Thursday, February 25, 2021

Game 404: Time Traveler (1980)

 
Stony Brook is on Long Island. It has a decent jazz club. It's probably closed now.
         
Time Traveler
Krell Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for Apple II, Commodore PET, and TRS-80
Expanded and released again as Odyssey in Time in 1981
Date Started: 20 February 2021
Date Ended: 21 February 2021
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Partly user-definable but ultimately easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
    
I rejected Time Traveler years ago, thinking it was so manifestly an adventure game that whoever categorized it as an RPG on MobyGames ought to have his account revoked. I finally sat down to BRIEF it today and discovered that I was wrong. It's not much of an RPG (but honestly, what was in 1980?), but it's certainly not an adventure game.
      
It is, specifically, a variant on The Wizard's Castle from the same year, where you explore a grid in which any square might hold encounters, traps, and treasure. Instead of a single map with multiple levels, there are 14 maps (each 5 x 4) in different eras of human history, ranging from ancient Egypt (1300 BCE) to World War II Germany. You play a time traveler visiting each era with a quest to retrieve a magical ring.
       
I can't help but hear "where to?" in the Clouds of Xeen mining cart voice.
       
It's an interesting concept. A modern game could have a lot of fun with it, and the player could learn a lot about history while he plays, as I inevitably do every time I pick up an Assassin's Creed. In this case, however, the various "eras" just determine what text is inserted in various encounters, all of which otherwise play exactly the same. You can envision the programming as you play:

1950 PRINT A$; " ORDERS YOUR ARREST!"
   
Where A$ is set to "GEORGE WASHINGTON" in 1779 or KING RICHARD during the crusades. I don't want anyone to get the impression from these screenshots (as I originally did) that the game offered textual descriptions of various scenes in each era. It's nothing like that. You don't stroll past pyramids in ancient Egypt or get to foil Nazis in World War II. Everything that happens in the eras is purely mechanical. There isn't even a bit of flavor text describing the era when you first arrive.
    
I did learn one thing, however. As you arrive in each new area from the main menu, you immediately have to choose a "side" in whatever conflict they're experiencing. If you go to Denmark in 1000, it's the Vikings or the villagers. Japan in 1790 puts you between samurai and peasants. For 50 BCE Rome, you choose between Caesar and the "aristocrats." "England 1644" has you choose between "roundheads" and "cavaliers." I vaguely knew that the year would have been during the English Civil War, but I didn't know those were the terms, respectively, for supporters of parliament and supporters of Charles I. So that's something.
        
You face this same type of choice as you enter each era.
       
After making your selection, you arrive in a random square on the 20-square grid. Each era has the same selection of potential squares: dock, house, arsenal, treasury, prison, barracks, market, field, [local ruler's] headquarters, cave, town square. Some of these have buildings which offer an additional set of encounters inside. You start each era unarmed and with 1,000 gold pieces; any weapons or wealth you amassed in your last era disappears when you leave.
 
The game tells you what you see in your current area, which can include any combination of the following: a crowd of commoners, guards, a sign, gold, weapons, or one of the rings. The latter three options only show up if your last action was to search. After seeing what each square holds, you have a number of potential options. I'm going to list them all out because I otherwise couldn't find a manual, and someone might come along needing assistance. Your success in all of these areas is influenced by a "difficulty" variable that you can set from 1 to 6 at the outset of the game.
   
  • B)ribe: If there are guards in the area, this will make them go away. You want to do this to avoid them spontaneously attacking you, or to get them to stop blocking the way into a structure in that square.
  • D)rop weapons. The only reason I can think to do this is that sometimes guards won't let you into a building if you're armed.
  • F)ight. Gets rid of guards the old fashioned way.
  • G)o. Leave the square by going any cardinal direction or IN or OUT of a building. If you're in a market square, you can also attempt to go to your time machine.
  • I)nformation about what rings you've collected and which are still outstanding.
  • M)ap
        
The game map.
       
  • P)ersuade. If there's a group of commoners in the square, you can try to get them to join you. Success depends on your "eloquence" skill (and maybe whether you sided with the "commoner" faction), which goes up if you pass and down if you fail. Once allies join you, they remain in your party for the duration of the era and make combat a lot easier.
  • Q)uit the game.
  • R)ead a sign. Sometimes you can't read it; sometimes it says "Keep off the Grass"; sometimes it tells you where to find the era's ring.
        
Signs aren't always accurate, but I think this one was.
     
  • S)earch. This is how you find gold, weapons, and the ring. 
  • T)ake anything that came up during a search. If you take weapons, the game will show you as "armed" from that point, and your chances of surviving combat improve. The same goes for your group.
  • U)se the power of a ring. More on this below.
  • W)ait. Causes a turn to pass. This happens automatically if you don't act within a few seconds.
    
There are a number of spontaneous things that can occur, too. You can experience a "time machine malfunction" that whisks you suddenly to a new era. An informant can turn up and offer to tell you the location of a ring for a certain amount of gold. Guards can demand half your wealth in taxes. The local ruler can spontaneously order your arrest (this seems less likely if you sided with his faction). Finally, guards can just decide to attack you for no reason.
       
That's gratitude for you.
      
Combat is resolved automatically. As it begins, you're told how many people are on your side how many are on theirs, and whether either side is armed. The game automatically calculates a probability of winning based on these variables, generates the appropriate random numbers, and tells you the result. If you win, your "combat skill" variable goes up; if you lose, it goes down. Your "health" may also go up or down. If you win, generally all that you "gain" is that there are no more guards on the screen. If you lose, you might be imprisoned in the "prison" square and have to escape or fight your way free. You can also die, but the time machine rescues you and zaps you to a new era when that happens.
 
I hadn't picked up the weapons yet, so I'm unarmed with a low combat skill. My probability of winning is just 40%.
Here, I have allies, weapons, and a much higher score.
       
As you can imagine, your success in each era depends partly on strategy but a lot on luck. You might arrive in an era and immediately get approached by an information who, for 800 gold pieces, tells you that the ring is in a market. A market square is one move away from your starting square. You go there, search, find the ring, and immediately GO to your time machine and make your escape.
  
On the other hand, you might spend a dozen rounds manually searching each square, finding no allies, getting no informants or helpful signs, fighting off packs of guards ordered to arrest you, eventually defeated and imprisoned, stripped of weapons and gold, stuck in a loop where you can't seem to get free of the prison but the guards won't actually kill you.
      
Stuck in an Italian prison with a low probability of fighting my way free.
       
