Sunday, January 31, 2021

Spelljammer: Shipwreck

I believe this is the beginning of the main quest.
        
Let's pick up the story where I left off. The crew of the Meandering Beast was building fame, experience, and wealth doing a bunch of fetch quests, but they were having trouble with melee combat, such that as this session began, I gave up the pirate quest and went back to hustling people and goods around the solar system. But after a few more cargo missions--a couple of which lost me money because of taxes that exceeded the reward--I was ready to try again. On Anadia, I met an ex-trader named Quall D'ord, whose mutinous first mate, Eloom Blackleaf, had made off with his ship and cargo. The ship was bound for Karpri, and Quall wanted me to intercept it. I buzzed around Karpri until I encountered the ship, then closed and grappled.
         
Bit by bit, I make my fortune.
       
Instead of pirates, the ship was full of undead, including skeletons, specters, and mummies. The problem was, mummies and specters only respond to magic weapons, and I didn't have any. Their levels were too high for my clerics to turn (and see my note about turning), and collectively my mages didn't have enough spells to destroy them that way.
      
Unfortunately, I can't really do anything to mummies.
      
We were also attacked by some Neogi. These creatures apparently keep umber hulks as pets, and the umber hulks tore through us without stopping. From these two battles, I became convinced that my crew's problem was a lack of good gear. I specifically needed magic weapons in the hands of at least a few party members.
  
Before I could make the purchases, another galleon attacked me in wildspace. This one had regular human fighters on board, and I'm pleased to say that we were at last victorious. The galleon had 6,266 gold pieces and enough cargo to get us another 4,000. The morale boost was more important.
        
About to win my first victory.
       
During this session, I met several friendly ships in space. When you hail them, you have several dialogue options, most of which are just generically friendly. If the other captain doesn't respond, that's a good sign the ship is hostile. If he does, there's a decent chance that he gives you a rumor. These rumors seem to be drawn from the same database as the ones you can hear in bars. I've been keeping track of them:
 
  • There is an asteroid field near H'Cathha made of pieces of glass. Sailors call it "Shredder" because it will tear your ship to pieces.
  • There is an item that disguises your ship on Garden. Clive's said to have it.
  • Don't trust ships that don't respond to your attempts to hail them.
  • There sure have been a lot of Neogi attacks lately.
  • Mind flayers are offering top dollar for sharp-minded boys like you. Ha! ha!
  • We were sitting by the aft rail looking at the stars when the biggest ship I've ever seen showed up. Twas like a giant bat and moved like we were standing still.
    
I did a few other random quests while looking for shops that sold magic gear. During the process, Woodes gained another level. This must have triggered something, because when we arrived at the next port, we were met by a government agent named Count Eldacar. He said the combined governments of Waterdeep, Hissta, and Umbergad were concerned about the number of Neogi in the system lately. Usually belligerent to each other, they have lately unified and seem to be operating out of a large, mobile base that disappears every time someone sees it. He promised 100,000 gold if I could find and destroy this base.
   
I wasn't sure where to even start, but I got some help on that front. Not long out of port, a mysterious ship hailed us. We responded, and the captain of the other ship invited me to his cabin. He represented Clive the Fearsome, ruler of the planet Garden, who wanted to see us. We made our way to Garden.
        
The dread pirate Clive.
       
Clive knew about the quest we'd been given by the Council of Lords' agent. Clive--who is clearly some kind of gangster--also wanted the Neogi out of the system. He gave us a map that supposedly led to the treasure trove of Drach Barrachas, a dwarven pirate who had a magic device that would disguise his ship to appear any way he wanted.
   
I still hadn't found any magic gear, but I seemed to remember a magic shop on Toril, so I headed back. On the way, we were attacked by another pirate, and I accidentally destroyed his ship in ship-to-ship combat mode. I still don't fully get it--particularly what "Target" does--but you basically point at the enemy and fire your ballistae, arrows, and other heavy weapons with a single click. Then there's a cool down as they reload. Weapons both damage enemy ships and kill or injure crew. There are also buttons to "shear" and "ram," but my vessel is too flimsy for such maneuvers.
         
Firing at an enemy ship in space.
       
Eventually I got to Toril and managed to buy +1 or +2 weapons for everyone except my mages; there were no magic staves or daggers. Here, I discovered something annoying about the interface: there's a command to "pool" all gold to a single character, but none to distribute it. This means that when you're purchasing expensive items, one character has to do all the buying and then trade the items to the intended recipients. Why, by 1992, is gold still being assigned to individual characters? Has that ever made sense?
         
Woodes distributes purchased weapons to the party.
        
We lifted off from Toril and made our way to the ruined dwarven fortress ship, which showed up on our "special places" map. Soon we found the behemoth lurking dead in space. There was no one living on board firing weapons at us, so we didn't fire anything at it as we approached and grappled.
          
The dwarven fortress is a ghost ship, drifting in wildspace.
       
The ship turned out to be two large levels full of undead, including skeletons, zombies, revenants, and a lich. I ended up fighting this battle five times and felt pretty good about my combat mastery by the time it was over. The first time, I actually won. The lich was surprisingly docile, refusing to cast any spells or even make melee attacks. The second, third, and fourth times, however, he came busting out with "Cloud Kill" and wiped out half the party. The fifth, I won again, but it was a lot harder than the first time because the enemies were harder. Every time you reload, the game re-stocks enemy ships, and on this fifth run, there were much more revenants as opposed to skeletons and zombies.
    
