surya and ultimately explored three dungeons there and two in Dharthi.
Exploring dungeons means frequently running into enemies.
Dungeons in this game are boring. All the levels are 16 x 16, with no interesting layouts, and nothing interesting happening as you explore them. There are no puzzles or navigational obstacles, just elevators connecting the floors, the occasional chest, and far, far, far too many combats. I put three "fars" in there because I didn't think it was good writing to add more, but if I'd put 15 of them, that would still be less than the game deserves.
I wouldn't have been able to stand it without the quick combat option. Battles in this game boil down to two types:
  • Those for which I activate computer control and go do other things until they're over.
  • Those for which I cast a couple of "Flame Wind" spells before activating computer control and going to do other things until they're over.
I've spent about 14 hours on this game since I last wrote, and about 10 of those hours have been waiting for the computer to finish fighting for me. Fortunately, I've been using that time to do other things, like grade my students' papers and tests, or play Legends of Valour in another window. 
The computer fights for me. I have it set to pause if any character's health drops below 250.
Dungeons have around 10-12 combats per level, and even with the computer fighting, those combats take an average of about 2.5 minutes. That's about half an hour to clear a level, or 4 hours to clear an 8-level dungeon. Of course, you can't clear the dungeon in one go. Eventually, your spell points run dry and you have to leave to recharge them or else you can't keep healing your characters. Fortunately, dungeons remember your progress and do not respawn, at least not right away. I'm not sure if they respawn after time, or if it's just the most recent dungeon you visited that doesn't respawn. Even without respawning, though, it still takes a long time to backtrack in and out of them, so you might be looking at closer to 7 hours to clear a full dungeon. Fortunately, not all of them have been eight levels. I only got one level into the Mines of Minere before I couldn't progress for lack of a "crystal key." One of the other dungeons in Surya was only six levels.
The only excitement you get in dungeons is finding the occasional chest. These are rare--fewer than one per level--but they almost always have some equipment upgrade or a quest item. Finally, in the Prisons of Dharthi, one of those chests held a Gem of Vision. It gives you a bird's-eye view of a reasonable area around the party.
This will help find more dungeons and towns.
Because of all the combats, dungeon explorations are pretty lucrative in general. They more than pay for the reagents I expend within them. With so much extra cash, I can flee from most surface battles. Fleeing causes you to drop a bit of gold. It never works in dungeons and always works on the surface.
Time is money.
Speaking of the surface, I figured out what the pyramids do. Each continent appears to have one pyramid associated with a god. If you say the name of the god, or more accurately what the god's name means, you'll be teleported to that continent. This is less useful than it seems because a lot of the continents are archipelagos and thus require a boat anyway, but perhaps there are some places only accessible via pyramids. Anyway, I lost the notes that had the gods' names.
On the positive side, my characters have gained a lot of levels.
So that's where I am with Secrets of Bharas. I basically have to start over in Surya and systematically hit all the towns, dialogue, and dungeons again, this time making a more careful list of what I'm looking for, and perhaps even making a kind-of encyclopedia. I thought I'd write this short entry to tie up what I'd accomplish several weeks ago rather than mingle it with new material next week.
Time so far: 26 hours

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Legends of Valour: Ragged Chet

I just learned to cast my first spell like four days ago.
I began this entry sleeping in hovels. I ended as the leader of two guilds, my room and board covered by the organizations. I'm still broke--this game has the stingiest economy of any game I've ever played--but otherwise, Legends of Valour could have been written by Horatio Alger.
What makes the economy particularly insidious is that you have to pay for quests. So even if you've worked out your living expenses, you still have to make anywhere from 40 to 160 gold pieces on top of that to level up in the guilds. Failing a quest means having to pay again. While I generally enjoy games in which economies are tough and in which there are many ways to make and spend money, I have to admit that it's getting pretty boring here. I've shuffled dozens of parcels from one end of town to another, sold rocks and weeds (which, of course, is better than selling rock and weed), tried every possible angle at gambling, and even created a spreadsheet to track commodity-trading options and times. I can't find any way to "get rich quick." You have to put in an honest day's labor in this game.
Step by step.
I ended the last session trying to save up enough money for the next week's lodgings. Eventually, I had enough money for the next quest. I don't remember why, but I decided to keep going with the Guild of the Men at Arms. Their next quest required me to "collect a bottle of Universal Beastbite Antidote from the Institute of Zoolatry" and return within five days. Finding the zoo involved the usual process of asking for directions. It was south of the entry gate.
There was a scroll on a table in the foyer of the Institute. It said that they had run out of the key ingredient for the antidote, which was venom from a red vampire bat. To get a bottle of antidote, I would need to return to the Institute with a live specimen. A special ball called a "bat stunner" was on the table for that purpose.
I spent some time poking around the Institute, and I'm glad I did. In the last entry, I had noted that a lot of the buildings have interesting names but absolutely nothing in them. The Institute was an exception, and I found a few more exceptions during this session. The Institute actually houses a zoo in its basement. There are exhibits on "rare crimson pygmy-trolls," red vampire bats, brown bears, minotaurs, and lizard men. Some of them are in cages formed by stalagmites; others are in more secure structures and can only be viewed through windows.