The good news is that you can't die, so there's no way to lose permanently. Even on the highest difficulty, you just have to roll with the punches until you can start fresh in a new era, where you might get lucky. I found that a good strategy was to try to enlist allies as soon as possible and find weapons to arm them. That way, I could usually explore most of the map with a high probability of winning any combats that came along. The bad news is that there's no way to save, so you do have to win in a reasonable time if you don't want to keep the program running permanently.
        
I pay for a hint.
   
Each of the rings has a useful power that you can invoke if you're carrying it, and you can carry up to three rings between eras. I admire some of the clever things that the author made the rings do within its limited mechanics:
 
  • The Ring of Thoth (Egypt) ensures you can always read signs.
  • The Ring of Hammurabi (Babylon) increases your eloquence.
  • The Ring of Solon (Athens) speeds up healing.
  • The Ring of Romulus (Rome) helps you locate other rings.
 
I find the Ring of Romulus in a marketplace
    
  • The Ring of Joshua (Jerusalem) makes you invulnerable.
  • The Ring of Rune (Denmark) lets you warp out of the era and back to the time machine from anywhere, with perfect success.
  • The Ring of Paul (Crusades) does something called "anachrony." I have no idea.
  • The Ring of Augustus (Italy) stops the other rings from disappearing. See below.
  • The Ring of Alfred (England) lets you escape prison with 100% success.
  • The Ring of Eagles (USA) increases your gold.
  • The Ring of Gaul (France) slows time or something. I never tried it.
  • The Ring of Jimmu (Japan) automatically searches as you move around squares.
  • The Ring of Nevsky (Russia) lets you start each era with weapons.
  • The Ring of Loki (Germany) makes you invisible.
   
The problem with carrying all of the rings is that there's a good chance that they'll disappear or get stolen and return to their own eras. Having the Ring of Augustus stops this from happening, I guess, but I always got nervous carrying the rings and generally found the best strategy was to deposit them in my time vault as soon as I could, ensuring I didn't have to replay their eras. (Once you deposit a ring, you can't pick it up again.) I won on a difficulty level of 3, and I suppose at a higher level, it might be necessary to make the rings a greater part of your strategy. Romulus and Rune would be a particularly potent combination: Warp in, find the ring, and immediately warp out. But without Augustus, you probably lose one or both of them in short order. Augustus with either Romulus or Rune might be better.
   
Unfortunately, nothing happened after I had found and deposited all 14 rings. I'm not sure if there was something else to do, as I never found a copy of the manual. I did inspect the code, and there's a line that tells the program to flash "THE GAME IS OVER," but my interpretation of the rest of the code is that you would never reach that particular line. Then again, my knowledge of even BASIC is only, well, basic. I can't otherwise find any winning text in the program, so I'm going to call it a win anyway. I'll score it as a 15 on my GIMLET, with 1s and 2s in all categories.
        
I got and deposited all of them. I don't know what the game wants me to do. (I think the asterisks mean that you don't to "Use" those rings; their powers are active as long as you possess it.)
         
I didn't have a great time with Time Traveler, but it was almost . . . acceptable. With a few more variables, a little more use of the themes of the eras, and a little more complexity, this could have been a decent game. It perhaps was for 1980. A reviewer named Terry Romine covered it in the first issue of Computer Gaming World and gave it a medium-rare review, ultimately concluding that "after a person develops a strategy, the game will quickly become a series of stale replays." In the December 1980 issue of Dragon, Mark Herro says that when he started to play, he intended to "roast" the game, but later had some fun as he tried to figure out the best approach through the eras. Still, the idea that this game sold for the equivalent of $80 today ($24.95 in 1980) is mind-blowing.
         
This ad clip shows Krell selling the upgrade alongside the original.
        
We've seen New York-based Krell Software before, most recently with Sword of Zedek (1981). That game used a similar approach--grid-based exploration with a variety of potential encounters in each square, including the ability to P)ersuade groups of monsters to join as allies. The "Search" and "Take" functions are essentially the same between the two games, and combat is resolved similarly. I'm relatively sure they were programmed by the same author.  The company was around only a short time (roughly 1980-1983) and never developed anything graphical. In 1981, they repackaged Time Traveler as Odyssey in Time, which offered 10 additional eras and a save feature for $39.95, or about $120 in today's dollars. I was unable to find it, but unless it offers a lot new, I'm not particularly interested in finding another 10 rings.
   
I had a major project due this week, so you might see another "easy" one before I get back into either of my primary games.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

World of Xeen: Tired of Getting Sand Kicked in Your Face?

 
RPG combat or Broadway production?
       
One of the joys of the entire Might and Magic series is that it exemplifies the atavistic desire, inherent in RPGs in general, to get knocked down, get stronger, and get revenge. All of the games in the series have moments when you come face-to-face with enemies who used to scare you--sometimes hours later, sometimes only minutes because in the meantime you managed to level up twice, or find particularly useful fountain, or learn a new spell. Such moments, promised by Charles Atlas ads, are maddeningly elusive in real life.
    
This session began as I wrapped up the starting city, Vertigo. Most of it took place in two areas: the interconnected mines of the Red Dwarf Range and the city of Rivercity. I had access to the former because it was right outside the gates of Vertigo, and the latter because each city's magic mirror will teleport you wherever you want to go if you know the name of the location. I knew about Rivercity from one of the tavern patrons in Vertigo.
  
I tried the outdoors first. The gates of Vertigo dumped me into overland map area F3, at coordinates 10, 12. The game maps shows this on the far eastern side of the map. For the first time in Might and Magic history, the world map doesn't wrap. [ed. I was wrong; it doesn't wrap in MM3 either, but the world there is meant to be spherical.] Instead, a black void forms the borders of the roughly-square land. The center of the map has a large lake with Castle Burlock on the northeast shore and Darzog's Tower on an island in the middle. From there, the map is divided into quadrants--a desert to the northwest, a volcanic wasteland to the northeast, an icy tundra to the southwest, and a forest to the southeast. There are depictions of elemental lords in the corners, and I wonder if they'll play a role here as they did in Might and Magic II. There are also representations of creatures that are probably real creatures, like a giant in the tundra and a pegasus in the desert. In other words, it's the usual colorful, densely-packed Mike Winterbauer map.
       
The light side of Xeen.
      
I couldn't explore it openly yet because my characters lacked sufficient skills in "Pathfinding," "Mountaineering," and "Swimming." The first two require only two characters in the party to be trained; the latter requires all characters to have it. I had only found the trainer for "Pathfinding" (in Vertigo), and he wanted a hefty 2,500 gold pieces. 
     
Yep, that looks like a mad dwarf.
     
So instead of immediately lawnmowing my way around the area, I just started poking around the areas I could reach. I immediately started getting attacked by orcs. They were harder to hit than I imagined, though I did start with some pretty miserable "Accuracy" statistics. They also had some kind of breath attack that didn't seem to do anything to me, so perhaps it was just an animation.