I'll cover why I had to win twice in a minute, but let's talk more about the combat. I said last time that it was recognizably rooted in the Gold Box, but with additional features and more intricate environments. In fact, with enemy and ally "stacks," it essentially bridges Gold Box tactical combat and strategy game combat. 
      
This battle begins on the rear deck of the ship. There are three doors from here.
        
Battles are lot longer than Gold Box battles. The dwarven fortress took up to two hours per combat. Mage spells exhaust relatively quickly, so fighters take on a prominence here that they never held in the Gold Box. So does in-combat healing.
  
My long experience with this one fight revealed a lot of quirks about Spelljammer's approach to combat--some good, some annoying, some just confusing. Here are the highlights:
   
  • As I noted last time, the combat maps are much more detailed, taking place in large areas with lots of doors. Sometimes, these doors are locked. You have options to smash or pick them open. ("Knock" might also be an option, but I didn't memorize that.) The annoying thing is, the door doesn't remain smashed open after the character succeeds. The next character has to try to pass through the door after making his own smash/unlock roll. I was often trying to bring multiple characters through a door only to have the first make it through and the trailing ones get hung up by a weaker character who couldn't open it.
  • Enemies can't target or hit you in doorways! They act like you're not even there. This was true of Knights of Legend, too, which this game often reminds me of. Thus, a good strategy is to smash open a door and stand there in the doorway, attacking anyone on the other side with impunity.
       
Two characters stand safely in doorways and take turns attacking a stack of zombies.
      
  • But if you do this, only that one character can attack. Other characters cannot shoot or cast spells through doorways even if another character is holding it open. (This is true if the doorway has a door, at least. It may not be true if the doorway is open.)
  • If you realize you're inevitably going to lose, you can't quit combat and reload. You have to kill the emulator.
  • The AI on your random crew is pretty poor. The dwarven fortress started us on a balcony and required us to penetrate deep into the fortress. None of the enlisted members of the crew managed to find their way through more than one door.
  • The spellcaster who pilots the ship has all his magic power converted into movement. There's no point in having him memorize spells because he just forgets them. This means that, functionally, I have only one cleric.
  • Clerics are extra important, too, because healed characters will stand up in combat and continue to fight, unlike the Gold Box where you had to wait until the end of combat to revive them.
  • As for spells in general, there is no "rest" mechanic. You simply pull up the spellbook and "learn" the ones that you want. Unfortunately, there's no quick way to re-learn the spells you've already cast. And there's no way to cast spells outside of combat except for healing.
  • There are thus no opportunities to buff before combat. You have to do your best at the beginning of the battle. For me, that usually means holding everyone in the starting area with the "Wait" command until my cleric's turn comes up and I can cast "Prayer."
          
My cleric casts "Prayer" around the party at the beginning of combat.
       
  • "Bless" now only applies to individuals, not the entire party. "Prayer" seems to be the "group Bless" spell. I don't think stacking them does anything.
  • Sometimes characters act on their own in combat even if you didn't set them to computer control.
  • "Turn Undead" doesn't make them flee or destroy them. It just sort of puts them out of commission for about four rounds. You can only turn a single stack of foes per round.
     
In the end, I have mixed feelings on whether I think it's better or worse than Gold Box combat. It has most of the same strengths--in particular, the creators have done a good job implementing the D&D spells (at least, the ones that I have cast). It is far more tactical with its terrain. Instead of accommodating four warriors abreast, the narrowest corridors here just allow for one enemy, meaning you have to be careful with who leads the exploration and where you allow yourself to get pressed into melee combat. Enemy AI is smart, and enemies will attack weak characters, so you can't stick your mages or low-health characters into the fringes of combat and hope the AI ignores them. "Bandaging" fallen characters takes on new importance, because you can't trust that the battle will be over before the fallen character bleeds out. You also have to be immediately adjacent to him (a nod to realism that I don't mind, I guess), meaning you rarely want individual characters out there exploring alone. Either way, you probably want everyone carrying a healing potion, which I hardly ever used in the Gold Box. These are all mostly good things.

Tight corridors make missile weapons and spells extra important.
            
On the other hand, you have the poor friendly AI. All those miscellaneous fighters I'm paying for aren't very useful if they just crowd around the starting area. They often block doors, too, which hasn't put me in an unwinnable situation yet, but I could see it happening. I'm not a huge fan of very long battles because I don't like re-fighting them when things go wrong.
    
That brings us back to the dwarven fortress. The reason I didn't accept victory on the first try is that the game crashed. When a battle is over, the main character appears on the map alone, free to wander around if you want to. There are three options: "Heal," "Flee," and "Loot." The first two don't make any sense to me. You can heal more thoroughly out of combat, so why do it here? As for "Flee," why flee after you've won? Anyway, "Loot" is the only sensible option to choose after winning the dwarven fortress, and for me, it crashes the game. I've won twice now, investing over five hours in both won and lost battles in this one location alone.
   
Thinking my game might be corrupt, and wanting to try some other things anyway, I downloaded a fresh install of the game and created a new captain. I figured if only the lead character ever advances, I'd make it a mage, and thus get to try some advanced mage spells. I create a female half-elf mage named Hortense--don't ask me where the name came from; it was completely random.
       
I used a spreadsheet to track what I had and what I needed.
   