Windows are opaque from a distance.
That brings up an interface element that I didn't notice until this session. It's quite wonderful. If you walk up to any window in the game and press yourself against it, it becomes transparent (there's a brief disk access), and you can see what's happening on the other side. This works in the main town map for regular buildings, and it works in dungeons for these grate-like windows. I guess thieves even have a skill by which they can pass through windows this way. It's an impressive feat of programming; I can't even think of a modern game that does it, at least not when (as here) there's a disk transition from outside to inside.
Pressing against the grating gives me a view of the minotaur on the other side.
No NPCs I consulted gave information on where to find bats, but a building called the "Belfry" is listed on the map, and I had fortunately already stumbled across it while I was poking my head into random buildings. There were regular bats and red bats flying all around a room called "the gallery." Killing bats produces a corpse called a "bat snack" that you can eat. I needed one alive. It took a bit of practice with the "stunner" to nail one, but I eventually got it and returned to the Institute.
I had no clue what to do with it, but fortunately an NPC wandered up and initiated a conversation in which she took it off my hands. There are a lot of moments like that in this game--moments where you don't know exactly how the next plot point is going to progress. If someone tells you "go to the Mermaid's Rest and collect a pouch from a guy named Lars," anything could happen. Lars could be standing in the room and hand you the pouch. You could get to the Mermaid's Rest, find no one, but find a message on the notice board from Lars with your next destination. You could find the pouch on the floor of the main room or some hidden side room on the second floor. Some random NPC outside the tavern could have some dialogue relating to Lars. You really have to look around. And as we'll see in the rest of this entry, the clues aren't always that precise.
A helpful NPC.
In this case, making the trade caused a bottle of antidote to appear on a nearby table. I took it back to the guild and was promoted to "Weaponsmith."
Shortly after this event, I was treated to my first arrest. Some guard just randomly grabbed me on the street and said that I was under arrest for "acting suspiciously." Throughout this session, I would face several other arrests for charges like "excessive snooping," "being drunk and disorderly," and "handling stolen goods." I honestly don't know if something I'm doing is resulting in these charges or if it's just a sign of the corruption of the city. When arrested, you're hauled in front of a judge at the Hall of Justice who either assesses a fine (so far, no more than 20 gold pieces) or a couple days in jail. Almost always, these arrests have happened when I haven't saved for a while, so I've generally gone along with them rather than reload. It has made me avoid guards on the street, however.
This might be a fair charge.

"Found guilty"? I don't even remember a trial.
The next quest for the Men at Arms is to become champion of the Pit of Death at the Mercenaries' Guild. I had no idea what that meant and no one would tell me. Much later, I found that while the quest is active, the noticeboards of taverns and shops change to show notices about the Pit of Death and the monsters that you face there. The notices indicated that to become champion, you have to kill "all three beasts": a bear on the Day of the Moon (Monday), a troll on Woden's Day (Wednesday), and a minotaur on Freya's Day (Friday). The problem is that the guild only gave me one week to return with the laurels, so you really have to hustle to get over there and win all three in the same week.
The notices said that the Pit was "under" the guild. I couldn't find any stairs down in the guild or the arena next door. Both had locked doors at their rears, but I had no way to open locked doors, having not progressed in either the Thieves' Guild (which teaches lockpicking) or any of the spellcasting guilds. I spent a lot of time trying to find a way to get into the guilds legitimately before enough days had passed that there was no way for me to complete the quest. Much, much later, I discovered that there is a way into the Pit that doesn't involve a locked door. It's through an unobtrusive building west of the Mercenaries' Guild. I should have poked around more.
No guild will give you a new quest while another is still active, so I spent the rest of the week just making money. I discovered that the area of the Mercenaries' Guild is a violent place. Lots of NPCs--particularly women--want to pick fights when you're hanging out in front of it. So it was a good place to collect a few gold pieces at a time through combat. I also upgraded (I think) my primary weapon to an "ornate axe." This would be a good time to mention that combat has not once been a problem in this game--not even when I finally got into the Pit of Death. I don't know if it's related to my high initial statistics or if it's just fundamentally easy, but enemies die in a couple of hits and have never been in danger of killing me. It's easy even when I forget to keep my weapon equipped and thus have to fight with my hands.
Does every man-at-arms who wants this promotion in the future have to fight me?
I thought maybe one of the reasons I couldn't get into the Pit was that you had to be a certain level of fighter, so I ended up spending the money I made to get trained up to the "Fourth Dann" in weapons skills. You just have to trust the game that anything is actually improving. I really didn't notice any difference.
When the week was over, I returned to the Fellowship of the Asegeir for their next quest, which was to find Forseti, "the patron god of the Asegeir," and return with the Scroll of Truth. The first NPC I spoke with said that Forseti is usually at the Halls of Justice--a building with which I was becoming intimately familiar. At the Halls of Justice, an NPC named Denby of Akhbar told me that Forseti had gone to the Casino, and that when I found him, I should tell him that "it's my scroll you want." At the Casino, Forseti wasn't there, but there was a notice on the notice board that listed three scrolls. "Denby's scroll is downstairs at the Halls of Justice," it offered.