Picking my way along the mountains, I found the entrance to a dungeon. As I approached, a dwarf appeared on the screen and announced, "Step right up! This way to the action-packed, treasure-filled mines of the Red Dwarf range!" The mayor in Vertigo had said that the dwarves were facing an invasion from the "Mad Dwarf" clan and had asked for help, so I entered.
       
Once was funny; every time I entered, not so much.
       
The mines were a good introduction to the game's dungeoneering conventions. They consisted of five regular mines and four "deep" mines, none of them terribly large or hard to navigate. The mines were connected by mining carts that say, "Where to?" and ask you to type in a location. Scraps of paper found amidst bones have the codes for the upper mines: MINE 1, MINE 2, MINE 3, MINE 4, and MINE 5. There's one scrap of paper in each of these that has part of the name of the first deep mine, ALPHA. From there, you find scraps of paper with the names THETA, KAPPA, and OMEGA, although once you figure out the pattern, you could probably guess your way there. I found that the mirror back in Vertigo will happily take you to any mine, but to get back, you need to return to MINE 1 and take the exit.
        
This guess didn't work out.
        
All of these areas had roughly the same features:
   
  • Monsters. They consisted of mad dwarves, giant bats, giant spiders, and tiger moles. None of them were very hard, but accumulations of battles were enough that I couldn't complete more than a level or two at a time without returning to Vertigo for rest and healing. I don't have a "Cure Poison" spell yet, so every poisoning (from giant spiders or traps) means a return to town to a temple. Also, the mad dwarves concentrated their attacks on my own dwarf, Suss, which got her knocked out and her armor broken quite frequently.
        
Tiger moles come bursting out of a box.
      
  • Barrels, full of liquids of different colors. Drinking gives you a +2 permanent boost in the attribute associated with that color. This can only be done once per barrel. These barrels first appeared in Might and Magic III, and they will continue to appear, with the same color associations, through at least Might and Magic VIII. My typical approach is to try to balance the party by giving the barrel to whoever has the lowest figure in a particular attribute. Since personality (blue) and intelligence (orange) are wasted on non-spellcasters, I generally only let spellcasters drink those barrels.
        
In Might and Magic VI, these barrels will actually respawn.
         
  • Crates. Wooden boxes appear plentifully among the upper mines. I got sick of messages saying I was too weak to open them, and I ended up letting Saoirse, my paladin, drink all the red barrels until she was strong enough to do it. A strength of 24 turned out to be sufficient. Most of the crates were empty, but some had caches of weapons and armor, and some released tiger moles.
        
I would think that our weapons would be enough.
         
  • Mining veins. Ends of corridors often had sparkling veins of gold that I could mine, sometimes three or four times, for various amounts of gold. But there's a chance of a damaging cave-in each time you try to mine the ore.
         
A lucky lode late in this session.
      
  • Chests. More significant treasure was found in these.
  • Locked doors and grates. You can bash these, taking inevitable (but small) damage, and earning no experience--or you can try to have the robber or ninja pick them for experience but also the risk of significant damage, sometimes even death. I've never been sure how the thief is taking damage in these situations. Does she slip and stab herself with the lockpick?
  • Secret doors. These must be bashed. You identify them automatically with the associated skill, which causes the little lizard on the lower-right part of the view window to wave his arm frantically.
  • Traps. The most infuriating parts of the game are the invisible, unavoidable, undisarmable traps that you have to cross, sometimes repeatedly. The ones in Might and Magic III at least had blades on pendulums and such, so you could see them. These just shoot fire or gas out of the ground, often both damaging and poisoning the party. "Jump" is supposed to help you cross them safely, when you know they're there, but it failed every time I tried to cast it.
          
A trap gets me again.
       
The mines beat me down after a while, so I took a break from them to explore other areas. I met an herbalist named Myra who offered me potions for Phirna root. I killed some more orcs and got special experience for destroying their "observation post." Most important, I found a couple of fountains near Vertigo's entrance, one which gives you a temporary 25 hit points, and the other of which gives you a temporary +5 boost to armor class.
      
These would be nice in real life.
     
These fountains, plus the bonuses from donating at temples, proved to be key to clearing these early areas. You have to time them right. Enhancements always disappear at 05:00, so you want to get them immediately after that to get a full 24 hours out of them.
   
I activated one of the pyramids and found my party transported to the city of Castleview on the Darkside of Xeen. I immediately hustled to another pyramid to get back, but not before Myra's counterpart, an herbalist named Zelda, shoved a Dragon Pharaoh's Orb in our hands and said we should take it to someone named Ellinger.
        
Whoops! I think I'm here too early.
      
Back in Vertigo, I took the magic mirror to Rivercity, which a Vertigo tavern patron had assured me was "full of action." I immediately met that town's primary opponent, insane beggars, which have a melee attack that drives characters insane. To avoid bankrupting myself at the temple, I adopted a "shoot first" policy, the moment I saw them in the distance. The city also had a lot of robbers--much harder enemies that I couldn't defeat without the fountain and temple bonuses.
       
Trouble with a capital "T," and that rhymes with "B," and that stands for "beggar."
      
The robbers were cash cows, delivering 200 gold each. That wasn't quite enough to keep up with the excellent training offered by various desks and tents in the city, including "Armsmaster," "Bodybuilding," "Mountaineering," "Navigation," and "Swimming." The latter was pretty cheap, though, and I did ultimately give it to all my characters so they could finish exploring Rivercity itself, which has a large harbor, including a back entrance that leads to the ocean outside. A brief foray outside showed me that the city is in map C3, at the south end of the world's central lake.
          
So, like, 10 feet?
        
The town's quest involved the recovery of a magical pendant for Barak the Sorcerer. That name seems familiar, but I might be thinking of Baruk the Sorcerer from the Malazan books, or perhaps a former U.S. President whose first name was "Barack." He said it was stolen by some "sorceresses." (There was some slightly deeper plot involving Barak, as tavern rumors said that the tavern had hired the sorceresses to run him out of town, but the reasoning behind this was never explained.) They were in the northwest section of town. They were capable of casting a fireball spell that damaged all my characters, so it was important to close quickly with them, avoiding walking in the same column or row when they were in the distance. Once in melee range, they were pretty easy.
       
Probably best not to make any comment at all.
       
In a room full of treasure chests that each imparted 1 gold and 1 gem, I found one that had Barak's pendant, which I returned. My reward was the "Enchant Item" spell. More important, he removed the poison from Rivercity's central well, which now gave a 100 point bonus to spell points, making the rest of this area (and the mines) much easier, as my paladin and druid were able to cast a lot more "Cure Wounds" spells before having to rest.
    