The game must have decided that because I created a female character, I must want an entire female party, because that's what I got: two clerics, three additional mages, a fighter, a paladin, a ranger, and a thief. This time, I paid a lot closer attention to each character's selection of weapons and armor and made incremental upgrades every time I could afford it. My clerics, for instance, both started with nothing but robes, even though they're capable of wearing plate mail. A lot of my characters capable of wearing shields and helms started with none. I even bought better boots and cloaks for those characters who started with none or inferior ones, even though I don't think those items do anything.
   
I started with the usual fetch missions, but once I had everyone but the mages upgraded to magic weapons, I felt comfortable taking on a quest to destroy a "ghost ship." I found it in the space above Coliar and engaged in a short battle with zombies and mummies. Victory was swift. But then the game crashed when I went to loot the ship. I tried again with a new installation of DOSBox and it still crashed after this battle.
          
This battle was relatively easy because I could stick a character in the doorway choke point.
           
I also identified these other bugs during play:
         
  • There's a mission where a man says he wants to go to Glyth, but you don't get the reward if you take him to Glyth. He really wants to go to Waterdeep.
  • Mages can equip short bows. I haven't tested to see if they can actually fire them.
  • Characters sometimes unequip their weapons in the middle of combat.
  • The game sometimes forget that you already know the properties of a magic item. So a longsword +3 mysteriously just becomes a "longsword" in the character's inventory, and you have to identify it again.
  • After one battle, the game shouted that my second helmsman was dead. She wasn't.
      
My second helmsman was not dead.
       
  • Enemies who don't exist sometimes take action on the battle screen. For instance, the game might say, "Zombie, who was guarding, attacks," even though there aren't any more zombies.
       
If anyone has any suggestions, I'll take them. If you have a copy of the game for which you never had this problem with crashing after combat, please send it along. Otherwise, I think I may have to mark this one as unwinnable and move on.

Time so far: 14 hours, but only about 7 "preserved."

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Game 398: Dungeons of Doom (1990)

        
Dungeons of Doom
Germany
Independently developed and published
Released 1990 for DOS
Date Started: 21 January 2021
Date Ended: 22 January 2021
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy (2/5) 
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)  
    
Dungeons of Doom is a simple game that lasts a short amount of time. The only reason it lasts even a few hours is because you can get stuck (more in a bit). Part of me wants to be critical, but honestly, it's not like the game begged me to play it. Indeed, it seems to have done everything possible to hide itself from my attention. I couldn't find it when I first passed through 1990. No less than three people later sent it to me. They had to drag it kicking and screaming out of obscurity. Even when it was new, I can't see any evidence that the creator charged for it.
    
The game begins with no character creation.
      
The game is a first-person dungeon crawler that takes place in a dungeon of three levels. Your goal is to find the "Cup of Eternal Life." You start with three characters named Xenior, Pladon, and Godran. The first two seem to be fighters, though they have different icons. Godran is a mage and the only one with mage points. Strength serves as both strength and hit points. You have no inventory when you start. As you explore, you find swords, axes, shields, keys, and nine different magic spells. You battle mummies on the first level, skeletons on the second, and "Lords of Darkness" on the third. Then you find the cup and the game is over.
     
Early in the game, we find a key.
        
I rated it "easy" because it's so short and you can save anywhere, but there are a couple of things that make it challenging. First, there are more locked doors than there are keys to open them, at least on the first level. You can easily trap yourself with no ability to progress downward. (On Level 3, you finally get the "Open Door" spell just in time to encounter no more locked doors.) I had to restart twice because of this issue.

Second, combat is slightly challenging. It's a bit like a crude Dungeon Master, occurring in real-time, with the ability to see enemies in the environment. Individual enemies aren't hard, but you tend to get attacked by waves of them, and neither their own hit points nor the damage they do is consistent. Sometimes that Lord of Darkness might have 5 hit points, hit you for 3 damage, and die in one round, and sometimes he might have 50 hit points, hit you for 40 damage, and wipe out the party. Since your only attack option is A)ttack, there isn't much strategy at first, but once the mage has a variety of spells, there are more things you can do. A "Strength" and "Magic Shield" combo did a lot for me, and "Fireball" reliably wipes out enemies if you don't mind all the experience going to Godran. You otherwise get experience with every successful attack.
      
All the first-level enemies are mummies.
   
One saving grace is that enemies can only attack you if you're looking at them. If you turn to the side and shout, "I can't see you! I can't see you!," they can't advance into your square. Since strength (health) and magic points regenerate as you pass time with invalid actions, it's possible to turn against a wall, ram into it for a few minutes, and fully regenerate before turning and fighting the next enemy. Oh, and if a character dies, he can be revived with a simple "Heal" spell.
         
Skeletons are the foes on Level 2.
       
I never really understood the weapons. You find several axes and swords, and every character can carry multiples of each. I don't know if carrying more than one sword, or an axe plus a sword, does more damage than just having one weapon. The game doesn't last long enough to worry about.
        
Does two swords and one axe do more damage than just one sword?
       
Leveling is also a bit of a mystery. I didn't reach Level 2 (which doubled my strength and magic) until halfway through the third dungeon level. I won the game before reaching Level 3. Did the developer originally plan for a longer game? Who knows.
   
The first dungeon level is huge, occupying coordinates up to 27 x 58 (though with "worm tunnel" walls). Mapping becomes easier when you find the "Position" spell. I didn't bother to map the second level, but I think it was about half the size of the first. The third occupied coordinates only up to 14 x 31. You find a "Map" spell on the third level that brings up a surprisingly advanced automap. The level is shaped like a skull, and it's pretty easy to find the cup. Once you find it, the game is over.
    