This is a weird way to advance the plot. Does everyone in the tavern need to know this?
Back I went to the Halls, and here I got into trouble for a while. I interpreted "downstairs" as being in the basement. I found a stairway down. It led to a series of caverns mostly occupied by goblins, who are infuriating. They have a way of picking your pocket for a few gold pieces every time they touch you. They're otherwise not hostile, so if you want to kill them and get your gold back, you have to chase them down, swinging your fists, until they agree to fight. Even then, you never loot as much gold as they stole in the first place. I couldn't find the scroll anywhere, so I ended up slaughtering all of the goblins to see if any of them had it. When it turns out they didn't, I reloaded because I wanted my gold back.
These guys are little bastards.
Anyway, it turns out that "downstairs" just means on the first floor rather than the second. I eventually found the scroll in a side room, returned it to the guild, and received my promotion to "Scribe."
This promotion finally got me access to the game's mage spells: "Portal," "Fireball," "Create Food," "Create Drink," "Warp," "Heal," "Power," and "Protection." I might have had access to some of these at a lower level, but I didn't really experiment. It was "Portal" that I was waiting for. This spell moves you through locked doors. I'll experiment more with spells for the next entry.
The mage's spellbook. I love how "Create Food" and "Create Drink" give you a cheeseburger and a cocktail.
Before testing it at the Mercenaries' Guild, I decided to finish the Asegeir questline. The next promotion asked me to retrieve a "mystic tablet" from a mummy's tomb. It took me a while to find the tomb, because although NPCs gave me directions, they seemed to converge on a building that was only labeled "dwelling" when I entered. It was only by going downstairs that I found the tomb, which I guess makes sense.
It's nice when the game confirms you're in the right place.
After fighting my way through ghosts and zombies--again, no real danger at all--I found the tomb door locked. A nearby goblin, I guess some kind of caretaker, told me that to get into the tomb, I would need to place two identical pyramids "forged from secret metals" on two pillars on either side of the entrance. Unfortunately, one pyramid had been destroyed a long time ago. I found the other one.
I wasn't sure how to progress, but the game gave me a clue. Notice boards in shops and taverns suddenly had a poster about "Lefty Knuddson," a convicted forger recently escaped from prison. He was last seen at the Snakes tavern. According to the faux newspaper in the game manual, the Snakes is supposed to be near the guild's secret entrance. I poked around until I found an underground tunnel that led me to the guild, where Mr. Knuddson was manning the front counter. He took my pyramid and told me to come back tomorrow for its copy. When I returned the next day, he was gone, but the two pyramids were on a nearby table.
I love the idea that an ancient mystic talisman can simply be forged.
Back I went to the tomb, opened the way, killed about four mummies, and retrieved the tablet. The guild promoted me to "Spellcaster."
I was disappointed to encounter no living mummies in Assassin's Creed: Origins, which I have been playing on the console this month.
The "Wizard" promotion required me to pick up a barrel of tar at the Boatyard, take it to the Temple of Loki (apparently, the Asegeirs' main rivals), and use it to defile the inner sanctum. That seems like a bad idea, but I did it.
To give me the final promotion quest to "Master Wizard," the guild wanted all my gold. I had a fair amount at the time, so I decided to spend a bit first by completing a couple of Men at Arms quests. With the "Portal" spell, I was able to force my way through the doors at the Mercenaries' Guild and make it down to the Pits of Death. On three different days, I won three cage matches against the three beasts, got the laurel crown, and was promoted to Captain. I re-upped at my current lodgings, which dropped my holdings down to 33 gold pieces before I returned to the Asegeir and handed them over.
Killing the troll in the Pit of Death.
The last quest for the Asegeir was an odd one. The guildmaster told me that I had to "absorb the wisdom of the Twelve by touching the Heligo Goblet, one of three goblets kept upstairs. She warned me that touching the wrong goblet would mean instant death. A lamp kept with the goblets would somehow help me out.
Two of the three goblets.
The room indeed had three goblets and a lamp. When I rubbed the lamp, I met a genie calling himself the "Spirit of the Asegeir." To know the right goblet, he said, I would have to "look into the eye of the Great Sea Monster." To do this, I would have to bait the monster with the corpse of a bat. I had to go back to the Belfry and kill a bat for a "bat snack" before the genie would continue. His directions to the Sea Monster seemed clear: "Enter Nidavellir, through the doorway at the south of Twinoaks. Take in the view through the south wharf door. Then place the bat's remains on a table by the door to attract the monster."
Digitizing Barbara Eden would have killed you?
Actually finding the proper place took forever. "Nidavellir" is the dwarven section of the city, but its label on the map is far north of where the correct building turned out to be. I couldn't find anything labeled "Twinoaks." I had to explore every building in the area before finding one that had a south-facing door with a table next to it. Looking through the door without placing the bat corpse offered a nice image of the river south of Mitteldorf. Looking after placing the snack revealed a giant one-eyed octopus.
I can't tell if that's a pupil and iris without a sclera or an iris and sclera without a pupil.