In the southwest, blue robbers gave way to black "robber bosses." Defeating them all netted me a chest with 5,000 gold and 100 gems and a second chest with 1,000 gold and Princess Roxanne's Tiara. That's one quest I'll be able to solve immediately.
          
This early in the game, this is a nice reward.
        
The mid-west section of town, behind the training hall, had a bunch of fearsome foes called "yang knights" that I was unable to touch, let alone defeat. Saving them for later, I leveled up, drank from the bonus fountains, got blessed by the temple, and returned to finish the mines.
        
I'll be back.
      
The deep mines were much the same as the first five, although more spread out. There were a couple of corpses that somehow gave everyone "Danger Sense," "Direction Sense," and "Cartographer."
          
This is a skill I naturally have. I think it comes from all the years working with maps.
      
The vein walls got a lot more lucrative, some delivering over 5,000 gold their first try, and descending amounts after that. The final battles were in deep mine Omega, where I met a number of mad dwarf clan sergeants and ultimately the clan king. After I killed him (I forgot to take a screen shot, but he looked like a regular mad dwarf, just a different color), we returned to Vertigo's mayor for our reward: The Red Dwarf Badge of Courage and 50,000 experience points.
     
If you want a sad story, read about the life of Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage (1895).
        
I had well over 75,000 gold by now, so I visited all the trainers in Vertigo and Rivercity, and got the party trained in the navigation skills they need. I also visited the two guilds in the cities and got caught up on spells. I couldn't quite buy all of them, but I got the vital "Cure Paralysis," "Power Cure," and "Cure Poison" spells for my cleric spellcasters and "Lloyd's Beacon" for my druid. I also got "Day of Protection" for my paladin and "Day of Sorcery" for my sorcerer. These are extremely useful high-level spells making their first appearance in the series. "Day of Protection" simultaneously casts "Light," "Protection from Air," "Protection from Earth," "Protection from Fire," "Protection from Water," "Heroism," "Holy Bonus," and "Bless." "Day of Sorcery" simultaneously casts "Light," "Levitate," "Wizard Eye," "Clairvoyance," and "Power Shield." I'm astonished to have them both this early in the game.
    
Miscellaneous notes:
   
  • It occurred to me during this session that neither Rivercity nor Vertigo has a dungeon. I think this is the first time in the series that its cities don't have dungeons. 
  • The Rivercity trees mostly say, "What did you expect, money?" when you search them, which is making fun of the trees in Vertigo, I guess. But occasionally one of them does have money. Screw you, Rivercity trees.
  • I think the mad dwarf/clan sergeant/clan king trio might be the first appearance of the famous Might and Magic "triad." If we had something that fits the bill in III, let me know, but I don't remember any. These triads are groups of progressively harder enemies that have the same icons, but with slightly different colors or decorations. By Might and Magic VI, every non-unique enemy in the game will be one of three flavors.
  • I'm not sure the developers didn't over-do it a bit on the sound. Was III this loud? If so, I must have played with the sound very low or off a lot of the time. Every combat is a cacophony of clangs, screams, and thuds.
  • My characters all ended this session at Level 8 or 9.  
          
My paladin at the end of the session, before we bought all the skills and spells.
       
  • I found modest item upgrades throughout the session, including the first accessories (e.g., steel necklaces, iron rings), some of which might not do anything. I've found two attribute-enhancing items: a rapid broach [sic] and a chance charm. Suss has a shocking hammer, which does some extra electrical damage, and Grey Witch has a frost dagger. I haven't found any missile weapons that my druid or sorcerer can use.
  • I haven't tried it yet, but apparently saying WARZONE to the mirrors will take you to an arena.
  • As you can see, I didn't make any changes to my starting party after the first entry, no matter how much good advice you may have given. This is because I scheduled that entry to post almost 10 days after I finished writing it. I got impatient waiting for it to be published and played this second session. I may still replace a character or two; I can probably make up experience in the WARZONE.
  • In the next paragraph, I use the phrase "more bad-ass." My grammar checker wants me to replace it with "worse-ass."
      
With no active quests, I have to decide how next to proceed. I'm trying to think of an original approach. I could lawnmow using a variety of patterns and from a variety of starting points. I could role-play and try to head directly for Darzog's Tower and the source of my dreams. I could go to the magic mirror and start feeding in destinations from the game map. I could even use the pyramids to try out the opening city in Darkside. Whatever I do, I'm sure I'll be too weak for some of the areas, but I definitely feel a lot more bad-ass at the end of this session than when I started.
     
Time so far: 7 hours

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Magic Candle III: Burned Out

Just looking at this map made me want to quit the game.
       
This entry was mostly a waste of time, and although it was mostly my fault for not remembering aspects of the game, I left the session feeling annoyed with the game.
    
It started in the dungeon of Wesgar, where I ended the last session. I had forgotten how annoying dungeons are in this series. There are just so many combats, and there's really no way to speed through combats in The Magic Candle. Every one is a fight to the death. Failure to have the right mushrooms, or enough of a "Shield" going, can be disastrous. Every room has at least one combat, and there are ambushes at fixed places in the halls (though they seemed to have reduced those to a minimum in III). They get harder as you progress to higher levels, and pretty soon you're swallowing every herb and mushroom you have before entering any door.
   
I made it all the way up to Level 7, but in some combat there, Rimfiztrik cast his last "Restsoul" spell. No one in my party has the spellbook ("Felmis") that contains that spell, even though, according to the manual, Rimfiztrik invented it. Thus, I had to backtrack out of the dungeon until I could find the book, because without it there is no way to permanently kill undead creatures.
         
This battle alone is going to require 5 "Restsouls."
        
On the way out, I took a wrong turn and stumbled into the room with a sleeping god, which was cool. He or she responded to one of the keywords I'd written down. Although I don't know his or her name, he or she blessed my entire party with increases in strength, agility, resistance, and leadership.
     
I returned to Telermain because I wanted to check and see if the wizards at Castle Oshcrun had the book. They didn't. (Lavinha in Urkabel sold only "Sabano" and "Demaro.") While I was in the area, I stopped in the herb seller's to replenish my stock. Buying and distributing things in quantity is perhaps the most annoying part of the game, or so I've been thinking ever since the first Magic Candle. The problem is that each character can only carry 99 of something. If the party collectively has more than 99 of something, there's no way to evenly distribute it because no one party member can collect it all for distribution. That means that each character has to buy their own herbs individually, which is a pain and takes a while. I realized late in this session that you can keep distributing so that the character doing the distributing eventually gives away her entire stock, thus making it possible for one character to do all the buying. Nonetheless, it would still have been better if the "Distribute" button had evenly distributed the entire party's supply and not just the active character's. 
   