That's how I want more games to end: "Yeahh."
       
What else can I tell you? There's no sound except for little squeaks when you cast a spell and little crunches as you fight. There are no NPCs and no economy. There's a composition of sorts that plays over the title screen, but I don't think anyone's going to be adding it to a playlist. Though created by a German and coming with German instructions, everything in-game is in English. There are buttons for every action, but they all have keyboard backups that make sense in English (e.g., A)ttack, C)ast, SHIFT-S)ave).
   
That's all I can tell you. You want a GIMLET? I suppose I have room for it:
   
  • 0 points for the game world. There's no description of it.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. You might level up once.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. There are foes.
        
Lords of Darkness prowl Level 3.
       
  • 2 points for magic and combat, for reasons above.
     
Late in the game, I have a full set of spells.
         
  • 1 point for equipment, as above.
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Almost all of that is for the interface, which is very easy to use and has that neat automap. The graphics are at least functional.
          
Check out the "Map" spell. It annotates everything.
       
  • 2 points for gameplay. It gets that for being short.
     
That's a final score of 12, pretty miserable even for a freeware game. But I'll try to go out on a positive note. While I didn't love this game, I think that the creator, Arndt Hasch, showed promise as a programmer. There's a core of a potentially good game here. Some low-rated games need to be re-hauled, but this one just needs to be expanded; its problem is simplicity rather than incompetence. There are a few honestly impressive things. The spell system is well-balanced. The automap is better than what we see in a lot of commercial games. And in 1990, not even Wizardry, the Gold Box series, and Might and Magic had yet figured out how to show enemies in the environment. Even the graphics show some promise, particularly how defeated enemies dissolve in front of you. Finally, if he was going to make a simple game, let's give him a hand for not making it 20 levels.
        
My map of Level 1.
        
Three years later, Hasch programmed an adventure game called Der Schatz im Silbersee ("The Treasure in Silver Lake") set in the American West. It looks a lot like a point-and-click Sierra game, and it's very attractive. Unfortunately, that's his only other game credit that I can find, although one site claims that he wrote a "DOS music tracker for Adlib soundcards" for Rainbow Arts.
    
Thanks to Lance, David, and "BillBull" for sending me the game. BillBull managed to Twitch about it for like six hours last year. I assume he had to restart a few times because of the keys.


Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Game 397: Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace (1992)

      
Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace
Canada
Cybertech (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 20 January 2021
 
This is my first exposure to the Spelljammer setting. I rather like it. It crosses genres in a way we rarely see: science fiction on top of a fantasy base. We see it go the other way a lot, as in Star Wars and Babylon 5. But fantasy characters usually remain firmly rooted on their own planets. If they don't, they typically travel to other places through some kind of magic portal or dimensional shifting, not by actually taking space ships. (Dungeons and Dragons uses this alternate approach with its "planes" and Planescape setting.) Might and Magic is an exception, but a confusing one, since you never really learn the rules of the (mostly hidden) science fiction universe. Brandon Sanderson's "Cosmere" is another example, although it also has kept most of the sci-fi parts hidden for now. 
       
I expected Spelljammer to occupy a completely different universe than the Dungeons and Dragons games I've played so far. Instead, it launches--quite literally--from the familiar Forgotten Realms Setting of Waterdeep. From there, instead of going south to Baldur's Gate or north to Luskan, it goes up--to space. And why not? Clearly there is a "space" in the Forgotten Realms. The planet is called "Toril," suggesting there are other planets. At nighttime, you can see stars.
       
You can play a female, but you assign sex after class and race, so all the default portraits are male.
     
But because Spelljammer is sci-fi grafted onto fantasy rather than the other way around, its space doesn't have to be our space--and it's not. The stars, therefore, are not other suns in the vast distance. They are instead small holes in the crystal sphere that surrounds what we would think of as Toril's "solar system," allowing people to see the "phlogiston" that exists between solar systems. Through the "wildspace" within solar systems and the phlogiston between them sail a variety of ships, powered by spellcasters wearing special helms called "spelljamming helms." [Ed. I was interpreting "helm" as "helmet," when I guess it's meant as the helm (wheel and other steering mechanisms) of a ship.] These ships don't need to worry about gravity and atmosphere because their science is not our science.
       
These are definitely the working-class versions of their associated races.
       
I guess the entire Spelljammer setting is no longer canon. It was only around from 1989 to 1993, when Planescape replaced as a method for connecting the various D&D campaign settings. I think that's too bad. I admittedly don't have much experience with it, but I fundamentally don't "get" Planescape, whereas I took to Spelljammer immediately (in saying that, I'm talking less about the game and more about the documentation). I would have loved to see it appear in the Infinity Engine. It draws from Ptolemaic theory, Jules Verne, steampunk, and classic nautical fiction, including pirate adventures. I could have done with a whole series of games in this setting.
    
Spelljammer of course came after the GreyHawk, Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Dragonlance, Kara-Tur, and several other Dungeons and Dragons campaign settings, each with their own origin stories, and now they were connected in a shared universe. The game manual highlights the theological complications associated with insisting that these settings are all "spheres" in a shared universe and that the gods, therefore, may only be gods of their own "spheres." 
    
My first ship.
      