With help from Irene, I determined that his eye (the outer part, at least) was yellow, and that one of the goblets had a yellow gem. I touched it and returned to the guildmaster for my final promotion.
There was a nice cut scene, but with both good and bad news:
As leader of the Fellowship of the Asegeir, you have free access to all the rooms and chambers. Your new position is an honorary one, and as such, you receive no wage, although whilst you hold office, you need pay no rent at your current hostel.
It's been a long-running joke among Elder Scrolls players that you can show up new in town, perform six quests, and become the head of a guild. It looks like Legends started that trope, but at least this game makes it clear that the position is only "honorary." Still, it makes you wonder why the creators of both games didn't halt the character's progress at a high-but-still-not-ultimate position. It's not like becoming head of the guild means that I get to assign quests or manage guild funds or do anything that such a position would suggest.
At this point, I had to spend some time building up 175 gold pieces to pay for the final promotion in the Men at Arms guild. That involved a couple of days of random questing. At one point during the process, I developed lycanthropy after fighting a werewolf at night. You can also contract vampirism in this game. I don't know if either has any benefits or plot points associated with the disease like the Elder Scrolls would later develop, but I didn't want to spend time on figuring it out. I went to the Temple of Aegir for healing. To minimize the cost, I joined the temple and did their first quest--a simple quest to fetch a scroll from a building called the Shrine of Mjord. 
It's nice when it's this easy.
The final quest for the Men at Arms was to bring back the head of the Gorgon. A random NPC told me that Zorgoth the Slayer would know where to find it. Through the usual process, I found my way to Zorgoth's house and found him in the dungeon beneath it. He said I would need two things to kill the Gorgon: the magic Axe of Gorn and luck, as touching any part of the Gorgon would turn me to stone. I interpreted "luck" as being a random thing and not something I could actually find or plan for. As to the location, he would only say that "the followers of Set and Asegeir have links to the Gorgon." As leader of the Fellowship of Asegeir, this was news to me. He also said I could find it by going through the door behind him, but he would lock it behind me. I tried that way first but got lost in the dungeon and had to cast "Warp" to get back to town (the spell brings you to the Stone Circle on the surface).
I'm not a fan of dialogue by scrolling text.
The Temple of Set and the Fellowship of Asegeir are close to each other, so I figured the "link" must be a shared dungeon entrance. I was right, but it still took me a long time to find the Gorgon. The dungeon goes under the entire city, and it was thus easy to be led along fruitless paths, wasting my energy on trolls or mummies and losing half my gold to goblins. Eventually, I found the lair by concentrating on places near the two guilds.
The Gorgon, looking a lot like Medusa, wandered her room alone. I couldn't find the Axe of Gorn at first, but the lair turned out to have a couple of secret exits behind waterfalls. One led to an area with a bunch of infuriating goblins but also the Axe.
If you were a medusa, I think it would be self-defeating to show so much cleavage.
I returned with it and killed the Gorgon in a short combat. I was hoping I'd be able to keep the axe, but it disappeared as soon as she died. Afterwards, I stupidly tried to pick up her head and was instantly killed. Reloading from the last inn, I had to do the entire dungeon again, this time continuing my search of the Gorgon's lair long enough to find a hessian sack (what we call "burlap" in the U.S.) in which to store the head. This required me to equip the sack and then "use" it while standing over the head. I tried it first by equipping the sack, standing over the head, and trying to pick up the head--which killed me again and required a third trip through the dungeon. On the final attempt, I got it right.
My only death so far.
My promotion to Templar in the Guild of Men at Arms was accompanied by the same type of ceremony as the Asegeir guild, along with the same notice that I would no longer be receiving a weekly wage. Sven's note said that I would need to rise to the head of a guild and a temple. I don't think the Asegeir fellowship counts as a "temple," so I'm going to have to finish the questline in the Temple of Aegir.
Random notes:
  • I'm no closer to finding out what happened to Sven. I found his diary for sale in one of the shops. It's from early in his visit to the city, describing how he got settled, joined the Guild of Men at Arms, and completed his first quest.
  • You occasionally find bottles of water for sale (or on the ground), but most of your resources for making the thirst meter go down are alcoholic, such as ales or gin-and-tonics. The problem is, if you drink too many of them, the graphics go all woozy for a while and it's hard to walk.
This being a British game, I'm surprised the image doesn't show a glass of gin, a separate bottle of tonic, and a separate bucket of ice cubs with a pair of tongs.
  • "Ox blood" is a drink that does nothing for your thirst. Instead, it restores your hunger meter, and quite quickly and cheaply, too. Sven mentions it in his diary. 
  • Robed guys keep approaching me on the street at night and asking if I want to buy insurance. I have no idea what this does.
  • New insults from random NPCs: "You walk like a squashed tomato"; "I'd rather talk to a halfwit bog elf"; "You look like a geriatric dung beetle."
I missed the beginning of this one. He's either referring to me or my mother.
  • A lot of buildings are connected by dungeons, which makes sense. But others are connected by their second stories, which makes less sense, as you don't see bridges between them when you're outdoors.