I hadn't replenished many herbs and mushrooms before I nearly ran out of gold. I remember the previous two games being quite generous, and I'm not sure I'd ever run into that problem before.
   
Still lacking the needed "Restsoul" spell, I moved on in my systematic exploration to the large island in the center of the Solian lands. It was covered in blight patches, and I soon found a town called Voliplan that had been completely destroyed by the blight. I spent a while searching the town and found absolutely nothing but random combats in its ruins.
      
Gia continues to mistake furniture for people.
      
Unfortunately, as I slowly made my way east, I kept running into combats that included "necromants," which are a type of undead. I had to reload whenever they showed up. I found a tower and dungeon for which I lacked passwords, a stronghold to rest, and finally a city called Eisheim on the south coast.
  
Eisheim had a library, and I had two revelations while using it. First, I discovered that when you research keywords at libraries, the resulting text does not go in the notebook! That's some of the most important text of the game. Second, I was suddenly reminded about wizard's lodges. I had forgotten about them entirely. The lodges are places where you can rent spellbooks and memorize them while the rest of the party goes off and does something else. There wasn't one in Eisheim, but there was one in Telermain and another in Urkabel. 
        
Evixa settles in to learn "Felmis" spells at the Telermain library.
      
All of a sudden, I had issues getting back to Telermain. The ship that had brought me here had run out the clock and left. I wandered up and down the coast but couldn't find any others for hire. There was a teleportal on the island, but I lacked the three skulls necessary to reach Oshcrun. I ended up reloading from Telermain and only then remembered that there's a spell called "Caravel" that will summon a ship to you. One of my characters had memorized about five of them. Remembering things after they'd have been valuable is one of the themes of this entry. I would have made it the subtitle, but I couldn't make a candle metaphor out of it.
     
Back in Telermain, the annoyances continued. While I was right about the wizards' lodge, I had forgotten that you can't choose a particular spell. Your chosen character just memorizes spells randomly or systematically from the book. I had wanted both Rimfiztrik and Evixa to memorize "Restsoul," but the place only had space for one person. As I left Evixa in the lodge, I wondered what to do while she was studying. I thought I could make some money by putting Sakar to work metalworking, and I was surprised when I got there to find that an NPC named Kark was already slaving away on my behalf. I'd forgotten about that. He had made about 450 gold pieces so far, which I greedily took. 
        
Sakar is a good fighter, but apparently he's more valuable as a gemcutter.
       
I never did much with the "work an honest wage" system of the previous Magic Candle games, but those had been more generous with money and mushroom patches and so forth. This is the first time in the series that I've really felt low on cash. I suddenly became seized with the idea that I should make more of the system here. I left Sakar with the gemcutter and Tuff with the tailor in Ketrop. Fiz, Gia, and Eneri had no skills, so I took Fiz to the wizard's lodge in Urkabel. They didn't have "Felmis," but I put Fiz to work studying "Alasol" spells, which include "Cure" and "Caravel." 

Soon it was just the heroes: Gia and Eneri. I decided to see how far I could get with only two mouths to feed. I started experimenting with the second dungeon password I had, and it turned out to open not a dungeon but an underground dwarven town called Borhelm on the northwest side of Rastanna. Inside, the first place I found was someone teaching "Gemcutting." I dropped Eneri off there to learn the trade--and perhaps later practice it in Urkabel--while Gia explored the city.
          
You don't hear about magically-sealed bulkheads often.
        
This is the seventh city I've explored, and I keep expecting to hear something about the Blight or its cause--something that will point me along the route of the quest. But I haven't found it so far, and I didn't find it here. I did get the password to the actual dungeon on Rastanna--an old set of dwarf mines called Tarrak. I also met a dwarf named Yolick who offered to join, but he made it clear he was a hireling, not an NPC, so I left him alone.
  
After three days, I picked up Eneri at the gemcutter's and we headed to Tarrak, which I had previously marked (it's about three steps from Borhelm). "A wondrous treasure awaits those who brave the horrors of the lower levels," a dwarf offered as we entered.
         
Gia and Eneri look at each other and high-five.
             
The first couple of rooms went very well. I had thought that the presence of only 1/3 of my party would be a disadvantage, but I forgot to account for the fact that Eneri and Gia are the only two competent members. Without the others to protect, heal, and resurrect, combat took about half as long. Unfortunately, I soon realized I'd left my lockpicks with Tuff, and he's the only one with enough skill to open a chest anyway. Reluctantly, I left the dungeon.
   
On the way back to the ship, I kept getting attacked by parties with ghouls, which forced me to flee or reload since without "Restsoul" I can't defeat any undead.
   
I sailed back to Urkabel, dropped off Eneri at the gemcutter's, went outside camped, and had Gia memorize the spells she already knew. I switched to having her sleep when she needed to, and occasionally hunt for food. I started this process on 21 December. By the time I was done, it was 30 January. I went back into Urkabel and picked up Eneri, who had earned 844 gold. I started to salivate over the larger amounts that the other characters must have earned.
       
Gia goes camping while everyone else is making money or studying.
       
But then disaster struck: Fiz was gone from the Wizard's Lodge. I figured he'd gone home to Oschrun, but I couldn't find him there. Meanwhile, Evixa had also disappeared from the lodge in Telermain, and I couldn't find her back at her home in Serivu. Growling in frustration, I reloaded a game from when Eneri and Gia were in Tarrak, went back to Telermain, and still couldn't find Evixa. So if I wanted to have the wizards back in my party, my only option was to reload a game from when I was exploring Voliplan five hours ago, forgetting about studying at wizard's lodges, and forgetting about having my characters work for money.
   
The problem is that I still need "Restsoul." The only one I can be sure won't leave the lodge is Gia, and the game won't let her rent the space for some reason. Finally, in desperation, I turn to the official game cluebook to find out where I can get a "Felmis" book, but the cluebook only insists that Rimfiztrik has it, which he doesn't--he has "Demaro."
   
I finally go back to Telermain, drop off Rimfiztrik at the wizard's lodge memorizing "Felmis," and have the rest of my party do nothing but wait for a day. We then check in to see that Fiz is still there, and he is, so we wait for another day. It turns out that his maximum threshold is about a week, after which he goes gods-know-where. I reload and grab him before the week is up. In that week, he's managed to learn 17 "Restsoul" spells and a lot of other junk from "Felmis" that I don't really need. I repeat the process with Evixa, learning another 21.
       
I tried standing here to ensure that he didn't leave, but the registrar wasn't having any of it.
        