The box claims that the game uses the second edition of the AD&D ruleset, which had come out in 1989. I spent some time researching what that should mean. First, the caps on classes based on race are gone, but that's not a huge advantage here because the experience levels don't go very high and there's no sequel. [Ed. I was wrong about this. There are fewer restrictions, and I think some of the caps have been raised, but they're not gone.] But I also thought AD&D2 was supposed to offer more classes, including the bard and the druid, and those aren't present in the game. Neither are weapon proficiencies. "Melf's Acid Arrow" appears as a spell, but I think that was in AD&D1 and the gold box games just never included it. Some of you who have more expertise with the rules may have to alert me to more of the changes.
   
Either way, the same familiar races, classes, alignments, and attributes are present as you create your captain. Although the game could theoretically draw on the conventions of any of the constituent campaign settings, it seems to use familiar Forgotten Realms themes. Mages are thus just mages--not white or black or red. I don't know how clerics figure out what gods they worship; I guess it depends on where they were born.
 
I created a chaotic good half-elf ranger named Woodes. (The default name, strangely, was "Guilt.") The game automatically assigned attributes, but I was able to re-roll, and I did until I had acceptable intelligence, strength, and dexterity. The rolls were pretty generous, rarely going less than 13 and never less than 10 except for charisma. You start at Level 5 with nearly 20,000 experience points.
        
Later, I'll have wished I held out for more hit points.
         
The backstory has the main character born on Toril, unaware of the other worlds of the cosmos until he meets a spelljammer captain one night in a Waterdeep tavern. Initially skeptical of the captain's claims to have sailed the stars, the character's doubts are dispelled when the captain invites him aboard the vessel and takes him on a short trip to the moon. The captain explains that he wants to retire to Waterdeep and thus sells the craft to the character, who assembles a crew and embarks on his own career on the high aether.
      
If a Star Wars movie was just 90 minutes of title crawl.


   
The game begins with the ship in wildspace. It is a galleon called the Meandering Beast that can only land in water. A large crew is aboard, already assigned to various positions on the ship. In addition to Captain Woodes, I have:
   
  • First mate: Grendal, a lawful good half-elf cleric
  • Helmsman: Loric Brightshield, a lawful good human cleric
  • 2nd Helmsman: Moran Silverleaf, a lawful good elf mage
  • Navigator: Melcar the Wise, a lawful good human mage
  • Lookout: Norv Greybard, a lawful good human mage
  • Crew: Grog Stiffbeard, a lawful good human fighter
  • Crew: Sir Aeron, a lawful good human paladin
  • Crew: Stephan Longlegs, a lawful good half-elf ranger
  • Crew: Sopa Swiftfingers, a chaotic good halfling thief
  
Screw evil characters, women, and gnomes, I guess. Everyone is Level 5 and has an appropriate selection of weapons and spells. Inventory includes cloaks, helms, and boots along with melee and missile weapons and trade items like holy symbols and thieves' picks. Oddly, some of the attributes seem a bit low for the characters' chosen classes. My clerics have wisdom scores of 11 and 12. One of my mages has an intelligence of 11 but a dexterity of 18.
  
My hardy crew..
        
The game has started me with no job and no clue. I'm adrift in a starfield with no particular destination. There are no log entries, no manifest, and three tons of cargo: one ton each of elm, pine, and limestone.
   
A check of the map shows I can visit any of the planets in Toril's system, both outer (Chandos, Garden, and Glyth) and inner (Karpri, Coliar, Anadia, and Toril). I don't know anything about the lore of these systems, but the manual has a short description of each. I decide to start where the manual does, on Coliar, home of "races of lizard men, aaracokra, and dragons." I set the destination and spelljam there automatically, which takes about a minute of zooming through space. 
       
You can set a course for a planet by selecting it on the map.
      
Upon arrival, I'm given a choice of Hisssta and Athanar; I choose the former. Arriving at a city in this game is like arriving at a port in Pirates! You have options to visit whatever the government building is called and talk to the governor (although you need an invitation, which I don't have), visit the docks to repair your ship, visit the cargo warehouse to buy and sell cargo and take special missions, buy and sell individual equipment at shops, get healed at a temple, and go to the bar for drinks, rumors, or work. Most ports seem to have some analog of all of these options.
      
Any game that features lizard men goes crazy with the onomatopoeia.
     
Every port requires you to pay a certain amount of money in taxes every time you dock. These vary from place to place and even time to time, and I haven't worked out the specific formula. I had a few jobs that were basically negated by the taxes required to dock and finish the job. I know--ha, ha, I was just expressing a willingness to pay higher taxes in my Star Quest entry. This is a fantasy game, and as far as I know, I'm not getting health care or highways for that money.
       
It's the "cargo tax" that gets you.
       
The developers took more inspiration from Pirates! than just the town options. The three basic ways of making money seem to be identical: buy and sell cargo, loot other ships (you can wait for hostile ones if you want to play "good"), and perform special missions. On this first visit, I am approached by a halfling who claims to have escaped from slavers and wants me to take him home to Anadia. I readily agree, even though a rumor in the same tavern says that "Anadia is so close to the sun that some ships burn before they can dock."
        
My first quest!
        
As I leave port, the crew demands to be paid, but that's a pittance compared to the taxes. I give them around 40 gold and then we're off to Anadia.
   
Right out of port, we're approached by a hostile spelljammer. Other than briefly playing with the options, which include firing ship's weapons and ramming, I haven't done much with the ship combat system. Instead, I simply close the distance and grapple. I want to see what the party combat system is like.
      
Ramming seems to be a bad idea.
     