I might have found a bead on the main quest. While I was searching for the dungeon entrance from the Fellowship of Asegeir, I discovered a "Master Wizard's room" that they hadn't bothered to tell me about when I was promoted to Master Wizard. It had several tables, one of which held a skull called the Skull of the South. A nearby scroll told me the following: "Becoming leader of our group is not the pinnacle of your achievement. You must gather the four skulls in order to balance power in the city. The other three skulls are kept by Mitteldorf's other societies--one to each type." 
Walt Disney pictures presents a Wes Craven film . . .
I'm not sure what "one to each type" means, exactly. The map shows only two types of organizations: guilds and temples. If you split the Fellowship of Asegeir and the Brotherhood of Loki off into their own grouping of magic users, that's still only three. Maybe four means fighters, thieves, mages, and priests.
Once I became head of the Templars, I poked around and sure enough, there was similar room with the Skull of the North. "The second skull is yours," the scroll read. "On your travels, you must also find the Orb of Vision, a very precious object, to direct you once you have the four skulls." (Ironically, I just found a Gem of Vision in Secrets of Bharas.) Since this message refers quite literally to the "second skull," and it happened to be the second one I obtained, I assume this isn't a coincidence. Rather, you find the skulls in the guild rooms that you happen to become head of. Since these rooms are "secured" (not just locked) until you become head of the guilds, I assume you can't obtain them through burglary. That suggests that it's not just one guild and one temple that I must master, but at least four.
I'm compiling a lot of thoughts about the game for the final entry. I'll say two things here: First, I think this is one of the earliest examples of a game that separates events from geography. Most early RPGs conflate the two, so that to progress geographically is to progress narratively. Here, the two factors are independent, or mostly so, which allows the game to re-use much of the same physical space. It gives the sense of a "living town" in a way that most early RPGs don't, although there's still a long way to go. Second, I like that the nature, length, and difficulty of the guild quests are varied. It keeps them from getting boring even though there's little exciting happening with game mechanics.
Time so far: 22 hours

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

BRIEF: Shadoworlds (1992)

One of the English developers had a fetish for Japanese artwork.
United Kingdom
Teque London (developer); Krisalis Software (publisher)
Released in 1992 for Amiga and Atari ST; 1993 for DOS
From the moment I finished Shadowlands without finishing it, eighty-five games ago, I knew that I would eventually have to contend with Shadoworlds. Readers who think I have some sense of integrity will be disappointed to learn that I never intended to give it a fair shake. Anticipating recording a "no" in the "Won?" column, I've avoided bailing on any other game (except one with a tech issue) for over a year.
But now that I've had a chance to play a bit of Shadoworlds, I think I can do better than giving it six hours and quitting: I think I can reject it entirely. The manual offers no suggestion that the characters' minimal statistics improve at all during the game, and none of the reviews that I consulted indicated such. Admittedly, the game otherwise looks, walks, and quacks like an RPG, and I don't feel entirely on solid ground rejecting it. On the other hand, I hate it, and a BRIEF gives me an excuse to not even invest six hours.
My short-lived party.
Shadoworlds is a follow-up to Shadowlands from the same year. It uses the same engine but is not a sequel. It moves the action from a fantasy setting to the depths of space. At some unspecified point in the future, the galaxy has achieved peace. Weapons have been dismantled and outlawed, save for a single weapons research facility in the far reaches of the galaxy, with which communication has suddenly been lost. A team of four is sent to investigate.
You chose a party of four from a roster of 18 characters, including a robot and a dog. Some of their brief backstories are cute, but they have no effect on the game. Each character has a different level in the game's four statistics: strength, health, combat, and tech. (I don't know what the last one actually does in the game. Maybe it makes batteries last longer.)  I think these numbers remain fixed throughout the game. If they don't, neither the manual nor any reviewer thought to mention it. Coming from a civilization of peace, the characters start unarmed and must find their weapons on the station.
Only one end of the corridor is illuminated as we read a hint on the monitor.
The central attraction to both games is the "Super Photoscaping" lighting system, by which areas of light and darkness are determined by the presence, direction, and strength of lighting sources. The first game specialized in "pools" of light that moved with the party as they carried torches. This game has lighting embedded in the characters' helmets (for which they must find and maintain a battery supply), adding an element of directionality to the cast light. Light is also the key to solving some of the puzzles, and many doors have photoreceptors. (You also need an external light source to read the monitors in the game; I guess monitors work differently in the future.) The system was praised heavily in contemporary views of the game, but I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that a modern player, if he wasn't aware that the game was known for this innovation, wouldn't think twice about it. I also feel like we've seen these supposed innovations earlier, but I wasn't prepared with a comprehensive history of RPG lighting effects when I played Shadowlands, and I haven't researched it since then, either.
That's a security system that makes total sense.
Once you get past the lighting issue, you have a fairly standard axonometric puzzle-solving game, the types that the Brits specialized in going back to Knight Lore (1984). There are pressure plates to weigh down, switches to press and to operate with keycards, and photoreceptors to activate. Complex puzzles involve dividing the party and sending different characters to different areas.