And thus the party sails back to the Outsiders and into the tower of Wesgar, right where I started this entry, having essentially accomplished nothing in between except paying 400 gold pieces for 37 spells. I still have to "officially" visit Borhelm again.
  
If it turned out I need "Restsoul" only for one more battle, I would have been pretty irked, but I ultimately need to cast 21 of the 37.
     
Releasing a necromant's soul during an ambush.
      
We fight our way to the top of Wesgar tower, finding a few gems along the way which will undoubtedly heal our financial woes in the short-term. By the time I reach the top, I'm a master of Magic Candle combat again, which relies heavily on a six-step model:
   
  • Swallow Gonshis before you enter the room. Gonshis give you 4 actions during your first round.
  • Make sure everyone has "Shield" cast to 99 points.
  • If things are really going to be tough, swallow Nifts (protects against three physical hits) and Mirgets (strength), too. I find that Luffins (accuracy) are pretty useless, though. My characters hardly ever miss.
  • Have a spellcaster with plenty of "Jump" spells. The first round, have that spellcaster "Jump" all the strong melee fighters (I have three) into melee range of the most dangerous enemies.
  • When those fighters get their turn, they make four Mirget-enhanced attacks on the strongest enemies.
  • Mop-up from here.
  
The game offers a lot of other tactics, including the ability to try to "Rally" your party before battle, or to scare the enemy, or demand their surrender, or cast a lot of different offensive spells, but the Gonshi/Mirget/"Jump" combo works so well for 99% of the battles, you really don't need to focus on much else. 
       
"This day is called the Feast of Basil . . ."
      
The final battle nets me a candle mold, so I assume the main quest is going to involve recreating the original Magic Candle and imprisoning whatever demon is causing the Blight. I also find a magic sword named Bloodthirst in one of the rooms; I give it to Eneri.
      
Of course, the mold for the magic candle is like 6 feet tall.
     
A portal leads us from Level 8 directly out of the dungeon. Rather than go back to Telermain to restock, I decide to visit Borhelm and then try Tarrak again. I think I have just enough resources to make it, if it's the same size as Wesgar, although not if it has the same number of undead.
    
Tarrak turns out to be four levels, but the first two are enormous mazes, very hard to map (which I usually don't do with Magic Candle dungeons anyway). It takes me about five hours to fully explore. Given that amount of time, I wish I got more copy out of it. This is one of those times where time invested doesn't necessarily mean a lot to say, since the dungeons in The Magic Candle tend to be uniform in their contents: rooms, all with enemies, some with chests, some with spell fountains; ambushes in the hallways; teleporters; and the occasional NPC who tells you where to dig or who tells you ask another NPC where to dig. This one was a bit odd in having a lot more rooms than usual on some levels, and actual mazes on others.
        
Only a small part of the first level.
     
On the second level, a dwarf named Bartek tells me to dig in a specific alcove for a platinum key, which I do. The key later opens the way to the resting place of an old dwarven king named Daglar. From this area, I get a magic axe called Khamalkhad and a magic mirror. I have no idea what the latter does.
       
The mirror is buried south of the sign; the axe is behind that door.
      
The apex of the dungeon is the resting place of the goddess Olkanis, whose password I found in her temple on Kabelo. She awakens and bestows us all with increases in dexterity, charm, resistance, and endurance.
       
I wonder if there are any gods who hate being woken up and reduce your stats accordingly.
         
Overall, the dungeon delivers enough treasure--principally in the form of gems--that I am able to return to Telermain and purchase enough mushrooms for probably the next three dungeons. While I'm in town, I'll probably have Evixa and Fiz spend another week in the lodge studying "Felmis."
       
Buying mushrooms back in town.
       
I think that this entry illustrates why I generally feel negatively about The Magic Candle and why I wasn't looking forward to picking this one up again. Amidst mechanics for combat, inventory, character development, and dialogue that are generally good, the game manages to hurt its experience by annoying the player in a thousand small ways. In addition to all the ones I've covered in this entry (disappearing NPCs, difficulty finding spells, difficulty distributing goods), there are a lot of others. Suddenly running into an ambush or invisible teleportation square in the dungeon is infuriating, for instance--much more so than I can convey in print. There are particularly annoying menu choices, like the way you have to "Greet" or "Talk" to an NPC once for the initial greeting, then "Talk" again for the actual dialogue options ("Greet" has absolutely no independent purpose that I can see). The way that you have to sheathe your weapons to talk to anyone, then inevitably forget about the fact that you've sheathed them, then have to waste a turn drawing them in the next combat. The way characters have individual inventories for everything, so you're constantly having to shuffle things around. The speed at which energy runs out. As you walk through dungeons and towns, the characters generally adjust the formation to get around obstacles, but the selected character always has to have a clear path in the direction you want to move; otherwise, the whole party gets stuck. So you constantly have to switch the active character to one who can move down the narrow hallway or around the bend.
   
Most of all, the game is always beeping at you. Yes, I grant you that most of those times, it's because you're not paying attention and doing something wrong, like trying to move through an obstacle, or trying to move when someone is out of energy, or trying to select a menu command that isn't available now. All I can tell you is that I don't seem to have this problem with other games, or if I do, they're less obnoxious with their error tones.
   
Time so far: 17 hours

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Game 403: Might and Magic: World of Xeen (1992-1994)

 
      
Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen
United States
New World Computing (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS, 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98
        
       
Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen
United States
New World Computing (developer and publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS and PC-98, 1994 for FM Towns
  
        
Might and Magic: World of Xeen
United States
New World Computing (developer and publisher)
Released 1994 for DOS and Macintosh
Date Started: 8 February 2021 
    
We'd seen expansion packs before, but no one had ever done anything quite like this: two games, released separately, but ultimately meant to be paired, with additional content if you pair them. It's as if you could install Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim and explore half the world of Tamriel in the same game session, jumping between each game's quests at your desire.
    
I went back and forth on the best way to approach it. By strict chronology, I should play Clouds of Xeen first, then Darkside of Xeen, then the shared content. It would be one thing if Darkside was just an expansion pack, requiring Clouds to play, but it isn't. It's playable as a completely separate title. Playing it this way would highlight some elements and frustrations that players of the combined game never experienced, including level caps in Clouds, a fairly difficult time getting started in Darkside, and buildings in both games that cannot be entered without the other title. Finally, playing them separately would have allowed me to number and rate them separately.
  