It's going to take some getting used to. It is similar to Gold Box combat in rules. You and the enemy characters take turns based on initiative. During a character's turn, he has options to attack, defend, guard, cast, turn undead, change equipment, heal a companion, or flee (I don't know how that works in space). There's a new option to stop combat and "parlay" [sic]. You have movement points that I assume are based on encumbrance.
   
There are a few changes, though. First, the graphics are much different. They look a lot like Ultima VI. Second, each enemy icon can actually represent a stack of foes, and you have to kill all of them for the icon to disappear. Third, it turns out that I have crewmembers other than the officers! They're not named, and I can't control them directly in combat. They're mostly fighters, it seems, and they mostly shoot missile weapons, but they're pretty effective. 
 
The combat map varies from ship to ship, but it includes lots of barriers and rooms that can hide enemies and make it tough to track them all down.  
       
Until I got some experience, I wasn't sure which characters were mine.
         
This first combat goes horribly. I've forgotten to have my spellcasters memorize spells, so they're useless. My attackers are humanoid, and since I've never fought with this combat system before, I have a lot of trouble distinguishing friend from foe. My characters seem to go down awfully fast for Level 5. After a couple of them die, I kill the emulator and reload. This is before I got the quest on Coliar, so I have to return. The halfling isn't there anymore, but I get a similar quest (escaped from slavers) from a guy who wants to go to Toril.
       
In a later combat with lizard men, this was a bit easier.
        
You can only have one mission at a time, plus one cargo mission. The cargo missions almost always pay less than the ones you get in bars. I eventually learn that you get three chances per visit to accept or reject cargo missions, so you can try to hold out for one going to the same place as your other mission, if that makes sense.
   
You'll pay me 1,000 gold to deliver a single hammer to another planet?
        
When we get to Toril, I start recording the prices of cargo. I make a spreadsheet so that I can figure out how much each product (dwarven ale, steel, elm, cattle, copper, limestone, etc.) sells in each port and figure out which items might be profitable to trade. This soon becomes complicated. It turns out that the ports don't sell the same cargo, so it's hard to make comparisons. Even at a single port, the cargo offerings might change between visits. For insance, elm was selling for 250 gold per unit on Toril and 3,500 per unit on Hissta. I figured that would be like printing money. But when I returned to Toril to buy a bunch, there was no more elm. Finally, as I learned painfully, ports only pay half of what they sell the same cargo for. I'll keep recording the prices, but it seems like it's going to be tough making a profit this way.
    
I spent a while taking ferrying missions. A guy wants to go to Garden (huge taxes, but he paid well). A noble on Toril wants me to pick up his son's fiancée and bring her back to Toril. A family of refugees is trying to get to Ananda. The specific stories don't really matter.
   
Great. Now to pay half of that in taxes.
        
I get stopped by enemy vessels a couple of times, but my crew gets slaughtered every time. The closest I get is in a battle with some lizardmen, but they kill three of my characters, and I decide not to take that heavy a loss. I do finally memorize spells, and they work reasonably well, but it's not enough. A party of elves boards me at one point and just wipes me out with their arrows.
       
I did manage to fry a few of them.
      
Not all ships are hostile. The game has a "hailing" system that allows you to demand the enemy surrender or just hail him and talk. There are even some minor dialogue options within the associated conversation.
         
Talking with some vessel.
           
Finally, I see a strange ship that looks like a spider. Determined to win just once, I close and board it, only to find it completely deserted. All I can do is loot the ship. The game offers me the opportunity to trade ships, but while the new one has more cargo room and better offensive capabilities, the manual says it can't land at any ports. That's a dealbreaker. I do loot it for an upgrade spelljammer helm, some gold, and some minor bits of inventory (e.g., a suit of chainmail). It's pretty lucrative for not having to do any work. According to the manual, these spider ships are built by the Neogi, a "cross between a wolf spider and a moray eel." I can't quite picture that.
          
Woodes wanders an empty ship. Nothing to do but "loot" it.
       
Since different ships hold different numbers of crew, I suspect the goal here is to make enough money that I can afford a bigger ship with a bigger crew compliment, so it's like going into battle with an army. I haven't really looked at ship prices yet.
  
I'm wondering whether I get any experience for these non-combat missions, and it turns out that my main character does. He goes up to Level 6 as I complete the next mission. The rest of the officers don't seem to budge.   
       
Now I want to know how it determines experience. Light years traveled?
         
Back on Waterdeep, a government official meets me in the bar and asks me to look into a pirate vessel creating mischief around Anadia. I agree and head for the innermost planet, which involves skirting around the sun. I find no pirates on the way to the planet, but as I pull away, a pirate ship appears off my bow. I close and grapple. I'm determined to finally win one.
    
One wonders what all those appendages do.
     
My hopes dissipate as soon as I see my enemy: illithid. About seven of them, along with a bunch of fighter and gnome thralls. They're immune to magic and manage to stun several of my characters per round with psionic attacks. I manage to kill exactly one of them before I inevitably lose the battle.
        
Aren't mind flayers awfully advanced for Level 5?
        
Miscellaneous notes:
     
  • A lot of the shopkeepers are digitized photos. They look pretty bad.
       
Ah, I see this bar carries The Boss Hog Edition 六.
      
  • Although space is a 3D environment, you only ever have one heading to a planet, and you can only ever move in two dimensions.
  • Half the time I choose "spelljam to destination," I arrive near the planet but not at the planet. I sometimes have to choose it a few times.
  • The interface is great. The game can be run by mouse or keyboard; the keyboard commands are obvious and intuitive. 
  • When the game began, I had hoped my adventures would take me to Krynn and Greyhawk, but it appears that the game is limited to the Forgotten Realms system of planets. 
  • None of my mages who have Level 3 spells have "Fireball." The manual insists that it exists, though. It seems like a bad idea to cast it on a ship.
      