There were six things I hated about Shadowlands:
  • The all-mouse control system. The developers thought they were doing something innovative by having you click on the character's hand and then click on an item to pick it up, or by having you click on the character's head and then something to read. But you can only do one thing with any of the objects in the game (i.e., you can't pick up a monitor or read an enemy), so the whole "body part" system just added unnecessary extra clicking.
As a height of absurdity, even though I have to choose options 1 through 3, the numbers on the keyboard do nothing. I actually have to click the "1," "2," or "3" button at the bottom.
  • No way to order all characters to attack an enemy at the same time. You have to click on them one by one, click their arms, and click the enemy. 
One character attacks a robot while the others stand there.
  • The pathfinding. Navigating the party even through wide doorways is a nightmare.
  • The lighting system. Technically, sure, I guess it's impressive. Practically, it means you spend the entire game micromanaging lighting sources.
  • The food and water system. The constant depletion of the meters caused continual angst as I tried to figure out the puzzles.
  • Unkillable rats that constantly nipped at the characters, making it impossible to stand still for more than about 30 seconds.
Shadoworlds retains all of these things except the rats (at least during the first few levels), although it has admittedly made a couple of the other bullet points more tolerable. Instead of each character having his own set of body parts, there's one active character figure in the middle of the four character portraits, and there's an option to move all characters at once. Food and water have been combined into a single nutrient system (apparently, you just eat paste in the future), and it depletes relatively slowly. Everything else is still there.
With my leg highlighted to move the characters, I am trying without success to get them through this doorway.
It was primarily the rats that drove me out of Shadowlands. The game would have been frustrating and annoying without them, but with them, I simply found it impossible. Thus, as I played the first couple of levels of Shadoworlds, I briefly started to imagine that I might suck it up and finish it. Then I ran into a doorway that took me 10 minutes to nudge my four characters through, and the BRIEF idea looked attractive again.
Shadowlands got a U.S. release but Shadoworlds did not. MobyGames' round-up of reviews shows that European magazines rated Shadowlands between 40 and 94 with a median of 85. Shadoworlds got between 31 and 93 with a median of 74. In addition to lacking character development, the second game also lack's the first's magic system (without replacing it with anything) and armor as part of the inventory. Reviewers also didn't like the simplistic combat, and many complained (as I did) about the pathfinding. One positive, which I didn't experience, is the ability to customize weapons with different barrels.
By the end of my time, my characters had a pistol and a light saber.
Teque London lasted until almost 2000 but never put out another RPG or even a game with RPG aspirations. Lighting effects in games would continue to improve through the present day.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Legends of Valour: A Man of Means by No Means

My character very slowly works his way up in the world.
Legends of Valour does about as well as a 1992 game could do in simulating the experience of a hayseed in the big city, trying to solve a quest but also having to attend to the base levels of Maslow's hierarchy. The character needs to eat, drink, and sleep before he can find Sven, and to do that, he needs to work. If he brings a lot of money with him from home, he might be able to survive for a couple of weeks, but he won't be as prepared to deal with the threats of a semi-violent world. It's a great setup. Everything about this game has been great in setup.
Valour is somewhat realistic in its use of variables, too. Your need for sleep drops faster the longer it's been since you slept. Thirst drops more quickly than hunger. All of them deplete at a sensible rate, which means that you can survive for a night or two without sleep and a day or two without food. When it comes to replenishing those bars, this is a city, after all. Your biggest obstacle is more likely to be an inability to pay than an inability to find what you need.
An inability to digest most of the food is a secondary problem.
As I began this session, I was a bit fatigued and hungry from my first day, but nothing that was an emergency. I decided to leap right into my second quest for the Guild of Men at Arms, which required a contribution of 36 gold just to get the quest. The guildmaster told me to go find Orlak the Warrior at the Casino, and that he would give me my next task. I had to return to the guild within three days.
As usual, I began by asking NPCs where I might find the Casino. My cousin Sven had told me he'd leave word at the Troll's Arms, so I asked about that, too. I eventually learned that the Casino was 103 poles to the southwest and the Troll's Arms was 93 poles west. This took several conversations, because NPCs often claim not to know or say something unhelpful like "none of your business." This gets rather infuriating when it happens several times in a row. It can get extra frustrating because you usually have to ask multiple times: once to get the initial direction and rough distance, and at least one more time as you get closer to the location. At first, I had some fun recording the names and professions of each NPC: Akura of Sogu, a student surgeon; Zelig the Unfortunate, a retired builder; Denby of the Valkyries, a manic bear trainer; Conan of the Norns, a journeyman bear trainer; Elvis the Terrible, master of the marines. Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter what their names and professions are because they're just interchangeable puppets offering directions (or not).
A bash a woman with my axe. She attacked first.
You occasionally find discarded items on the ground of the city, like potions, throwing daggers, or a few gold pieces. I developed a small inventory. You also get attacked occasionally, usually by someone who wanders up and delivers a stinging insult: "You remind me of a deranged boil"; "You look like a satyr's armpit"; "Your mother was a half-blown swamp leach." Fortunately, none of them have been very good. A couple of whacks of my axe, using any of the motions (although I gather that certain weapons and certain enemies respond better to certain attacks), was enough to kill them. They sometimes leave a few gold pieces when they die.