On the other hand, evidence suggests that New World intended the games to be paired from the start. Clouds was released in the fall; Darkside in the spring. Players would have only had a few months to play Clouds by itself (unless, of course, it was the only one they purchased). Playing it strictly by chronology would have mimicked the experience of some 1992/1993 players, but not the experience of nearly everyone who has played it since. It's not even clear that New World intended them as two separate numbered titles. Officially, the two games have no numbers; only by numbering The Mandate of Heaven as VI does it become clear that the company regarded the games as distinct. Actually, it's not that clear even then: for all we know, New World thought of the Xeen titles as two halves of IV and the separate World of Xeen as V, or Swords of Xeen as V.
   
Ultimately, I was persuaded to play them together by two factors. First, most of my Patreon supporters said that would be the best way. The second reason was pecuniary: I discovered that I'd already purchased the joined World of Xeen package from GOG years ago, as part of a compilation that includes all the games through Might and Magic VI. This means, however, that there are some aspects of the original game that I won't experience (including one that we have to address almost immediately). It also means that I won't be numbering and rating the games as separate titles.
      
Blah, blah blah. Here's character creation in Xeen. It's the same as Might and Magic III except that there are "skills" where the alignment used to be.
         
The imagery and documentation that come with both halves of the game make it clear that Xeen is a flat world with two sides. Rather than slavishly explore one side and then the other, I'll probably approach this more organically, spending most of the early part of these entries on the Clouds side before transitioning to the Darkside, but I won't necessarily insist on completing all the Clouds quests before making at least some initial forays. We'll see. What I will do is save the Darkside manual until my first substantial Darkside visit.
   
It's worth recounting some events from the first three Might and Magic games even though their impact here won't become clear for a while. (In saying such things, I don't want you to get the impression that I remember a lot about the Xeen games. I don't. I just remember this much.) The series has almost always centered on a band of locals who become swept up in events of galactic importance. In Might and Magic I, that group slowly learns that their world is in fact a space ship on which an alien named Sheltem has crashed. The party follows the footsteps of a mysterious figure named Corak, who died in pursuit of Sheltem. They discover Sheltem is masquerading as a local lord; they expose him; he flees.
      
The party assembles at the inn. We'll get caught up eventually.
      
In Might and Magic II, the same party discovers that not only is their world a space ship, it is only one of four nacelles connected to a central module called CRON. The lifeforms on the ship are intended (by a mysterious race of "Ancients") to populate the planet of Terra, of which Sheltem considers himself the ruler. To stop the ark from making it to his world, he breaks into CRON's control room and aims the ship for the sun, but the party manages to avert disaster.
   
It's a bit unclear what happens after that. When Might and Magic III picks up on Terra, the CRON from the previous game has crashed on the planet and "most" of its denizens have been lost. The fate of the party is unknown, but I like to think they founded the castles of good, neutral, and evil. The ship that held the CRON and the VARNS lies under the continents of Terra, waiting to be awakened. Sheltem is somehow alive again, as is Corak, and the party arrives in the ship just in time to witness them fighting each other. Sheltem escapes the fight and flies off in a ship. Corak follows. The party mucks around some more and learns that Sheltem and Corak are both creations of "the Ancients." Sheltem was supposed to oversee the colonization of Terra, but he rebelled against his orders and decided to protect the planet from the Ancients' experiment instead. Corak was created to eliminate Sheltem and take his place. Having been defeated, Sheltem is apparently seeking to take his vengeance on one of the Ancients' other project planets. The party in III blasts off in a third ship, chasing Corak and Sheltem, but something goes wrong and we don't hear from them again until Might and Magic VII. Clouds of Xeen starts on Xeen with a fresh, clueless party of natives. 
    
The clueless natives discover that the armory isn't exactly packed with equipment.
    
The members of this party have all been sharing the same dream lately. In the dream, they are sent a message by Crodo, advisor to King Burlock. Crodo relates how Burlock's long lost brother, Roland, has recently returned after a long absence looking for the "land below the land" (clearly the Darkside of Xeen). He is obsessed with finding something called "The Sixth Mirror," which allows for easy transport between places. Spying on Roland, Crodo observed him in his room talking with a demonic figure. In the ensuing battle, Crodo failed to kill Roland, who appears to be undead and now calling himself "Lord Xeen." Roland imprisoned Crodo on Baron Darzog's tower. Crodo implores the recipients of the dream to make a weapon capable of slaying Lord Xeen "in your laboratories in Newcastle." Recently, Newcastle has been destroyed by a bolt from the sky, and the dreams have ceased. The party has gotten together in the city of Vertigo to set out to deal with the threat.

The original Clouds program has a voiced, lightly animated introduction, not present in the World compilation, in which Crodo narrates the backstory [ed.: My mistake. It is in the World compilation from the main menu, under "other options"]:
  
Crodo: I am Crodo, overseer of the land known as Xeen. Many years have passed since the glory days of King Burlock.
Burlock: I am the king!
Crodo: When times were good and there was much rejoicing.
Peasants (deadpan): Yaaaay.
Crodo: But now, imprisoned in this enchanted tower by the sinister, self-proclaimed Lord Xeen.
Lord Xeen: (Laughs maniacally while his "pet" also chuckles)
Crodo: I am unable to help you in these dark times. It is now up to you, adventurers, to right what has been wronged.
Lord Xeen and Pet: (Laugh again)
            
As you begin the game, you can select from two difficulty levels, "adventurer" or "warrior"; I went with the latter. The game starts in Vertigo with a default party, but I naturally turned around, went into Geraldine's tavern, signed in at the desk, and deleted everyone. 
     
Money does grow on trees!
     
As usual, Clouds has you create six characters, male or female, from human, elf, dwarf, gnome, and half-orc races. Attributes and races are remarkably consistent across the series (the full list can be seen on the screenshots). The only thing that has changed since the third installment is that there are no more alignments and that some skills (e.g., "Swimmer," "Danger Sense") can be assigned on creation. There are also no slots for NPC hirelings in this game, meaning each player will have to do without at least four of the 10 available classes.
         
Oh, right. An NPC already made that joke.
      
Rather than try to min-max things or deliberately create a challenging party (all druids!), I did what I've been doing more and more lately: I left it to fate. Using random rolls for all of the decisions (specifically, I rolled for the portrait, which determines the race and sex, then rolled for the class, then hit "Roll" until I had attributes that allowed that class), I created the following party:
     
  • Saoirse, a human female paladin with "Crusader" and "Swimmer" skills
  • Cathbad, a human male druid with "Direction Sense" and "Swimmer" skills
  • Suss, a dwarf female ninja with "Danger Sense" and "Thievery" skills ("Thievery" is the only skill with a numeric value)
  • Mica, a gnome male knight with "Armsmaster" and "Spot Secret Doors"
  • Grey Witch, a half-orc female sorcerer with "Cartographer"
  • Dorcas, a human female barbarian with "Swimmer." The "human female" part is provided by the game, but the portrait is one of the oddest in the bunch and is certainly up for interpretation.
     