As far as I can tell, the few changes to the combat system don't weaken it at all. I still think it's a great system. I just wouldn't mind winning a combat for once. As for the rest of it, I can see why the game didn't really click. Flying from port to port without much to do in space and with no way to really explore the planets doesn't make for a very exciting game.
   
Time so far: 4 hours
 

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Secrets of Bharas: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

 
I don't mean to argue with the game, but I don't think I really did discover the secrets of Bharas.
         
The Secrets of Bharas
United States
Victory Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1991 for the Apple II GS
Date Started: 7 November 2020
Date Ended: 17 January 2021
Total Hours: 63 (but see discussion below)
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
    
Summary:
 
Bharas is a long game from the creators of 2088: The Cryllan Mission (1989). The game uses an improved version of 2088's engine (itself inspired heavily by Ultima IV) to tell a somewhat standard fantasy story about an evil force threatening to engulf the peaceful world of Bharas. The game is notable for the detail of its world-building, as related in NPC conversations, but unfortunately those NPCs are not interactive. What would otherwise be relatively good RPG mechanics for character development, inventory, combat, spells, and economy are buried by the need to explore a dozen huge, boring dungeons, fighting thousands of long battles against unmemorable foes. Only the rarest player will push through to the end of this one.
   
*******
    
I've grown cautious about making statements like this, but I have trouble believing that any other player has ever won Bharas, including the developers themselves. I only got through it by multi-tasking, and even then only barely. To play it through on the original hardware would be insane.
   
I have offered praise for aspects of the game, but its approach to dungeoneering makes it absolutely inexcusable. There are a dozen eight-level dungeons in the game, and you have to fully explore basically all of them. Each level is swarming with at least a dozen combats, and there's nothing else interesting about them. I got through it by playing mostly passively while I was doing other things. I would explore each level using a "rightmost path" system and let the computer fight each battle. As soon as the battle began, I switched my attention to another game, or work, or television, or whatever. When I came back, I healed my characters if they needed it and backtracked out of the dungeon if I was low on magic points (magic points regenerate on the surface but not in the dungeons). I did this until I got up to the eighth level and back down again to the exit, then moved on to the next dungeon. This went on for days. The entire week of 10-17 January, I basically had Bharas running full time--and I was running it on the emulator's equivalent of "turbo" mode.
        
Every time I actually found something on the eighth floor, it was a special thrill.
       
The purpose of all this dungeon-delving was to find a series of artifacts. Originally, it was the Amulet of the Third Eye, the Gem of Vision, and the Helmet of Goat Empathy, but once I had those, I went back to Yajiv the Big-Nosed and he said I'd need four more things to seal the crack in Jalamuki. I was pretty sure I already had two of them--Magic Water and Magic Ore. A third turned out to be the Cactus Flower I'd obtained from an NPC. I had to head back to the dungeons to find the last artifact, Magic Pebbles. Nothing was more depressing than getting to the eighth level of a dungeon and finding that it held something I already had, or just generic magic weapons or armor but no special items at all. 
   
I suppose one thing I can be grateful for is that the game doesn't try to trick the player by burying the key artifact in the middle of Level 5. You may have to take multiple up and down elevators to get to Level 8, but that's where the treasure always is. The Mines of Minere were particularly bad for this, with the sequence of levels going 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-7-5-8-6-8-7-8. To get into these Mines, incidentally, I needed the Crystal Key from an NPC. You'll recall that NPC was supposed to be June, and as I ended the last entry, I was confused because June had nothing to offer in response to that keyword. I ended up feeding the keyword to everyone else in the same town, and I got the key from another NPC named Kumar. Nothing in his dialogue or June's accounts for why he had it, and I assume it was just a bug in the program.
            
Most of the special items we needed to win the game.
     
Some of the artifacts that the game insists you find are interesting but not very useful. The Gem of Vision and the Amulet of the Third Eye do basically the same things: they show a region of land around the radius of the party. The Amulet shows a larger radius, but it's limited by the "star" shape that the map assumes. Neither is at a small enough scale to significantly aid navigation.
     
This would have been a lot more useful if it were, say, a square.
  
The Helmet of Goat Empathy does what it suggests: it lets you talk to goats. There are two unique goats in the Goat Herders' Village in Nadhi, Old Wally and The Old One, but together they simply confirm that there's an evil coming out of Jalamuki, which any thorough player already knew. The Crystals of Bolton are a theoretically-valuable tool that gives you a full rundown on the statistics of your opponents, but unless you're lucky enough to search that dungeon first, by the time you find them, you've got enough experience with all the foes that you don't need them. They don't work in the final battle, when they would have done the most good.
            
If there's anything more terrifying than a giant tarantula, it's a giant tarantula waving a short sword.
         
Exploring the dungeons took about two-thirds of the length of the game. By the time I was done, I had forgotten that in the early hours, I had found combat interesting, character development rewarding, the economy well-balanced, and the inventory and spell systems at least adequate. My characters reached Level 75 but stopped getting new level titles at 50. My characters had maxed in attributes, hit points, and spell points. I had mostly +2 equipment (the highest in the game), plenty of food and reagents, and hundreds of thousands of gold pieces.
   