Some of this game's NPCs just look for trouble.
I found the Troll's Arms first, but it was closed, and it needs to be open to read the message boards. So I headed south until I found the Casino. Orlak greeted me the moment I walked in. He gave me the quest: go to the Mermaid's Rest and find the "salty captain." Follow him until he leads me to "contraband," then return the latter to the guild.
Finding the Mermaid's Rest wasn't hard. A few inquiries indicated that it was in the southeast corner of the city. The first NPC I spoke to inside was named "Captain Birdseye." I assumed he was the "salty captain." Problems began there. The game is not really well-designed for "following" an NPC, partly because NPCs cross the screen quickly, but it takes you 4 seconds to do a 180-degree turn, which is a lifetime when your quarry is scurrying down the street. NPCs enter and exit doors before you even notice what's happened. And if you're unlucky enough to lose one in a crowd, good luck picking him out among several identical-looking NPCs. Fortunately, I had met the captain in a tavern, and was thus able to save just before attempting the quest (you can only save in taverns, hostels, and inns), but I kept losing him on the street.
Thomas Crown'd again.
Ultimately, I solved the problem by just systematically exploring nearby houses until I found the one with the "contraband." I brought it back to the guild and was promoted to "trooper," which apparently entitles me to a wage. It was only 1 gold piece to start. I don't know if I get paid daily or weekly. The next promotion was going to cost me 48 gold, and I figured I needed to attend to some personal needs first, so I declined.
I had replenished my food and water meters in a couple of taverns, but my fatigue meter was getting dangerously low. I thus headed for a hostel near the entrance called The Traveler's Inn. I was dismayed to see that they charged per week, and the worst room cost 140 gold pieces, or about 30 more than I had at the time. They were even more expensive at the Dead Man's Inn, a hostel I'd noted near the Stone Circle.
Never stay in a motel with this name in real life.
I decided to see if I could get there through gambling. I'd previously tried my luck with a dice game at the Mermaid's Rest. Each die had only two symbols, and they seemed to have a 50% chance of coming up. You lose unless all three symbols are the same, which happens 25% of the time, at which point you get 4 gold pieces for the 1 that you bet. (Technically, the game doesn't take the 1 gold piece unless you lose, so you really only "get" 3, but the math works the same.) That means that the game has completely even odds.
Cockroach racing at the Hanged Man is more complicated. The amount you win ranges from 2 gold pieces to 11 gold pieces depending on which cockroach you bet on. The one with the least favorable odds (1:2) is the first one, but it almost always wins. Roach #4 is the underdog, but he pays 11:1. I tried to work out the win percentages of each roach, but the game would only let me bet about 10 times before the bartender announced that gambling was closed for the evening. I suspect the odds are about 1:1 for this game, too. Later, I found a three-card Monte game that also had 1:1 odds in the long run. I suspect that's going to be true of all of the city's gambling. Normally, in such situations, I'd try a Martingale strategy to ensure that I won repeatedly, but this game doesn't let you determine how much you bet. You can only bet 1 gold piece per round.
Nobody beats the Monte.
My character got so tired he passed out for a while, and when he woke up, he was so hungry and thirsty I needed to spend some immediate funds on sundries. Around this time, I remembered the game's "commodity" system, by which gold isn't the only type of wealth you carry. I had a couple of chunks of ore and a couple of hides from previous combats. I took them to the Customs House and sold them, and was thus able to afford a room for a week at The Traveler's Inn. When you rent a room in this game, you don't just rent a generic room. You choose specific one from a map. Each room has a container in it, where you can store excess money and goods, but I imagine you don't want to leave that container full when your rent runs out.
After 8 hours of sleep, my next priority was making sure I had enough money to afford to stay another week. The surest way to make money in this game seems to be taking odd jobs from message boards. I headed back over to the Customs House, where the current work notice said I should pick up a box at The Armoury and take it to The Thespians' Tavern (which, confusingly, is a hostel) for 24 gold pieces. During this mission, I noticed that my health was slipping for no apparent reason, so I ducked into the Temple of Aegir and saw the healer. "You have dehydration and combat injuries and weakness and vampirism and severe poisoning," he said. The cure would be 104 gold. I guess those random street combats aren't so harmless after all. I didn't have anywhere near that amount, so I reloaded to an earlier save that was hopefully before I had any of that stuff and repeated a lot of this session.
Making an honest living.
I spent the next few hours doing my best to put some money together. Five ways became apparent to me as I did so:
  • Odd jobs. They change almost every day, but they all involve picking up an item from one random place and taking it to a second random place. Doing a few of these helped me learn the layout of the city. Unfortunately, these missions are sometimes bugged, with the receiving location refusing to acknowledge the item when you arrive. Fortunately, you can usually just go sell the item in a shop if the recipient won't sign for it.
Unfortunately, I dropped it, I dropped it, yes, on the way I dropped it.
  • Killing and looting. The game is specifically designed not to allow you to get very rich doing this, but every time you slay someone, there's a chance he drops a few gold pieces, an item, or a weapon.