Without a pure cleric, this might leave me light on healing abilities, but I hope the druid and paladin can make it up. We'll see. I was about to say I can always create new characters, but I think this game--like the last one--has a fixed number of enemies, so you could get to a point where there isn't enough experience left to elevate a new character.
        
One of our first combats. Beats rats.
       
Characters start with no equipment, so finding an armory was a priority. There was one across the way from the inn. We fought our first battle against a green slime on the way, which must be disgusting to kill with your hands. The armory didn't even have enough weapons for all of us, and the few that it did have took almost all of our gold. I equipped myself as best I could and started poking around Vertigo.
   
Mechanically, this is the same engine as Might and Magic III. The graphics may be a little more detailed; there's less ornamentation around the view window; and the spot for NPCs has been replaced with a "GTFO Panel." The button that brought up "Corak's notes" in III now links you to a little module that keeps track of quests, quest items, and "auto notes" (no more writing down passwords). There are snippets of voiced dialogue when you enter shops; for instance, the armorer growls, "What do you want?" and the bank clerk chirps, "Safe and secure!" Otherwise, nothing as much changed, which is mostly a good thing. The interface is wonderfully intuitive. All options have redundant mouse and keyboard commands, and it doesn't make you back out of sub-menus (including shops) to switch between characters.
         
I wonder what the next town's excuse will be for empty streets.
      
There are a bunch of things that may be new but may already have been in Might and Magic III. I'd have to go back to that game to remember.
    
  • Vertigo is 30 x 30. I thought I remembered that the towns in III were still limited to the 15 x 15 standard.
          
The automap works pretty well.
      
  • Everything can be searched--beds, crates, furniture, even trees--by hitting the SPACE bar.  In the tavern, hitting SPACE on top of tables brings up lines of dialogue from the patrons (who you otherwise cannot see). Searching trees usually produces a few coins for some reason.
  • If you try to open a grate and fail, the character takes a lot of damage, sometimes enough to kill her. But successful opening conveys more experience than any enemy in town, so much so that I was able to level Suss the Ninja up to Level 3 while the rest were still stuck at Level 1. Bashing wastes this experience.
    
Vertigo had an armor, a tavern, a ranger teaching "Pathfinding" for 2,500 gold, a magic guild, a separate guy selling memberships to the magic guild, a guy teaching "Cartography," a magic mirror (I assume you need to know the code for where you're going), a bank, and a training facility. The town was overrun with slimes and giant grasshoppers (technically "doom bugs"). The mayor (living in a tent in the plaza) and some tavern NPCs conveyed that the infestation had driven most of the population out of the city. The mayor hired someone named "Joe the Exterminator" to deal with the problem, but it didn't work.
 
Temples are always a key resource in a Might and Magic game. I have no idea who we're worshiping, though.
      
I don't think combat has changed at all since the last game. It's still turn-based, but with sound and animation that makes it sometimes feel like there's some action going on. I didn't have a lot of resources at the beginning. Grey Witch could shoot one magic arrow (her default spell) before she had to rest, but she also spawned with a Rod of Pain. For most of the area, I had just a single bow, in the hands of Suss, which actually worked to kill most enemies from afar. If the enemies got up close, they were capable of knocking my characters out in one hit, which meant I had to rest or visit the temple, as I started with no healing spells.
   
As usual, the game offers a few opportunities for the party to get a leg up. A healing well took care of my hit points between battles, and donating 50 or 60 gold to the temple will cause them to bless you with a group of buffing spells. This latter option made us essentially invincible to the monsters.
     
Shooting grasshoppers in Joe's warehouse.
     
We found Joe's warehouse, crawling with pests, and in one of the crates found a note that indicated Joe was breeding the monsters rather than exterminating them. After we killed every last beast, the mayor rewarded us with 5,000 experience points and 4,000 gold pieces. The latter was enough for us to get trained up to Level 3 or 4, purchase guild memberships, and buy a few spells for the characters. I gave "Jump" and "Wizard's Eye" to the sorcerer and "Cure Wounds" to the paladin and druid.
     
As he rewarded us, the mayor noted that he'd recently received a request for help from the dwarves in the Red Dwarf Range. Their mines have been invaded by the Mad Dwarf Clan. The bartender had previously told me that the entrance to the mines is in the hills west of Vertigo.
        
No experience or gold will beat the "outstanding citizenship award."
      
I think I'll stop here and take opinions on my party before I go forward. I've heard there are some really tough combats towards the end of the game, and I'm wondering if I can afford to waste three slots on characters with no spellcasting ability (knight, ninja, and barbarian). Would one or both be better served with a pure cleric? Does the druid really make any sense? On the other hand, maybe I remember those battles being hard because I over-valued spellcasters and didn't have any strong melee fighters.
    
In my summary of Might and Magic III, I noted a couple of problems with the series, which I otherwise love. One is ongoing, one developing. The ongoing problem is an inability to take itself seriously. If I'm going to spend several dozen hours in a fantasy world, I don't want it to be a parody of a fantasy world. Might and Magic rarely goes completely over the edge, but there are times that it's pretty silly, and the whole "Joe the Exterminator" quest doesn't really bode well.
 
The second problem is the developing one: as the game gets more graphically detailed and more mechanically impressive, certain elements of realism are hard to ignore (I dubbed this paradox "Cabbage Theory" in the linked entry). Towns empty of visible NPCs were fine when the graphics were all abstractions; you could imagine that they were there somewhere. But now that the graphics are showing me trees and park benches, the emptiness of the setting is more keenly felt.
       
The bartender gives us a clue for the probable next quest. Note there are lots of people on this screen.
     
Might and Magic isn't alone in that regard. The Gold Box wrapped up in the same year without ever showing enemies in the exploration window, let alone NPCs. The Wizardry series has shown a small number of named, wandering NPCs, but the environments are still unrealistically sparse. But this era is visibly coming to an end, heralded by games like Ultima Underworld and Legends of Valour. (Games with third-person views were generally ahead of their first-person counterparts in this trend.) Going forward, I'll accept wireframes with no people, but I don't know if I can accept tables and chairs with no people.
   
This issue doesn't reduce my enjoyment much, though. Might and Magic still stands out from its contemporaries in one major area: content. The developers pack their maps with treasure, clues, and encounters. If they lead the industry in anything, it's in the concept of "side quests." Few other games would even bother to have a list of "quests" because there would be only one quest for the entire game. I look forward to seeing what the World of Xeen has to offer.
   
Tme so far: 2 hours