The final battle was okay. At least it didn't prolong things. When I returned to Yajiv after finding the last artifact, he said that the "final password" was UUHP. I wasn't sure where to use that, but I figured it must be in Jalamuki.
      
         
We sailed to the continent, which I hadn't really explored earlier, and found a city on an island in the center. It was called the City of Doom.
       
So, the Evil One isn't so much coming out of a "crack" as a man-made city.
     
Unlike other cities, there was no one to talk with; all the inhabitants were hostile. A central building had a down stairway, which asked us for the password. I expected it to lead down into a dungeon where I'd find the crack. Instead, I guess it was the crack, because when I tried to go down, the game said that I used the various artifacts, which somehow caused a demon to come bounding out of the earth.
        
I'm not sure what this ritual is accomplishing other than making a mess.
           
The Evil One engaged me in combat alone, and he was relatively difficult even for my high-level party. Every round, he used a ray to strike one character with "Confusion," disrupting whatever I'd assigned to that character. He then cast "Tremor," doing between 1,000 and 2,000 hit points' damage to all my characters (whose maximum was 12,000). I had to keep up with healing spells every round while I tried to whittle him down with ranged attacks and offensive spells. At the end of each round, he taunted me with a line of dialogue. Together, they made up this speech:

I am your one and only god. Bow to me, mortal. You are my children and I am your king. I gave you life, now I give you death. Impudent fools. Die slowly. I have been watching your progress, weaklings. I control your lives. Did you think you are immortal? Vanquish me and you serve no purpose. Can you exist without me? I am life itself. Kill me and die.
     
He also changes icon every round. Here, he's mimicking one of my own character icons while shooting a character with a "Confuse" ray.
        
Eventually, he ran out of magic power and the battle became much easier. When he died, I got a brief message in the window: "CONGRATULATIONS! You have just discovered the Secrets of Bharas." I'm not sure exactly what that meant. For a game that spent so much time on world-building and lore, I had hoped that the ending would tie into that lore, whether clarifying or contradicting elements of the backstory. Was I supposed to get something from the Evil One's speech? We didn't die when we killed him, so clearly he was lying about that.

The game lets you continue playing after the victory, but no one seems to have any new dialogue. Overall, it was an intriguing but ultimately frustrating, unbalanced game. The balance might have been better with fewer or smaller dungeons, or easier ones, so the player could weave dungeon exploration with overland exploration, instead of doing all of one and then all of the other.
    
Here's the GIMLET:
     
  • 4 points for the game world. Bharas doesn't tell an original story, but it at least uses original themes. The lore is solid; the mechanics and graphics are just too limited to really exploit it.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Both are about as good as any mid-1980s Ultima-style RPG, with a basic selection of classes, races, and attributes, and experience-based leveling.
  • 4 points for NPC interaction. NPCs in this game are plentiful and interesting, but they're also static and non-interactive. The different buttons in the dialogue interface don't really do anything but advance the dump of text that each one has.
         
If nothing else, this is probably the only RPG that lets you talk to goats.
   
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The enemies in the game do act differently depending on type, but most are still unmemorable. The more unfortunate thing is that there are no non-combat encounters or puzzles in the game.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. The tactical combat system is solid, and thank god for the extensive autocombat options or I never would have made it to the end of the game. There's still something unsatisfying about it that's hard to put my finger on. The magic system is extremely limited, for one thing, and the combat interface involves too much clicking. Unnecessary animations slow things down, even with the emulator cranked. There's also far, far too much of it.
          
Mixing a "Kill" spell for the final battle.
         
  • 3 points for equipment. Again, a fairly standard set of armor and weapons for a 1980s game. There are no special weapons and armor, and upgrades don't really feel significantly more powerful than base gear. I like the existence of the special artifacts, but as discussed above, they don't really help.
  • 3 points for the economy. Slay enemies, sell excess gear, earn money, use it to buy better stuff. This standard approach works well enough for the first third of the game, after which point you never worry about money again and don't really have anything to buy anyway.
  • 3 points for a main quest and a couple things that could be considered almost side quests.
  • 2 point for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are functional but not very evocative of the setting. (For instance, there is no graphical distinction between the cities and people of different races.)  Sound effects are rare. The interface does not offer enough keyboard redundancy, and there are too many awkward interface elements like the day/night cycle and the means of getting in and out of ships.
  • 1 point for gameplay. I give it some points for nonlinearity, but it's in this category that I'm punishing the game for its length and balance.
    
That gives us a final score of 29. That seems right. The range from around 25-35 is full of games with promising elements that don't quite come together.
   
I exchanged e-mails with Vivek Pai a few weeks ago. He said that Bharas came after the brothers first tried to write a sci-fi shooter. They also played around with some ideas that would have involved American national parks or American colonial times, both of which would have been unique. Ultimately, a family trip to India and readings of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses inspired them to design a game with Indian themes, "but usually with some amount of intentional corruption . . . We wanted to borrow mythology without being tied to it."
          
The cover uses a photograph of the ruined Fort Bassein in Mumbai.
       
There is some indication in the winning dialogue that the brothers planned to move on to a sequel to 2088 called 2119. Instead, as we learned in my entries for 2088, the three brothers ended up getting jobs at some of the largest technology companies in the United States and regard their time as game developers as a "good failure" that taught them a lot.
   
I still have to check out 2088: The Second Scenario (1990), which lies between the two games I've already covered. I'm still not sure whether to treat it as a remake or a sequel, but it will at least be worth a BRIEF. Until then, I thank Victory Software for at least providing something unusual.