  • Scavenging. You can find some pretty valuable items just sitting on the street, including bundles of unidentified "treasure." Once I figured out how to sell items to shops (which unintuitively involves clicking on empty boxes in the shopkeeper's inventory), I made a decent amount of money on a few items. Even rocks will sell for 3 gold pieces.
A bar of gold just sits on the ground.
  • Commodities trading. I started recording the buying and selling prices of the various traders, and I identified a few places where I could buy low and sell high. Unfortunately, the traders don't often have a lot of an item in stock, so you can only buy a few things at a time.
I start an import/export business.
  • Stealing. Stealing is just like finding, except that the items are in houses.
At first, I tried to avoid stealing for role-playing reasons. But I kept running into situations where I needed to wait a few hours for one shop or another to open, so it naturally made sense to poke my head into random buildings while I was trying to kill time. Near the entrance to the city, one of these incursions got me a pair of "Seven League Boots," which appeared in my inventory as a magic item. They make movement a lot faster when I hold down the SPACE bar. Unfortunately, this increase in speed does not apply to turning. If the name sounds familiar, Seven-League Boots are common in European folklore and have previously appeared in Hellfire Warrior (1980) and Omega (1988).
Powerful magic items, just sitting around.
I figured that since I was now a full-blown thief, I might as well go grab those special gauntlets that I saw in The Armoury during my first session. They appeared in another "special effects" window, so I guess I was right the first time, and the one "armor" item is the only type of equipment you get.
These missions took me to a lot of taverns and shops with notice boards, so I got a lot more messages from Sven even though I lost the specific thread of which message was supposed to lead me to the next. The messages started indicating that Sven, though he may have started as an opportunist, was starting to take a more active role in city affairs. "The only way to bring order back to this town," one said, "is by gaining power in the guilds. If I'm arrested, you'll have to take my place." Another was more directly helpful: "You must become a high priest as well as a guild master. It's the only way."
The source of yet another Elder Scrolls trope.
My travels also took me to the Fellowship of the Asegeir, one of the magic guilds. I spontaneously decide to join, as I wanted to check out the spell system. The initiation quest asked me to recover the Potion of Judegment [sic] within two days. There was no more information, but fortunately the first NPC I stopped outside knew about it: "It was stolen from the guildhall by Aldic the Illusionist prior to being committed to the asylum."
Some random passer-by knows the whole story.
I found the asylum through the usual method of asking directions. I didn't find Aldic, but the potion was on a table in an empty cell. I returned it and became a "spellbrewer's assistant." I still need to join one of the temples, apparently. I did wander into the Temple of Odin, but they didn't like that I belonged to the Guild of Men at Arms. I can still try the Temple of Aegir or the Temple of Set. The Temple of Freya won't have me because I'm a male.
I wonder what would have happened if I'd drunk it.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • Everything in town closes on Sunday.
  • There are a lot of special buildings that sound important but the game doesn't really do anything with them. The "theater" is just a large room leading to the Thespian's Tavern. The "Brewhouse" is completely empty. The asylum doesn't seem to have any patients. 
Maybe they haven't invented brewing yet.
  • I've found at least one "dungeon" entrance. It leads to something called the Labyrinth with a minotaur prowling the corridors. I suspect this is a quest, though, and I don't want to do it prematurely. I took some shots and reloaded. 
This is not a game that fills me with confidence that they've anticipated players doing things out-of-order.
  • Towards the end of the session, the Temple of Odin told me that I had mild poisoning. I don't know how this keeps happening.
  • When you first load a game, the meters are all wrong. They're set for the default character. You have to immediately load the game again to see them for your character.
  • Some of the shops have a picture of me on a poster that says "Wanted: for crimes against the state." I don't know if this is a joke or if I'm in honest trouble. Maybe I shouldn't have taken those boots.
How does a medieval society reproduce color graphics with such fidelity?
Messages come and go too fast. It doesn't help that the game regards every keypress as an acknowledgement of the message. I had to turn off CTRL's mapping in DOSBox because every time I went to take a screen shot (CTRL-F5), I would accidentally acknowledge and dismiss the message I was trying to capture.
I still like the setup of Legends of Valour, but I'm starting to see through it. It appears that the developers populated this map with a lot of buildings but then didn't stock them with anyone or anything very interesting. When all NPCs are procedurally-generated and none are special, exploration becomes boring quite fast.
I'm also concerned that the manual has outright lied about both inventory and skills. The only "character sheet" that the game offers shows only your status in the various guilds. It does not offer a place to change armor, and none of the shops I've visited so far have sold any armor. Worse, I don't have a lot of confidence that the game really has any skills. If it does, they're hidden behind the scenes with no way to track them, and I doubt they actually improve through use. That means the game isn't even really an RPG by my definitions (though I admit it's hard to identify another genre it belongs to). It's as if all the development money went to the open world and continuous movement, and there wasn't anything left for decent RPG elements.
I want to see how the spell system works, so my next goal is to save up enough money to buy spells in the guild. We'll see how it continues to develop.
Time so far: 10 hours